Guru Nanak, The Prophet of Equality and Harmony
By Umesh Gulati
(As published in the Global Vedanta, Winter 1999 – 2000)
The advent of Guru Nanak in India during the fifteenth century was great blessing to the world. India in the fifteenth century faced a great social, political and spiritual crisis. Islam had established itself in the country by ushering in the Muslim rule a few centuries before. While the ruling class desecrated many Hindu temples, the priests, too, exploited the Hindus. To enrich themselves they fed people with the religion of rituals and superstitions, completely devoid of its real essence. Muslims too, were divided into factions and sects. Guru Nanak summed up the degradation of the country in the following words:
Fools pass for learned ones, sophistry for wisdom,
and everyone seeks for nothing but pelf.
Baba Nanak, as he was affectionately called by his close companions, was born on April 15,1469 at Talwandi (now known after him as Nanakana Sahib), some forty miles south west of Lahore, Pakistan. Both his father Kalyan Das Mehta; and mother, Triptan, were devout Hindus. Since his birthday conflicts with the festival of Baisakhi (the beginning of the harvest season in Punjab), and also with the anniversary of the establishment of the Khalsa Panth by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, it is celebrated in the month of November on the Purnima (full-moon) day.
Nanak's father wanted him to become a Patwari, record keeper, like him, and enrolled him into a school with that objective. Nanak’s mind, however, was not made for learning analytical knowledge. On the contrary, it was given to knowing the more integrative knowledge of the Spirit. No wonder, he quickly mastered Punjabi and Sanskrit (and later Persian and Arabic), and composed a poem in Punjabi at so young age which surprised his teachers. In this poem, which is preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib, the young saint explains the meaning of a truly learned person: He who unravels divine knowledge is real pundit.
Saints like Nanak are lights unto themselves. He who knows the Lord, all is revealed to him by the Lord. Truly said Nanak: “I speak only what Thou make me to speak.” After Nanak quit school, his father tried to get him interested in some secular pursuit like cattle grazing or farming. One day when he led his cattle for grazing, he chose to sit under a tree in meditation, while the cattle grazed at another's farm. Seeing him uninterested in any productive work, Nanak’s parents married him off at an early age of 14, ostensibly to make him responsible. But that did not change much. Once his parents gave him 20 silver rupees to buy goods wholesale from the market to sell retail in the village for profit. But Nanak distributed the money among the poor. For him there was no truer trade than feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Serving God in man was Nanak’s watchword.
At last, as a result of loving entreaties of Nanak’s sister Nanki, his father sent him to her house in Sultanpur, where his brother-in-law, Jairam, got him a job as a storekeeper with Nawab Daulat Khan Lodhi. As Nanak was charitable by nature, he would give away a greater part of his salary, given mostly in kind, to the poor. While at work when he reached the figure 13 –tera (meaning yours), he would repeat frequently “Tera, main Tera” (yours, I’m yours, Lord).
It was during his stay at Sultanpur that Nanak disappeared (remaining absorbed in Samadhi for three days in the woods), and presumed drowned in a nearby rivulet. On his return he had no words to express his experience, so he took recourse to saying in negatives: "Na koi Hindu; na koi Mussalman” (“There is no Hindu; there is no Mussalman.”) For what else one sees in Samadhi, but unity, pure Consciousness? In that state duality disappears, conflicts vanish, and subject and object become one. In the context of the present times, he may as well have said, “Na koi Hindu, na koi Sikh, or na koi kalaa, na koi chitta.” (“There is no Hindu; no Sikh, no black nor white.”)
The Nawab understood Nanak’s mind and invited him to join him and the Qazi for a prayer in a Mosque. During the prayer, Nanak remained standing and didn’t kneel. The knower of God is fearless like a child who tells the truth as he sees it, and the pure mind of Nanak could see through peoples’ minds. So when the Qazi demanded the reason for Naanak’s impertinence, the latter replied, “What prayer was I expected to join? While pretending to be praying, you were occupied with the thought of the new born foal who was loose in the yard, and feared that it might fall into an unfenced well.” Turning to the Nawab, Nanak said, “You too were not praying either, because you were thinking of purchasing horses in Kabul.” Both the Nawab and Qazi admitted their guilt and fell at Nanak’s feet for forgiveness.
