The Life and Times of Guru Har Rai

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This post is about Guru Har Rai and his unique leadership of the Sikhs during the turbulence of the 17th century in India.

The time of Guru Har Rai’s Guruship was marked not only by serious infighting between the various contenders to the Mughal throne, but also by the Minas or the descendants of Prithi Chand, who were striving to divide the Sikhs with their numerous and focused attempts to dilute Sikh teachings. Guru Har Rai was only 14 years old when he assumed the Guruship, and had two immediate tasks at hand – the first was to protect the ideals of the Sikh faith first laid by Guru Nanak and second to defend the Sikhs from the atrocities of the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan. Before we get into details let’s revisit the social and political climate of India in the 15th and 16th centuries and the birth of Sikhism under Guru Nanak.

Guru Nanak was born in a society deeply divided into Hindus and Muslims. Muslim invaders had occupied India by the 13th century and had started a forceful conversion of Hindus to Islam. On the other hand, Hindu society was plagued by rigid caste structures – so much so that women, the low castes and the poor were deprived of the basic human right to an honorable living.

In this society, Guru Nanak’s Sikhs or disciples created a whole new identity for themselves – a society in which men and women were treated equally and there were no class discrimination. Moreover, Guru Nanak’s teachings emphasized, nam japna or remembering God in one’s actions, kirt karni, or earning through honest and creative work, and wand chhakna- or sharing earnings with others – these teachings became the hallmark of the new Sikh society. The other Gurus built the Sikh values on top of these ideals, but at the same time never deviated from the teachings of Guru Nanak.

When Guru Angad took over Guru Nanak’s mantle he collected Nanak’s teachings. He standardized Gurmukhi script and gave the Sikhs their own written language. Guru Amardas, as the third Sikh Guru, defined the Sikh ideals clearly and precisely for a whole range of important issues. His most notable hymn the “Anand” is sung at all religious ceremonies of the Sikhs. Guru Amardas was also responsible for instituting the festival of Vaisakhi, and even today Sikhs from all walks of life and all parts of the world celebrate the festival together.

The fourth Guru, Guru Ramdas, was a true visionary for his ability to foresee the need for a moral and ethical code of conduct for Sikhs. At every Sikh wedding today, the profound spiritual hymns known as the “Laavan” and composed by Guru Ramdas guide a couple to live their life as one soul and embody trust in each other.

Guru Arjan was the fifth Guru. He composed a number of hymns and compiled the teachings of the previous Gurus into the Adi Granth. Guru Arjan penned the hymn Sukhmani, constructed the Harmandir Sahib and established the city of Amritsar as the nerve center of the Sikhs. By the end of the 16th century, the Sikhs had become conscious of the fact that they were neither Hindus nor Muslims but formed a third community of their own. Times were rather peaceful, and the Sikhs thrived in Punjab and all over India.

However, in 1606 when Jehangir was crowned the Mughal emperor of India, he started persecuting the Sikhs. Jehangir had premeditated action against Guru Arjan, and within 7 months of him becoming the emperor, Jehangir had Guru Arjan executed. Thus at a tender age of 11 years, Guru Hargobind assumed the Guruship of the Sikhs.

The 37 years of Guru Hargobind’s Guruship, were by far the most testing in the history of the Sikhs. Under the leadership of Guru Hargobind, the Sikh emphasis changed from a peaceful propagation of the teachings of the Sikh gurus to the forthright declaration of the right to defend their faith by arms. In 1609, Guru Hargobind built the Akal Takht and infused in the Sikhs a confidence that they could challenge the might of the Mughals and stand up against oppression. Although he infused his followers with a passion to defend their Sikh faith with a call to arms, Guru Hargobind was himself an extremely compassionate person and throughout his life worked for the welfare of all humanity.

Shah Jahan, the son of Jehangir, extended his hostility towards the Sikhs, and fought 4 battles. In all 4 battles, the rather small Sikh forces conclusively triumphed over the Mughal army. These battles however drove the Sikhs out of Amritsar, which due to its proximity to Lahore, was always under the supervision of the Mughals. To avoid any more battles and to concentrate on the welfare of the Sikhs, Guru HarGobind retired to Kiratpur, in the foothills of the Himalayas and a place not easily prone to attacks by the Mughals.

