Bhai Gurdas remained in close association with third, fourth, fifth and sixth Gurus from 1579 to 1637 for 58 years.
Bhai Gurdas was a brilliant scholar and poet and rendered an imperishable service to Sikhism. He was so devoted to his cause that he never married. His humility was so great that though he wrote the Adi Granth at the dictation of Guru Arjan, and included therein sayings of many Hindu and Muslim saints, and was the Guru's maternal uncle, yet he declined to include in it his own compositions which were of a high order, for the simple reason that he did not like to raise himself to the position of bhaktas.
Guru Amar Das's father was Tej Bhan. Tej Bhan's brother was Chandra Bhan. His son was Ishwar Das. Bhai Gurdas was his son. His mother was Jiwani. Thus Gurdas was a nephew of Guru Amar Das. He was born in 1551 AD, twelve years after Guru Nanak's death. He was thus the first cousin of Bibi Bhani, daughter of Guru Amar Das, wife of Guru Ram Das and mother of Guru Arjan. His parents belonged to village Basarke, but they migrated to Goindwal, the head quarters of Guru Amar Das. It was here that Gurdas took birth. His parents had embraced Sikh religion.
As a child Gurdas attended sangats or congregations. He possessed a sweet and melodious voice and enthusiastically participated in singing hymns. He developed great love and affection for the Gurus' teachings. He picked up Gurmukhi and learnt by heart Gurbani or the Gurus' hymns, prayers, and chants. He seldom missed any divine service.
In 1567 Guru Amar Das built a baoli or a well with stairs at Goindwal. On the Baisakhi day a great fair was held there which was attended by all the Sikhs. Gurdas as a lad of sixteen served in this festival and entertained the congregations with his songs and recitations. Guru Amar Das had established twenty-two manjis or dioceses each under a sangatia.
The most important and distant diocese at Agra, then capital of the Mughal Empire in India, was assigned to him. At this time Akbar was the Emperor, Hindi and Sanskrit were flourishing. Goswami Tulsidas had just composed his immortal Ramayana called Ramcharitmanas. The most celebrated musician Tansen was living at Akbar's court. Gurdas made the most of his opportunity. He learnt Brajbhasha, Sanskrit and many ragas or musical metres after the style of Tansen and composed poetry.
When Guru Ram Das started construction of Amritsar, he recalled Gurdas and employed him to look after the development of the new township by inviting people from the neighbourhood to settle there.
On the nomination of Arjan, Guru Ram Das's eldest son, Prithi Mal, became hostile to his father and brother. His hostility reduced Guru Ram Das to great financial stringency so much so that the Guru's wife, Bibi Bhani, lived on gram flour. This touched Gurdas's heart and he brought back Bhai Budha from the jungle of Basarke to Amritsar to give consolation to the Guru's family.
In 1596 AD, Guru Arjan decided to compile the Holy Granth. He deputed Gurdas to many Sikhs to collect Gurbani. Then he was sent to Mohan, son of Guru Amar Das, at Goindwal to bring the collection of Guru's hymns from him.
Guru Arjan addressed Bhai Gurdas as 'Mamaji' or maternal uncle. There being no better scholar than Gurdas among the Sikhs, the Guru entrusted to him the duty of writing the Granth at his dictation. Guru Arjan selected a beautiful site two kilometres to the east of the holy tank in the grove of Beri (Zizyphus Jajuba) trees on the bank of a pond now called Ramsar. There he put up a small tent. The Guru sat on a cot inside and Bhai Gurdas outside. The dictation continued from sunrise for 4 to 5 hours daily. Gurdas simplified the Gurmukhi style at the bidding of Guru Arjan,1 and he wrote the Granth in the modified script. When the sayings of bhaktas had been included in the Granth, the Guru asked Bhai Gurdas to insert his own Vars and Kabits also. Bhaiji declined saying that he had not attained that degree of perfection in devotion to God. The Granth was completed in 1604 AD.
