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The Foundation of Sikhism

With the advent of Muslim rule began a new era in the history of India. Punjab was occupied in 1021 by Ghazanavid Turks who were succeeded later in the twelfth century by Ghorid Turks. This was followed by a rapid spread of their power over other parts of the country. By the close of the thirteenth century, they had extended their sway even to the Deccan and the far South. Consequently, a new political order was established in which sovereignty rested not with the sons of the soil, but with people who had come from outside and were totally foreign to the land. Islands of indigenous sovereignty could still be seen here and there, mostly in Rajputana and in northern hills but their importance in the new set-up was mostly peripheral. The change of rulers brought about far-reaching changes in the whole administrative edifice. All high and responsible offices at the centre as well as in the provinces were reserved for people professing the same faith as of the rulers. Even the petty offices except in revenue administration and construction of buildings where the government felt compelled to employ non-Muslims for their specialized skill and knowledge, were restricted to men of the same faith. In army, let alone officers, even the lowest servants were recruited from the ruling community. Former inhabitants of the country were distrusted and it was thought dangerous to enlist them for military duties A new system of law and justice was introduced which was entirely based on Muslim scriptures.

Except in civil matters where they were permitted to be governed by their own Shastric law, the Hindus like the Muslims were made subject to the Quranic law as expounded and administered by Muslim Qazis and their aides. As in administration, so in law, Hindus were given the inferior status of zimmis which meant second-rate subjects. Economically, most of the conquered lands were given away by way of jagir to members of the governing class so that the erstwhile Indian landed aristocracy was reduced to the rank of ordinary peasantry. Unequal and discriminating taxation completed the process of their humiliation. 'Jizya' was a kind of poll tax which only the Hindus were required to pay. Different explanations have been offered for this invidiousness. According to some, this was the price for the protection of life and property provided to the Hindus by the Muslim state. According to others, this was the penalty they were required to pay to be able to continue their existence under a Muslim government. Be that as it may, the humiliating manner in which the tax was realized was a constant reminder to its payers of their degraded position in the new regime.

The advent of the Muslims, in a sense, was a unique event the like of which India had not witnessed since the coming of Aryans from Central Asia. Many waves of people had since come to India from the north-west: such as Greeks, Shakas, Scythians, Kushans and Hunas. They all bad brought with them to this country their several distinctive modes of life, religious beliefs and practices, and social customs and each had added some new strands to the fabric of India's culture and civilization. But in course of time all of them lost their separate identities and got merged in the superior civilization of the land of their adoption. As a result, the composite character of Indian culture went on acquiring fresh accretions of strength through the centuries. But the behaviour of the Muslim entrants into India did not fall in line with that of other foreigners who had come to this country earlier. The Muslims, before they turned their attention to India in the beginning of the eleventh century, had developed a civilization of a high order of their own, and they were very proud of it. Not only that, they even held the firm conviction that their religion was the best of all in the world and that they were under a solemn obligation to propagate it and to bring into its fold as many people as possible. Besides a highly developed religion they had an elaborate, clearly defined social order. They were deadly opposed to the polytheism, idol worship and caste hierarchy of the Hindus. They had no institution corresponding to the Brahmanical priesthood though they too had organized and vocal religious orders of the Ulemas, Sufis and Sayyeds. They had their own heroes and heritage, trials and triumphs, and paid little heed to India's glory prior to their advent. Such people could not be expected to go the way of their predecessors and get absorbed into the mainstream of Indian culture. On the contrary, they looked upon the people of India as infidels and adopted a contemptuous attitude towards them. Consequently, Hindus suffered many hardships. They were required to pay a pilgrimage tax if they wanted to visit their holy places. Construction of new temples was not allowed and sometimes old temples were demolished by order. Restrictions were also placed on their activities of public worship. Muslims on the other hand were free from all such restrictions. Not infrequently, the rulers used coercion to convert Hindus to Islam either to augment their small numbers or for the glory of Islam. In particular, Hindu prisoners of war invariably were given the choice between Islam and death.

The moral degeneration in the Hindu society that followed in the wake of the new political order gave birth to a number of harmful tendencies. Many people started keeping away from worldly affairs and responsibilities. There was an unexpected rise in the number of jogis and sidhs. These people renouncing the world and staying away from inhabited areas made distant mountain tops or temples as their abodes; or mixing with bands of idle and worthless sadhus, they moved from place, to place or sat around big burning logs of wood called dhunis. No useful work was done by them and they were a source of unnecessary burden on the society. The chief ambition or aim of these ascetics and sidhs residing in mountains was to demonstrate their powers by performing miracles or indulging in sorcery. In one of his compositions, Guru Nanak has made a scathing criticism of their nefarious deeds and false pretentious. He says:

Yoga (religion) is neither in a patched coat; nor in the Yogi's staff; nor in besmearing oneself with ashes;

Nor in wearing ear-rings; nor in close-cropping of the head; nor in blowing the horn;

Lead a pious life amongst the impurities of the world, thus shalt thou find the way of religion.

