The Life of Guru Arjan

Sikh Art by G.S. Sohan Singh.

Guru Ram Das had three sons. The child who was to become the Guru was the youngest. Born April 15, 1563, he was named Arjan Mal. Each of the boys had very different dispositions. 

The eldest, Prithi Chand, was clever in social and worldly affairs. He managed the Guru’s household and most efficiently administered the running of the common kitchen. He really wanted to become the next Guru, and he knew that it was service,  not lineage, which had earned that position for Guru  Angad and  Guru  Amar  Das.  

He  made  a  conspicuous show of serving his father, but his motives were easily seen by Guru Ram Das. The second son, Mahadev, was a recluse and, contrary to the Guru’s teachings, he adopted the ways of an ascetic. He wasn’t interested in becoming the next Guru. From his earliest childhood, Arjan Mal, the youngest of the three, was serenely tranquil and calmly in tune with the Infinite. One day when he was just a baby, Arjan crawled up on Guru Amar Das’ seat and sat there quite contentedly. 

The Third Guru smiled and said, “(He) will carry the Sikhs across in the ship of the Nam.”  Hearing this prophecy and worried that it could come true, Prithi Chand kept trying to find ways to disrupt the life of Arjan Mal, but he failed every time.


The Greatest Love Poem Ever Written

When Arjan Mal was in his teens, one of Guru Ram Das’ cousins came from Lahore to Amritsar especially to invite the Guru to attend his son’s wedding. 

The Guru said, “I am not able to attend but perhaps I can send one of my sons instead.” When Prithi Chand was asked to attend the wedding, he said, “I have to take care of the collections, and anyway, I hate going to weddings.” Actually, he was afraid that if he stayed away from the Guru too long, he might lose his chance to be appointed successor. He figured, “out of sight, out of mind.”

Guru Ram Das then turned to Mahadev, the son who spent most of his time meditating. Not unexpectedly, Mahadev refused, saying, “I have no desire to involve myself in worldly affairs.”

Finally, the Guru asked Arjan Mal who said, “I only desire to do what you wish.” Very pleased with this reply, Guru Ram Das told Arjan to share the Guru’s teachings with the Sikhs in Lahore and give any donations to the free kitchen to feed the poor. The last words he said to Arjan were, “Stay in Lahore until I send for you in writing.”

Arjan Mal stayed in Lahore after the wedding, and all of his relatives and all the other Sikhs he met there grew  very  fond  of  him. Still, every moment he  was  away, his heart was with his father, Guru Ram Das.

When he expressed his longing to see his father to his new friends, they suggested he write a letter asking to return. Arjan wrote  a  beautiful verse and sent this letter to his father. When the messenger reached Amritsar, Prithi Chand, suspecting he carried a letter from his brother, told him, “I will take the letter to the Guru  myself.” Prithi Chand read the letter and realized it was so beautiful that it would surely move the Guru’s heart in Arjan’s favor. 

Hiding the letter in his coat, he sent the Sikh back to tell Arjan that the Guru said he should stay in Lahore until sent for. When Arjan received this message, he knew that Prithi Chand, and not his father, had sent it. So he sent a second letter with strict orders that it must be given directly to the Guru. Again Prithi Chand intercepted the letter, grabbing it out of the messenger’s hands. Hiding the letter in his coat, he sent back the same message telling Arjan to remain in Lahore until sent for. When Arjan heard this from the messenger, he wrote a third letter. This time he wrote the number “3” on it. He told the messenger to be on his guard against Prithi Chand and to give the letter only to Guru Ram Das in person. This time, the messenger waited until Prithi left the Guru’s court and then quickly found the Guru and gave him Arjan’s letter.

When the Guru saw the number “3” on this letter, he knew that he had not received the first two. When the messenger told him what had happened, Guru Ram Das called for Prithi Chand and asked him three times if he knew anything about the other letters. Prithi Chand denied it each time. Of course, the Guru knew better. He told the messenger to go to Prithi Chand’s house and bring the coat hanging by the door. When he returned with it, the two missing letters were in the pocket. The Guru confronted Prithi Chand with this evidence and his son’s lie was revealed in front of the whole congregation.

