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The Martyrdom Of Guru Arjan Dev - First Contemporary Account Of His Death (and Of Sikhism By A Weste


Feb 23, 2012
United Kingdom
"...The earliest reference to the Sikhs by any European has come to us in a letter of Sep.25, 1606 of Father Jerome Xavier [a Catholic priest] written from Lahore to the Jesuits Provincial Supervisor of Goa. In this letter he talks about Guru Arjan's holy and saintly personality who enjoyed dignity and reputation as well. He testifies that before his martyrdom Guru Arjan went through a series of torture..."

- Dr. Balwant Singh Dhillon,
Head, Dept. of Guru Nanak Studies
G. N. D. University, Amritsar.

"...There is only one solitary reference to the Sikh Gurus known to exist in the records of the contemporary European writers, and that is about Guru Arjun's death. It is to be found in a Portuguese letter written from Lahore on September 25, 1606, by the well known Jesuit Father Jerome Xavier to the Provincial at Goa... it is the earliest account written by a contemporary European..."

- Dr Ganda Singh

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


I find this account of Guru Arjan's martyrdom fascinating because, not only is it the earliest account of Sikhism by any Westerner, but also because it is written by a Roman Catholic priest and is decidely sympathetic too Guru Arjan.

I thought that since I am a Catholic guest at SPN, it would be a pleasant form of interfaith dialogue, although not to deep as it is the first and earliest example of Sikh-Catholic interaction.

Before I provide you with the account (whic I'm sure some of you will have read already) I'd like to give some more background both on it - how best to read and understand it - and about Fr Jerome Xavier himself.

Fr Jerome Francis Xavier was the great-nephew of Saint Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the Indies. He was a close friend and advisor of the great, tolerant Mughal Emperor Akbhar the Great who in the 1500s created his own religion, which he called "Din-i-llahi" or the "Divine Faith" a kind of syncretism of the best elements, as he saw it, of the then world religions.

Akbhar began a series of religious debates where Muslim scholars debated religious matters with Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians and Portugese Roman Catholic Jesuits. He treated these religious leaders with great consideration, irrespective of their faith, and revered them. He not only granted lands and money for the mosques but the list of the recipients included a huge number Hindu temples in north and central India, Christian churches in Goa.

Of his Jesuit connection:

"...Father Jerome Xavier (d.1617), a grand-newphew of the Apostle of the Indies, was at Akbar's side from 1595 to the "Great Mogul's" death in 1605..."

- Donald F Lach

"...Emperor Akbar expired on October 17th 1605. Amongst the representatives of different creeds who congregated at Akbar's graveside, stood conspicuous in his simplicity Jesuit priest Father Jerome Francis Xavier, who always remained his devoted friend..."

- "Akbar and the Jesuits", by Pierre du Jarric

As to the Jesuit father's fate:

"...Xavier spent twenty years in the Mughal court of Akbar and Jahangir, witnessing the ascendancy of Mughal splendor, dispensing spiritual leader­ship, and becoming a remarkable scholar in Persian. Having left the court, he spent his retirement as rector to the St Paul's College in Old Goa. He died in Goa on June 27, 1617 in a fire that engulfed his room and ignominiously suffocated him while sleeping..."

- Ed. Amardeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh<FONT face="Times New Roman">

The above writers describe in some more depth the contents and importance of this account:

...A critical turning point in the early history of the Sikhs was arguably the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru, at the hands of the then Mughal emperor, Jahanglr. This marked the first of two Guru-martyrs and remains an evocative symbol of martyrdom in the Sikh tradition. For Sikhs, this event marked the coming-of-age of the early panth when its own critical mass had sufficiently ruffled Imperial feathers and jolted their faith-based community to seriously consider the call to arms that was championed by the martyred Guru's son, Hargobind. The origins of the primary self-image of the Sikh as a warrior have their genesis in this very act. However, from the point of view of the Imperial news writers, commentators, and diarists, the event was hardly worthy of mention. urprisingly, however, the martyrdom of Guru Arjan is noted, albeit briefly, in a letter dated September 25, 1606 from a Jesuit, Father Jerome Xavier s.j. to the Provincial Superior of Goa, Father Gasper Fernandes s.j. Writing in Portuguese from Lahore, the letter was later rearranged and published by Father Fernao Guerreiro s.j. (d. 1617).*

