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Guru Nanak: His Life And Philosophy

Article of the Month - December 2008
Viewed 43207 times since 15th Dec, 2008

'Baba Nanak Shah Faqir, Saba ka Guru, Sabhi ka Pir', a transform of the verse : 'Baba Nanak Shah Faqir, Hindu ka Guru, Musalman ka Pir', immensely popular in Punjab, truly defines some more significant aspects of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh Panth and Sikhs' first Guru. Bound by intimate ties Nanak's disciples saw in him the 'Baba', guardian of generations of man, who, the benevolent protector, built the path, led them to it and guided their course all through, and all with love and care, not like a formal teacher asserting his authority. The torch-bearer lived among them like one of them and practised along them what he preached. A faqir beyond possessions, passions or ambitions, and all desires, Baba Nanak, reigning over the domains not belonging to man, was the king of kings, the supreme Shah at whose feet emperors bowed and to whose divine aura expanse of their territories fell short. Not Hindu or Musalman, he was, and is still, everyone's Guru, the teacher guiding all to the right path, and everyone's Pir, the benefactor and spiritual guardian. 'Hindu ka Guru, Musalman ka Pir', part of the original verse, seems to have grown out of the forecast which astrologers made at the time of his birth. As the Bala Janam Sakhi has it, the planetary position at the time of his birth indicated that both Hindu and Turk, two main constituents of the society those days, would revere him alike and the path that he would found would alike be the path of both.

BIRTH AND EARLY DAYS

Guru Nanak with His teacher Shri Gopal Pandit
Guru Nanak with His teacher Shri Gopal Pandit

The divinity incarnate, Baba Nanak was born in A. D. 1469 at Rai-Bhoe-ki-Talwandi, now in Pakistan about 65 km west of Lahore. The place is now known as Nankana Sahib, re-named long back after Guru Nanak. The young Nanak was often found engaged in cosmic questions and fundamentals of life, which upset his father Mehta Kaluchand, an orthodox Bedi, one of the branches of Kshatriyas. Seeking to keep his interests centred on formal education he engaged a Brahmin to teach Nanak read and write Devanagiri, and a Maulvi to teach Persian and Arabic, besides himself devoting daily quite a lot of time in instructing him in arithmetic and accountancy.

A precocious child, Nanak's interests were, however, widely different. Even at the age of five he retired to solitude to cogitate or resorted to the company of holy men seeking from them answers to eternal questions of life. Keen to drag him into trade and commerce, and indeed into the family life, and distract his mind from spiritualism, his father decided to marry him, a step which in cases like Nanak's most parents considered as an unfailing remedy since times immemorial. When married, he was eighteen and his consort Sulakhani, about two years younger to him. He was a caring husband and fathered two sons, Sri Chand and Lakhmi Das, the bent of his mind was, however, always the same meditative and isolation-loving as before.

Guru Nanak at Daulat Khan Lodhi's shop
Guru Nanak at Daulat Khan Lodhi's shop

 

 

After his father's efforts to direct his interests to trading - rearing cattle or setting up a shop, failed, his sister Nanaki took him with her to Sultanpur where her husband Jairam arranged for him store-keeper's job at the 'modikhana' of Daulat Khan Lodhi.

 

 

Baba Nanak, Bhai Mardana and Bala
Baba Nanak, Bhai Mardana and Bala

 

The place changed and so his life-routine but not his mindset. Here he chanced to meet Mardana, a Muslim minstrel, who, when he played on rabbab, could spell-bound his listeners. Ten years older to him Mardana was fascinated by Nanak's sweet melodious voice, charming manners, human concerns, spiritual fervour and soul-touching quality of his verses. Some accounts claim that Mardana was a friend of his childhood days. However, it was hereafter that the two were inseparably united. Nanak's job at 'modikhana' apart, his most time was spent in composing songs lauding Almighty and in singing them, and Mardana was always there accompanying him on his rabbab. Now onwards with his divine songs and Mardana's rabbab resounded every corner and square of Sultanpur, and with the mysticism that his songs revealed, the mind of every listener.

 

 

Daulat Khan Lodhi Searching for Baba Nanak in the River Bein
Daulat Khan Lodhi Searching for Baba Nanak in the River Bein

 

 

Nanak spent seven years at Daulat Khan's 'modikhana' not so much in weighing goods as in weighing questions facing life. A restless mind, Nanak lived as if in a transit-house awaiting a summon, the summon from Him, to proceed to his destination, his true home. He was now thirty, and as everyday, one morning when at river Bein, named Vahi in some accounts, to have his routine bath he heard the call from within the depths of the river waters. Pursuing the call he descended deep into the waters and did not come out. His clothes lying on the river bank led his kin and others to conclude that he had drowned.

