Arjan Mal was born as the third son to Bhai Jetha and Mata Bhani on 15, April 1563, at Goindwal in Punjab. Some chronicles give his birth year as 1553. Gurdwara Chaubara Sahib now stands at the place where he was born. Goindwal was the seat of the Sikh religion at that point in time since the living Nanak, Guru Amar Das Ji was staying there. Guru Amar Das Ji was also the maternal grandfather of young Arjan and quite fond of him. Arjan’s parents Bhai Jetha and Mata Bhani, at the time of his birth were deeply involved in Sewa (service) at Goindwal. Later Bhai Jetha became the fourth Nanak with the name of Guru Ram Das Ji.
It is said that when Arjan was a mere infant, Guru Amar Das Ji, hinted a number of time about his becoming the Guru of the Sikhs. In one such instance, he addressed Arjan as “Dohita Bani Ka Bohita” (my grandson will spread the wisdom of Gurbani). Similar qualities of spirituality, tranquility and the will to serve were seen in Arjan by his father, Guru Ram Das Ji too.
These early prediction notwithstanding, young Arjan, had a normal childhood in Goindwal where he stayed for 11 years with his family that included his two elder brothers Prithi Chand and Mahadev. He grew up under supervision of his grandfather and Baba Budha Ji who taught him Gurmukhi. He studied in Goindwal Sahib Dharamshala and learnt Devanagari and Sanskrit from Pandit Beni. His uncle Bhai Mohan was his Guru in the art of meditation.
While his elder brother, Mahadev, exhibited ascetic tendencies early in life and remained isolated from the affairs of the Sikhs, the eldest brother, Prithi Chand, was quite involved in the affairs of the community. Prithi Chand saw in young Arjan a possible competition to his aspirations to become the next Guru of the Sikhs in succession to his father. He tried to manipulate things in his favour while Arjan lived a simple life dedicated to service to his father.
Guru Ram Das viewed young Arjan’s dedication favourably and for this reason he kept the young boy involved in his favourite project of construction of Ramdaspur (later known as Amritsar). Thus, Arjan after the first eleven years of his life in Goindwal went to Ramdaspur and assisted in the construction of the holy tank and the city.
It is said that Guru Ram Das Ji received an invitation to attend the marriage of his first cousin Sahari Mal’s son at Lahore. Since he was busy, he called upon his elder sons to represent him in the wedding. Both Prithi Chand and Mahadev refused. While refusal from the ascetic Mahadev was expected, Prithi probably refused since he did not want to go too far away from the seat of power. Guru Ram Das then called upon Arjan to attend the wedding to which the latter agreed instantly since it was a Hukam (order) from his Guru who was also his father. Guru Ram Das Ji also bade Arjan to not come back till called and gave to him the responsibility to spread the faith in Lahore.
Two years passed and Guru Ram Das Ji did not call Arjan back. He was probably waiting for his son to send a missive requesting for permission to return. Arjan wrote three letters to his father, in the form of exquisite poetry, expressing his deep love and loyalty and his yearning to come back to the presence of his Guru. The first two were waylaid by his brother Prithi Chand. Arjan marked the third letter as #3 and bade the messenger to give the same to his father personally. The third letter is a historic poetic rendition in Raag Maajh which has been inscribed the Guru Granth Sahib. It is seen as a love letter form a disciple to his God. A significant portion of the Gurbaani composed by Guru Arjan Dev Ji is in the form of love letters to the Almighty.
There are different versions of the circumstances under which Guru Ram Das Ji got hold of the letters. The bottom line is that he did and he was greatly touched by the devotion shown towards him by his youngest son. He also got to know about the deceitful and jealous nature of his eldest son. It was these factors that made him decide upon the fifth Nanak.
He sent Baba Budha Ji to Lahore to get back Arjan Mal and on his return declared him to be the fifth Nanak. In the year 1581, Arjan Mal, then merely 18 years old, became the fifth Nanak when his father Guru Ram Das Ji left his physical form. His name, as desired by his father was changed to Guru Arjan Dev Ji. He was also the first Guru to be born in a Sikh family.
As in earlier instances, the succession raised jealousies and created politics with Prithi Chand not being happy with the turn of events. It is believed, however, that Prithi Chand did not immediately break contact and continued to remain a part of the Sikh community. He was given due respect by his younger brother, the Guru; it was later that the jealousy grew and took a drastic turn for the worse.