Kiratpur was a city that was founded by Guru Hargobind in the 1620s and built by his son Baba Gurditta. Baba Gurditta was married to Ananti, sometimes also known as Nihaal Kaur – and they had two sons – Dhir Mal and the younger HarRai who was born on January 16, 1630 in Kiratpur. By 1635, Guru Hargobind had also relocated to Kiratpur and spent his last 10 years there. As a result Har Rai received his education under the direct supervision of Guru Hargobind.

Dhir Mal, the elder brother of Har Rai had turned hostile towards Guru Hargobind and the teachings of the Sikh Gurus. As a result, in 1644, before passing away, Guru HarGobind appointed Har Rai as the seventh Sikh Guru. Thus Guru Har Rai assumed Guruship at a young age of 14.

One drawback of retreating away from Amritsar to Kiratpur was that the Minas, or the descendents of Prithi Chand, occupied the Harmandar Sahib and it remained under their control from about 1635 to 1695. The Minas played havoc with the Sikh ideology and introduced a lot of mythology into the teachings of Guru Nanak and other Sikh gurus. The influx of superstition from the Minas placed a great deal of burden on Guru HarGobind and Guru Har Rai. They had to set up many more community centers and train more masands.

The immediate task for Guru Har Rai was to disassociate the Sikhs from the influence of the Minas. Within one year of him assuming the Guruship, Guru Har Rai was compelled by the Mughal forces to leave Kiratpur and retire further into the mountains – somewhere near present day Kasauli, east of Chandigarh. For the next 13 years, Guru Har Rai lived in relative seclusion in a small village. However, he traveled extensively in the Punjab. Keeping in mind the hostilities with Mughal governors in the areas near Amritsar and Lahore, Guru Har Rai confined himself to the areas on Doaba and Malwa – in present day between the regions bounded by the rivers Beas and Yamuna.

The Minas had little influence over these areas and Guru Har Rai was able to bring people from all social classes under the folds of Sikhism. During these years, Guru Har Rai married Kishan Kaur, sometimes also referred to as Sulakhni, who was the daughter of Sri Daya Ram. They had two sons: Baba Ram Rai born in 1646 and Harkrishan born in 1656, who went on to become the eighth Sikh Guru.

The Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan had developed a particular dislike towards the Hindu temples because of the Hindu practice of worshipping idols. He ordered all newly constructed Hindu temples to be razed to the ground and prohibited the construction of any more Hindu temples. Additionally, he exerted immense administrative pressure to force Hindus to convert to Islam. Many cities such as Lahore and Sirhind in the North, Ahmedabad in the west and Jaunpur in the East became centers for preaching Islam. Incidentally, none of these orders applied to Sikh Gurdwaras, as the Sikhs did not worship idols. These orders created a sense of fear amongst the Hindus and also contributed to many Hindus embracing Sikhism.

Bhagat Bhagwan and Bhai Feru, two disciples of Guru Har Rai who embraced Sikhism stand out as examples of selfless service in spreading the teachings of the Sikh gurus. Bhagat Bhagwan established 360 centers of Sikh faith in and around Gaya and Patna, in Bihar in East India. Bhai Feru was sent to Chunia, south of Lahore in present day Pakistan, to organize the Sikhs. The langar or community kitchen instituted by Bhai Pheru was famous throughout Punjab for its conformity ot the ideals of the Sikh teachings. A city by the name of Bhai Pheru came up about 40 miles south of Lahore and about 25 miles from Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak. The city was recently renamed as Phoolnagar.

Guru Har Rai had shown a good combination of strength and tenderness. He was a mighty hunter and yet, he was too kindhearted to kill the animals he had chased or captured. As a result, he would bring them home, feed them and protect them in a zoo. In following Guru Arjan’s tradition, Guru Har Rai also built a herbal hospital and research center to care for the sick. Yet, we should be mindful that Guru Har Rai was a soldier of the highest order – in the lines of Saint soldiers raised by Guru HarGobind earlier. He kept a strong force of 2200 horsemen ready to be deployed whenever necessary. According to Prof. Surjit Singh Gandhi, Guru Har Rai was not passive, but followed a policy of masterly inactivity. He concentrated on strengthening the pillars of Sikh faith while staying away from the politics of the times.

On April 8, 1648, Shah Jahan announced Delhi as the new capital of the Mughal empire and moved to Shahjahanabad, now known as Old Delhi. Prof. Sahib Singh maintains that this was done to keep a closer eye on the activities of Guru Har Rai and the developments in Punjab.