In 1605 Emperor Akbar on a visit to Lahore stayed at Batala.
Prithi Mal with the help of local Mughal officials complained to the Emperor against Guru Arjan saying that he had abused Hinduism and Islam therein. The Emperor called for the Granth. It was sent under custody of Bhai Budha and Bhai Gurdas. Akbar asked Bhai Gurdas to read at a certain place. At the first place it said:
Khak nur karand alam duniyai
[God reduces worldly pedagogues to dust.]
The Emperor pointed to a hymn on another page. It stated:
Allah agam Khudai bande
[God is eternal and men are his creation.]
Akbar now asked his clerk, Munshi Sarb Dayal, who knew Gurmukhi, to read the Granth from another place. It said:
Koi bole Ram Ram koi Khuda
[Some call Him Ram, others Khuda.]
The Emperor was pleased. He made an offering of 51 gold mohars to the Granth, and awarded robes of honour to its two bearers with another khilat for the Guru.
Guru Hargobind became Guru in 1606 AD. The tilak of succession was applied by Bhai Budha who adorned the Guru with two swords of Miri and Pin. The Holy Granth was recited by Bhai Gurdas. When the Guru was imprisoned in the fort of Gwalior, Mata Ganga, the Guru's mother, sent Bhai Gurdas there to bring news about Hargobind. Afterwards he was sent by the Guru to Afghanistan to purchase horses. On the death of Bhai Budha, the office of the head priest of Han Mandar was bestowed upon him.
By natural temperament and training Bhai Gurdas was a man of peace. He did not much appreciate Guru Hargobind's militarist activities. He perhaps believed in co-operation with the Mughal Emperors, in a Var he represented people's views about the Guru's activities. He says that they did not approve of his wanderings, wars with Emperors and not devoting full attention to his religious duties. As the Guru was most popular with his Sikhs who were ready to lay down their lives for him voluntarily, Bhai Gurdas concluded his account thus:
"I say the truth which cannot possibly be concealed ; the true Sikhs, like the humble bees, are enamoured of his lotus-feet.
"He supporteth a burden intolerable to others and asserteth not himself."
Bhai Gurdas composed thirty-nine Vars and 556 Kabits. In Vars I and XI he gives a short account of Guru Nanak. In Kabit no.345 he tells us that Guru Nanak obtained divine light about his mission in life on Kartik full moon day:
Kartik masi rut sarad puranmashi
ath jam sath ghari aj ten ban hai.
[It is the month of Kartik, weather is cool, full moon day of eight jams (24 hours), sixty gharis (24 hours) (is over); it is your turn today (to obtain divine knowledge.)1
About mixing people of all castes and creeds in sangats and pangats on the basis of social equality Bhai Gurdas has given a fine example. A green betel leaf with a coating of white lime and brown katha, when chewed produces a bright red colour giving fragrance to breath and beauty to lips. Similarly the Guru's teachings dissolved all caste differences and produced a homogeneous society of the Sikhs.
Bhai Gurdas further says:
Do good even to bad people like the tree that gives fruit even to those who throw stones at it. Gurdas praises such persons as sacrifice for others and who are happy by serving others.
Bhai Gurdas died in 1637 AD.4 at the age of 86. He mentions Mardana, Daulat Khan Lodi and others, but there is no reference to Bhai Bala. The house of Bhai Gurdas containing a well and his smadhi were situated behind the residence of Guru Hargobind at Amritsar.
Bhai Gurdas is considered the first interpreter of Gurbani. His writings are considered key to understanding the Sikh holy scriptures. He wrote 40 vars (ballads) and 556 kabits (both forms of Punjabi poetry). These writings are considered the best specimens of Sikh literature and philosophy. He also had the opportunity to be the scribe of Guru Granth Sahib or Adi Granth, the holiest Sikh scripture that was compiled by Guru Arjan Sahib Ji, the fifth Sikh Guru, in 1604.