 

 

 

After three days he re-appeared. A divine composure defined his face. Despite curious questions volleying from all around the whole day he did not utter a word, perhaps the light that the absolute darkness within the depths of waters had kindled into him had not taken a shape yet. No metaphysics or rhetoric, the other day he simply uttered : 'nai koi Hindu, nai koi Musalman' - neither one is Hindu, neither Musalman, that is, man is neither Hindu nor Musalman, he is only a man, all alike in relation to each other and in relation to Him, the Karta Putukha - Creator. His communion with the Supreme is only as man, not as Hindu or Musalman. The Enlightened one, Guru Nanak thus rejected narrow religious boundaries that disabled man from uniting with Him and divided mankind, and paved the path for universal brotherhood, harmony, tolerance and unity of mankind into the thread of humanity.

SIGNIFICANCE OF WATER IN SIKH-PANTH

His three days in water have been variedly seen and interpreted. His absence from the world has been viewed by many as his journey to Sach Khand, the abode of the Eternal One, a commission he was invested with by the Almighty Himself, or to the wider world to preach what had descended on him during his intimate communion with Him. The Puratan Janam-Sakhi defines it as his direct encounter with the Divine. In their book 'Sri Harmandar Sahib : the Body Visible of the Invisible Supreme' the authors of this essay have seen the episode from yet another perspective. In their attempt to renounce the world while all seekers of 'truth' or 'light', during the days of Guru Nanak or before, even Buddha and Mahavira, entered into forest, Guru Nanak entered into water believing perhaps that the world was not so completely removed off the sight when in forest as it was when into water's depths. In water, depth was Guru Nanak's base, and height, his vision, and complete darkness around led the eyes to seek the light within; in forest, sight rolled horizontally along the world which it sought to renounce, and external light illumined exterior obstructing the journey within. Absolute renouncement of the world has always been the key to absolute union with the Divine; Buddha and Mahavira took six and twelve years to attain it, Guru Nanak, just three days, and water - complete dissociation from the world, and the absolute void which it produced, was his means. This event of Guru Nanak attaining Enlightenment in the course of ablution with water as his means underlines sanctity of water and ablution in entire post Guru Nanak Sikh tradition not merely as a sacred thing but as an essential part of Sikh faith, rituals and architecture. Not surprisingly, tank - Sarovar, seems to always have priority over temple in Sikhs' architectural tradition right since the days of Guru Ramdas who sought to construct the Sarovar first so that the temple emerged.

TWO DECADES OF ITINERACY

Guru Nanak
Guru Nanak

 

 

 

 

 

Guru Nanak gave up his job and distributed all his belongings to poor. Attired in a robe and kalandari cap and a rosary around his neck, perhaps similar to those he is seen wearing in medieval paintings,

 

 

 

 

 

Guru Nanak with Bhai Lalu the Carpenter
Guru Nanak with Bhai Lalu the Carpenter

 

Baba Nanak, ever a faqir by aptitude, now a faqir also by appearance, left Sultanpur. Mardana was his constant companion. Now cynosure of all eyes, Guru Nanak almost mesmerized everyone with his divine aura, mystic verses and melodious voice. He first went to Sayyadpur in Gujranwala, a western Punjab now in Pakistan. Hundreds drew to his discourses, though Lalu, known in Sikh tradition as Bhai Lalu, a carpenter, was the first to be his regular disciple.

 

He then proceeded to Sialkot where he met the known saint of those days Shah Hamzah. At Shivaratri he reached Achal Batala and had discourse with yogis - holy men assembled there on the occasion. He then visited his birth-place Talwandi, paid respect to his parents and then retired for a few days into Chhanga Manga forest. He then proceeded to Multan. On way to Multan he met Sayyad Hamid Ganj Baksh, and at Chuniana, Sheikh Daud Karamati. Multan was the seat of many Sufis and saints. As the popular tradition has it, when yet in the course of meeting them a group of holy men sent Guru Nanak a bowl filled in to the brim with milk suggesting that Multan did not have for him any space left. Nanak sent it back with a jasmine flower afloat indicating that fragrance, like which his presence was, did not require space in a bowl. It soared above and only added flavour to the contents of the bowl without encumbering it with its load. It was at Multan that he reformed a notorious thag Sajjan, a cheat, who not only joined his path but also donated his house. It was with Sajjan's house, converted into a Dharmashala, rest house for travellers, by Guru Nanak himself, that the Sikh Panth's architectural geography began. As has Bhai Gurdas in a verse, deeply influenced by Guru Nanak's concept of transforming a house into a Dharmashala all his disciples began treating their houses as Dharmashalas - the abodes for pilgrims and travellers.

