By Mahinder Singh Joshi
Publisher: Beas, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2021
The name Gurdas means “servant of the Guru.” In the Sikh tradition Bhai Gurdas is a beloved figure, considered to be a model disciple and sevadar. He was initiated by Guru Amar Das, the third Sikh Guru. After the death of his own guru, Bhai Gurdas went on to serve the fourth, fifth and sixth gurus: Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan Dev, and Guru Hargobind Singh. The author writes:
Sitting at their feet, he witnessed the way of life of these great Masters who were real-life examples. With faith and devotion, he listened attentively to every word of their teachings, which were worthy of being written in golden letters. With every breath Bhai Gurdas practiced the path they prescribed.… The spiritual guidance we get from the brilliant poetry of such a knowledgeable and devoted person as Bhai Gurdas has no comparison.
The consensus of historians is that Bhai Gurdas was born in 1551 CE, most likely in Goindwal in the Tarn Taran district of the Punjab. Goindwal was a spiritual centre that attracted disciples of Guru Amar Das as well as followers of other spiritual paths. Scholars too were attracted to Goindwal for the intellectual exploration of various religions that took place there. Consequently, Bhai Gurdas became well versed not only in the teachings of the Sikh Gurus but also in the teachings of other religions. He became proficient in Sanskrit and Persian as well as Hindi and Punjabi.
It was Bhai Gurdas who transcribed the Adi Granth as it was dictated by the fifth guru Guru Arjan Dev. The author points out how the Adi Granth is rich in esoteric meaning but not always easily understood by the ordinary disciple. Bhai Gurdas wrote explanations and gave discourses that aided followers in understanding it. He wrote poems and songs in simple language, often using everyday examples to bring home the Gurus’ message:
By uttering the word ‘sandalwood’
the air doesn’t become fragrant;
by repeating the word ‘moon’
its light does not appear.
So, too, merely talking about spiritual wisdom
doesn’t mean that one is following a pure life –
only by actions does the Light manifest
in the inner sky.
Many of Bhai Gurdas’s poems focus on the qualities of the ideal disciple. The author summarizes some of the main themes of these poems:
The disciples’ words are full of sweetness; free of ego and filled with humility, they never hurt anyone’s feelings. They support themselves and their families with hard, honest work and provide for others in need. No matter how rich or how high their worldly status may be, they don’t boast of their successes or misuse their influence. In the company of the holy ones, their minds become ingrained with the Guru’s teachings and their hearts are cheerful in their love for the Guru. They desire no worldly reward in exchange for their good deeds.
Bhai Gurdas explains how the deeds of a true disciple are constrained by fear of offending his beloved Lord:
The self-restraint of the disciple
lies in having no fear of the world –
but always living in fear of the Lord.
A key characteristic of a true disciple is benevolence, or good will towards all, constantly prevailing regardless of circumstances.
Whether hot or cold, water’s purpose
is always to benefit others.
Even when hot, water extinguishes fire;
it then takes no time to cool.
This too is a hallmark of the Guru’s disciple.
Gradually the disciple acquires the virtues of the Guru himself:
When a disciple follows the Guru’s teaching
he imbibes his qualities – then there is no
difference between Guru and disciple.
But even a model disciple like Bhai Gurdas may fall short of the ideal of humility and utter reliance on the Guru. Once, during the time of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind Singh, Bhai Gurdas stated that if a disciple were tested by the Master, his faith should remain unshakeable. The Guru recognized the note of overconfidence in this statement and decided to test him. The story of this test is related in detail in Tales of the Mystic East under the title “The Guru’s Thief.” Severely failing the test, it took years before Bhai Gurdas was once again able to face his Guru. Then he wrote:
Rare is the disciple whose trust remains unshaken
when the Guru tests him….
If tested by the Guru,
the disciple will succeed only by his grace.
In another poem, Bhai Gurdas gave a glimpse of his humility:
Hearing that you are the lover of devotees,
my heart fills with despair,
but hearing that you purify and redeem even the sinners,
hope arises in my heart.
Hearing that you are all-knowing,
in fear my heart fills with dread,
but hearing that you are all-merciful,
all my fears and doubts disappear.…
With my efforts alone I won’t find
a place, even in hell,
but I take refuge in you,
as you always uphold your honour.
Bhai Gurdas remained in the service of Guru Hargobind Singh for the rest of his life. When he died at the age of eighty-five in 1636, the Guru lovingly lit the funeral pyre himself.