A guru is a spiritual guide or a teacher for Sikh devotees. A Sikh guru is a person able to connect people with God. Sikhs even call God “Gur Prasad” meaning Guru’s Grace. History counts ten Sikh gurus, beginning with the founder of the religion, Guru Nanak. It ends not with a person but with a book, Guru Granth Sahib, which is revered as a true and living guru. The role of these Sikh gurus was to teach Sikhs how to perform the religious duties of meditation, sharing, and honest living.
1. Guru Nanak (1469-1539): The First of the 10 Sikh Gurus
Guru Nanak is the founder of the Sikh religion and the first of the Sikh gurus. He was born in a small village near the famous Punjabi city of Lahore to a Hindu merchant family. Later tradition holds that Guru Nanak gave signs of his future greatness when he was a baby. He lived a typical Hindu life until he reached 30 years of age and when he experienced a revelation of God. The highest being in Sikhism told him to rejoice in his name and teach others to do the same.
Following this advice, Guru Nanak started to travel and contact other religions, particularly Hinduism and Islam. He learned a lot about other people’s religious traditions. Then he experienced a three-day mystical journey during which he received a message that there is no Hindu or Muslim God, but just One God who spoke in favor of humanity and against caste, ethnic, and religious divisions. Accepting all humans as equal is the main message Guru Nanak wished to convey in his twenty years of traveling and teaching.
Despite the emphasis on equality, Guru Nanak formed a new religion, Sikhism. The first Sikh community (Panth) was formed in Kartarput. It followed Guru Nanak’s teachings and lifestyle, which has remained characteristic for Sikhs to this day. He named his successor, which also became a standard for how religious authority was transferred.
2. Guru Angad Dev (1539-1552): Sikh Guru of Gurmukhi, Langar, and Mall Akhara
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A long-time follower of Guru Nanak, the second guru of Sikhism, began to systematize the new religion. Guru Nanak gave him the name Angad, meaning “my own limb.” He also wrote 62 hymns. Still, Guru Angad is much more famous for his contribution to the specifics of the Sikh language and lifestyle.
He developed the Gurmukhi script, which became the standard script for the Punjabi language. All traditional Sikh literature is written in this script. Guru Angad made it a standard, and all his hymns were written in Gurmukhi.
Guru Angad also institutionalized Langar, the communal meal in Sikh temples. Every person, of every class, caste, or religion can freely enter a Sikh temple and enjoy a vegetarian meal. Sikh volunteers are indispensable in the process. Guru Angad tasked Sikhs to dedicate time to cooking, serving at, and cleaning Sikh temples. This guru also supported wrestling and opened the wrestling arenas (mall akhara), where people can practice martial arts and wrestling.
3. Guru Amar Das (1552-1574): The Organizing Sikh Guru
For most of his life, Guru Amar Das was a devout Vaishnava Hindu, but after hearing a hymn in honor of Guru Nanak, he became a Sikh and a very close follower of Guru Angad. For his relentless service, he was named the third guru of Sikhism.
Throughout his guruship, Guru Amar Das emphasized Sewa, the service as the cornerstone of moral life. Sewa means meditation, honest work, and help to the community while being devoted to a guru. Accentuating equality among men and women, Guru Amar Das discouraged women from wearing a veil.
Still, Guru Amar Das is mainly known for his religious organization. He made religious administrative units (manji) headed by a chief. Sikhs were commanded to pay a tenth of their income to support the community. Guru Amar Das called for the substantial practice of Langar, and there is a famous story is that even the great Mughal Emperor Akbar had to sit with commoners and share a meal before he met the famed guru.
The third Sikh guru also chose his birth village of Amritsar as a site for a central temple of Sikhism. It would not happen in his lifetime, but Amritsar later became the most sacred place in Sikhism, where the Golden Temple was built. It is a place of hymns and rituals, many of which were started by Guru Amar Das. The Anand hymn, sung at all major celebrations, is his creation, as well as the constitution of some of the most essential Sikh holidays (Maghi, Vaisakhi, etc.).
4. Guru Ram Das (1574-1581): Sikh Guru of Amritsar
A close follower of Guru Amar Das was chosen instead of the former guru’s sons. Guru Ram Das’s case proved to be a problem that turned into an argument. However, the Sikh community accepted Guru Ram Das.
He established the city of Amritsar in 1574, chosen previously by Guru Amar Das, which is now a sacred site to all Sikhs. At the time of its creation, Sikhs called it Ramdaspur in his honor. He made a lake in the center of town, where later, the Golden Temple would be built.
Guru Ram Das spread Sikhism in North India and organized the structure of Sikh society. He did it through the Masand system, where he introduced community leaders who lived far from Guru. In this way, they could organize the Sikh community in their areas and spread the word about Sikhism.
This guru stressed the importance of kirtan (hymn singing), which remains an integral part of Sikh worship. There are 638 hymns from Guru Ram Das included in the Guru Granth Sahib. Many wedding hymns are attributed to him.
5. Guru Arjan Dev (1581-1606): First Sikh Guru Martyr
Guru Arjan is one of the most important gurus from Sikh history and their first martyr. He was also the first guru who succeeded his father. As the youngest son, he had to face the challenges of his brothers and their supporters.
Guru Arjan was still beloved by Sikhs as he finished the construction of the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib), the central praying place for all Sikhs worldwide. It attracted Sikhs from all corners of India, becoming their Punjab stronghold. Additionally, Guru Arjan built several new towns in the Punjab which were purely Sikh.
Guru Arjan’s most significant theological achievement was the compilation and standardization of Adi Granth, a collection of hymns written by previous gurus. He finished it in 1604 after he added his 2,218 hymns to the collection. Then he installed the compilation in the Golden Temple. It elevated Amritsar to the position it has today.
