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The Moth and the Flame:
How and Why We Celebrate Guru Arjan Today

T. SHER SINGH

 

 

 

 

 

Today - Saturday, June 16, 2018 - as well as throughout this month, we mark this year's Shaheedi (Martyrdom) Gurpurab of Guru Arjan, the Fifth Nanak.      

 

 

In June this year, Sikhdom celebrates the extraordinary man who gave Sikhi two of its greatest gifts: its Scripture, known as the Guru Granth, and its famous shrine, the Golden Temple.

He was in the prime of his life, a mere 39 years old, when his spiritual activities were deemed a threat to institutionalized religion by the ruler of the land. Refusing to waver from his faith, he was tortured until his body succumbed.

His name is Arjan, the Fifth Sikh Guru (Teacher). The year was 1606.

It is on his shoulders on which stands much of Sikhi as we know it today.

So, how do Sikhs commemorate his martyrdom?

Well, here's what we've never done, and still don't do:

We don't beat our breasts. We don't wear hair shirts. We don't mourn. We don't lament. We don't rail against the forces of evil and brandish recriminations.

We've never been bitter.

But here's what we indeed do.

It's simple.

In every city, town and village -- in every neighbourhood where Sikhs live in large numbers -- here's what we do to mark the day: We take some water. We add milk to it. And sugar. We then add gulab jal (rose-water) to give it flavour. We add chunks of ice to chill the beverage.

Then, on the day marking the great martyrdom -- invariably, the peak of the sub-continental summer, when temperatures simmer and bake in the Celsius 40s -- we set up stalls outside our homes and businesses, on the side-walk, at street-corners.

Chhabeels is what these shacks are called. Where we serve the refreshing libation to all passers-by. Free.

Nay, many do better. Volunteers spill into the streets and gently stop the traffic and offer the kacchi lassi -- the refreshing concoction I've just described to you -- to those in cars and buses, rickshaws and tuk-tuks, and ask for, and accept, nothing in return.

It brings no medals. No awards. No certificates. No media coverage.

It's done for the sheer joy of it all. Year after year. Century after century.

This is how we celebrate -- yeah, CELEBRATE! -- the great sacrifice. It is simple. It captures everything that Sikhi offers. There is no greater glory. This is how we remember this Ideal Person, who did so much that we enjoy and treasure today.

Arjan was born at Goindval, Punjab in 1563 to Bhai Jetha (who later came to be known as Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Teacher) and Bibi Bhani.

Though the "baby" of the family, he was deeply spiritual. Impressed by his true piety, his father named him his successor as the next Teacher; he took the mantle at the young age of 18, when the former shed his mortal coil.

Guru Arjan was a walking institution: In the ensuing 23 years of his life, he led the still-nascent community -- the spark was lit by Nanak, the founder, who was born only a century earlier, in 1469 -- into maturity.

He began and completed the construction of the Golden Temple in the middle of the tank in which it sits today. At the commencement of the project, he did something revolutionary: He asked Sayeen Mian Meer, a respected Sufi from Lahore -- a man of a different faith -- to lay the cornerstones of the new structure.

Arjan also started, and took to fruition, the monumental task of compiling the authentic compositions of the preceding Gurus and 15 poet-mystics (belonging to a variety of faith traditions) whose spirituality was in consonance with that of the Gurus.

The investiture of the new Granth (scripture) in the new structure took place in 1604. A learned centenarian, Baba Buddha (not to be confused with the founder of Buddhism), became the first steward.

Arjan was a poet, a linguist, and a musician par excellence. He combined his talents not only in compiling the bani, but ultimately became its biggest contributor through as many as two thousand verses, which now comprise one-third of the Guru Granth.

He sang:

    As long as man divides his world into friends and enemies,
    He'll remain separated from God;
    As long as man discriminates between himself and others,
    There'll remain a distance between him and God!



He came to be known as Saccha Padshah, the True King, to his contemporaries. Which did not go well with the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, and the Muslim clerics that surrounded him.

Jahangir wrote in his Tuzk: "So many of the simple-minded Hindus, nay, many foolish Muslims too, have been fascinated by the Guru's ways and teaching. For many years, the thought had been presenting itself to my mind that either I should put an end to this false traffic, or he be brought into the fold of Islam."

Ultimately, Jahangir had Arjan taken prisoner and presented with the choice in Lahore.

He was tortured over the course of several days, with hot plates, burning sand and boiling water.

