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The Legacy Of Guru Gobind Singh

Misguided Patriot Or Misunderstood Prophet?...

Hailed as a prophet, poet, soldier and scholar, Guru Gobind Singh was honored all over India last year on the occasion of his 350th birth anniversary. It was indeed proper for he never considered himself as belonging to any one region or religion; entire mankind was his constituency. Yet his legacy remains largely unknown, or worse, misunderstood in India.

His 20th century biographer Daulat Rai, regarded him a defender of the indigenous Hindus against the perceived Muslim foreigners. It was perhaps because of such mischaracterization that Gandhi allegedly called Guru Gobind Singh a ‘misguided patriot’. The poet Rabindranath Tagore was only half right when he wrote: ‘Guru Gobind Singh stamped on the hearts of his disciples an intense longing to be liberated from earthly enemies but he exhausted the spiritual viaticum of Baba Nanak’. Hindu revivalists, point to his retelling of the Hindu epics in the ‘Choubis Avtar’ and eagerly embrace him a reformist Hindu. Sikh fundamentalists, equally anxious to jettison anything remotely connected to Hinduism, reject these works as plain forgeries.

Only serious historians understand that in order to understand sophisticated, multi-dimensional personalities like Guru Gobind Singh, context is necessary. For example, nations, nationalism and patriotism were concepts that first arose in Europe in the 17th century. Guru Gobind Singh was a premodern personality who lived in India in a time where such concepts were unknown. Besides, he was a Sikh Guru and all his predecessors had preached the idea of a single human family in which any tribalism by caste, color, creed or nationality was an anathema. Secondly, since he was a highly educated scholar who commented on a wide variety of subjects both sacred and secular, his writings cannot be identified with any narrow ideology or any sectarian outlook.

From a historical point of view, Guru Gobind Singh’s life and legacy can broadly be understood by a rule of threes. His Guruship period, had three phases, the early youthful phase at Anandpur and Paonta Sahib (1675-1688), the second, more active phase at Anandpur (1688-1704) and the third, most historically significant post Anandpur phase (1704-1708). His legacy too, can be discussed under three broad headings; literary, as a poet-scholar; social, as a thinker-reformer, and political, as a soldier-revolutionary. He faced three major challengers. First were the Minas; other Nanakpanthis who professed to follow the teachings of Guru Nanak but rejected the Guru’s lineage. The second were the Hindu elite from the rulings castes, mainly the Rajputs. The last were the mighty Mughals. He left a lasting imprint on three different institutions. He abolished the first; the masand system; and created two others; the order of the Khalsa brotherhood and the eternal Guru, the Granth Sahib.


Guru Gobind Singh was a mere nine year old when his father was unjustly executed and the mantle of leadership fell upon him. His first challenge was to reassure the Sikh Panth that he was up to the task of leading the community in the troubling times ahead. The young Guru’s leadership was a contested one; on one hand were his two cousins, Dhir Mal and Ram Rai, each claiming to be rival Gurus; on the other was another well regarded relative, Harji; the son of Guru Hargobind’s scholarly cousin Mihirban Sodhi.

Of these three, Harji was the most credible challenger. Harji’s father Mihirban had earlier objected intellectually against Guru Hargobind’s concept of Miri and Piri. Now Harji threw out a similar challenge. He argued that the followers of Guru Nanak should focus on personal faith and retreat from social and political space entirely because according to him, the path to God was through asceticism. The vehicle Harji used to make his case was the exegesis of the Adi Granth and the commentaries on the ancient Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, written earlier by his father. According to Mihirban, the heroes in those epics, Lord Rama, his father Dasharatha and father-in-law and Janaka, were forerunners of Guru Nanak and were first and foremost sages, who had spent long years in solitary meditation and only reluctantly entered public life. That, he argued was true Dharma.

Harji had another big advantage; he controlled the sacred Hari Mandir in Amritsar, enjoying the power and prestige that went along with it and thus had quite a bit of following. The Indian epics were so widely read and understood that they were an indivisible part of the Indian culture. Before the Sikhs, the Buddhists had used these texts as allegories and reference points of philosophical debates. Harji thus made a compelling argument that could not be dismissed lightly. It was in this context that Guru Gobind Singh entered the debate and rewrote his own commentaries on those ancient texts. In his hands Rama and Krishna became action oriented princes, acquiring legitimacy not by renunciation but by battling evil and upholding Dharma -righteousness. However the heroes listed in Guru Gobind Singh’s ‘Chaubis Avtar’ were not deities. ‘The Puranas speak of Ram and the Quran of Rahim, yet I worship neither’ he wrote.

