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In Perspective

Guru Amar Das, third in the line of Sikh Gurus, ascended the gurgaddi in A. D. 1552 at a critical juncture in the history of the Sikhs. Sikhism then was in its early infancy and was trying to strike its first roots in the soil. A period of 13 years barely had passed since the time of the founder Guru Nanak and although much valuable work had been done during these years, yet it was too brief a span of time for any tangible results, by way of consolidation, to be achieved. No doubt, Guru Nanak had distinctly laid down the fundamentals of his mission and in their far-flung dissemination had spared himself neither time nor pains. During the closing years of his life he had even settled down and taken some initial measures to build up an institutional framework for the more effective implementation of his ideas. Yet what he had left behind at the time of his passing away in 1539 was just the inception of the process, a nucleus or a base on which superstructure was to be raised subsequently. His successor, Guru Angad Dev, did his best to carry forward the work entrusted to him by his Master. He not only tried to consolidate the institutions of kirtan, sangat and pangat established by Guru Nanak, but also turned a few new sods by reforming the Gurmukhi alphabet so as to make it more convenient for recording his and his Master's writings. Despite all this, however, the situation of Sikhism, as it stood at the end of his 13 years' ministry, merely presented a picture of the birth-pangs of a new social order. Votaries of the new creed had grown in number since the time of the first Guru but the total number was still no more than a few hundreds. Guru Angad Dev remained most of his time at his headquarters at Khadur and almost confined his missionary work to a small area lying immediately around his place of residence.

From the outset Guru Amar Das was well aware of the magnitude of the task awaiting his close attention. There was no doubt in his mind that an all-out effort was needed to place the infant creed of his great predecessors on a secure footing and to chalk out new programmes for its speedy development. But that was only one side of the story. The other side of it was that the difficulty of the task had been enhanced manifold by the hostility of orthodox elements in the Hindu society. These elements had already become very active and had launched their campaign of vilification against the Sikh Gurus and their followers. Even the little headway that had been made during the time of Guru Angad Dev had alarmed them, and at one time they had even created by underhand means a situation in which the Guru thought it better to quit his residence at Khadur for a short period.

For several centuries prior to the establishment of Mughal hegemony in India, Hindu orthodoxy had been severely persecuted. The Turkish Sultans of Delhi viewed it as a grave danger to the survival of their state and religion in India and made a special target of it. A large number of old Hindu temples were destroyed and their materials used in the construction of mosques. Hindus were treated as second-rate subjects (zimmis) and humiliated in matters of employment, justice and taxation. They were excluded from all important positions in the state administration and were required to pay a discriminatory religious tax called jizya. The Turks being in hopeless minority were vitally interested in adding to their numbers through the instrumentality of religious conversions and towards that end various subtle and unsubtle devices were employed. In all this they found Hindu orthodoxy the chief hindrance to the achievement of their objectives and hence their ruthless attitude towards it. This orthodoxy had also come under attack: from the numerous Hindu sants and bhagats who appeared in different parts of the country from the eleventh century onwards. These new leaders of religious thought were severely critical of the Brahmanical priesthood and all that it stood for, e.g., rigid ·caste system, untouchability, low status of womenfolk, ritualism and formalism. Most of them having sprung from the lower ranks of the society had little sympathy for the Brahmin who was looked upon as the evil genius responsible for all social and religious ills. However, the double attack of the Turkish state and the new Hindu religious leaders failed to crush the orthodox elements in the Hindu society. Rather, these developed a strong defense mechanism and resisted these pressures from diverse quarters with a certain measure of success. Only they had to lie low for the time being in the hope that sooner or later better times would come when they would be able to retrieve themselves.

Their hope was justified when with the passage of time a big change occurred in the official attitude towards them. Realizing the failure of their policy to convert the Hindus wholesale to Islam or failing that, to obliterate them out of existence, the Muslim rulers of the early medieval period gradually came to recognise the necessity of conciliating them, at least the more important sections among them such as the Rajputs. The change becomes particularly apparent from the time of the Lodhi Dynasty onwards, of course with occasional set-backs as in the time of Sikandar Lodhi. With the advent of the Mughals a substantial advance was made in this direction. Hindus began to be treated with a far less degree of fanaticism than was the case before. In this respect Babar was more liberal than the Lodhi Sultans, Humayun more liberal than his father Babar, Sher Shah Suri more liberal than Hamayun and Akbar far ahead of all of them.