Guru Nanak devoted almost two decades in his travels to different destinations, the apparent objective being mainly meeting and discoursing with holy men and visiting shrines of different faiths. Everywhere he was looking for the 'sustainable' - in the body of a particular faith, its shrine, saints and its proclaimed doctrine. When not in agreement he discoursed and won over his opponents, not so much by magical power or intellectual acumen as by his moral strength and 'power of loving devotion'. Not attached to one community of faith Nanak's was not a sectarian angle. His emphasis was on divine Reality to which particularities of caste, clan or race were irrelevant. Though the accounts of his travels vary in different sources, unanimity prevails in regard to this broad modus operendi during his entire itineracy and in regards to their direction-wise grouping, that is, his travels into East, South, North and West. Each time on completion of his journey into one direction he returned to Talwandi and that served as the dividing line.

Guru Nanak with Sant Kabir
Guru Nanak with Sant Kabir

He was in East for twelve years, more than half of the total period of his itinerary. Besides the places like Mathura, Vrandavana, Haridwar, Agra and Kurukshetra in immediate neighbourhood or around, he went up to Prayag Varanasi, Gaya, Bengal and Kamrup, in north-east region. Some of his travel-accounts mention him visiting even China and Tibet. At Kukukshetra, he was on the day of solar eclipse, when hundreds of ascetics and pundits assembled there for the holy ritual dip. During his discourses with them his principles of acceptance of reality, love, harmony, truth, and inward purity influenced all and converted many to his Path. As is commonly believed, alleging him teaching profanity, the rigid authority imprisoned him along with Mardana but they were released within days when those in authority found them transforming the very atmosphere of the jail by their divine music. At Kamrup, the known conjuror Nur Shahi tried to infatuate Baba Nanak by her tempting charms but the moment compassionate Nanak sang to her a hymn, now known as Kuchchaji, her ignorance was shedded off. Falling on his feet she dedicated herself to his Path. At Puri he attended the evening service of Jagannatha performed as Arti. He realised its futility for when all-pervading God was omni-present and the sun, moon, stars and all forms of light were already in His service, the service rendered to a perishable object - an image, with just an extinguishable lamp, had no consequence. This moment is believed to reflect in one of Guru Nanak's more significant verses - 'Gagan mein thal...', the sky is the tray... He was at Varanasi where followers of Kabir claim that he met Kabir, and Vaishnavites, that he met and danced with Chaitanya.

A few sources allude to his journey to Mount Sumeru, a mythical entity, and to his discoursing with teachers died centuries ago. Scholars apply factual parameters to these claims and reject them as untrue ignoring the fact that Enlightened ones, as was Guru Nanak, transcended time and space and reached lands which to common masses were mere myths, and conversed with people who were by then part of legends or history. Histories or factual accounts do not record journeys of self such as Guru Nanak or Buddha undertook.

Guru Nanak with Saint Gorakhnath
Guru Nanak with Saint Gorakhnath

 

 

In South, he went down to Rameshwaram and Sri Lanka. He had his route via Rajasthan, Central India, Andhra and Tamil Nadu, and on way back - a different route, fell Kerala, Mysore, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Sind. As the popular tradition has it, in Rajasthan he had opportunity to meet Mirabai, and in Gujarat, the known Vaishnava saint Vallabhacharya, though chronologically their periods were widely different. When 46, he proceeded on his northward journey into Himalayan region and was there for two years. His interactions with known and unknown ascetics and teachers apart, he came in contact also with the followers of Guru Gorakhnath and Machhendranath. They were highly impressed with Nanak's mission of journeying across the land to unveil the truth that enshrouded by the darkness of ignorance.

 

LAST TWENTY YEARS: PANTH OF NAM-SIMARAN

Jap: The Essence of Nanakian Philosophy
Jap: The Essence of Nanakian Philosophy

By around 1521 Guru Nanak concluded his travels. When wandering from a shrine to a saint, mosque to a Maulvi, or Sufi to a Sanyasi, he wondered why there was suffering when land had thousands of temples, Tirthas, holy men, ages-old religions, teachings and traditions. Realising that shrines or saints, they all led man to stale and formal ritualism, which on one hand isolated one man from the other and on the other hand obstructed him from uniting with the Creator, he sought the simplest possible path of 'Nam-simaran' - commemoration of His name, which beyond form and rites enabled man to enter into intimate communion with God. He discovered in commemoration of 'Nam' the gist of all rites and the instrument of realising and communicating with the Formless One, without losing his way into the cobwebs of formal rituals. The simplest possible path of reaching Him, 'Nam-simaran' turned the eye from beyond to within - from river-bank to its waters' depths, and opened the all-perceiving window inside, and it is here - inside oneself, that one finds Him enshrining. Nanak said that the Beloved one was not far from him who sought Him within him. As the Formless One is also without a Nam, the Nam that one gives to Him represents his own vision of Him. Thus a thing within oneself, the communion with Him - through 'Nam', his only manifest form of Him, is more intimate and also incessant.

