ARJAN DEV, GURŪ (1563-1606), fifth in the line of ten Gurūs or prophet teachers of the Sikh faith, was born on Baisākh vadī 7, 1620 Bk/15 April 1563 at Goindvāl, in present day Amritsar district, to Bhāī Jeṭhā who later occupied the seat of Gurūship as Gurū Rām Dās, fourth in succession from Gurū Nānak, and his wife, Bībī (lady) Bhānī, daughter of Gurū Amar Dās, the Third Gurū. The youngest son of his parents, (Gurū) Arjan Dev was of a deeply religious temperament and his father's favourite. This excited the jealousy of his eldest brother, Prithī Chand. Once Gurū Rām Dās had an invitation to attend at Lahore the wedding of a relation. The Gurū, unable to go himself, wanted one of his sons to represent him at the ceremony. Prithī Chand, the eldest son, avoided going and made excuses. The second son, Mahadev, had little interest in worldly affairs. Arjan Dev willingly offered to do the Gurū's bidding. He was sent to Lahore with instructions to remain there and preach Gurū Nānak's word until sent for. Arjan Dev stayed on in Lahore where he established a Sikh saṅgat. From Lahore, he wrote to his father letters in verse, pregnant with spiritual overtones, giving vent to the pangs of his heart. Gurū Rām Dās recalled him to Amritsar, and judging him fit to inherit Gurū Nānak's mantle pronounced him his successor.

        Gurū Arjan entered upon the spiritual office on the death of Gurū Rām Dās on 1 September 1581. Under his fostering care the Sikh faith acquired a strong scriptural, doctrinal and organizational base, and became potentially the force for a cultural and social revolution in the Punjab. Its religious and social ideals received telling affirmation in practice. It added to its orbit more concrete and permanent symbols and its administration became more cohesive. By encouraging agriculture and trade and by the introduction of a system of the collection for the common use of the community, a stable economic base was secured. Gurū Arjan gave Sikhism its Scripture, the Granth Sāhib, and its main place of worship, the Harimandar, the Golden Temple of modern day. He taught, by example, humility and sacrifice, and was the first martyr of the Sikh faith. The work of the first four Gurūs was preparatory. It assumed a more definitive form in the hands of Gurū Arjan. Later Gurūs substantiated the principles manifested in his life. Gurū Arjan thus marked a central point in the evolution of the Sikh tradition.

        Gurū Arjan remained in the central Punjab throughout his spiritual reign. Recorded history speaks of his movements between Goindvāl, Lahore, Amritsar, Tarn Tāran and Kartārpur, near Jalandhar. His policy seems to have been one of consolidation and development. Despite the many forms of opposition which he had to face, Gurū Arjan consolidated the community by his hymns, leadership and institutional reforms.

        The first task that Gurū Arjan undertook was the completion of the Amritsar pool. Sikhs came from distant places to join in the work of digging. The Gurū also started extending the town. He had the Harimandar built in the middle of the holy tank and, according to Ghulām Muhayy ud-Dīn alias Būṭe Shāh (Twārīkh-i-Punjab), and Giānī Giān Siṅgh (Twārīkh Gurū Khālsā, Urdu), had the cornerstone of the building laid by the famous Muslim Sūfī Mīāṅ Mīr (1550-1635). Ghulām Muhayy ud-Dīn states that Shāh Mīāṅ Mīr came to Amritsar at Gurū Arjan's request, and "with his own blessed hand put four bricks, one on each side, and another one in the middle of the tank. " As against the generality of the temples in India with their single east facing entrance, the new shrine was given four doors, one in each direction, symbolizing the catholicity of outlook to be preached from within it. Each door could also be taken to stand for one of the four castes which should be equally welcome to enter and receive spiritual sustenance. At the temple, Gurū Arjan, in keeping with the tradition of his predecessors, maintained a community kichen which was open to all castes and creeds. Inside the temple, the chanting of hymns would go on for most hours of day and night. Around the temple developed markets to which the Gurū invited traders from different regions to settle and open their business. Rest houses for pilgrims were also built and soon a city had grown up with the Harimandar as its focus. In addition Gurū Arjan completed the construction of Santokhsar and Rāmsar sarovars started by his predecessor. The precincts of the peaceful and picturesque latter pool provided the quiet retreat where over a considerable period the Gurū remained occupied in giving shape to the Sikh Scripture, the Granth Sāhib.