There is a saying in India that “a river is that which flows, and a monk is that moves from place to place.” Nanak truly reflected that spirit. Although he had been married and had two children, he was a monk par excellence. He avoided all worldly comfort. While traveling along with his disciples Bala, and Mardana, he often avoided settled places. He depended mostly on wild berries and fruits, and didn’t seek the charity of people. When offered, he accepted only enough food that would last that time, and never hoarded for the future.
At Aminaabad, he preferred to eat with Lalo a low-caste carpenter, but rejected the invitation of Malik Bhago, a high-caste government official. When Malik demanded the reason, Nanak replied: “In your delicacies is the blood of the poor, while the coarse bread of Lalo, who earns by the sweat of his brow, is sweet like milk.” Indeed, according to the janam sakhis, he took some part of food brought from Lalo’s house in his right hand and that of Malik’s in his left, and pressed his fists. While milk came from his right hand, blood oozed from the left hand.
Guru Nanak was strictly monotheist, and taught the oneness of God. He called the Supreme Being as Ikk Onkar (One, without a second). According to Nanak, God is eternal, infinite and all-pervasive; He is transcendent as well as immanent, and without or with attributes, impersonal or personal -- nirguna or saguna. After his ecstasy near Sultanpur, Nanak composed a poem that forms the preamble to the Japuji, the opening text of the Guru Granth Sahib.
There is only One God. He is the Supreme Being. Only His name is true. He is the creator of all life and matter. He was in the beginning, He was in all ages. The true One is, was, O Nanak, and shall forever be.
Guru Nanak, however, didn’t believe in the descent of God as an Avatara or incarnation, but having realized God himself, he was impelled to teach humanity the path of righteousness and thus relieve its suffering. That is what the role of a spiritual teacher is. And a guru, meaning a person who dispels ignorance about man’s divine nature, is God’s close substitute. “A rose by another name,” said Shakespeare, “would smell as sweet.” Baba Nanak was indeed the true guru of all humanity. He said that all men and women are the children of God and therefore have inherited His divinity. It is because we forget our divine origin, our true self, that we commit sins and evil acts. By practicing spiritual discipline as prescribed in Japuji – purity, simplicity, and charity – one can overcome evil and become virtuous. Guru Nanak said, “Truth is higher than all else, but higher by far is the living of truth.”
According to Guru Naanak, the ultimate objective of man’s life is to achieve moksha or mukti , which means freedom from the ego, and from the cycle of birth and death. Man’s bondage arises because of his egoism, which separates him from God, keeps him under the spell of ignorance, and alienates him from the universal Will or Hukam. There are five deadly passions, which are responsible for man’s spiritual blindness or nescience (agian); kama (sensuality), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moha (attachment) and ahankara (pride). A person with these passions is called manmukha. These cause his suffering in this world.
It was to free man from his sufferings that Nanak embarked on his uddasis, spiritual travels, and preached the gospel of harmony, love and peace. His message was simple. He didn’t ask for austerities and penances, fasts, mechanical rituals, and escapes to pilgrim places, stressed by the so-called yogis and Naths (yogis of the Gorakhanath tradition) of his time. Instead, he urged them to consider their body as the temple or the house of God, and to use it to gain spiritual knowledge, and serve humankind. He stressed that the battle of life must be fought fearlessly with a perfectly controlled mind and sensitive heart. By immersing oneself in Nam or Sat Nam, which is the true name of God, or shabad, one can transcend this samsara, the finite world of coming and going. He exhorted his disciples, called Sikhs (Sanskrit shishya), to abide by the principle of earning their livelihood by honest labor, engaging in prayer and meditation, and sharing the fruit of their labor with all: kirat karni, Nam japna, te vanda chhakna.
His Uddasis (holy wanderings) that had begun when he was 34 took him to the four corners of India, and even to foreign lands like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. In his discussions with the yogis recorded in the Siddha Gosti, Guru Nanak spelled out his method of achieving liberation for man -- not by running away from the world, but by controlling his senses, living a detached life, being sensitive to the needs of the downtrodden, and having love and sympathy for all. A person of these virtues is called gurmukha in the Siddha Gosti. In contrast to the self-centered manmukha, a gurmukha sees himself in all, and all in himself, and becomes an active agent of promoting the collective well-being of all. Indeed, he sees God in everything and every being.
According to the janam sakhis, one time in Mecca Nanak was sleeping with his feet turned toward Kaba, the holy mosque. When someone objected, he asked him to turn his feet toward the direction where God was not. It may be mentioned here that the term Gurmukh got transformed into Khalsa, meaning “pure” in Persian, by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699.