Yoga does not consist in mere words. If one looketh upon all creation alike, he is acclaimed as a true yogi.

Yoga does not consist in living in cemeteries, or in places of cremation; nor in sitting in postures of contemplation;

Yoga does not consist in roaming about in foreign lands; nor in bathing at places of pilgrimage;

If one remaineth detached in the midst of attachment, then verily one attaineth the true state of yoga. (Suhi Mahalla 1, Adi Granth, 731)

If we wander about wearing different kinds of clothes and practise hypocrisy in the mind, we cannot get to the abode of the Lord, and shall die to be born again in the womb. (Sri Rag Mahalla 3)

The second outstanding tendency of which the pace-setters were members of the Brahminical order, related to the wholesale restrictions and taboos and the inexorability of karmkand (ritualism). Under the influence of this tendency so much importance began to be attached to good or bad omens that no work, however trivial, could be initiated without determining whether the time was auspicious or not. Whether the task was important or not, it could not be taken in hand unless the Brahmin suggested the auspicious time for its commencement. Whether it was the question of sowing seeds in the field or the harvesting of crops, reference to a Brahmin was necessary. Again, whether a boy was to sit at the shop or a shopkeeper had to sell articles or make fresh purchases, the most auspicious time had to be determined. Even for the wearing of new clothes or having them tailored, it was necessary to know the auspicious moment. Likewise, certain days in the week were considered auspicious and others inauspicious: some animals were supposed to bring good luck and others misfortune. Before commencing a journey, it was considered essential to find out which day of the week would ensure safe travel. The same was true of the cycle of karma. This cycle began before birth and stretched beyond death. It appeared that man simply lived and died for karmkand or ceremonies, and there was no other aim or object of life. Under such conditions, it was but natural that Pandits, astrologers, sorcerers and quacks should flourish.

Consequently, progressive forces of society suffered a serious set-back during that period. To the Brahmins, however, faith in such rituals afforded golden opportunities for exploitation of the masses. They reaped a rich harvest and greatly bettered their economic position. Not only did they welcome these superstitious trends but actually moved earth and heaven to preserve and strengthen them. Their stock argument was that ceremonies were most essential to afford protection to the Hindu society against the evil impact of the malechhas (barbarians). Such trends in the body politic of any society are bound to be harmful, and far from protecting that society are actually instrumental in paving the way for its gradual decay. In such an atmosphere, the process of independent thinking amongst people receives a setback thus blocking the fresh air of new ideas and hampering the forces of retrieval and reinvigoration.

Restrictions and rites multiplied to such an extent that, metaphorically speaking, in the veins of the then prevailing Hindu society blood began to freeze. In consequence, the social organism became stiff and inelastic. The caste system held everybody in its iron grip, the condition of the low castes became still worse; there was a marked deterioration in the social position of women, the custom of female infanticide was on the increase and the system of child marriage became much more prevalent. The upshot of all these things was that many shortcomings crept into the Hindu social order.

The toughening of Hindu orthodoxy under the leadership of Brahminical priesthood made life so unbearable for the people at the bottom of the Hindu social pyramid that large numbers among them preferred to embrace Islam. Most of them who did so belonged to the artisan classes, and the Hindu society was naturally the poorer by their changing over to Islam. It is true that even after conversion they were not wholly free from the evil of social discrimination as in many respects they were not treated on par with the Muslims who had come from outside. Still they felt happy in their new situation because the atmosphere in which they now lived was much less choking than the one they had left behind.

However, the dark clouds had a silver lining as well. As a result of the impact of Islam was generated in the minds of many Hindus a spirit of enquiry about the propriety of many of the religious and social practices prevailing in their society. It started with Bhagat Ramanuja in the Deccan in the eleventh century and then gradually spread to other parts of the country. Ramanand was among the pioneers who preached Ramanuja's message in north India. He had his headquarters at Banaras and counted among his disciples such illustrious bhagats as Kabir and Ravidas. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu of Bengal and Shankardeva of Assam emerged in east India as great religious reformers. In West India Mira Bai, Dadu, Dhanna and Garib Das belonged to Rajasthan, and Eknath, Nam Dev, Tuka Ram and Ram Das hailed from Maharashtra. Punjab came under the influence of this ferment in the later part of the 15th century. Here the work begun by Guru Nanak was carried on by his nine distinguished successors over a period of two hundred years. It is obvious that all these great souls were neither contemporaries nor residents of the same area and that wide variations in respect both of time and space separated them from one another. Yet their missions were marked by a common denominator. They were all opposed to Brahmanical ritualism and priestly domination and underscored love and devotion (bhakti) as the only true and effective path to spiritual realization and salvation. Nor did they attach any value or weight to caste considerations. Their teachings were simple and straight and in the common language of the people rather than in the ancient difficult Sanskrit which nobody except a few learned Pandits at the top of the society could understand.

