Court Poets of Guru Gobind Singh

On our Facebook page we provide daily quotes and weekly articles from various known and lesser known Sikh writings from the period of the Paonta and Anandpur Darbârs. Amongst the articles written, we have provided short but comprehensive texts on the various court poets who were a part of the Guru’s entourage.

Below we have gathered four such articles. If you wish to gain greater insights into the literary productions at the Anandpur court please subscribe to our Facebook page and follow our work by clicking here.

Prahlad Rai – translator of Vedantic Upanishad literature

Prahlad Rai was a poet in the Darbar of Paonta as well as Anandpur (1680s - 1704) and his main task was to translate the ancient Sanskrit Upanishad literature into Braj Basha.

It is in the Upanishad literature that the concepts of karma, reincarnation, Unity of God, meditation, nature of mantras, nature of the atma etc. are discussed in minute detail and elaborated upon. It is due to its’ heavily philosophical content that Guru Gobind Singh in his Sarbloh Granth encourages the Khalsa to also become familiar with the Upanishads.  The Khalsa of the old, were strict worshippers of Ek Oankaar and Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, but at the same time, drew inspiration and further understanding from the ‘positive’ teachings of other philosophical literature – which made them very well educated individuals, who were easily equipped for high level parchaar (sermon) and vichaar (discussion)  In Sarbloh Granth, the Guru writes:

God has blessed the Khalsa with virtues such as those of Bhagats, Gianis, Raj Yogis, Kshatriya warriors, worshippers of One God, those who live apart from others, ascetics, warriors and masters who rule the world.
Hearing what God (Parmesar) tells them in the scriptures, in the noble words of the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, they follow the auspicious avoiding what is evil and live as devout knowledgeable people.

Before Prahlad Rai, the son of Emperor Aurangzeb Dara Shikoh had translated the various Upanishads with the help of the brahmins of Benares from Sanskrit to Farsi.  As is evident in Prahlad Rai's epilogue to his corpus, it was from these Farsi manuscripts that Prahlad Rai completed his translations into Braj Basha. Prahlad has translated more than 50 Upanishads in his compendium which he ascribes to "The Grace of Guru Gobind". These manuscripts are today scattered in libraries and private collections from Punjab in the west to Bengal in the east.

A khalsa rehitnama is also attributed to a Prahlad Rai but whether this is the same Prahlad Rai as the court poet is not known. In this rehitnama, which is dated to 1695, we hear about the guruship of the Khalsa and the Granth, - a topic that is also explored in the Rehitnama of Bhai Nand Lal from the same year.

Pandit Devidas – the tutor and ancestor of famous Sikh historians

Our third court poet (kavirâj) to introduce is the Kashmiri poet Pandit Devidas who was a relative of the famous Chaupa Singh who wrote a rehitnama containing 1800 guidelines. Pandit Devidas was a Kashmiri Pandit heralding from a great respected family that had served the administration of the courts of Guru Har Rai, Guru Har Krishan, Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh. Pandit Devidas did not produce much literature at the court of the Guru, however his contributions are significant in much more important ways. Please read below to find out more.

While Guru Gobind Singh was setting up his court, tradition tells us that Pandit Devi Das used to recite and give katha of various Sanskrit verses to the Sikhs sangats who used to come from near and far to have darshan of their Beloved Guru. The activities of Pandit Devidas before joining the Paonta and Anandpur court is not known precisely, but some Sikh scholars suggest that he was working as a court poet in the court of Raja Ratan Paal in Rajastan where he authored the “Premratnakâr”. Other suggestions are that he worked for the crown prince Anup Singh where he wrote the “Naarad Niti Granth” in prose. Whether these works were written by the same Pandit Devidas requires more research.

What is known for sure however is that he authored the “Rajniti Ra Kabit” on political science and diplomacy right before he joined the entourage of the Sri Satguru and brought it to Anandpur. In this Granth there is a great emphasis on Dharam and Politics being aligned together as one – a concept that would be welcomed by the young Badshah-Darvesh who inherited and expanded upon the Miri Piri concept by his predecessor Guru, Guru Hargobind Maharaj. Once settled in Anandpur, under the patronage of the gracious Guru, Pandit Devidas wrote the “Singh Ghao ki katha”. Other manuscripts titled “Lav Kush di vaar” (in Punjabi language) scattered in manuscript form all over Northern India is also attributed to Pandit Devidas.

As can be seen above, Pandit Devidas has not authored an extensive amount of literature during his stay in Anandpur and the reason for this makes him an even more important kavi to consider.