Simultaneously or nearly simultaneously, the pressure from the bhagats and sants on the Hindu orthodoxy was also relaxed. So long as the great minds among them were alive, they commanded reverence and their utterances had great appeal to the minds of the people. In course of time many of them also came to possess a large number of followers. But it has been seen that even in the heyday of their influence and power they had not been able to shake off the firmly entrenched citadels of orthodoxy which continued to reign supreme as before.1 When they passed away, even the little impact that they had been able to make was practically lost. Gradually, they too were affected by orthodox influences and became as much subject to the Brahmin's spell as ordinary Hindus. Then, the caste system reasserted itself in their ranks as well.

So long as Hinduism was under severe attack from within and without, it remained on the defensive and preferred to lie low, but with improvement in the situation from the beginning of the sixteenth century, it acquired a steadily increasing assertiveness in relation to its erstwhile critics. In the changed circumstances the heterodox creeds emerging from the Bhakti Movement of the early medieval period themselves became targets of criticism. This tendency was further intensified when Akbar introduced his religious policy of liberalism and toleration. He wanted to conciliate and befriend the Hindus, though with motives which were more political than religious. He abolished the pilgrim tax in 1563. Next year he abolished the much-hated jizya which the Hindus had been paying for the several past centuries. These measures were followed by several others of the same liberal character. The Emperor married into leading Rajput families without attempting to convert the wedded ladies to Islam. Hindus were now freely taken into high positions of trust and responsibility. Great respect was shown to Hindu fairs and festivals. Likewise, their music, architecture and literature were given much respect and dignity. Such a policy on the part of the state was sure to give encouragement to liberal trends in the various communities. But at the same time this left the field clear for the Hindu orthodoxy to gain further in strength and assert itself. In fact this element turned out to be the greatest beneficiary of Akbar's benevolent attitude in religious matters. A most striking example of this is furnished by the enthusiastic welcome accorded to the writings of Tulsi Das, among them the most notable being his work on Lord Rama, called Ramcharitmanas. Though a votary of Lord Rama, he was a firm believer in what went by the name of Brahminvad. In his personal life as well as in his - works he upheld the exalted position of the Brahmin and performance of rituals under his supervision and leadership, social divisions based on the theory of varnashrama and such other formal practices as going on pilgrimage, etc. The ascetic groups of the Hindu society also reaped much benefit from the improvements in religious situation in the country. In the days of the Sultanate they had found the atmosphere too choking and had sought refuge in escapism from the struggles of life. They had either taken up their abodes in the remote recesses of mountains or roamed about the land in groups subsisting for their living on the alms of the people. When the situation began to improve in the sixteenth century, a change in their general outlook began to be noticed. They now started shedding off their old colossal indifference towards the affairs of the society, evincing keener interest in the restoration of Hindu asceticism to its former self.

Such was the social situation in which Guru Amar Das had to set about the tasks of his ministry. Sikhism as propounded by its founder and later preached by his first successor was essentially a spiritual creed with a firm commitment to social responsibilities. It was totally against the prevailing practices of renunciation of worldly life and asceticism. This aroused the hostility of all Hindu ascetics. In the eyes of all these ascetics Sikhism was a dangerous creed because for one, it did not recognise the merits of asceticism for the attainment of spiritual bliss and for another, it was actively engaged on vigorous propaganda against it. Other orthodox sections of popular Hinduism were still more hostile to the Sikh teachings. They not only attached no value to the caste system, Brahminical priesthood and ritualism but also carried on a ceaseless campaign against all these so-called essential Hindu religious practices. Thus the situation which Guru Amar Das had to face bristled with many difficulties, and these difficulties were of no mean order as in the then society the Brahmin as well as the Yogi had a powerful hold upon the minds of the people. There was, however, one saving grace in the situation and that was that as yet there was no particular difficulty being experienced from the side of Muslim orthodoxy. Guru Nanak's message, on the whole, had been received well in the Muslim circles and we do not come across any evidence of organized Muslim hostility towards either him or his immediate successor. Moreover, during the reign of Akbar Muslim orthodoxy suffered a severe setback and was compelled to take a back seat on account of the dominance of liberal elements at the Emperor's court. Muslim orthodoxy as a major challenge to the rise of Sikhism appeared much later, indeed long after the time of Guru Amar Das.

If Sikhism was a challenge to Hindu orthodoxy, so was also Hindu orthodoxy to Sikhism. From the very outset Guru Amar Das was fully alive to this danger. He was convinced in his heart of hearts that if his creed was to survive, it must grapple with the grave challenge confronting it. In such a state of affairs as this his main problems, as he rightly and clearly viewed them, were essentially of definition and organisation. Sikhism was still at its nascent stage. It possessed a few institutions no doubt, but they were not yet sufficiently developed. Moreover, they were not adequate and needed to be supplemented by more of such institutions as could provide a dependable organisational framework to his Sikh faith. Besides, the essentials of the new faith had to be underscored over and again and still clearer lines of distinction had to be drawn to indicate how and in what respects the new order differed from the established Hindu order. All this work was most important because in the absence of this there was every likelihood of the Sikhs falling prey to the onslaughts of the fast reviving Hindu orthodoxy and lapsing back into its iron formalistic mould.

Thus identifying his problems the Guru began to address himself to the task of finding out their solutions. He was already past seventy years of age when he assumed the charge of his exalted office but advancing years did not pose any particular difficulty in the way of his effective functioning since he possessed a strong robust physique even at that stage. The loftiness of his spirit and his dedication to the cause more than compensated for the physical handicaps of old age, if any. He continued his strenuous efforts for twenty-two odd years and by the time he was to depart from this earthly abode he had already achieved an impressive record of success. He was a poet of acute sensitivity and composed hundreds of hymns2 in furtherance of his mission. The general tenor of his writings was not different from that of his distinguished predecessors. The basic ideas expounded by him were also the same as those of the earlier Gurus. But with his extremely analytical mind and intimate knowledge of Hindu religious thought and practice, Guru Amar Das was able to take up, one by one, a whole gamut of important issues for discussion and on each one defined the Sikh position with rare precision and clarity. Thus through his writings as well as his discourses he was constantly at pains to impress upon his followers the urgency of clearly understanding the differences between Sikhism and popular Hinduism and the asceticism of udasis, jogis, naths and sidhs . Congregations were held regularly every morning and evening where there were services of kirtan, recitations of hymns of the Gurus including himself, discourses on subjects of interest and expositions of holy texts. Thereby not only the Sikh institutions of sangat and kirtan were reinforced but also full advantage was taken of the daily congregations to fortify the devotees' faith in the principles of Sikhism. Since daily gatherings at the Guru's darbar necessitated the organisation of a regular langar (free kitchen), this latter institution was also consolidated. To these institutions which in fact had been in existence since the days of Guru Nanak, he added several new ones, which speak volumes for his originality of mind, constructive genius, and organising ability. He established manjis to spread the message of Nanak in the areas around. They were small local centres of Sikhism being looked after by his select adherents. This was a new dimension added to the Sikh movement. Yet another new dimension was added when Baisakhi or Bisowa Divas was decided upon for the purpose of annual assemblies of the Sikhs from far and near. This was another big step forward in the growth of the Sikh organisation. It enabled the Sikhs to meet together every year and personally seek guidance from the Guru. They could also take the opportunity of exchanging their ideas among themselves. In due course followed the construction of the baoli at Goindwal. In order that the Guru's followers might be weaned from their propensity to visit the Ganga for a dip in its sacred waters, it was given out that a dip in the waters of the baoli was equally meritorious. This naturally facilitated the development of Goindwal into a prominent Sikh centre. A few years later the decision was taken to have another similar centre at what subsequently came to be known as Amritsar. The Guru also found time to attend to the eradication of some gross social evils such as caste system, untouchability, sati, and purdah system. He not only raised his powerful voice against them but also devised practical means to end them. For instance, no one was allowed to meet him unless he had first eaten in his community kitchen, and in this respect no distinction was allowed between the high and the low. Similarly, no woman could see him unless she had first consented to remove her veil or purdah. The death rites current among the Hindus were also an evil to .be shunned. They were too many and too costly, but the worst thing about them was that they went against the Sikh concept of death and violated the very spirit of Sikhism. The Guru advised his followers to abandon these rites and in their place prescribed a simple ceremony which mostly consisted of singing of holy hymns from Gurbani. The upshot of all these measures was that Sikhism began to emerge as a distinctive entity having its own doctrine and organisation.

In the accomplishment of the arduous task he had set himself the Guru received great assistance from the liberal character of Akbar's policy. As was expected, the orthodox sections in the Hindu society did not take kindly to the teachings of Guru Amar Das. They complained to the Emperor more than once against his unorthodox ways. At one time they even led a deputation and submitted a lengthy memorandum levelling a series of charges against him. The Guru had to depute his most trusted follower Bhai Jetha to the Emperor's durbar to answer the charges. The complaint was ultimately dismissed. A few years later the Emperor personally waited upon the Guru at Goindwal and even ate in his kitchen. The tradition goes that he also made a land grant in the name of the Guru's daughter, Bibi Bhani, before his departure from there. All this gave a great boost to the Sikh Panth and for the rest of the reign of Akbar all adversaries of the Panth were silenced. No doubt, from then onward the pace of progress became much faster.

