Guru Nanak’s perspective on humanity is larger than life; expansive and timeless. More important than any historical nuggets are the impactful events of his meaningful life. In a lifespan of about 70 years, Nanak married, sired two sons, traveled widely across much of the known world of his times, and was a successful working farmer. Today, a worldwide ever-growing circle of more than 25 million Sikhs and non-Sikhs revere his message.
I offer you not a paean -- a joyful hymn of praise -- to Guru Nanak, the man and the prophet, but an overview of the transformative agenda he gifted us – its meaning and purpose.
Ground realities in Punjab and India when Nanak was born
Religions alone cannot always hold a nation together. Bangladesh was created out of Pakistan. Both are Muslim nations but their 24 years old union collapsed in 1971. The predominantly Muslim nations of the Middle East remain mostly at logger heads with each other. Sunni and Shia Muslims don’t like each other, nor are Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews fond of each other. History is instructive on internal frictions and travails of the various sects of Christianity.
Somewhat like Europe, India never was a single unified nation except under the British and the Mughals. Ergo, invaders could conquer India with limited invasive manpower. India was then a mélange of independent or quasi-independent nation states, each with a distinct culture, language, cuisine, music and ethos. Since 1947 it is a politically unified nation as it was under colonial masters, but the fragmentation persists.
When Guru Nanak appeared 550 years ago India was ruled by Muslim invaders bent on converting natives at the point of a sword, if necessary. Hindu society, despite its noble antecedents, was hamstrung by a decadent divisive religious culture, reprehensible caste system that exists even today, and shamefully degraded place of women. A divided society that had lost its moral compass, often willing to sell out to invaders. This is what the young Nanak saw.
What do a People Need?
How do a people reclaim their own humanity and dignity? The hope that tomorrow will be better has prerequisites for its flowering: Freedom of speech and action, participatory self-governance with transparent accountability, security, economic progress, infrastructure and an ethical code for a productive life.
Easier said than done! Two choices surface: evolution or revolution. Revolutions are bloody. They change rulers but not as easily the mindset of a people that is a product of long-standing inter-generational and culturally ingrained habits of the heart, traditions that define the self; in other words, the paradigm or the default position of the mind. Paradigm shifts demand time that transcends generations.
A transformative paradigm shift is exactly what Guru Nanak launched, and it took a good ten generations – almost 240 years -- to mature and bear fruit in its modern form. As expected, the path was mine-laden. Muslims, with connivance of some Hindu rulers, went on the warpath to defend their politico-religious dominance. Hindus saw Sikhi as undermining their hold on the people with a challenging new ideology that rejected their timeless but backward teachings on caste, place of women, idol worship and similar practices that divided and weakened a nation.
The first step demanded the creation of community of the dispossessed people. Nanak started a kitchen (langar) where people of all castes would come together, prepare and serve food to all irrespective of caste, creed, color or gender. Enjoy a meal, listen to uplifting poetry and teachings with music (keertan), and relate to each other as equals. Remember that in the traditional society high and low castes would never mingle or break bread together. Nanak rejected food taboos and dismissed the notion that high and low caste people may not intermix. People learned to live with each other -- not caring if they were sharing time with a king or pauper, a Brahmin or an untouchable. In India of that time, this was revolutionary.
Guru Nanak’s teaching begins with a revolutionary alphanumeric of his own design – Ik Oankaar – he proclaimed. Ik stands for the number One; Oankaar, rooted in Sanskrit, speaks of the Creator. If one can see the Oneness of the Creator, there is then no room left for a sectarian separate Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim Sikh, Brand X, or any other form of the Creator, because that would be a lesser god, not worthy of worship. Guru Nanak’s Creator has no physical form and transcends all physical formulations. This infinite reality by definition can never be captured by our human finite mind and vocabulary.
This profound message framed the fundamentals of a productive meaningful life in the language of the people -- norma loquendi – as poetry to be musically rendered. Why? Because, at best, the spoken message settles in the head, music takes the message to the heart. And what exactly is the mind or the soul but both the heart and the head put together. Poetry is roomful of allegories, analogies and similar devices to hold the mind. The compositions used the classical timeless Raga system of Indian musicology. Music and poetry are thus internalized and interpreted, not literally rendered.
Guru Nanak, accompanied by a Muslim musician, Mardana, took his message across the known world of that time well beyond Punjab and India.