Guru Arjan Dev Ji continued with the work on Ramdaspur that had been initiated by Guru Ram Das Ji. Bhai Bhudda Ji was given the supervisory responsibility. On completion of Santokhsar in 1588, the Guru started work on a Temple on the site, to be called Hari Mandir.
The Guru was conscious of the need to maintain the affinity of the temple with humanity in accordance with the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev Ji which said “I am neither Hindu nor Muslim…” Accordingly he called upon a Muslim saint, Mian Mir, who was also his friend and devotee, to lay the foundation stone of the Temple in 1589. The Temple was to have doors on all four sides as had been conceptually initiated by Guru Nanak Dev Ji in Kartarpur Sahib. This was to denote acceptance of all castes and classes, without any differentiation, into the fold of Sikh religion. The Sikhs wanted the Temple to be the highest building in the area but Guru Arjan Dev Ji kept it lower than the surroundings to remind his Sikhs always about the virtues of humility. As work on the Hari Mandir progressed, the surrounding city developed rapidly. The Guru also spent more time in the city then in the traditional seat of Goindwal.
The Guru realised the need to organise the activities of the Sikhs as also the need to generate funds for conduct of various activities mainly the running of the Langar as also development of the city and Hari Mandir. For this he modified the system of “Masand” that was initiated by Guru Ram Das. Masands under him remained vigorous preachers but also collected offering on behalf of the Guru in the form of Daswand (ten percent of earning for the community). They were given the authority to accept new members into the fold of Sikhi by administering Charanamrit (holy nectar as part of the initiation ceremony) in the name of the Guru. Masands were required to pay annual visits to Amritsar at the Baisakhi fair to receive instructions from the Guru and to hand over the amount of Daswandh collected. Regular accounts of these offerings were kept and receipts were issued. The Sikh religion grew at a very fast rate due to the system of Masands initiated by the Guru.
On 15 June 1589, Guru Arjan Dev Ji married Mata Ganga, the daughter of Bhai Krishan Chand and resident of Village Mau, 10 kms west of Phillaur. Immediately after his marriage the Guru embarked on a tour of Punjab with his trusted Sikhs. The objective was to visit all the sites that were connected to the Sikhs and also to connect with those who had been initiated into the fold of Sikhs by the Masands. He accordingly visited Khadur, Goindwal, Sarhali, Bhaini, Khanpur, Taran Taran, Lahore, Dera Baba Nanak and Barath where he got to meet Baba Sri Chand, the ascetic son of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. He purchased some land near Jullundur and laid the foundation of a township later called Kartarpur.
For six years after marriage, Guru Arjan Dev Ji and his wife Mata Ganga remained childless. Prithi Chand started harbouring ambitions of himself or his son, Meharban becoming the next Guru. Mata Ganga got to know of this and appealed to the Guru to give her the boon of a child as he gave to other Sikhs. The Guru, in all humility, told her to seek blessings from Baba Budha Ji. It is said that Mata Ganga had to go to Baba Budha three times to get the blessing since he refused to meet her when she went with all trappings of affluence. The blessings came by only when she went in all humbleness and with simple food cooked with her own hands. Baba Budha Ji was very pleased with the simplicity of Mata Ganga, he broke the onion she had brought and granted to her the boon of son who “would crush the enemies of Nanak’s house as he had crushed the onion.” It was after the boon that Guru Arjan Dev and Mata Ganga were blessed with a son on June, 14, 1995, who was named Hargobind.
Prithi Chand made three attempts to poison the child but each time he failed. In one such attempt he released a poisonous cobra in the place where the child Hargobind was playing but the child took hold of the Cobra and crushed him with his bare hands.
Having realised that he could no longer contend to be a Guru of the Sikhs and nor could his son, Prithi Chand disassociated himself from the community and created his own sub-sect. He wrote his own hymns as later did his son Meharban and grandson Harji. The Sikh community calls this sub-sect the Minas which means scoundrels. A non derogatory name that is recorded is Miharvan Sikhs. There is another version of the history which says that Prithi Chand remained devoted to Guru Arjan Dev Ji and became a Sahib Guru only after the martyrdom of the Guru and due to his non-acceptance of Hargobind as the next Guru. Either way, what is a historical fact is that Prithi Chand broke away from the parent community and started a parallel sect.
