A True Story Based on a Poem
- Var 35 in 23 Verses -
Of a Great Sikh (Bhai Gurdas)
Even if a dog is installed on a throne, still it will lick the flour of the grinding wheel.
Even were it to be raised on milk, still a snake would pour out poison from its mouth.
Even if it were kept under water, still a stone’s hardness would not become soft.
Rejecting perfume and sandalwood, the donkey rolls its body in dust.
In the same way, the slanderer does not give up slander,
And through their own actions cause their own demise. (1)
A crow never seeks out camphor. It is happiest in smelly trash.
Even though it is bathed in water, an elephant puts dust on its head.
The bitter gourd, even if irrigated with nectar, does not give up its acrid taste.
Even if a kapok tree is well treated with fertilizer and water, still no fruit comes from it.
Slanderers, lacking the divine Name, do not like the gathering of the holy.
If the leader is blind, all their followers are pillaged. (2)
The smell of garlic cannot be concealed, even if it is eaten in a far corner.
No amount of washing with soap can make a black blanket white.
Whoever touches the hive of the wasps, comes away with a swollen face.
The vegetable prepared without seasoning is tasteless.
Forgetting the Name, the slanderer lacks the wisdom of the Guru.
They find peace neither here nor there, and earn suffering and misgivings. (3)
The witch may devour men, but she wishes no harm comes to her son.
Even the most vicious man feels modesty before his daughter and sister.
Kings, treacherous to one another, harm not their ambassadors.
Vicious misdeeds committed at holy places are not effaced.
Hearing the naked vileness of the slanderer, even the angel of death trembles.
Slander of anyone is not good, but disparaging a spiritual teacher is the worst. (4)
Hirnakush slandered God and all can see what fruit he obtained from his actions.
The kingdom of Sri Lanka was looted and Ravana had his ten heads cut off.
Kans was vanquished with his army and all his demons perished.
The Kauravas last their dynasty and their army of hundreds of thousands was smashed.
Dantavakra’s skull was crushed and Shishupala beheaded.
The ancient scriptures tell us there is no advantage gained from slander.
Owing to their verbal abuse, Durvasa cursed the Yadavas and vanquished them all. (5)
Everyone’s hair is adorned, but the bald lady mumbles to herself.
The enchanting woman wears earrings, but the ear-less one grumbles.
Newly-wed maidens wear nose rings, while the nose-less adulteress feels distraught.
The doe-eyed damsels apply eye-shadow, but the one-eyed woman wails.
All have a pleasant gait, but the lame one limps along.
Those who find fault with their spiritual teacher pass their time in sorrow. (6)
The leafless wild caper does not green, but it blames the spring season.
The barren woman who is childless calls her husband impotent.
Mere rain from above cannot make a saline field green and fruitful.
Virtuous people suffer affliction in the company of the unvirtuous.
In the ocean, there are jewels, even among the shells.
Life is wasted finding fault with the Guru. (7)
The mountains that reach to the sky have little weight.
The mighty fortresses are not heavy by comparison.
The great oceans into which the oceans flow, have little weight.
The trees whose boughs bend with ripened fruits are not heavy if we compare.
Neither all the species who wander the planet have such weight
As the ungrateful person who is a burden on the Earth, and evil of evils. (8)
The meat of a dog cooked in wine, with its foul smell,
Was put in a human skull and covered with a blood-stained cloth.
In this way, the lowlife woman,
After pleasuring herself, was carrying the bowl.
On being asked about it, she explained that
She covered the meat to shield it from the polluting eyes of an ungrateful person. (9)
A thief entered the house of a rich person.
Carefully watching the four corners, he went upstairs.
He gathered the money and gold, but still his greed kept him back.
Out of his greed, he took hold of a pot of salt.
On taking a bit and tasting it, he left everything and came out.
The thief knew that a thankless person is beaten like a drum. (10)
Eating the salt of the Master, a man becomes a servant, fetches water and grinds grain.
Eating their salt, a faithful one is willingly cut to pieces for the Master.
Eating their salt, faithful sons and daughters wash away the shame of the family.
The salt-eating servant stands respectfully with folded hands.
Even the passer-by speaks well of the person whose salt they have eaten,
But the thankless person commits outrages, lives in vain, then forfeits their human life. (11)
As the flesh of a cow is forbidden to a Hindu,
As pig meat and interest charged on money is forbidden to a Muslim,
As even the water of the house of his son-in-law, like wine, is forbidden to a father-in-law,
As even the lowlife eats not rabbit, though he may be impoverished,
As a dead fly spoils the sweetmeat, and poison makes candy inedible,
Similarly, to cast one’s eye on the income of a religious place is like eating sugar-coated poison. (12)
Very distressed is the one who is always craving.
