Guru Nanak (1469-1539)
Nanak is the first Master in Sikh Dharma. He lived for 70 years. He was born in Talwandi, Pakistan and died in Kartapur Ravi, Pakistan. His father’s name was Mehta Kalyan Chand, but was known as Kalu Ji. His mother’s name was Mata Tripta Ji. His wife’s name was Mata Sulakhni Ji. He had two sons. His elder son was Baba Sri Chand Ji and his second son was Baba Lakshmi Das Ji.
Born into a Hindu family, Guru Nanak rejected the notion of divisions between people based on religion. He taught the Oneness of the Creator and the fundamental brotherhood and sisterhood of all. He stated that the experience of the Divine dwelled within every person, so there was no difference between people based on caste, creed, gender or nationality. His simple but profound philosophy rested on recognizing the fundamental Divinity of all people. When lived in an awareness of the Divine Light within all, human life could become a profound experience of love, truth, patience, peace and contentment
Guru Nanak achieved his state of enlightenment, or realization, sometime around the age of 30. After disappearing into a river and meditating in the water for three days, Guru Nanak emerged having had a powerful vision of the nature of reality, Divinity and human existence. He recorded that vision in a song – known as Japji Sahib – the Song of the Soul. With Japji Sahib, humanity has a rare picture of what a Master experienced at the moment of his enlightenment described in his own words.
Japji Sahib became the foundation of this new spiritual tradition. After his enlightenment, Guru Nanak spent 15 years traveling through India, Asia and Persia. He brought people together of all traditions and sang Divine songs in praise of the Creator, the Creation and the journey of the spirit through time and space. During this time, he also collected songs from other mystics that resonated with his own visions and experience of the Divine. After his travels, he settled down and lived as a farmer, continuing to teach those who came to learn from him.
Guru Angad (1504-1552)
Guru Angad is the second Master in Sikh Dharma. He was born in Sarai Matta, India. His father’s name was Pheru Mall Ji and his mother was Daya Kaur Ji. He married Mata Khivi. They had two sons Dassu Ji and Dattu Ji and two daughters Bibi Amro Ji and Bibi Anokhi Ji.
Guru Angad continued sharing the teachings of Guru Nanak. He also entered states of mystical vision and wrote songs from his own experience. To help the community learn to sing these songs, Guru Angad standardized the Gurmukhi script. Gurmukhi means “from the mouth of the Guru.” With very easy and clear rules of pronunciation, the Gurmukhi script allowed people to pronounce the songs of Guru Nanak, Guru Angad and the songs of the mystics from other lands and languages that Guru Nanak had collected. In some ways, it could be said that Gurmukhi was the world’s first tape-recorder – for it was an alphabet devised to re-create sound – regardless of the particular language a song was written in.
Under Guru Angad’s instruction, his wife Mata Khivi further developed langar– or the community meal. In India, people of different castes or social classes did not eat meals together. Guru Nanak began a tradition of having people of all castes sit together and eat together – as a way to create community among people and break the false divisions of social class. Mata Khivi was instrumental in seeing that this tradition of eating together flourished into an institution during the second Guru’s reign.
Guru Amar Das (1479-1574)
Guru Amar Das is the third Master in Sikh Dharma. He was born in Basarke, India. His father’s name was Tej Bhan Ji and his mother was Mata Lakhmi Ji. His wife was Mata Mansa Devi Ji. They had two sons and two daughters. His sons were Mohan Ji and Mohri Ji and his daughters were Bibi Dani Ji and Bibi Bhani Ji.
By the time that Guru Amar Das become Guru, he was already an old man. He continued to share and expand the teachings of the Gurus. He also had mystical experiences and shared those experiences through song. He composed the Anand Sahib, the Song of Bliss, which is one of the five daily prayers for someone who has taken Amrit. He wrote many other compositions, as well.
Guru Amar Das founded langar, or community meals, in many places. He also trained ministers to support and share the teachings of the Sikh Masters. During his lifetime, he specially trained and commissioned 52 female ministers and 22 male ministers to go into particular regions and serve. He taught humility, service, dedication, equality, honor and respect to women.