Immediately the Guru sent Bhai Buddha to Lahore in a carriage to bring Arjan Mal home. Finally united with his  father,  Arjan  humbly placed his head on Guru Ram Das’ chest against his long beard, while the Guru hugged him gently in his arms. The Guru said that since Arjan had written three stanzas, he should now write a fourth and finish the poem.

Upon hearing the final verse, Guru Ram Das said, “The Guruship is passed on because of merit. Only one who is most humble can carry it, therefore I grant it to you.” Then according to tradition, the Guru sent for a coconut and five paise(coins)and placed them before Arjan. He stood up and, in front of the whole sangat, placed Arjan upon his seat. Bhai Buddha pressed the traditional  tilak (red mark) on the center of Arjan’s forehead as a symbol that the light of Guru Ram Das had now passed to him. Thus Arjan Mal became Guru Arjan Dev, the Fifth Sikh Guru.

The poem that Arjan wrote is called “Shabd Hazare.” Guru Ram Das announced that the devotion that inspired it was so great that singing it only once equals the power and benefit of singing a thousand shabds! Whoever recites it will never be separated from the Guru or from those they love. 


My mind longs for the Guru’s darshan

It cries out like the thirsty chatrik bird waiting for the rain

But the rain does not come.

I can find no peace without the darshan of my beloved Guru.

O my beloved Guru, my soul longs to serve you and have your darshan, 


Your face is so beautiful and hearing your bani brings me deep peace.

It has been so long since this chatrik has seen any water.

O, my dearest friend, O my beloved Guru.

Blessed is the ground beneath your feet.

My soul longs to serve my dearest friend, my beloved Guru. 


Every moment I am away from you is the whole Kali Yug for me.

When will I see you, O my beloved Master?

I cannot get through the night without the sight of your Court.

I cannot fall asleep.

My soul longs to serve at my True Guru’s Holy Court. 


I am blessed, for I am with my Saintly Guru.

I have found the Eternal God within myself.

I will serve you every moment of my life, and never be away from you again.

I devote my body and soul to your service.

O my Master, slave Nanak lives to serve you.

Although  he  was  only  18  when  he  became  the  fifth  Sikh  Guru,  Arjan  possessed  deep  spiritual  understanding and an angelic quality that easily touched the hearts of his devotees. Throughout his entire life, Guru Arjan Dev was always filled with deep inner peace.


Guru Arjan Dev’s Service

In the true spirit of “There is no Hindu, nor Muslim…” Guru Arjan Dev with the help of Mian Mir, a Muslim Saint from Lahore, laid the foundation of Harimandir Sahib, the present Golden Temple.

It has entrances open on all four sides, signifying that all four castes are welcome to enter. Along with the Golden Temple, the city of Amritsar came into existence. Guru Arjan Dev also created new cities at Kartapur, Tarn Taran—with its magnificent healing tank, and Baoli at Lahore.


The Birth of the Guru Granth Sahib

The preparation of the Guru Granth Sahib was one of the great achievements of Guru Arjan Dev. He had three goals. 

First, he intended to preserve the original sacred Hymns composed by the first four Gurus and protect them from being distorted by impostors. 

Second, he wanted to give the world an everlasting guiding light, a physical and spiritual touchstone. 

Third and most of all, he wanted to establish the Sikhs as a casteless and secular society. Along with verses composed by the first four Sikh Gurus plus his own, he also included the divinely inspired words of other enlightened men: Sheikh Farid, a Muslim saint; Bhagat Kabir, a Muslim weaver; Bhagat Ravi Das, a shoemaker from Uttar Pradesh; Dhanna, a farmer from Rajastan; Namdev, a calico printer from Maharashtra; Bhikhan, a Sufi saint; Jai Dev, a poet from Bengal; Trilochan, a Brahmin from Maharashtra; Sur Das, a blind poet; Pipa, a king from Uttar Pradesh; and several more, all belonging to different walks of life, sects, and both high and low castes. 

Guru Arjan Dev himself was a gifted and prolific poet. More than half of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib is made up of his writings.