They touch gold, and it turns to dust.
Friends, sons, brothers and all other relations become annoyed.
One who constantly craves is cursed by grief and separation, through the workings of their foolish mind.
They wander like an abandoned woman and stand apart from the door of salvation.
Suffering pain, hunger and great poverty, they arrive in hell after their death. (13)
A pot full of milk is spoiled by a drop of vinegar.
A thousand bales of cotton are burnt by one spark.
A film on its surface spoils the water, while the quest of shellac causes the destruction of the tree.
The madman is ravaged by diarrhea and the common man destroyed by tuberculosis.
As birds are snared in a net from their greed for seeds,
So the desire for the earnings of religious places persists in the heart of the perverse. (14)
To crave for the earnings of religious places is improper. Those who cherish such a desire must give it up,
As a fly, eaten with food, must be vomited out from the body.
How can one sleep peacefully who has a grass blade in their eye?
As fire cannot be suppressed under dry grass,
The cravings of the one who craves cannot be controlled and they imagine the inedible to be edible.
By the grace of the Guru, the Sikhs of the Guru in the hundreds of thousands, cross the ocean. (15)
Like wood riddled with the boreholes of insects, their body is weak and powerless.
They are like a scarecrow set out in a field.
How can rain emanate from a cloud of smoke? As a teat on the neck of a goat cannot give milk,
One who craves the earnings of spiritual institutions, wanders in vain.
What is the distinguishing mark of such a person?
Such a one is deluded like a cow that considers its dead calf alive and continues licking. (16)
Who would mistake the dry clusters of the Jacob’s tear plant for grapes?
No one calls the poisonous swallow-wort a mango.
Costume jewelry is not equal to gold jewelry.
Crystals do not equal diamonds in value.
Buttermilk and milk are of different qualities and taste.
Similarly, the holy and unholy are distinguished by their attributes and activities. (17)
Betel leaves, when plucked from the branch, are of green and yellow colour.
Betel nuts, becoming speckled in colour, are plucked from the tree.
Catechu flavouring is brown and light and a pinch of it is used.
The lime is white and burnt and thrashed.
When losing their distinctness and joining together as paan, they become uniformly red in colour.
Likewise, the disciplined saints coming from four social classes, join together as Gurmukhs. (18)
In the court of the emperor, all are known as servants.
Armed well, they bow most humbly.
In social gatherings, they boast and brag.
They have their elephants decorated, and in the streets and bazaars, they wander with their horses prancing.
On the battlefield is it known who is a hero and who it is who takes to their heels.
In the same way, the devotees are separated from the self-centred assassins. (19)
Even if a mother is an adulteress, why should her son speak badly of her?
Even if a gem is swallowed by a sacred cow, none will dare to tear her open to retrieve it.
Even if a husband enjoys the pleasures of many houses, his wife should preserve her honour.
If a king becomes a tyrant, his servants are helpless before him.
If a woman of social distinction in drunk, all feel ashamed and do not look up into her face.
If the spiritual teacher puts on a false show, the disciple should not give up their sincerity. (20)
During an earthquake, millions of forts, shake and crumble.
During a great storm, all the trees are pulled this way and that.
During a firestorm, all the grasses in the forest are burnt.
What can stop the rush of the flooding river?
The job of mending the sky, torn like cloth, can only be done by utter liars.
Only a very few remain composed during the performance of the world. (21)
Bhai Gurdas was an intelligent and devoted Sikh. Together with Baba Buddha who remembered even Guru Nanak, he was one of the two elders of the young Sikh nation. Taking dictation from Guru Arjan, he had written the Adi Granth, the original version of Siri Guru Granth Sahib. The Fifth Guru had even offered that his inspired poems might be included in the Granth, an offer which he humbly declined. Still, Guru Arjan said that his poetry should be considered the key to unlock the wisdom of the Guru’s Bani.
But on hearing Bhai Gurdas recite for him the twenty-first verse of his thirty-fifth Var, Guru Hargobind, the Sixth Guru, sensed an encroaching spirit of egotism in his disciple that would need to be addressed.
One day, the Master called on Bhai Gurdas to go to Kabul, Afghanistan to purchase two chargers, for the best horses were known to come from there. The charges were to be bought subject to the Guru’s approval.
