Guru Teg Bahadur holds a unique place in the history of all religious martyrs, because he didn’t sacrifice his life for his own Sikh religion, but for the religious freedom of the Hindus. Here are some stories about his life.
When Guru Teg Bahadur was born, he was named Tyal Mal (master of unattachment). He lived with his father Guru Hargobind and his mother Nanaki in the city of Amritsar, where he studied Sikh scriptures with Bhai Gurdas and learned how to use weapons.
His father, Guru Hargobind, had been the first Guru to take arms and fight back against the persecution and religious prejudice rampant in the country. In keeping with the Sikh ethic of earning one’s living by honest labor, he was sent to live and work at Ramdas Farm with the revered Baba Buddha who, even though he was then quite old, still labored in the fields every day.
Naturally calm and introspective, when his beloved mentor died in late 1631, Tyal Mal became even more quiet and withdrawn. However, honoring the Sikh ideal of living a family life, he was married to Bibi Gujri in March of 1632. He was 11 years old.
Two years later, when Painde Khan and the Moghuls attacked Kartarpur, he fought so bravely and fiercely alongside his father Guru Hargobind, that the Guru praised him for his expert swordsmanship and renamed him “Teg Bahadur.”
Living in Bakala
Each Guru who followed Guru Nanak named a successor before he died, and in 1644, just before his death, Guru Hargobind entrusted the leadership of the Sikhs to his grandson, Har Rai, who became the seventh “Guru Nanak.” He knew it wasn’t time yet to turn over the Guruship to Teg Bahadur.
Instead, Guru Hargobind told him to take his mother Nanaki and his wife Gujri to the village Bakala, where his maternal grandparents lived. And that is where he was living when Guru Har Krishan died.
Just before Guru Har Krishan left his body, he subtly revealed the identity of Teg Bahadur as his successor by indicating where the next Guru could be found, simply by saying, “Guru Baba at Bakala.”
Some of his relatives who were “pretenders to the throne” figured that they could profit from this vague description by going to Bakala and setting themselves up as the next Guru.
A Merchant Trader Keeps His Promise
A merchant trader named Makhan Shah also went to Bakala to find the Guru in order to honor a pledge he had made to give him five gold coins for rescuing his ship and its valuable cargo from a great storm off the port of Surat. Makhan Shah saw a lot of people in Bakala claiming to be the Guru, but he knew there could only be one True Guru. So he offered two gold coins to each of the false gurus, all of whom were quite happy to receive the money.
But when he offered two coins to the genuine Guru, Teg Bahadur, the Guru said, “Where is the rest of what you promised me?” Then the Guru showed him scars on his shoulder and explained he had gotten them when he was pushing Makhan Shah’s ship to the safety of the shore! That was all Makhan Shah needed to hear. He didn’t need any other proof. Here, indeed, was the True Guru.
He was so excited; he climbed to the roof of a house and shouted at the top of his lungs, “I have found the Guru! I have found the Guru!” He told the story of the miraculous rescue of his ship and soon all the sincere devotees recognized that Guru Teg Bahadur was definitely the rightful leader of the Sikhs. This was not good news for the false gurus, who wouldn’t be receiving any more gifts and offerings!
The Jealous Nephew
Guru Teg Bahadur had an older brother, Baba Gurditta. Baba Gurditta’s older son, Dhir Mall, was one of those who had hoped to be accepted as the Guru, and so when he learned that Teg Bahadur had been acknowledged as the true Guru, he figured the only way he could take over the leadership (for the money and power it would bring) would be to have Teg Bahadur killed. He led a party for that purpose to the Guru’s home, and one of the men actually shot Guru Teg Bahadur. The bullet grazed the Guru’s forehead and drew some blood, then glanced off his skull sideways but left him otherwise unharmed. The thieves stole whatever they could lay their hands on, including a volume of sacred writings.
Shortly thereafter, Makhan Shah arrived at the scene, and when he found out what had happened, he took a group of men and went to Dhir Mall’s camp where he captured him along with one accomplice (the rest of the scoundrels had run away). He retrieved all the loot they had taken from the Guru’s house, tied up the men there, and brought them barefooted into Guru Teg Bahadur’s presence. Observing his nephew’s pathetic condition, Guru Teg Bahadur instructed Makhan Shah to release the prisoners and give them everything they had stolen from him.
He said the money and goods they had stolen had brought them nothing but suffering and disgrace, and so it should stay with them—except, of course, for the volume of sacred Sikh writings—that, he knew, belonged in the Guru’s house.
