A Brief History of the Sikhs


The word Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit 'shishya' meaning disciple. Sikhs are the disciples of their ten Gurus beginning with Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469 - 1539) and ending with Guru Gobind Singh Ji (1666 -1708). There are over 20 million Sikhs in the world today, the vast majority live in the north Indian state of Punjab.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji the founder of the Sikh faith was the son of an official with a small holding of land in a village northwest of Lahore. Guru ji had his elementary education in Sanskrit and Persian. His father intended to train him as an accountant so that he could get a job in the court of the Muslim governor of the district. But Guru Nanak Dev Ji turned out to be indifferent to his school text books and instead engaged in long discourses with holy men both Hindu and Muslim, who turned up at his village. He was the despair of his parents as he would not attend to family business and spent what ever money they gave him on feeding the poor. When he grew up to be a young man , they arranged a marriage for him. For a time he devoted himself to the care of his wife and two sons.

Then the search for truth became too overpowering; bathing in a river Guru Ji had a divine revelation in which Guru Ji entered the court of Akal Purkh(God) who sent him on a mission to spread his word. For three days Guru Nanak Dev Ji was missing presumed drowned. On the third day Guru ji appeared and started his mission with a simple message 'There is no Hindu, there is no Mussulman'. By this statement he was not decrying Hinduism or Islam, but stating that in Gods eyes all are equal. He took with him as his companions a Muslim musician Mardana Ji and a Hindu peasant Bhai Bala and the three went preaching from village to village. Guru ji composed his sermons in ragas (musical modes) which were sung to the accompaniment of the Rabab (lute style intrument of Mardana Ji).
    Guru Nanak Dev Ji feeding the poor.
Guru Ji's teachings inspired the people and within a few years these disciples became a homogeneous group whose faith was exclusively the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. Guru Ji traveled all over India. He went as far as Assam ,far south as Sri Lanka, far north as Tibet. Guru Ji then went westwards beyond India to Mecca and Madina in Arabia. Wherever he went , he sang his hymns which told the people that if they wanted to love God they should learn first to love each other.

There are countless stories of Guru Nanak Dev Ji's travels. Once Guru Ji came to a river and in it he saw many Hindus who were taking water in their clasped hands and offering it towards the Sun. Guru Ji enquired about what was going on. One person replied " we are offering water to our ancestors who are in the next world ". Guru Ji replied " This sounds like a good idea, let me try". With this Guru Nanak Dev Ji started offering water to the opposite side to the crowd. The throng looked on and were very puzzled. "What are you doing Fakir Ji ?" they asked. "Why, I am offering water to my fields in the Punjab" he said "if your water can reach the next world surely mine can reach the Punjab which is a few hundred miles away". With this the people realised their folly.



On his travels Guru Ji met a very rich and successful man. The man invited Guru Sahib to his large a luxurious house. The man had accumulated a vast fortune with deciete and foul means and he boasted about his wealth. He asked Guru ji if there was anything he could do for a man of God. Guru Ji saw a needle on the floor picked it up and handed it to him , "Please give me this needle in the next world". The man was puzzled "How can i do this" he said " One comes into this world with nothing and leaves it with nothing". The penny dropped and he realised that he had wasted away his whole life. He fell at Guru Sahibs feet "Forgive me " he cried. Guru Nanak Dev Ji blessed him and told him the three rules all should live by : Naam Japo - Recite the name of the Lord at all times, Kirat Karo - Do an honest days work , Wand Shako - Share your food with those around you.Guru Nanak Dev Ji's crusade was against intolerance which had become the practice of the Muslims, and the meaningless rituals and discriminations of caste and gender which had become a integral part of Hindu life.

Guru ji spent the last years of his life with his family in the village of Kartarpur. Here people flocked to him and heard him sing his hymns. Even today Guru ji is regarded as the symbol of harmony between the two communities.


A popular couplet describes him as :

The teacher Nanak is the King of holy men.
The mentor of the Hindus, religious leader of the Mussulmans.


Guru Nanak Dev Ji had a following of people dissenting both from Hinduism and Islam, it was left to his nine successors to mold that following into a distinct community with its own language, literature, its own religious beliefs and institutions, and its own traditions and conventions.

