Guru Tegh Bahadur, 1621-75
Born in Amritsar, Guru Tegh Bahadur was the ninth of the ten Gurus who founded Sikhism.
He’s honoured and remembered as the man who championed the rights for all religious freedom.
He taught liberation from attachment, fear and dependence. Strength should be gained through truth, worship, sacrifice and knowledge.
During the reign of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, Islam was imposed on the people. Hindu temples were demolished and turned into mosques, higher taxes were charged to non-Muslims and the Emperor persecuted those who would not conform to Islamic law.
Guru Tegh Bahadur spoke out amid this persecution. He refused to convert to Islam and in 1675, he was beheaded in Delhi. The site of his execution was later turned into an important Gurdwara.
He’s also remembered for his poetry, much of which is included in the Guru Granth Sahib.
He married Bibi Gujjari and they had one son: the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh.
He founded the city of Anandpur which later became a centre of Sikhism.
Guru Tegh Bahadur was the youngest son of Guru Hargobind and Bibi Nanaki and was born at Amritsar on April 1, 1621. From a young age Tegh Bahadur was trained in the martial arts of swordsmanship and horse riding as well as religious training by the wise Baba Buddha and Bhai Gurdas. In February 1633 Tegh Bahadur was married to Gujari daughter of Lal Chand and Bishan Kaur. During his young years Tegh Bahadur fought along his fathers side but after Guru Hargobind’s fierce and bloody battle in 1634 at Kartarpur he turned to the path of renunciation and meditation. When Guru Hargobind settled down at Kiratpur to live the rest of his life in peace, Tegh Bahadur spent nine years with his father before settling down at the isolated village of Bakala in 1656 and retired to a life of contemplation. He became known as “Tyag Mal” meaning “the Master of Renunciation”. Here Tegh Bahadur would spend many long years in meditation and prayer.
Guru Hargobind did not choose Tegh Bahadur as his successor because the Sikhs needed a leader of men, something still lacking in his young son, who had now chosen a path of renunciation. Instead Guru Hargobind chose Guru Har Rai his grandson as his natural successor. Guru Har Rai in turn chose his youngest son Guru Harkrishan as his successor. When Guru Harkrishan had suddenly fallen ill at Delhi in 1664, before his death, being too weak to move or speak the Guru had said his successor was “Baba Bakala”.
Following the untimely death of Guru Harkrishan large numbers of Sikhs flocked to the village of Bakala looking for the new Guru. When the Sikhs went in large numbers to Bakala to find the Guru, they were instead confronted by twenty two members of the Sodhi family, each claiming that they were the Guru and successor as named by Guru Harkrishan. The Sikhs were in a quandary as to who was really the true Guru?
Meanwhile a wealthy merchant Makhan Shah had his ships carrying valuable cargo caught in a fierce storm at sea. He vowed to offer five hundred gold coins to the Guru if his goods safely reached home. His wish was fulfilled and his merchandise safely arrived at their port. Makhan Shah immediately set our for Delhi where he received the tragic news that Guru Harkrishan had passed away and that his successor was at Bakala. Makhan Shah set out for Bakala to pay his homage to the Guru. When he finally got there he was confronted with all the same quandary as the rest of the Sikhs, who was the real Guru? Being a businessman Makhan Shah decided that he would pay homage to all of the twenty two claimants and placed two gold coins before each of them as tribute. When he had visited all of the claimants, a child pointed out to him that a holy man lived across the street. Makhan Shah decided that he may as well pay him tribute also. When Makhan Shah entered the house he found that Guru Tegh Bahadur was in meditation. He was told that Tegh Bahadur did not like to receive visitors but spent his time in meditation. Makhan Shah waited until he met the Guru and placed two gold coins before him. At this Guru Tegh Bahadur smiled and said to Makhan Shah, “I thought that you had pledged five hundred coins”. Makhan Shah became so elated that he kissed the Gurus feet and started shouting from the rooftop “I’ve found the Guru, found the Guru!”. All the Sikhs rushed to the house of the quiet saint and when they heard the story there was much rejoicing for many days. Thus the pious, humble saint Tegh Bahadur was acclaimed as being the true Guru of the Sikhs and natural successor of Guru Harkrishan.