Locked Out of the Golden Temple
Guru Teg Bahadur headed for Amritsar in order to stop Har Ji (Prithi Chand’s grandson) who was having his own poetry recited in Harimandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, claiming it to be the Guru’s words.
When Har Ji learned that Guru Teg Bahadur was coming toward the Harimandir Sahib, he got the masands (caretakers, sevadars, and tax collectors) to lock the visitors’ entrance.
So, though Guru Teg Bahadur and his party were able to dip in the sacred pool, they couldn’t get inside the Temple.
The Guru would not let Makhan Shah and his men force their way in, as they wanted to do, so they left. The Guru said, “Because of their greed, these people are already dead. There is no use in punishing the dead. In their greed to get the money offered in worship, they have lost all sense of devotion, chastity, virtue, and knowledge, so they cannot be prevented from doing misdeeds.”
The city of Anandpur Sahib in India (City of Bliss) was originally a village called Makhowal in Kehloor State. Its ruler, Raja Tara Chand, had just died, and his widow, the rani (queen), asked Guru Teg Bahadur to come there for her husband’s last rites. Her family had great reverence and respect for the Gurus, especially after the famous event in which Guru Hargobind (the Sixth Guru) had secured the release of her husband, the late Raja Tara Chand, from Gwalior Fort where he was one of the fifty-two rajas imprisoned there by King Jahangir. After the funeral, Guru Teg Bahadur spoke with the queen and expressed his wish to buy the village called Makhowal, which she now owned. He recognized that it was a natural fort, easy to defend and strategically located in the mountains. He knew that soon there would be attacks on the Sikhs by the Emperor Aurangzeb, the king of Delhi, and he wanted to be prepared.
The queen offered to give him Makhowal as a gift, but he insisted on paying for it, and for five hundred rupees the village ownership was transferred into his name.
Architect and City Planner
Guru Teg Bahadur personally drew up a map planning the layout of the new city, indicating the location of the streets, bazaars, and residential areas, keeping in mind the need for defense in case of attack. It wasn’t until his son Gobind Rai came to live there that the name of the city was changed to Anandpur.
The foundation stone was laid by Baba Gurditta, the grandson of Baba Buddha, on June 19, 1665.
It was customary for the Brahmins (Hindu high-priest caste) to recommend that people bathe in certain rivers to cleanse themselves of past misdeeds. Guru Teg Bahadur debunked this superstition, saying, among other things, “…You may wash a bitter melon with water as many times as you like from the outside, but the inner bitterness like poison remains in it. In the same way the curse of bad deeds remains with you even after bathing in the river.”
He added that it could even be harmful if people get the mistaken idea that they were free to do wrong again if they could simply come back and wash all their “sins” away. The Guru explained that it is only by remembering and experiencing our True Identity at each moment that we become free. Sikh Dharma has a different concept of “sin.” A sin is simply any act that makes us feel alone and separate from the One in everyone.
Meeting with Aurangzeb
The powerful king of Delhi sent for Guru Teg Bahadur, expecting him to perform some miracles for him. He’d seen what Ram Rai could do, and he was eager to meet the renowned Ninth Guru. When he arrived, Guru Tegh Bahadur was greeted with due reverence and respect.
He was given a seat near Aurangzeb, who said, “Show me a miracle.”
The Guru said that to perform a miracle is just the ego, and that all things happen naturally in the Will of God. A better miracle, he said, would be for the great King, who had been given the sovereignty of all India, to treat all religions as equal, and to rule with justice, humility, and kindness.
Guru Teg Bahadur used an analogy to make his point. He spoke of the country’s subjects being like cows and goats. “The more you nourish them, the more milk they will yield. The King, who harasses his subjects, destroys himself. There is no place in the house of God for those who indulge in oppression and tyranny.”
Aurangzeb expressed his wish that Islam become the one and only religion in India, as that was his way of eliminating religious conflicts. He told the Guru if he would personally embrace Islam, Aurangzeb would make him the supreme religious head of the country and provide him with a very large estate. Guru Teg Bahadur politely told him that religion is only a method to experience God, and that everyone should be able to choose their own path, saying, “Faith is the privilege of every individual.”
He said that conflicts arise out of jealousy, and what the Emperor was offering meant nothing to him. Aurangzeb was so impressed with the humility and spiritual awareness of Guru Tegh Bahadur that he issued orders that the Guru could travel wherever he wished and teach freely, without interference from the government.
Agra and Mai Bhago
Mai Bhago is one of the women in Sikh history especially remembered for the power of her devotion. Old and frail, she lived in the time of Guru Teg Bahadur, and from what she had heard of him, she was filled with love and devotion, constantly visualizing him in her mind. She made a robe for him out of cloth she had spun with her own hands while she prayed to see him in person.
