The third Sikh master, was born in the house of Tej Bhan Bhalla and his wife Lachmi on Vaisakh Sudi 14th, (8th Jeth), Samvat 1536, which translates to the western calendar as 5, May, 1479. In some chronicles his birth date is recorded as April 1479. His birthplace was in Basarke Gillan, Amritsar, Punjab. He was named Amar Das by his parents and the name went with him even when he adopted the Sikh faith and became Guru. His family were practicing Hindus’ and he too remained a devout Hindu till his adoption of the Sikh faith late in life.
On getting of age, he took to the traditional trading business of his family and married a lady named Mansa Devi; he had four children, two sons and two daughters named Mohri, Mohan, Dani and Bhani.
Being of a deeply religious bent of mind, Amar Das undertook several pilgrimages to holy places; he regularly visited Haridwar and Jwalamukhi that are sacred places in the Hindu religious culture. Since he was always in search of spiritual progression he frequently met and held discourses with Sadhus (Monks) and other saintly people. In one such discourse a Sadhu spoke to him about the need of a living Guru to show him the way to spiritual enlightenment. Amar Das was wholly impressed with this advise and he started his search for a Guru.
As in the case of Guru Angad Dev Ji, Amar Das also chanced upon hearing the sacred Bani (Sikh prayer) and Kirtan (hyms) being recited by Bibi Amro, the daughter of Guru Angad Dev Ji who was married to a relative of Amar Das. Amar Das was highly influenced by the recitation and he set out to meet Guru Angad Dev Ji. The meeting had such a profound effect upon him that he adopted the Sikh faith and became a devout follower and disciple of Guru Angad Dev Ji. He started living in Khadur Sahib, the religious seat of the Guru. Notably, at that point in time Amar Das was in his early sixties, he was elder to Guru Angad Dev Ji but age did not deter him from seeking to become a follower of the Guru.
The period of discipleship of Bhai Amar Das is well remembered for the selfless devotion and service that he rendered to the Sikh community and to Guru Angad Dev Ji in particular. He remained involved in community service, especially the functioning of the Langar (community kitchen) and in looking after the personal needs of Guru Angad Dev Ji.
With Bhai Amar Das is connected the story of Goindwal. The place where Goindwal is located today was at a highway junction for crossing the River Beas. A trader named Goinda took it upon himself to develop the location as a ferry. His efforts met with a series of natural calamities and other obstacles which impelled him to seek assistance from Guru Angad Dev Ji. He requested the Guru to send one person from his family to reside in the location to offset any evil spirits that were creating hurdles in the work. Guru Angad Dev Ji asked his sons to go there but they refused; he them called his disciple Amar Das to take the responsibility. Naturally Amar Das acquiesced to the directive.
Amar Das made it a routine to collect water from the River Beas from Goindwal and bring it to Khadur Sahib daily for the ablutions and bath of his Guru while reciting the “Jap Ji Sahib” (Sikh Morning Prayer) along the way. He would then spend the day working in the Langar and other tasks in the community. In the evening after hearing the recitation of “Asa Di Var” (Sikh Evening Prayer) he would go back to the ferry site in Goindwal. The distance between the two locations is a little over eight kilometers and Amar Das was in his late sixties early seventies at that time. The ferry was ultimately established and a habitation also came up. It was named Goindwal after Goinda who initiated the project.
After becoming the third master of the Sikhs, Guru Amar Das Ji, started staying in Goindwal permanently. His total residence in the holy township came to about 33 years. Guru Ram Das was initiated as the fourth master there and his son Arjan Dev, who became the fifth master of the Sikhs’ was born there. Goindwal, hence, grew into a very significant centre of the Sikh faith.
Dedication to the Sikh faith, high level of spirituality and selfless devotion were some of the factors that went towards the declaration by Guru Angad Dev Ji of Bhai Amar Das being his successor. Guru Angad Dev Ji left his earthly body on 26/29, March, 1552 and Guru Amar Das Ji, at the age of 73, became the third Nanak of the Sikhs.
Sadly, the elder son of Guru Angad Dev Ji named Datu refused to respect the decision of his father and, in a fit of anger, kicked the Guru in an open meeting. Guru Amar Das showed absolute humility to the son of his master and asked him if he had got hurt by the kick. He then left Goindwal and went to his village, Basarke, as Datu ordered him to.
In his village he went into deep meditation in a house and wrote on the door, “He who opens this door is no Sikh of mine, nor am I his Guru.” Once again, as in the case of Guru Angad Dev Ji the task of guiding the new Guru towards his responsibilities fell on Baba Budha Ji, who, as per tradition has led the initiation ceremony. Since the Sikh delegation led by Bhai Budha could not enter by the door, they broke a wall of the house and went in. The delegation convinced the Guru to come back to Goindwal from where Datu had exited having found no followers and thus the third Nanak resumed his responsibilities.
Guru Amar Das Ji strengthened the Langar by converting it into a 24/7 community service and enjoining that anybody wanting to meet him would first have to share a meal at the community kitchen. There are instances of some small Kings and ultimately even Emperor Akbar having adhered to this practice before meeting the Guru. The Emperor was so impressed that he offered to the Guru revenue from several villages to run the Langar. The Guru respectfully refused saying the divine concept was to run the service through offerings of devotees.
