Guru Nanak

Summary

Guru Nanak Dev (Hindi: गुरु नानक, Urdu: گرونانک, pronunciation (help-multimedia), IAST: Gurū Nānak) (15 April 1469 – 22 September 1539), also referred to as Baba Nānak (”Father Nānak”), was the founder of Sikhism and the first of the Ten Sikh Gurus. His birth is celebrated all over the world during Kartik Puranmashi, i.e. the full moon that falls between 15 October and 13 November in the month of Katk in the Nanakshahi calendar, and the festival of these celebrations is called Guru Nanak Gurpurab.

Nanak travelled far and wide from his birthplace, teaching the message of a God who dwells in each of His creations and is the eternal truth. He created a unique spiritual, social and political platform based on equality, brotherly love, kindness and virtue.

The teachings of the Nanak are collected in the form of 974 hymns in the Sikh holy textbook, the Guru Granth Sahib, with some of the main prayers in it being the Jabji Sahib, Asha di Var and Sidd-Kosht. Part of the Sikh faith is the belief that the spirit of holiness, divinity and religious principle of the Nanak was deposited in each of the nine subsequent Sikh Gurus when they were entrusted with the office.

Nanak was born on 15 April 1469 in the village of Rai Voi Ki Talwadi in Lahore district of the Delhi Sultanate (present-day Nankana Sahib, Punjab, Pakistan), although according to one tradition, he was born in the month of Kartik (November).

Most janamsakhis – the traditional biographies of Nanak – state that he was born on the third day of a bright lunar fortnight, in the month of Vaishaha (April) of Samvat in 1526. These include the Puratan Janam Sahi, the Janam Sahi of Shodi Meharbhan, the Janam Sahi of Bai Mani Singh and the Veerwalali Janam Sahi. Sikh records state that Nanak died on the tenth day of the month of Ashwin in Samvat in 1596 (22 September 1539), at the age of 70 years, 5 months and 7 days. This further suggests that he was born in the month of Vaishacha (April), and not in the month of Kartik (September).

As late as 1815, during the reign of Ranjit Singh, the celebration of Nanak”s birthday was held at Nankana Sahib in April. However, later, the celebration was established to be held on the full moon day of the month of Kartik in November. The earliest record of a celebration in the month of Kartik that exists is in 1868.

The only Janam Shahi who claims that Nanak was born in the month of Kartik is that of Bai Bala, in which he states that Nanak was born on the day of that month”s full moon. It is said that Bai Bala obtained Nanak”s horoscope from Nanak”s aunt Lalu, and according to it, Nanak was born on a date corresponding to 20 October 1469. However, in reality, the Janam Shahi of Bai Bala was written by members of the Hadali sect, who attempt to portray the founder of their own sect as superior to Nanak. According to a prevailing prejudice in modern northern India, a child born in the month of Kartik is believed to be weak and unlucky, which explains why the cult members wanted to write that Nanak was born in that month.

There may be several reasons why the celebration of Nanak”s birth was established by the Sikh community to take place in the month of Kartik. It may have been in the month of Kartik in 1496 that the enlightenment or the ”spiritual birth” of Nanak took place, as claimed by the Dabestan-i Mazaheb. Bhai Gurdas, writing about the full moon day of the month of Kartik, several decades after Nanak”s death, says that Nanak had “gained omniscience” on that day and it was now the writer”s turn to “receive divine light”. According to Max Arthur McAuliffe, in the 19th century, the Hindu festival Kartik Purnima which took place in Amritsar attracted a large number of Sikhs. This did not please the then religious leader of Sikhism and so, he started organizing a festival at the Sikh Golden Temple which was held on the same day, presenting it as a celebration of the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak. McAuliffe also notes that during the month of Vaishah (March-April in the Nanakshahi calendar) several important festivals were already taking place – such as Holi, Rama Navami and Vaishahi, and especially after the Vaishahi harvest festival, people were busy with agricultural activities. Hence, keeping the Nanak birthday celebration immediately after Vaishahi would result in low attendance and consequently, less donations from Sikhs. On the other hand, by the full moon of the month of Kartik, the great Hindu festival of Diwali is already complete and farmers – who have enough money at that time from the sales of their crops – are able to contribute financially with generosity.

Nanak”s father was Kalyan Chand Das Bedi, known as Mehta Kalu, and his mother was Mata Tripta. His father was a local accountant for crop revenue in Talwadi village. Both his parents were Hindus and came from Hattri caste and worked as traders.

