Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, sacrificed his own life to protect the well-being of the Kashmiri Pandits, who were Hindus. In 1675, the Sikh’s beloved Guru was publicly beheaded in Delhi by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb for not changing his faith.
Guru Teg Bahadur once said:
“Hinduism may not be my faith, and I may not believe in various Hindu traditions like idol worship, caste system, pilgrimages and other rituals, but I will fight for the right of all Hindus and all other peoples of the world to live with honor and to practice their faith according to their own beliefs.”
This set a precedent and Sikhs are bound by the Guru’s teaching to respect and protect the rights of all other faiths. Here’s how the story goes:
In October of 1675 as the rainy season ended, Guru Teg Bahadur and a few of his followers camped in a garden outside Agra.
Calling to the shepherd boy who was tending sheep and goats nearby, Guru Teg Bahadur drew a diamond‑studded gold ring from his finger and gave it to the boy, requesting him to go to town, purchase a few sweets and bring them back. He also gave the boy an exquisite and costly shawl to carry the sweets in. Guru Teg Bahadur was on his conscious way to the most unusual martyrdom the world has ever witnessed.
Earlier that year, a group of devout and learned Hindus from Kashmir had approached Guru Teg Bahadur with a terrible problem. Due to persecution from Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor, Hindus in Kashmir were facing wholesale conversion to Islam or wholesale slaughter. They wanted neither. The Emperor’s Viceroy in Kashmir had given them six months to make up their minds. As this grace period came to an end, divine guidance sent them to Guru Teg Bahadur with a plea to save them.
As Guru Teg Bahadur sadly pondered the best course to take in this grave situation, his son Gobind Rai, who was then 9 years old, entered the room and inquired, “Father dear, you are so sad and silent today. What can be the matter?” Guru Teg Bahadur explained the situation to Gobind Rai and said, “Some great and brave soul is needed to offer his life.”
Gobind Rai pointed out, “Who is greater and braver than you?” This cheered Guru Teg Bahadur greatly, for he now knew that his son was ready to receive the mantle of the Guruship, young though he was. With the issue of the Guruship settled, Guru Teg Bahadur could offer himself as a sacrifice for the Kashmir Hindus.
So, Guru Teg Bahadur told the Kashmir delegation to go en mass to Delhi and tell the emperor, “Guru Teg Bahadur, the Ninth Sikh Guru, sits on the throne of the great Guru Nanak, the protector of faith and religion. First make him a Muslim. Then all people, including ourselves, will adopt Islam of our own accord.”
When the delegation gave its message, the Emperor was delighted with the news. All he had to do was convert one man to convert a whole nation. What a bonanza! So, he sent two officers to summon Guru Teg Bahadur. When the officers arrived at the Guru’s domicile in Anandpur, Guru Teg Bahadur received them graciously. He replied to the summons with a written promise that he would come to Delhi after the rainy season ended.
Before the rainy season ended, Guru Teg Bahadur ordained his son Gobind Rai as the Tenth Sikh Guru. (Guru Gobind Rai was later to become Guru Gobind Singh). Then, taking a few trusted Sikhs with him, Guru Teg Bahadur began his slow journey to Delhi, stopping at various towns and blessing his Sikhs along the way.
When Aurangzeb sent officers to Anandpur to seize the Guru, they found him gone. So, Guru Teg Bahadur knew what was coming to him when he handed the shepherd boy that costly ring and shawl. The shepherd boy honestly took the ring and shawl to a confectioner’s shop, where the confectioner was astonished to see a lowly urchin with such valuable items. He assumed the worst and hauled the lad off to the nearest police.
Under examination, the shepherd boy protested his innocence and told the full story of the noble man and his companions in the garden just outside Agra. Strange as the story was, the police went to investigate.
Sure enough, there the men were. Guru Teg Bahadur answered all questions candidly. Then he and his companions were arrested and taken to Delhi. When they arrived in the emperor’s presence, Aurangzeb fulminated against Hinduism and anyone who would tolerate such “superstitious” faiths. Then he offered Guru Teg Bahadur and his Sikh companions numerous enticing material rewards if they would accept Islam.
As you can guess, someone who could give up an extremely valuable diamond ring wasn’t going to be tempted by anything so minor as a high-ranking job.
Guru Teg Bahadur further stated, “O Emperor, you and I and all people must walk in God’s Will. If it were the Will of God that there should be only one religion, God would never have allowed Islam and Hinduism to exist at the same time.”
Guru Teg Bahadur and his companions were then imprisoned and tortured. But no torture broke their spirits. Their tormentors tied one of Guru Teg Bahadur’s companions—Bhai Mati Das—between two logs, then sawed him in half lengthwise from head to crotch while Guru Teg Bahadur watched.
What happened to the other companions varies from story to story, but whatever happened, Guru Teg Bahadur never flinched. Eventually, Guru Teg Bahadur was given a choice: he could perform a miracle and save himself, or he could accept Islam, or he could die. At this, Guru Teg Bahadur wrote some words on a piece of paper. He requested that this paper be tied around his neck and explained that it was a charm to protect him from beheading. The executioner obliged. Shock! There was a mighty gasp from the assembled crowd when the executioner’s sword severed Guru Teg Bahadur’s neck.
Then they examined the paper, which said, “I gave my head, but not my faith.” This, then, was the miracle—that in an age of severe religious intolerance, one man would give his life and keep his own faith to save members of a faith not his own.
Not only can Sikhs claim the first saint to give his life for members of another religion, but also the first holy scripture in the world formally designed as an interfaith document. Guru Arjan Dev chose to include Shabads by Muslim and Hindu saints in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, as well as Shabads by Sikh Gurus and their followers.
He did this purposefully. At that time and place, Muslims were burning Hindu books, and Hindus deemed Muslim writings untouchable. It was a major departure from the prevailing prejudice to include writings of saints of both religions in a single document.
Furthermore, Sikh willingness to serve everyone of all faiths is legendary. Seva Panthis—those on the path of selfless service—are deeply respected in India. They are the descendants and followers of Bhai Kanaiya, one of Guru Gobind Singh’s disciples.
In 1705 while Guru Gobind Singh was reinforcing the defense of Anandpur Sahib, his followers brought word that Bhai Kanaiya had been seen giving water to the enemy wounded as well as to Sikh soldiers. So Guru Gobind Singh sent for Bhai Kanaiya and asked him about it. Bhai Kanaiya folded his hands and said, “Master, since I have come into your presence, I see God everywhere. Amongst the wounded, I fail to distinguish between Sikhs and Hindus and Muslims.” Guru Gobind Singh smiled, commended Bhai Kanaiya for his holiness, bade him continue to serve everyone irrespective of caste or creed, and even gave him medicinal ointments to enhance his work with the wounded.
To this day, Sikhs serve people in this same spirit. Sikh tolerance and appreciation of other faiths is not restricted to a few great saints.
Deep in the marrow of their faith Sikhs see God in All. As Guru Nanak, the First Sikh Guru, said when he was camping outside Mecca and was berated for falling asleep with the soles of his feet pointing in the direction the Kaaba, “Please point my feet where God is not.”
~ Sikh Spiritual Practice: The Sound Way to God (2010) by Siri Kirpal Kaur Khalsa.