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Bhai Gurdas: Sikhi's First Public Intellectual




Sep 24, 2004
Bhai Gurdas: Sikhi's First Public Intellectual [1551 - 1636]

His life is the stuff of legends - fascinating and utterly baffling at the same time. Sikhs know him best as the man who laboriously and meticulously penned the first ever collation of Sikh scriptural writings under the supervision of the Fifth Master, Guru Arjan.

This was the Adi Granth in 1604. With minor additions this hand-written volume became the Guru Granth in 1708, the eternal Word to Sikhs worldwide.

But he was more than a scribe. Leaving aside the Gurus, Bhai Gurdas has possibly been the first - and even until today - the foremost and most outstanding public intellectual of Sikhi.

We know that he lived from 1551 to 1636 to the ripe old age of 85 - his life spanning the Guruship of five of the ten Gurus. (Guru Angad passed away in 1552.)

Orphaned at the age of twelve, he was "adopted" into the household of Guru Amar Das, who was also his father's cousin.

There, he was initiated into Sikhi by Guru Ram Das, the Fourth Master, in 1579.

Tradition tells us that he threreon played a central role in Sikh affairs.

He tutored the young Tegh Mull (later Guru Tegh Bahadur) in the ancient Indic classics; offered the congregational prayer (ardaas) at the death of Mata Ganga, Guru Arjan's wife, as also at Baba Buddha's death in 1631.

When the Muslim Emperor Akbar visited Guru Arjan and wanted to listen to the Guru Granth, it was Bhai Gurdas who read the verses chosen at random to assuage Akbar's concern that the Guru Granth might have an anti-Muslim bias.

When Bhai Gurdas died, Guru Hargobind was present with him and personally offered the last rites.

He was not only scribe of the entire Adi Granth; he also contributed manual labor during the excavation of the pool at the Harmandar in 1577 and later, along with Baba Buddha, in the construction of the Akal Takht. Guru Ram Das commissioned him to Agra, where he spent time preaching the message of Gurmat.

In the interest of clarity, I need to remind you that three men in Sikh history have been known as Bhai Gurdas. Here, we are only speaking of the man who lived from 1551 to 1636 and is usually known as Bhai Gurdas I.

There was another, Bhai Gurdas II, an eighteenth century poet, who is credited as the author of the Vaar Sri Bhagauti Ji Ki, Patshahi Dasvi(n) Ki which is often appended, in error, to the Vaars of Bhai Gurdas I.

This Bhai Gurdas II is also the author of the celebrated title "Mard
" (Man nonpareil) for Guru Gobind Singh.

A third Bhai Gurdas, a minor figure, was a loyalist of Ram Rai, the secessionist, but was instrumental in mending fences with Guru Gobind Singh after Ram Rai's death.

Our exploration today is restricted to the life and work of Bhai Gurdas I. He remains, for Sikhs, the primary exemplar and the clearest expounder of the Sikh way of life.

His writings (consisting of 40 vaars and close to 600 kabits) remain the pithiest and clearest explanations of the Sikh way of life. Deeply imbued in ancient Indian texts and philosophic lore, he was uniquely able to connect Sikh teaching equally easily to folklore as well as to philosophic complexities.His poetry has a highly unusual style of catchy, racy rhythmicity, with each line connecting to and effortlessly capturing the essential core of the message.

Much of his writing is thematic.

For example, he engages the issues of sangat, Guru and the lifestyle of a Sikh in a few well chosen and memorable words, and lays the matters to rest. To my mind, he cuts to the chase, swooping down to the essential core of an idea in a way that is the hallmark of the Punjabi Sikh mind.

Sikhs believe that Guru Arjan himself honored Bhai Gurdas' writings by designating the latter's Vaaran as the "key" to the scripture.

Alongwith the writings of Guru Gobind Singh and Bhai Nand Lal, the only other writings that may be read or sung along with the poetry of Guru Granth at any gurdwara are the writings of Bhai Gurdas.

