The Indian religious leader Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) was one of the most important shapers of the Sikh religion.
Gobind was not the founder of Sikhism, a monotheistic faith that arose in India in the fifteenth century. But he is responsible for several of the religion's most visible features and ideals. These include the military ethos of Sikhism, which has included the requirement that some male Sikhs carry a sword at all times. Sikhs view Gobind as the tenth and last human guru of the Sikh faith; he designated a text, the Guru Granth Sahib, as the ultimate guru, or teacher, for Sikhs. Gobind's life story played out against a background of military conflict in India, and his ideas transformed Sikhism from the status of a small regional sect to a major world religion that has held significant political power.
Father Executed by Emperor
Gobind Singh was born Gobind Rai Sodhi on December 22, 1666, in Patna in the present-day Indian state of Bihar. His parents were Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru, and his wife, Gujari. When he was young the family moved to Anandpur (now Anandpur Sahib, in Punjab state), on the edge of the Himalaya mountains, a city his father had founded. As with many religious leaders, various remarkable stories have been attached to Gobind's childhood. One chronicle, as quoted on the Sikh History Web site, held that Bahadur, dismayed over conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in northern India, said to his son, “Grave are the burdens the earth bears. She will be redeemed only if a truly worthy person comes forward to lay down his head. Distress will then be expunged and happiness ushered in.” The child Gobind's reply was that “None could be worthier than yourself to make such a sacrifice.” Bahadur turned himself in to the Islamic Mughal emperor, and was executed in 1675 after refusing to renounce his resistance to the empire and convert to Islam.
Before his death, Bahadur named Gobind as his successor, and he was formally proclaimed the Sikh guru on March 29, 1676. At a camp on the shores of the Yamuna River, Gobind was educated in martial arts, hunting, literature, and languages. He learned to write the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit and the Persian of the Mughal court, as well as the Punjabi and the Braj Bhasha variant of Hindi spoken indigenously in northern India. He had a gift for poetry, and in 1684 he composed the epic poem Var Sri Bhagauti Ji Ki in the Punjabi language, a tale of a massive conflict between gods and demons rooted in India's ancient literature.
“Poetry as such was, however, not his aim,” noted the Sikh History site. “For him it was a means of revealing the divine principle and concretizing a personal vision of the Supreme Being that had been vouchsafed to him.” This intense focus on the divine principle was a fundamental tenet of Sikhism, which does not conceptualize the divine in human terms. To this basic orientation, however, Gobind added something new. An expert rider, swimmer, and archer, he grew up in a world of warring states whose conflicts were intensified by religious differences: the Muslim Mughal empire vied for influence in India with local and mostly Hindu leaders of the Rajput order, and adherents of other groups, such as Pathans (today's Pashtuns) of the northwestern subcontinent complicated the situation still more. Singh concluded that it was necessary for the Sikhs to arm themselves and to mold themselves into a fighting force. He ordered that ancient Sanskrit war epics be translated into languages young Sikh men would speak and understand.
Defeated Rajput, Mughal Forces
Gobind benefited from the fact that Rajput clan leaders had their own set of conflicts with the Mughals, some of them centering on taxes and appropriation of resources. Rajput groups in northern India grew worried about Gobind's growing power and raised a unified force to confront him, but his Sikh warriors prevailed in the Battle of Bhangani around 1686. (Dates of many of the major events in Gobind's life are uncertain, and much of what is known about him comes from an autobiographical document called the Bicitra Natak.) About a year after that battle, Gobind's army defeated the forces of Alif Kahn, the Mughal governor of the Punjab at Nadaun.
Establishing his compound at Anandpur, Gobind constructed a set of fortresses. He unified the Sikhs under his rule, ordering them to follow his leadership rather than that of local potentates. Married three times, he had four sons, and he consolidated the religious principles that his father and grandfather (who was the sixth Sikh guru) had laid down. As conflict flared in the 1690s between the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and the Rajput clans, Gobind's power grew. Aurangzeb sent his son, Moazzam, to eliminate the Sikh force, but Moazzam, who promoted a policy of religious tolerance, chose to ignore Gobind and focus his efforts instead on the hill kingdoms.