Apart from Prithi Chand, Guru Arjan Dev also invited the ire of one Chandu Lal who was a man of considerable significance in the Mughal Court during the reign of both Emperor Akbar and Emperor Jahangir. The misunderstand arose due to a marriage proposal of the daughter of Chandu Lal with Hargobind, the son of Guru Arjan Dev. Chandu Lal first rejected the proposal but later relented, by that time Guru Arjan Dev Ji also refused. This hurt the massive ego of Chandu Lal and he became a sworn enemy of the Guru. He later aligned with Prithi Chand and became instrumental for the martyrdom of the Guru in the hands of the Mughals.
It was sometime after the birth of Hargobind that Guru Arjan Dev Ji started the mammoth project of composing the Adi Granth with Gurbani of all Gurus as also the renditions of many prominent saints of those times.
The main reason behind this compilation was the emergence and circulation of new hymns that were claimed to have been composed by Guru Nanak Dev JI. This is an indication of Prithi Chand having disassociated from the Sikh community during the times of Guru Arjan Dev Ji since he has been held responsible for the creation of the fake Bani.
Guru Arjan Dev Ji started working on compilation of the original work of all Gurus. He called upon all Sikhs to bring to him Bani of the Gurus in their possession. He acquired a sizeable compilation through personal interaction with Bhai Mohan, brother of Guru Amar Das Ji living in Goindwal; Datu, son of Guru Angad Dev Ji living in Khadur Sahib and Baba Sri Chand, son of Guru Nanak Dev Ji living in Kartarpur Sahib. The collection was a difficult task; the Guru used persuasion and humility for achieving the same. Maximum inputs came from Baba Mohan Ji in what is known as Goindwal Walian Pothian (books from Goindwal). These were two in number; one volume contained Bani of the Gurus and the second contained compositions of prominent Bhagats (Saints).
Once the manuscripts were acquired, Guru Arjan Dev Ji left the routine functions of Hari Mandir Sahib in the hands of Baba Budha Ji, pitched a ten by the side of the holy Ramsar Tank and got down to compilation of the manuscript. Bhai Gurdas was responsible for inscribing the first copy. Guru Arjan Dev Ji meticulously worked on the manuscript, rejecting all such literature that he considered to be fake and diverging from the teachings of the Gurus.
Those were the times of the “Bhakti Movement” in India wherein many great Saints preached a message of spirituality and humanity. Guru Arjan Dev Ji selected the works of 17 Hindu and two Muslim Saints for inclusion in the manuscript. The main among these saints were Sheikh Farid and Bhagat Kabir, Bhagat Ravi Das, Dhanna Namdev, Ramannand, Jai Dev, Trilochan, Beni, Pipa and Surdas. Thus the holy book became a manuscript that gave credence to all humanity, regardless of class or caste. Guru Arjan was a prolific poet and composed 218 hymns that were also incorporated in the Granth. His work forms the largest collection in the Guru Granth Sahib.
The mammoth work got over on 30 August, 1604. On 01, September, 1604, Guru Arjan Dev Ji, ceremoniously installed the manuscript in HarI Mandir Sahib. It was placed at a higher pedestal than the Guru himself and all Sikhs were instructed to bow before and seek from it divine inspiration. Baba Budha was appointed the first Granthi (teacher and custodian) of the holy book.
Over time, the book has been referred to with different names. Originally it was called Pothi Sahib and later the Adi Granth. The final version which also has the Gurbani of the ninth master, Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji, was named Guru Granth Sahib and declared the living Guru of the Sikhs by the tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh Ji.
No sooner had the Adi Granth been installed that the enemies started conniving to use it as an instrument to harm the Guru and the Sikhs. They complained to Emperor Akbar that the Granth prepared by the Guru was derogatory to the Muslims. The Guru was asked to give an explanation for which Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Buddha went to the court of Emperor Akbar. They were assisted by Mian Mir who was revered by Emperor Akbar as a great Saint. Emperor Akbar got convinced about the devotional content of the Granth and termed it as a “volume worthy of reverence.” He not only set aside the complaint but also offered to the Guru a suitable gift. The Guru asked for exemption of revenue to the peasants of Punjab in view of the severe drought that had afflicted the region. Emperor Akbar graciously agreed and this greatly increased the popularity of the Guru among the peasants.
