Reasons for the martyrdom of Guru Arjan

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On 16 June of every year since 1606, the Sikhs have commemorated the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru and the first Sikh Martyr. Before the arrest, torture and martyrdom of Guru Arjan, the Sikhs had nothing to do with weapons or violence. All the previous Sikh Gurus had taught the message of compassion, love, dedication, hard work, the worship of one God and the commitment to peace and harmony for all the peoples of the world.

The story of the execution of the Sikh Guru, under the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir has suffered at the hands of poet, street entertainers and historians who have allowed the fullest play of their imagination and have introduced a good deal of fiction to make it more appealing to the subjective minds of the Sikhs and other others for their own benefit. In this article we discuss the main causes of the martyrdom of Guru Arjan. The main reasons for the execution of the Guru can be listed under three headings - Religious, Personal and Political.


In about a century after Guru Nanak, Sikhism turned from a small irrelevant sect into a mass movement. Many thousands of followers followed the teachings of the Sikh Gurus; even some prominent Muslims who enjoyed a privileged position in the Mughal state during this period embraced Sikhism. The rulers found it difficult to tolerate the growth of Sikhism and its ever-increasing popularity. The reaction of the orthodox Muslims is found in the memoirs of Emperor Jahangir, the Tuzuk-i- Jahangiri.

With the advent of the Guruship of Guru Arjan many hundreds of thousands of the native people had began to follow the teachings of Sikhism and both Hindus and Muslims were crowding into Govindwal and Amritsar (the centres of the Sikhs during the late 1500s and early 1600s) where they were soon becoming Sikhs.

Mughal clergy becomes concerned

The Mughal clergy, who had long chaffed at the tolerance of Akbar, grew ever more angry of the popularity and the growing following of the Sikh Gurus, but after the death of Akbar in 1605, in his son Jahangir they saw their best chance to destroy the Sikh institution.

Jahangir, unlike his father was a fundamentalist Muslim who soon was influenced with the idea of turning the whole of Hindustan (as the Mughals called their kingdom in Northwest India) into an Islamic State. The powerful Hindus associated with the Mughal Court, having seen their own power base rapidly disappearing under the influence of Guru Arjan, joined the Muslim Ulema in their attempt to influence Jahangir into arresting Guru Arjan, hoping to plunge a dagger into the heart of the rapidly rising Sikhi faith.

The first Sikh Martyr

Main article: Martyrdom of Guru Arjan

Guru Arjun ji was martyred in 1606 by Mughal authorities.

Why was such a champion of peace and holiness arrested and dragged before the royal court of the newly installed Mughal Emperor Jahangir?

Jahangir's father Akbar who was the emperor of India during the time of Guru Amar Das, had been a virtuous ruler who respected holy men and had a love for divine teachings. Akbar's grandfather Babar had met with Guru Nanak during his invasion of the Panjab and his father Humayun had met with Guru Angad.

Akbar had respected the Sikh Gurus for their sensible practises and their fair and just teachings. In the year 1569, Akbar came to the Punjab and wanted to see the Sikh Guru. So when he sent a message to Guru Amar Das that he was coming to visit him, the Sikhs were very happy at the news. Some thought that special arrangements should be made to welcome the king, but the Guru said:

"Akbar is as much a human being as others are. The Guru's place is open to all. The king and his subjects, the Hindus and the Muslims, the rich and the poor are all equal here. So Akbar will be welcomed like all other visitors to the Guru's place and special arrangements need not be made."

Akbar and the Guru's Langar

Main article: Guru Amar Das and King Akbar

The king, along with the Rajah of Haripur, arrived in Goindwal where the Guru lived. They were shown round the place and Akbar was interested to know how the Guru's Langar was run. Simple food was served to all in the Guru's Langar. It remained open day and night. Travellers, beggars, and strangers, as well as the followers of the Guru, were all served with food.

The Guru had given an order that all persons coming to visit his place must have their food in the Langar (when hungry). There they were to sit in rows (Pangat) as equals and were to be served simple food in turn. Akbar and the Rajah of Haripur sat in Pangat (rows, as is still the custom today). They sat among the common people in a row as other Sikhs served them food.

