Bhai Nand Lal (c. 1642 – 1712) was born in Ghazni, Afghanistan where he spent most of his childhood years. During his formative years, his father engaged him in classical Islamicate learning which encompassed a deep study of the Persian and Arabic languages as well as a comprehensive schooling in the Qur’an, Hadîth and works on mysticism such as Hujwirî’s Kashfu’l- Mahjûb and Rumi’s Mathnavi-ye Ma’navi. Writing in the 1830s, the Sikh historian Kavi Santokh Singh gives the following description of the poets early education:
As time went on Nand Lal went to school at the mosque [Maktab - for his education] on a daily basis. Here he was made to study Persian and all forms of Islamic knowledge. His brilliance and wisdom improved through steady practice. The great light of knowledge began to shine within him through his relentless learning. Nand Lal read large collections of books and as a result became knowledgeable and accomplished in the subject of Islamic literature and learning. Within society, Nand Lal was quick witted and spoke on important subjects intelligently. In this way, his excessive knowledge in all things became most apparent.
As he grew up he took a keen interest in the political and administrative affairs and eventually took over his father’s job as a Munshi [administrator] after he passed away.
His destiny however, was not to remain in Afghanistan. After marriage and the birth of two sons, he left for India where he found employment in the Mughal court at Agra where he served the crown prince Bahadur Shah, who was to become the future Mughal emperor. As the tradition goes, Aurangzeb once assembled his court mullahs and Islamic scholars of Delhi to have them interpret a certain verse of the Qur’an. Each of Qur'anic scholars came up with different interpretations based on the traditional Islamic tafsîr commentaries, yet none of them satisfied the emperor who got weary of the many failed attempts of fresh, innovative and skillful exegesis. After hearing about emperors distress via Bahadur Shah, Bhai Nand Lal volunteered to study the verse and come up with an interpretation. After the emperor had heard the exegesis of Bhai Nand Lal, he was so fascinated that he wished to meet Bhai Nand Lal in person. During the meeting, Aurangzeb bestowed the title of "Mullah Goya" on him. However, when he found out that Bhai Nand Lal was a non-Muslim, he gave Bhai Nand Lal the opportunity to convert or die, as it was a shame to have such talent wasted as a non-Muslim.
Bhai Nand Lal chose to leave the court during the night and sought shelter at Anandpur where he met the young Guru Gobind Rai.
Life at Anandpur
In the holy city of Anandpur, Bhai Nand Lal joined the entourage of 51 poet-scholars who had come into the presence of the Guru to compose and translate ancient works into the common language of the time. Amongst the translated works were those of spiritual treaties, political manifests of government and diplomacy, ancient mythology and philosophy, manuals of rhetoric, tales of love, eroticism and treachery, literature of warfare and heroism. In this entourage of poets, Bhai Nand Lal stood out as a great scholar of Persian, but even more as a deeply devoted follower of Guru Gobind Singh. His many compositions were praised by the Guru and he was given a hukam to convey his compositions to the many sangats that arrived from near and far to have the darshan of their Guru.
Guru Gobind Singh enjoying the sound of the rabab in Anandpur,
the musician most likely being a descendant of Bhai Mardana.
In the City of Bliss, thousands of residents lived, studied and worked in the near presence of their Guru and Master. Furthermore, thousands of pilgrims came from far to see their Guru and amongst all of these, Bhai Nand Lal acquired a special place in his Guru’s heart. Many different stories from Anandpur relate how Bhai Nand Lal was praised and honoured by the Guru who called him his own jewel, while others indicate that he was part of an inner circle of close and beloved devotees. While the evolution of the Adi Granth to Guruship was publicly announced in 1708, Bhai Nand Lal was given this information in a private conversation in 1695, that is, 13 years before it was announced to the world.