But the presence of a common denominator in the general approach of these leaders of thought was not tantamount to a complete unity of outlook in them. There were differences not only in the shades of meaning and the degrees of emphasis in what they believed and said, but disp1rities also existed in some of their fundamental positions. Broadly speaking, they may be divided into two categories: (i) those who believed in the theory of divine incarnation (avtarvad) and worshipped Lord Rama and or Lord Krishna as God born in the human form and treading the earth; (ii) those who conceived God as formless (nirankar) and birthless (ajuni). By way of distinction the former have been called blzagats and the latter given the appellation of sants. The former worshipped idols and images of their deities and seldom ventured beyond the range of spiritual concerns. On the other hand, the mode of worship followed by the latter consisted of meditation, music (kirtan) and prayers (prarthana) and worship of images etc. found no place in it. The sants also showed a much deeper awareness of social problems and understood religion in a far wider and deeper sense than the bhagats were able to do.

The most striking example of the second category was the Sikh movement founded by Guru Nanak. He was born at Talwandi Rai Bhoe in 1469 A.D. His father Mehta Kalu was a Bedi Khatri by caste and a patwari by profession. At about the age of 30 the Guru resigned his position as officer-in-charge of the provisions store in the service of the Nawab of Sultanpur and embarked upon his long itinerary as a roving monk. In the course of his spiritual ministry extending over a period of 20 years or so the Guru journeyed over not only the length and breadth of his native country but also across countries like Sri Lanka, Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan. Afterwards he exchanged the monk's garb for a householder's and settled down to found the town of Kartarpur on the bank of the Ravi. He now adopted a farmer's occupation. Here at Kartarpur he preached through precept as well as practice his cherished ideals of life: namely, spiritualism, dignity of labour and commonweal. The ideals thus practised and preached are embodied in melodious verses incorporated in the Adi Granth under the opening caption Mahalia 1. The fundamental doctrine preached by the Guru postulates that God, the Creator of the universe, omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent, is One, and besides Him there is none. Being descended from the common source His creatures are members of a single family and should live as such, bound by congenial fellow-feeling and established in the consciousness of a unity underlying the diversity of name and form. As is a drop of water to the ocean, or a spark to the flame, so is the individual related to the All.

Truth was the quintessence of the Guru's teaching. In so far as worship, he said, is rendered in the light of this truth, it is meaningful; otherwise mere ritualistic exercises and sectarian pilgrimages are exercises in self-deception. The way of truth alone leads to a life of fullness, love, symp1thy, service, humility and honesty. In the sunshine of this truth and with the cultivation of the spiritual root all other essences of humanitarian potential unfold as naturally as the buds on a tree. The man endowed with that vision does not turn away from this world as in a 'vale of soul-making'. He truly transcends the barriers of caste, colour and creed and the attendant feelings of hatred and aversion. The upholder of truth would rather lay down his head than compromise with unrighteousness.

Guru Nanak inspired the people to take up cudgels against the corrupt social practices of his time. He branded Babar's aggressive forces as 'the wedding guests of sin'. He has sketched a heart-rending picture of the tyranny perpetrated by these barbarous hordes at Sayyedpur and has gone, in his righteous indignation, to the extent of castigating God Himself for permitting such harrowing devastation and destruction of helpless humanity. He has unflinchingly exposed the corruption, cruelty and carnage of these blood-thirsty beasts of prey. Another aspect of selfsame doctrine was to a waken the sense of self-respect amongst the down-trodden masses belonging to the outcastes and other exploited sections of society, as also the neglected womankind. The Guru identified himself with the lowest of the lowly and sang paeans to the glory of woman as the 'mother of kings'. The voice he raised against exploitation was as fearless and daring as against any other social and political injustice. These were the basic tenets of Guru Nanak's philosophy and he envisaged a society free from all ills of exploitation of man by man and based upon the ideals of fraternity, liberty, and equality. Towards the realization of these ideals he propagated the institutions of common worship, social brotherhood and communal kitchen.

Realistic and practical-minded as Guru Nanak was, he felt that his mission to be meaningful must be continued and brought to fruition even when his mortal human frame was no more. And so he started a line of successors which concluded a hundred and seventy one years later with the death of the tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh. When that happened, the exalted office of Guruship was split into two parts which were bestowed respectively on the holy Adi Granth and the corporate body of the community, the Khalsa.