Guru Ram Das (1534-1581)
Guru Ram Das is the fourth Master in Sikh Dharma. He was born in Lahore, Pakistan. His father’s name was Hardas Ji Sodhi and his mother was Mata Daya Kaur Ji. He married the daughter of Guru Amar Das, Bibi Bhani Ji.
Like the preceding Sikh Masters, Guru Ram Das had mystical visions and wrote songs explaining the nature of the Divine and the human experience. Among his compositions is the Lavaan – the Sikh wedding ceremony – which he composed on his own wedding day to Bibi Bhani. He also wrote four songs known as the Engagement Shabads as well as many other compositions.
Guru Ram Das founded the city of Amritsar and began the process of building the Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple) which is the most sacred temple for Sikhs around the world. He undertook the excavation of the tank of water which surrounds the Temple. The water is legendary for its healing powers. He created the Harimandir Sahib so that it would have four doors – one on each side of the building – meaning that is was open to people of every caste, background, language and religion.
Guru Ram Das also encouraged people to start small businesses. He helped establish Amritsar as the religious center for the Sikhs.
Guru Arjan (1563-1606)
Guru Arjan is the fifth Master in Sikh Dharma. He was the youngest son of Guru Ram Das. He was born in Goindwal, India. He breathed his last in Lahore, Pakistan where the Gurdwara of Dehra Sahib was established. His mother was Mata Bhani Ji. His wife was Mata Ganga Ji, They had only one son, Hargobind, who became Guru Hargobind Sahib.
Guru Arjan completed the work of his father by finishing the construction of the Harimandir Sahib.
Guru Arjan also undertook the tremendous task of creating the Adi Granth, which became the predecessor to the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. Recognizing that the Shabad Guru was the base of the Sikh practice, Guru Arjan created a compilation of sacred songs that included the songs of the previous Sikh Gurus, songs from Hindu and Sufi mystics, and his own sacred writings. As a master, Guru Arjan could hear whether a song was in the sound current of the Shabad – and those songs that clearly came from the Universal Teachings were incorporated into the work. Guru Arjan viewed the Adi Granth as holding the eternal, universal wisdom of the Shabad Guru. While working on the Adi Granth, he would keep the Adi Granth on his bed and himself sleep next to it on the floor – like a servant. The Adi Granth exemplified the Sikh Gurus’ teachings that the Word, itself, is the Teacher – not a human person.
During this period of time, the community that surrounded Guru Arjan thrived and became very prosperous. Through a series of political intrigues, the sovereignty of Guru Arjan and his people were challenged by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. To protect the independence of the community, Guru Arjan allowed himself to be tortured for five days and five nights. He was chained to a hot metal plate while his captors poured burning sand on his body. Guru Arjan smiled the entire time, for he saw the hand of the Divine behind it all. He saw the One Creator playing every part in the torture and recognized his Union with the Creator. After five days and nights, Guru Arjan was permitted to bathe in a nearby river. Guru Arjan dove into the water and dissolved into Light. His physical body was never seen again.
Guru Hargobind (1595-1644)
Guru Hargobind is the sixth Master in Sikh Dharma. He was born in Wadali, India and breathed his last at Kiratpur, India. His father was Guru Arjan and his mother was Mata Ganga Ji. His wives were Mata Damodri Ji, Mata Nanaki Ji, and Mata Mahan Devi Ji. He had five sons and a daughter.
After the death of Guru Arjan, the Sikh community went through a profound change. For 100 years, they had developed a deep meditative tradition founded in peace and tolerance. After the sacrifice of his father, however, Guru Hargobind recognized the need for the community to be able to defend itself. This started the martial practice of the Sikhs. Guru Hargobind became a powerful warrior and trained the Sikhs to fight.
The Sikh martial tradition, however, stayed rooted in the principles of peace and tolerance taught by the first Sikh Gurus. The Sikh warrior would only defend – never attack. In the coming centuries, in the midst of relentless religious persecution, the Sikhs would be called upon to protect the rights of all people to practice their religion freely. The Sikh warriors never started a fight. They never took the property of others. They never used force as a means to enslave people. The Sikh warriors used their strength to defend themselves against unjust attacks, and to defend those who could not defend themselves.