Impressed with the Guru's Langar, Akbar said to the Guru, "I like Guru Nanak's religion very much and I respect you for your teachings. I want to make a grant of land for running the Langar. Would you mind it!".

The Guru is said to have replied, "Dear Akbar, I am very glad you like the path of Baba Nanak. I am also grateful to you for your offer of a grant of land for the Langar, but I am sorry I cannot accept it because the Guru likes all to work hard to earn (Kirt Karni) and to share their honest earnings (Wand Chakna) with others, by giving something to the Langar from their honest earnings to help others. As such, the Guru's langar is the people's (Sangat's) Langar and it must be run on people's free gifts and not on a royal grant. That is why all share equally in the Guru's Langar and no one is looked upon as an outsider. In the Guru's Langar, each gives as much as we can spare and takes as much as he/she needs. Here, there is no difference between kings and beggars. All sit together; and eat simple food served with loving care."

How did these cordial relations change?

So how could the son of Akbar, who history tells us managed to give his gift anyway in the form of a Jagir, as a wedding gift for Bibi Bhani and Bhai Jetha (who later became Guru Ram Das, the parents of Guru Arjan Dev) that is said by many to have become Amritsar, come to order the arrest of Guru Atjan? What earthly mundane reasons could have moved Jahangir (later to be known as Jahangir the Just) to order the arrest of Guru Arjan?

Reason for the change in the Mughal regime

Some of the contributing reasons:

  1. Creation of the Adi Granth: Was this the basic and main reason of the Guru's martyrdom. Guru Arjan had collected the Bani's of many of God's devotees (Hindu, Muslims, Upper Caste, Lower Caste etc.) and put them into the Guru Granth Sahib, which makes one proper institution of Gurmat, which has a totally new philosophy and was against many old philosophies of Hinduism and Islam.

    Many people started following this faith and the underlying philosophy. Even Muslim saints such as Mian Mir had become friends and Mureed of Gurmat. This had stunned the Muslim Ulema, which had long chaffed under the liberal and tolerant policies of Akbar.

    The Hindu priests (pandits) were also against the philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib, which threatened the caste system that kept them at the top of Hindu society.
    Jahangir, doubtless after endless complaints and demands, recorded his thoughts on the matter in his autobiography, the 'Tuzak-e-jahangiri' [1], in which he wrote:

"At Goindwal on the banks of the river Beas, lived a Hindu, Arjan by name, in the garb of a Pir or Sheikh. Thus, many innocent Hindus and even foolish and ignorant Muslims were brought into his fold, who beat the drum noisily of his self-appointed prophet-hood. He is called Guru. From all sides, worshippers came to offer their homage to him and put full trust in his word. For three or four generations, they have warmed up this shop. For a long time I have harboured the wish that I should set aside this shop of falsehood or I that should bring him into the fold of Islam."

Jahangir further wrote; "In these days, Khusro (his rebellious son) passed through this way. This foolish person (Guru Arjan) resolved to call on him. Khusro halted for a time at this place and this man came to see him and discoursed with him on many matters and also applied with saffron on his forehead what the Hindus call kashkeh (tilak) that the Hindus consider a good omen. When I heard this account personally, I knew about his false pretenses. So I ordered that he be brought into my presence, that his property be confiscated and his sons and other possessions be made over to Murtaza Khan and that he be dealt with in accordance with the political and common law of the land."

  1. Minas: Minas were against Guru Arjun from starting Prithi Chand and High Hindu priests started playing tactics against Guru Arjun Dev. Prithi Chand wanted to take possesion of the granth compiled by the guru, in hopes that by doing this he would be able to clam the Guruship for himself. He and many others played an important role in misguiding Jahangir. After the death of GUru Arjun Dev, he took possesion over Guru Granth Sahib. His desendents keep on protecting granth and claim themselves guru and followers of them are called Minas.

  2. Governor Chandu Shah: He also became hostile of Guru Arjun Dev as Guru Arjun Dev ji rejected his proposal of marriage, for his daughter. Sikh Sangat at that time forced Guru Arjun Dev ji to not accept this proposal as they were against tactics of Chandu, whose aim was to misuse Guru Ghar after marriage.

