Amar Das was a Hindu of the Vaishnav faith. He was a sincere seeker of spiritual truth. Every year for twelve years, he bathed in the sacred Ganges River. He also fasted regularly.
Despite his earnest religious efforts, he still felt empty inside. During his last pilgrimage to the Ganges, he befriended a monk, and they traveled home together.
After several days, the monk asked him, “Who is your guru?” Amar Das had to admit he didn’t have one. The Monk was horrified. He said that he had committed a sin by traveling with a man who had no guru, and therefore he would have to return immediately to the Ganges to purify himself! This astonished Amar Das, and set him to thinking that not having a guru, a teacher or personal spiritual guide, might be the cause of his dissatisfaction. (Amar Das lived near his nephew, who was married to Guru Angad’s daughter, Bibi Amro. One early morning a few days after his fruitless pilgrimage to the Ganges, Amar Das heard her reciting Guru Nanak’s epic poem, Japji Sahib. He was absolutely entranced. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard.
For several mornings, Amar Das secretly listened to Bibi Amro reciting Japji Sahib and singing sloks (stanzas) from Asa di Var.38 The divine words touched his soul deeply. In appreciation and reverence, he bowed to her and humbly asked who had written them. Bibi Amro told him all about Guru Nanak, and explained that her father, Guru Angad, was his successor. Amar Das was so excited, he could hardly wait to meet the great soul who had been chosen to carry the divine light of Guru Nanak. Perhaps this might be the guru he was seeking!
The year was 1540 and Amar Das was 61 years old. When he came into Guru Angad’s presence, Amar Das felt such divine bliss filling the emptiness within his soul, that he immediately prostrated himself at the Guru’s feet. From that moment on, he devoted his life to serving the Guru. One of Guru Angad’s disciples was having a township built on the banks of the river Beas as a tribute to him in gratitude for helping settle a legal dispute. Some of the man’s enemies, however, kept undermining the construction by sneaking in at night and destroying the masonry.
Guru Angad sent Amar Das to personally oversee the work. When Goindwal was finished, it contained a gorgeous mansion intended for Guru Angad. However, the Guru directed Amar Das to live there in his place. This he did, moving his entire family to the new township. Still, early every morning Amar Das continued to get water from the river that was now four miles away, and carry it to Guru Angad for his morning bath. He would stay and serve him all day long, only returning to Goindwal at night.
Every six months, Guru Angad gave saropas (scarves of honor) to his devotees for outstanding service. Amar Das had been given six such scarves. He put each one on top of the previous ones, wearing them as turbans on his head. He didn’t want to remove any of them, since he felt it would be disrespectful to discard such a gift from his master. Eventually this situation was brought to Guru Angad’s attention. He had Amar Das brought to him, and had the turbans removed, revealing sores and scabs—since his head and hair had not been washed in three years! He bathed Amar Das’ head, healed him, and blessed him for his deep devotion.
Becoming The Guru
Amar Das’ service, loyalty, and devotion were so outstanding that he was the obvious choice when it came time for Guru Angad to name a successor. As had become the tradition, Bhai Buddha was called and told of the decision, and Amar Das was installed as the Third Guru Nanak at the age of 73.
Dasu and Datu, Guru Angad’s sons, were jealous of Amar Das, and resented that their father had not named either of them as his successor. Datu even went so far as to set himself up as Guru in the town of Khadur, but people pretty much ignored him, and continued to go in great numbers to Goindwal to bow at the feet of Guru Amar Das. Datu was so angry that he went to confront Amar Das.
He said, “How dare you style yourself as Master? You were just a menial servant in my father’s house!” Not content with verbally abusing the Guru, he punctuated his insults with a nasty kick. Guru Amar Das took hold of Datu’s foot and massaged it, saying, “Oh, honored sir, pardon me, my old bones must have hurt your tender foot.”