Guru Hargobind created the martial art of the Sikhs – called Gatka. He also built the Akal Takhat, or the Throne of the Undying One, next to the Harimandir Sahib. The throne was a statement that the Sikh community was sovereign in its spiritual identity, and was self-governing in its social/political identity. This principle came to be known as Miri Piri. It was a direct statement to the ruling Emperor of the time that the Sikhs considered no one to have higher authority in their lives than God and Guru.
Guru Hargobind fought many battles in his life to protect the fundamental human rights of the people living at that time.
Guru Har Rai (1630-1661)
Guru Har Rai is the seventh Master in Sikh Dharma. He was the grandson of Guru Hargobind. He is known as the “tender-hearted” Guru. He was born in Kiratpur, India. His father was Guruditta Ji (son of Guru Hargobind Ji) and his mother was Mata Nihal Kaur Ji. His wife was Mata Kishan Kaur Ji, also known as Mata Sulakhni Ji.
After the battles and wars of Guru Hargobind’s time, the 7th Sikh Guru ushered in a time of healing and peace. As a child, when walking with his grandfather, Har Rai’s robes brushed a rose bush and all of the petals fell off one of the roses. Har Rai wept at what he had done. Guru Hargobind instructed the boy that he should never fight in battle. When Guru Hargobind passed the mantle of the Guruship to Guru Har Rai, he told him to never fight, but to take a security guard of 2500 people with him wherever he travelled so that he would always be protected.
Guru Har Rai was an amazing herbalist and healer. He was famous for his use of natural medicine, and kept a beautiful herbal garden from which he made his remedies. He was also quite good at hunting, but never killed any animals. Instead, he would capture the animals, then bring them back to the town and place them in a zoo for the community to enjoy.
Guru Har Krishan (1656-1664)
Guru Har Krishan is the eighth Master in Sikh Dharma. He became Guru at the age of five and breathed his last at the age of 8 in New Delhi, India, where the Gurudwara of Bangala Sahib has been established. He was born at Kiratpur, India. His father was Guru Har Rai and his mother was Mata Kishan Kaur.
When the Guruship passed to a young child of 5, there were some in the community who could not believe that a little boy could lead them. One such person, Lal Chand, challenged Guru Har Krishan to debate the meaning of scripture. In response, Guru Har Krishan requested that Lal Chand go and find someone to speak on the Guru’s behalf. Lal Chand searched the town and brought a deaf, mute and illiterate water-carrier, Chhaju Ram, to speak on the Guru’s behalf. Guru Har Krishan touched the head of the water carrier with his shoe. Suddenly Chhaju Ram became awakened – and proceeded to give a simple but profoundly moving discourse on the meaning of scripture. Lal Chand begged for forgiveness from Guru Har Krishan and the community fully accepted the child’s ability to lead the community.
There was an epidemic of smallpox in Delhi. Guru Har Krishan went to the place where the outbreak had occurred and through his blessing, a spring of sacred water appeared that could heal the people of the illness. He took on the suffering and sickness of the area, taking on smallpox himself – giving his life to help save the lives of others.
Guru Teg Bahadur (1621-1675)
Guru Teg Bahadur is the ninth Master in Sikh Dharma. He was born in Amritsar, India and breathed his last in Delhi, India. He was the youngest son of Guru Hargobind. His mother was Mata Nanki Ji. His wife was Mata Gujri Ji. He was the grandson of Guru Arjan Dev and his son was Gobind Rai who later became Guru Gobind Singh.
From the time of his youth, Guru Teg Bahadur had a deeply meditative nature. He spent many years before becoming the Guru in meditation. His wife participated with him in his rigorous meditative practices. Like the first five Sikh Gurus, Guru Teg Bahadur had mystical experiences of the Shabad and shared his experiences through song. Like Guru Nanak, he travelled far and wide – establishing new communities and nurturing existing communities that hadn’t been visited by any of the Sikh Gurus since the time of Guru Nanak.