According to Sikh tradition, the birth and early years of Nanak”s life were marked by several events which indicated that he had been given divine grace. Scholars of his life give details of the perception he had from an early age. At the age of five, it is said that Nanak expressed an interest in religious matters. When he was seven, his father enrolled him in school, as the customs of the time dictated. Remarkable folklore tells how as a child, Nanak had impressed his teacher by describing the hidden symbolism of the first letter of the alphabet, likening it to the mathematical unit, as a sign of the unity or uniqueness of God. Other accounts of his childhood speak of strange events, such as one witnessed by Rai Bullar, in which the head of a sleeping baby was protected from the sun”s rays, in one case by the shade of a tree that did not change direction despite the passage of time, and in the other by a poisonous cobra.

Nanak had a sister, Bebe Nanaki, who was five years older than him and in 1475 he married and moved to Sultanpur. Nanaki”s husband, Jai Ram, worked in a warehouse where revenues were collected in goods under the service of the Governor of Lahore in the Delhi Sultanate, Dolat Khan. Jai Ram helped recruit Nanak to the job, and so Nanak, at the age of 16, moved to Sultanpur and started working.

At a young age, Nanak married Sulahani, daughter of Mulla, on 24 September 1487 in the city of Batala and together they had two sons, Sri Khant and Lakhmi Khant Nanak lived in Sultanpur until about 1500; a period which shaped him considerably, as the numerous references in his hymns to governmental structure probably come from those years, as mentioned in the traditional Janam Shahi.

During the first quarter of the 16th century, Nanak made long journeys in search of spirituality. In a written text attributed to him, he states that he visited several places “in the nine regions of the earth”, by which he probably means the great centres of pilgrimage of Hindus and Muslims.

Some contemporary texts report that he visited Tibet, most of South Asia and Arabia, starting to travel in 1496 at the age of 27, leaving his family behind for thirty years. These allegations also include that Guru Nanak visited Mount Miru (or Mount Sumiru) of Indian mythology, as well as Mecca, Baghdad, Ahal Batala and Multan, places where he discussed religious ideas with competing religious groups. These stories became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries and exist in various versions.

The hagiographical details are the subject of controversy, with modern scholars questioning the authenticity of many such details and claims. For example, Caliwart and Snell state that such stories and tales of Guru Nanak”s travels are not included in the earliest Sikh texts, but first appear in hagiographical texts centuries after the Guru”s death. Over time the stories evolved and became more complex, with the latest Puratan version describing four missionary journeys (udasis), which in some ways differ from the Miharban version. Some of the stories of Guru Nanak”s extended journeys first appeared in the 19th century janam-sahi versions of Puratan, while stories of Guru Nanak”s journey to Baghdad are absent even from the original 19th century Puratan versions. According to Caliwart and Snell, this sudden introduction and writing of new stories, which closely follow the miracle claims of the Islamic pirs and which are found in the Sufi tazkirs of the same era, may have been done as a competition.

In 1508, Nanak visited the Sylhet region of Bengal. Janamsakhis report that he visited the Ram Janmabhumi temple in Ayodhya in 1510-11.

Another source of controversy was a Baghdad stone inscription, which some interpreted as saying that Baba Nanak Fakir was there in 1511-12, others that he was there in 1521-22 (and that he lived in the Middle East for 11 years, away from his family), while others, mostly Western scholars, say that the inscription is 19th century and is not reliable evidence that Guru Nanak actually visited Baghdad in the early 16th century. Moreover, apart from the stone inscription, no other text, inscription or record of the Middle East has found any evidence or reference to a trip of Guru Nanak to the Middle East. Some claims of additional inscriptions have appeared, but no one has been able to locate and confirm them. The Baghdad inscription remains the main evidence for Indian scholars that Guru Nanak travelled to the Middle East, with some claiming that he visited Jerusalem, Mecca, the Vatican, Azerbaijan and Sudan.

New claims about Guru Nanak”s travels, as well as claims that his body disappeared after his death, are also found in later versions of the stories, which are similar to the miracle stories in Sufi literature about their pirs. Other direct or indirect borrowings in Sikh janamsakhis, which relate to myths surrounding Guru Nanak”s travels, come from Hindu epics, Puranas and stories of the Buddhist Jataka.