        Gurū Arjan undertook a tour of the Punjab to spread the holy word. From Amritsar, he proceeded on a journey through the Mājhā territory. Coming upon the site of the present shrine of Tarn Tāran (The Holy Raft across the Sinful Waters of Worldliness), 24 km south of Amritsar, he felt much attracted by the beauty of its natural surroundings. He acquired the land from the owners, the residents of the village of Khārā, and constructed a tank as well as a sanctuary which became pilgrim spots for Sikhs. Especially drawn towards Tarn Tāran were the lepers who were treated here by the Gurū with much loving care. As he moved from village to village, Gurū Arjan helped people sink wells and undertake several other works of public weal, especially to alleviate the hardship caused by the famine which then gripped the Punjab. The city of Lahore even today has a baolī, or well with steps going down to water level, built by Gurū Arjan. Another town raised by the Gurū was Kartārpur, in the Jalandhar Doāb between the rivers Beās and Sutlej. He also rebuilt a ruined village, Ruhelā, on the right bank of the River Beās, and renamed it Srī Gobindpur or Srī Hargobindpur after his son (Gurū) Hargobind.

        Many more people were drawn into the Sikh fold in consequence of Gurū Arjan's travels. The Gurū's fame spread far and wide bringing to him devotees from all over the Punjab, from the eastern parts then called Hindustān and from far-off lands such as Kābul and Central Asia. This growing following was kept united by an efficient cadre of local leaders, called masands who looked after the saṅgats, Sikh centres, in far-flung parts of the country. They collected from the disciples dasvandh or one-tenth of their income which they were enjoined to give away for communal sharing, and led the Sikhs to the Gurū's presence periodically. The Gurū's assemblies had something of the appearance of a theocratic court. The Sikhs had coined a special title for him--Sachchā Pādshāh, i. e. the True King, as distinguished from the secular monarch. Offerings continued to pour in which in the tradition of the Gurū's household would be spent on feeding the poor and on works of public beneficence-the Gurū and his family living in a state of self- imposed poverty in the way of the service of God.

        A son, Hargobind, was born to Gurū Arjan and his wife, Mātā Gaṅgā, in 1595. At the birth of his only child, there were rejoicings in the Gurū's household which are reflected in his hymns of thanksgiving preserved in the Gurū Granth Sāhib.

        A most significant undertaking of Gurū Arjan's career which was brought to completion towards the close of his short life was the compilation of the Ādi (Primal) Granth, codifying the compositions of the Gurūs into an authorized volume. According to Sarūp Dās Bhallā, Mahimā Prakāsh, he set to work with the announcement : "As the Panth (community) has been revealed unto the world, so must there be the Granth (book), too. " The bāṇī, Gurus' inspired utterance, had always been the object of highest reverence for the Sikhs as well as for the Gurūs themselves. It was equated with the Gurū himself.

        "The bāṇī is the Gurū and the Gurū bāṇī" (GG, 982). By accumulating the canon, Gurū Arjan wished to affix the seal on the sacred word and preserve it for posterity. It was also to be the perennial fountain of inspiration and the means of self-perpetuation for the community.

        Gurū Arjan had his father's hymns with him. He persuaded Bābā Mohan, Gurū Amar Dās's son and his maternal uncle, to lend him the pothīs or collections of the compositions of the first three Gurūs and of some saints and sūfīs he had in his possession. In addition, he sent out emissaries in every direction in search of the Gurūs' compositions. The making of the Granth involved sustained labour and rigorous intellectual discipline. Selections had to be made from a vast mass of material. What was genuine had to be sifted from what was counterfeit. Then the selected material had to be assigned to appropriate musical measures, edited and recast where necessary, and transcribed in a minutely laid out order. Gurū Arjan accomplished the task with extraordinary exactness. He arranged the hymns in thirty different rāgas or musical patterns. A precise method was followed in setting down the compositions. First came śabdas by the Gurūs in the order of their succession. Then came aṣṭpadīs and other poetic forms in a set order and the vārs.

        The compositions of the Gurūs in each rāga were followed by those of the bhaktas in the same format. Gurmukhī was the script used for transcription. A genius unique in spiritual insight and not unconcerned with methodological design had created a scripture with an exalted mystical tone and a high degree of organization. It was large in size - nearly 6, 000 hymns containing compositions of the first five Gurūs (Gurū Arjan's own contribution being the largest) and fifteen saints of different faiths and castes, including the Muslim sūfī, Shaikh Farīd, Ravidās, a shoemaker, and Saiṇ, a barber.

        Gurū Arjan's vast learning in the religious literature of medieval India and the varied philosophies current at the popular and academic levels, besides his accomplishment in music and his knowledge of languages ranging from the Sanskrit of Jayadeva (Jaidev) through the neo-classical tradition in Hindi poetry then developing into the various dialects spread over the great expanse of northern and central India and Mahārāshṭra is visible from his editing and evaluative work in putting together this authoritative collection. The completion of the Ādi Granth was celebrated with much jubilation. In thanksgiving, kaṛāhprasād was distributed in huge quantities among the Sikhs who had come in large numbers to see the Holy Book. The Granth was ceremonially installed in the centre of the inner sanctuary of the Harimandar on Bhādoṅ sudī 1, 1661 Bk/16 August 1604. The revered Bhāī Buḍḍhā who was chosen to take charge of the Granth opened it with reverence to receive from it the divine command or lesson as Gurū Arjan stood in attendance behind. The following hymn was read as God's own word for the occasion :

        He Himself hath succoured His saints in their work;

        He Himself hath come to see their task fulfilled,

        Blessed is the earth, blessed the tank;

        Blessed is the tank with amrit filled.