Guru Nanak laid as much emphasis on equality among all and fraternity as the highest principles of living. Instead of seeking to isolate as did meditation or other austerities Nanak's path attributed as much sanctity to Nam-simaran in commune as individually. Farther than this, in his concepts of Dharmashala, a form of 'Sangat' - commune, and Pangat or Langar, a form of community kitchen for all to dine together without discrimination, he not only underlined the need of a strong community life but also of personal goodness, sociability, harmony and equality among all.

Guru Angad Dev
Guru Angad Dev

With his new path, named variedly as 'Nam-marg' or 'Simaran-marg', Baba Nanak decided to permanently settle and share his vision - knowledge and light, with others. One of his disciples, Diwan Karorimal Khatri, donated a piece of land close to the holy river Ravi and here Baba Nanak founded, in the name of Kartar, the Creator, the ever first seat of 'Nam-marg', naming it Kartarpur. Almost from 1521 to 1539 he was at Kartarpur. In these 18 years, around the isolated seat of the Panth had emerged a huge township and the place was thronged by the followers of the Panth day and night and round the year. Nanak's simple mysticism and his plain, simple, clear and precise path attracted all and many of them stayed there permanently. Among others there were two young men Budda and Lahina, the curious minds come to just see what in Kartarpur dragged people to it, but once there they never went back. On 2nd September, 1539, just a few days before his Nirvana, Guru Nanak summoned a large congregation. To everyone's surprise, he asked Lahina, now Bhai Lahina, to come to him. Lahina obeyed but was taken aback when Guru Nanak placed before him five Paisa and a coconut, and his head at his feet. He gave him 'Bani-pothi' - collection of his own hymns, and a rosary, and announced that since onwards Lahina as Angad - a part of his own being, as also the one who shared his spirit and soul, would be his successor and Panth's new Guru.

The Ten Sikh Gurus
The Ten Sikh Gurus

 

 

 

 

 

Guru Nanak established thus the unity of Guruship which was based on the principles of impersonality, indivisibility and continuity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 7th September, 1539, in some accounts it is 22nd September, Guru Nanak breathed his last and thus the light merged with the eternal light.

VISION OF GOD, SELF'S TRANSCENDENCE AND NIRVANA

GURU NANAK'S JAPU JI
GURU NANAK'S JAPU JI

 

 

 

 

 

'Ek-Omkar Sati Nam Karta Purukh Nirbhau Niravairu...' the preamble to Japjee, unanimously revered as the Mool Mantra, represents Guru Nanak's concept of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shri Guru Nanakji's Ik Onkaar: Meditations on The One Indivisible Truth
Shri Guru Nanakji's Ik Onkaar: Meditations on The One Indivisible Truth

Accordingly, God is one; He is the supreme truth, the truth beyond time, the truth before time came into being, the truth when time began scaling the universe, and the truth even now; He is the Creator - all-creating and all-doing; He is beyond fear and beyond hate; the omnipresent He pervades the universe; He is not the subject of birth, nor He dies to be born again. He created day and night, waters and breezes, earth, sky and oceans and the entire cosmos, nature and all. The 'Nirankar', He is beyond form and beyond human comprehension. No volume of thought, solemn-most silence, deepest meditation, any amount of fasting or similar other austerities or virtues, or thousands of devices can enable one to know the Truth that is Him or tear the veil of false illusion. If any, the righteous living one alone can invoke his grace for it is from one's deed and thought that he is judged, and it is He Himself Who assesses - honours or discards, his actions. Nanak said : 'What we sow that alone we take'. Guru Nanak forbade worship of idols or form, or worship performed out of fear or for gain, objectives that usually inspired idol-worship. As is the connotation of his hymn 'Gagan mein thal...', He, being the Destroyer of Fear, can not be Fear's instrument, or rather of any weakness in man, which is often in the root of idol-worship. Not so expressly initially, Guru Nanak accepted the Hindu theory of Karma and life hereafter, that is, there is rebirth after death, and the 'yoni', form - man, animal, bird, fish or whatever, one has in the rebirth is determined by one's action in the present life. By righteous living a being might escape this vicious circle of death and rebirth and attain Nirvana.