At the age of about 55, Nanak settled in the city of Kartarpur where he lived until his death. During this period, he made brief trips to yogi centres in Ahal and Sufi centres in Pakpatan and Multan. By the time of his death, Nanak had acquired several followers in the Punjab region, though it is difficult to estimate their number based on existing historical data.

Guru Nanak appointed Bai Lihna as his successor, whom he renamed Guru Angad. Soon after this, Guru Nanak died on September 22, 1539 in Kartarpur, at the age of 70.

Nanak is considered the founder of Sikhism. The fundamental beliefs of Sikhism, which are articulated in the sacred writings of Guru Granth Sahib, include faith and meditation in the name of the one creator, unity of all humanity, participation in selfless acts, striving for social justice for the benefit and welfare of the whole, and sincere conduct and livelihood during life.

Guru Granth Sahib is worshipped as the Supreme Authority of Sikhism and is considered the eleventh and last guru of Sikhism. As the first Sikh Guru, Nanak contributed to the writing of the book by composing a total of 974 hymns.

Guru Nanak”s teachings are found in the sacred texts of Sikhism, in the Guru Granth Sahib, as a collection of hymns to the Gurmuhi.

There are two competing theories about Guru Nanak”s teachings. The first, according to Cole and Shabi, is based on the hagiographical janamsakhis and states that Nanak”s teachings and Sikhism were a revelation from God and not a social protest movement, nor an attempt to reconcile Hinduism and Islam in the 15th century. The second theory states that Nanak was a Guru. According to Singha: “Sikhism does not agree with the theory of incarnation or the concept of prophecy. But it has as its central idea the Gurus. The Guru is not an incarnation of God, nor is he a prophet. He is an enlightened soul.”

The hagiographical janamsakhis were not written by Nanak but by later followers of Sikhism, without regard to any historical accuracy, and contain several legends and myths which were created as a mark of respect to Nanak. Cole and Shabi clarify that the term “revelation” in Sikhism is not limited to the teachings of Nanak but includes those of all Sikh gurus, as well as the words of past, present and future men and women who possess intuitive divine knowledge through meditation. The Sikh revelations also contain the words of non-Sikh bhagats (holy men) who lived and died before the birth of Nanak and whose teachings also form part of the Sikh sacred texts. Mandair notes that the Adi Granth and successive Gurus repeatedly emphasized that Sikhism “is not about listening to the voice of God, but about changing the nature of the human mind, and anyone can achieve direct experience and spiritual perfection at any time.” Guru Nanak emphasized that all human beings can have direct access to God without rituals or priests.

Arvind-pal Singh Mandair states that the concept of man, as elaborated by Guru Nanak, ennobles and denies the “monotheistic concept of the self.

Guru Nanak and the other Sikh Gurus emphasized bhakti (love) and taught that spiritual and worldly life are intertwined. In the Sikh worldview, the everyday world is part of the Infinite Reality, and heightened spiritual awareness leads to an increased and vibrant participation in it. Sanali Marwaha reports that Guru Nanak described how living an “active, creative and practical life” with “sincerity, fidelity, self-control and purity” is above metaphysical truth.

Through popular tradition, the teachings of Nanak are understood and practiced in three ways (the three pillars of Sikhism):

Guru Nanak emphasized about Naam Japaw that the repetition of God”s name serves as a means to feel God”s presence.

The Sikhs believe that Guru Nanak”s message was divinely revealed. The Sikhs give utmost importance to the writings of the gurus found in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book which is worshipped as the eleventh and eternal guru. The very words of Guru Nanak found in the book state that it is as if he received the teachings from the Creator himself.

Several modern scholars give weight to the connection between the Guru”s teachings and the pre-existing saints of Bhakti, Sad and Sufi. Scholars state that in their origins, Guru Nanak and Sikhism were influenced by the nirguni (formless god) tradition of the Bhakti movement of medieval India. However, some historians find no evidence to suggest that Sikhism is an extension of the Bhakti movement. Sikhism, for example, disagrees with some views of the Bakti saints, such as Kabir and Ravidas.

Luis Fenech says that the roots of the Sikh tradition probably come from the tradition of the Indian Shad faith, whose ideology evolved and became the Bhakti tradition. Moreover, adds Feneh, “Indian mythology permeates the Sikh sacred canon, the Guru Granth Sahib, as well as the second sacred canon, the Dasam Granth, and adds subtlety and substance to the sacred symbolic universe of the Sikhs of today and their ancestors.”

Bibliography

Sources

  1. Γκουρού Νάνακ Ντεβ
  2. Guru Nanak
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