A Hindu official, Chandu, encouraged the Mughal. On the other hand, Sayeen Mian Mir, the Sufi Saint of Lahore, offered to intervene. The Guru declined his help.

With "Sweet is Thy Will, O Lord ..." on his lips, he was taken to the River Ravi nearby.

"A dip in the river's cold water was more than the blistered body could bear," writes historian Gurbachan Singh Talib. "Wrapped in meditation, the Guru peacefully passed away."

A Jesuit, Father Jerome Xavier, who witnessed all these goings-on, in a letter he wrote from Lahore on Sept. 25, 1606, says: "In that way their good Pope died, overwhelmed by the sufferings, torments, and dishonours."

Bhai Gurdas, the great poet, scribe and chronicler of Sikhi, described it thus:

    As fishes are at one with the waves of the river,
    So was the Guru, immersed in the River of the Lord:
    As the moth submits itself to the flame,
    So was the Guru's light merged with the Divine.

    In the extreme hours of suffering,
    Aware was he of nothing but the Word Divine,
    Like the deer who hears no sound
    But the ringing of the hunter's bell.

    Like the humming-bee who is wrapped in the lotus,
    He passed the night of his life in a casket of bliss;
    Never did he forget to utter the Lord's Word,
    Even as the chatrik never fails to utter his cry.

    To the man of God, joy is the fruit of devotion and meditation
    With equanimity in holy company.
    May I be a sacrifice unto this Guru Arjan!

 
*   *   *   *   *


[This article can also be viewed on The Huffington Post.]

Photo: Third photo from bottom depicts the Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors  -  Lahore Fort) and the very windows from which Jahangir would've witnessed the torture of Guru Arjan Dev ji barely a hundred yards away. A gurdwara, Dehra Sahib, now marks the site of the martyrdom. 


[First published in June, 2007. Republished on June 16, 2018]   

Conversation about this article

1: Bakhsish Singh (Brampton, Canada), June 10, 2007, 10:09 PM.

Peace is one of the basic pillars of Sikhism. Guru Arjan gave his life for Truth and peace.

2: Harinder (Pune, India), June 11, 2007, 5:18 AM.

There is so much of selflessness, love and compassion in Sikhism that one is willingly and eagerly bound to it for life in this great way of living one's life.

3: Kirpal Singh (Daytona Beach, Florida), June 11, 2007, 1:20 PM.

Commendable piece! I congratulate you on your marvellous way of recasting our Guru's unique contributions & sacrifice in an impressionable, contemporary fashion for both young & old alike.

4: Roma Rajpal (Santa Clara, USA), June 11, 2007, 5:49 PM.

I was not aware of the "Kacchi Lassi" tradition in honor of Guru Arjan Dev ji! Such a beautiful and selfless way to remember him! Your article is an important reminder and an inspiration to live selflessly each day. Also, to live according to the Guru's teachings of not "dividing this world into friends and enemies", but instead seeing a friend in all. Thanks for a very touching and educational article!

5: Jatinder Pal Singh (India), June 11, 2007, 7:13 PM.

Guru Arjun Dev Ji has given us one more gift to us, in addition to the Guru Granth Sahib and Harmandar Sahib: it is the Sikh concept of martyrdom. He was the first Sikh martyr and he infused so much meaning, and such zeal and passion into it, that martyrdom and Sikhism went hand-in-hand thereafter. Being a Sikh means, ever since, being ready to lay down one's life for the good or benefit of those who are weak or in need.

6: Hargurmit Singh (Kuwait), June 11, 2007, 11:03 PM.

An excellent article. Thank you, T. Sher Singh ji, for your write-up. Please allow me to share with the readers as to why kacchi lassi is served on this day. Chandu's daughter-in-law was a disciple of Guru Arjan Dev and during one of the days when he was being tortured by hot sand being poured on him, she visited him and brought kacchi lassi for him to drink. Guru Sahib was aware of Chandu's involvement in his torture and said that even though he would otherwise accept no offering from Chandu's house, her seva was parvaan (accepted). "Henceforth, whenever my Sikhs will remember me," he declared, "they will serve kacchi lassi to the thirsty to quench their thirst ... and you too will be remembered along with me." The story goes that as soon as Guru Sahib left his body, she too passed away in grief. In a similar vein, the seva of the milkman who brought hot milk to the young sahebzadeh (the sons of Guru Gobind Singh) in the cold month of December, while they were imprisoned in Sirhind, has also been honoured by Sikhs since then: annually, in the three-day period leading up to the anniversary of their being bricked alive, hot-milk chhabeels (stalls) are set up all over Punjab. Jalebis (a sweet delicacy) are offered to passers-by as well, in celebration of the supreme sacrifices. What a wonderful and meaningful way to celebrate the two seminal events!

