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Nomination of Successor, Parting Ceremony and Death

It is often contended that Guru Amar Das decided the question of succession by means of a special test devised for the occasion. He declared, it is said, that he needed a beautiful platform for his morning and evening services and promised the highest honours to the person who would prepare the best one. Both of his sons-in-law, Bhai Rama and Bhai Jetha, joined the competition and both did their utmost. When the platforms were completed, the Guru was invited to inspect them. He did not find them up to the mark and ordered that they be demolished and built de novo. Bhai Rama felt that he had already done his best, and agreed to resume the work rather reluctantly. Bhai Jetha, on the other hand, showed no hesitation and returned to the job as if nothing had happened. When the platforms were ready, the Guru was again requested to inspect them. Once more he declared them to be faulty and wanted yet another attempt to be made. Bhai Rama now lost heart and refused to build it a third time. He said, "The Guru, hath grown old and his reason faileth him."1 But Bhai Jetha had no such uneasy feeling. He took pleasure in obeying the Guru's orders and built, it is said, as many as seven platforms one after the other. When the seventh one built by him was ordered to be demolished because it failed to satisfy the Guru, he fell at the Guru's feet and humbly addressed him,2 "I am a fool; pray have regard for thy duty to me as thy son. I am erring and of mean understanding, while thou possessest all knowledge.” On hearing these words the Guru embraced him and showered many blessings on him.

The above tradition is, no doubt, very interesting and the episode might actually have taken place, but the conclusion that has been drawn from it does not seem to be quite warranted by facts. None of our major sources, Mehma Prakash, Bansavali Nama and Guru Partap Suraj Granth, even alludes to this incident. Even Macauliffe from whom the reference has been taken does not say that the said test was the basis of the third Guru's selection of his successor. The context in which he has made this mention may be clear from the following lines of his account:3

"One day the Sikhs addressed the Guru: 'Jetha and Rama are equally related to thee, and both perform service with great self-sacrifice. Rama is the elder, yet thou bearest greater love to Jetha. What is the cause thereof?' The Guru replied, 'He who hath the greater faith, devotion, humility and obedience, is the more deserving .... I am going to make a trial of both Jetha and Rama in your presence. He who better comporteth himself shall be deemed the more worthy."

Three things become evident from this: First, the test was ordered because some people, out of jealousy or under somebody's instigation, questioned the Guru as to why he showed greater love and affection for Bhai Jetha than for Bhai Rama. The purpose of holding the test was to satisfy the doubters that the Guru's preference for Bhai Jetha was not without reason. Second, it was not an open test but was confined only to the Guru's two sons-in-law. Not even his sons, Mohri and Mohan, were invited to participate in the competition. Third, before the test was held, the Guru's preference for Bhai Jetha was widely known and was often the subject of discussion among his followers.

As a matter of fact no special test was necessary for Guru Amar Das to determine the merit of Bhai Jetha, and this test, too, if at all held, only served to confirm the opinion that he had already formed about him. Not long after his marriage Bhai Jetha had come to reside permanently with his father-in-law's family and ever since then had remained under the close observation of the Guru. He was a paragon of love, devotion, service and resignation. He looked upon Guru Amar Das not only as his father-in-law but also as his beau ideal, his Master. He served him in a spirit of complete self-surrender. He used to shampoo him, draw water, cook and serve meals for the Guru's kitchen and even wash dishes. The more he served the Guru the greater was his Jove for him, indeed for all mankind. Later, when the construction of the baoli was undertaken, he became conspicuous for his tireless and unremitting labour. He carried baskets of earth on his head like an ordinary labourer and paid no heed to the banter and reproaches of his companions or his kith and kin. Once when some of his near relations on the paternal side were returning from a pilgrimage to the Ganga, they halted briefly at Goindwal. When they saw Jetha carrying baskets of earth on his head, they were furious and said to him4: "Thou hast shamed the family by performing menial service in thy father-in-law's house. Could'st thou not obtain suitable maintenance with thy parents without having to draw water, scrub daily vessels and shampoo the Guru?" Jetha felt hurt at this and replied, "In your estimation the Guru is my father-in-law, but in mine he is God in person." On hearing this they went to the Guru and complained to him about what he had made of his son-in-law. To this the Guru's rejoinder was5: "I have not made him carry filth on his head, but I have put filth on the heads of his slanderers and I have caused the umbrella of true sovereignty to wave over him. If he had not been born in your family, you would all have been damned. It is he who hath saved the whole of your tribe."