The Guru Family Tree

  Guru Amar Das Ji Guru Ram Das Ji constructing the Harminder Sahib

Guru Angad Dev Ji.(1504 -1552)

Bhai Lehna Ji was a devout Hindu before he met Guru Nanak Dev Ji. At the very first meeting he fell under his spell and abandoned all other worldly businesses to devote himself to the service of the Sikh community at Kartarpur. Guru Nanak Dev Ji set a number of tasks to test his devotees, in all of them Bhai Lehna came out top. In one test Guru Nanak Dev Ji asked for someone to jump into a pool of thick mud and pick out an old cauldren, all refused saying they could get Guru Ji a better one from the local shop, only Bhai Lehna Ji jumped in without regard for his safety and brought the object back. As time for Guru Nanak Dev Ji to ascend the heavens came, Guru Ji took a journey and said harsh words to any person following him. One by one all left his side. Those remaining were pelted with stones by Guru Ji, all abandoned the Guru except Bhai Lehna Ji. " Why are are you still following me?" Guru Nanak Dev Ji said in harsh tones. "Where else have I got to go?" replied Bhai Lehna Ji "without you O, Lord I have nothing." Guru Nanak Dev Ji took Lehna Ji in his arms, he had found the most worthy person to carry on his work. His devotion convinced Guru Nanak Dev Ji that Bhai Lehna Ji, would be a better leader then his own sons.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji proclaimed “Thou art Angad, a part of my body” and had one of his chief disciples Baba Buddha Ji daub (Guru) Angads forehead and proclaimed him as the second Guru.
Guru Anagad Dev Ji was Guru for thirteen years (1539 – 1552). In his quite way Guru Angad Ji expanded the fledgling community, opening more centres and organising a regular system fro collecting offerings. Guru Ji made copies of Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s hymns and supplied them to all the centres. The Guru also took the thirty five letters of the alphabet and created a new script gurmukhi . This had far reaching consequences, for the Gurus compilations became the nucleus of the sacred writings of the Sikhs. It gave the Sikhs a written language distinct from those of the Hindus and Muslims.

Guru Sahib Ji was also very keen on physical fitness and instructed all his followers to take part in drills and games after morning service. Under the auspicious of Guru Angad Dev Ji, the Sikh community was growing. Guru Ji had two sons but chose a seventy three year old disciple, Amar Das Ji as his successor.

Guru Amar Das Ji.(1479- 1574)

Guru Amar Das Ji succession was resented by Guru Angad Dev Ji’s son Datu, who ejected Guru Amar Das Ji from Khadur. Guru Ji moved to a town called Gowindwal. Guru Amar Das Ji was a very pious and humble person, once when Datu in a rage kicked Guru Ji, with hands together Guru Amar Ji said humbly “ This must have hurt your foot.”

Guru Ji showed great devotion and made the langar an integral part of Sikhism insisting that anyone who wanted to see him had first to accept hospitality by eating with the disciples. Among those who came to see Guru Ji was the Emperor Akbar, who was so impressed with the way of life in Gowindwal that he assigned the revenues of several villages to Guru Ji’s daughter Bhani Ji as a marriage gift.

Guru Ji increased the number of parishes or manjis to twenty two and appointed masands to organise worship and collect the offerings. Copies were made of the hymns of Guru Nanak Dev Ji and Guru Angad Dev Ji and were added to those written by Guru Amar Das Ji. Since this was written in gurmukhi it gained great popularity amongst the masses. Guru Ji also introduced new forms of ceremonies for birth and death. The Guru rejected the practises of purdha (veiling of women) and of sati , the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. This aroused the hostility of the Brahmins who saw the size of their flock dwindling and started to persecute the Sikhs, they also tried to turn the Emperor against the Guru, but when he refused to take action they bribed local officials to harass the Sikhs. This was the start of Sikh oppression which eventually made them take up arms and break with Hindu social traditions.

Guru Sahib Ji lived to the age of ninety five, he did not choose any of his sons to succeed him, instead he chose his son-in-law, Ram Das, a Khatri of the Sodhi family.

Guru Ram Das Ji.

Guru Sahib Ji set about looking after the community and commenced the construction of a large tank. This was to be built on land that had been purchased from Emperor Akbar for the sum of 700 Rs. The town that grew up around it was destined to become the capital of the Sikhs and was known as Chak Ram Das. Like his predecessors Guru Ji composed hymns which were later incorporated in the sacred writings. Guru Sahib Ji had three sons, of whom he considered the youngest, Arjun Mal the most suited to succeed him. This caused great resentment in the eldest son Prithi Chand. Nevertheless Guru Ji had Baba Buddha Ji invest Arjun Mal as the fifth Guru as Guru Ram Das Ji saw his end on this earth coming near. “As one lamp is lit from another, so the Guru’s spirit will pass into him and will dispel the darkness from this world.”


Guru Arjun Dev Ji.

As soon as his investment was proclaimed his elder brother Prithi Chand turned hostile. Guru Sahib Ji was fortunate in having the support Baba Buddha Ji and Bhai Gurdas Ji in rebutting Prithi Chands accusations and preventing a split in the community. Guru Sahib Ji’s first task was to complete the building of the temple started by his father as Chak Ram Das. Guru Ji invited a Muslim saint, Said Mian Mir Ji of Lahore, to lay the foundation stone of the Harmindar Sahib, the temple of the Almighty. Instead of building the temple on a high plinth as was the Hindu custom, Guru Ji had it built on a lower level then the surrounding land , so that the worshippers would have to go down the steps to enter. Unlike Hindu temples which have only one door, the Harmindar Sahib was open on all four sides. These features were meant to be symbolic of the new faith, which required the lowest to go even lower, and unlike the Muslim mosques, its doors were open to all who wished to enter.

