Setting the Scene
In India endless battles were waged for power and territory. In a culture full of war and revenge, in a climate of fear and hostility, the peacemaker is persecuted.
The martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev, a man of peace, marked a major turning point in Sikh history. When Guru Arjan Dev’s son, Hargobind, became the sixth Nanak, he trained his Sikhs to become warriors so they could defend their rights and the rights of others to live and teach according to their faith. The advent of the Sikh way of life and the establishment of the Mughal Empire took place at the same time in history. Sikhs were not against Islam. They opposed the feudal and imperial structure that encouraged injustice and exploitation. The scourges of caste divisions, religious discrimination and superstitions made daily life intolerable for ordinary people. The oppressors shielded themselves behind Islam, as well as Hinduism. Guru Hargobind used both the power of prayer and the sword to fight this oppression.
Death of His Father
Hargobind was only 11 years old when his father, Guru Arjan Dev, was martyred. When he learned of his father’s torture and death, he remained calm in his sadness. His father had nobly returned Home to God. He did not grieve because his father had forbidden it. Instead, Hargobind requested the highly respected Baba Buddha to recite the Guru Granth Sahib, and instructed musicians to sing the Guru’s hymns.
Within ten days, Hargobind was installed as the Guru. Previous Gurus had all worn a woolen string called a seli as a sign of the Guruship. When Baba Buddha presented it to Hargobind, the boy proclaimed that he would wear a sword instead. “Sikhs must defend their faith and commit to fight whenever necessary.” Baba Buddha placed a three-foot sword at the Guru’s right side. When he went to move it to the customary left side, the Guru asked him to leave it there and put another sword on the other side.
Miri and Piri
Guru Hargobind explained the sword on his left, which he called “Miri” (earth), represented earthly power, worldly leadership, and guidance, while the sword on his right was named “Piri” (heaven) and symbolized spiritual authority and power. His purpose was not to mix religion with politics, but to defend the rights of the exploited people against the oppression of the rulers. Bringing religion into politics enabled the Mughals to persecute people. History has many examples of ruling classes oppressing people from behind the shield of religion.
With the two swords, he demonstrated we must live consciously in the physical world, although the spiritual realm is our real home.
Martial Arts Training
Guru Hargobind knew there must be a Sikh Army if Sikhs were to survive against their oppressors. He set up training in the military arts: fighting, fencing, hunting, archery, riding, and wrestling. With total devotion, and without pay, young Sikhs flocked to offer their allegiance to him. They were each given a sword and a horse.
He raised the Sikh flag and used large drums (nagaras) to get everyone’s attention when he made announcements. In 1606, he had the Akal Takhat43 built in front of Harimandir Sahib, the Golden Temple. Seated there, he listened to people’s problems and complaints, issued orders, and solved disputes.
The Guru Visits Emperor Jahangir
Chandu and other enemies of the Guru learned of the Guru’s military preparations, and claimed that Guru Hargobind was not only converting Muslims to his faith, he was raising an army to avenge his father’s death. With this false rumor, they tried to convince Emperor Jahangir that Hargobind posed a major threat to his kingdom.
The Emperor decided to investigate for himself and invited Guru Hargobind to Delhi. There, the Guru was treated with utmost courtesy. Jahangir discussed religious matters with him and found that the Guru’s principles and beliefs posed no threat whatsoever to him or his kingdom.
The Emperor and the Tiger
In a friendly gesture of hospitality, Jahangir invited Guru Hargobind to go with him on a hunting expedition. As they rode along, a ferocious tiger suddenly appeared out of the thick forest. When the Emperor saw the tiger about to pounce on him, he called out to the Guru to save him. Guru Hargobind, shield and sword in hand, jumped off his horse, ran in front of the Emperor, and with one stroke of his sword killed the tiger. After that Jahangir considered him a true friend, and often invited Guru Hargobind to go hunting with him.
In spite of their friendship, the Emperor was jealous of Guru Hargobind’s popularity. When he heard that the Guru was called Maharaj (“Greatest King”) by his followers, he wasn’t really convinced when the Guru told him that God is the only “King of kings.” Then an interesting thing happened
A young grass-cutter, mistaking the Emperor for the Guru, bowed to him, made an offering and pleaded, “O True King, all earthly kings are false. I am a poor Sikh of thine; thy sovereignty is real and potent. Protect me at my last hour and extricate me from hell.” The Emperor remembered he hadn’t even been able to protect himself from a tiger, so how could he save this man’s soul? He returned the grass-cutter’s offering and, pointing to Guru Hargobind, said, “He is the True King.”
The Fort at Gwalior
Meanwhile, Chandu continued scheming to undermine the Emperor’s relationship with Guru Hargobind. He feared the Guru would try to avenge Guru Arjan Dev’s torture and death. At every opportunity, Chandu planted seeds of doubt and jealousy, pointing out the Guru’s increasing popularity and power. When Jahangir was ill, Chandu bribed an astrologer to influence the Emperor to send the Guru away on the pretext that in order for the Emperor to recover, a very holy man needed to go to the Fort at Gwalior and pray for his health.
The Emperor’s ministers pointed out that Guru Hargobind was the obvious choice. Although Guru Hargobind knew what was going on, he also understood that everything was part of God’s plan, so he set off for Gwalior. There he found the prisoners living in terrible conditions without adequate food or clothing. Among the prisoners were rajas whose kingdoms and thrones had been taken over by Jahangir. The Guru lived with them, shared his meager rations with them, and comforted them with stories of Guru Nanak and his teachings. The rajas were so grateful they prayed for him and his well being, wishing he could stay with them forever. They became Sikhs.
Meanwhile, Guru Hargobind’s mother sent Bhai Buddha to find out why her son had not returned home. Appalled by the conditions in the prison, Bhai Buddha suggested that Guru Hargobind escape. Instead, the Guru wrote to his mother and his Sikhs that he was content living in the Fort where he could meditate without worldly distractions.
Nevertheless, the Sikhs wanted their leader back. They sent representatives to the Emperor asking him to free the Guru. Having had fearful dreams and visions, Jahangir ordered Guru Hargobind’s release.
However, the Guru refused to leave the prison until all the rajas were freed. The Emperor agreed to let them go if the Guru vouched for their loyalty.
It is said that the fifty-two rajas, upon hearing they were being released with him, seized the hem of Guru Hargobind’s robe and wouldn’t let go until he promised them salvation. Sikhs celebrate the holiday Diwali in remembrance of this event.
Guru Hargobind’s Greatest Contribution
He turned saints into soldiers and yet remained a man of God. He felt that nonviolence used out of helplessness or fear is cowardice. He made clear that true nonviolence (ahimsa) comes from a position of strength and requires standing up to defend the defenseless. He was a strong leader of men and a hero on the battlefield; nevertheless, he was not happy with having to be involved in so much bloodshed. He cared deeply about the spiritual welfare of his people and encouraged them to read from the Guru Granth Sahib, as he did every morning and evening. He named Har Rai, his gentle grandson, as his successor.
~ This information was originally published in the book Heroes, Saints and Yogis (2012) by Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa and Guruka Singh Khalsa.