GURDĀS, BHĀĪ (1551-1636), much honoured in Sikh learning and piety, was a leading figure in early Sikhism who enjoyed the partronage of Gurū Arjan under whose supervision he inscribed the first copy of Sikh Scripture, the Gurū Granth Sāhib, which is still extant. He was born in a Bhallā Khatrī family (father: Īshar Dās; mother: Jīvanī) at Goindvāl in 1608 Bk/AD 1551. Bhāī Īshar Dās, one of Gurū Amar Dās's cousins had settled in Goindvāl soon after the town was founded in 1603 Bk/AD 1546. Bhāī Gurdās, who was the only child of his parents, lost his mother when he was barely three and his father when he was 12. He spent his early years at Goindvāl and Sultānpur Lodhī. At the former place, he had the opportunity of listening to many men of knowledge and spiritual attainment who kept visiting the town which fell on the Delhi-Lahore road and was then the religious centre of the Sikhs. He later proceeded to Vārāṇasī where he studied Sanskrit and Hindu scriptures. He was initiated into Sikhism by Gurū Rām Dās in 1579. He travelled extensively visiting Āgrā, Lucknow, Vārāṇasī, Burhānpur, Rājasthān, Jammū and Chambā hills, preaching Gurū Nānak's word. After the passing away of Gurū Rām Dās, in 1581, he returned to the Punjab, visited Goindvāl and thence proceeded to Amritsar to pay his obeisance to Gurū Arjan, Gurū Rām Dās's successor. He made Amritsar his home and through his devotion and love of learning carved for himself a pre-eminent position among the Gurū's disciples. When the Gurū decided to compile the Holy Granth containing the hymns of the Gurūs and of some of the saints and sūfīs, he chose Bhāī Gurdās to be his principal helper. They worked together on the volume which was completed in 1604. The entire text was inscribed by Bhāī Gurdās. The copy written in his hand is preserved to this day in the family of the Gurū's descendants at Kartārpur, in Jalandhar district of the Punjab.
Bhāī Gurdās also contributed the labour of his hands to the excavation of the sacred pool at Amritsar (1577). He was chosen to recite the Gurūs' hymns to Emperor Akbar when he visited Kartārpur in 1596-97 on his way back from a military campaign. As the tradition goes, the Emperor had been incited by Prithī Chand and his supporters against Gurū Arjan saying that the hymns he was planning to compile into a volume had an anti-Muslim tone. As Bhāī Gurdās read out verses selected at random, the Emperor was deeply impressed with their spiritual content. When Gurū Hargobind, Nānak VI, decided to construct in front of the Harimandar, Akāl Takht, Throne of the Timeless Lord, he entrusted the task to the two most revered Sikhs of the time, Bhāī Gurdās and Bhāī Buḍḍhā, the latter blessed by Gurū Nānak himself. Bhāī Gurdās was assigned to looking after the premises. Gurū Hargobind also appointed him to teach his young son (Gurū) Tegh Bahādur ancient classics even as Bhāī Buḍḍhā supervised his training in manly arts of archery and horsemanship. Bhāī Gurdās led a batch of Sikhs to Gwālīor where Gurū Hargobind had been detained under the orders of the Mughal emperor Jahāṅgīr. He was present at the weddings of the Gurū's sons Bābā Gurdittā (April 1621) and Bābā Sūraj Mall (23 April 1629). He offered ardās at the death in 1621 of Mātā Gaṅgā, wife of Gurū Arjan, and recited Scripture and offered ardās at the time of Bābā Buḍḍhā's death on 17 November 1631.
Bhāī Gurdās was the bulwark of Sikhism for many years. He was the expounder and exemplar of the Sikh way of life. He was a man of wide learning especially in ancient texts and philosophy, and devoted his exceptional talents to preaching the Sikh faith. He composed verse which is valued for its racy style and for its vivid exposition of the teaching of the Gurūs. His poetry, now available in two volumes, in Punjabi Vārāṅ Bhāī Gurdās and in Braj Kabitt Savaīyye, forms part of accepted Sikh canon and is sung along with gurbāṇī, the Gurūs' word, at holy congregations. Gurū Arjan put his seal of approval on it by designating it as the "key" to the Holy Scripture.
Bhāī Gurdās, who never married, died at Goindvāl on Bhādoṅ sudī 5, 1693 Bk/25 August 1636.
Rattan Siṅgh Jaggī