In contradistinction to Harji, who traced his own philosophical the lineage via Guru Nanak all the way back to King Janak, Guru Gobind Singh fixed his own genealogy and that of his nine predecessors starting from ‘Bhagauti sahib’ -the mighty sword (of justice and righteousness). In almost a direct verbal counterpoint to Harji’ his Krishna spoke thus at the conclusion of the Krishna Avtar:

“Oh Lord. When have I known the practice of tapas? Why should I assume separation from you? Now if you are delighted, grant me this wish: when my end arrives, may I die valiantly on a battlefield for the sake of Dharma!”

Guru Gobind Singh’s Dharma however, (like that of Guru Nanak), was different from the Dharma that was understood before. In the Bhagwat Gita, Lord Krishna explained Dharma in the context of one’s station in life; thus a man’s Dharma was different than a woman’s, a warrior’s from that of a laborer’s. In contrast, the call Dharma of Gurus Nanak and Gobind Singh applied evenly and equally to everyone. Accordingly, the highest Dharma was to consider all God’s creatures as equal, and all humanity as one family. Any kind of discrimination was against God’s order (Hukam).

Once the above are understood the rest of Guru Gobind Singh’s life, his literary compositions, his social reforms and his actions, including his military clashes with the Rajputs and the Mughals become more easily understood.


The Mughal Empire in India was not, as popularly portrayed a Muslim rule over Hindu subjects. In actuality large parts of India were never under any direct Mughal control; instead it was the local elite; mostly dominant Hindu castes like the Rajputs who did the ruling. Mughals only exercised a nominal control while the local ruling dynasties had complete and unrestricted control over the lives and destinies of peoples under their rule. Thus the rulers were Rajputs; the elite were Brahmins, and the other castes, including the Jats were too far down the totem pole to matter. The outcastes were simply that, outcaste; not even worthy of consideration. This Mughal-Rajput dominance atop a caste based hierarchy worked well for the elite, safe from any internal demands or threats of disorder.

Until the rise of Sikh militancy; that is.  

The Sikh Gurus started out preaching a message of universal brotherhood and against the evil of caste system. For example, Bhai Gurdas wrote thus about the mission of Guru Nanak: “The Provider Lord listened to the cries, (of the people) Guru Nanak descended into this world. In this Dark Age, he showed all gods to be just one. The four feet of Dharma, the four castes were converted into one. Equality of the King and beggar, he spread the custom of being humble.”

And yet the caste inequalities were so imbedded into the society, they refused to go away. Paradoxically, under Aurangzeb, the caste and class divisions worsened. The social and economic burden of a profligate, war torn empire fell unevenly on the low caste Hindus. The Rajput elite were again exempt, and could not care less. So after much consideration, the Guru decided to take the matter into his own hands. On the Baisakhi day of 1699, he abruptly abolished all caste hierarchies and established a new fraternal order of equals; the Khalsa. He declared that from hence forth the Khalsa was to share a common symbolic vessel to eat and drink, (the batta); and a have common identity to be known as Singhs. They were asked to give up their former belief in caste even if specified in any scriptures, including the Vedas and Shastras. They were also asked to henceforth arm themselves; and use the arms to protect themselves and their principles. The formation of the Khalsa was thus not a break with but an extension of the mission and the teachings of Guru Nanak.

The Khalsa was decidedly against caste based discrimination but not directed against any particular caste. Nevertheless, to the ruling Hindu elite, especially the Rajputs it was a direct, even existential threat, for they had most to lose from such radical egalitarianism. Not surprisingly, within months of his declaration they attacked the Guru but the Khalsa proved to be too strong to handle, so they begged the Mughal forces to step in. Initially however, perhaps eager to maintain a status quo, the Mughal governor offered a way out. A message was sent to the incumbent ‘head of the Nanakpanthis’ that if Guru Gobind Singh and his followers agreed to forsake the new social order and go back to the docile ways of the other sects (Dhir Mal, Ram Rai and Harji’s) they could avoid imperial wrath.

