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Guru Nanak Dev, His Life and Teach­ings

Guru Nanak Dev was the founder of Sikhism and the first Guru of Sikhs. He was the last in the se­ries of the great­est prophets born upon earth planet who were in­stru­men­tal in es­tab­lish­ing ma­jor world re­li­gions through their teach­ings and rev­e­la­tions. Guru Nanak led a sim­ple but ex­tra­or­di­nary life, preach­ing a straight­for­ward way to find God in one's own heart through in­ner pu­rity and so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity. He lived in trou­bled times, when re­li­gious prac­tice in the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent was dogged by spir­i­tual and moral cri­sis and the coun­try was wit­ness­ing an in­tense con­flict be­tween Hin­dus and Mus­lims, ag­gra­vated by the re­li­gious zeal of Mus­lim rulers. It was also the time when Hin­duism was un­der­go­ing an in­ter­nal re­form through the bhakti move­ment. A very few peo­ple in his life time would have thought that Guru Nanak's teach­ings would even­tu­ally cul­mi­nate in the for­ma­tion of a new re­li­gion and at­tract mil­lions of fol­low­ers from var­i­ous parts of the world. Guru Nanak Dev was born in 1469, in the vil­lage of Rau Bhoidi Tal­wandi, now called Nankana Sahib, forty miles from La­hore in the present-day Pak­istan. His fa­ther, Kalayan Das Me­hta or Kalu Me­hta, be­longed to a sub caste of the Ksha­triyas and worked as a tax col­lec­tor. His mother was Matta Tri­pat. The Guru Nanak had an older sis­ter called Bibi Nanki. From an early age, Guru Nanak showed par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in spir­i­tual mat­ters. He be­came ac­quainted with the teach­ings of both Hin­duism and Is­lam and met holy men of both re­li­gions. In the process, he de­vel­oped dis­taste for the su­per­fi­cial as­pects of re­li­gious prac­tice, ques­tion­ing their ef­fi­cacy and value in achiev­ing God re­al­iza­tion. When his el­ders asked him to wear the sa­cred thread, usu­ally worn by the up­per caste Hin­dus, he re­fused, say­ing that he would in­stead wear the name of God in his heart as it would never be bro­ken nor tainted with im­pu­ri­ties. Guru Nanak's par­ents wanted him to lead a nor­mal house­holder's life. So in 1487 they mar­ried him to a girl named Sulkhni, of Batala, through whom he had two sons, Sri Chand and Lakhmi Das. Like many other Prophets, Guru Nanak led an or­di­nary house­holder's life, sig­ni­fy­ing the fact that a true fol­lower of God ought to live in the mid­dle of peo­ple and work for the sal­va­tion of him­self and oth­ers through his good deeds and ex­em­plary life. For some time he worked as a store keeper in the state gra­nary of Daulat Khan Lodi in Sul­tan­pur, where he came into con­tact with a Mus­lim ser­vant named Mar­dana. The two were per­haps des­tined to meet, as Maradana sub­se­quently be­gan set­ting mu­sic for the hymns Nanak com­posed. To­gether they or­ga­nized sat­sangs or re­li­gious gath­er­ings, in which they in­volved both Hin­dus and Mus­lims in singing bha­jans or de­vo­tional songs in praise of God. It is said that when he was twenty-eight years, he sud­denly dis­ap­peared and re­turned af­ter three days, re­veal­ing that he had a vi­sion of God in which he was made aware of his mis­sion in life. Declar­ing him­self to be nei­ther a Hindu nor a Mus­lim, He be­gan preach­ing that there was only one God, who could be wor­shipped by any name and reached di­rectly by any one, through abid­ing faith and de­vo­tion. He pro­claimed God as the cre­ator on whose com­mand or Hukm moved all things and who be­ing form­less and tran­scen­den­tal would not as­sume any form, nor man­i­fest Him­self phys­i­cally in our world as an em­bod­ied be­ing. But, as the true wit­ness, He resided in the heart of ev­ery one. So the best way to reach Him was by ob­tain­ing His grace through nam-sam­ran or con­stant re­mem­brance of His name and lead­ing an eth­i­cal and

self­less life. Guru Nanak crit­i­cized caste and gen­der in­equal­i­ties, idol wor­ship, su­per­fi­cial ob­ser­vances, sac­ri­fi­cial rit­u­als, re­li­gious marks, widow burn­ing, and many other prac­tices which he be­lieved were su­per­sti­tious and not con­ducive to lib­er­a­tion. Among other things he ac­knowl­edged as valid was the law of karma, re­birth, re­spect for Guru, im­por­tance of right­eous conduct etc.