        Amrit overfloweth the tank : He hath the task completed.


        The Granth Sāhib, containing hymns of Gurūs and of Hindu and Muslim saints, was a puzzle for people of orthodox views. Complaints were carried to the Mughal emperor that the book was derogatory to Islam and other religions. The emperor, who was then encamped at Baṭālā in the Punjab asked to see Gurū Arjan who sent Bhāī Buḍḍhā and Bhāī Gurdās, two revered Sikhs, with the Granth. The book was opened at random and read from the spot pointed out by Akbar. The hymn was in praise of God. So were the others, read out subsequently. Akbar was pleased and made an offering of fifty-one gold mohars to the Granth Sāhib. He presented Bhāī Buḍḍhā and Bhāī Gurdās with robes of honour and gave a third one for the Gurū. Akbar had himself visited Gurū Arjan earlier, at Goindvāl, in November 1598 and besought him for spiritual guidance. At the Gurū's instance, the Emperor remitted 10 to 12 per cent of the land revenue in the Punjab.

        Gurū Arjan was an unusually gifted and prolific poet. Over one-third of the Ādi Granth consists of his own utterances. They comprise more than two thousand verses. These are in part philosophical, enshrining his vision of the Absolute, the unattributed and the transcendental Brahman as also of God the Beloved. The deeper secrets of the self, the immortal divine spark lodged in the tenement of the flesh and of the immutable moral law regulating the individual life no less than the universe, find repeated expression in his compositions. Alternating with these is his poetry of divine love, of the holy passion for the eternal which is the true yoga pursuit in joining the finite person to the infinite. In this devotional passion all humanity, without distinction of caste or status, is viewed as one and equally worthy to touch the feet of the Lord. The Gurū's lines are resplendent with bejewelled phrases and his hymns full of haunting melody. The essential message of his hymns is meditation on nām. Deep feelings of universal compassion find expression in his compositions binding the entire universe in a mystical union of love, in a sanctum of experience where nothing so gross as hate and egoism enters. His famous Sukhmanī (q. v.), the Psalm of Peace, which has been commented upon many times and rendered into several Indian and foreign languages, is a symmetrical structure of twenty-four cantos, each of eight five-couplet stanzas, preceded by a ślokā or key couplet expressing the motif of the entire canto following. In this composition Gurū Arjan expatiated on the concept of Brahmgiānī (the enlightened soul). According to him, this enlightenment can be attained only through meditation on nām, the Lord's Name, and through the Gurū's grace. In depicting the attributes of the Brahmgiānī, he has compared him to a lotus flower which immersed in mud and water is yet pure and beautiful. Without ill-will or enmity towards anyone, he is forever courageous and calm.

        Gurū Arjan's compositions are in two strains from the point of view of the choice of vocabulary. In portions which are mainly philosophical in content, the character of the language is close to Brajī Hindi. In those portions where the main inspiration is devotional or touching the human personality with compassion and that peace which no pain, sorrow or encounter with evil may disturb, he uses the western Punjabi idiom which before him had been employed in similar contexts by Gurū Nānak. In a few of his hymns he has employed the current terminology of popular Islam in order to emphasize tolerance and inter-religious goodwill. A few of his compositions, like Gurū Nānak's before him, are couched in the Prākrit idiom called Sahaskritī or Gāthā. Gurū Arjan's many-sided learning is witnessed in his own compositions as well in the editing of the Holy Volume and his commentary on the work of the bhaktas whose compositions he included in Ādi Granth.

        In the time of Gurū Arjan the Sikh faith gained a large number of adherents. On the testimony of a contemporary Persian source, the Dabistān-i-Mazāhib, "During the time of each Mahal (Gurū) the Sikhs increased till in the reign of Gurū Arjan Mall they became numerous and there were not many cities in the inhabited countries where some Sikhs were not to be found. "

        Gurū Arjan's martyrdom, pregnant with far-reaching consequences in the history of Sikhism and of the Punjab, occurred on Jeṭh sudī 4, 1663 Bk/30 May 1606 after a period of imprisonment and torture. The scene of the Gurū's torture was a platform outside the Fort of Lahore near the River Rāvī. In the eighteenth century a shrine, Ḍehrā Sāhib, was erected on the spot where every year the day is marked by a vast concourse of pilgrims coming from all over the Sikh world.

