From the year 1469, the Sikh Gurus established Sikhism over the centuries. It was founded by Guru Nanak, the first Guru and subsequently each Guru in succession was referred to as ‘Nanak’ making the teachings in the Holy Scriptures equivalent, as Sikhs hold that all of the Gurus carried the same message as that of Guru Nanak. Hence all are referred to as the light of Nanak. Each of their teachings was integrated into their holy scriptures called the Guru Granth Sahib or the Adi Granth.
Each Guru selected as his successor only that person whom he felt was worthy to take his place irrespective of caste, creed or class of that person. Devotion and dedication to God and Guru was the only criteria though it seemed to be divinely ordained. Thus it is said that the second Guru Angad’s sons though upset that they were not selected Guru being the legitimate heirs to Guruship, the mantle was passed on to Guru Amar Das who became the third Guru of the Sikhs.
Childhood and Early life
Guru Amar Das was born on May 5th 1479 in the village of Basarke near Amritsar. His father was Tej Bhan Bhalla and his mother was Mata Lakhmi Devi (also referred as Sulakhni or Bakht Kaur or Lachmi or Roop Kaur). His father was a trader and shopkeeper in the village. Not much is known about his childhood and early life and it is not clear if he had any formal schooling. His composition of hundreds of hymns later on in life showed that he was well versed in Hindi, Sanskrit and Persian which he must have learned from scholars informally at that time. In his early years Amar Das was said to be a devout Vaishnava or devotee of Vishnu, practising religious austerities to control the mind. He visited the Ganges river at Haridwar every year as his parents being orthodox Hindus used to pay annual visits there. At the age of 24 he was married to Mansa Devi and they had four children, two sons Mohan and Mohri and two daughters Bibi Dani and Bibi Bhani.
The Turning Point
Amar Das adopted Sikhism at a very late age and this too seemed divinely ordained as it seems to have been an accident. A monk had told him that he was unlikely to achieve spiritual enlightenment without a Guru. Once it so happened that Guru Angad Dev, the second Guru’s daughter named Bibi Amro was singing the sacred hymns of Guru Nanak when he passed by. On hearing them he was so impressed and captivated that he requested her to take him to her father. Meeting him was the turning point of his life. His heart was captured and he decided to give up his Vaishnav faith and become a devotee of the Guru, follow his teachings and serve him by bringing the Guru’s bath water and fetching wood fuel and water for the community kitchen (Langar). Once while chopping wood he fell down and was ridiculed as ‘poor, homeless Amru whose beard has gone gray and he has taken leave of his senses’. Guru Arjan Dev defended him and sending for five copper coins and a coconut, he bathed and clothed him in a new dress and installed him as the next Guru in March 1552 at the age of 73.
The Period of Leadership
Guru Amar Das lived a simple life following his father’s occupation of farming and trading. By the time he was ordained at an advanced age, the Sikh devotees had already grown in large numbers. He felt the Sikh religion needed organising and nurturing. He faced many challenges from the close relatives of the earlier Gurus who keenly felt that the ‘Guruship’ was a mantle to be passed on from generation to generation and did not approve of the selection of a guru from outside the family circles. It is said that when the earlier Guru’s son kicked him in anger when he saw him seated in the Guru’s chair, instead of getting angry, he massaged the foot of the man as he felt it must have pained for such a soft foot to hit such hard, old bones like his, such was the height of his love and compassion.
Rejection of the caste system and the Sikh principles of commitment of worldly life and social responsibility as taught by the first two Gurus was the greatest challenge he faced to the prevailing orthodoxy. The Udasi sect of celibate ascetism was another challenge which he felt was not in tandem with the teachings of the Sikh Gurus. So he set about spreading the message of the relatively new Sikh religion distinctly and persuasively from the other prevailing sects. He promoted the continuity of religious thought and practice. He consolidated the earlier innovations and added new ones of his thus giving a framework to the religion.
Innovations under his leadership
Since he could not handle all the tasks single handedly, he decided to divide the region into twenty two religious cells called manjis and each manji was headed by one of his faithful disciples irrespective of being Hindus or Muslims. He trained a band of 146 devoted followers of which 52 were women. He established ‘piris’ for women which were headed by one of these 52 women. They were chosen to address the spiritual needs of the women and spread the gospel among them. The manjis and piris also had the task of raising funds for all the institutional and social activities including Langar.
The second innovation was to consolidate the Langar. He insisted on those visiting him to eat in the Langar including Emperor Akbar. While eating he organised the system of sitting in rows called ’pangat’.