It is here in Anandpur that Bhai Nand Lal was given the chance to manifest his multifold talents. Sikh literature of the 17th-19th century describe the poet as an excellent scribe, Sikh scholar, Qur'anic scholar, soldier, deputy governor, diplomat, humble sewak, musician and Sikh devotee par excellence firmly attached to the feet of the tenth master. Tradition regards him with the suffix ‘Bhai’ to his name which is a title that was traditionally applied to the learned men (gianis – men of knowledge) of the Sikh faith. Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru, once said that a theologian having 14 qualities alone was competent to interpret the Sikh Scriptures. The major qualities which an interpreter should have are, amongst others:
- The ability to understand the letter and spirit of the scriptures
- The ability to recite the hymn correctly in the same mood and musical mode in which it was desired by the Gurūs
- The Interpreter must be knowledgeable theologian and known for his devotion, knowledge and love for truth
- He must have ability to dispel the doubts and the misunderstandings of the listeners, and should be able to answer serious and sincere questioners
- He must be able to correctly relate history and tradition with the hymns and scriptural texts, whilst interpreting
- He must have a thorough knowledge of all religious traditions: sabhna śātrān kā giātā hovai
- His speech and delivery of sermons should be impressive and moving
- He should be humble and limit his needs and requirements to the minimum
- He should be able to judge correctly the response of his listeners and emphasize on the same theme that interests them, and swiftly change the theme where people show lack of interest
- He should accept what is offered to him by the congregation as remuneration like a contented person
As history shows, the Sikhs applied the title of ‘Bhai’ to the poet which indicates that Bhai Nand Lal had mastered all of the above qualities and was hence worthy of the title of ‘Bhai’.
He is given a special honour in all Sikh historical writings from this period, and the famous Sikh historian Saroop Das Bhalla gives the following description of the poet in his 1775 Mahima Prakash:
Nand Lal performed two tasks simultaneously: He studied Persian and acquired knowledge thereby sharpening his mind. Nand Lal became a proficient scholar of Persian reading and memorising a large number of Persian books.
He became privy through constant study and practice to the knowledge and etiquette required of the royal darbâr. Through such dedication he became a renowned servant of the court securing a post in the retinue of the prince whom the world later called Bahadur Shah. He was appointed the Shah's Mir Munshi and his reputation increased day by day.
During the Anandpur period, Guru Gobind Singh would often delegate tasks to his beloved disciples. Bhai Nand Lal was often given the duty of teaching the sangat about Sikhi and conversing with various Brahmin priests on the nature of the Sikh path as a deputy of the Guru. In these cases, tradition holds that the poet used his own Zindagînamâ, written in classical Persian; to elucidate, comment and supplement the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib. For his subtle personality, mystic inclinations and wisdom he was held in high esteem by the Sikhs after his death. Saroop Das Bhalla in 1775 for instance, writes:
Through contact with the Philosopher's stone iron turns into gold. A devotee is both agreeable and happy when he meets with the true guru who looks upon him mercifully. At that moment the resplendent light of the divine shines in the heart. Such contact ensures that one is free from doubt, his heart and mind achieve samadhi, a condition of deep meditation, and from the great bewitching sleep he is awakened. Bhai Nand Lal was one such beloved. As Guru Nanak says of such devotees: 'It is through the grace of the Lord, the one who bestows grace, O Nanak, that one becomes blessed.
After the evacuation of Anandpur in late 1704 the whereabouts of Bhai Nand Lal are uncertain.
Some traditions hold that he went back to the Mughal court in Delhi from where he worked under the later Mughal emperors Bahadur Shah and Farruk Siyar. Considering the poet's background as a deputy governor, political administrator and his relations with the earlier Mughal emperors it is a possibility that the Guru, after the evacuation of Anandpur in 1704, send the poet back to Delhi to infiltrate the Mughal court with a mission, where he was to lobby for the Sikh faith and people during these two emperors' persecution of the Sikhs.
Towards the later part of his life, he settled in Multan where he opened a school that freely taught Arabic and Persian, most likely under state patronage during the era of the Sikh kingdoms. This school continued all the way up till 1849 with the annexation of Punjab.