Sikhs flocked to see the Guru and presented him with many gifts and offerings. One who was not so happy about the whole affair was the troublesome Dhir Mal, grandson of Guru Hargobind who had wanted people to acclaim him as the Guru since he was in possession of the Guru Granth Sahib written by Guru Arjan Dev. Dhir Mal became so angry that he planned an assassination attempt. He sent Shihan a masand (priest) loyal to him and some men to attack the Guru while he slept. Dhir Mal’s men attacked the house of Guru Tegh Bahadur, shot the Guru and ransacked his belongings. Luckily Guru Tegh Bahadur was not seriously wounded. In retaliation loyal Sikhs raided Dhir Mal’s house, looting it including the original copy of the Guru Granth Sahib and presented all of the bounty to the Guru as revenge. Guru Tegh Bahadur believed in forgiveness and ordered all of his property returned, including the original copy of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Guru Tegh Bahadur now accepted the role of leading the Sikhs and set out on a number of missionary journeys. He visited Kiratpur and then made his way to the other great centers of Sikhism, Tarn Taran, Khadur Sahib, Goindwal and Amritsar. At Amritsar Guru Tegh Bahadur bathed in the sacred pool but he was refused entry into the Golden Temple which was under the control of Harji, grandson of that other famous troublemaker to the Gurus, Prithi Chand. Guru Tegh Bahadur then journeyed back to Kiratpur. Here he encountered some Sodhi family jealousy and decided to found a new township. The Guru acquired a tract of land from the raja of Kahlur and founded the town of Chak Nanaki in 1665, named in honour of his mother (later to be known as Anandpur Sahib). The Guru now continued his journeys to spread the messages and teachings of Sikhism among the masses across the land.
Accompanied by his wife and mother Guru Tegh Bahadur traveled across the country. The Guru traveled throughout Punjab, wherever he would stop the Guru would get wells dug for the people and community kitchens set up. Guru Tegh Bahadur continued his tour through Haryana and arrived at Delhi. Here the Guru met the congregations of Delhi who came out in large numbers to see the Guru. The emperor Aurangzeb was away from Delhi at this time. Guru Tegh Bahadur then continued his mission of preaching to the masses, visiting Kurekshetra, Agra, Ittawa and Allahabad. Wherever the Guru stopped he would preach about honest work and charity. The Guru would also give away all the offerings that he would receive from devotees. At Priyag, the Gurus wife Gujri conceived a child. The Guru then traveled onto the holy Hindu city of Banaras and then onto Gaya and Patna. Guru Tegh Bahadur was requested by custodians of the various temples that he visited to perform rituals and ceremonies for himself and his ancestors, but the Guru refused saying, “He who trusts in God and makes an honest living to share with others and injures no one, nor harbors ill-will against another need perform on other rituals. His soul ever stays in health. And, as for the ancestors, they gather the reward of what they themselves have sown and no one can bless or curse them after they are gone.”
Guru Tegh Bahadur now arrived at Patna where he stayed for some time. The Guru left his family here, as his wife Mata Gujri was expecting their child and moved onwards with his tour to Dacca and the eastern most parts of India not visited since the time of Guru Nanak. Sikh congregations were very jubilant to see their Guru. In December of 1666 while on his eastern tour Guru Tegh Bahadur received the news that he had been blessed with a child, a son named Gobind Rai. This eastern tour would last three years as Guru Tegh Bahadur visited as many people as he could. While in Assam in 1668 Guru Tegh Bahadur was able to achieve a peace treaty between the ruler of Ahom and a large force sent by Aurengzeb under the command of Raja Ram Singh of Amber. In 1669-1670 Guru Tegh Bahadur started the journey homeward and traveled to Patna to see his young son Gobind Rai for the first time. Here Guru Tegh Bahadur spent over a year with his family training his son in the Sikh Scriptures, horse riding and swordsmanship. Guru Tegh Bahadur then sent his family onto Punjab while he continued his missionary work. The Guru finally returned home to Anandpur Sahib in 1672-1673. Here thousands of devotees flock to see and hear the Guru.
While the Guru attended to his devotees at Anandpur, things in the country were rapidly deteriorating under the tyrannous rule of emperor Aurengzeb. Since coming to power by imprisoning his father and killing his two brothers, Aurengzeb had been consolidating his power base. After ten years he now began to apply his power throughout the country. Aurengzeb was an orthodox Muslim who dreamed of purging India of all ‘infidels’ and converting it into a land of Islam. Aurengzeb had no tolerance for other religions and proceeded on a brutal campaign of repression. Famous Hindu temples throughout the country were demolished and mosques built in their place. Hindu idols were placed in the steps of mosques to be trodden on by the feet of Muslim pilgrims. Aurangzeb issued a number of harsh decrees. In 1665 he forbade Hindus to display illuminations at Diwali festivals. In 1668 he forbade Hindu Jatras, in 1671 he issued an order that only Muslims could be landlords of crown lands, and called upon provincial Viceroys to dismiss all Hindu clerks. In 1669 he issued a general order calling upon all governors of all provinces to destroy with a willing hand the schools and temples of the infidels; and they were told to put a stop to the teachings and practicing of idolatrous forms of worship. In 1674 lands held by Hindus in Gujarat, in religious grants were all confiscated.
