India before Sikhism
After the decline of Buddhism in India, non violence, love and compassion too began to decline in the Indian society. The Hindu leaders became the custodians of religion and its teachings and reduced the religion to rites and rituals and superstitious ceremonies. They neglected teaching the spiritual realities to the people and religion became confused with caste distinction and the privilege of only the upper class called the Brahmins. Since the sacred religious books were written only in Sanskrit, they could not be understood by the masses. The lowest class were called untouchables and they were meted out with lot of injustice by the other classes.
At this time, Muslim invaders from the West entered India and began to desecrate and demolish temples, massacred people in large numbers and plundered their homes. Those who survived were forced to convert to Islam. Punjab being the gateway to India faced the brunt of these invasions.
It has always been believed that when Dharma or righteousness disappears from the world and falsehood and evil reigns supreme, there is always a call from Heaven to restore truth and bring peace to the world and a Saviour is born to redeem the world. Such a Saviour was Guru Nanak who was considered the Prophet of Peace, the Ocean of Virtue and the Fountain of Heavenly Love.
Childhood and Early Life
Guru Nanak was born on 15th April 1469 at Rai Bhoi Ki Talvandi now called Nankana Sahib near Lahore in Pakistan. This auspicious day is now celebrated as Guru Nanak Gurpurab. His parents were Mehta Kalu and Mata Tripta. His father was an accountant or Patwari for crop revenue in the Talvandi village and his employer was a Muslim landlord named Rai Bular Bhatti. He had an elder sister named Bibi Nanki and they were very attached to each other. From the age of five itself Nanak began to voice his interest in divine subjects. He had a contemplative mind and a mystic disposition. When he was seven years old, his father began sending him to the village school. Besides the regional languages, he was also taught Persian and Arabic. He is said to have astonished his teacher by describing the first letter of the alphabet in Persian or Arabic which is an almost straight stroke as symbolising the unity or oneness of God as it resembled the mathematical version of one. Many strange and miraculous events occurred in his childhood like the incident where the landlord Rai Bular witnessed a poisonous cobra shading the sleeping child’s head from the harsh sunlight. It is said that at the age of 13, when he was to be invested with the sacred thread according to Hindu tradition he refused to accept the sacred cotton thread from the Brahmin priest. He sang the following words
‘‘Let Mercy be the cotton
Contentment the thread
Continence the knot
And Truth the twist
O Priest, if you have such a thread
Do give it to me
It will not wear out
Nor get soiled
Nor burnt, nor lost
Says Nanak, blessed are those
Who go about wearing such a thread. ’’
A father’s dilemma
As a young man he would herd the family cattle but would spend long hours in meditation and in religious discussions with Hindu and Muslim holy men who lived in the forests near his village. His piety was visible even at a young age. When his father gave him twenty rupees to start a business he bought provisions with them, cooked food and fed the fakirs and other holy men of the village. Once when he was deep in meditation, his cattle wandered into a neighbour’s field. His father rebuked him for his idleness. But he explained to his father that he was guarding his own fields. He said his body was his field, his mind the ploughman, Modesty was the water of irrigation, Righteousness was the cultivation, Humility was his hedge, Contentment was his harrow, the seeds sown were the sacred name of the Lord and with love and devotion the field would yield a good crop. Then his father put him in charge of a small shop but he gave away everything in charity to poor people and holy men. His father then told him that if he did not like sedentary work he could ride a horse and do travelling business. But Nanak said that he was already doing it as his trade was divine knowledge, his profits were the good deeds with which he could reach the domain of the Lord. His father then advised him to take up some service job if he did not like trade or business to which he replied that he was already a servant of the Lord and was carrying out all his instructions faithfully, honestly and wholeheartedly as he wished to get the reward of divine grace from the Lord.
One day seeing him in the throes of pain, his parents thought that he was suffering from some serious illness and sent for the Doctor but Nanak told the Doctor to go back as he suffered from the illness of God intoxication. The Lord had given him this pain of separation from himself and only he could remove it.
These strange happenings and incidents frustrated his father and so when he was 15 years old, he was sent to stay with his sister Bebe Nanki and her husband.
His Sister Bebe Nanki
Bebe Nanki played the role of a mother to him. She loved him unconditionally and sought to protect him from their father. She felt marriage would instil in him a sense of independence and responsibility so she found a woman named Mata Sulakhni for him to marry. Bebe Nanki is said to have been the first to recognise his enlightened soul. She was eternally devoted to him and his cause. Knowing he had a talent for music, she encouraged him and bought him a bowed musical instrument called the Rabab which inspired Nanak to use music as an instrument of devotion to God. Being childless herself, she even helped to bring up his two children. She was said to be his first follower and a spiritual figure in her own right. Nanak did not object to getting married and having children as he did not feel it would obstruct his spiritual pursuits. At the instance of his brother in law, he took up appointment as an official in the stores of Daulat Khan Lodhi, the Muslim ruler of the area at Sultanpur. Here he came into contact with the Muslim ministrel Mirasi who was senior in age to him but who later became his devotee Bhai Mardana.
Vision Of the Lord
At the age of 30 when he went for his ablutions he had a vision and did not return home. His clothes were found on the river bank and he was presumed to be drowned. But he reappeared after three days staying silent. Then the next day he proclaimed that he had been taken to God’s court and was offered a cup of nectar or amrit and commanded to drink it as it was the cup of adoration of God’s name. He was told to spread his teachings and this was to be his calling in life. Thus began his preachings and from this point onwards it is said that he became a Guru and Sikhism was born. Rai Bular, the landlord was one of his first devotees along with Bebe Nanki, his sister. After his prophetic communion with God, his first statement was ’There is no Hindu nor any Mussalman’ which declared the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God. It emphasized that he was not interested in any metaphysical doctrine, only love of God and compassion for man. These words are enshrined in the beginning of the Sikh Holy Scriptures called ‘Japji’.
‘There is but one God, he is the Creator, his name is truth, he never dies, he is without hate, he fears none, he is beyond the cycle of birth and death, he is self illuminated, He is realised by the kindness of the true Guru, he was true in the beginning, true in the ages followed and is ever true now’.
To the Muslims he said-
‘‘Let God’s grace be the mosque
Let devotion the prayer mat
Let Quran be good conduct
Let modesty be compassion
Let good manners be fasting
Let good deeds be your Kaaba
Let truth be your mentor
Let creed and prayer be your Kalma
A Muslim should be like this
God would then vindicate your honour’’.
Guru Nanak founded Sikhism and its central teaching is the concept of oneness of God. He believed that spiritual life and secular life had to be intertwined and while earning an honest living, they had to remember the name of the Lord constantly while living their lives with truthfulness, purity, self control and fidelity. He established the ‘Langar’ system or communal kitchen to demonstrate the concept of sharing and equality among the people. Sikh teachings believe in equality of all human beings irrespective of caste, creed, gender or class. God is termed as ‘Vahiguru’ and is said to be Akaal(timeless),Nirankar(shapeless) and Alakh(cannot be seen with the physical eye). He is infinite and omnipresent and is signified by ‘Ik Onkar’. They do not have a gender for God and they do not believe that God takes a human form. All are children of Vahiguru, the Almighty.
Guru Nanak’s Journeys
Moved by the plight of the people Guru Nanak decided to travel with his companion Bhai Mardana and spread the message of the Lord. Most of his journeys were made on foot. To remove suffering, hatred, jealousy and to lift the people from wickedness and sin, he decided to travel and carry the message of peace, love, compassion and brotherhood. He travelled in all four directions visiting people of different tribes, cultures, religions and races. His travels are called Udasis. His parents did not want him to go but he told them that the world was waiting for his message of salvation and comfort. He said that it was a call from heaven and he could not disobey it. His parents then agreed and gave him their blessings. He travelled far and wide covering most of India, Shri Lanka, Baghdad, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Jordan and many other countries. He visited various centers of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jains and met Yogis, Siddhas and Sufis. His journeys lasted for nearly 24 years. In his journeys, he preached against caste prejudices, pseudo religious beliefs and bigotry that had no spiritual value. He mixed and dined with all irrespective of their class which was socially and religiously unheard of in those days of rigid Hindu caste system with untouchability and pollution. He set an example as his companion was a low caste Muslim Bhai Mardana. Wherever he went he introduced the community kitchen concept or langar where rich or poor all were served equally as children of the same God. Everything that he preached, he reiterated that they were words of God pouring through him. Wherever he went he set up local cells called ‘Manjis’ where his followers gathered to meditate and recite hymns.
A famous story relates how Guru Nanak once preferred to dine at the place of an artisan of low caste Bhai Lallo in favour of a high caste rich landlord Malik Bhago. When Malik Bhago protested, Guru Nanak symbolically pressed the coarse loaf of bread received from Bhai Lallo’s house in one hand and the food from Malik Bhago’s house in the other hand. To the amazement of all it was seen that milk gushed from the loaf of Lallo but blood came out from the delicacies of Bhago. This was to show that Bhago lived by exploiting the poor while Lallo earned his bread honestly by the sweat of his brow.
After he returned from his journeys, he became a cultivator of land without interrupting his discourses and morning and evening prayers showing a complete involvement in the moral and productive life of the community thus setting a fine example to his followers.
Guru Nanak’s teachings emphasized on a spiritual union with the Akal (the Timeless One) which results in salvation and not on a final destination of heaven or hell. The body according to him takes birth due to karma but only through divine grace can one attain salvation. Thus Sikhs should avoid the ‘Panj Chor” or five thieves of ego, greed, anger, lust and attachment. To get closer to God, Sikhs have to avoid the evils of maya, keep the everlasting truth always in mind, meditate on ‘Naam’, practice ‘Shabad Kirtan’ and serve humanity. Satsang is the key to liberation and one pointed devotion is the key to success. The hymns of the Gurus to be sung are called Gurbani and Guru Nanak started the Shabad Kirtan tradition. He designated the word Guru to be the ‘Word of God’. He started the prayers for Sikhs and emphasised on ‘Naam Jaap’ or practising chanting the name of God. He did not insist on ascetism but suggested remaining inwardly detached while living as a householder. The mystical poems uttered by Nanak is contained in ‘Japji’. It is sung by every Sikh in the morning. The evening prayers are contained in the ‘Sohila’. In Japji he has given a vivid and concise description of the five stages or Khandas through which man must pass to reach the final abode of bliss. They are –
1. Dharm Khand or the Realm of duty where everyone must do his duty properly, tread the path of righteousness and they will judged according to their actions.
2. Gyan Khand or the Realm of knowledge where the knowledge of infinite truth dawns on the aspirant once he performs his duty sincerely.
3. Sharam Khand or the realm of ecstacy where one then reaches spiritual rapture.
4. Karam Khand or the realm of power where the aspirant acquires power and becomes invincible and fear of death vanishes
5. Sach Khand or the realm of truth where the aspirant attains Godhood ie becomes one with God and attains the goal of his life.
Guru Granth Sahib
It is the central religious text of the Sikhs and it is considered as the final Sovereign Guru of the religion and it contains the teachings of all the Ten Gurus. It is written in the Gurmukhi script. All Guru Nanak’s hymns were collected and compiled and used by all Sikhs in their prayers. This was further added on by some of the other Gurus and compiled to finally form the Guru Granth sahib consisting of 1430 pages. All answers regarding religion and morality can be found here and its hymns and teachings are called Gurbani. It is said to be the final and sole successor of the line of Gurus. Sikhs observe total sanctity of the text and no one can change or alter any of the teachings in it. It is given the greatest honour and respect and placed in the centre of the Gurudwara on a raised platform known as Takht or throne.
Beautiful hymns of Nanak
1) ‘‘The One God is transcendental
He takes no birth and has no death
He has no particular race and dwelling place
He has no physical features and shape
Human mind and senses are unable
To grasp him fully
When I searched for him
Lo! I found him in every heart’’.
2) ’’I am lost in the search
I find no way out of this darkness
Afflicted with the ego I wail in sorrow
Love God the way the lotus loves water
Without water it dies
Love God the way the fish loves water
Without water it dies
God alone knows the agony of my heart
I saw him in a dream and he disappeared
I cry, my eyes swimming in tears
Lord Nanak says
Will thou not come to me?’’
3)’’O God, Were I to live for millions of years
With air my food and drink
Were I to seal myself in a cave
And ceaselessly meditate on thee
Without seeing the sun and moon
Without a wink of sleep
I would still not be able
To measure thy greatness
Nor signify the glory of thy name’’.
Guru Nanak appointed one of his disciples Bhai Lehna who was totally dedicated as his successor Guru and renamed him Guru Angad meaning ‘part of you’ or ‘ones very own’. Shortly after appointing him successor Guru Nanak passed away at the age of 70 on 22nd September 1539 at Kartarpur.
The life of Guru Nanak was one of love, surrender and total dedication to the Lord. Such souls already pure are born solely to lead mankind from darkness to light, from bondage to salvation. Their lives offer succour to drowning souls who are caught in delusion and the never ending cycles of birth and death and the very utterance of their name and contemplation of their form leads man to Godhead and liberation.