Guru Arjan Dev was the fifth of the ten Sikh Gurus. He became the first martyr of Sikh faith when he was arrested under the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and tortured to death when he refused to convert to Islam. His martyrdom was a significant turning point in the history of Sikhism. The hitherto peace loving community took up arms for self-defense and for protecting the rights of the weaker sections against the atrocities perpetuated by the Mughals. Guru Arjan Dev was the son of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Guru in Sikhism. He succeeded his father as the leader of Sikhs upon his death and went on to significantly influence the development of Sikhism. His tenure as the guru lasted for 25 years over which he greatly enriched the Sikh tradition with his many important contributions. He completed the construction of Amritsar which was further developed into one of the most important centers of Sikhism. He compiled the hymns of the previous Sikh Gurus along with selected writings of other saints from different backgrounds which he considered consistent with the teachings of Sikhism. A peaceful and saintly person, he was much revered by people belonging to all religions which made the Mughals insecure and jealous. Thus Jahangir had him arrested and executed.
Childhood & Early Life
Arjan Dev was born on 15 April 1563, in Goindval, Tarn Taaran, India, as the son of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Guru in Sikhism, and his wife Mata Bhani. He had two elder brothers: Prithi Chand (Prithia) and Mahadev.
Guru Ram Das noticed early on that his youngest son Arjan was wise beyond his years and displayed compassion for all. He also very dedicated in his service to humanity, and proved himself to be a very pious and humble young man.
Arjan Dev’s elder brother Prithia aspired to succeed their father as the next guru. He was not pleased with the growing popularity of Arjan in their father’s eyes as he feared Arjan might inherit the Guru Gaddi. Prithia conspired to tarnish his younger brother’s reputation but failed miserably. Ultimately Guru Ram Das selected Arjan Dev as his successor.
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Guru Ram Das died in 1581 and Guru Arjan Dev became the fifth Guru of the Sikhs. Upon assuming the Guru Gaddi he took forward the legacy of his father, and by continuing the efforts of the late Guru Ram Das, established Amritsar as a primary Sikh pilgrimage destination. He also designed the Harmandir Sahib at Amritsar.
Guru Arjan Dev strengthened the institution of Masands which his predecessor had introduced, and emphasized on the principle of Dasvand according to which a tenth of an individual's income was payable for the Guru’s Langar (Common Kitchen) and for other charitable acts for the betterment of the poor.
He wanted to give Sikhism its own holy text, and for this purpose he compiled the writings of all the past Gurus and also the writings of saints from different backgrounds whose teachings were consistent with the tenets of Sikhism. This compilation of teachings and hymns formed the foundation for the holy book of the Sikhs, Sri Guru Granth Sahib. He also contributed more than 2,000 hymns himself and wrote the Sukhmani Sahib Bani.
Guru Arjan Dev became a very popular spiritual figure, and hordes of people hailing from different faiths flocked to meet him and seek his blessings. During his tenure Sikhism developed steadily with more and more Hindus and Muslims becoming the followers of the guru. Soon Sikhism became the prominent popular religion of medieval Punjab.
The growing popularity of the guru and Sikhism perturbed the Mughals greatly. They became jealous of the guru’s fame and were angry as several Muslims had now become the guru’s Sikhs. Emperor Jahangir who had newly ascended to the throne was an Orthodox Muslim who felt threatened by the spreading of Sikhism in his empire.
Jahangir ordered that Guru Arjan Dev be arrested and brought to him. He then ordered the guru to convert to Islam or undergo torture and execution. The guru remained loyal to his faith till the very end.
The Guru was imprisoned in Lahore Fort in 1606. Since he had refused to convert, he was subjected to severe torture. He was immersed in boiling water which scalded his flesh and then was made to sit on a burning hot plate. More torture followed and hot sand was poured over his body.
The brutal torture continued for days yet the guru remained true to his faith and endured all the atrocities with the God’s name on his lips. The onlookers were shocked at the brutality meted out to this saintly and peaceful person.
Following many days of torture, the guru was allowed to take a bath in the river Ravi. On 30 May 1606 Guru Arjan Dev entered the river never to be seen again.
The guru conceived the idea of creating a central place of worship for the Sikhs and designed the Harmandir Sahib (also known as Golden Temple today). The doors on all four sides of the building signified its acceptance of people regardless of their religion, color, creed, or sex. The Golden Temple is one of India’s most visited tourist attractions.
Guru Arjan Dev formed the first rendition of the Sikh’s holy text, the Adi Granth, by compiling the hymns of the first five Sikh gurus and 15 other great saints, or bhagats, including thirteen Hindu and two Muslim saints. He himself contributed 2218 hymns to the sacred text. The first manuscript was completed and installed at the Harmandir Sahib with Baba Buddha as the first granthi in 1604.
Personal Life & Legacy
Guru Arjan Dev was married to Mata Ganga. The couple had one son, Hargobind.
While awaiting execution, Guru Arjan Dev appointed his son Hargobind as the next guru and instructed him to take up arms and resist Islamic persecution under the Mughal rule.