In this climate of intolerance the viceroy of Kashmir Iftikhar Khan took to the task of forcibly converting the Hindu population to Islam by the sword. The Hindu Brahmin Pandits of Kashmir were among the most highly learned and orthodox of the Hindu leadership. Aurangzeb felt if they could be converted, the rest of the country would easily follow. He did not want to see the talik (holy mark on the forehead) or janaeu (sacred thread) on any of his subjects. Given this ultimatum, a large delegation of 500 Kashmiri Pandits decided to journey to Anandpur Sahib to seek the help of Guru Tegh Bahadur. This delegation was led by Pandit Kirpa Ram Datt (who would later on become the Sanskrit teacher of Guru Gobind Singh and eventually become a Khalsa and died fighting in the battle of Chamkaur). The Pandits met the Guru and explained their dire predicament to the Guru and requested the Guru to intercede on their behalf. As the Guru was pondering over the issue his nine year old son Gobind Rai walked into the room, noticing the serious and gloomy mood in the room the young Gobind asked his father what was happening. Guru Tegh Bahadur replied, “Unless a holy man lays down his head for the sake of the poor Brahmins, there is no hope for their escape from imperial tyranny.” Young Gobind replied, “Revered father, who would be better equipped for this than yourself?” Guru Tegh Bahadur hugged his son and wept for joy. “I was only worried about the future, for you are far too young”. “Leave me to God”, Gobind replied, “and accept the challenge of the Mughals.”
Even though Guru Nanak had refused to wear the sacred thread when he was young, the Gurus still believed in the freedom of religion and the right of the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to live in peace and practice their own religions. With this Guru Tegh Bahadur laid down the gauntlet in the fight for freedom of religion and told the Pandits to inform Aurangzeb that the Brahmins would gladly accept and embrace Islam if Guru Tegh Bahadur can be convinced to do so. Guru Tegh Bahadur made preparations to leave for Delhi. he bid farewell to his family and followers and dictated that his son Gobind Rai should be installed as the next Guru. Accompanying the Guru on his journey and also prepared to accept the consequences of whatever happened were Bhai Mati Das, Bhai Dyala and Bhai Sati Das. As soon as Aurangzeb heard the news he ordered the immediate arrest of the Guru. Guru Tegh Bahadur and his party were arrested soon after they left Anandpur Sahib and taken in chains to Delhi.
When brought before Aurangzeb, he was asked why he was hailed as the Guru or prophet and called ‘Sacha Padsah’ (the True King) and if he really believed in his being one he should perform a miracle to justify his claim. Guru Tegh Bahadur reprimanded the emperor for his blind orthodoxy and his persecution of other faiths, “Hinduism may not be my faith, and I may believe not in the supremacy of Veda or the Brahmins, nor in idol worship or caste or pilgrimages and other rituals, but I would fight for the right of all Hindus to live with honour and practice their faith according to their own rites.” The Guru answered further, “Every ruler of the world must pass away, but not the Word of God or His Saint. This is how people not only call me a True King but have done so through the two centuries before me in respect of my House and also in respect of others who preceded them and identified themselves not with the temporal and the contingent, but with the eternal and the ever dying.” The Guru refused to perform any miracles saying, “this is the work of charlatans and mountebanks to hoodwink the people. Men of God submit ever to the Will of God.” Guru Tegh Bahadur refused to embrace Islam, saying “For me, there is only one religion – of God – and whosoever belongs to it, be he a Hindu or a Muslim, him I own and he owns me. I neither convert others by force, nor submit to force, to change my faith.” Aurangzeb was enraged and ordered Guru Tegh Bahadur to be forced to convert to Islam through torture or be killed.
Guru Tegh Bahadur was subjected to many cruelties, he was kept in an iron cage and starved for many days. The Guru was made to watch as Bhai Mati Das the devoted Sikh was tied between two pillars and his body split in two by being sawn alive. Bhai Dyala was boiled alive in a cauldron of boiling water and Bhat Sati Das was wrapped in cotton wool and set on fire. The Guru bore these cruelties without flinching or showing any anger or distress. Finally on November 11, 1675 Guru Tegh Bahadur was publicly beheaded with the sword of the executioner as he prayed. The Gurus body was left in the dust as no one dared to pick up the body for fear of the emperors reprisal. A severe storm swept through the city and under the cover of darkness a Sikh named Bhai Jaita managed to collect the Guru’s sacred head and carried it off to Anandpur Sahib to the Guru’s son. Another Sikh Bhai Lakhi Shah who had a cart, was able to smuggle the Gurus headless body to his house. Since a public funeral would be too dangerous, Bhai Lakhi Shah cremated the body by setting his house on fire. Meanwhile the head was taken to the grief stricken young Guru Gobind Singh and the widow Mata Gujari. On November 16, 1675 at Anandpur Sahib, a pyre of sandalwood was constructed, sprinkled with roses and the head of Guru Tegh Bahadur was cremated by young Guru Gobind Singh.
Thus ended the earthly reign of the ninth Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadur. Never in the annals of history has the religious leader of one religion sacrificed his life to save the freedom of another religion.