        There are conflicting accounts of the circumstances leading to Gurū Arjan's death. A Sikh tradition places the responsibility on a Hindu Khatrī official, Chandū, whose pride had been hurt when the Gurū refused to accept his daughter as a wife for his son, Hargobind. However, although Chandū took his opportunity to add to the Gurū's suffering, it is hardly likely that he had the influence to cause it. The real cause was the attitude of the Emperor himself. Jahāṅgīr who succeeded Akbar on the throne of Delhi in 1605 was not as liberal and tolerant as his father. In his early years on the throne, he depended more on the orthodox section among his courtiers. This coterie was under the influence of Shaikh Ahmad of Sirhind (1569-1624), leader of the Naqshbandī order of the Sūfīs. The Sikhs were the first to bear the brunt of Jahāṅgīr's malice . Jahāṅgīr felt especially alarmed at the growing influence of Gurū Arjan. As he wrote in his Tuzk: "So many of the simple-minded Hindus, nay, many foolish Muslims too had been fascinated by the Gurū's ways and teaching. For many years the thought had been presenting itself to my mind that either I should put an end to this false traffic, or that he be brought into the fold of Islam. "

        Within a few months of Jahāṅgīr's succession, his son, Khusrau, rebelled against his father and, on his way to Lahore, met Gurū Arjan at Goindvāl and sought his blessing. According to the Mahimā Prakāsh, the Prince partook of the hospitality of the Gurū kā Laṅgar and resumed his journey the following morning. Nevertheless after the rebellion had been suppressed and Khusrau apprehended, Jahāṅgīr wreaked terrible vengeance on the people he suspected of having helped his son. Gurū Arjan was heavily fined and on his refusal to pay the fine was arrested. To quote again from Jahāṅgīr's memoirs : "I fully knew of his heresies, and I ordered that he should be brought into my presence, that his property be confiscated and that he should be put to death with torture. "

        The Gurū was taken to Lahore. For several days he was subjected to extreme physical torment. He was seated on red hot iron plates and burning sand was poured over him. He was made to take a dip in boiling water. Mīāṅ Mīr, the Gurū's Muslim friend, came to see him and offered to intercede on his behalf. But the Gurū forbade him and enjoined him to find peace in God's Will. The Gurū was then taken to the Rāvī. A dip in the river's cold water was more than the blistered body could bear. Wrapped in meditation, the Gurū peacefully passed away. As a contemporary Jesuit document-a letter written from Lahore on 25 September 1606 by Father Zerome Xavier--says, "In that way their good Pope died, overwhelmed by the sufferings, torments, and dishonours. " The man who derived the most satisfaction from the execution of Gurū Arjan Dev was Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindī Mujaddid-i-alf-i-Sānī. In his letter, as quoted in the Maktūbāt-i-Imām-i-Rabbānī, he expressed jubilation over "the execution of the accursed kāfir of Goindvāl. "

        Gurū Arjan's martyrdom marked the fulfilment of Gurū Nānak's religious and ethical injunctions. Personal piety must have a core of moral strength. A virtuous soul must be a courageous soul. Willingness to suffer trial for one's convictions was a religious imperative. Gurū Arjan's life exemplified this principle.

        Of Gurū Arjan's personality and death, his kinsman and contemporary, the revered Sikh savant Bhāī Gurdās, wrote in his Vārāṅ, XXIV. 23 :

        As fishes are at one with the waves of the river,

        So was the Gurū, immersed in the River that is the Lord :

        As the moth merges itself at sight into the flame,

        So was the Gurū's light merged with the Divine Light.

        In the extremest hours of suffering he was aware of nothing but the Divine Word,

        Like the deer who hears no sound but the ringing of the hunter's bell.

        Like the humming-bee who is wrapped inside the lotus,

        He passed the night of his life as in a casket of bliss;

        Never did he forget to utter the Lord's word, even as the chātrik fails never to utter its cry;

        To the man of God joy is the fruit of devotion and meditation with equanimity in holy company.

        May I be a sacrifice unto this Gurū Arjan.


        Gurū Arjan was succeeded on the spiritual throne by his son, Hargobind.


  1. Ganda Singh, Gurū Arjan's Martyrdom Reinterpreted. Patiala, 1969
  2. Macauliffe, Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion. Oxford, 1909
  3. Gunindar Kaur, The Guru Granth Sahib : Its Physics and Metaphysics. Delhi, 1981
  4. Teja Singh, Psalm of Peace. Bombay, 1937
  5. Jodh Siṅgh, Bhāī, Srī Kartārpurī Biṛ de Darshan. Patiala, 1968
  6. Satibīr Siṅgh, Partakh HarI. Jalandhar, 1977
  7. Sūrī, Kartār Siṅgh, Gurū Arjan Dev te Sant Dādū Diāl. Chandigarh, 1969

Gurbachan Siṅgh Tālib