The third innovation was the creation of a permanent pilgrimage centre for Sikh religion. He ordered the construction of a large well called ‘Baoli’ with 84 steps which denoted the incarnations each soul goes through and finally mukti or liberation from the cycles of birth and death leading down to the water’s surface. He inaugurated it on the first day of Baisakhi usually 13th April now known as the Baisakhi fair. It helped in a number of ways. Working together in the construction helped to foster a spirit of seva, unity and brotherhood among the Sikhs. It enabled the Guru to have a sangat or gathering with all his followers atleast once a year. Thirdly the Baoli was a source of water supply for the people so it satisfied the people’s basic needs and thus increased his popularity among them. Lastly it served as an equalising force as the water was available to all castes lower and higher, further breaking down social barriers.
Emancipation of women
He was a great social reformer and made strenuous efforts for the upliftment of women. He abolished the purdah(veil) system, allowed and encouraged intercaste marriage and the remarriage of widows. He disapproved of the Sati system.
Guru Amar Das’s compositions and philosophy concentrate on service to humanity, need of a Guru, detachment, universal love and brotherhood, devotion and humility and the enemies of ego and pride. He spoke about God in his attributeless state, the divine order, the divine preceptor, God’s revelation through the Word, his grace, his immanence and transcendence, the effects of maya and the true path of Bhakti. He underlined the importance of living the normal life of a householder which does not conflict with the seeking of salvation.
‘’Men put on many garbs and wander hither and thither
But their hearts and minds practise deception
They shall not find God’s palace
O Man be a hermit in thy own home
Enlightened by the Guru’s instruction
Practise self restrain, truth and do good works
Conquer thy heart by the Guru’s instructions
And obtain salvation and deliverance in thy own home’’
He composed the ‘Anand Sahib’ or the song of joy to commemorate the birth of his grandson Anand which is sung on the occasions of weddings and other joyous occasions. His grandson in his earlier life was a Yogi who had approached the Guru and wanted to be reborn in the Guru’s family.
Guru Amar Das did not consider any of his sons fit for Guruship so selected instead his son in law Jetha later renamed Ram Das, his younger daughter Bibi Bhani’s husband to succeed him. It is said that in an earlier instance when Bibi Bhani who used to serve her father selflessly noticed one leg of the couch in which he sat in deep meditation broken, fearing disturbance in his meditation she substituted her arm to support it. When he later came out of his meditation, he saw blood coming out of her hand. Pleased at her service, he invited her to ask for any favour. She humbly requested that Guruship should remain in the family. Though he told her that Guruship was not a bed of roses and warned her about the torture that the later Gurus were to go through, she was insistent and thus he granted her the wish.
Guru Amar Das chose Ram Das after observing his piety, devotion and dedication. Once to test both his sons in law he asked them to build a platform each to enable him to sit. When they were completed he went to inspect both of them. He asked the elder one Rama to rebuild it who dissented but when he rebuilt it the Guru asked him to build it the third time. This time he refused. The Guru repeated the same procedure with the younger one Jetha who unhesitatingly built it and after seven attempts fell at the Guru’s feet and asked the Guru humbly to bless him with the wisdom to build it exactly as per the Guru’s wishes. The Guru embraced him and recognised in him all the qualities that were necessary in a Guru. Having tested him in every way on every occasion, he found Jetha as his perfect successor. He then passed away at the age of 95 in the year 1574 on the first of September.
Guru Amar Das greatly valued human life as it was the means to acquire salvation. He felt that the body was the temple of God and it should be well cared for in order to do good and charitable works in society. He compared it to a tree if preserved well which blossoms and bears fruit. He laid down Sikh marriage and funeral ceremonies and his works and achievements were a turning point in Sikh history. He was a man of peace and humility and taught his followers forbearance, self control and compassion and said that if anyone ill treated them, they should bear it three times as the fourth time God himself would fight for them. His sweet personality was clearly reflected in his writings and hymns. Consolidating his followers into a distinct group he put Sikhism on the path to progress and fufilment.
Some of his couplets-
1) In the Dark age
The True Guru is the ship
By serving him man saves himself
For he is the boat of salvation
Nanak says loving God
Is the true salvation for mankind.
2) The tongue tastes the Lord’s nectar
The mind is drenched in the Lord’s love
The inner well is full of the Lord’s ambrosia
His name is the sweetest delicacy.
It removes all sorrows and Nanak says
Is the surest way to salvation.