Sikhism had to grow within the Muslim-dominated Mughal Empire. In the beginning, under Emperor Akbar, the Mughals were tolerant of other religions, Sikhism included. Akbar and Guru Arjan were even in cordial relations, and it seems that the mighty Mughal emperor inspired the fifth guru to introduce the manuscript schools in Sikhism.
However, this changed after Akbar’s death. The insecurity of his son Jahangir led the court to act against non-Muslims. The Mughals indeed witnessed that the new religion had ever more followers, not only from the Hindu population but also from Muslims. When the Sikh movement grew significantly, Jahangir imprisoned Guru Arjan and tortured him while attempting to convert him to Islam. Guru Arjan refused. Consequently, he was tortured to death and revered as a martyr.
6. Guru Hargobind Sahib (1606-1644): The Military Sikh Guru
The sixth guru succeeded his father, Guru Arjan. As a young boy, he was already in dire relations with Emperor Jahangir, who imprisoned Guru Hargobind and later released him under unknown circumstances. The enmity continued under the new Mughal ruler, Shah Jahan.
During his tenure, Guru Hargobind took over an important idea that the Sikhs must protect themselves in a dangerous environment. He adopted and developed a military tradition that Sikhs continue until today. The sixth guru built arenas for exercise and martial arts as he believed Sikhs should be physically prepared for a fight and always have their bodies in a fit condition. He is revered almost as a warrior saint, and he was involved in constant battles with the Mughals, which also affected the lives of his family members.
Guru Hargobind is famous for wearing two swords: one to represent his authority in the spiritual realm (miri); another to represent his authority in the temporal domain (piri). To represent the central authority of the Sikh community, he also constructed The Throne of the Timeless One (Akal Takht) in front of the Golden Temple.
7. Guru Har Rai (1644-1661): The Reforming Sikh Guru
The grandson of Guru Hargobind became the seventh Sikh guru at a very young age. While maintaining the warrior spirit, he appealed for peace and stopped the heavy fighting with the Mughals.
Guru Har Rai started an important ritualistic tradition kept by Sikhs today: The collective and continuous chanting from holy scriptures at Sikh temples. Public singing and scripture chanting are now recognizable features of Sikh rituals.
The seventh guru also strengthened and reformed the administration over Sikh lands. Religious administration, the tenth of income, and the langar tradition became strongholds of the guru’s authority. Even after Shah Jahan tried to bribe some Sikh administrators, the community stood solidly by the guru.
In the battle for the succession to the Mughal throne, Guru Har Rai favored Dara Shikoh, a moderate Sufi prince, and he even gave him sanctuary and medical care when his conservative brother Aurangzeb advanced in this battle. In the end, Dara Shikoh lost and was executed. Aurangzeb became the new emperor and asked why Guru Har Rai stood with his enemy. The guru sent his son Ram Rai to represent him, but Aurangzeb took him hostage and questioned him over some parts of Adi Granth that were not in accordance with the Islamic faith. To save his life, Ram Rai, already seen as the successor of Guru Har Rai, changed some verses. For this, Guru Har Rai excommunicated his own son and proclaimed that his younger son would succeed him.
8. Guru Har Krishan (1661-1664): The Youngest of the Sikh Gurus
The short tenure of Guru Har Rai’s younger son, Guru Har Krishan, who was only seven years old when he died from smallpox, now serves as a reminder of humility, and of the miracles that a guru can achieve. He was successful in the conversion of several important Hindu pandits to Sikhism. While visiting the Sikh community in Delhi, despite being a little kid, Guru Har Krishan performed miracles of healing for a vast number of sick people.
9. Guru Tegh Bahadur (1664-1675): The Poetic Sikh Guru Martyr
The youngest son of Guru Hargobind has a name that means “brave sword” or “brave wielder of the sword” because he was known for his unusual bravery and warrior skills. Guru Tegh Bahadur continued the tradition of the warrior saint, especially under the Mughal rule of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, representatives of the more and more intolerant Mughal dynasty.
The ninth guru was also a very fruitful poet and scholar. He wrote many hymns, added to the Adi Granth, and discussed many religious topics concerning eschatology, service, and states of mind and body. As an avid traveler, Guru Tegh Bahadur visited many Sikh communities and built new temples. He went as far as contemporary Assam and Bangladesh, organizing langars and building water wells on the way.
Guru Tegh Bahadur viewed himself as a protector of the oppressed, not just of the Sikhs but also of other faiths. He was beheaded by the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb while attempting to defend not himself or Sikhism but the religious rights of Hindus. His execution further strengthened the Sikh community and its resolve to protect against Islamic rule.
10. Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708): Sikh Guru of the Khalsa
Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) formalized the Sikh military community (the Khalsa), which would redefine the Panth, Sikh community. The Khalsa is given a mission to realize God’s work (Vaheguru). Everything they do is for the Vaheguru, including serving and chanting (Seva Simran), shaping the soldier’s sanctity (Sant Sipahi), and serving (Bhai Kanehiya).
Additionally, Guru Gobind Singh introduces the Five Ks, symbolic items every Sikh should always carry. He also wrote prayers and rituals for the Khalsa, kept solidly through the centuries. As a final addition to the Adi Granth, the compilation of sacred texts and hymns became a standard revered by all Sikhs.
Before his death in 1708, the 10th Guru Gobind Singh ended the line of human Sikh gurus by bestowing the name of Guru to the Adi Granth, turning it into Guru Granth Sahib. Compiled by Guru Arjan in 1603–1604, the Adi Granth contains the works of his four predecessor Sikh gurus, along with his own hymns and various works by poets. It is considered the current living Guru, treated with extreme respect and care. Whereas the Sikh gurus were once the authorities on religious matters, now Sikhs consult the Adi Granth.