While the immediate danger got over, the enemies became even more jealous and determined to cause harm to the Guru. The death of Emperor Akbar in October, 1605, led to a succession battle between his son Prince Salim and grandson Prince Khusrau. Prince Khusrau, as a rebel, travelled towards Lahore and en-route at Taran Taran he met with and received blessings from Guru Arjan Dev Ji. He was defeated by his father and blinded. Prince Salim thus became Emperor and was named Jahangir.
For the enemies of Guru Arjan Dev Ji, this was a golden opportunity! They filled the ears of Emperor Jahangir telling him that the Guru had aligned with his enemy. Their ministrations found support from many powerful clergymen, both Hindu and Muslim, who were getting worried by the growing spiritual influence on the common people of Guru Arjan Dev Ji and the Sikh religion, especially so, after the compilation of the holy Granth.
When the Guru received summons to the court of Jahangir, he realised that he would probably not come back. Accordingly, as per established rituals, he called upon Baba Buddha to apply the holy saffron mark on forehead of his son Hargobind and anoint him as the sixth Nanak.
Guru Arjan Dev Ji explained to Emperor Jahangir that he had simply extended courtesy to Prince Khusrau since the latter was the grandson of Emperor Akbar who had shown great respect for the Guru while remaining a benefactor of the Sikhs. He emphasised that there was no political intention on his part. Emperor Jahangir failed to comprehend the high spiritual standing of the Guru and remained unconvinced about the explanation given. He rendered a death sentence to the Guru on the charge of rebellion.
Once again Mian Mir intervened and convinced the Emperor to commute the sentence to a fine of Rupees Two Lakhs plus erasing of a few verses from the Adi Granth which the Emperor had been told were objectionable to the clergy. Guru Arjan Dev Ji refused both the caveats. He said the money of the Sikhs could not be spent for his personal benefit. He was ready to give whatever he possessed personally, but that was not enough. On changing the verses in the Adi Granth the Guru was emphatic that not a single word of what has been said by the saints and holy people could be changed especially so since the hymns were not disrespectful to any Hindu incarnation or any Muslim prophet. The Sikhs attempted to give the fine but the Guru issued a stern warning that whosoever contributed to pay the fine would not be his Sikh.
In 1606 CE, the Guru was imprisoned in Lahore Fort! There are differing versions about his death but it remains quite certain that he was brutally tortured over five days under the supervision of Chandu Lal. He was put on to a process of slow burning and roasting. On the first day he was given nothing to eat or drink; on the second day he was burnt in a cauldron of boiling water; on the third day he was once again boiled in water while hot sand was poured on his head.
His friend and devotee, Mian Mir, was so devastated by the barbarity that he sought permission of the Guru to use his supernatural and ecclesiastic powers to destroy his torturers and the entire city of Lahore. The Guru strictly forbade him from doing so since the use of such power goes against the tenets of the Sikh religion. The torture thus continued for the fourth day when the Guru was made to sit on a plate of heated iron while hot sand was poured on his upper body.
The Guru went through the four days of torture in an absolutely calm manner, taking the name of the lord all the time. On the fifth day he asked for permission to bathe in the River Ravi. The torturers felt that the cold water on his blistered body will cause more pain so they allowed him to bathe in the River. As soon as Guru Arjan Dev Ji entered the River, he simply disappeared; his body was nowhere to be seen.
Guru Arjan Dev Ji carried forward the message and work of the previous Nanak’s with utmost humility and dedication. He worked ceaselessly for the poor, the deprived and the sick, especially lepers whom nobody would touch. He brought about both administrative and spiritual changes which spread the word far and wide. People in large numbers came forward to join the Sikh religion and this also became one of the main causes for his martyrdom. The Bani composed by him is mesmeric in its poetic architecture and spiritual depth. It is a source of deep inspiration for the Sikhs. The Guru lived the divine message of Gurbani by conquering both death and suffering while remaining fearless in defending the truth.
His martyrdom also became a watershed moment in the history of Sikhs who decided, there and then, to never tolerate injustice, insult or oppression. Things changed drastically under his son and the Sixth Nanak, Guru Hargobind Ji.