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 resulted in an evolution of Indian religious consciousness (1).
Nanak was a chief proponent of the Bhakti movement in Punjab and his ideology has a strong affinity with that of the Nirguna Bhakti cult of medieval India. Although Nanak’s thought evidences an interest in and concern with politics, he was primarily a religious teacher and preacher who spread his message through hymns now included in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh religion’s holy book. His poetry was much about invoking grace and a call to right feeling, right thought, right aspiration, right endeavour, and right achievement. Sunita Puri captures the essential components to the person of Nanak:
“(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).
Sources and Background
Most of what we know about Nanak comes from legend, myth, and tradition, and from materials such as the Janam-sakhi whose short narratives constitute the primary biographical sources for the guru’s life (3). From these it is clear that Nanak was a unique individual whose religious ideas marked a radical departure from the norms of the day and helped him gain a following. The India of Nanak’s time was tumultuous given political instabilities, religious persecution, and economic struggle (4). The landscape was alive with religious activity as spiritual movements attempted to bring hope to the distressed. While growing up, Nanak seemed fond of giving alms to beggars and 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 was able to lay the foundations of the new Sikh community. Nanak composed many devotional hymns expressing his religious teachings that were intended for communal singing.
According to tradition, Nanak became disillusioned with the Hinduism that surrounded him while Islam had also influenced the area since the tenth century CE through the incursion of the Mughal empire. At the age of thirty, Nanak had a revelation from God. K. R. S. Iyengar explains it this way,
“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” (5).
In this stream he received a call from God and when he reappeared three days later his first words were: “There is no Hindu; there is no Muslim.” Nanak devoted his entire life to preaching the path to salvation and taught that how believers conducted their lives is integral to achieving unity with God. Nanak accepted the title “guru” (teacher) from his followers. The role of the guru became important within the Sikh religion for his role of guiding the devout in the way of Truth or God.
Reaction to the Caste System
Humanism constituted an integral part of Nanak’s ethical vision, which led him to pursue a new relationship between humans and society. His wanted to organize a new society and construct a new order upon the principles of justice and equality which were alternative norms 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. In an attempt to provide a more egalitarian society Nanak created institutions such as the Sangat (fellowship) and Langar (a community kitchen and shared meal), both being practical steps in way of ridding the caste system. The taboos of the caste system led to the perpetuation of untouchability and to justice being denied to many people, thus 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 Sri 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 underpinned by a 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, itself as a part of this order, must serve moral ends. Rulers and the administers of law are the embodiment of the supreme law and must 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 and God as being the creator of Brahman and the Vedas (7). However, 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, which for him was the most important part of religion. The essence and purpose of religion are in 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 (reincarnation) in order 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” (p. 56). 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; he is the Supreme Being. As Supreme Being, God is clearly Other and ineffable as articulated in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib through strong imagery,
“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” (p. 62).
Nanak referred to God by many names and claimed that to love God also meant to love humanity. Being in communion with God also meant to have a love for human community. Such is essential for without the love of God and the sense of community, people are ultimately led to a weakened, purposelessness, 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.
5. 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.