Gurū Nānak Dēv (Punjabi: ਗੁਰੂ ਨਾਨਕ ਦੇਵ) (October 20, 1469 – September 22, 1539) was the founder of the Sikhreligion whose message of monotheisticdevotion and religious harmony offered a bridge of understanding between East and West. His religious teachings emphasized the oneness of God, service to humanity, and the pursuit of religious harmony, reconciliation and universal brotherhood.
The basic teachings of Sikhism derive from Guru Nanak. The religious movement that he started gathered momentum under his successors. Its ethical tone and singularity of devotion were elements that enamored it to the larger Indian community.
The unsettled political conditions of the later period of the Mughal empire created situations that inevitably transformed the Sikhs into an armed military order; yet, although the Sikhs changed their organization, their religion retained the deep-rooted teachings of Guru Nanak.
Birth and early life
Guru Nanak Dev Ji (he was named Nanak after his sister, Nanki) was born on October 20, 1469, into a family of the Hindu Bedi Khatri clan, in the village of Rāi Bhōi dī Talvaṇḍī, now called Nankana Sahib (after the Guru), near Lahore, Pakistan. Today, his birth place is marked by Gurdwara Janam Asthan. His father, Kalyan Das Bedi, also known as Mehta Kalu, was the patwari (accountant) of crop revenue for the village of Talwandi under the Muslimlandlord of the village, Rai Bular, who was responsible for collecting taxes. Guru Nanak’s mother was Tripta Devi, and he had one older sister, Nanaki.
There are two early sources on the life of Guru Nanak, the Janamsākhīs and the vārs of the scribe Bhai Gurdas.
The most popular Janamsākhī are said to have been written by a close companion of the Guru, Bhai Bala, before Nanak died. However, the writing style and language employed have left scholars such as Max Arthur Macauliffe certain that they were composed after his death.
Bhai Gurdas, the scribe of the Sikh Holy Book (Guru Granth Sahib), also wrote about Nanak’s life in his vārs. However, these too were compiled after Guru Nanak’s death, and are less detailed than the Janamsākhīs. Sikhs tend to hold Gurdas’ descriptions in higher esteem because of the author’s generally perceived trustworthiness.
The Janamsākhīs recount in great detail the circumstances of the birth of the guru. They claim that at his birth, an astrologer who came to write his horoscope insisted on seeing the child. On seeing the infant, he is said to have worshiped him with clasped hands. The astrologer then remarked that he regretted that he should never live to see young Guru Nanak’s eminence, revered, not only by Sikhs, but Hindus and some Muslims as well.
At the age of five years, Nanak is said to have begun to discuss spiritual and divine subjects. At age seven, his father Mehta Kalu enrolled him at the village school. In his youth he became familiar with the popular creeds of Muslims and Hindus and gained knowledge of the Qur’an and Hindu shastras. He is reported to have been displeased with the corruption and indifference of the learned. A manuscript in Persian mentions that his first teacher was a Muslim, though general accounts hold the teacher to be a Hindu, and Nanak astonished his teacher by asking the hidden meaning of the first letter of the alphabet, which is almost straight stroke in Persian or Arabic, resembling the mathematical version of one and denotes unity or oneness of God. Nanak left school early after he had shown his scholastic proficiency. He then took to private study and meditation.
The Janamsākhīs are unanimous in stating that Nanak traveled far and wide meeting many renowned religious teachers. He, thus, became acquainted with the latest teachings of Indian philosophers and reformers.
Marriage and family life
Nanak was married to Sulakhni. His marriage took place in the town of Batala. The marriage party had come from the town of Sultanpur Lodhi. He had two sons from this marriage: Sri Chand and Lakhmi Chand. The elder son was a deeply spiritual person and founded a sect known as Udasi. He is known as Baba Sri Chand in Sikhism. The term Baba refers to the respectful title given to an elder. The younger son was immersed in worldly life. However, Guru Nanak did not nominate either of his sons as his successor. Sri Chand lived a considerably long life. Upon the death of Sri Chand, his pagri (symbol of succession) was sent to the sixth Sikh Guru, Har Gobind. The udasis, or follower of Sri Chand, continued to remain in the fold of Sikhism.
Nanak and the Bhakti movement
Guru Nanak was born at a time when the Hindu Bhakti (devotional) movement was in full swing, especially in Northern India. Through Guru Nanak, the Bhakti movement in Punjab became a vehicle of social change and it was the intensity and depth of his message, fortified and consolidated by successor Gurus that served as an edifice on which the super-structure of Sikhism was built. Guru Nanak’s genius lay specifically in integrating the contemporary Bhakti-Sufi tradition of spiritual quest with the socio milieu in the totality of the medieval Indian life. Guru Nanak emancipated his followers from all religious and social shackles. He consciously projected new goals, envisaging a socio-religious order based on the concept of universal brotherhood, social justice, and humanitarian cultural vision that would engender peaceful co-existence and mutual understanding through explicit acceptance of cultural pluralism.