CASTE-SYSTEM, RELIGION AND RITES, STATUS OF WOMAN ....

Not a single incidence in Guru Nanak's life is denotative of his adherence to caste-system. On the contrary, in complete disregard of caste-considerations he had Mardana, a Muslim, as his constant companion. 'Those who condemn God's creatures condemn God Himself' is the underlying tone of many of his verses. He said that even amongst 'the noblest' there could be ignoble, and amongst the low-born, pure and noble. His idea of a caste-free society transpired also in his concepts of Sangat and Langar. Nanak rejected a Yogi's wear or staff, ashes smeared on body, shaven head, blowing of conch-shell ... as things defining religion. He emphasised that the religious was him who amongst impurities of the world became impurity-free. He prescribed prayer as its means for prayer rendered the soul, soiled by sin, wholesome and sin-free, similarly as ringed with soap garments, rendered dirty with grime, brightened.

Renunciation was not his religion's part. He believed that house-holders could also do whatever required for their spiritual elevation and communicate with God. Once, one Yogi Bhagandarnath questioned him sarcastically : 'why he mixed acid with milk', that was, mixed family life with asceticism. Bhagandarnath considered family life as impure. Guru Nanak quietly said that Bhagandarnath had renounced family life considering it impure but he was going to householders every day for begging. He asked the Yogi as to how he would protect the purity of his asceticism when it sustained on food that he every day received from impure householders. Guru Nanak did not consider the world around as false or illusionary. He said : 'Real are your worlds and real the created forms...'. What makes the created ones different from the Creator is reality's degree. The Creator is 'True Reality', 'Eternal Sovereign'. Guru Nanak also did not approve the theory of incarnation of God for the human body was prey to decay and death, whereas God was beyond them. He sometimes seems to combine personalness of Hindu God, spiritual equality of Buddhism and congregation of Islam. His religion was more or less universal and largely of secular type.

A poet of uncommon sensitivity Guru Nanak not only collected the subject matter of his verses from every day experiences but also directed his attention to things common man every day faced. He sought to strengthen community life and thereby a strong nation. Not merely spiritual transformation, his verses, as is their underlying pith, seek to improve quality of social life too. He did not ridicule hypocrites or censored social evils as did Kabir but he was as deeply concerned in regard to them. Instead of ridiculing he only pitied them. Nanak did not approve that women were treated as inferior of man whether in society or in religious hierarchy. He wrote : 'Of women we are born, of women conceived ... by women is the civilization continued ... Then why call her evil from whom are great men born _' He asserted that it is because of women that there is order and, except God, existence of all, man or beast. In later Sikhism women were admitted into the Order of the Panth, which is more often considered as the reflection of Guru Nanak's vision of woman.


FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Mani Singh, Bhai : Janam Sakhi Guru Nanak Dev Ji
  • Santosh Singh, Bhai : Sri Guru Nanak Praksh
  • Vir Singh, Bhai (ed.) : Puratan Janam Sakhi
  • Ditt Singh, Giani : Sri Guru Nanak Prabodh Granth
  • Wazir Singh : Guru Nanak Siddhant
  • MecLeod, W. H. : Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion
    Early Sikh Tradition, A Study of the Janam Sakhis
  • Harbans Singh : Guru Nanak and Origins of Sikh Faith
    (ed) : The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism
  • Gurmukh Nihal Singh (ed) : Guru Nanak : His Life, Time and Teachings
  • Daljeet, Dr. : Sikh Heritage
  • Daljeet, Dr. and Prof. Jain, P. C. : Sri Harmandar Sahib : Body Visible of the Invisible Supreme
  • Kahan Singh, Bhai (ed.) : Guru Shabd Ratnakar, Mahan Kosh, Encyclopaedia of Sikh Literature
  • Khushwant Singh : Japjee Sahib (translation)
  • Puran Singh : A Book of the Ten Masters

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Paintings of Sikh Gurus
SIKH ART PAINTINGS GALLERY
"She imagined each successive man to be a wealthy client who would give her plentiful money in return for her body....A mosquito drills through our own bodies to extract the red water that is its natural nourishment....Like the python, one should eat food obtained without any special effort....Acquisition of whatever we crave for is a certain source of misery. One who realizes this and overcomes the propensity for possession, becoming a have-not, enjoys everlasting happiness....Like a child I care for neither honor nor dishonor. I have no responsibility of home and family, and wander carefree in this world....She broke her bangles one by one, until only two remained on each wrist.....The serpent takes it easy, spending his time very conveniently, inhabiting holes made by others."
From Python to Prostitute: Learning from the Guru in Each
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