The foundation stone of the new religion, based on equality and ‘seva’ was laid down by Guru Nanak, whilst it was consolidated by his three successors. Nonetheless, Guru Arjan took up the task of putting it on a solid footing by setting out to build Haminder Sahib at the very spot where his father had constructed the clay tank of ‘Amrit’ and also set up the town Amritsar around it.
The core of Sikhism is equality and tolerance. It was in the same spirit of “I am neither Hindu nor Muslim” that Guru Arjan invited Mian Mir, a Muslim saint from Lahore to lay the foundation stone of the Harminder Sahib. The Sikh Sangats wished it to be the tallest building of those times. However, Guruji reminded his followers about humility as the greatest virtue, and keeping the same in mind, the temple was built at the lowest level possible. To forgo the Muslim belief that God resides in the West and the Hindu understanding that it is in the East, where the sun rises, the Harminder Sahib had entrances on all four sides. “My faith is for the people of all castes and of all creeds from whichever direction they come and to whichever direction they bow.”
Guru Arjan Devji was born at Goindwal Sahib on April 15th, 1563. He was the youngest of three siblings, Prithi Chand and Mahadev being his older brothers. His parents were Guru Ramdas ji and Bibi Bani (Guru Amardasji’s daughter). Although, Mahadev was never interested in worldly vices, his oldest brother, Prithi Chand, considered himself a strong contender for the ‘Guru Gaddi’ and rebelled as their father nominated Guru Arjan as the fifth Guru on September 16th, 1581, when he was only 18 years old.
Guru Arjan brought about many changes in the spiritual and temporal aspects of Sikhism; the most significant being completion of the Golden Temple and compilation of the ‘Adi Granth’.
Prithi Chand, his older brother, always tried to take upon the Guruship himself, and in one such pursuit, it is said that he composed his own hymns and passed them to others as compositions of Guru Nanak and other Gurus. Guru Arjan realized that having created a central place of worship for the Sikhs, they also required an authentic compilation of their Gurus’ hymns. Therefore, he set out to collect all original verses of the preceding Gurus. He made trips to Goindwal, Khadur, and Kartarpur to collect original manuscripts from Mohan (son of Guru Ram Das), Datu (son of Guru Angad), and Sri Chand (son of Guru Nanak). The Guru then pitched a tent by Ramsar tank and commenced the arduous task of compiling the first edition of Guru Granth Sahib. Unlike any other religious literature in history, he decided to include compositions of Hindu and Muslim saints like Kabir, Jaidev, Namdev, Ravidas, Farid, Mardana, Satta, and Balwand. It also contained 2218 ‘Shabads’ written by Guru Arjan himself.
The original manuscript of the ‘Adi Granth’ was installed at Sri Harminder Sahib in August 1604. While the holy scripture was placed on a high pedestal, Guru Arjan seated himself at a lower level and instructed all Sikhs to bow before it, not akin to an idol, but as a book that teaches living life Truths amidst challenges of daily life. It connects one to the Divine by strengthening and guiding a person to a higher level of consciousness and living. Baba Budha was appointed the first ‘Granthi’, (custodian) of the book. Not only this, Guru Arjan is also much revered for composing the popular Sikh prayer, ‘Sukhmani Sahab Bani’ which means the Prayer of Peace.
Guruji is also remembered for his selfless service and devotion. He helped the poor, treated the sick, and built hospitals for lepers.
According to a popular ‘sakhi’, a group of Sikh travelers from Kabul Afghanistan once set up a camp on the outskirts of Amritsar. When Guru Arjan came to know about them, he went to the site with food and water. He even washed their feet and served them himself. The next day, as they entered Amritsar and realized his identity, they were amazed at his devotion to ‘seva’ and equality.
Equality was a major mission in Guru Arjan’s life. He truly believed “When all are born of the same light, how can some be good and others bad?” Along with this thought he built the Golden Temple with four entrances, one in each direction symbolizing that Sikhism was accessible to all, at all times, under all circumstances.