Guru Nanak differed considerably from other saints of the Bhakti movement on the concept of God and World. The policy of renunciation of the world or detachment with worldly responsibilities did not find place in his teachings. He denounced the leading of life as an ascetic and put great emphasis on hard work and earning livelihood. For him, taking care of one’s family and providing food and shelter for them was one of the prime duties of humans before God. According to him, to find God one does not have to renounce the world, and God could be found while leading an ordinary life as a householder. Nanak saw the world as creation of one supreme power, and since the creator was in the world he created, it could not be treated as unreal.
Last years of Nanak
Spending the last fifteen years of his life in Kartarpur, the Guru would wake at dawn and recite his daily prayers. At daybreak, he would address his followers. He worked in the field and earned his livelihood. He worked in Langar; or community kitchen, where food would be partaken by Nanak’s followers irrespective of their caste or creed.
As his end approached Nanak would frequently make a test, for judging the merits of his followers and sons, for nominating a successor. He was once walking with them on a road and a corpse lay on the side. He ordered all of them to eat that corpse. None, but Lehna, later Guru Angad, came forward. He removed the sheet which covered the corpse and found Nanak lying there instead. There were numerous other such occasions and Lehna never faltered in his faith in Nanak. Later, Nanak nominated Lehna as the next Guru, saying he was himself and his spirit would dwell in him. Nanak called him Guru Angad.
On September 22, 1539, aged 69, Guru Nanak met with his demise, after he had requested his disciples to sing the Sohila (hymn in the praise of God).
Teachings of Nanak
The main teachings of Nanak included faith in one true God, worship and recital of his name, and the necessity of Guru in pursuing the path to God. God, according to him, is immanent and transcendent. Nobody knows the limits of God. God alone knows how great he is. Nanak compares God to the beloved and says God is in the heart of every individual. Nanak had the belief in a personal and merciful god. Nanak denounced the worship of idols. He put emphasis on the worship of true name. Nanak endeavored to remove the cloud of ignorance and superstitions from the minds of people.
The core teachings of Nanak were as follows:
- Equality of humans: During the time of Nanak, caste based discrimination was deep rooted in Indian society. Nanak preached against discrimination and prejudices due to race, caste, status, etc. He said: “See the brotherhood of all mankind as the highest order of Yogis; conquer your own mind, and conquer the world.” He stated, “There is one awareness among all created beings.” He also added, “One who recognizes the One Lord among all beings does not talk of ego. He urges his followers to “conquer” their minds to these evil practices. All human beings had the light of the Lord and were the same—only by subduing one’s pride and ego could one see this light in all.
- Equality of women: In the 15th century, Indian society offered little status or respect to women. Nanak Dev sought to elevate the position of women by spreading the following message:
From woman, man is born; within woman, man is conceived; to woman he is engaged and married. Woman becomes his friend; through woman the future generations come. When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound. So why call her bad? From her, kings are born. From woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all. O Nanak, only the True Lord is without a woman.
In so doing, he promoted the equality of women in the fifteenth century. Nanak Dev also condemned the ritual of Sati.
- Universal message for all people:The followers of Nanak were from all faiths and he addressed all without discrimination. To the Muslim he said: “And when, O Nanak, he is merciful to all beings, only then shall he be called a Muslim.” To the Hindu, he said “O Nanak, without the True Name, of what use is the frontal mark of the Hindus or their sacred thread?” Additionally, to all he preached: “To take what rightfully belongs to another is like a Muslim eating pork or a Hindu eating beef.”Upon being asked which religion, Hinduism or Islam, was the true path to God, he replied that the true way to attain God was to worship Him who is eternal and contained in the whole Universe.
- Naam Japna: Chanting the Holy Name and thus remembering God at all times. Nanak put great emphasis on the worship of True Name. Repetition of the True Name (Satnam Vāhigurū) was to be done with greatest devotion.
- Kirat Karō: Earning an honest livelihood in the world rather than foresaking the world. He therefore rejected asceticism.
- Vaṇḍ Chakkō: Sharing with others. Overcoming selfishness.
Nanak in folklore
There are numerous tales relating to Nanak. One such tale narrates that when it became clear that the death of Guru Nanak Dev was near, a dispute arose among his followers. His Hindu followers wanted to cremate the remains while his Muslim followers wanted to bury the body following Islamic tradition. Nanak brokered a compromise by suggesting that each group should place a garland of flowers beside his body, and those whose garland remained unwilted after three days could dispose of his body according to their tradition. However, the next morning, upon raising the cloth under which the Guru’s body lay, only the flowers shared between his followers were found. The Hindus cremated their flowers whereas the Muslims buried theirs.
He is also said to have met the first Mughal emperor babur, when the latter invaded india and greatly impressed the sovereign with his demeanor and conversation.