Accordingly, Guru Nanak nominated Guru Angad1 as his successor who took over the spiritual ministry in the year 1539 A.D. Guru Angad's pontificate extended over a span of 13 years. He served his Master's mission with utmost devotion and fostered and strengthened the institution established by him. His headquarters, Khadur (now Khadur Sahib in the district of Amritsar) where he had settled down after the passing away of Guru .Nanak, became a popular resort of Sikh devotees. A large number of the visitors stayed with him for long periods and imparted an element of continuity to his daily congregations. Every morn and eve regular assemblies were held where sacred hymns from Guru Angad's own compositions and those of Guru Nanak were recited with fervor and reverence. Comradeship in faith helped to forge bonds of solidarity among the disciples and the institution of sangat struck deep roots. This automatically led to the strengthening of the sister institution of pangat which in its expanded sense stood for the Guru's free kitchen commonly called Guru ka Langar. Like sangat, pangat too had originated with the founder of the faith, Guru Nanak. Guru Angad recognized its great importance not only as a matter of necessity for feeding those who came to see him but also as a useful vehicle of social reform, because the basic principle involved in this practice was that all eaters, whether they were high or low by caste, were required to sit together on the ground in common rows and partake of the same food, cooked often enough by people who by the commonly held social standards of the age, were considered low-born.

Guru Angad attempted a few other important tasks as well. He made a thorough examination of the existing vernacular alphabets and evolved a reformed Gurmukhi script which was adopted as the medium of writing and instruction. Not only did he write his own compositions in this new script but also is believed to have rendered a transliteration of his Master's writings in the same characters. By common tradition he also collected widely scattered anecdotes relating to the life of Guru Nanak, which later on became the basis of what is popularly known as Bale di Janamsakhi. Another problem which claimed his attention rather seriously was the lurking danger of asceticism (udasi mat) of Baba Sri Chand. The Baba was a man of great piety and being a son of Guru Nanak commanded great respect with all those who regarded themselves as the followers of Guru Nanak. Although Nanak had disavowed him on account of his ascetic inclinations and preferred Angad Dev as his successor for his complete and implicit faith in his principles, yet a great deal more of practical work was needed to consolidate the fine distinction between the two lines of thought. As the Indian society was then constituted, asceticism had a great natural appeal to the minds of the people, and sidhs and jogis, whatever their shortcomings, were highly regarded. In a social situation like this, it was apprehended that unless proper timely care was taken, Sikhism might as well end up as an ascetic creed. Guru Angad was fully alive to this danger and took early steps to ward it off.

Like the first Guru, Guru Angad was also a poet of great sensitivity and wrote a large number of hymns which were later incorporated in the Adi Granth by its illustrious compiler, Guru Arjun Dev. Through these writings of mature wisdom and great emotional appeal the Guru created a deep impact on the hearts of his people and thereby helped pave the way for the future progress of the Sikh movement. The following hymn of his comes at the close of the Sikh morning prayer Japuji and is recited every day by every believing Sikh:


The air is the Guru, water our father, and the great earth our mother;

Day and night are our two nurses, male and female, who set the whole world a playing.

Merits and demerits shall be read out in the presence of the Judge.

According to men's acts, some shall be near, and others distant from God.

They who have pondered on the Name and departed after the completion of their toil,

Shall have their countenances made bright, O Nanak; how many shall be emancipated in company with them!

The foregoing account offers only a broad spectrum of the foundation and development of Sikhism prior to Guru Amar Das. Even so, it may provide an insight into the system of" values which went into the making of the emerging Sikh society. In this system primacy was given to spiritual values, such as faith in, and devotion to, the One Supreme Lord, the Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer of all. But spiritualism was to be practised not in isolation in the manner of ascetics but was to constitute the bed-rock of all secular life. Thus social commitment or involvement in the affairs of the world with a view to facing its challenges and serving the cause of humanity was an essential part of the evolving Sikh tradition. A householder's life, if informed by moral values of love, truth, humility etc., was preferred to the life of a recluse doing nothing and depending for his livelihood on others. It was also becoming apparent, albeit dimly, that the young Sikh creed would have to contend against heavy odds if it was to achieve its desired goal.


  1. He was a Trehan Khatri, son of Pheru who was an inhabitant of Matte di Sarai, a village about six: miles from Muktsar. He was born in 1504 A.D. His parents later shifted to village Khadur. While dwelling there Lahina (that was the name by which he was called until it was changed to Angad Dev by Guru Nanak) organized a yearly pilgrimage of devout Hindus to Jawalamukhi, a place sacred to Durga in the lower Himalayas. This practice continued till he met Guru Nanak at Kartarpur and became his disciple forgetting everything about his previous religious predilections.