In spite of his well-earned and authentic position of spiritual leadership, Guru Amar Das left Goindwal and went into seclusion in his ancestral village of Basarke, a small village in the Amritsar district of the Punjab. He barricaded himself in a small room and put up a sign on the door saying, “He who opens this door is no Sikh of mine, nor am I his Guru.” Many days passed, and his Sikhs, determined to see their Guru, couldn’t find him. Wise old Baba Buddha39 suggested they turn Guru Amar Das’ mare loose, and the horse would lead them directly to the Guru. When they got to Guru Amar Das’ hut, they saw the warning note on the door. Following Baba Buddha’s advice, they broke open the back wall of the hut, and entered that way, leaving the door untouched. Baba Buddha urged Guru Amar Das to return, saying, “You have tied us to the hem of your garment. Where should we go now if you are not to show us the way?” Guru Amar Das was deeply touched by this speech, and he went back to Goindwal with them. The hut is now a famous place of pilgrimage. Its wall is still broken.
Guru Amar Das said that God rewards patience and the Guru helps those who have endurance. He advocated humility, compassion, and serving people of God. He maintained a free kitchen providing bountiful food, while he himself ate only two very simple meals a day. Guru Amar Das insisted that before anyone could get an audience with him, they must first eat in the free kitchen. People of all castes, peasants and royalty, Hindus and Muslims, all sat together, side by side, in the same langar lines.
To carry Guru Nanak’s teachings far and wide, Guru Amar Das trained 146 teachers, including fifty-two women, thus adding practical emphasis to Guru Nanak’s respect and appreciation for women. These teachers traveled extensively to minister to the spiritual needs of the growing number of the Guru’s followers. Furthering the concept of community, Guru Amar Das also established twenty-two centers (manjis) presided over by devout Sikhs. He taught that the pilgrimages, penances, and Hindu rituals that had been appropriate for the three previous Ages—Sat Yug, Dwarpar Yug, and Treta Yug—were no longer suitable nor effective in this Age, the Kaliyug.
The only thing that can earn salvation is meditating on and repeating God’s Name.
Guru Amar Das had copies made of the prayers and poems of Guru Nanak and Guru Angad, and then added his own verses. All these divine words of wisdom were read at the many manjis he had established all over India.
He denounced purdah, the veiling of a woman’s face in public, and sati, the tradition that expected a widow to burn herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, a practice that Guru Nanak himself had condemned. Guru Amar Das also appealed to the Sikhs to live a family life, what he called ghrist-mai-udas: “renunciation in the midst of the world.” Or, we might translate it as, “Living in the world but not of it.” An ancient analogy of such non-attachment to the world is the pure lotus flower that floats pristine and pure on the surface of the water, yet has its roots in the mud below. Guru Amar Das is the author of this ideal definition of marriage: “They are not husband and wife who merely sit together; rather they are husband and wife who have one soul in two bodies.”
Eighty-four Steps at Goindwal
Guru Amar Das decided to build a baoli, an open well with broad steps leading down to the water, to provide a “holy dip” to pilgrims visiting Goindwal en route to the towns of Hardwar, Varnasi, and Kasi.
After offering prayers, many devoted Sikhs dug deep enough to reach water, but a large rock blocked any further progress. Guru Amar Das could tell that in order to complete the work, they would have to blast the slab of rock out of the way and risk being drowned.
A young man, Manak Chand of Vairowal, volunteered to do the dangerous task. When the slab cracked, he couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, and the force of the water was so powerful, he was drowned. His wife wept inconsolably while his mother deeply mourned the loss of her son. Out of pity and compassion, Guru Amar Das called out Manak’s name, and it is said that he came back to life.
After the remaining steps were completed, the Guru said that whoever recites Japji on each of the eighty-four steps would be freed from the cycle of birth and death. (There are 8.4 million possible life form incarnations for all creatures.)
~This information was originally shared in the book Heroes, Saints and Yogis (2012) by Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa and Guruka Singh Khalsa.