To raise money for the construction all Sikhs were required to donate one tenth of their income (dasvandh) in the name of the Guru, and the masands were required to collect this revenue and bring it to the Guru. The modest town now grew into a commecial city and the tank was filled with water, it was given a new name, Amritsar. What Benaras is for the Hindus, Mecca is for the Muslims and Jerusalem is for the Christians, Amritsar became for the Sikhs: there most important place of pilgrimage.

Guru Ji had another tank built about 15km from Amritsar, which he blessed as Taran Taran (the pool of salvation). It soon gained a reputation for having healing properties and also became a place of pilgrimage. From Taran Taran, Guru Ji went to the Jallundhar district and raised another town call Kartarpur. From Kartarpur Guru Ji went to Lahore and from there to the river Beas. In five years of travelling Guru Ji brought into the fold thousands of persons into the fold.

When in 1595, Guru Ji returned to Amritsar he found that Prithi Chand had not been idle. Prithi has been writing his own compositions and inserting them with the writings of the Gurus. Guru Arjun Dev Ji realised the danger of spurious writings gaining acceptance. So Guru Ji abandoned all other pursuits in order t o make an authentic compilation of of the writings of his predecessors. Guru Ji persuaded Bhai Mohan, son of Guru AmarDas Ji to give the collection of the first three Gurus, these together with his fathers compositions and his own Guru Ji set about the compilation. Guru Ji welcomed contributions from different sects of Hindus and Muslims as long as they measured up to the strict criteria set. This task took many years to complete as Guru Sahib Ji would dictate and Bhai Gurdas Ji would write. Then in 1604 the mammoth task was complete and installed at Harmindar Sahib Ji.The Aadh Granth reflected the faith of Guru Nanak in its entirety. Apart from the writings of the Gurus, it contained compositions of Muslim and Hindu saints of all castes including the so called “untouchables.”

Guru Arjun Dev Ji writes :

“In this vessal you will find three things - truth, peace and contemplation; in this too the nectar that is the name of the Master which is the uplifter of all mankind.” Emperor Akbar was much impressed with Guru Sahib Ji’s work for it echoed some of his own beliefs. On one occasion he stopped at Gowindwal for the express purpose of meeting Guru Sahib Ji. But, with the death of Akbar there came a reversal of policy of the state towards the Sikhs. The new Emperor Jehangir disapproved of the growing popularity of Guru Sahib Ji.

In his autobiography, the Tuzuk-I-Jehangir the Emperor writes about Guru Sahib Ji :
“So many simple minded Hindus, nay many foolish Muslims too, have been fascinated by his ways and teachings. They called him Guru, and from all directions crowds of fools would come to him. This busy traffic has been carried on for four generations. For years the thought has been presenting itself in my mind that either I should put an end to this false traffic, or he should be brought into the fold of Islam.”

Jehangir found an excuse within a few months of his accession to the throne. The emperors son Khusaru rebelled against his father and sought Guru Ji’s assistance and blessing. Guru Ji received the prince and apart from blessing him gave him no material assistance. Nevertheless, after the rebellion the Emperor wreaked terrible vengeance on all the people who he suspected of assisting his son. Guru Sahib Ji was arrested. Together with Chandu - a Hindu banker whose daughters hand Guru Sahib Ji had refused to accept for his son – poisoning the Emperors mind against Guru Ji, Guru Arjun Dev Ji was sentenced to death.


Guru Sahib Ji was viciously tortured, he was placed on a large metal plate, tavi, which had a fire blazing undeneath it and burning hot sand was poured over his body. Said Mian Mir Ji tried to intercede but the Guru forbid him to do so, saying that this was the will of the Almighty. Not a word of pain or a moan was uttered by Guru Ji as he bore all suffering that his tormentors meted out. The Guru sent word to his son, Hargobind, who was eleven years old, to ask Baba Buddha Ji to instal him as the sixth Guru. On May 30th, 1606 Guru Ji ascended to the heavens.

Guru Arjun Dev Ji was a very gifted and prolific writer. His compositions are filled with bejewelled phrases and of haunting melody. Guru Ji’s masterpiece was the Sukhmani Sahib, in it Guru Ji says “Of all creeds, the sovereign creed is to pray to God and do goodly deeds.”

The death of Guru Arjun Dev Ji was a turning point in the history of the Sikhs. Guru Ji was the embodiment of all the things that Guru Nanak had preached and stood for. He had brought together the Hindu and Mussalman in creating a scripture where both were represented, he was a builder of cities and brought prosperity to the community.

Aadh Guru Granth Sahib Ji - Sikh holy scriptures
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