Finally, at the age of 52 he settled down at Kartarpur, a habitation that he himself had founded on the eastern bank of the river Ravi, and remained there until his death on September 22, 1539. There grew around him a community of his followers drawn from all castes and occupations. An institution of far reaching importance, the langar (a free kitchen or communal dining hall), emerged at this time, where people shared a meal without distinction of caste or creed. A key element in this exercise was the spirit of seva or selfless service. To further breakdown the hierarchical system in the society of his time, Guru Nanak himself ate with all the people, sitting side by side with them, he enjoyed being equal to them.
Out of this langar tradition grew two other institutions, dharamshala or dharamsal and sangat. The former was the place where people gathered to pray and to sing Guru Nanak’s hymns. In the Japuji, Guru Nanak calls this world as dharamsal or the place for virtuous deeds, and the human body as an agent for ethical actions, further reinforcing the idea that religion is not a matter of believing in a dogma, but living it.
The first dharamsal, according to the Puratan janamsakhi, was established at Talumba in the Multan district of the present-day Pakistan. It is this same dharamsala which came to be called gurdwara from the time of Guru Gobind Singh. While dharamsala was the forerunner of gurdwara, sangat stood for an assembly or congregation of people (called bhais or brothers), assembled for prayer or religious ceremony. All spiritual and social matters were to be decided by the consensus arrived at by the sangat. Needless to say that it is these Sangats that laid the foundation for the future Sikh community or Sikh Panth..
As mentioned earlier, Guru Nanak did not respect meaningless rituals and pujas in temples that didn't come from the devotees' hearts. He didn’t think much about worshiping of idols, and also cared little about a time-honored custom of splashing river water toward the east for the welfare of the departed souls. Most importantly, he didn’t accept caste divisions in the Hindu society, and expressed his opposition to untouchability in a beautiful song:
The real pariahs are the evil thoughts -- cruelty, slander and wrath.
Let Truth, self-restraint and good acts be your rites, and your ablutions the remembrance of God’s name.
This, I believe, is the quintessence of Nanak’s teachings, stressed by every saint before and after him, that religion doesn’t consist in certain symbolic expressions or in the outward observance of rituals, pujas, etc., but in the cultivation of love and sympathy for our fellow beings. The fact that Guru Nanak labored so much against rituals was because he could see through the hypocrisy of those who use these rituals as a cover. If rituals and rites would be performed to purify our hearts as they were meant to do, he would have been all for them. It is unfortunate that any good custom or law started with good intentions becomes over time corrupted and loses its initial intent. Knowing that, he recommended japa, or the constant remembrance of God, which he called Satnam. Japa , then, is a spiritual detergent, as it were, in which our mind should be constantly soaked to make it free from any trace of pride and prejudice.
In the opinion of this author, Guru Nanak preached the same gospel of eternal religion, Sanatana Dharma, which has come from the mouths of great rishis (sages) and mystics of India, and there is no hard evidence to suggest any Islamic element in his teachings. So there is indeed a continuous Vedic tradition in the body of Sikh religion, which in essence is Hinduism shorn of the scum of superfluous rituals accumulated over a long period of time. What makes us stand in awe and wonder of Babaa Naanak, however, is that he was one of the few saints of India who spoke and wrote in the popular dialect of North India, and thereby made the true Vedic religion accessible to the illiterate masses.
His institution of the langar tradition, we believe, is his greatest legacy, and along with Sangat, he laid down a practical way of achieving the ideal of equality and casteless society in India. Without imbibing the spirit behind these two institutions, bhajans and kirtans (devotional singing), kathas (discourses), pravachans or akhanda paths (holy readings) will be of no avail. People may be divided functionally into different roles, but in God, we are all one. Finally, he uplifted the status of women by permitting them in dharamsalas and langars on par with men. He believed that man cannot attain spiritual emancipation without woman’s help. In that respect he was way ahead of his times.
References: 1. W.H. MacLeod: Early Sikh Tradition, A Study of the Janam Sakhis, 1980. 2. Gopal Singh: Guru Nanak, 1965. 3. Harbans Singh: Berkely Lectures, 1983. 4. Jodh Singh: The Religious Philosophy of Guru Nanak, 1982.
(Article written by my friend Dr. Umesh Gulati. Published with his permission)