In 1699 Gobind decided on a dramatic stroke that would permanently sear Sikh values into the minds of his followers. He summoned Sikh males to his headquarters on the Baisahki harvest festival, which marked the new year for both Hindus and Sikhs. They were instructed not to consult with local religious leaders, and Gobind said that they should arrive with long hair and beards, a practice confined at the time to a few ascetic sects. By the end of March, a large crowd of Sikhs had gathered at Anandpur. Probably on April 13 or 14, 1699 (sources suggest various dates), Gobind engineered, at a single stroke, a new face of Sikhism.
Appeared Before Crowd with Blood-Drenched Sword
Appearing before a large assembly that had just celebrated morning religious services, Gobind brandished his sword and asked (according to the Sikh History site), “Is there present a true Sikh who would offer his head to the Guru as a sacrifice?” The shocked crowd was silent, but finally a man named Daya Ram stepped forward. Gobind led him into a tent and then emerged, alone, with blood dripping from his sword. He repeated his request, and Dharam Das came forward. Again Gobind reappeared with a blood-drenched sword, and he repeated the process three more times. At this point, he revealed to the crowd that he had actually slaughtered five goats. He presented the volunteers, each wearing a turban and carrying a sword, to the crowd and dubbed them panj piyare, or the Five Beloved.
Gobind baptized the five men by having them drink a special nectar called amrit from a bowl he had sanctified with a double-edged dagger. The men were to be known as khalsa, or the pure ones—but other Sikh men could attain the same status by adopting five emblems, each of which began in the Punjabi language with the “k” sound: they should leave their hair and beards uncut (kais), carry a comb (kangha) in their long hair, wear military knee-length pants (kachha), wear a steel bracelet (kara) on their right wrists, signifying poverty, and finally, always carry a sword (kirpan) to defend the Sikh faith. These emblems collectively were known as kakkar. In addition, the members of the khalsa community had to take the surname Singh, meaning “lion” (women became Kaur, or princess), to renounce tobacco and alcohol, to agree to eat meat only from an animal killed with a single blow (a sharp contrast to Muslim dietary laws), and to treat women with respect.
It was not required for Sikhs to become khalsa; there remained a separate category of Sadjahari Sikhs, or those who needed time to accept the system of conduct. But many did, and they came from the provinces all around Anandpur. Mughal administrators and the Rajput chiefs were alarmed by the emergence of this force of highly motivated warriors, and they resolved that Gobind had to be stopped at all costs. Gobind's hilltop compound at Anandpur resisted a series of attacks between 1700 and 1704, but then came under a deadly blockade by Mughal forces. With his forces decimated in a battle in early December of 1705, Gobind was forced to evacuate Anandpur. His two young sons, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, were captured and executed.
Rather than capitulate, Gobind issued to Aurangzeb a defiant Zafarnamah or Epistle of Victory. Reestablishing himself in the Punjabi city of Muktsar, Gobind devoted himself to the preparation of a new version of the Adi Granth Sikh scripture that had been compiled by the fifth Sikh guru, Arjun. This became the Guru Granth Sahib, which Gobind before his death designated the new guru and final spiritual authority for Sikhs. He also compiled his own writings into a collection called the Dasam Granth and wrote his autobiographical Bicitra Natak.
Reassembling his forces, Gobind headed for the imperial capital of Delhi, perhaps to protest the killing of his sons. En route he received word that Aurangzeb had died, and that a succession struggle had broken out. Gobind backed the tolerant Moazzam, and Sikh forces backed Moazzam in the decisive battle at Jajau that put him on the Mughal throne. Gobind joined the new emperor on several other military campaigns as he consolidated his rule, following him to the city of Nander in south central India. There, two young Pathan men sent by unknown parties sneaked into Gobind's tent and stabbed him. A British doctor named Cole was brought to try to save his life, but as Gobind tried to swing his sword, his wounds opened anew. He died on October 7, 1708.
Bhattacharya, Sachchidananda, A Dictionary of Indian History, George Braziller, 1967.
Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., edited by Lindsay Jones, Macmillan, 2005.
Kapoor, Sukhbir Singh, The Ideal Man: The Concept of Guru Gobind Singh, Khalsa College London Press, 2000.
Coventry Evening Telegraph (Coventry, England), January 6, 2007.
Houston Chronicle, April 17, 1999.
“Nanak X. Guru Gobind Singh ji (1675-1708),” Sikh History, http://www.sikh-history.com/sikhhist/gurus/nanak10.html (February 13, 2008).
"Singh, Gobind." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/singh-gobind
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"Gobind Singh." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gobind-singh
"Gobind Singh." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/gobind-singh