In 1567, when Akbar was on a short visit to Lahore, a malicious complaint was made to him by some caste Hindus against Guru Amar Das on the ground that he was violating the sacred canons of Hindu dharma. The Emperor sent word to the Guru to come and answer the allegations. Instead of going himself, the Guru selected Bhai Jetha to meet the Emperor and enlighten him on the issues raised. It was obviously a very heavy responsibility and by vesting it in Bhai Jetha he showed how great was his confidence in him, how even as early as 1567 he regarded him as the ablest and most dependable devotee in his whole camp. Six years later when it was planned to build a new Sikh centre at what subsequently came to be called Amritsar, he again showed his trust by selecting Bhai Jetha for the arduous task. The latter was entrusted with this job because he was considered the best man in respect of dedication, understanding and organizing ability. It is significant that on this occasion, as also on the earlier occasion of meeting the Emperor at Lahore in 1567, neither of the Guru's sons Mohri and Mohan, nor his other son-in-law Bhai Rama, nor anyone else was considered fit enough to bear the responsibility. All this should make it amply clear that Guru Amar Das's decision about his would-be successor was not taken abruptly towards the close of his period but was the inevitable result of his personal experience and observation spreading over more than thirty years.

When the end of Guru Amar Das's mortal life approached, he sent for Bhai Jetha who then happened to be supervising the construction work in progress at the projected new Sikh centre. The Guru was now keen on declaring publicly as to who would succeed him after his death. But before the decision was announced, he called his daughter Bibi Bhani and asked her; perhaps by way of wanting to see how she reacted to it, what she would do if her husband were to die shortly. Quick came her reply that she would also die, may be even earlier, or would do as her father ordered her. The Guru was deeply impressed with her spirit of dedication and taking her in his arms told her affectionately that she would not have to die as her husband would have a long life and the Guruship too after him.6 Soon after instructions were issued to the attendant Bhai Ballu to fetch a piece of cocoanut and five paise. Bhai Jetha who was present on the occasion was asked in the meantime to have a wash and put on new clothes. When the arrangements were complete, the Guru sent for his sons Mohri and Mohan and his principal Sikhs including Bhai Budha. When they had all taken their seats, the Guru spoke to them thus:7 "Guru Nanak in the beginning established the custom that the Guruship should be bestowed on the most deserving. Wherefore having found Ram Das-hitherto called Jetha-fully worthy, I now bestow on him the Guruship." Saying this, he rose from his seat and taking Bhai Jetha's arm seated him on it. Then Bhai Budha,8 according to the generally accepted Sikh tradition, applied the tilak to Bhai Jetha 's forehead. This done, Guru Amar Das placed before him a piece of cocoanut and five paise and bowed to him as a mark of respect to the elevated stat us newly bestowed upon him. The n Mohan and Mohri were asked to pay their respects to the new Guru. Mohan refused to do so and angrily remarked:9 " Our father hath superseded us and granted the Guruship to his son-in-law. We him our servant; why should we bow to him? '' Immediately after that he withdrew from the meeting and retired to his room. But the other son Mohri showed no hesitation. Without a moment's delay he rose and proceeding forward offered his homage to the new Guru Ram Das. When asked by his father how he regarded the new Guru, he replied,10 "My Lord, from the time thou gave him the name Ram Das, I have deemed him the same as Guru Nanak, Guru Angad and thyself." Guru Amar Das was much pleased to hear his son speak in this vein. He applauded his excellent attitude and blessed11 him and his present and future offspring. Thereupon, Guru Ram Das entreated Guru Amar Das to give Guruship to Mohri and grant him merely the Sikhi Pad (dignity of discipleship).12 The Guru, however, did not agree to this and remarked in a condescending tone:13 "The ancient gift which was to be given I have given you; and what was to be given him, I have given him." And then he urged upon Guru Ram Das always to take good care of his offspring which he in his unique humble way dubbed 'extremely poor'.14 Thereafter, Bhai Budha and other Sikhs assembled there made obeisance to the newly installed Guru.

Bibi Bhani was also among those who witnessed the coronation ceremony. All Sikh chroniclers have mentioned that while the ceremony was in progress, she made an earnest appeal to her father to make the Guruship permanent in the house of the Sodhis to which her husband belonged. His reaction to this was not favourable though he showed that he had full regard for the sentiments of his beloved daughter. He expressed the view that any such measure would be tantamount to the damming of a stream of pure flowing water, and apprehended trouble15 in case the institution of Guruship became a family affair of the Sodhis. As for his own selection of his son-in-law as his successor, he had done it because he had found him to be the best man in all respects among his followers and not because he was related to him. All the same the Guruship afterwards acquired a sort of hereditary16 character, which fact has often been attributed by later writers to Guru Amar Das who, it is said, in his great affection for Bibi Bhani made a promise to her to that effect. But this view may as well be a backward projection of a situation which emerged subsequently.