These remarks form, the earliest known European written account of the Sikhs...In addition to the obvious historical importance of the account related to the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, the account of Father Xavier's as a narrative reveals a great deal regarding how he perceived not only Sikhs but Indic reli&shy;gious traditions in general. The absence of the word "Hindu" when refer&shy;ring to non-Muslims is a striking feature of Xavier's text. The word used by Father Xavier and in other Portuguese and Catholic accounts about India is "gentile" (port, gentio). The concept of gentile included all religious prac&shy;tices that were neither Christian, Jewish, or Islamic. As such it is an all-inclusive term, heterogeneous in essence and devoid of any homogeneity. The concept of a homogeneous religious tradition called "Hinduism" appeared much later at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the Mughal concept of "Hindu" met Western Orientalist scholarship and the aspirations of the new emerging elites of the British Raj. Non-Muslim inhab&shy;itants of India were Shaivas, Vaishnavas, Shaktas, Smartas, or practiced non-denominational folk religions. Any sense of an underlying unity failed to exist amongst them but for the Christian or Muslim observer they were all "gentiles" or "Hindus."...Father Xavier's observation that the Sikh Guru was the equivalent of the Pope deserves special attention. The use of such a strong and unusual comparison from a Jesuit shows how important the influence of the Guru was. Sikhism's influence was originally not just restricted to the Punjab but extended to all parts of Northern India. The many Udasi and Nirmala establishments throughout Northern India are clear proof of that influence. In fact, it seems that Sikhism had much more influence than most official historiographies, Indian or Western, would let one believe...The terms "coitado" and "pobre" clearly show sympathy toward the Guru and his sufferings, so close to those of the martyrs of the Catholic tradition. This sympathy reinforces Father Xavier's statement about the importance of Sikhism at that period, far from being a marginal aspect of India's medieval history...Father Xavier's account is, therefore, a most precious document regarding the way Sikhs were perceived during that period. It breaks preconceived perceptions of Sikh history and challenges the modern "Hindu" construct..."

d. Amardeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh

And so without further ado I present to you Father Xavier's contemporary account - the first of any European/Westerner mundahug

"...When the Prince [Khusrau] came flying from Agra, he passed where a gentile called Guru (Goru), who amongst the gentiles is like the Pope amongst us. He was held as a saint and was as such venerated; because of this reputation of his and because of his high dignity the Prince went to see him, desiring, as it seems, some good prophecy. He gave him the good news of his new reign and gave him a tikka (otria) on his fore-head; although this man (the Guru) was a gentile and the Prince, a Moor [Muslim]; to the pon-tiff [Guru] it seemed that it would be good to give this symbol peculiar to gentiles, as a sign of success in his undertaking; as the Prince was the son of a gentile woman and because of the prince's opinion of his saintliness.
The King [Jahangfr] came to know of this and after having imprisoned the Prince he ordered for the said Guru (Gorii) to be brought. Having him imprisoned, some gentiles interceded for their saint: finally they managed to get him sentenced to a hundred thousand cruzados, a petition of a rich gentile who remained his guarantor. This individual took care that either the King (El-Rei) annul this sentence or the saint have or at least negotiate that money; but in all he got frustrated; and he seized from his poor Pope [Guru] everything he could find not sparing his clothes nor the clothes of his wife and sons; and seeing that all of this was not enough, as the gentiles don't have loyalty towards neither Pope [Guru] or father regarding money, each and every day he gave new torments and gave new affronts to the poor saint. He ordered him to be beaten many times with shoes on his face and forbade him to eat, so that he (the Guru) would give him more money, as he was not willing to believe that he did not have it, but he did not have it nor did he find anyone who would give it to him; and thus amongst many trials, pains and torments the poor Guru (Goru) died.- The guarantor tried to save himself, but he was imprisoned and killed after they had taken everything they could find..."

- Father Jerome Francis Xavier, A Jesuit Account of Guru Arjan's Martyrdom, 1605
Feb 23, 2012
United Kingdom
Vouthon brother thanks for your post.

On an aside. Are there other references to Sikhism in letters or documents of Catholic priests and people in that part of India? It will be a wonderful read.


My dear brother Ambarsaria gingerteakaur

I am glad you liked my post and the account by Father Xavier!

I believe, from my reading materials, that there is indeed later accounts of Sikhism from Jesuit priests and others from that period, before the British era.

When I next get the chance I will find them and quote them in this thread!

Much love :)
Feb 23, 2012
United Kingdom
This is a fascinating talk by a Sikh to the Sikh Council of Britain on the above account of Guru Arjan's martyrdom written by the Jesuit father Jerome Xavier:

Portuguese Popes account of Martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev Ji - YouTube

I don't know who the speaker is but its well-worth watching. He says, I think, that the original copy of this account is still in the Vatican library in Rome. He tells us that there are many other accounts of Sikhs in this period by Jesuit priests. He says that the Jesuits very much admired the Sikh people for their noble values and honour. He says that the Portugese Jesuit priests were the first Westerners to come into contact with the Sikhs before the English. He also says at the end that he is working on an organisation to study more deeply the relationship between Sikh culture and Portugese (Catholic) culture through the Jesuits and their understanding of Sikhism.

I would LOVE to be able to read those Jesuit accounts of Sikhism but I don't think their available on the internet. Isn't that fascinating that we have so much documentation of a faith at its origins by another faith and yet most of it is unpublished?

BTW I also did a search through SPN and found another reference to this account back in 2005, an interesting post, here is a link to it:

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Oct 21, 2009
I wonder a young man at the age of 19 can have so much varied interests and the astonishing volume of knowledge that far exceeds that most of us possess in regard to sikhism.

Kindly accept my heart felt congratulations for your sincere efforts Vouthen ji and keep on feeding us like this. It surprises me as to what keeps you going on. Thanks for keeping us informed. It is called as self less service. I do not know as to how many posts that should be marked as 'liked'. I shall do it on sunday to see that your posts are marked as 'liked'. Sorry for laxity on my part.

Warm Regards!
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