His writing is still widely, nay universally, relied on in Sikh homes and gurdwaras across the world.

But what kind of a man was Bhai Gurdas?

Today, I posit for you a different set of questions While he celebrated the family (girhast) structure as supreme - indeed the first religion of mankind to do so - he apparently chose to remain unmarried himself. History does not tell us why.

Bhai Gurdas, as we have noted, was central to the compilation of the Sikh scripture. He was with Guru Arjan when the latter sifted through the many songs and hymns that sundry saints and poets submitted for inclusion into the Guru Granth. If the eminent saints of the times - Kabir, Farid, Ravidas, Tarlochan, etc. were included, so were some not so widely known, such as the Bhatts.

Why then not a single composition of Bhai Gurdas is to be found in the Guru Granth? If it is designated as the "key" to understanding the Guru Granth, why is there not a single word by him in it?

Bhai Gurdas was present when Guru Arjan was martyred, but he never directly referred to the event. He was also there when the concept of Miri-Piri became formalized. His writings and elaboration of Sikhi had already claimed a premier place in the message of Sikhi. Certainly his would have been a strong possibility of succeeding as Guru, even though Guruship had by then become familial.

History gives us not even a hint to an answer. Perhaps folk lore and human nature would.

His silence on Guru Arjan's martyrdom may have been in keeping with Sikh teachings, which refrain from historical notes or details. History, with its many cunning passages and contrived corridors, often changes perceptions with time and circumstance.

The emphasis in Sikhi is on matters that are timeless such as a framework for developing an ethical and productive sense of self; this is how societies, communities and nations are built. The focus is absolutely not on debating and analyzing historical factoids.

Some kathakaars and gyanis tell us that Bhai Gurdas personally declined to submit his own writings for inclusion in Guru Granth. Could it be that he had such a reverence for the Gurus' word that he did not think it appropriate to offer his own writing at the same table? If true, was that remarkable reticence stemming from true humility or some particular personality quirk?

It is anyone's guess.

But look around you.

There are people who truly revel in the role of the consigliore rather than that of the supremo. You find such people everywhere - in politics, in families, in clans, even in the mafia; in academia and in religions - in fact, anywhere and everywhere in society. Their influence does not become any less for that.

Given my personal bias, over the years some examples of this from academia come to mind.

One that I particularly treasure is of one excellent administrator who successfully resisted appointment as Dean and higher into the upper echelons of academic administration. He was content to stay one rung below the decisive level. His voice was solicited and it was respectfully heard. The Deans, and even their superiors, never took a step without consulting him and publicly acknowledging him. Many Deans came and went; he was always consulted. Many times he was offered the office; his answer never wavered - always, no thanks.

Look closely and many such examples exist in industries and businesses as well.

Yet, he was no reluctant wall flower.

In life examples abound where circumstances pushed some such reticent person into the highest office. Then all of a sudden things fell apart. His good counsel seemed to have abandoned him; he seemed to lack the sure touch needed at the top. And, if by some chance, the man lost his place as the Second-in-Command, then, too, things disintegrated. Not even the best chief could function without the insight of the assistant.

Many similar examples from our many endeavors come to mind. This might sound sexist and I certainly don't mean it to be, but I have seen many a mother play such a seemingly secondary but indispensable role in excellent families; without such women there would be little stability in home or in society. In the political sphere think of Karl Rove and Rahm Emanuel; but true to the modus operandi and goals of their calling these men can be supremely divisive, so they are perhaps best left out of further consideration here.

Some people are best in second place. In that role they are indispensable and invaluable, and they know it. They are in second place but are never second rate. The rare but excellent boss, too, understands it.

Better a kingmaker than a king?

That is how I see Bhai Gurdas, Sikhi's public intellectual par excellence.

sikhchic.com |Bhai Gurdas The Talking Stick Colloquium


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