Guru Nanak

by Mrs Ulfat Aziz-us-Samad

The Light (Pakistan), 8th/16th November 1976 Issue (Vol. 56, Nos. 42–43, pp. 3–5)

Sikhs from several countries of the world gathered at Gurdwara Janam-asthan in Nankana Sahib (Pakistan) from November 3 to 7 to celebrate the birthday of the illus­trious founder of their faith. Guru Nanak was born at Nankana Sahib (then known as Talwandi Rai Bhoe) on April 15, 1469. However, on the basis of a report in the Janamsakhi (biography) by Bala Sandhu, which is considered by most scholars to be spurious, Guru Nanak’s birthday is celebrat­ed by the Sikhs every year on the full moon night of the month of November.

Nanak was a precocious child, who did exceptionally well at his studies, and literally amazed and confounded his teachers. He studied the Quran and Arabic and Persian literature with Syed Hassan, a devout Sufi. When he was nine, his father arranged for him the Yajnopayitam rite, as was the Hindu custom; but Nanak refused to go through the Hindu initiation ceremony and wear the sacred thread.

From the very beginning Nanak was of a religious bent of mind and all the efforts of his father to make him take interest in worldly affairs and adopt a lucrative profession ended in failure. Those were the days when the Islamic Sufi movement was at its height in the Indo-Pakistan sub­continent. Nanak spent all the time he could find in the company of Sufi saints. At last his sister, of whom he was very fond, brought him over to her own house in Sultanpur, and through her husband’s influence got him a job as storekeeper with Nawab Daulat Khan Lodhi, a distant kinsman of the reigning Sultan of Delhi. Although Nanak took over the post with some reluc­tance, he discharged his duties diligently and won the affection of his employer.

Nanak had been in the service of the Nawab for about twelve years when one morning, as he went for his usual ablution by the river, he had his first mystic experience. It left a tremendous impression on his mind; Nanak was a transformed man. He left the service of the Nawab and went and joined the Sufis. He decided to devote himself completely to the reformation of the people. Nanak made no attempt to proselytise. He only exhort­ed people to fill their hearts with the love for God and to be kind, honest and upright in their dealings with their fellowmen. The Janamsakhis relate that he undertook five extensive missionary tours (Udasis). His last long journey took him as far as Mecca, where he performed the Hajj (Pilgrimage). He then went to Madina, to the mosque of the Holy Prophet, and from there to Bagh­dad. In Baghdad, he stayed for many days with the Sufis of that great centre of Islam.

Nanak spent his last years at Kartarpur, where large crowds flocked to hear him preach. Everyone who saw him or heard him preaching was deeply affected by his outstanding piety and saintly character. He was without doubt a great servant of God and benefactor of mankind.

On his demise, which occurred on September 22, 1539, a dispute is said to have arisen between Hindus and Muslims, each par­ty desiring to dispose of his earthly remains according to its own religious rites—the Hindus saying that Nanak was a Hindu, because he was born of Hindu parents; the Muslims claiming that he was a Muslim, because he believed in the Islamic Creed. When, however, the covering was removed from his body, they only found a heap of flowers, which was divided between the parties.

Guru Nanak was a staunch and uncom­promising monotheist. He believed in the one and only God, who was eternal, self-existent, formless, all-good. The God that Nanak believed in was not an abstract idea or an impersonal moral force; He was a Personal Being, capable of being loved and honoured. He denied the reality of all other gods, saying that the One God alone should be worshipped. Guru Nanak s conception of God is well brought out in the MulMantra [Mool Mantar] of the Japji:

“There is but one God, Whose name is True, the Creator, devoid of fear and enmity, Immortal, Unborn, Self-existent, Great and Bountiful: The True One was in the beginning; the True One was in the primal age, the True One is now also, O Nanak: the True One also shall be.”

Nanak would have nothing to do with the doctrine of the incarnation. Since God was infinite, argued Nanak, He could not die to be incarnated, nor could He assume human form which was subject to decay and death. He disapproved of the worship of idols because people tended to look upon them as God instead of symbolic representations. He said:

“He (God) cannot be created and set up as an image; for He is all in all Him­self, devoid of material conditions. Whoever serves Him is honourable. Nanak, let us, therefore, sing of Him, for is He full of all excellences.” (The Japji, V)

The best way to serve God, according to Guru Nanak, was by absolute submission to His will. The way to approach Him was through the singing of hymns and meditat­ing on His Name.