The Guru’s disciple accordingly went to Kabul. He found two chargers valued at 50,000 rupees each, and sent them to the Master. Guru Hargobind approved of the horses and wrote to Bhai Gurdas to pay their price and return immediately to Amritsar.
When the owner came to the Guru’s Sikh for his settlement, Bhai Gurdas seated him outside his tent and went inside to count the money. Opening the saddle bags, he found that they contained not money, but rocks. After a delay of some time, the horse dealer went inside to see what was going on. Doing so, he found that Bhai Gurdas had escaped through an opening in the back of the tent and left the saddle bags, which to the merchant now appeared full with money. The Sikhs who had come with Bhai Gurdas paid the horse dealer, returned to Amritsar with the balance, and told the Guru of Bhai Gurdas’s sudden appearance.
Bhai Gurdas was afraid to return to the Guru and sought refuge in Banaras, the ancient holy city on the Ganges, which he reached in a roundabout way with much hardship and suffering. On his arrival, some Sikhs received him with great respect on account of his former connection with the Guru and his literary gifts. The Raja of the city heard from the Sikhs of the arrival of a very distinguished member of their community and went to also pay his respects.
Bhai Gurdas passed two months teaching in Banaras before his yearning to return to Guru Hargobind became greater than his fear of facing the Guru’s ire. Gurdas wrote: “As a tethered calf cries for its mother, as a worker who wants to go home but must work for another passes his time in anxiety, as a wife detained by her parents and separated from her spouse pines for him, so a Sikh desires happiness at the Guru’s feet but is kept in misery in a foreign land in obedience to his order.”
The Guru sent Bhai Jetha and some other Sikhs to fetch Bhai Gurdas, but not in the way he had anticipated. The Guru sent with Jetha a letter to the governor of Banaras to say that Gurdas had deserted him without his permission, and requesting that he might be sent under arrest for punishment.
The governor was astonished on receiving the Guru’s letter, and said that he knew of no thief called “Gurdas,” but the Guru’s messengers might arrest him themselves and take him to serve the Guru. In preparation for his ordeal, Bhai Gurdas had just recited Japji Sahib. He then related to the governor and his staff the whole story of his journey to Kabul and his flight from there, which created even more curiosity and astonishment.
Bhai Gurdas’s hands were tied behind his back, but at the same time, he was dismissed with great respect by the governor and his people, who fully believed in his innocence. When the arresting party had proceeded about four miles on their homeward journey, Bhai Jetha unbound Gurdas so he might travel more comfortably. Bhai Gurdas had not requested this favour. When they arrived near Amritsar, Bhai Jetha again bound his prisoner as before for presentation to Guru Hargobind.
On their return, the Guru told Gurdas that he was an excellent Sikh and made several other cutting observations on his conduct.
In response, his disciple said:
If a mother poisons her son, who loves him enough to save him?
If a guard breaks into a house, who is to protect it?
If a boatman makes his boat sink, how could one cross over?
If a leader himself makes people go astray, who else could be called for help?
And if a protecting fence starts eating the crops, who else will take care of the fields?
Similarly, if the Guru puts on a false show, what can a poor Sikh do? (22)
On hearing Bhai Gurdas’s latest composition with its humble tone, the Guru pardoned him and suggested that he might complete the verses in which he had been engaged before his arrest. His Sikh then composed one more verse to complete the series:
Applying butter to paper and salt, they can tolerate immersion in water.
With the help of oil, the wick of the lamp goes on burning the whole night.
Catching hold of the string, a kite can be made to fly in the sky.
By keeping an herb in one’s mouth, one can fight a poisonous serpent.
If a king takes the appearance of a poor man, he may see the sufferings of his people and remove them.
On these occasions, only that one remains composed who is helped by the Guru. (23)
Dr. Jodh Singh (1998), Vaaraan Bhaaii Gurdass: Text, Transliteration and Translation, Volume Two, Vision & Venture, Patiala/New Delhi, pp. 312-334.
Max Arthur Macauliffe (1909/2000), The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors, Volume Four, Satvic Books, Amritsar, pp. 133-137.
The image at the top is a replication of Mool Mantra in the hand of the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind found online and in:
Ganda Singh (1999), HUKAMNAME Guru Sahibaan, Mata Sahibaan, Banda Singh Ate Khalsa Ji De, Publication Bureau, Punjabi University, Patiala, p. 61.