Ac­cord­ing to the tra­di­tion, Guru Nanak trav­eled widely in his life time and went as far as As­sam in the east, Sri Lanka in the south, Ti­bet in the north and Mecca and Bagh­dad in the west. Dur­ing his trav­els, he met peo­ple of all faiths: Hin­dus, Bud­dhists, Jains, Mus­lims, and Zoroas­tri­ans. He also met Kabir, the fa­mous bhakti saint of Be­naras in whose com­pany he spent some time, and who ex­em­pli­fied his vi­sion of an ideal devo­tee of God with a pure heart and self­less at­ti­tude. In his life time Guru Nanak per­son­i­fied hu­mil­ity and sim­plic­ity. He al­ways pre­sented him­self to oth­ers as an obe­di­ent fol­lower of God who cher­ished His Com­pany and the sweet nec­tar of His love in his own heart. He never claimed him­self any spe­cial priv­i­leges nor prophet­hood. His teach­ings stood in con­trast with the other re­li­gious prac­tices of his time and in due course of time con­sti­tuted the core teach­ings of Sikhism. He worked for the unity of peo­ple and univer­sal broth­er­hood, by em­pha­siz­ing the un­der­ly­ing unity of all men and the en­tire cre­ation and the need for lead­ing so­cially re­spon­si­ble and morally pure lives for the col­lec­tive wel­fare of all.

Last Days

Af­ter trav­el­ing for twenty years, Guru Nanak de­cided to re­sume life as a house­holder. He ac­quired farm­land on the banks of river Ravi in cen­tral Pun­jab and founded a town, Kar­ta­pur (the city of God). A small com­mu­nity of fol­low­ers, mostly Hin­dus, gath­ered around him and be­gan prac­tic­ing the new creed he preached. Prob­a­bly to pre­serve his teach­ings for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, he be­gan com­pos­ing hymns of great beauty in Gu­ru­mukhi, which be­came part of the Adi Granth (the orig­i­nal book), the holy book of Sikhs. At Kar­tarpur he in­tro­duced the prac­tice of of­fer­ing three daily prayers to God and also the prac­tice of ‘lan­gar’ or com­mu­nity kitchen, where the fol­low­ers shared food to sig­nify the equal­ity of all hu­man be­ings. Af­ter in­sti­tu­tion­al­iz­ing the of­fice of Guru and ap­point­ing Guru An­gad as his suc­ces­sor Guru Nanak fi­nally passed away at the age of 70.


Nanakji taught that if God was to be found, he would be found in the in­ner cham­bers of hu­man heart. If a man is in­tox­i­cated enough with the name, mem­ory and thought of God, he would ex­pe­ri­ence Him in his own self. For Nanakji such a per­son was a true yogi and a true Brah­min, not the one who wore orange robes for ap­pear­ance sake or some­one who was born into a Brah­min caste. Nanak Dev cas­ti­gated os­ten­ta­tious dis­play of re­li­gios­ity and su­per­fi­cial ob­ser­va­tion of re­li­gious conduct. He laid em­pha­sis on in­ner virtue and ad­her­ence to truth, sin­cer­ity and hon­esty in de­vo­tion to God. With­out these at­tributes, man is de­void of any hope to earn the grace of God. Ac­cord­ing to Guru Nanak, God may be known to man by many names and at­tributes, but there is only one God. He is the cre­ator (kar­tar) and sus­tainer of all, who abides in the realm of eter­nity, cast­ing His grace­ful glance over His en­tire cre­ation and who re­sponds to the call of His true devo­tees, who are pure in their minds and hearts. In God's realm there are in­nu­mer­able worlds and be­ings, who are show­ered by His grace when they sub­mit to His Hukm (com­mand). His supreme power is char­ac­ter­ized by the twin prin­ci­ples of jus­tice (nian) and grace (nadar). In the cre­ation of God, hu­man be­ings oc­cupy the high­est po­si­tion. All hu­man be­ings are cre­ated equal and en­dowed with the same po­ten­tial to achieve ‘mukti’ or lib­er­a­tion, which is free­dom from the cy­cle of births and deaths and union with God. What pre­vents hu­man be­ings from achiev­ing, is their self-cen­tered­ness, which can be over­come by cul­ti­vat­ing love (pi­yar) and fear (bhai) to­wards God, which is pos­si­ble only through con­stant re­mem­brance of the names of God (nams­maran), good works (ki­rat karana), char­ity (vaad chhakna) and over­com­ing the five vices, namely lust, greed, at­tach­ment, anger and pride. Guru Nanak traced the progress of the hu­man be­ings on the path of lib­er­a­tion in five dis­tant phases by at­tain­ing five dis­tinct ideals: dharam, gian, saram, karam and sach. In the first phase man comes to know about God and his supremacy as the cre­ator and up­holder of di­vine jus­tice (dharam). In the sec­ond he gains the knowl­edge (gian) and im­men­sity of God's com­plex cre­ation. This aware­ness cre­ates in him the feel­ings of hu­mil­ity (saram) and self-sur­ren­ders. This prompts him to over­come his self­cen­tered­ness and in­dulge in good ac­tions (karam) such as con­stant re­mem­brance of God's name, giv­ing char­ity and do­ing self­less ser­vice. Do­ing good works, fi­nally he be­comes el­i­gi­ble for the di­vine grace through which he comes face to face with the di­vine Truth (sach) and at­tains lib­er­a­tion.