7: Jessi Kaur (California, U.S.A.), June 12, 2007, 11:30 AM.

Sikhchic - what a precious site to keep alive the stories about our great Gurus that might otherwise get lost in the crevices of history! Thank you, Sher, and thank you, Hargurmit, for your beautiful addendum.

8: Surjit (Chicago), June 12, 2007, 11:41 AM.

I remember doing all this in India and it was fun. But in the U.S., people don't understand. They don't get the concept of a free drink easily. [Editor: Traditions can and should be adjusted to local situations. In India's summers, there is still a dire need to give succour to those who are travelling and thirsty. In North America, we can serve food at the foodbanks or at homeless shelters, to make the seva more meaningful. Others, I'm sure, could come up with novel and more innovative ideas.]

9: Harvinder Singh (Hyderabad, India), June 15, 2007, 5:56 AM.

Good job, keep it up. We need these type of write-ups regularly. This is what Sikhism is all about: "Pehlan maran kabool jeevan ki chadh aas..."

10: Tirath Singh (Melbourne, Australia), June 22, 2007, 7:39 PM.

A very good article. But can you please not use just "Arjan" instead of "Sri Guru Arjan Dev Ji". I think there is a reason for not just saying "Arjan", and we should observe it.

11: A.J. Vaid (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), June 26, 2007, 11:55 PM.

Your article makes me a bit nostalgic actually. I can remember as far back as when I was six or seven in Punjab, running across the street with my steel-jug full of Kacchi Lassi, trying to serve the passers-by with the beverage. My father would get up at 3am and prepare the langar of Kaale Chhole and Missi Roti. It would be a non-stop serving of hot langar and chilled kacchi lassi at the chhabeel, all day long, for total strangers who happened to be driving or walking by. An annual tradition. A simple celebration of just what we Sikhs are.

12: Daliar Singh Bhutani (Secunderabad, India), August 03, 2007, 9:00 AM.

The article on Guru Arjan Dev was interesting and very informative. It is high time our kids know what it is to be a Sikh. Keep the good work going, guy!

13: Chintan Singh (San Jose, U.S.A.), June 11, 2008, 11:00 AM.

Absolutely a wonderful piece! Brought me back memories of New Delhi where my freinds and I used to do the seva of putting up a chhabeel and serving kachi lassi, and in the same way stopping the traffic and offering passers by the cold beverage. Recently at one of the kirtan programs there was some discussion on the legacy of Guru Arjan. Someone made the point from a practical day-to-day perspective that despite so many domestic problems and mega projects to handle in his daily life - such as the fact that his brother was all the time trying to attack his only child out of jealousy - he had the responsibility of overseeing construction of the Harmandar Sahib and the compilation of the Adi Granth, as well as the emperor threatening him, Guru Arjan Dev ji handled everything so well and calmly. Thank you, Hargurmit Singh ji, for your additional perspectives behind both the martyrdoms in Sikh history.

14: Roopinder Singh Bains (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada ), June 11, 2008, 4:45 PM.

Guru Arjan Dev was the first to show the world passive resistance, ... long, long before Gandhi. [Also, forty years BEFORE the inception of India's Party and long before Gandhi, Sikh leader Baba Ram Singh told his followers to use their own mail system and to wear home spun clothing!]

15: Sonu (U.S.A.), June 11, 2008, 10:34 PM.

What an awesome, poetic article on the Fifth Guru - I'm so happy to see the spirit of Sikhi alive here on the Internet. Please keep it up. With Love to my brothers and sisters.

16: Manjeet K. Shergill (Singapore), June 13, 2008, 7:51 AM.

Guru Arjan was destined to have other Gurus as close relatives. His mum, Bibi Bhani got her wish - that the grace of guruship remain in her family. We celebrate Guru Arjan's life, his work and his love.

17: Chandan S. Brar (Auckland, New Zealand), June 14, 2009, 9:46 PM.

Thank you, good sir, for this wonderful piece of literature on our Guru. Re: Guruji's words on p.609: "As long as man divides his world into friends and enemies, He'll remain separated from God" - I sincerely believe that the worsening condition of our world is because we've seperated ourselves from God exactly in this manner. These blessed words and the deep lesson within them is the only hope for restoring peace to our troubled world.