The exact date of birth of Bhai Gurdas is not known but it is somewhere between 1543-1553 A.D.
Bhai Gurdas became a Sikh under the kind influence of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru in 1579 AD. Bhai Gurdas was the cousin brother of Mata Bhani, the mother of Guru Arjan Sahib Ji. Bhai Gurdas received his early education under the guidance of Guru Amar Das. Bhai Gurdas travelled to far away places like Agra, Lucknow, Burhanpur, and Rajasthan to spread Guru's word under the direction of Guru Amar Das.
Guru Arjan and Bhai Gurdas
Bhai Gurdas came back to Punjab after Guru Ram Das left for heavenly abode. He had the opportunity to study and observe Sikhism closely in the company of Guru Arjan Sahib Ji. Bhai Gurdas also played a key role in the construction of the Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple Amritsar).
This was a very difficult time for the fifth Guru as his own brother Pirthi Chand was very jealous of him. At the same time the Muslim ruler Jahangir had become jealous of growing popularity of Sikhism and Guru Arjan Sahib Ji. He wanted to put an end to it. This was a period of great challenges and difficulties for the Sikhs.
Bhai Gurdas was the first custodian of the Akal Bunga (Akal Takhat Sahib). Baba Buddha Ji was the first Granthi of the Harimandir Sahib. During the time of Guru Hargobind Sahib, Bhai Gurdas went to many far away places like Kabul, Kanshi, Banaras, to spread the message of the Guru. The Sikh congregation was so impressed by Bhai Gurdas they that erected a Gurdwara in his memory in Kabul.
Bhai Gurdas passed away some time between 1629 and 1637 AD at Goindwal. Guru Hargobind Sahib personally cremated his body. Bhai Gurdas had the good fortune to have had the the company of four Gurus.
Bhai Gurdas's Contribution to Sikh Literature Scribe of Guru Granth Sahib
The compilation of Guru Granth Sahib was completed in 1601. It took almost 11 years to complete this task. Bhai Gurdas not only wrote the Adi Granth as dictated by Guru Arjan Sahib, he also supervised the writings of four other scribes, namely Bhai Haria, Bhai Sant Das, Bhai Sukha and Bhai Manasa Ram who were writing various Sikh scriptures.
Bhai Gurdas was not only an interpreter of Sikh scriptures and preacher of Sikhism, he was a walking encyclopaedia of Sikhism.
Bhai Gurdas was a great scholar of Persian and Sankrit and of comparative religion. He was a poet of superb beauty. His most famous compositions are Vars, (Punjabi ballads, 40 in number).
Bhai Gurdas as a Sikh Historian
Bhai Gurdas has documented the Sikh history in his writings and has solved some of the historical riddles about Guru Nanak Dev's visit to Mecca, Medina, and other parts of the world:
Fir Baba gaya Baghdad no bahar jae kiya asthana |
Ek Baba Akal roop, dooja rababi Mardana |
Then Baba (Guru Nanak Sahib Ji) went to Baghdad and camped outside the city. In addition to Baba Nanak, who was a Divine personality, Mardana, the musician also went along.
Bhai Gurdas's Account of Martyrdom of Guru Arjan Sahib
Guru Arjan Sahib was martyred as per orders of emperor Jahangir on May 30, 1606. Jahangir wrote in his Tuzak-i-Jahangiri only 20 days after the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Sahib that he ordered his execution.
Bhai Gurdas had documented the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Sahib as follows:
Rehnde Gur dariayo vich, meen kuleen het nirbani |
Darsan dekh patang jio(n) joti andar jot samani |
Sabad surat(i) liv mirg jio, bhirh payee chit avar na jani |
Gur Arjan vith(u) kurbani | (Bhai Gurdas, Var 24)
To achieve martyrdom, Guru Arjan Sahib ji immersed in the God-like ocean like a fish. The Guru merged into the heavenly light like the moth that immolates itself after seeing the light. I sacrifice my life to Guru Arjan.