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A Remarkable Work on Guru Arjan
A review of Life and Work of Guru Arjan: History, Memory, and Biography in the Sikh Tradition by Pashaura Singh (New York: Oxford University Press; September 14, 2006; pp. 448; $45.00).


The Sikh Times, Jan. 27, 2007

Photo: Life and Work of Guru Arjan

Pashaura Singh is professor at the Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Riverside. His Ph.D. work at the University of Toronto was the result of intensive study of the Sikh scriptures, religious literature, and Sikh history, especially as relevant to the compilation of the primary Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth or Guru Granth, by Guru Arjan. His doctorate work has previously been extended in two books, Guru Granth Sahib: Canon, Meaning and Authority (2000) and The Bhagats of Guru Granth Sahib (2003). This present work is yet another feather in Pashaura Singh's turban.

Pashaura Singh builds Guru Arjan's lifestory using various sources including tradition, collective memory, hymns recorded in the Adi Granth, works of Bhai Gurdas, Bahoval Pothi, Dabistan-i-Mazahib (1644), Pothi of Bibi Rup Kaur, Granth of Bhai Painda, Kesar Singh Chhibbar's Bansavali-nama (1769), Sarup Das Bhalla's Mahima Prakash (1776), and Santokh Singh's Suraj Prakash (1843).

Guru Arjan spent his childhood at his grandfather's place at Goindwal. The religious atmosphere at Goindwal was a good influence on young Arjan. He observed the compilation of the Goindwal Pothi, a detailed selection and arrangement of the works of Sikhism's Gurus and Bhagats. This experience proved helpful when he later compiled the Adi Granth.

His training in classical ragas (melodies) from resident rababis and visiting musicians is evidenced by his use of 30 ragas to organize the Adi Granth. His grandfather and father (Guru Ram Das) founded new towns and built baolis (wells) and pools. Guru Arjan continued the tradition.

The teachings of Guru Arjan are dealt with beautifully, especially emphasizing their consistency with Guru Nanak's doctrine of monotheism. 'Throughout his works Guru Arjan spoke through Guru Nanak's lips.' Pashaura Singh has read and analyzed much of the available evidence and theories regarding the martyrdom of Guru Arjan. He stresses that the martyrdom was a turning point in Sikh history and that it helped crystalize the Sikh tradition.

New Findings

This book offers the reader lots of information that has perhaps not been adequately covered in other biographies of Guru Arjan.

We learn that Guru Arjan and Bhai Gurdas were classmates. They were taught the Gurmukhi script by Baba Buddha and Sanskrit by pundits, Kesho and Gopal.

Generally, it is believed that Bhai Gurdas was the amanuensis of Guru Arjan when he compiled Adi Granth. According to Pashaura Singh, there was also a Jagna Brahmin of Agra who had expertise in Sanskrit and Hindu scriptures and had earned himself a fine reputation for making exact copies of scriptures. They were assisted by four others - Bhai Sant Das, Bhai Harja, Bhai Sukha and Bhai Mansa Ram. In fact, the preparation of the scripture was a team effort, under the direct supervision of Guru Arjan. Jagna Brahmin made his own copy, which is believed to be an exact copy of the bir (recension) prepared by the team. Pashaura Singh viewed this copy at Goindwal in 2002.

We also learn that Emperor Jahangir donated 1400 bighas of land to Guru Arjan to build the city of Tarn Taran. According to Pashaura Singh, this is mentioned in two old manuscripts found in Vaid Mohan Singh's library. Later, when relations with the Mughals turned sour, Emperor Shahjahan gave a revenue free grant to Guru Hargobind's grandson, Dhir Mal, in 1643 to create a parallel seat of authority against Guru Arjan's son, Guru Hargobind. The original document ordering the grant is in the custody of the Sodhis of Kartarpur and has been viewed by Pashaura Singh. An English translation of the document is contained in the book. Due to the pro-establishment leanings of Dhir Mal, Guru Hargobind designated his youngest grandson Har Rai as Guru in 1644.

Manuscript MS 1245, the Behoval Pothi and the Vanjara Pothis were earlier drafts prepared under the supervision of Guru Arjan before the master Kartapur draft of the Adi Granth was finalized.

Guru Ram Das added 11 ragas increasing the number from 19 to 30. Guru Arjan did not add any ragas, but rearranged and systematized them while compiling the Adi Granth.

Guru Nanak wrote his hymns in lande/mahajani, the language of his profession, but used the Gurmukhi script. That puts the invention of the Gurmukhi script earlier than Guru Angad.

