As we have been discussing the role of Kartarpur in the life of Guru Nanak, we must never forget the stellar role played by a great historian, intellectual, linguist and writer who helped to finalise the original Guru Granth Sahib, naturally approved by Guru Arjan. He was a literary giant of his age known as Bhai Gurdas, who was appointed the very first ‘jathedar’ of the Akal Takht.
When researching the life and times of Guru Nanak, we invariably come across Bhai Gurdas’ accounts of the Sikh faith’s founder, and by trying to fuse it with the ‘janam-sakhis’ of the Miharban and the Puratan traditions, we have a reasonable analysis of the life and times of the great sage. He used the ‘var’ genre and his first ‘var’ and the 11th ‘var’ provide graphic descriptions. Bhai Gurdas was born in 1551 and died in 1636 in his village Goindwal, near Amritsar, and acquired fame because of Guru Amar Das, to whom he was related and who lived in Lahore’s Chuna Mandi area. The Lahore connection of the major Gurus and Bhai Gurdas is seldom mentioned, and there is a need to research this amazing person.
At the age of 12 he was orphaned and Guru Amar Das adopted him. The first task of the Guru was to educate the young disciple, and so it was that Bhai Gurdas learnt Persian, Punjabi, Sanskrit and Braj Bhasha. On the advice of the third Guru he started walking between Lahore and Delhi, listening to any sage he found on the way. In Lahore, so we learn, he stayed at a house in Chuna Mandi. Hindu yogis advised him to visit Varanasi to learn classical Sanskrit and Hindi texts. His amazing memory meant that he learnt all the different religious texts by heart. This proved a major asset as different priests tried, all in vain, to sway him towards their beliefs.
Once Guru Amar Das died he was followed by the fourth guru Ram Das, who belonged to Lahore, and more specifically to Chuna Mandi. In Lahore, Bhai Gurdas learnt about the Persian classics and Arabic texts. His phenomenal memory served him in the numerous encounters he faced in life with religious scholars. When Guru Ram Das started the excavations of Harminder Sahib in 1577, we see Bhai Gurdas among the volunteering disciples.
It was here that the writing skills of Bhai Gurdas are seen coming to the fore. By about 1597 he was seen as the main compiler of the Guru Granth, even though the gurus themselves were its main contributors. But the compilation was his doing. His virtual photographic memory served him well to represent the thoughts of Guru Nanak and his followers before the powers that be. When the Mughal Emperor Akbar went to Kartarpur, there was a general feeling that the Muslim rulers saw the rise of Sikhism as a challenge to Islam, an impression that many opponents of the Sikhs had managed to purvey in the ‘royal’ court.
It was at that time that Bhai Gurdas was rushed to Kartarpur to present before Akbar what the Sikh faith was. He recited many of the hymns that had been compiled till then and the emperor was impressed with its rich ‘spiritual’ contents. We see in the ‘Akbarnama’ that the emperor stated that there was nothing that was ‘anti-Muslim’ about what he had heard. But then as opposed to the Mughal emperors who followed, Akbar was a man of considerable tolerance and liberal in disposition.
This respite provided Sikhism with a major breathing space, which thanks to Bhai Gurdas led to the Sikh beliefs acquiring a lot of followers. Many scholars believe that this period helped Sikhism itself to consolidate and to withstand and overcome the atrocities that followed.
Guru Ram Das, the Guru from Lahore’s Chuna Mandi, died in 1581 and his son Arjan became the fifth Guru. He knew Bhai Gurdas well because they had grown up in the same environment in Chuna Mandi, Lahore. As a scribe, he wrote down what Guru Arjan dictated and compiled the Adi Granth, an undertaking that took almost 20 years. There were other scribes too, but all of them were supervised by Bhai Gurdas. His own description of the history of the Sikhs is known as ‘Var Bhai Gurdas’.
There is no doubt that no Sikh scribe could match the learning and skills of Bhai Gurdas who wrote in Sanskrit, Brij Bhasha and 40 ‘vars’ in Punjabi. All these are literary masterpieces in their own right. His friendship with the great Muslim Sufi, Hazrat Mian Mir of Lahore, played a major role in the Sufi saint trying his very best to save his friend Guru Arjan from the communal clutches of Mughal torture. That the Guru refused his assistance led to him diving into the River Ravi outside the Lahore Fort, never to return. Sikh folklore, though not part of the Guru Granth or any religious text, tells us that on the Day of Judgement Guru Arjan will return from the well that even today can be seen inside the premises that houses the Samadhi of Ranjit Singh.
To my way of viewing history this is one of Lahore’s major heritage sites. The disappearance of Guru Arjan saw the sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind lay the foundation stone of the Akal Takht on the 15th of June 1606. The guru was imprisoned in the Gwalior Fort and on imprisonment he appointed Bhai Gurdas as the very first ‘Jathedar’ of the Akal Takht. This was a period of immense turmoil and the Mughals faced repeated Sikh insurgencies. But Bhai Gurdas silently worked away to save the Harminder Sahib and the Akal Takht. When he died in August 1636 the Guru Hargobind personally came to perform his funeral services. One account provides a description of the praise the Guru stated on Bhai Gurdas, which said: “Short of being a Guru of the faith of Nanak, the learned Bhai Gurdas contributed more than any person that I know”.
Yet in this time and age so little is known about the literary giant, linguist and writer who silently worked away for the cause of peace propagated by Guru Nanak and the first six Gurus. One of his Var verse is worth recalling: “No matter how you recall the Almighty, no matter which name you use, in the end all humans, ultimately, believe in One Almighty”. At another place he says: “How can you reach the Almighty if you choose to ignore the poor”. Such was the man that was Bhai Gurdas.
Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2020