The Sikh Religion/Volume 6/Bhagats of the Granth Sahib

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The Sikh Religion  (1909)  by Max Arthur Macauliffe
Bhagats of the Granth Sahib


There have lived in India from time immemorial saints and thinkers who were dissatisfied with the superstitions and religious vagaries of the Hindus. They gradually evolved a belief in one God and preceded Guru Nanak as the dawn before sunrise. Abrupt indigenous alterations of religion have rarely, if ever, been presented to human experience. Some of the writings of the Guru's immediate precursors called Bhagats, or saints, are preserved in the Granth Sahib compiled by Guru Arjan. He selected for inclusion therein, with equal impartiality the writings of both Hindus and Musalmans, as they suited his purpose, and contributed to the great cause of religious reformation. We find in the sacred volume compositions of Jaidev, Namdev, Trilochan, Parmanand, Sadhna, Beni, Ramanand, Dhanna, Pipa, Sain, Kabir, Rav Das, Sur Das, verses of at least two Musalman saints, Farid and Bhikan; and one recension of the sacred volume called Banno's Granth, preserved at Mangat in the Gujrat district of the Panjab, contains a hymn composed by Mira Bai, Queen of Chitaur. It is believed that Guru Arjan did not give it a place in his collection because the lady lived and died an idolater.

The Hindu Bhagats for the most part began life as worshippers of idols, but by study and contemplation arrived at a system of monotheism which was appreciated by Guru Arjan. The Muhammadan Bhagats lived in Hindu centres, and became largely imbued with Hindu modes of thought, while they at the same time retained their traditional belief in the Divine unity. There is no account given of these saints in any of the classical Sikh writings; but we have to the best of our power collected materials for the lives of most of them in the various places where they were born or where they flourished in India. Some civil officers have kindly made inquiries and furnished us with details from their districts, and political officers have also assisted in procuring information from the annals of native states.

The writings of Nabhaji, Uddava Chidghan, Mahipati, Ganesh Dattatre, Maharaja Raghuraj Sinha, Dahyabhai Ghelabhai pandit, and others in different Indian languages, on the mediaeval saints of India have also been consulted.

Nabhaji, the author of the Bhagat Mal, was born in the state of Gualiar. His original name is said to have been Narain Das. Everything relating to him is as wonderful as the legends he himself relates of his Vaishnav saints. He was born blind. When he was about five years of age there was a great famine in the land, and he was deserted by his parents in a forest, owing to their inability to maintain him. He was found by Agar Das and Kil, two Hindu pilgrims, who were on their way to the Ganges. He told them his history, and they adopted him. Kil sprinkled some holy water from his gourd on the child's eyes, and he received his sight. He was employed to wait on the holy men, and in this capacity heard many legends of Indian saints of all epochs. These legends he recorded at the suggestion of Agar Das in a work called Sant Charitra, which formed the basis of his Bhagat Mal, a series of metrical chronicles in the Gualiar dialect, written about A.D. 1578. He was a contemporary of Raja Man Sinh of Jaipur, and consequently lived during the reign of the Emperor Akbar. It is recorded that he had an interview with Tulsi Das, the famous Hindu poet, who flourished in the reign of Shah Jahan. If so he must have lived to a very advanced age. Several additions and amplifications were made to Nabhaji's work by Priya Das and Pandit Lai Ji of Bindraban. It was subsequently written out in Hindu prose and translated into Urdu by different hands. Other writers in most of the great Indian dialects have written lives of the Vaishnav saints, but almost all are avowedly based on the work of Nabhaji.

Nabhaji's Bhagat Mal is in all versions painfully disappointing. It may be compared to the mediaeval legends of saints once current in Europe, but it has the additional defect of brevity, and, like Hindu works generally, shows a total contempt for chronology. When one great man is but an incarnation of another who lived hundreds or thousands of years before, it seems superfluous to the Hindu biographer to consider such a trifle as the date of his successive appearances upon earth. Even the pious Hindus who at different times expounded and translated Nabhaji's work, each and all pass by the dates of the Bhagats without a word of apology to the reader. We are therefore generally left to shreds of extraneous evidence for the epochs of the Bhagats whose writings are contained in the Bible of the Sikhs.

Uddava Chidghan was born in Dharur in Khandesh. Once when he was celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Rama, and taking an image of that god into his house at Bedar in the Barars, some bigoted Muhammadans stoned the procession. A fight arose between the Hindus and Muhammadans. It is said that Hanuman, the monkey-god, espoused the cause of the Hindus, and fought against the Muhammadans, as he had done thousands of years before against Rawan. By Hanuman's aid Chidghan's party was victorious, and succeeded in burning a mosque in which the Muhammadans had concealed themselves. The era in which Chidghan flourished has not been accurately ascertained.

Mahipati was born in A.D. 1715 at Taharabad, in the Rahruri subdivision, about thirty-five miles from Ahmadnagar in the Bombay Presidency. He wrote the lives of saints in the Marathi language. His authorities were principally Nabhaji and Uddava Chidghan. He has himself given the Shaka year 1696 (A.D. 1774) as the date of the completion of his Bhakta Lilamrita. He died in A.D. 1790.

Maharaja Raghuraj Sinh, son of Maharaja Viswanath Sinh of the Baghel dynasty, chief of the Rewa state, was born in A.D. 1823, and died in 1880. He inherited his literary talents from his father, who wrote a paraphrase of Kabir's Bijak, and about fifty tracts on Hindu religion, philosophy, and literature. Maharaja Raghuraj Sinh was one of the most renowned Hindi poets of his time, and he was also a most generous patron of the many Hindi and Sanskrit scholars who flocked to his court. In religion he was a strict adherent of Vaishnav tenets.

We shall attempt to give the Lives and Writings of the Bhagats in chronological order.

  1. The word Bhagat comes from the Sanskrit bhakti, which means devotion, love, &c.