Rel­e­vance of Guru Nanak's Teach­ings in the Mod­ern World

The teach­ings of Guru Nanak are very rel­e­vant in the mod­ern world, which is presently suf­fer­ing from a deep moral and spir­i­tual cri­sis, char­ac­ter­ized by re­li­gious an­i­mos­ity, un­bri­dled ma­te­ri­al­ism, moral de­cline, su­per­fi­cial re­li­gios­ity and mis­use of re­li­gions and re­li­gious sym­bols. Even if you are not a Sikh, you can still ap­ply his teach­ings to your daily life and ben­e­fit from them im­mensely, be­cause his teach­ings tran­scend so­cial and re­li­gious bar­ri­ers and ap­peal to us di­rectly as the guid­ing prin­ci­ples of an ideal hu­man life that can bring out the best in our char­ac­ter and re­con­nect us with our source. If you ig­nore the sub­se­quent de­vel­op­ments that took place in Sikhism, where it de­vel­oped its own re­li­gious for­mal­i­ties, sym­bols and code of conduct, you can be a Sikh with­out wear­ing the tur­ban or the beard or the re­main­ing Ks or with­out ever vis­it­ing a Gu­rud­wara. Just as a Brah­min does not be­come a true fol­lower of God by merely be­ing born in the Brah­min caste or wear­ing re­li­gious marks, Guru Nanak would have de­clared that a Sikh would not be­come a true devo­tee of God and fol­low­ers of his teach­ings by just be­ing born in a Sikh fam­ily or wear­ing the five Ks or vis­it­ing a Gu­rud­wara or by su­per­fi­cially recit­ing the Adi Granth. More im­por­tant than all these is ad­her­ing to truth, de­vo­tion to God, con­stantly re­mem­ber­ing His name, prac­tic­ing in­ner pu­rity by over­com­ing the five en­e­mies of lust, greed, at­tach­ment, anger and pride, cul­ti­vat­ing self­less­ness and do­ing self­less ser­vice to hu­man­ity. To re­al­ize God you do not have to re­nounce the world or be­come a monk. You do not have to wear orange robes or a beard or long hair, or sub­ject your body and mind to se­vere aus­ter­i­ties. You can lead a nor­mal and or­di­nary life, as a house­holder, just as Nanakji did, do­ing what­ever you are in­ter­ested in, but with a self­less at­ti­tude, keep­ing your heart and mind filled with de­vo­tion to God and ded­i­cat­ing your life to the ser­vice of God and His cre­ation. These are the val­ues taught by Guru Nanak. They are still rel­e­vant to­day as they were cen­turies ago and can be of im­mense help, if we want to fo­cus more on our in­ner con­nec­tion with God rather than the Hukms and fat­wahs (com­mands) of au­thor­i­tar­ian in­sti­tu­tions and mere su­per­fi­cial ob­ser­vances of each re­li­gion.

An artis­tic im­pres­sion of Guru Nanakhi, the founder of Sikhism

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