Poet, author, and playwright Kamla K. Kapur is an Indian-born citizen of the United States. She currently lives half the year in the Kullu Valley of the Himalayas and the other half in California. Her books include the novel The Autobiography of Saint Padma the Whore and the story collection Ganesha Goes to Lunch, in which she retells classic tales and myths from the Hindu tradition. The following story, “The Water Carrier,” describes an incident that occurred in 1700 in the Sikh holy city of Anandpur Sahib, located in Punjab, India. The forces of expansionist Mughal emperor Aurangzeb have invaded the territory of Guru Gobind Singh, one of the eleven gurus of Sikhism. The story originally appeared in Parabola. Copyright © 2003 by Kamla K. Kapur. It’s reprinted here by permission of the author.


Guru Gobind Singh’s small fort in Anandpur Sahib was besieged by the mighty forces of Emperor Aurangzeb. The emperor, who believed Islam was the only valid, true, and right religion, was forcibly converting Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. Guru Gobind Singh, however, believed that all humans worshiped in their own unique ways and that all religions, if practiced with love and heart, led to God. He openly proclaimed his belief, and when Aurangzeb began to persecute him and his small band of loyal Sikhs, he fearlessly took up the sword. Though he was a poet, a philosopher, a man of words, he became a man of action to ensure the fundamental right of all people to worship their own version of God. He did not shun violence, and he was not afraid to spill blood, his own or the enemy’s, to defend his conviction.

The siege lasted for weeks. Their water and food supplies were rapidly dwindling. One evening the Guru’s soldiers came into his presence with a man in chains.

“We have found a traitor amongst us,” they said.

Guru Gobind Singh looked at the traitor. It was Bhai Kanhaiya, his faithful servant, who followed him around, anticipated his every need, fetched and carried for him, and stayed at the foot of his bed night after night, right there by his feet, meditating, praying, trying to stay awake all night, waiting for his Guru to awaken so he could behold him again. No, not a jot of separation could he bear from his master, whom he seemed to adore.

“A traitor?” asked Guru Gobind Singh. “How so? I always thought he was the most devoted of my Sikhs.”

“Wait till you hear what the best of your Sikhs was doing,” Jarnail Singh, one of the soldiers, replied angrily, bristling at the praise bestowed on Kanhaiya. Yes, Jarnail was angry, and he had every right to be. Wasn’t he the most devoted of the Guru’s Sikhs? Was he not a hero? Did he not obey all the Guru’s orders without questioning them? Did he not say all his prayers at the appointed hours? Did he not risk his own life for the Guru’s cause? Did he not fight the enemy tooth and nail? Why, just last night he had barely escaped with his life after cutting off the enemy’s supplies. Not only that, but he had even killed three of them, disemboweling two with his sword and decapitating the third. And even though he himself got hurt, did he not gladly suffer wounds for his Guru’s sake? Yet this Bhai Kanhaiya, this puny little Sikh with a scraggly beard and a sloppily tied turban, who didn’t fight in any of the battles, got all the praise. Now, finally, the Guru would see the difference between the two. Now the Guru’s eyes would open to the truth.

“You have assigned him the duty of giving water to the wounded Sikhs, but this Bhai of yours,” Jarnail said, producing a basket that Guru Gobind Singh recognized as having been woven by Bhai Kanhaiya with reeds from the nearby river, “has been giving our meager supplies to our enemies! With our own eyes we saw him giving water to Muslim soldiers!”

“Is this true, Bhai Kanhaiya?” the Guru asked his servant.

“He can’t deny it. We caught him in the act,” the soldier said triumphantly. “He was cradling the heads of the wounded and dying in his lap, stroking their brows, putting water in their mouths. Deny it if you can.”

“It is true,” Bhai Kanhaiya replied. “What should I do? I go into the battlefield when the battle is over, and when I look at the faces of the enemy, I see only you. So I offer you water as you lie wounded and dying on the battlefield. Tell me, what else can I do?”

Guru Gobind Singh looked at Bhai Kanhaiya. He was silent a long time. Then he walked over to Kanhaiya and, to everyone’s surprise, took him in his arms.

“This,” said the Guru, looking at his soldiers, “is my hero. He is a true Sikh from whom all of us, including me, have much to learn.”