Shah Jahan had 4 sons and he had appointed each of them to govern different parts of his empire – the eldest Dara Shikoh ruled over the Punjab and Kashmir in the north, Shujah was sent to the East to rule over Bengal, Aurangzeb to Deccan in the south and Murad to Gujarat in the West.

Dara Shikoh was Shah Jahan’s favorite son. Sometime in 1652, he fell greivously ill and Shah Jahan reached out to Guru Har Rai for medication from his hospital. Guru Har Rai’s relations with Shah Jahan improved considerably after he supplied some rare herbs for the recovery of Dara Shikoh. When asked why he had saved the life of Shah Jahan’s son when Shah Jahan had been tormenting him, the Guru with much compassion replied: Man plucks flowers with one hand and offers it with the other – the flowers perfume both hands alike. The axe cuts the sandalwood tree, yet the sandalwood perfumes the axe.”

In about 1658, Shah Jahan’s failing health and old age prompted his sons to revolt and engage in a war of succession. Guru Har Rai was not involved in this war at all. Some authors have erroneously mentioned that he rendered some unspecified help to Dara Shikoh. This is far from true, as Dara had an army and wealth that far exceeded the forces or the riches of Guru Har Rai. Also the dates of the surrounding events prove that Guru Har Rai’s involvement would have been unlikely.

Dara Shikoh was defeated in the war of succession and fled from Agra. On June 18, 1658, Aurangzeb imprisoned Shah Jahan at Agra, and left in pursuit of Dara. On reaching Mathura, he killed Murad, his other brother who had supported him in his revolt against Shah Jahan. Shujah, the third brother, was also killed off in another skirmish and finally after a year of pursuit, on June 10, 1659, Dara Shikoh was captured and sent to Delhi where he was finally killed as well. So in this manner, on June 15, 1659, Aurangzeb, having killed all of his brothers who could have been possible claimants to the Mughal empire, declared himself as the Mughal emperor and ruled from Delhi for the next 48 years.

Aurangzeb’s coming to power marked the beginning of a long, consistent and active policy to gain control over the Sikh religious affairs. Guru Har Rai was somehow held responsible for Dara Shikoh’s liberal views on Islam. In 1660, Aurangzeb summoned Guru Har Rai to Delhi to explain his conduct and the hymns recorded in the Adi Granth. The Guru did not go himself but sent his elder son Ram Rai, who was only 14 at the time, along with 5 Sikhs to represent him.

Ram Rai did succeed in winning the confidence of Aurangzeb. In a political move, Aurangzeb decided to keep Ram Rai in Delhi in the belief that if Ram Rai succeeded Guru Har Rai as the next Guru, he could control the destiny of the Sikh community. Ram Rai’s sycophancy at the Mughal court turned Guru Har Rai against him, and he announced that his younger son HarKrishan would succeed him as the next Guru.

Meanwhile Ram Rai did his best to re-establish himself with Guru Har Rai. While that did not happen, Ram Rai did succeeded in winning over a section of Sikhs to his side. Aurangzeb encouraged him in his pretensions to the Guruship, and gave him a piece of land on which to build his community center. This piece of land was the foundation of present day Dehradun, about 100 miles south east of Chandigarh. The descendants of Ram Rai are known as Ram Raiyas and they are considered as corrupt as the Minas or the descendants of Prithi Chand for betraying the Sikh ethics and principles.

After about 17 years of leading the Sikhs, Guru Har Rai passed away peacefully in Kiratpur on October 6, 1661 leaving the 5 year old HarKrishan as the eighth Sikh Guru.

Guru Har Rai’s 17 years of Guruship were not marked by any spectacular events, except that there was infighting within the Mughal empire and Aurangzeb succeeded in becoming the Mughal emperor. Although Guru Har Rai inherited a small army, he was a man of peace and had never felt a need to deploy his army for any purposes. He loved to hunt, but only to bring back the animals for his zoo at Kiratpur. He also established a herbal hospital to take care of the sick.

Guru Har Rai strictly adhered to the principles and the routine of a life taught by the earlier Gurus. When one of his disciples asked him whether there was any point in reciting the Guru’s hymns without understanding them, Guru Har Rai in his ever polite manner replied: “Yes, Whether you comprehend it or not, the word bears the fruit of salvation. Perfume persists in the broken pieces even after the vase that contained it has been shattered.” Guru Har Rai did not compose any hymns, but these statements show that he had the highest regard for the teachings of the previous Sikh Gurus.

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.

Originally published by Sikhnet on May 15th, 2013


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