  3. Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi: It is also Said that Sheikh Ahmad Sarhindi was very much revered by Muslims. He presented himself to be Islam's Prophet of the second millennium; the first millennium belonging to Prophet Muhammad. He asserted that his status was higher than the Sikh Gurus. This was emphatically rejected by Guru Arjan Dev Ji. Sheikh Ahmad had great influence on Jehangir. Citing the Guru’s blessings bestowed upon Prince Khusro he instigated the Emperor against Guru Arjan Dev Ji. Jehangir wrote in his biography: A Hindu named Arjan lived at Goindwal...simple minded Hindus and ignorant and foolish Muslims have been persuaded to adopt his ways... this business has been flourishing for three generations. For a long time it had been in my mind to put a stop to this affair or to bring him into the fold of Islam...

  4. Jahangir: many Muslim Rulers worked to increase the Muslim fold, by just changing their way of life they thought one becomes muslim. Did they understand the tenants of their own religion? They thought that by doing the Hajj, keeping a beard and being circumcised and by proclaiming Muhammad as the last messenger of the One Sole God of all creation, called by them Allah, one became a Muslim. When Jahangir came to know the truth of Sikhi, he became a friend of Guru Hargobind ji, Guru Arjun Dev's son.

The tyrant, Jahangir gives his reasons

This is what Emperor Jahangir had written in his diary the "Tuzuk-i-Jahagiri" ( "Memoirs of Jahangir"):

"In Govindwal, which is on the river Biyah (Beas), there was a Hindu [wrongly addresses Guru as a Hindu!] named Arjun, in the garments of sainthood and sanctity, so much so that he had captured many of the simple-hearted of the Hindus, and even of the ignorant and foolish followers of Islam, by his ways and manners, and they had loudly sounded the drum of his holiness.

They called him Guru, and from all sides stupid people crowded to worship and manifest complete faith in him. For three or four generations (of spiritual successors) they had kept this shop warm. Many times it occurred to me to put a stop to this vain affair or to bring him into the assembly of the people of Islam.

At last when Khusrau passed along this road this insignificant fellow proposed to wait upon him. Khusrau happened to halt at the place where he was, and he came out and did homage to him. He behaved to Khusrau in certain special ways, and made on his forehead a finger-mark in saffron, which the Hinduwan (the people of India) call qashqa, (Tilak) and is considered propitious. When this came to my ears and I clearly understood his folly, I ordered them to produce him and handed over his houses, dwelling-places, and children to Murtaza Khan, and having confiscated his property commanded that he should be put to death."

(Was this only Jahangir's bragging over the death of Guru Arjan Dev, trying to 'steal' some of the Guru's power, by claiming to have killed him? There is no mention (in all of Sikh History) of the Guru's houses, dwelling-places, and children ever being seized by Murtaza Khan. In fact, written history and oral tradition seems to back up the fact that Murtaza Khan (influenced heavily by Chandu Shah) was left to decide Guru Arjan's punishment and it is even believed that Jahangir turned Chandu Shah over to Guru Hargobind for his role in the torture and death of his father Guru Arjan Dev. Murtaza Khan was never heard of again and Jahangir's diary never even mentions Guru Hargobind.)

Muslim fundamentalist movement

Main article: Jahangir and the Muslim fundamentalist movement

Sikhism, in spite of its emphasis on peace and tolerance, was perceived by Muslim fundamentalists as a threat to their supremacy. During the reign of Akbar, the Sikh faith had flourished on account of his policy of liberalism. Akbar had followed a policy of Sulh-i-Kul . He was noted for his secular and liberal outlook.

The fundamentalist Muslims, however, did not like the policy of religious toleration. However, they tolerated it till a time, they got an opportunity to strike a blow at it. In Punjab, the Muslim revivalist movement was started by Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, Mujaddid Alf- i-Sani (1564-1624) with its headquarters at Sirhind. The Shaikh bitterly criticised the policy of Akbar and not only, condemned the Hindu gods and was deadly against granting any concessions to the Hindus.