In the light of the vision of Guru Gobind Singh, wisdom and knowledge was to be shared in the court as well as outside. By this, Pandit Devidas took in, tutored and trained younger students to become great kavis themselves. Amongst these is the famous Kavi Sainapat who, amongst many works, translated the ancient Sanskrit treatise on rulership and diplomacy “Chanakya Rajniti” and authored the Gursobha from 1701-1708. This is the earliest account on the life of Guru Gobind Singh. In his Sukhsain Granth, Kavi Sainapat writes “In the court of Guru Gobind which [in recent years] has ascended to great honor and worth, Pandit Devidas became my tutor of knowledge and science [Gur Gobind kï sabhâ mein, jinhi pâyô adhikâr, tâ ko Vidiya Gur milyô, chandan Devî Dâs).

In this way we see the vision of Guru Gobind Singh in not only working on translations of early scripture, but also to disseminate the skills and talents of his poets to younger generations with the aim of creating a court that transcended the rigorous caste system that limited knowledge to a selected few. Though the Pandit was a Brahmin by birth, Sainapat was from a Jatt background, a caste traditionally prohibited from learning the higher knowledge of Sanskrit etc. Sainapat would later tutor younger students and this lineage continued for hundreds of years and included famous writers such as Rattan Singh Bhangu who authored the Pracheen Panth Prakash in 1843.

As we saw the other day with Baba Hardas, whose descendants were to contribute greatly to the Sikh Panth and cause as mystics, warriors and rulers, so too did the descendants of Pandit Devi Das serve the cause of Sikhi by a great literary contribution. In 1769 his grandson Bhai Kesar Singh Chibbar authored the famous Bansavalinama Dasan Patshahian Ka which is one of the earliest books to narrate the life stories of all ten Gurus as well as to describe and discuss the condition of the Panth and times of Punjab in a period where the Sikhs once again had ascended to kingship. From the hands of this great author was also produced the lesser known works titled: Gur Pranâli, Shobâ Sri Amritsar ji kî, Kal[yug] Pradhâni, Bârâmâh nâzik, Bârâmâh Kesar Singh, Bârâmâh Mata Sita da, Bârâmâh Radhe Krishan, Sîhrfî Heer, Satvarâ, Thiti and Kesri Charkhâ. The brothers, sons and grandsons of Bhai Kesar Singh Chibbar were likewise great poets and authors who wrote several Janam sakhis, biographies of Sikh warriors (including Hari Singh Nalwa) , translations of Hindu Granths and poetry in general. Indeed, the legacy of Pandit Devidas was continued by his descendants all the way down to the British period where they were employed as scribes and historians in the British administration in Gujarat.

Though Sikh history tells us that the court of Maharaj was destroyed in 1704 and the Vidiya Sagar Granth was lost, the various initiatives set about by the Tenth Guru secured that the vidiya and knowledge would continue down through the generations in all parts of Northern India hereby creating a virtual living court not limited by any physical spaces and times.

Kavi Âlim Shah – A Sufi mystic at the court of Anandpur

Our fifth poet to introduce in our series of master scholar-poets from the majestic court of Guru Gobind Singh is Kavi Âlim Shah. He is known in the Sikh tradition as a pious mystic and Muslim Sufi saint. Before joining the entourage of the 52 poet scholars residing at Paonta, Alim Shah was employed at the Imperial court at Delhi where he worked for Emperor Aurangzeb.

Aurangzeb assumed power in 1658 after he killed his brothers, amongst these the revered Dara Shikoh who himself was a great scholar of Sufism and Vedanta. History shows that Aurangzeb kept a watch full eye on the spiritual and political developments of the Sikh movement. In his early days of rule he tried to intercept and dictate the succession of the Gurus by installing Ram Rai as the rightful heir to the throne of Guru Nanak, hereby trying to insert a leader that was favorable to Mughal rule. As the years progressed, Aurangzeb became more and more fanatical and eventually banned various arts such as music, poetry, painting etc. Due to these policies, many artists and poets felt compelled to seek patronage elsewhere where they could develop their skills under an appreciative patron who could create the right conditions for talent growth and inspiration. Many of these Imperial poets went to Paonta and later Anandpur, and amongst these were Alim Shah, Sukhdev, Girdhar, Bhai Nand Lal Goya etc.

