Guru Nanak, with whom the Sikh religion originates, was born in 1469 at Talwandi, now in Pakistan, to Mehta Kalu and Tripta. As is quite common in the accounts furnished of the founders of major religions or religious movements, his birth is said to have been accompanied by auspicious signs, and the family pandit is described as having declared that Nanak would become a great prophet. The little boy was named Nanak after his sister Nanki, and in childhood he is said to have had a sonorous voice, which brought him to the attention of Rai Bular, the Muslim landlord on whose land Nanak’s father worked. In his childhood, Nanak is said to have been precocious; but as he was thought to be an idler in his adolescence, who brought neither fame nor profit to his father, it was suggested that he be married off to a girl by the name of Sulakhni. And so Nanak’s parents resorted, in 1485, to the practice still commonly encountered in Indian families to turn boys into responsible fathers, and so make men of them.
Nanak took a job as storekeeper in the state granary of Daulat Khan Lodi. In the twelfth year of his employment, upon being falsely accused of embezzlement, he is described as having taken a resolution to forsake the worldly life. One evening he failed to turn up at home, and when he finally showed up on the third day, he announced that he had received a divine command to speak in a new language, the language not of religious insularity but of religious tolerance and pluralism. Declaring himself to be neither a Muslim nor a Hindu, Nanak decided to forgo the life of the householder, and though a married man with two sons, he left his home and became an itinerant preacher. In his travels he was accompanied by Mardana, a childhood friend, and in the village of Saidpur, Nanak acquired his first disciple, the carpenter Lalo whose humble home he shared. Nanak preached a simple monotheistic faith, shorn of idolatry and predicated on the equality of all men and women. He perceived God as sat, as truth and being.
As Nanak roamed over the Punjab and north India, he rapidly began to acquire disciples or shishya, from which the word ‘Sikh’ was ultimately derived. Nanak spoke of the dignity of labor, and one of the first stories that began to circulate about him concerned his interaction with Malik Bhago, the zamindar of Saidpur village. Nanak refused the hospitality of his home, and when asked to explain his conduct, it is said that he took out a dry crust of bread from his pocket that he had brought from Lalo’s home. When he squeezed the sweets that Bhago had placed before him, it is said that drops of blood fell from the sweets; but when he squeezed the piece of bread, drops of milk fell forth. The moral of this story could not have been lost on Bhago, or on Nanak’s contemporaries, but the cynic who is witness to the late twentieth-century, where immense fortunes are made with the twinkling of an eye, and affluence has little or no relation to the true fruits of one’s labor, might well wonder whether Bhago was as contrite as Nanak’s hagiographies suggest. In the event, it is possible to view Guru Nanak as an early spokesperson of working class people, and to view the revolt he lead not only as a form of dissent against the oppressions of caste and religion, but as a form of class awakening.
Nanak’s teachings are best understood against the backdrop of bhakti, the devotional movement which was then sweeping north and western India, and in the context of the ossification of both Hinduism and Islam into religious faiths which inculcated blind beliefs in their followers. During the course of his travels, Nanak reached Hardwar, where he encountered Brahmins who, while standing in the Ganga, were throwing water towards the sun to appease the souls of their ancestors. It is reported that Nanak bent down and began throwing water in the opposite direction, and when asked what he was doing, he replied that he was watering his fields in the Punjab. When his reply was met with derision, Nanak reportedly told the Brahmins that if the water they were sprinkling could reach the sun, then doubtless the water could also reach his fields, which were merely a few hundred miles away. Similarly, Nanaks’s travels took him to Mecca. When he arrived in the city, exhausted and hungry, Nanak lay down, and was rudely awaken by a Muslim priest, who asked how Nanak had dared to sleep with his feet pointing towards the Kaaba. Nanak’s rejoinder, whereby he invited the Kazi to turn his feet wherever God could not be found, is said to have left the Kazi speechless.
In his later years, Nanak is said to have encountered the Mughal emperor Babar, who was impressed by Nanak’s spiritual demeanor. At the age of 52, Nanak decided to embrace the life of the householder, and he is described by contemporary accounts as having settled down to the life of a farmer at Kartarpur. It is there that he established one of the most distinctive social institutions associated that came to be associated with Sikhism, namely langar or the community kitchen. This was a radical departure from the norms of Hindu community living, where caste rules made it unthinkable for members of different castes to share food from the same table or kitchen. As he neared the end of his life, Nanak was keen on appointing a successor, and though he could easily have chosen one of his own sons, he devised a simple test to determine who was most deserving of leading the community. He dropped his eating bowl into a dirty sewer, whereupon one of his disciples, Lehna, recovered the bowl and brought it before Nanak. Lenha was anointed Nanak’s successor, and renamed Guru Angad; and it is in his hands that the future of the Sikh faith was entrusted.
Guru Angad would, in turn, be succeeded by eight other gurus or teachers, but their histories belong to the larger history of Sikhism. On 22 September 1539, Guru Nanak passed away, and in the aftermath of his death Hindus and Muslims were to provide the clearest testimony that his simple teachings had barely been absorbed by them. Both Hindus and Muslims laid claim to his remains: the former wished to burn the body, while the latter desired to cremate him. In the words of one couplet,
Guru Nanak, the King of Fakirs.
To the Hindu a Guru, to the Mussulman a Pir.
Even while acknowledging him as a saint, both Muslims and Hindus continued to view him from the perspective of their respective faiths. When the quarreling Hindus and Muslims tugged at the sheet covering Nanak’s body, they found instead a heap of flowers — and so Nanak’s simple faith would, in course of time, flower into a religion, beset by its own contradictions and customary practices.
McLeod, W. H. Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.
McLeod, W. H. The Sikhs: History, Religion, and Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Singh, Khushwant. The Sikhs. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1953.
Singh, Khushwant. History of the Sikhs. 2 vols. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963-66.