Guru Nanak rejected the Hindu monism (Advaita), which declared that the world was an illusion, as well as the Hindu dua­lism (Samkhya-Yoga), which taught that the world and God were both uncreated and eternal. Like the followers of Islam, he believed that though the world was real, it was created and was not eternal. It was real because it was the expression of God’s will and command and because of God’s presence in it:

“By His will and command all forms come into being—the working of that Will cannot be described—it is by His Will that the forms develop life in them, and then they grow exalted.” (The Japji, XI)

Nanak did not approve of ascetic isola­tion or torturing of the flesh as a step to enlightenment. His ideal was to have the detachment of an of ascetic while living among one’s fellow-beings. Nanak believed in the equality of man. He took practical steps to break the vicious hold of caste by starting free community kitchen—guru ka langar—and persuading his followers, irrespective of their castes, to eat together.

It is often claimed that the aim of Gurn Nanak was to bring about a reconciliation between Islam and Hinduism by combin­ing elements taken from these two faiths into his own religion. Thus, Sardar Kushwant Singh, the distinguished Sikh scholar and novelist, writes in his History of the Sikhs (p. 17):

“Sikhism was born out of wedlock between Hinduism and Islam after they had known each other for a period of nearly nine hundred years.”

This is, how­ever, not quite correct. There is almost nothing that is common between the teach­ings of Guru Nanak and Hinduism. He had a different conception of God, a different theory of creation, a different view of the universe and of God’s relation to the universe, a different attitude towards man, a different idea of salvation. Moreover, he strongly condemned the Hindu caste system and the Hindu practices of idolatry and ritual bathing in sacred rivers in the hope of washing away sins. In all that he accepted, as well as in all that he rejected, he showed himself to be a follower of Islam. Guru Nanak differed with the Hindus over the fundamentals of their faith; but he differed with the Muslims, not over Islam, but rather over the neglect of the true spirit of Islam by the Muslims.

Guru Nanak often used to read the Holy Quran and to guide the people in the light of what he had read in the Book of God. He is reported in the Adi Granth to have said:

“The age of the Vedas and the Puranas is gone; now the Quran is the only book to guide the world.”

The copy of the Quran from which he used to read out the Divine Message is still preserved at Guru Har Sahai in Ferozepur District.

The gown (Chola Sahib) which Guru Nanak used to wear on solemn occasions can be seen at Dera Baba Nanak in the Indian province of the Punjab. It is pro­fusely illustrated with verses from the Quran and on top, just below the collar, is embroidered the Islamic Kalima (or dec­laration of faith):

“There is but One God and Muhammad is the Mes­senger of God.”

On the right sleeve, among other verses from the Quran, is the following verse:

“The religion with God is Islam.”

Guru Nanak, as we have seen, preached a faith which was very different from Hinduism. His religious views were almost identical with those of Islam. He was a Sufi. But, due to an irony of history, as time passed, the Sikhs, who claimed to be the followers of Guru Nanak, began com­ing closer to Hinduism and became more and more estranged from Islam. Three factors appear to have been responsible for this:

  1. First, though Guru Nanak had not come with a new religion and had no intention of forming a separate religious community, sometime after his death those who claimed to follow him organised themselves into a distinct sect.
  2. Secondly, nearly all the converts to this new sect of Sikhism came from Hinduism, and they continued to follow some of their old ideas and practices, which, in the course of time, became parts of Sikhism. The converts were also more friendly towards their former co-religionists than towards the Muslims.
  3. Thirdly, the political conflicts of the Sikhs (who by the time of the fifth Guru had organised themselves into a political party) with the Mughals made them hostile to Islam and Muslims generally.
  4. Finally, Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, completely trans­formed the Sikhs and Sikhism and made them into a violent military sect. In their hatred of the Muslims they came so close to the Hindus that for all practical purposes they became a sect of Hinduism.