The Guru refused.

‘Eith marg pair dharrijye, sir dejye kaan na kijiye’ Guru Nanak had written two centuries before. Now that the die was cast, he and his followers could not and would not retreat. Thus started a bitter fifty year war between the fledgling Khalsa and the mighty Mughal Empire, that incredibly enough, ended in a complete annihilation of the Mughal power West of River Jamuna.


The rest of Guru Gobind Singh’s life was devoted to following his stated principles. Over the next few years, he sacrificed his all, his home, his wealth, his family; young sons and many of his beloved Khalsa but he never retreated. Yet neither did he let any thought of bigotry or revenge escape his lips or reflect in his writings. Though tormented by the Rajput chiefs and Mughal governors, he had nothing but the highest regard for their faiths and beliefs. ‘Tilak Janju Rakha Prabh Takka’ he wrote poignantly of the plight of the Hindus. At another place he wrote “Someone is Hindu and someone a Muslim, then someone is Shia, and someone a Sunni, but all the human beings, as a species, all are recognized as one and the same.”

The message was clear. Neither bigotry nor discrimination of any kind was permissible for the Khalsa. His letter to Aurangzeb, the Zafarnama, was written at one of the lowest point in his life; yet it is remarkably free of any self-pity, anger or recriminations. If anything, it reflects a steely calm composure while making tense, pithy points.

‘Na Saaz o Na Baaz o Na Fauj o na Faraash, Khudawand Bakshindeh Aiyash Araash’ he wrote. (One does not require material comforts, pleasures, lands or bodyguards.  All one needs is a grace of one God)

Reading it, a cold hearted emperor relented momentarily. Aurangzeb wrote back; asking for an honorable meeting between the two. It was not destined to be. Though the Guru responded to the overture and travelled south, Aurangzeb died before the meeting could take place.

The Guru too passed away the following year, cut by an assassin’s knife but even in passing he had one final institution to leave for posterity.

‘Guru Maniyo Granth’ he instructed his grief stricken Khalsa when they begged that he name a successor. But the Granth he appointed as the Guru in his place was the Adi Granth, containing only the works of his predecessors, leaving out any of his own compositions from it. This was, one suspects, a deliberate act. Part humility part sacrifice, it was above all, an act of statesmanlike foresight for he understood that the final Guru could only be universal if it gave a message of spiritualism, peace and tranquility to the entire mankind. His own compositions, though works of high quality were too stimulating and martial in tone. They were not intended for quiet introspection but to arouse the spirit in order to deal with the incongruities of the age. A later day historian, Loehlin, was to liken the Guru Granth Sahib to a temple and the Dasam Granth of Guru Gobind Singh to a fortress.

The tenth master may not have wanted to bequeath anything other than the ‘temple’ to his followers yet his image and his words live in the memory of millions. ‘Guru Gobind Singh was a beau ideal of the Punjabis’ wrote the historian and author Khushwant Singh. ‘He was a handsome man whose feats as a cavalier, swordsman and archer endeared him to a people who set store by physical prowess. The Punjabis pictured him leading them to battle riding a roan stallion. On one hand fluttered his white hawk in other hand flashed his sabre. Their favorite titles for him were the rider of the blue horse, (nile ghore da aswar) the lord of the white hawks, (chitte baazan walle) and the wearer of the plumes (kalgidhar).

While Guru Gobind Singh’s picture was in their minds, his words were on their lips. For the amant there was his sensuous poetry, for the downcast there was faith and affirmation, for the crusader there were the heroic ballads and for the defeated was his Epistle of Victory, (Zafarnama) breathing defiance with every line. Above all, in everything he wrote, spoke or did, there was a note of buoyant hope, (Chardi Kala) and a conviction that even if he lost his life; his mission was bound to succeed”.

Today, more than twenty two million followers and many more admirers can attest to that fact. That is the true legacy of the tenth Nanak.

Rupinder Singh Brar MD FACC


Rupinder Singh Brar

Personal interests include, outside medicine are English and Punjabi literature as well as history, culture and anthropology.

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