Drawn by the strength of her pure prayer, Guru Teg Bahadur appeared at her door while he was en route to the eastern provinces. Her devotion was so powerful, he stayed in her home where she served him with great joy for over a month.
Ascetic Versus Householder
In Agra, Guru Teg Bahadur continued to reinforce the teachings of Guru Nanak. He spoke with a man who was planning to leave his wife and three children to live as a renunciate, a lifestyle ascetics claimed as necessary to “find God.” The Guru explained this was an error in thinking. Living in the world and having a family and wealth doesn’t stand in the way of God-realization; attachment to people and things is the problem.
He asked him, “If you abandon your work and your family, who is going to feed you? You’ll still be hungry and end up begging for food from householders! It’s greed that needs to be renounced, not wealth.”
The sacred river Ganges flows through the city of Banaras. To this day, pilgrims come from all over to bathe in its holy waters. Guru Teg Bahadur stopped Bhai Jwehri Maal who had been a follower of Guru Nanak’s teachings for a long time, as he was heading for the river. The Guru explained to him that the place of pilgrimage for Sikhs is being in the company of holy people and not a river or any other physical location. He dramatically demonstrated that the Ganges flows to the Sikhs, Sikhs don’t need to go to the Ganges, by having Bhai Jwehri Maal pick up the rocks under their feet where, sure enough, clear water was flowing.
It is even said that in Banaras, a leper came into Guru Teg Bahadur’s presence, praying to be healed. The Guru instructed the musicians to sing a particular verse, and the leper’s pain disappeared.
Over and over he reminded people that it is by reciting the Name of God that the “five thieves—lust, anger, greed, pride, and attachment—can be overcome.”
Guru Teg Bahadur educated scholarly Pundits that it is not reading scriptures that is valuable, but rather living your daily life according to the wisdom they contain.
Sacred Thread and Barley Balls
As Nanak had refused to wear the cotton thread that was a rite of passage for Hindu boys, Guru Teg Bahadur did not take part in a ceremony of his time. He pointed out the futility of Pind, the custom of throwing balls made of barley flour into water after the Brahmins perform a ritual over them (for which, of course, the priests get paid). These balls supposedly reach the person’s dead ancestors (after being eaten by the creatures in the water). You can imagine what Guru Tegh Bahadur said about this practice, especially after the Brahmins admitted that if people didn’t follow these customs, the priests would have no source of income.
The Guru reminded people not to judge others. He taught that the reality of a person is often different from what appears on the surface. He simply would not tolerate gossip or worthless talk. When some Sikh complained to the Guru about the irresponsible behavior of a Sikh known as Bhai Jagta, Guru Teg Bahadur advised they should spend a day with Bhai Jagta. They found out for themselves how wrong they had been in their criticism.
Divine Union by Guru Teg Bahadur
Sorath, Ninth Mehl:
That man, who in the midst of pain, does not feel pain, who is not affected by pleasure, affection or fear, and who looks alike upon gold and dust;
Who is not swayed by either slander or praise, nor affected by greed, attachment or pride;
Who remains unaffected by joy and sorrow, honor and dishonor;
Who renounces all hopes and desires and remains free from desire in the world;
Who is not touched by sexual desire or anger, within his heart, God dwells.
That man, blessed by Guru’s Grace, understands this way.
O Nanak, he merges with the Lord of the Universe, like water with water.
-Siri Guru Granth Sahib, page 633
Martyrdom of the Ninth Guru
The persecution of the Hindus escalated under Emperor Aurangzeb’s cruel reign. Somehow it was suggested that if a very holy man would convert to Islam, then all the Hindus would follow suit.
Guru Teg Bahadur mentioned this proposed “bargain” one day in the presence of his thirteen-year-old son, Gobind Rai, who immediately said, “Father, you are the most holy man I know. You should go and plead for the Hindus, and when you refuse to be converted, he will leave them in peace.”
The Fateful Meeting
Guru Teg Bahadur knew immediately that this was what he must do. Knowing full well what would happen, he went to the Court and met with the Emperor. Once again, Aurangzeb asked him to perform a miracle, and once again the Guru refused.
He also adamantly refused to renounce his faith and even when threatened with death, he held fast. He was duly beheaded—in public. A note was found on his body that read, “I gave my head, but not my faith.”
~ This information was originally published in the book Heroes, Saints and Yogis (2012) by Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa and Guruka Singh Khalsa.