Guru Ram Das had introduced the institution of Masands (representatives of the Gurus) who served in different locations. Guru Arjan Dev added the principle of Dasvandh, tithing, the giving of one tenth of every individual’s income toward the Guru’s Langar and for supporting other acts of benevolence to the poor. He told his Sikhs that one tenth of the earnings we receive does not belong to us; it belongs to God—the One who gives us all ten tenths! When we give one-tenth back to Him, all the wealth and prosperity that is ours is revealed to us and is bestowed upon us. If we fail to give God that tenth part, which is rightfully His, it is still due and we may see unexpected expenses. This law of life is a cosmic inevitability.


Master Musician

Guru Arjan Dev loved music, and was expert in the Ragas, traditional Indian musical tonal patterns. When the professional musicians who sang hymns at the Guru’s court became egotistically proud of their talents, he introduced the tradition of having the entire Sangat sing together, instead of just listening to “performances” by the Ragis.


Events Leading Up to the Martyrdom of  Guru Arjan Dev

Emperor Akbar was already convinced of the spirituality of the Sikh Gurus. During one of his campaigns, he had come to Goindwal where he ate langar, sitting on the floor like everyone else before paying his respects to Guru Amar Das. 

A Muslim Pir, the Saint Mian Mir from Lahore, loved and served Guru Arjan Dev and the Sikhs. Mian Mir was very revered by the Emperor Akbar. Consequently, when charges were leveled against Guru Arjan in Akbar’s Court by a few impostors (Prithi Chand  and his son Meharban) and some jealous Hindu Priests (Brahmins), the charges were totally disregarded. The complainants were virtually thrown out of King Akbar’s court.

The House of Guru Nanak had gained enormous popularity under the guiding light of Guru Arjan Dev. Both Hindus and Muslims flocked to the Guru to pay homage. The dismay of fanatic Orthodox Muslims at the growing number of Guru Arjan Dev’s followers was heightened by the malicious manipulations of Chandu Shah, a Hindu revenue official at the provincial court of the Emperor at Lahore. Chandu Shah had once offered his daughter in marriage to Guru Arjan Dev’s only son Hargobind, but the offer had been refused. “Hell hath no fury…”But Akbar did not reign forever. 

Emperor Jehangir was of a different caliber. He wrote in his biography, “A Hindu named Arjan lived at Goindwal…simple-minded Hindus and ignorant and foolish Muslims have been persuaded to adopt his ways… this business has been flourishing for three generations. For a long time it has been in my mind to put a stop to this affair and to bring him into the fold of Islam…”

Jehangir summoned Guru Arjan Dev to Lahore. He wanted to have him executed for inciting rebellion. However, on the recommendation of Pir Mian Mir, he commuted the sentence to a fine of 200,000 rupees plus an order to erase a few verses from the Granth Sahib. Guru Arjan Dev would not do it. The Sikhs of Lahore offered to pay the fine, but the Guru refused to let them.

The Guru was imprisoned and brutally tortured. He was made to sit on a heated metal plate, and burning hot sand was poured on his naked body as he sat exposed to the scorching heat of the June sun. Pir Mian Mir asked the Guru why, with his yogic powers, he did not stop the torture. 

The Guru told him to close his eyes and watch. Mian Mir saw the Guru sitting on the iron plate pouring the hot sand on himself and also stoking the fire beneath the hot plate. He immediately realized that everything was happening according to God’s will and this was the Guru’s destiny. 

The Guru said, “Thy will is sweet to me, O Lord. Nanak craves for the wealth of God’s name.” The torturers placed Guru Arjan Dev’s blistering body in the cold water of the River Ravi. There, his soul was set free. Guru Arjan Dev was the embodiment of  devotion, selfless service, and universal love. In other words, he exemplified spiritual excellence. He contributed deeply to the welfare of the society in which he lived and he stood steadfast for the principles he believed in and for which he gave his life, experiencing the first martyrdom In Sikh history.

Before he died, after serving 25 years as the Fifth Guru, Arjan Dev chose his son Hargobind, to follow in his footsteps and carry the light of Guru Nanak for all humanity.

NOTE: This chapter is partly based on an article published at by: Pritpal Singh Bindra, author and columnist, and winner of the Akali Phoola Singh Book Award 1998. 


~This information was originally shared in the book Heroes, Saints and Yogis (2012) by Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa and Guruka Singh Khalsa.