The eight chaukis (sittings) system of singing kirtan (hymns) as part of the daily routine at Amritsar was influenced by the eight orders of the Vaishnava Bhakti tradition.


Despite severe denigration and charges of blasphemy from a section of Sikh writers when his Ph.D. thesis appeared, Pashaura Singh stands unnerved. He still believes that Guru Arjan made drafts before preparing the master manuscript, the Kartarpur Bir, and that Guru Nanak Dev University (G.N.D.U.) manuscript MS 1245 is an earlier draft with valuable information worth examining. He still holds that Guru Arjan made minor revisions to the Mul Mantra, which he inherited from Guru Ram Das. (Mul Mantra is a reference to the basic credal statement and opening hymn of the Adi Granth.) He maintains that the inclusion of Bhagat Dhanna's hymns in Adi Granth was a response to the contemporary situation in which a large number of Jats were attracted towards the Sikh faith. His loyalty to his guide and mentor, W.H. McLeod, is unwavering. The spirit of McLeod stalks the pages of this volume. McLeod is the most quoted author in the book.

Unanswered Questions

Undoubtedly, this is a comprehensive study of all that is associated with Guru Arjan's life and work. Yet, it leaves some questions unanswered.

Acccording to Pashaura Singh, the Kartarpur Bir was only the master draft. It was not installed at Harimander Sahib, Amritsar. He, however, claims that the Kartarpur Bir was completed on August 1, 1604. Other sources reveal that the Guru Granth was installed at Harimander Sahib on August 16, 1604. Was an improved copy possible within two weeks? There are reasons to believe that it was the Kartpur Bir that was actually installed and Guru Hargobind carried it with him after the battle of Amritsar in 1634 and left it with his family at Kartarpur on his way to Kiratpur. At the time, Dhir Mal and family had not yet lost credibility with Guru Hargobind.

Pashaura Singh says that Guru Hargobind took the master draft from his house in Amritsar but left behind the final Guru Granth at Harimandir Sahib. Why would Guru Hargobind take away the master draft and not the final Adi Granth? According to the Encyclopaedia of Sikhism (edited by Harbans Singh), the final Adi Granth was taken by the Guru from Harimandir Sahib.

It is somewhat puzzling to learn that the master manuscript was not actually the final Guru Granth. 'In fact Guru Arjan had not closed the canon and he intended to add more hymns to the evolving corpus of the Sikh scripture. Both Gurinder Mann and I have discussed in our works that certain hymns were added after 1604,' writes Pashaura Singh. He then writes that the Punjabi University Museum (P.U.M.) manuscript #8 was a further improvement over the Kartarpur manuscript as it did not have the apocryphal Mira Bai hymn and has only two lines of the Ramkali hymn without the deleted or blank space. In The Guru Granth Sahib: Canon, Meaning and Authority (2000), he gives several reasons to prove that P.U.M. #8 is closer to the current Guru Granth than the Kartapur Bir. If so, since P.U.M. #8 was written during Guru Arjan's time, why not accept it as the master manuscript in place of the Kartarpur Bir?

If Sikh scripture was still evolving, then those who question the authenticity of the Kartarpur Bir have good reason for doing so.

According to Pashaura Singh, both Guru Arjan and Mian Mir laid the foundation stone of Harimandir Sahib. 'The Guru laid the first brick and the Sufi saint probably laid some additional bricks for the masonry foundation of the Harimandir Sahib.' This compromise formula of Pashaura Singh is less than convincing. Evidence that Guru Arjan himself laid the foundation is weightier and more convincing.

Many may not agree with Pashaura Singh on his justification for the inclusion of the Rag-mala in the sacred scripture when he says 'An understanding of the musical system of the Rag-mala enables one to explore the spiritual ethos of the Adi Granth.' Since the Rag-mala is not Gurbani, it would perhaps have been better contained in a separate volume as Guru Gobind Singh did for his own compositions.


Such differences, however, should not deny Pashaura Singh credit for intensive scholarly study never before attempted at this scale. This is a very well researched volume and as a scholar, a gursikh (practising Sikh) and a former granthi (preacher), he is fully qualified for the job. There are a hundred or so references at the end of each chapter. The book represents a mine of information for scholars and students of Sikh studies looking for new ideas on the life and work of Guru Arjan. The book was released to mark the fourth centenary of Guru Arjan's martyrdom. It is no wonder that the book was a bestseller in India (The Tribune, August 6, 2006). It surely deserves a place in all libraries with an interest in Sikh studies.

Individual buyers may obtain the book at the discounted price of $30 (shipping included) from South Asia Books (email