Personal reasons

Several cases may be cited as evidence of Emperor Jahangirs orthodoxy and fanaticism born out of fear and suspicion of the times. But for our purpose, only one example may be sufficient to prove this allegation. It is on the record that Jahangir allowed daily allowances to the new converts. It is also well known that when he learnt that in certain localities Muslim girls were converted to Hinduism and married to Hindus, he put a stop to it and punished the guilty. In the case of the execution of Guru Arjan, the Mughal Emperor attempted to stand forth a protector of the true faith.

It is evident from his own Tuzuk that Jahangir had already formed a prejudice against the Sikh movement and he got the long-sought chance in the rebellion of Khusrau. However, it appears that Jahangirs charge against Guru Arjan that Hindus and Muslims were embracing his faith in large numbers had been prompted by some external agency, mainly the fanatical mullas.

The Mujaddid may have worked overtime to bring upon the mind of Emperor through his trusted friend Shaikh Farid Bukhari. Guru Arjan was executed under the direct orders of the Emperor himself for his religious popularity and proselytization gained additional strength, making the Guru a real martyr at the alter of his faith. To oblige the Muslim orthodoxy, Jahangir became extremely biased against the Sikh movement and was in the lookout to finish it by eliminating the Sikhs Guru Arjan under the pretext of sheltering Prince Khusrau during his flight to the Punjab.

Political reasons

Emperor Jahangir, it is well known, was not a puritan representative of Islamic faith. Some time before and after his accession to the Mughal throne, he had perforce, of political necessity, to assume the character of the defender of the Muslim faith and play the role of a puritan. This he did in keeping with his promise to an influential section of the fanatical Muslims, the Naqshbandi revivalists under the leadership of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi.

According to calculated plan, the revivalists approached Jahangir, the successor of Emperor Akbar and offered him full support on the condition that there was complete change in the imperial policy towards the non-Muslims. The staunchest advocate of the revivalist movement at the court was Shaikh Farid Bukhari who also supported the claims of the heir apparent Prince Salim (later Jahangir) to the Imperial throne.(9)


In the light of contemporary historical evidence from the direct and original sources it appears that Guru Arjan was arrested and executed for the following reasons:

  • (a) his religious preachings,
  • (b) contemporary political developments and
  • (c) personal reasons.

The execution took place under the orders of Emperor Jahangir during the second year of his reign when due to political, personal and religious necessity he had to honour the Muslim revivalists to act as defender of Islamic faith.

In his Memoirs, the Emperor unashamedly confessed that:

  • (a) it was he who ordered Guru Arjan to be put to death;
  • (b) that he was concerned about the popularity of the Guru
  • (c) that the Guru was popular with both Hindus and Muslims and
  • (d) it was also naively accepted that the motive for this crime was the Emperors religious bigotry and an excuse to eliminate the Guru was then sought in linking it to Prince Khusrau.

Final thoughts

It is clear that the Emperor had been misled regarding the true facts but he took no steps to find the truth about the prevailing circumstances. It appears that the situation of Guru Arjan happened to be the first important one reported to him for his decision as a test case to prove his bona fides as a saviour of the Muslims from the influences of the non-Muslims and under the circumstances, he made an error in his decision to please the fundamentalists.

For the Sikhs it was a supreme sacrifice of their Guru for the cause of righteousness and truth. It admittedly was a unique martyrdom which has no match in the Indian history. Guru Arjan is the first martyr in Sikh history who fought for his ideals and a righteous cause for which he stood unshakable and steadfast.

The Gurus martyrdom had far-reaching consequences. It transformed the Sikhs into saint-soldiers who, from now onwards, exercised a decided influence on the subsequent history of the Punjab. Thus was the course of history changed due to one fatal mistake of Emperor Jahangir.

See also


  • This page was begun and developed by one of the user/contributors here at Sikhiwiki, it also makes use of the work of:
  • Stories from Sikh History Book 2, Hemkunt Press, A-78 Naraina Ind. Area, Phase-1, New Delhi-110028