Guruji also brought about the concept of ‘dasvandh’ which literally means one-tenth. He advocated that all Sikhs should contribute a tenth part of their earnings as charity for the community which would be used for the betterment and development of the Sikh community.
Guruji proved his humility and devotion time and time again. He was married to Ganga Devi and as they remained childless for years, he told her, “If you need a boon, ask not me but a pious Sikh like Baba Buddha, the aged seer and devout disciple of Guru Nanak.” She then went to see the sage with a large entourage and fancy delicacies to eat. Baba Buddha was resentful and refused to give her blessings. Upon hearing of the events, Guru Arjan advised his wife to visit him again, but this time on foot with a simple meal prepared herself. Sure enough, Babaji was pleased and prophesied, “A son will be born to thee who will crush the enemies of Nanak’s house, just as I have crushed this piece of onion by hand.” Hargobind, Guru Angad, and Ganga Devi’s son was born on June 14th, 1595.
As Hargobind grew up, Gum Arjan trained him for his future responsibilities, not only in languages and religious philosophy but Hargobind was also trained in riding, weaponry, astronomy, medicine, agriculture, and public administration.
In the course of his life, Guru Arjan made some enemies. His brother, Prithi Chand, tried with all his might to turn people against Arjan Devji and become Guru himself, but to no avail. Similarly, Chandu Shah, a rich, arrogant Hindu banker wanted to marry off his daughter to Hargobind. However, due to his arrogance, Arjan Devji refused the match. In order to get back to the Guru, the duo tried to instigate Emperor Akbar against him by complaining that ‘Adi Granth’ was derogatory to Hindus and Muslims. Their conspiracy was exposed as the scripture was read publicly and Akbar exclaimed, “excepting love and devotion to God, I, so far find neither praise nor blame to anyone in this Granth. It is a volume worthy of reverence”. Akbar was so impressed with Guru Arjan that he wanted to bestow a gift on the Guru, to which Ajran Devji asked for an exemption of annual revenue on people due to severe draught that year!
Emperor Akbar died on October 17th, 1605, and was succeeded by Jahangir, who was of lax morals and more pleasure-loving. Jahangir felt that Guru Arjan was preaching falsehood and moreover, that the Guru was supporting his rebel son, Khusro, against him. Hence, he ordered Guru Arjan to be presented before him in court so that he could be dealt with in accordance with the political and common law of the land.
When he received the summons, Guruji realized his fate so he anointed his son, Hargobind, as the sixth Nanak.
Jahangir ordered the Guru to change certain verses of the ‘Adi Granth’ but the latter refused since they were not disrespectful to any other religion. The emperor coaxed into false assumptions, tainted with religious insecurity at the increasing popularity of Sikhism, sentenced the Guru to death.
Guru Angad was imprisoned in the Lahore Fort and brutally tortured for five days, under the supervision of Chandu Shah. On the first day, Guru Arjan was not given any food or water. The second day he was scorched in a cauldron of boiling water. The third day was the same but he was also bathed with hot sand. On the fourth day, Guruji was made to sit on a red-hot iron plate while hot sand was poured on him.
Guru Arjan remained unperturbed all the while, saying, “tera kiya meetha lage, naam padarth Nanak mange” (your will is nectar to me, I desire only the gift of your name). On the fifth day, Guruji asked permission to bathe in river Ravi. His torturers felt that it would only aggravate his blisters and agreed. However, as he entered the waters and took a dip, his body disappeared. Never to resurface again. And thus, Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru, became the first Guru to be martyred. This became a watershed moment for Sikhs and changed the course of the religion forever.
Sri Guru Arjan Devji had instructed his son, Hargobind, to “sit fully armed on his throne, and maintain an army to the best of his ability.” The Sikhs henceforth decided that they would never again tolerate injustice, insult, or oppression.