Amongst the extant works authored by Alim Shah is the ‘Shyâm Sanehî’, ‘Sudâmâ Charitar’ and ‘Âlim Kelî’. The Âlim Keli was written in 1696, - that is - three years prior to the creation of the Khalsa in 1699. The Âlim Keli is a collection of poetry written in various raags such as Raag Jaitsri Kafi, Raag Jai Javanti etc. The content is centered on typical Sufi themes of love and it alludes to various famous love stories from the Quran, Punjabi history and folk lore. These various love stories are used as examples of the pure love that is developed between two individuals and the poet then progresses to use these analogies as examples of the deep felt love that should be developed between the Self and The Divine.

Unfortunately, only these three books have survived till this day. However, the many mentionings of Kavi Alim Shah in 18th century Sikh literature could indicate that he was amongst the greater poets of the court and that much more poetry was indeed composed by our revered Sufi poet.

The various works composed by Âlim Shah provide us with an interesting window into the diverse and multi faceted court of Guru Gobind Singh. Though most poetry from courts of Guru Gobind Singh deal with warfare, kingship and diplomacy, the works of Âlim Shah and Bhai Nand Lal challenge these popular misconceptions and instead show us the great focus on divine love (Ishq) and intimacy that was present in the court, hereby reflecting the mystical ethos of the Sri Satguru’s court

Kavi Kunvraish - Mahabharata at the court of the Tenth Master

A mind blowing task was begun at the court of Guru Gobind Singh, - the translation of an ancient epic that contains more than 1,8 million words!

Kavi Kunvraish was a residence of a small village in current day Uttar Pardesh before he joined the entourage of the Guru’s 52 scholar-poets. According to Sikh historians, Kunvraish was amongst the group of ex-Mughal poets who came to seek shelter at Anandpur after Aurangzeb began his extreme policies of forced conversions. When he arrived at the court, the gracious Master gave him some money and asked him to be seated amongst the other poets. Kunvraish was not just any random poet. He was the son of the famous Hindi poet Kavi Keshavdas and it might be due to the poet’s great family lineage that he was singled out by the Guru along with a handful of other poets to work on what was to become one of the largest subprojects in the darbâr of the tenth Guru – the translation of the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is considered to be one of the greatest literary wonders the world has ever produced and with its 1, 8 million words and more than 200.000 verses this was a tremendous task to be completed within the court. Several poets were selected to work on a section of the voluminous book and fortunately the manuscripts have survived till this day. Apart from its large narrations of warfare, the book also contains large sections on philosophical and devotional content, amongst these the famous Bhagavad Gita (which Guru Gobind Singh took upon himself to translate after the creation of the Khalsa in 1699). Kavi Kunvraish was given the task of translating the Drona Parav section of the Mahabharata which outlines the fierce and bloody battles of the general Drona against the enemy forces.

In a lengthy paragraph, which we here provide for the first time ever in English translation, the poet writes:

“In the year 1695-96 AD, I completed this book (which is an adaptation in the Braj Basha language of the Drona Parav section of the Mahabharata).

In the lineage of the mighty Bedis emerged the incomparable Guru Nanak who is the complete manifestation of God. Nanak made a follower from the Trehan lineage and gave him an auspicious name -Angad. Twenty four hours a day Angad devoutly meditated on the lotus feet of God. For the advancement of world Angad gave Guruship to Amardas,- a noble from the Bhalla lineage. Amardas gave all his powers, knowledge and Guruship to Ramdas – the King of the Sodhi lineage.

Arjan is the name of a warrior, but this Arjan is the king of the world! Arjan, who earned great fame in this world, is the son of Ramdas. The generous king Har Gobind, who killed a horde of enemies, is the son of Arjan. When Gurdita left the expansion of this illusionary world, his son Har Rai was given the responsibility of Guruship.

Har Rai’s son is Guru Harkrishan. When he left this world he gave a clue to identify the next guru. Tegh Bahadur was the most eligible to become Guru. God himself had given the nectar of devotion to him. Tegh Bahadur has come to give comforts to the people and finish the miseries and anxieties of the masses. The king Guru Gobind is the son of Tegh Bahadur.

It is only because of Guru Gobind that the entire community of poets is alive and thriving in this world. On the banks of the river Satluj is the pious city of Anandpur. There, is the abode of the graceful king Guru Gobind. In the land between the river Ganga and Yamuna is a village named Bari. There, the poet Kunvraish lives …….”

Apart from the tremendous work of translating the Mahabharata, Kavi Kunvraish also composed two other works – the Rit Rahas Kôk and the Sâmudrak . The first of these consist of 279 verses divided in 7 chapters while the second has some 98 verses. Many copies of these still exist but most interestingly, an extant manuscript from the Anandpur period itself has survived till this day which was scribed by Bhai Balchand Fateh Gobind Likhari.

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