18: Parminder Kaur Dhillon (Raleigh, NC, U.S.A.), June 16, 2010, 6:50 AM.

We need these reminders to truly appreciate the sacrifices made by our Gurus. We could not live in their shoes even for a day! If we could apply the teachings to our lives, this would be a much better world.

19: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, U.S.A.), June 16, 2011, 9:19 AM.

Can we not find a similar seva or an act of "celebration" to commemorate June and November of 1984? On this same website we have so many accounts and narratives of how our community suffered in 1984. Why can't we get past the bitterness, but yet not forget 1984 and "celebrate" it with some form of service to our local communities?

20: G.Singh (India ), June 16, 2011, 12:20 PM.

To commemorate the 1984 events, the Sikh community in the lower main land Canada has been doing blood donation campaigns for last several years. Please visit the given link for more details. http://www.sikhnation.net/blooddonation.html

21: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), June 16, 2011, 3:03 PM.

I point to the last comment (#20) by G. Singh with a suggestion. If gurdwaras across the world, say even 20 or so, could collaborate to donate blood on the same day to commemorate Guru Arjan's martyrdom and the Indian army attack in 1984, and have some literature say that we Sikhs prefer to contribute to life on a day when the government of the day shed so much blood in 1984, I think we could catch the eye and ear of the press. But we will have to publicise the event, prepare decent literature and make no political hay out of it, and do it without too much hoopla. That might echo with many - Sikhs and non-Sikhs.

22: Arvinder (U.S.A.), June 16, 2011, 10:30 PM.

Well said.

23: Brijinder Khurana (Delhi , India), June 17, 2011, 1:18 AM.

Many thanks to T. Sher Singh ji and Hargurmit Singh ji for reminding us our duties towards mankind through this article.

24: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), June 17, 2011, 7:56 AM.

Thank you, T. Sher Singh ji, for reminding us of Guru Sahib's sacrifies. But I would like to say, Sikhs and the leadership has failed to do justice to Guru Arjan's extreme sacrifice, even in India.

25: Manraj (London, United Kingdom), May 25, 2012, 6:11 AM.

Excellent article - very thought provoking! A quick message to Tirath though - very commendable of your mention to refer to Guru Sahib as 'Sri Guru Arjan Dev Ji'. However, believe it or not, the Sikh Gurus were very much against this tradition as they referred to themselves as mere mortals and servants of Waheguru. It was people of 'high stature' such as Mughal kings and Brahmin 'leaders' who liked to refer to themselves as 'Sri Chand Baba Sant Leader ji ...' The Gurus didn't want any of this falsehood but just be remembered as our Gurus - 'Guru Arjan' does sound so much simpler and better, doesn't it? And equally respectful. =) Oh, and we shouldn't really have images of the Gurus in our houses or gurdwaras, but especially we shouldn't be bowing before them.

26: Amardeep  (U.S.A.), May 25, 2012, 7:46 AM.

Is the May 25 martyrdom date according to the Nanakshahi calendar?

27: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ), June 17, 2013, 3:46 AM.

"japya-o jinh arjun dayv guroo fir sankat jon garabh na-aa-ya-o" [GGS:1409.8] - "Whoever meditates on Guru Arjan shall not have to pass through the painful womb of reincarnation ever again." This is easily the finest piece on Guru Arjan's martyrdom.

28: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), June 01, 2014, 11:05 AM.

"Maran munsa sooriaa ..." - 'Dying is the privilege of those brave ones who sacrifice their all for righteousness'. [GGS:579]. Guru Arjan laid down his life for a cause, noble and dearer than life, setting up for Sikhs an unparaled episode in the history of mankind. It was not a chance occurrence that he clashed with the tyrant Jehangir. It was in fact a natural result of what each of the two stood fo. Guru Arjan was without fear and doubt.

29: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), June 04, 2015, 7:39 PM.

Despite the adverse circumstances of his life, Guru Arjan never entertained any bitterness against any person. Guru Sahib expressed his feelings thus: "Ullaahano mai(n) kahoo na deeyo -- tuhaaro jeeyo"[GGS:978]. "I have no complaints against any person. Whatever You do, Lord, is ever sweet to me. By realizing Thy Will, I happily accept Your Will. Listening to Naam keeps me living". A true martyr never loses his/her peace of mind, despite unimaginable hardships.

30: Mohan Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 16, 2018, 5:01 PM.

