Guru Arjan lived as the Guru of Sikhism for a quarter of a century. He completed the construction of Amritsar and founded other cities, such as Taran Taran and Kartarpur. The greatest contribution Guru Arjan made to the Sikh faith was to compile all of the past Gurus’ writings, along with selected writings of other saints from different backgrounds which he considered consistent with the teachings of Sikhism into one book, now the holy scripture: the Guru Granth Sahib. It is, perhaps, the only script which still exists in the form first published (a hand-written manuscript) by the Guru.
Guru Arjan introduced the Masands, a group of representatives who taught and spread the teachings of the Gurus and received the Dasvand, a voluntary offering of a Sikh’s income in money, goods or service. Sikhs paid the Dasvand to support the building of gurdwaras and langars (shared communal kitchens). Although the introduction of the langar was started by Guru Nanak, Guru Arjan is credited for laying the foundation of the systematic institution of langars as a religious duty, one that has continued ever since.
Guru Arjan was arrested under the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and asked to convert to Islam. He refused, was tortured and executed in 1606 CE. Historical records and the Sikh tradition are unclear whether Guru Arjan was executed by drowning or died during torture. His martyrdom is considered a watershed event in the history of Sikhism.
Guru Arjan was the son of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Guru in Sikhism. Arjan had two elder brothers: Prithi Chand (Prithia) and Mahadev. The eldest brother Prithia wanted to be the fifth Guru, but Guru Arjan was designated as the fifth Guru, by Guru Ram Das. Bhai Gurdas, a noted 17th-century Sikh chronicler, knew all three brothers from childhood. Prithia, stated Bhai Gurdas in his chronicles, attempted several times to falsely claim and assume the title of being the rightful Sikh Guru while Guru Arjan was alive, and after Guru Arjan’s death, including by using the pseudonym of Nanak in hymns he composed, but the Sikh tradition has recognised Guru Arjan as the fifth Guru, and Hargobind as the sixth Guru.
Continuing the efforts of Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan established Amritsar as a primary Sikh pilgrimage destination. He wrote a voluminous amount of Sikh scripture including the popular Sukhmani Sahib.
Compiling the Adi Granth, Guru Arjan gave Sikhs an example of religious and moral conduct, as well as a rich body of sacred poetry. His starting of collection of offerings by way of Masand system, in a systematic way, accustomed them to a regular government. He traded in horses, though not extensively, and encouraged his followers to follow his example, to be as zealous in trade as they were in their faith. Guru Arjan became famous among his pious devotees and his biographers dwell on the number of Saints and Holy men who were edified by his instructions. He was equally heeded by men in high positions. During his time, the teaching and philosophy of Guru Nanak took a firm hold on the minds of his followers.
Guru Arjan’s martyrdom in Mughal custody has been a controversial issue in Sikh history, and has been variously interpreted.
Most Mughal historians considered Guru Arjan’s execution as a political event, stating that the Sikhs had become as a formidable social group, and Sikh Gurus became actively involved in north Indian political conflicts. similar theory floated in early 20th-century, asserts that this was just a politically-motivated single execution. According to this theory, there was an ongoing Mughal dynasty dispute between Jahangir and his son Khusrau suspected of rebellion by Jahangir, wherein Guru Arjan blessed Khusrau and thus the losing side. Jahangir was jealous and outraged, and therefore he ordered the Guru’s execution.
Historical revisionism, reconstruction and disputes
There are several stories and versions about how, where and why Guru Arjan died. Recent scholarship has questioned many of these, calling them as fictional interpretation, reflecting an agenda, or “exaggerating fragmentary traces of documentary evidence in historical analysis”. The alternate versions include stories about the role of Guru Arjan in a conflict between the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his son who Jahangir suspected of trying to organize a patricidal coup, or alternatively a Hindu minister of Jahangir named Chandu Shah, who in one version takes revenge on Guru Arjan for not marrying his son Hargobind to Chandu Shah’s daughter, and in another Lahore version where Chandu Shah actually prevents Guru Arjan from suffering torture and death by Muslims by paying 200,000 rupees (100,000 crusados) to Jahangir, but then keeps him and emotionally torments him to death in his house.All these versions and meta-narratives became popular in 19th century British colonial literature, such as those of Max Arthur Macauliffe. Several alternative versions of the story try to absolve Jahangir and the Mughal empire of any responsibility, but have no trace or support in the documentary evidence from early 17th century, such as the records of Jesuit priest Jerome Xavier and the memoirs of Jahangir.