The end of his life was a tremendous testament to the Sikh commitment of inter-faith tolerance and the right of each individual to follow his or her own religious path freely. The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb had begun a vicious campaign of conversion – where the Hindu leaders were asked to accept Islam or suffer inhumane torture and death. A group of Hindu leaders came to Guru Teg Bahadur and asked them to intercede on their behalf with Aurangzeb. Knowing it meant his own death, Guru Teg Bahadur agreed. He made an offer to the Emperor – that if the Emperor could convert him, all of the Hindu leaders would accept Islam. But if the Emperor could not convert him, then the Hindus would be left in peace.
Guru Teg Bahadur, along with three of his Sikhs – Bhai Matti Das, Bhai Sati Das and Bhai Dayala, willingly allowed themselves to be locked in Aurangzeb’s prison and subjected to truly horrific torture. The three Sikhs died. Guru Teg Bahadur’s torture, however, continued. The Emperor would ask the Guru for some sign that he was a holy many – some miracle. But Guru Teg Bahadur refused to perform any miracles and refused to convert. Instead, he would ask his torturers, “Why are we spending our time together this way? We could be meditating and praying together, instead.” Eventually, the Emperor realized that his prisoner would not convert. Rather than freeing Guru Teg Bahadur, he ordered the Guru’s head to be chopped off.
Before agreeing to go to prison, Guru Teg Bahadur had written a note to the Emperor to be delivered to the Emperor after the Guru’s death. When the note was delivered, Guru Teg Bahadur had written very simply. “This, then, is the greatest miracle. That I gave my head, but not my faith.”
Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708)
Guru Gobind Rai, who later became Guru Gobind Singh is the tenth Master in Sikh Dharma. He lived for 42 years. He was born in Patna, India and he breathed his last in Nanded, India, where the Gurdwara of Hazoor Sahib is established. His father was Guru Teg Bahadur and his mother was Mata Gujri. His wives were Mata Jeeto, Mata Sundari and Mata Sahib Kaur. He had four sons, Ajit Singh, Jujhar Singh, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh.
Young Gobind Rai, the son of Guru Teg Bahadur, was only 9 years old at the time of his father’s confinement, torture and death. The experience impacted him very deeply. In the coming years, the Sikhs would be called on again and again to fight Aurangzeb’s forces and protect the people from religious bigotry and persecution.
In order to create a society of people willing to lay down their lives to protect the dignity and divinity of all humanity, Guru Gobind Rai through the guidance of the Creator gave the Sikhs Amrit. For the full story of how the Amrit Ceremony developed in the Sikh tradition, please read The First Baisakhi. Guru Gobind Rai took Amrit from the hands of his own Sikhs and was reborn as Guru Gobind Singh. The Order of the Khalsa was established – a group of men and women dedicated to living in equality and peace, but willing to fight and lay down their lives to protect themselves and others from injustice and tyranny.
In the battles that followed, Guru Gobind Singh’s two eldest sons died in the fight. The two younger sons were captured by a Governor in league with Aurangzeb. The younger sons were bricked alive inside a wall and died.
Yet despite losing his children, Guru Gobind Singh stayed surrendered to the Will of the Divine. He said that his children had come to him from the Creator. And that he understood it was time to send them back home. When a few of his Sikhs attempted to gather the bodies of his two eldest sons on the battlefield, Guru Gobind Singh asked them what they were doing. They replied that they wanted to give his sons a proper funeral. Guru Gobind Singh told them that they should then stop and pick up all of the bodies – for all of the boys and men lying dead on the battlefield were equally his sons.
During Guru Gobind Singh’s life, the Adi Granth compiled by his great-grandfather Guru Arjan was lost. Guru Gobind Singh set up his camp and dictated the entire Adi Granth from memory. He also included in it the songs of his father, Guru Teg Bahadur. The result was the creation of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib.
At the end of his life, in 1708, Guru Gobind Singh passed the mantle of the Guruship to the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. This ended the time of the physical masters of the Sikhs. And began the reign of the Shabad Guru, itself, as the Spiritual Light and Guide for the Sikh community.