A little later Guru Amar Das ordered a big public function to be organised which anybody who so wished could attend. On the completion of arrangements and at the appointed hour the Guru arrived at the function and addressing himself to the assembly announced the decision about his successor. "My dear Gurmukh Sikhs," he spoke17, ''listen to me. I have appointed Ram Das the Jagat Guru. Regard him truly as my own image. Do not make any difference whatsoever in this." The announcement was hailed by one and all. The entire congregation one by one did homage to both Guru Amar Das and Guru Ram Das. Among those who did so were also included Mohri and Mohan, the two sons of Guru Amar Das. Mohri had already welcomed the decision of his father. Mohan, who had earlier resented it, had mean while come round and also joined in the felicitations offered to the new Guru. A definite reference to this is contained in Bansavali Nama.18

Next item in the programme was the announcement by Guru Amar Das about his own fast approaching death. Bhai Sunder in his Sadd19 has given a graphic account of how the Guru brought in this matter. The Guru said: "God's irrevocable summons has come, and I am about to depart. God's Will I accept with pleasure. The Creator by calling me has conferred honour on me; and as true friends, relations and well-wishers are pleased and never sorry at seeing an honour paid a friend, let there be no mourning for me. When I have passed away, sing God's praises, read God's Word, hear God's Word and obey God's Will."20 When the Guru had finished his speech, Mohri made two enquiries from him. First, he asked him what occupation they (his sons) should pursue to earn their living so that they could maintain themselves and at the same time escape the evil effects of wealth. He was told that they should live honestly (dharam kirat), practise piety (haribhagat) and always act according to his advice.21 His second question was about what obsequies should be performed after him. Mehma Prakash22 is very clear on this point. The Guru told his son not to perform any traditional rituals and to immerse his mortal remains in the Ganga of river Beas. According to Sunder, the Guru not only forbade the usual Hindu obsequies but also mentioned what kind of rites he would like to be performed after him:

Finally the Guru spoke, 'After my death sing God's praises.

Call God instead of a pandit and for the Garar Purana read God's Word;

Read God's Word, hear God's name, the Guru desireth God's love instead of a lofty bier,

Barley rolls, bread on leaves, Hindu obsequies, lamps and throwing his bones into the Ganges.'23

By giving this advice Guru Amar Das struck at the root of yet another long-established custom of popular Hinduism. By ancient custom the death of a Hindu was, and even now is, a highly ritualistic affair, a sort of rigmarole of rites. Before a person breathed his last, he was made to lie down on the ground. Immediately after his death, an earthen lamp was placed in his hand to show him the way to the hereafter. Then barley rolls and leaves were given away in charity as a device of appeasement to the ancestors. His mortal remains were thrown into the Ganges at Hardwar. For a period of thirteen days the departed soul was regarded as a ghost. All these practices were enforced by orthodox Brahmins who also had considerable vested interest in them. On the whole, these death rites were open to three grave charges. First, they cost much unnecessary money. Second, they arrested people's independent thinking and made them intellectual slaves of Brahmins. Third, they were based on superstitions. Guru Amar Das rejected them all. Instead of them, he insisted on performance of kirtan (singing of Guru's compositions), nam simran (remembrance of God) and harikatha (conversing about God). He also ruled out the mourning that goes with death as contrary to Sikh teachings. All this, incidentally, was consistent with his general plan, already noticed, to carve out a new and distinctive path for the Sikhs.

The instructions given by Guru Amar Das were strictly carried out after his death. The Sadd contains no reference to this aspect but the accounts of Mehma Prakash and Suraj Prakash leave no doubt about this. The account in Mehma Prakash24 reads thus: "Then the holy body was given a wash. After that it was clad in fine raiment and laid on a bier. Then in the midst of Sikhs reciting holy hymns the dead body was cremated on the bank of the Beas-Ganga. When they were coming back, all Sikhs were singing the praises of the true Guru." Suraj Prakash25 furnishes even more details: 'After the Guru's body had been washed and clothed in costly raiments, it was placed on a beautiful bier, and borne with the singing of choristers, to the accompaniment of tabla and rebeck, and amid a rain of flowers, to the margin of the river Beas, where it was cremated with all solemnity. The ashes were afterwards thrown into the river. When the singing was over, the mourners recited the Sohila and distributed sacred food. They then returned home singing the Guru's praises as they went."26 Unlike his date of birth, there is no disagreement among our writers about the date of his demise as is usually found in the case of most of our great men who rise from humble origins. There is near unanimity among them that he concluded his earthly journey on Bhadon Sudi Puranmashi-Samvat 163127 corresponding to 1 September 1574. His age at that time was about 95 years and 5 months. The total tenure of his Guruship was 22 years, five months and a few days.


