Across the border

From Guru Hargobind to Guru Gobind Singh: How the Sikh community militarised to take on the Mughals

Guru Arjan’s execution in 1606 by Emperor Jahangir was a watershed moment for the nascent Sikh community.

When Guru Arjan was summoned to Lahore by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, the fifth Sikh Guru possibly suspected that he might never return. Thus before leaving for Lahore, he appointed his son Hargobind as his spiritual successor on May 25, 1606. The 11-year-old became the sixth Sikh Guru.

Various narratives explain Guru Arjan’s execution at the hands of the Mughals. Jahangir had taken over as emperor barely seven months earlier, in November 1605. Some suggest that Guru Arjan’s execution was the result of the bigotry of the new emperor who was insecure and was also moving away from the syncretic tradition of his father, Emperor Akbar.

Others lay the blame on a Lahore-based Mughal official, Chandu Shah. According to this narrative, Shah had reached out to Guru Arjan to arrange the marriage of his daughter with Hargobind, but this proposal was turned down. Humiliated, the Mughal official wanted to avenge his insult and thus orchestrated Guru Arjan’s imprisonment and subsequent execution. There are other narratives that find Guru Arjan’s elder brother, Prithi Chand, responsible for his death. Their father Guru Ram Das had picked Guru Arjan to be the fourth Sikh guru over two of his older brothers. This narrative says that Prithi Chand connived with Mughal authorities to have his brother murdered to clear the way for his ascent as the head of the Sikh community.

Some historians say that Guru Arjan was executed by Jahangir because the emperor was threatened by the growing power of the Sikh community. By the time of Guru Arjan, the community had become a force to be reckoned with. Not only did the Guru control a vast tract of property, he also received a considerable amount in offerings through a network of officials known as Masand. These officials – a bureaucratic hierarchy within the Sikh community – were representatives of the Guru in different parts of the region and were responsible for collecting offerings from the Guru’s devotees. Some historians also point out that the Guru had a little group of armed devotees too.

Another narrative is that since Jahangir ascended to the Mughal throne after his father ruled for close to half a century, the Mughal court was divided at the time of his ascent. Many powerful nobles felt that the new emperor was unsuitable to rule the vast Mughal Empire given his tendency to consume wine and opium in excess. Jahangir was therefore looking to stamp his authority, perhaps using the execution of Guru Arjan to shore up his credentials as a Sunni Muslim ruler.

In Jahangir’s own words, Guru Arjan’s execution was justified as punishment for his support to Prince Khusrau, the emperor’s eldest son, who had led a rebellion against the throne soon after Jahangir took over. During this time, Khusrau is believed to have met Guru Arjan who, in Jahangir’s own words, put a tikka on his forehead. After Jahangir captured Khusrau, his supporters were executed while he was blinded and imprisoned. Many historians believe that Guru Arjan became a victim of this Mughal conflict.

Whatever the reason, Guru Arjan’s execution was a watershed moment for the nascent Sikh community within which there were several reactions to the event. Some suggested that the community should completely distance itself from politics and engage in just spiritual activities. On the other extreme were those who believed that this was the time to stand up to oppression and exert a Sikh identity. According to this camp, the Sikh community should not remain passive but should militarise instead to protect itself from any future acts of aggression. They argued that the Sikh community was on the crossroads of extinction if nothing was done.

The militarisation of Sikhs

On July 24, 1606, more than a month after the execution of Guru Arjan, Guru Hargobind presented himself before his devotees for the first time. It was clear which group had prevailed. Guru Hargobind wore a saffron gown and churidar pyjama. On his head was a beautiful turban with an aigrette fixed on it. He wore a necklace of precious stones around his neck. Guru Hargobind sat on the Akal Takht or the Eternal Throne, which he had instituted opposite the Harmandir Sahib. Two swords dangled from his waist.

The swords symbolised the philosophy of miri-piri. The first sword, miri, represented temporal power, while the second sword, piri, represented spiritual prowess. A saffron flag, representing a united Sikh community, was hoisted next to the throne. This eventually became the Nishan Sahib, the triangular flag found at the entrance of most gurdwaras today. A large drum called the nagar, which was usually kept by rulers to summon their subjects, was made for the Guru. A hawk was chosen as his pet. Guru Hargobind completely redefined the attire of the Guru, from a spiritual leader to a warrior-ruler. He is believed to have said, “My rosary shall be the sword belt and on my turban, I shall wear the emblem of royalty.” Guru Hargobind became the first Guru after Guru Nanak who was not a poet. The tradition of a Guru-poet returned when his son, Guru Tegh Bahadur, became the ninth Sikh Guru.

While it was the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh, who institutionalised the Sikh identity through the formation of the Khalsa, it was Guru Hargobind – who led the Sikh community for over 37 years – who laid the foundations of this new identity. Militarisation of the community became an important aspect of his agenda. He was always accompanied by 52 bodyguards. Along with that, he also raised an Army that was given the title of Sant Sipahi or the Saint soldiers. An akhara was constructed in front of the Akal Takht where the soldiers trained, while war exercises became a regular feature of the Guru’s camp. The Guru gave special instructions to his devotees that they should offer him arms and horses instead of money as part of their tributes.

Even the nature of devotional music, which had been an essential part of Sikhism since Guru Nanak, changed under Guru Hargobind. Var or epic battle songs came to dominate his court. The execution of Guru Arjan was exemplified as a symbol of sacrifice for the truth. Sikh devotees were instructed to follow the example of Guru Arjan. Guru Hargobind told them it was un-Sikh like to bear oppression.

While the relationship between Guru Hargobind and Emperor Jahangir eventually improved, Mughal-Sikh relations deteriorated once again when Shah Jahan took over as emperor in 1628. Guru Hargobind fought three battles against Mughal forces during the reign of Shah Jahan. In all of them, his modest Sikh Army humbled the mighty Mughal forces. The Sikh guru had attained an aura of invincibility, and the community began to see itself as favoured by God.

The sword of Guru Hargobind became the prized possession of Guru Tegh Bahadur. When Emperor Aurangzeb summoned the ninth Sikh Guru to Delhi and executed him, the sword was given to his son, Guru Gobind Singh. Like Guru Hargobind, the 10th Sikh Guru became the head of the Sikh community at a tumultuous moment. And like his grandfather, Guru Gobind Singh proved he was more than fit for the role. The sword of Guru Hargobind had found a worthy owner.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva, A White Trail.

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