"The Lord brought Him into the world, to practice the yoga of devotional worship. The Word of the Guru's Shabad has been revealed, and the Lord dwells on His tongue. Attached to Guru Nanak, Guru Angad and Guru Amar Das, He attained the supreme status. In the House of Guru Ram Das, the devotee of the Lord, Guru Arjun was born. || 1 || By great good fortune, the mind is uplifted and exalted, and the Word of the Shabad dwells in the heart. The jewel of the mind is contented; the Guru has implanted the Naam, the Name of the Lord, within. The Inaccessible and Unfathomable, Supreme Lord God is revealed through the True Guru. In the House of Guru Raa Das, Guru Arjan has appeared as the Embodiment of the Fearless Lord. || 2 || [GGS:1407]

31: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), June 18, 2018, 9:54 PM.

This article is bound to have new impact because of the style in which it is composed. Thank you, T. Sher Singh ji,

32: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), June 18, 2018, 10:36 PM.

Guru Arjan’s martyrdom was indeed unique as very ably described by T. Sher Singh and numerous comments that followed. I fully subscribe to these views. However, there is a point I would like to make here related to the comment #5. Those who label it as “He was the first Sikh martyr” do injustice to the Sikh tradition of martyrdom and to those who accepted the extreme type of tortures and gave their lives to stand by their claim of being a Sikh. Let me pay my homage to two Sikh martyrs, one in Makkah martyred in the hands of the Qazi and his followers; and the second in Punjab martyred by the Mughal King Babar in Northern India. Both for their firm stand that they would accept martyrdom but not turn away from their being Sikhs of Guru Nanak. During Guru Nanak’s visit to Makkah, the mullahs complained to the Amir that Rukan-ud-din had turned into a kafir as he openly followed Guru Nanak. They told the Amir that Rukan-ud-din has taken spiritual guidance from Nanak, the saint, and had turned his back on Islam. The mullahs also complained that Rukan-ud-din had forsaken the rules of sharia and was sitting in caverns of Umra reciting false kalma. The Amir sent a legal complaint to the Qazi, and the mullahs started issuing fatwas against Rukan-ud-din, which included: "Rukan-ud-din is a kafir (infidel) as he followed Nanak Shah, a kafir whose teachings are blasphemous • Confiscate all of his property • Order his kin to leave the country • Give him thirty lashes and then lock him in a dark box without food for eleven days • Paint his face black and parade him through the streets of Makkah mounted on a camel • Hang him upside down • Bury him in hot sand." The historian writes: “When Rukan-ud-din was dug out of hot burning sand, he was calm, and one could hear Allah’s name from every pore of his body ... According to the last fatwa, Rukan-ud-din was to be buried up to his chest in sand and then stoned to death. The masses of Makkah stood around Rukan-ud-din with the skirts of their robes full of stones ready to rain death to please the Amir. Rukan-ud-din, buried in sand up to his chest, was absorbed in Simran and had his eyes closed. Instead of sadness, his face glowed in peace. As per the tradition, the Amir asked two qazis to document Rukan-ud-din’s last testament. The two men approached him and shouted, 'By the sharia law, you are about to be put to death. Give us your last statement.' Rukan-ud-din opened his eyes, looked at the two men and smiled. He remembered his Guru’s last words, 'Whatever you saw just now, share that with your countrymen. You must bear the unbearable. Kartar (The Great Doer) will remain with you always.' The time to share with his countrymen had arrived. In front of everybody, he made his last testament: 'Rubanian khatiba el imame Hazrat Nanak ma, akallamehu ina feehay musle mun.' Translate: 'My religion and my god is Guru Nanak. He brings the greatest sacred message and the Book. I believe in him. If you wish for redemption, then seek Nanak’s shelter. Whoever reflects on this, will go to heaven.' Upon saying this, his neck slumped, and he left his body." This would make Bhai Rukan-ud-din the first Sikh martyr, his martyrdom preceded that of Bhai Tara Popat (generally listed as the first shahid in Sikh literature). Bhai Tara was martyred by Babur’s soldiers in 1526. Babur was angered by resistance to his invasion of Lahore and ordered the city burned. Bhai Tara from a nearby village came to the rescue and refused to relent even when people told him that Babur had ordered that nobody is allowed to put out the fires. Bhai Tara sacrificed his life to stand up to tyranny. Please do not let history forget these two first martyrs of Sikhism.

33: Hardev Singh Virk (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), June 25, 2018, 9:00 AM.

I congratulate T.Sher Singh for his WONDERFUL tribute to Guru Arjan, and Bhai Harbans Lal for his valuable comments. I read it on GLZ first and then on sikhchic.com

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