1. Macauliffe, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 143.

2. ibid.

3. ibid., p. 142.

4. ibid., p. 145.

5. ibid.

6. Chroniclers have given many interesting details. Kesar Singh Chhibbar (Bansavali Nama, p. 36) says that as soon as the Guru said these words to Bibi Bhani, she removed her nose-ring (symbol of Sohag- married-hood). Mehma Prakash (p. 263) writes that she reacted by saying that she would lay down her life one week earlier. These chroniclers have also mentioned that the Guru mercifully extended his son-in. Jaw's life by bestowing on him the remainder of his own life, which at that time amounted to 6 years and 6 months.

7. Macauliffe, op, cit., Vol. II, p. 146.

8. Mehma Prakash on the other hand mentions that the tilak was applied by Guru Amar Das himself. See p. 264.

With his own hand the Guru applied Tilak to his forehead;

Taking the cocoanut in the hand he put it on his lap.

9. ibid., p. 148.

10. ibid. Mehma Prakash, p. 264, gives Mohri's reply in these words:

Mohri said this in great humility:

'You have given him the name Ram Das;

To me all appear the same-Nanak, Angad, Amar Das and Ram Das.'

11. Mehma Prakash, pp. 264-265.

12. ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. ibid., p. 266.

15. Sarup Das Bhalla, Mehma Prakash, p 266.

16. It was not hereditary in the strict sense of the term because within the family the choice was open to all members and the emphasis on having the best man for the high office of the Guru remained unchanged.

17. Sarup Das Bhalla, Mehma Prakash, pp. 266-67.

18. Kesar Singh Chhibbar, Bansavali Nama, p. 36.

Mohri and Mohan were called in.

They were caused to touch the feet of Ram Das.

This view also finds support in the following line of Bhai Sunder's Sadd:

Some one out of envy had declined to pay homage,

He was made to do so by the Guru.

19. For details see Ramkali Sadd in Adi Granth, 923, for English translation see Macauliffe, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 151-153 or see Appendix 2. Bhai Sunder was a great grandson of Guru Amar Das (son of Anand, son of Mohri, son of Guru Amar Das). As such he could not have been more than a mere child at the time of Guru Amar Das's death. Therefore what is stated in the Sadd cannot be entirely his personal observation. Most of it must be based on what subsequently he heard from his elders. But Guru Arjan who was responsible for the incorporation of the Sadd in the Adi Granth must have made sure (he had personal knowledge of it as well because he was sufficiently grown up at the time of the third Guru's death) that the facts contained in Sunder's Sadd were authentic and not based on hearsay.

20. This throws useful light on the Guru's view of death. As explained in the Sadd, death to the Sikhs is not a terror but an occasion for joy and happiness because it provides opportunity to achieve reunion with the Supreme Being. Death is thus the mingling of one light with another or the merging of one water with another.

21. Sarup Das Bhalla, op. cit., p. 268; Macauliffe, op. cit. , Vol. II, p. 150.

22. Sarup Das Bhalla, op. cit., p, 268.

23. Sunder, Sadd. Adi Granth, 923. For English translation I have depended upon Macauliffe (op. cit., Vol. II, p. 153). The meaning of the lines here under reference is a subject of controversy among Sikh scholars But I have preferred Macauliffe's version for several reasons: (i) It tallies with the view of Sarup Das Bhalla, the earliest writer on the subject and Bhai Santokh Singh; (ii) It conforms to the general tenor of Guru Amar Das's teaching8; (iii) Several other eminent scholars such as Teja Singh and Sahib Singh hold the same, or more or less the same, view.

24. ibid., p. 269.

25. Gur Partap Suraj Granth, Ras I, Ansu 68.

26. These lines are from Macauliffe (op. cit., Vol. II, p. 150). They are given here because they beautifully sum up the view of Suraj Prakash.

27. Sarup Das Bhalla, op. cit., p. 269; Gurparnalian (1952), Sikh History Society, Amritsar, p. 96.