The liberalism of Akbar's religious policy helped the Guru in yet another way. Muslim orthodoxy was in low spirits during this period because Akbar had withdrawn his patronage from it. It had retaliated by trying to harm the Emperor once or twice but each time had met with utter failure, and each failure had meant more suppression. The result was that the Panth under Guru Amar Das, and in fact for many long years thereafter too, experienced no difficulty from the direction of Muslim orthodoxy. Some trouble was, no doubt, created by a few Shaikh families settled at Goindwal. At their instance, a group of young boys caused a measure of harassment to the Sikhs wanting to fetch water from the river Beas for the Guru's kitchen. But it was only a localized affair and the conflict seems to have arisen not from any religious cause but was probably the outcome of some local quarrel of a mundane nature. Although the clash went on for quite some time, the Guru did not take it seriously. He was not in favour of any confrontation with the young miscreants over this petty affair and whenever his aggrieved followers approached him for help, he always counselled them to have patience and to bear with the troublemakers. He assured them that if they acted as they were directed, the Almighty Lord would certainly come to their rescue and suitably penalize the evil-doers. His argument was based on his faith in the theory of divine chastisement which meant that God being the saviour of his devotees, never fails to help them when they are in trouble.3 But though at this time this plea was advanced chiefly to avoid confrontation, there was nothing specious about it because in later decades too when more serious clashes occurred between the Sikhs and the Mughal authorities, firm belief in divine justice and protection continued to form the basis of their high morale.

Keeping both the plus and minus points in the situation in view we may say that Guru Amar Das took the fullest possible advantage of his opportunities and made a rich and lasting contribution to the growth and development of the Sikh Panth. With his clarity of vision, his determined policy against conservative Hindu elements, his effective writings, his measures for improvement of organisation, his cordial relations with Mughal authorities and his cautious line in respect of relations with the Shaikh families of Goindwal, he not only stabilized the position of the nascent Sikh Panth and saved it from a possible relapse into Brahmanical Hinduism but also paved the way for its rapid strides in future. The danger of the Sikhs yielding to the pressures of Hinduism or falling under the spell of ascetic parasites was largely warded off. Then there was also a great deal of expansion in their ranks. In short, the Sikhs were now well set on the road to becoming a well-knit and growing community with a definite ideology, a distinct institutional structure and a solid territorial base. Surely all these were great achievements which left an indelible mark on the evolution of the Sikh community. The benefits of the great work accomplished by Guru Amar Das were reaped by his successors, particularly the immediate ones, Guru Ram Das and Guru Arjan Dev. Guru Ram Das laid the foundation of the city of Amritsar. He appointed masands who performed the dual role of Sikh missionaries and collectors of devotees' offerings. After him his son and successor Guru Arjan Dev further strengthened the institution of masands. He completed the sarovar (holy tank) begun by his father and built the Harimandir in its centre. He created some other great centres of Sikhism as well, such as Tarn Taran and Kartarpur. He also performed the monumental task of compiling the Sikh scripture, Granth Sahib. But all these things became possible because the ground for them had been carefully and well prepared by Guru Amar Das. Perhaps one may venture to say that even the inspiration for these great projects of subsequent years was largely derived from the third Guru. As for instance, the masand system was inspired by the manji system, creation of more Sikh centres by the setting up of the centre at Goindwal, and the compilation of Granth Sahib by the collection of Gurbani made by Guru Amar Das.


1. R.C. Majumdar, The Delhi Sultanate (Chapter XVI entitled Religion, p. 555) makes the same point when he writes: "In conclusion it may be pointed out that the role of both medieval mysticism and sufism in the history of Indian culture is often exaggerated beyond all proportions. Whatever might have been the value of either as a distinctive phase of Hinduism and Islam, from moral, spiritual and philosophical points of view, their historical importance is considerably limited by the fact that the number of Indians directly affected by them even at their heyday which was short-lived, could not be very large. The number dwindled appreciably in course or time ... . "

2. See Appendix to this chapter.

3. Adi Granth, Sorath Mahalla 3, 637.

Guru Amar Das writes: "Thou ever protectest the saints; Thou hast been protecting the saints from the very first. Thou saved Prahlad (a saint) and destroyed Harnakhash (a tyrant). The saints are convinced about this; only the self-willed are entangled in illusion.

Also see Adi Granth, 768.