Did Nanak want to start a new faith system?
I believe he did! Guru Nanak traveled through India, modern Pakistan and beyond -- south to Sri Lanka, north to Tibet, east beyond Assam and west to Afghanistan, Mecca, Turkey and neighboring areas; perhaps China, too. (Historical depictions remain somewhat vague) He held dialogues with scholars of many faiths. After four odysseys, he returned to Punjab and founded Kartarpur, now in Pakistan, as the Sikh model of Utopia where he nurtured the first Sikh community. Kartarpur became a bustling presence with businesses and traders. The community prospered. Guru Nanak lived there with his wife and two sons, preached the Sikh way of life and tilled his farm.
Kartarpur, was a defining step forward towards development of economically viable infrastructure for a people. Note that it was not near any Hindu or Muslim religious center. Never in his many years did Guru Nanak ever recommend that Sikhs go to a Hindu or Muslim place of worship. The gurduara (Dharamsal) in Kartarpur was the community’s only hub and place of worship.
If Guru Nanak’s had wanted only to reform Hinduism and stay within its fold without creating a new faith discipline, he would not have needed to travel so widely, and highlight the distance between Sikh and Hindu or Muslim practices. If he entered a Hindu or a Muslim place of worship it was not to join the rite but to impart a lesson on an existing practice.
Passing the Torch
Think a moment: If a business, or shop closes its doors at the death of the founder it is a failed venture. An enterprise must continue past the generations to earn the sobriquet of an institution or movement.
How do you rebuild a nation and its people decimated by centuries of invasions and destruction? Keep in mind that a massive transformative task is not accomplished in hours, days, months or years. There are many dots to connect. life models, habits of the heart or paradigms to be minutely re-explored, tweaked, modified, even jettisoned and replaced. A paradigm shift is called for. Habits of the heart are never easy to reform or displace.
Guru Nanak’s message continued and was further developed by his nine successors. Guru Nanak lived centuries ago. Times change; newer questions surface. Sikh institutional development continued under Nanak’s nine successors. Significantly all ten Gurus; wrote under the name and authority of Nanak.
Lehna succeeded Nanak and became Guru Angad. Guru Angad moved his activities to a new settlement – Khadur Sahib. Now there were two urban centers flourishing in Punjab. He also systematized the rules of Gurmukhi, the script of Punjabi, the language of the people. Prior to this Sanskrit, the language of the Brahmin elite, was the only medium deemed fit to convey scriptural teaching, hence available only to Brahmins.
Amardas, the third Guru, chose Goindwal as his base of operations. His presence attracted businesses, creating a third Sikh community without diminishing the luster of Kartarpur and Khadur Sahib. To upend the injustice to women, he appointed them to leadership positions in spreading Sikhi’s message; encouraged widows to remarry and condemned the horrendous practice of satee – self-immolation by widows. He also started the tradition of twice-yearly conclaves of Sikhs, somewhat like modern Town Halls, to reconnect with the teachings and confer on current issues that impact the community.”
Guru Ramdas followed. He founded Ramdaspur that became Amritsar. It remains, over 400 years later, the largest, most important commercial, cultural and educational hub of Punjab. It defines, through its history, the Sikh psyche today;
Guru Arjan compiled writings of the previous four Gurus, along with his own, added compositions of a few selected Hindu and Muslim saints and poets whose views resonated with Sikh teachings, and installed the compilation as the first rendition of Sikh scripture (Adi Granth) in 1604. This became the authoritative document on Sikh ethos. The Harmandar (Golden Temple) in Amritsar has been the defacto capital of all Sikh activities, social, educational, administrative or political, whether local or international since that time; Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru, completed its development. He was the first Sikh martyr in the cause of freedom of religion. The lesson: One must learn to die before one may pick up a weapon.
