More than 500 years ago, when Guru Nanak set out on his mission, he sang the praises of God with music. Wherever he went, audiences were charmed, entranced and inspired by the unique hymns the Guru would sing accompanied by the music played by Bhai Mardana, his Muslim-born companion. For fifty-four years, Bhai Mardana traveled along with Guru Nanak, whether it was in the cold hills or hot deserts.
Bhai Mardana Ji was ten years older than Guru Nanak, born in 1459 at Rai Bhoi Di Talwandi was originally named "Dana" by his parents. His father was a Mirasi Muslim named Bhai Badre and mother's name was Bibi Lakho Ji. He was his parents' seventh child, however, the first six had all died upon birth.
Since they lived in the same village, Bhai Mardana Ji and Guru Nanak became childhood friends. According to the Junam Sakhi written by Bhai Mani Singh Ji, Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana first met in 1480. Guru Nanak is the one who renamed Bhai Dana to Bhai Mardana (warrior).
As Guru Nanak moved to Sultanpur and started to work in the modhi khana (General Store), Bhai Mardana, already a married man and father of two sons wanted to visit the Guru in Sultanpur. Meanwhile, Mehta Kalu Ji, Guru Nanak's father asked Bhai Mardana to go to Sultanpur and check how his son is doing. Bhai Mardana went to Sultanpur, but never returned, he started to stay with the Guru there.
Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana
When Guru Nanak prepared to go on his journeys to preach his message, he invited Bhai Mardana to accompany him. Bhai Mardana was blessed with something that no other Sikh can claim, that is he spent 54 years of his life with Guru Nanak and listening to his wisdom.
Bhai Mardana is the most significant character identified in Janam Sakhis after Guru Nanak. Naturally, such honor leaves a deep impression in the readers mind. Bhai Mardana enjoyed the unique honor of being a helper as well as a close confidant of Guru Nanak. Bhai Gurdas Ji places Guru Nanak on the prime pedestal while placing Bhai Mardana on second pedestal:
ਇਕੁ ਬਦਬਦ ਅਕਦਲ ਰੂਪ ਡੂਜਦ ਰਬਦਬੀ ਮਰਡਦਨਦੇ
"Ek Baba Akal Rup Duja Rababi Mardana"
(Vaar - Bhai Gurdas Ji)
Meaning, one Baba (referring to Guru Nanak in Almighty's forms accompanied by the second Rababi (musician, player of Rabab) Mardana.
Bhai Mardana was gifted in playing the Rabab, a musical instrument:
ਭਲਾ ਰਬਾਬ ਵਜਾਇੰਦਾ ਮਜਲਸ ਮਰਦਾਨਾ ਮੀਰਾਸੀ
(Vaar - Bhai Gurdas Ji)
Bhai Mardana Ji dedicated himself for the heavenly and sacred mission of Guru Nanak. Undoubtedly he was the very first to sacrifice himself for the Sikh faith.
When we read the old Janam Sakhis, we can only imagine how many hardships he had to go through on the journeys. Sometimes going days without food, travelling by foot throughout India, Afghanistan, Saudia Arabia, Iraq, Russia, China, Egypt, Africa, and other countries. Bhai Mardana Ji and Guru Nanak went through a lot together, there are many stories from their lives.
Once, while the two of them were travelling through a thick forest, Kulyug came up to them. It was starting to get dark, there were strong winds, branches started to fall off of trees, and dust was flying all around. Bhai Mardana started to panic and run, but soon there was fire all around them and nowhere to go. Seeing this, Bhai Mardana just laid down on the ground and covered his face, he was certain that he was going to die.
At this moment, according to the Pratan Junam Sakhi:
ਬਾਬੇ ਕਿਹਾ "ਰਬਾਬ ਸੰਭਾਲ"
Translation: Guru Nanak said, "Play the Rabab."
Bhai Mardana grabbed his Rabab and started to play it and sing hymns. Almost immediately, the Kulyug disappeared, Bhai Mardana defeated Kulyug. Now the question arises that Guru Nanak had the powers to defeat Kulyug, but why did he tell Bhai Mardana to play the Rabab?
The reason is that Guru Nanak wanted to give praise to his servant and wanted to show the importance of Kirtan.
From spending time with the Guru, Bhai Mardana Ji started to gain the characteristics of the Guru. He went and played his rabab in the Muslim countries where it was forbidden to play music. When Pir Julaali's son Jul Julaali confronted him, saying that he is not allowed to play music, Bhai Mardana Ji said that he was singing the hymns of his Guru and would not stop.
Then when the Pir asked Bhai Mardana Ji to tell Guru Nanak that he must present himself in the court, Bhai Mardana did not get scared. Instead, he told the Pir that nobody can order the Guru to do anything and that Guru Nanak does not need to explain himself to anyone.
Bhai Mardana was extremely simple, pure, honest and friendly. He was a person of very high moral principles and qualities. Persistent like a child he couldn't hide his inner thoughts and feelings. However, his behavior never irritated Guru Sahib who always treated him with love, affection, and softness.
When Guru Nanak Ji completed his journeys and settled in Kartarpur, Bhai Mardana had a big choice to make. His family was living in the village of Talwandi, but he decided not to go there. He told Guru Nanak that he had spent so much time with the Guru that now he had no one else besides his Guru. For this reason, Bhai Mardana also started to stay in Kartarpur.
In 1534, at Kartarpur, Bhai Mardana, fell ill. He grew weak and hope of recovery was lost. Born of a Muslim family, he had attached himself to Guru Nanak. The Guru asked him how he wished his body to be disposed of, Bhai Mardana replied that by the Guru's instruction he had overcome his pride of the body. What remained of him after death, he said, be disposed of as the Guru wished.
Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana
When Bhai Mardana passed away, Guru Nanak himself cremated his body and spread the ashes in the Ravi River.
Bhai Mardana had two sons, Baba Rajada and Baba Shajada. Baba Shajada stayed at Talwandi, but Baba Rajada came to Kartarpur. Baba Sajada used to sing in the Darbar of Guru Angad. There were two sons of Baba Sajada, Banoo and Saloo, who were the Darbari Ragis of Guru Amardas and Guru Ramdas. Their son Balwand and his son Sata were the Ragis who sang in the Darbar of Guru Arjan.
Bhai Mardana received yet another unique honor that no subsequent Sikh could acquire. The middle saloks of Bihagada's vaar are dedicated to Bhai Mardana. This is evident of Guru Nanak's deep love and affection for Bhai Mardana.
That Sikh was so blessed that whenever anyone speaks about Guru Nanak, Bhai Mardana Ji's name is always there also.
Bhai Mardana was the very first kirtania of Sikh history. His Rabab, even to this day, serves as the source of motivation for our kirtanias. Every Sikh, as well as kirtania, can learn a lot from his selfless dedication, sacrifice and humility filled life.