Seed of the faith
K.S. Bains
on the first Sikh martyr, who changed the course of Sikhism

Guru Arjan Dev gave the Sikhs their holy book, thus giving them a separate identity

THE martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev changed the path of progress of the Sikh religion. While paying homage to him on his martyrdom day, we generally highlight the compilation of the Adi Granth and the construction of the Golden Temple as his main contributions. No doubt, these are two very concrete statements of crystallisation of the Sikh religion, the former becoming the seat and the latter the holy book, the two bases of any religion. However, we generally overlook his other very significant contributions.

Hari Ram Gupta, in his book, History of Sikh, observes:

"Guru Arjan, Fifth in succession, was the first Guru born as a Sikh. He proved himself an original thinker, illustrious poet, practical philosopher, great organiser, eminent statesman, shining sage, saint and seer, composer of music, scholar, founder of tanks and towns, embodiment of love, humility and service, and the first martyr to faith. He was a dutiful son, conciliatory brother, loving husband, inspiring father, beloved master and devoted servant of God. He possessed a tender heart but resolute will. He was forgiving but fearless, firm in his faith like a rock, but never a fanatic. He completely changed the external aspect of Sikh religion."

There are enough occurrences in his life to write about each of the qualities mentioned. That will require volumes. I will dwell only on two aspects, namely, putting finances on a sound footing and encouraging trade and commerce.

The fourth Guru, Guru Ramdas, had started the institution of angtias to accept offerings from the Sikhs from their allotted areas and pass on the same to the guru. Another similar category was asand, a slightly higher position than that of a sangtia. Taking a cue from the Muslim system of zakat, he called upon his followers to contribute daswandh, or 10 per cent of their income, to the Guru. Sangtias/masands were asked to encourage the Sikhs to contribute and make collections on behalf of the Guru. To strengthen the system and make it workable on a long-term basis, he laid down that the sangtias/masands could keep tith, or 33 per cent of the offerings with them as their service fees and pass on the remaining two-thirds to the Guru. This system worked well and helped the Guru in taking various measures in the expansion of Sikhism. We all know about his great work in constructing gurdwaras, townships and the like. With the regular flow of finances, the entire system of collecting funds was streamlined, thus helping the Guru with his plans.

He encouraged his followers to take to trade and commerce. There were three reasons behind this. First, most of the followers at that time were subsistence farmers and did not enjoy proper social status. Trading increased the income of the farmers. Alongside, it encouraged the coming up of a stronger agricultural class who started enjoying higher social status and got some surplus to spend and live well.

Secondly, another section of society, the traders, became his followers. His followers not only traded in the adjoining areas but went right up to Kabul and beyond for trading in dry fruits and more importantly, horses. Initially, they brought horses for the purpose of trading and earning a profit. However, gradually, they started keeping the animals for their own use, too. Owning a horse was a symbol of great social status and superiority.

Gupta observes that this made them fearless and free from caste prejudices. There is, however, another aspect that is of greater significance. Slowly, with the owning of horses Sikhs started acquiring proficiency in riding and tent-pegging. They also started going for shikar and became adept in the use of various arms that are normally a part of cavalry.

Thirdly, these owners of horses and their attendants became ready raw material for forming an army, should such a need arise. It did happen in the time of the sixth Guru. Now, the question arises whether such a development was something which happened on its own or the Guru could foresee the shape of things to come. He was aware of the fact that as the religion expanded and the organisation became well-ordered and well-knit the finances and social status of the followers improved and they started living in style, they were bound to come into conflict with the state. The author of Dabistan observes, "Some of the Sikh Gurus took to agriculture and others to trading. They became good horsemen, created their own identity and acquired the position of a separate state within the Moghul State."

A few days before his martyrdom, the Guru sent to his 11-year-old son a bel fruit with five copper pieces as a token of nominating him as the next Guru. He also sent an injunction through the Sikh who carried the bel: Let him sit fully armed on his throne and maintain his army to the best of his ability. The rest, as they say, is history.

Guru Arjan Dev gave the Sikhs their church and their holy book. With these, the Sikh became a separate identity as distinct from Hindus and Muslims. The Faith acquired a strong spiritual, doctrinal and organisational base and became a potential force in encouraging a social revolution in Punjab. Khushwant Singh has observed Arjan Devji "became the seed of the Sikh church as well as Punjabi nation."