6 August 1604. There was a joyous gathering by the tank of Ramsar, in the town of Ramdaspur. Guru Arjan presided, beaming. It is a most blessed day. A great endeavour had been completed.

The poet, Santokh Singh, sets the scene.

His court the Guru presides above
His Sikhs joyous are drenched in love

In the midst, glorious the holy book
Reverently Sikhs serve and look

Flowers garland the Guru’s neck
Gorgeous blooms the court do deck

The choicest blooms the Guru took
Laid them before the holy book

Censers fragrant smell so good
Saffron showers, sandalwood

Devotion such the Sikhs do show
Lustily they conch shells blow

As one then all the faithful pray
Jubilant cries Oh Joyous day

Rababs, Sitars the faithful bring
Hymns and many melodies sing

It was a profoundly important moment in the history of the faith that Guru Nanak had founded just a hundred years earlier. The Sikhs now had their own scripture, The Guru Granth Sahib. The joyous celebration continued.

Guru Arjan had made an important decision. He had already built the Har Mandar Sahib, which had started to draw the faithful from far and near. The town of Ramdaspur, which would be known as Amritsar, was flourishing as more and more Sikhs decided to settle there, driven by a desire to be near the Guru and the Har Mandar Sahib.

The faith of Guru Nanak was flourishing. Communities of Sikhs were everywhere. Dharamsals, Sikh places of worship, abounded, and the bounty of the Langar, the community kitchen founded by Guru Nanak, was enjoyed by all.

Guru Arjan decided to embark on an ambitious project. He would collect the writings of the Gurus who preceded him, add his own compositions and compile them into a holy book, which would provide guidance to Sikhs for generations to come. It was important that the words of the Gurus be preserved and transmitted as they had been spoken, with no alteration or embellishment.

Guru Arjan’s older brother, Prithi Chand continued to oppose him bitterly. He had never accepted Guru Arjan’s ascension and continued to harbour hopes that his son Mehrban would somehow become the next Guru. Frustrated by his failed attempts to wrest the Guruship from Guru Arjan, Prithi Chand had come up with a novel way to dupe the faithful. He started composing religious hymns of his own and tried to pass them off as the compositions of Guru Nanak and the other Gurus that followed.

It was important for the Sikhs to have an unimpeachable and genuine scripture that contained the real writings of the Gurus, for they were the pure manifestation of their philosophy and worldview. Not having such a scripture would open the door to Prithi Chand and other pretenders to follow in the future, to lead the faithful astray and dilute the noble message of the Gurus.

Guru Nanak had given all of his compositions to Guru Angad, who had carefully preserved them and passed them onto Guru Amar Das along with his own compositions. According to popular Sikh tradition, Guru Amar Das had directed one of his grandsons, Sans Ram to compile the compositions of his predecessors as well as his own into a book, which became to be known as the Goindwal Pothi or Tome.

The Goindwal Pothi had been given to Baba Mohan, the son of Guru Amar Das for safekeeping. This was of course an invaluable treasure, and it was tremendously important for Guru Arjan to acquire the writings as work began on the compilation of The Guru Granth Sahib.

We turn again to the noted writer Bhai Vir Singh, who describes what happened next in his work Jeevan Prasang Sri Guru Arjan Dev Sahib. The following is a translation from the original Punjabi.

“The beginning was the acquisition of the Goindwal Pothis. Bhai Gurdas agreed to be drafted for the task and left for Goindwal as instructed by the Guru. He arrived there late in the afternoon and after bathing in the Baoli, the sacred tank of Goindwal, he arrived at Baba Mohan’s home. Seeing the door shut, he sat outside and addressed Baba Mohan, who was in a yogic trance. Bhai Gurdas sat there the entire night entreating Baba Mohan but the door did not open. Utterly disappointed, he returned to Ramdaspur and recounted what had transpired to the Guru.

Baba Buddha, the venerable old Sikh, who had been serving the Gurus since the time of Guru Nanak, volunteered to make an attempt to retrieve the composition. He traveled to Goindwal and after bathing in the Baoli, presented himself at Baba Mohan’s house. The door remained firmly shut. He too beseeched Baba Mohan to open the door and knocked on it vigorously but received no response. Being a man of action, Baba Buddha shook the door so hard that the fulcrum that it pivoted on, moved. He removed a few bricks and extracted the fulcrum, allowing him to open the door.”

Bhai Vir Singh turns to the poet, Santokh Singh to describe what Baba Buddha saw:

In lotus form silently Mohan sits
Overpowers deep trance the sage’s wits

Like a log of wood his body seems to be
Unmoving limbs like of a hardened tree

Baba Mohan’s brother, Baba Mohri, upon hearing the commotion, scolded Baba Buddha. “Why do you bother him so? He is lost in his trance and he doesn’t care about anyone, high or low! He refuses to look upon anyone. He doesn’t talk to anyone. He chooses to remain like this. He barely emerges from his trance to eat.”

Baba Buddha, upon hearing Baba Mohri’s words, decided that it would be unwise to disturb Baba Mohan while he was in his trance and quietly returned to Ramdaspur.

Guru Arjan decided to take matters into his own hands and left for Goindwal. Getting the writings of the first three Gurus was absolutely critical if the Guru Granth Sahib was to be compiled.

He bathed in the Baoli and sat contemplatively for a while. It is said that he had a vision of Guru Amar Das, who assured him that he would succeed in his endeavor, even if he had to endure some harsh words.

The Guru walked barefoot in the street leading to Baba Mohan’s home. In one hand he carried a Tambura, a musical instrument used to provide a drone, essential for vocal music. He sat down on the rough ground before Baba Mohan’s door, waving away the sheets and rugs offered by the faithful. He strummed the Tambura and began to sing.

Lofty is your temple Mohan
Your mansion unsurpassed
Beautiful your portals
Worshipful saints are massed

Incomparable your house of worship
His glory do they sing
The holy saints there gather
Reverence for you they bring

Oh lord be kind merciful
Your supplicants are meek
These thirsty eyes O Nanak
Your blessed vision seek

Baba Mohan’s trance, which had remained unbroken through the entreaties of Bhai Gurdas and the commotion created by Baba Buddha, was pierced by Guru Arjan’s melodious singing. He opened his eyes, looked out of a chink, and beheld Guru Arjan sitting in the street.

Harsh words poured out of his mouth. “First you took what belonged to us, that which conferred honour and greatness upon our clan!” He was of course referring to the passing of the Guruship from his father Guru Amar Das to Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan’s father, rather than to him or his brother. But then his tone softened a little. He conceded that the Guruship had been won through humble service and acknowledged Guru Arjan’s greatness.

Unperturbed, Guru Arjan continued to sing, and the strings of his Tambura sounded as sweet as ever.

Mohan, your speech unrivalled
Wondrous are your ways too
Mohan you seek none but the one
All else is but dust to you

Mysterious lord you love save none
His might sustains us all
Through holy worlds you’ve won his heart
The world is in his thrall

Unmoving you are and astir
The world is in your hands
My Lord with you my honour lies
Your slave before you stands

The sweetness and beauty of the melody, the nobility of the Guru’s sentiments, and the realisation of the respect that he was being accorded melted Baba Mohan’s heart. He left his chamber and walked downstairs to welcome Guru Arjan.

The Story of the Sikhs: 1469-1708

Excerpted with permission from The Story of the Sikhs: 1469-1708, Sarbpreet Singh, Penguin Viking.