VĀRĀṄ BHĀĪ GURDĀS is the title given to the collection of forty vārs or "ballads" written in 'Punjabi by Bhāī Gurdās (d.1636) much honoured in Sikh piety and learning. These forty vārs comprise 913 pauṛīs or stanzas, with a total of 6,444 lines. There is no internal or external evidence available to determine the exact time of the composition of these vārs, but it can be assumed that vārs (Nos. 3,11,13,24,26,38,39) which have references to Gurū Hargobind who came into spiritual inheritance in 1606 after the death of Gurū Arjan, his predecessor, might have been composed sometime after that year, and the others implicitly prior to that date. The Vār 36 on the Mīṇās was probably written before the compilation of the Sikh Scripture in 1603-04. The vār, in Punjabi folk tradition dealt with the themes of martial valour and chivalry, but this poetic form underwent a complete transformation in the hands of Gurū Nānak (1469-1539), whose vārs had a spiritual meaning, with the battleground shifting to the human psyche. They depicted the fight between the forces of good and evil symbolized in the persons of gurmukh and manmukh, respectively. The vārs of Bhāī Gurdās are also spiritual rather than heroic in theme. They were written for separate audiences and that is why they lack a consistently pervasive thematic burden amongst or within them. However, comprehensive study of them all can help us build a fairly authentic biography of Gurū Nānak and the milieu he inherited and he and five of his successors lived in. They provide us with information about the prominent Sikhs of those days and, more important than anything else, they enunciate almost every Sikh concept as it appears in the Gurū Granth Sāhib and constitute the core of Sikh moral code. On the whole, these vārs form a critique and interpret moral principles in a simple idiom through familiar images and homely instance and give us an insight into the meaning and teaching of the Sikh faith in its earlier years.
The first vār, which is the longest with forty nine stanzas, is a work of historical importance. It begins with an invocatory canto, followed by a description of the creation of the world, six systems of Indian philosophy and the four yugas or time-cycles. The following six stanzas (17-22) refer to the serious crisis in the moral state of man, and the world is shown as debased owing to the accretion of pāpa (evil, sin). For Bhāī Gurdās the elements contributing to, and to some extent consequent upon, this pāpa are the intolerance practised by men of various faiths and their indifference to and disregard of the Divine (17). Elsewhere also Bhāī Gurdās refers to the conflict between the Hindu and the Muslim, each vying with the other for superiority, basing his claim on the profundity of their respective scriptures rather than on rightful practices. While making this criticism, Bhāī Gurdās was envisioning the role of Sikhs as the needle that sews together the fabric of religious life torn asunder by Hindu and Muslim scissors (33.4). Pauṛīs 23-44 mention the main events in the life of Gurū Nānak. The following four stanzas (45-48) eulogize the successors of Gurū Nānak till Gurū Hargobind. In the last stanza (49) me term vāhigurū has been explained in the Puranic context. This vār has also been paraphrased, in considerable detail, by Bhāī Manī Siṅgh and is known as Giān Ratnavālī. The tenth vār (23 stanzas) comprises the life sketches of 23 Hindu bhaktas, and the eleventh (31 stanzas) contains the list of prominent Sikhs of the first six Gurūs. The 28th vār addresses in the main the question as to what constitutes the true Sikh way of life, and the 36th is about the Mīṇās.
Bhāī Gurdās has taken up for detailed analysis in these vārs Sikh concepts of God, Gurū, gurmukh, manmukh, saṅgat, sevā, gurmantra, and others. God is omnipotent and all-pervasive. He is not only the creator of this universe, but He also permeates through His creation. The ultimate aim of human life is to realize God which can be done only through the help of the Gurū. Bhāī Gurdās proclaims that all the Gurūs were one in Spirit though different in body. God dwells in man's own heart and to realize Him man need not wander in forests or mountains. The life of the householder was to be preferred to that of the ascetic. Since Bhāī Gurdās is more concerned with life in this world, there is little in his vārs of the rapturous bliss of the beyond; instead he recalls the disciple to the need of assiduously cultivating an abiding sense of moral obligation and duties. Such an understanding of the world was afforded Sikhs by Gurū Nānak, who had, in epigrammatic manner, declaimed on the absolute reality of moral categories. Bhāī Gurdās posits sidq or constancy in spiritual faith and sabr or contentment while still engaged in worldly activity as the supreme virtues required of true Sikh (22.16). The term used for a true Sikh is gurmukh, his opposite being manmukh; sidq and sabr are nourished in sādh saṅgat or company of the holy, not through ecstatic or mystic experience but through living together in a spirit of faith, humility and service. Bhāī Gurdās is of the view that human existence is fortunately acquired and is a chance to find liberation. He describes the path of a Sikh as thin as a hair, as sharp as a dagger's edge (9.2). It is a difficult, yet a straight path. The whole of vār 28 is devoted to this theme. Steadfastness and fidelity are the other virtues Bhāī Gurdās recommends for a Sikh who is enjoined upon to have one wife and respect other females as sisters and daughters (6.8). He is not to covet another's wealth. Ill--gotten wealth should be like pork to the Muslim and beef to the Hindu (29.11). He stands firm in his belief and is of undivided mind, with no dubiety which is considered a moral lapse for which responsibility lies solely on the individual. He holds that in satyuga a moral lapse invoked the accountability of every being, in tretāyuga of every person in the village, in dvāparyuga of all kinsfolk, and in kalīyuga of the single person who is the agent of the immoral act (12.16).
These vārs, which are accepted as part of approved Sikh canon, reiterate or explain in simple idiom what was contained in the Sikh Scripture. In fact, the vārs were designated by Gurū Arjan as the key to the Gurū Granth Sāhib. However, the technique of Bhāī Gurdās is not to take words from the sacred text and expound their meanings, but to pick up ideas and concepts and interpret them in simple and easily intelligible language. This technique of annotation was followed later on by Bhāī Manī Siṅgh and then flowered into what we today call the Giānī school of hermeneutics.