In the Langar there was no taboo of cooking practices except that the food be clean and nutritious. It was also required to be partaken together without differences created by caste and birth. Emphasis on the practice of Langar had behind it a larger purpose of eliminating the caste system that was playing havoc with society and it was successful in doing so.
Guru Amar Das Ji carried forward the work and spirit of the previous masters to strengthen the Sikh institutional fabric and practices. He realised the importance of having professionally trained teachers and preachers to spread the religion and towards this end he initiated a system of “Manji” and “Piri” (Diocese). He trained and appointed 94 men as Manji and 52 women as Piris, whom he sent to preach the tenets of Sikhism to the masses. He also introduced the Dasvandh (Donating a tenth of income to the faith) system for revenue collection as pooled community religious resource. Baisakhi (April, 13), Magha (First day of the month of Magh sometime in mid-January) and Diwali were earmarked as special days when Sikhs were required to assemble to hear the word of the Guru and also discuss community affairs .
Goindwal started developing into a thriving town with Sikhs as well as people from other religious communities coming to meet and pay obeisance to the Guru. Guru Amar Das Ji built a deep Baoli (water reservoir) where visiting pilgrims could take a holy dip. He built 84 steps in the Baoli and ordained that any person who descended the 84 steps while recited the Jap Ji Sahib would get free from the cycle of life and death, which, according to Hindu faith goes for 84 Lakh reincarnations in all species. With time, Goindwal also came to be known as Baoli Sahib and it attained for the Sikhs the status of a Pilgrimage place akin to what Hardwar was for the Hindus.
Guru Amar Das Ji carried forward the task of compilation of the holy Bani (words of Gurus) which was initiated by Guru Angad Dev Ji. He identified and collected the hymns of Guru Nanak and Guru Angad Dev Ji and to it he added his own Bani as well as that of such other Saints whose writings conformed to the teachings of Sikhism. He composed 869 verses including the Anand Sahib (a prayer that plays a significant role in Sikh religious practices). Some chronicles put down his Bani as 709 verses. The entire literature was translated into the Punjabi (Gurmukhi) script that was initiated by Guru Angad Dev Ji. This was done despite pressure on the Guru to inscribe it n the Sanskrit language. The compilation was then inscribed as a Pothi (Book) that was ultimately used by the fifth master, Guru Arjun Dev Ji to create the Adi Granth.
Guru Amar Das Ji also initiated the very sensitive work of institutionalizing Sikh religious practices and rituals in a manner that they became distinct from other religions. The basics of the ceremonies are derived from the prayer Anand Sahib composed by the Guru and incorporated in the original Pothi as mentioned earlier. Anand Sahib is one of the five Bani’s that a Sikh is enjoined to recite every day. Parts of the Anand Sahib are recited during most Sikh celebrations and rituals including baby naming, weddings (Anand Karaj) and even funerals. A part of the Anand Sahib is recited as culmination of all prayers sessions and before the Ardas (The Sikh prayer recited at the closing of religious recitations and before starting any work).
Guru Amar Das Ji carried forward the legacy of the previous two Sikh masters of giving equal status to women and took it a step forward by empowering Sikh women. The first step, as explained in the previous paragraph was appointment of 52 Piris (women teachers) of the Sikh faith. This is something which is only recently being followed by some religions while the clergy of others remains closed to women. He liberated women from the practice of Purdah (hiding of face from men) by insisting that those coming to meet him would not cover their faces. He preached strongly against the Hindu practice of Sati (wife burning herself on the pyre of her husband) and also spoke in favour of widow remarriage.
Guru Amar Das Ji visualised that the rapid expansion of the Sikh faith would lead to the requirement of a larger congregational area than what the small, holy city of Goindwal could provide. Accordingly, he entrusted to his son-in-law Bhai Jetha (who later got initiated as the fourth Sikh master, Guru Ram Das) the task of founding another city, In that city he directed construction of a “Holy Tank” for bathing rituals. Bhai Jetha accordingly purchased lands at the price of 700 Akbari Rupees from Zamindars of Tung and started developing the holy city with digging of the holy tank. He named this township Ramdaspur. Later it got the name of Amritsar and became the holiest centre of the Sikh religion. Along the holy tank evolved the Harmandir Sahib, the holiest temple of the Sikhs.
Guru Amar Das Ji reinforced the concept of spirituality going side by side with a normal life and family responsibilities. He impressed upon his followers the need to overcome greed, avarice, and ego and lead a life of simplicity with pursuance of high value systems. He emphasised upon them the need to get up early in the morning and immerse oneself in the recitation of the Guru’s Bani. He set for his followers, by personal example, the highest principles for an ethical and spiritual existence.
The teachings of Guru Amar Das Ji can be most aptly summed up by his answer to a query posed in open Sangat by Bhai Buddha as to the recommended Sikh ways of life. The Guru said, “Listen, O Sikhs of the Guru! Get up early at dawn and take a bath. Then sit in a corner and collect your mind and recite the Holy name till sunrise with concentration. Then go about your daily work or profession and earn your living honestly. Do not tell lies or speak ill of others. Share your joys and sorrows with your fellow beings. Resign yourself to the will of God and do not find fault with the doings of the Creator. Do not run after transitory pleasures of this world. Give up deceit, jealousy, and covetousness. Always seek the company of the good and the virtuous. Mould your conduct according to the instructions of your religious guide”.
Guru Amar Das Ji lived a long life and left his body at the ripe old age of 95 on 1 September 1574. Before his death he named his son-in-law Ram Das as his successor.