Guru Hargobind continued to mentor Sikh development. Over the 100 years since Guru Nanak, much had changed. Islam had become aggressively fanatic. The Sikh movement, continuing to emphasize peaceful coexistence with other faiths, had acquired heft and visibility. Guru Nanak had taught that the Creator is not found in seclusion, ascetism or renunciation but within the active worldly life – the two are not mutually exclusive. Guru Arjan had been martyred. So, Guru Hargobind, the sixth Founder-Guru formally enunciated the doctrine of Meeri-Peeri that emphatically merges the internal spiritual life of worship, prayer and the mind with the outwardly directed worldly pursuit of action. These two primary fundamentals of Sikh existence must never be sundered. Sikhs are to be peaceful and non-violent but not pacifist. So,
Guru Hargobind wore two swords –of Meeri and Peeri. This recognizes that a successful life in the human domain is a life of action (Meeri) but never torn asunder from its spiritual foundations (Peeri). One without the other remains incomplete. He raised a militia to counter armed warfare thrust upon him. Each subsequent Guru maintained armed militia. Guru Hargobind also built the townships of Hargobindpur, Mehraj and Kiratpur, and even a mosque for the many Muslims who were attracted to Sikhi but remained Muslims. Briefly, Meeri-Peeri and Akal Takht that he defined and built are at the core of nation building and critical to Sikh history and Sikh values. The term “Nation” does not imply geographical lines drawn in the sand.
Guru Har Rai helped clarify doctrinal matters, was dedicated to ecological concerns and created resources, remedies and medicaments for the needy.
Guru Harkishan served very briefly and is remembered for service to the poor during a horrendous epidemic.
The towns of Anandpur and Paonta Sahib are associated with Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru. He lives in our memories for accepting martyrdom to assert the fundamental right of religious freedom – for Hindus to refuse conversion to Islam under duress. Guru Tegh Bahadur himself was not a Hindu. The underlying principle here (often misattributed to Voltaire) remains that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The saga of Guru Gobind Singh deserves books galore, much more than the brief space here. In 1699 he brought the transformative change started by Guru Nanak to its mature modern form. He created the community of Khalsa that changed the face of Punjab and India into a free outer directed people at peace with their inner self. (Remember the underpinnings of Meeri-Peeri that must remain in sync.) Guru Gobind Singh also added Guru Tegh Bahadur’s compositions to complete the final recension of the Adi Granth that he installed as the Guru Granth. At the creation of the Khalsa, he initiated Sikhs and then knelt so that his Sikhs would initiate the Guru into the Khalsa order. This novel idea of Gur Chela in Sikhi antedates the Servant-Leader concept that you might now encounter in modern academic programs in Business and Management
In the two centuries from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh Sikhi had come a long way. Guru Gobind Singh further saw that his Sikhs had earned self-governance. He decreed, therefore, that henceforth, in Sikh praxis Guru Granth remains the repository of all Sikh spiritual heritage while temporal authority would rest in the Sikh community acting in awareness of the spiritual heritage that defines and guides them.
My mandate today was to delineate the borders of Guru Nanak’s mission. I have tried to connect many dots over 500 years that shaped Sikhi for a timeless presence. An unforgettable historical nugget that has resonated from the time of Guru Nanak summarizes unerringly the magic and mystery of the teaching. As commonly used, it describes the Sikh way of life as one of 1. honest earnings, 2. sharing rewards of life with the needy, best labeled seva; langar is one component of many possibilities, and 3. remaining always connected to the one Creator common to all, regardless of caste, color, creed, gender or religious, cultural and national identity.
Soon after Guru Gobind Singh in early 17th century, Sikhs had evolved the traditions of Sarbat Khalsa where community representatives would meet in conclaves -- like town hall meetings that you see across the world today – to debate and discuss issues of peace and war or critical turns in direction that faced us. Also, matters like traditions, Code of Conduct (Rehat Maryada), protocols and related Constitutional matters may be revisited as needed.
These systems exist but have been degraded by neglect and human inertia. As in any path we need to know where we are at a given point. Even more critical is the trajectory of the path . Only then, as Sikhi promises, the journey becomes the destination. The exploration must continue so that we don’t throw away the baby with the bath water. The onus is ours.
My heartfelt plea is that you see Guru Nanak, unusual and special as he was, as the one who founded and shaped our journey -- a revolutionary movement --- that still tugs at us today. There can be no better legacy.
The process won’t be easy but it is so essential. The journey started with Guru Nanak and we celebrate him. It does not end with his mortal presence or with ours.
About the author:
Over the years, Dr. I. J. Singh has written a thoughtful series of essays on issues and problems confronting Sikhs at the turn of the millennium. He has published five anthologies of his essays including Being & Becoming a Sikh (2003) and The World According to Sikhi (2006.) He has contributed over 200 columns to Sikhnet, Sikhchic, Sikh Review, and Nishaan.
© Copyright Dr I J Singh
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