The emperor Aurangzeb had forbidden anyone from removing the decapitated head and body of the ninth Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur. The residents of Delhi, who had just witnessed the guru’s assassination, were struck with fear. Many among them were devotees of Tegh Bahadur, the eighth spiritual descendant of Guru Nanak. The Sikh spiritual movement that had centered around Kartarpur Sahib (now in Pakistan) at the death of Guru Nanak had by then spread to far-flung regions of Punjab and beyond. His followers came from all backgrounds, bringing their material as well as human resources.

Official Mughal records, describing the reasons for the assassination of Guru Tegh Bahadur in 1675, state that he moved around with several thousand followers. With the rise in the political and material influence of the institution of guruhood, the Sikh gurus were increasingly seen as political rivals by petty kingdoms of the Mughal empire. Their influence and strength was also visible to the Mughal emperor. The days of political obscurity under Guru Nanak were long gone.

There are several accounts explaining the motive behind the assassination of Guru Tegh Bahadur on Aurangzeb’s orders. Sikh tradition states that the guru stood up for the rights of Kashmiri Pandits who approached him (see image above) to intercede on their behalf with the emperor and ask him to revoke a recently imposed jizya (tax). Convinced by his son, Gobind Rai, who later became Guru Gobind Singh, to stand up for the protection of the Kashmiri Pandits, Guru Tegh Bahadur traveled to Delhi. Here, at the Mughal court, he was mocked and asked to prove his guruhood by performing a miracle. He wrote a magic spell on a piece of paper and tied it around his neck with a thread. He told the Mughal authorities that as long as the spell remained tied to him, his head would not be separated from his body even if the blade of the executioner fell on his neck.

But when the blade struck the guru’s neck, it severed his head. Later, when the Mughal authorities opened the magic spell that the guru had written, it read, “He gave his head, not his secret.”

Transformation of Sikhism

Colonial historians, like Joseph Davey Cunningham, however, present a different explanation for the guru’s assassination. In order to understand the political motive behind the event, one needs to first take into account the historical framework under which Tegh Bahadur was appointed a Sikh guru. Earlier bypassed by his father, Guru Hargobind, Tegh Bahadur was appointed head of the Sikh community after the death of seven-year-old Guru Har Krishan. During the short tenure of Har Krishan, his older brother, Ram Rai, who wanted the guruhood for himself, plotted incessantly against him, lobbying with a few prominent Sikh leaders and trying to convince the Sikh community that he was, in fact, the rightful spiritual descant of Nanak’s Sikhism. On his deathbed, Guru Har Krishan left a rather elusive command that was interpreted as Guru Tegh Bahadur’s appointment as the next guru.

Immediately taking charge of the situation, Guru Tegh Bahadur set out to form new political alliances and to increase his revenue base so that he could compete with the contesting claims to the guruhood. According to Cunningham, the guru and his disciples “subsisted by plunder between the wastes of Hansi and Sutlej rendering them unpopular with the peasantry”. He also “leagued with a Muslim zealot, Adam Hafiz, and levied contributions upon rich Hindus and Muslims”. The historian further noted that the guru gave asylum to fugitives. Another complaint against him that reached the ear of the emperor was made by Ram Rai. Like Guru Har Krishan before him, Guru Tegh Bahadur was accused of being a “pretender to power”.

Tegh Bahadur was the second Sikh guru to be assassinated at the hands of a Mughal emperor. Almost 70 years earlier, in 1606, Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh guru, was killed by the banks of the river Ravi, facing the Lahore fort, on the orders of Jahangir. His assassination was a turning point in the history of the guruhood, triggering the transformation of the institution from a non-violent spiritual movement to the militarised religious movement of Guru Hargobind, the son of Guru Arjan and his spiritual successor. It laid the seeds for the Khalsa that gives the Sikh community its current form, institutionalised by Guru Gobind Singh, the son and successor of Guru Tegh Bahadur.

Simplistic narratives

Both these unjust assassinations became a symbolic rallying point for their devotees. The perpetual battle that had continued for several generations with the mighty Mughal empire, ruled by bigots bent on destroying the fragile Sikh community, acquired eschatological tones as a final showdown between good and evil. Gradually, as these historical events acquired religious undertones, they were stripped of their political realities. They were reduced to simplistic explanations that did not require a nuanced reading. The complexity of the Mughal-Sikh relationship was lost.

While on the one hand Guru Hargobind was presented as a valiant hero – which no doubt he was – who militarised the Sikh community for their protection and was penalised by Jahangir, stories of his other, more complex, relationship with the Mughal emperor were lost. His ties with Jahangir eventually warmed up and he, at one point, even helped the emperor curb a rebellion within his empire, with the help of his forces.

Similarly, Guru Arjan’s assassination is explained through Jahangir’s bigotry but not through the guru’s cordial relationship with the emperor’s rebellious son, Prince Khusrau, who waged a battle against his father and lost. Neatly placed within the same framework is the image of intolerant Aurangzeb, who summoned Guru Har Krishan and Guru Tegh Bahadur to Delhi. However, the story of Guru Har Rai, the father of Guru Har Krishan, promising to help Dara Shikoh against his brother Aurangzeb, doesn’t suit this simplistic construction of history. Immediately after defeating his brother, Aurangzeb summoned Guru Har Rai to Delhi to explain his role in the civil war. The arrival of Guru Har Krishan and even Guru Tegh Bahadur is connected with the same historical event.

Part of the same narrative is the encounter of Guru Nanak with Babur, founder of the Mughal empire. The story acquired a prophetic significance, giving clues to the relationships between their respective successors. In the story, Babur, initially unaware of the spiritual prowess of the guru, had him incarcerated. However, he soon realised the genius of the saint and let him go, but not before being rebuked by Nanak at his court. This was the significant moment that was to represent the true nature of the interaction between Sikh gurus and Mughal emperors. No matter how much political strength the emperor possessed, the final power resided with the true king, the guru.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak.