Guru Nanak (1469-1539), born in the village of Talwandi near Lahore (modern-day Pakistan), was a mystic, poet, and the founder of the Sikh religion whose teachings produced an evolution of Indian religious thought (1).
Nanak was a chief proponent of the Bhakti movement (bhakti meaning “devotion” toward a personal god) and, although his thought shows interest in and concern with politics, Nanak was primarily a religious teacher and preacher who spread his message through hymns now included in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh religion’s sacred book. His poetry invoked grace and called others to adopt right feeling, thought, aspiration, endeavor, and achievement.
“(i) Guru Nanak was very vocal on the political situation of his time. Alongside his absorption in matters relating to the relationship of human self to the supreme being, he was also fully sensitive to man’s suffering in the terrestrial life. He unmasked the evil of tyranny of the age; (ii) He upbraided the rulers of the time for their injustice and immorality and failure to provide a good and protective rule; (iii) He suggested the criteria which the rulers and their subordinates should adopt in wielding power; (iv) He warned the rulers of retribution and chastisement in the event of their failure to ensure a just and honest rule; and (v) He also made people conscious of their duty to secure a just government for themselves” (2).
Most of what is known about Nanak comes from legend, myth, and tradition, and from materials such as the Janasakhis whose short narratives constitute the primary biographical sources for his life (3).
These sources depict Nanak as a unique individual whose religious ideas marked a radical departure from the norms of his day and helped him gain a following.
The India of Nanak’s time was tumultuous because of political instabilities, religious persecution, and economic struggle. But the landscape was alive with religious activity as spiritual movements attempted to bring hope to the distressed.
During his growth years, Nanak was fond of giving alms to beggars and he took pleasure in learning from the holy sages of his village. He married at the age of nineteen, fathered two children, and worked for a time in a granary before departing from family life and employment. Nanak traveled and lived out his years in the village of Kartarpur where he was recognized as an inspired teacher of religious truth and able to pave the foundations of the new Sikh community. Nanak produced many devotional hymns expressing his religious teachings and was intended for communal singing.
According to tradition, Nanak became disillusioned with the Hinduism surrounding him. Islam also had a presence ever since the tenth century CE after the incursion of the Mughal empire. At thirty, Nanak received a revelation from God.
“In the earlier part of his life, Nanak was a man apart from other men, a man with an awakened soul but with a mind at unease, a man in unwavering search of God. When he was about thirty, Nanak had an experience of the Power and the Grace of God when he went out to bathe in the river Sultanpur. After that blissful experience when he had touched the Ground of Reality, he grew a new dimension—the God dimension—in his consciousness. His mission henceforth was to share with his fellow-men his marvelous commitment to God” (4).
In this dream, Nank received a call from God. His first words after this experience was: “There is no Hindu; there is no Muslim.” Nanak devoted his life to preaching the path to salvation. He thought that how the believer conducted his or her life is integral to achieving unity with God.
Nanak accepted the title “guru” (teacher) from his followers. The guru became important within Sikhism for being a guide to aid the believer in the way of Truth or God.
Reaction to the Caste System
Humanism was an integral part of Nanak’s ethical vision. He wanted to organize a new society and construct a new order upon the principles of justice and equality which were alternatives to the caste system,
“Guru Nanak’s social vision, like his metaphysical vision, was comprehensive in nature, taking within its range the totality of society. All social problems, whatever their nature, came within the purview of his social philosophy. His verses bear an eloquent testimony of his concern over social discrimination, miscarriage of justice, evils of Brahamanical domination, cowardice of people and many other evils of the contemporary society” (6).
Nanak believed in the equality of human beings before God rather than the caste system being the determining factor of one’s true status. The caste system was perceived by Nanak to perpetuate the evil of untouchability and it often denied to many people.
Nanak created institutions such as the Sangat (fellowship) and Langar (a community kitchen) as practical steps in way of ridding the caste system. The code laid down by Nanak encouraged all members of the Sikh community, both individually and collectively, to avoid making any distinction between one caste or another. According to the Guru Granth Sahib: “Nanak seeks the company of the lowest of the low class, the very lowest of the low. Why should he try to compete with the great? In that place where the lowly are cared for – there, the Blessings of Your Glance of Grace rain down.”
The social order this evinces is of a classless society underscored by the denunciation of all forms of oppression and tyranny. Nanak held in high regard the right to freedom of expression and he wanted people to be free of social and political oppression.
Because Nanak conceptualized the world as a spiritual and moral order, the state, which itself is a part of this order, must serve moral ends. Rulers and the administers of law are the embodiment of the supreme law and must therefore seek justice and avoid arbitrary use of power and authority.
Nanak’s God Theology
The framework of Nanak’s theology was Hindu in the sense of affirming reincarnation, a Supreme Realit, and the vedas (7). But Nanak came to see the Hindu emphasis on ritual, pilgrimage, and reverence for the prophets and holy men to be an obstacle to cultivating a relationship with God. This relationship is the most important part of religion.
The essence and purpose of religion is it being a force for emancipating humankind from all religious and social evils and injustices. He was not content with the salvation of the individual alone but aimed at the upliftment of society.
Salvation to Nanak meant escaping from the cycle of death and rebirth to attain a mystical union with God. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib teaches that the “One whose heart is filled with His Infinite Light meets with Him, and shall never again be separated from Him”.
Conceptually, God is a single Being who is transcendent yet immanent in the created world and within the human spirit. God is the source and sustainer of all things because he is the Supreme Being. God is wholly Other and ineffable. The Guru Granth Sahib describes this view,
“If I cut my body into pieces, and burn them in the fire, and if I make my body and mind into firewood, and night and day burn them in the fire, and if I perform hundreds of thousands and millions of religious rituals – still, all these are not equal to the Name of the Lord”.
Being in communion with God meant having a love for the human community. Without this love for God and sense of community, people are led to a weakened, purposeless, and fearful existence. Only the love of God can invest human life with strength, purpose, a sense of community, and a commitment to the common good.
1. Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa. 1970. “Guru Nanak After 500 Years.” Indian Literature 13(2):30-36. p. 32; Puri, Sunita. 1991. “Social-Political Context of Guru Nanak’s Thought.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 52: 361-368
2. Puri, Sunita. 1991. Ibid. p. 367.
3. Kaur Singh, Nikky-Guninder. 1992. “The Myth of the Founder: The Janamsākhīs and Sikh Tradition.” History of Religions 31(4): 329-343. p. 330.
4. Iyengar, K. R. Srinivasa. 1970. Ibid. p. 33-34.
6. Puri, Sunita. 1991. Ibid. p. 362.
7. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 101.
Translations of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib obtained from Sikhs.org. Available.