Reach of GuruNanak mission

What Critics Say

The (B) Reach of Guru Nanak Dev’s Mission
Amritjit Singh, Rhode Island College, Rhode Island, USA
Review Essay published in Re-Markings: A Biannual Journal of English Letters,  March 2005

Roopinder Singh, who works on the staff of The Tribune in Chandigarh and comes from a family of scholars, has written this most readable and beautifully illustrated introduction to the life and teachings of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism. Sikhism counts today among the half-dozen major faiths, with over 25 million adherents spread all over the globe. Despite tons of research by scholars of various backgrounds, the life of Guru Nanak remains a difficult subject to write about.. The author strikes a welcome balance between the 17th and 18th century hagiographic versions of Guru Nanak’s life enshrined in at least three manuscripts known collectively as the Janamsakhis (in fact, the most charming of book’s over 50 illustrations come from a 1724 version and have been reproduced here for the first time) and the reconstructed accounts of 19th- and 20th-century historians. This balance combined with the book’s simple (but not simplistic) rendition of the Guru’s message makes the book timely and suitable for both Sikh and non-Sikh readers. Surely, the reach of Guru Nanak’s message would today include a wide variety of audiences, well beyond the global readership of Sikhs, who may experience in Roopinder Singh’s articulation of the Guru’s life a sense of breach in their own lives and/or the need for their support to get the Guru’s message across to non-Sikh readers.


Guru Nanak Dev was born in 1469 in Talwandi, some 65 kilometers west of Lahore and known today as Nankana Sahib. He lived for the last two decades of his life as a farmer in Kartarpur (now in Pakistan) on the banks of river Ravi and passed away there in 1539 after installing Guru Angad Dev as his immediate successor. As a child, he studied with both Muslim and Hindu teachers, and his poetry reflects a considerable command of Arabic, Persian, Braj Bhasha, Hindi, Punjabi, and other languages. Traditional accounts–including those from the Janamsakhis (lit., “birth stories”)-have tended to underplay Guru Nanak’s learning, possibly to bolster the belief, as British historian Macauliffe puts it, “that the acquirements and utterances of the religious teachers may be attributed solely to divine inspiration.” (M. A. Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion, Volume I, 9-10, Oxford, 1909). Although historians are not agreed on all details, it is well-established that around 1499, Nanak had a revelation, often epitomized by his cryptic but contemporaneously meaningful comment, “There is no Hindu, no Mussalman.”  For the following 20 years, roughly until 1520, when he finally settled to farming life in Kartarpur, Guru Nanak traveled widely throughout South and West Asia to spread his message, in four journeys away from home and hearth known as the udasis. He often traveled on foot with Mardana, a Muslim disciple from his village who would play the rebab (a small string instrument) whenever the Guru burst into song with his poetic utterances.

The Guru was an effective, witty and strategic teacher and built during his life quite a large following of disciples-men and women, rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim-in many parts ofSouth Asia2. While he stopped during his travels in all kinds of villages, small towns, and cities, he would often target audiences in holy places of both Hindus and Muslims, especially during large pilgrim gatherings. Roopinder Singh begins his first chapter by narrating a well-known episode: how the Guru visiting Hardwar started throwing water to the West when the pilgrims there were ritualistically throwing water to the East for their ancestors in heaven. When questioned about his unorthodox behavior, he explained that “he was sending water to his fields, a few hundreds kilometers away. If the water [the pilgrims] offered could reach the heavens, why could it not reach his fields, he asked” (1). Both in his writings (included in the Adi Granth, the revered hymn book of the Sikhs that was designated the Guru in 1708 by the tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh) and in accounts of his travels, one can find countless examples of how the Guru interrogates the meaningless ritualism and Brahminic mumbo-jumbo that dominated Hindu lives, as well as the zealousness and false piety of his many Muslim contemporaries, but especially the mindless brutality of many rulers. When he declared, “There is no Hindu, no Mussalman,” he was not offering an ad hominem condemnation of either faith, only expressing the need for cultivating values and lifestyles based not on sectarianism or bigotry but on genuine devotion to God and His creatures. Guru Nanak had a sharp eye for the patterns of hypocrisy, intolerance, exploitation, and brutality that marked the religious expressions of holy men and religious leaders, princes and kings, merchants and bureaucrats. Millions of ordinary men and women, who depended upon the society’s elite for direction and protection, suffered without any recourse. And the Guru became a passionate, at times an angry, voice for these lowly people, the subaltern of his day and age.

In rejecting asceticism as the preferred means to spiritual salvation, the Guru placed family commitments at the center of human life, which, he saw along with other forms of Creation, as a manifestation of the Divine. For the Guru, “religion did not lie in renunciation, deprivation, or in empty words [and rituals], but in being able to live an uncontaminated life amid worldly temptations” (30). For him, it was especially disturbing that the men of spiritual achievement did not make themselves available to uplift the people and to speak to and for them. When he met the siddhs during his thirdudasi through the Himalayas, he admonished them in powerful words, “Sin rules the earth and it is weighed down by unjustness. The siddhs have taken to the mountain caves and escaped. Who will save the humanity now?” (47). He extended the benefits of spiritual existence to one and all and not just to those who renounce the world or those who were “twice-born” upper castes in the deeply-entrenched Hindu caste structure.

Guru Nanak condemned caste most trenchantly in word and deed. Within the evolving Sikh fold, he and his successors created and strengthened institutions such as the sangat (an egalitarian congregation), the langar(the congregational meal that supports a sense of service and community), and the pangat (seating in a row for the congregational meal that undermines caste and class differences) that would over a length of time effectively counter social inequality based on one’s birth. The Guru wanted to value people by the Light that illuminated them and not by their caste names, “since in the world Hereafter, castes are not considered and no one is distinguished by his caste” (71). In his persistent critique of a denigrating and exploitative caste system, the Guru declared, “the caste of a person is what he does” (72). In another of his verses (Guru Granth Sahib, page15), he maintains: “the lowest among the low caste; those still lower and condemned-Nanak is by their side; he envies not the great of the world. Lord! Thy grace falls on the land where the poor are cherished” (72).  Roopinder Singh recounts on page 28 of his book the well-known tale of how the Guru made his point about social exploitation to the rich man Malik Bhago, who was offended that the Guru preferred the hospitality of a poor low-caste Lalo over the sumptuous feast the Malik had laid out for him. Apparently, the Guru’s message on social injustice and inequality is important for our leaders to hear even in the 21stcentury!

In fact, Guru Nanak demonstrates a radically new understanding of how deeply caste had scarred the Indian psyche by exposing the socio-economic dangers of the Hindu notion of “sutak” or impurity. In a verse (cited by Roopinder Singh from page 473 of the Adi Granth), the Guru vehemently condemns the notion:

– Should sutak be believed in, then know that such impurity occurs everywhere,
– Worms are found within wood and cowdung,
– No single grain is without life in it.
– Water, which nurtures everything, is full of beings that live and die in it. . . .
– All belief in sutak is an illusion
– That induces men to worship objects other than God . . . .  (78-79)

Thus, in responding fearlessly to the social and political conditions of his age, Guru Nanak undoubtedly saw a powerful link between the empty ritualism and hypocrisy of religion and the decadence of society in general and of the ruling class in particular. Under the autocratic rule of the Lodhis and amidst the massacres ordered in 1521 by the invading Mughal Babur in Saidpur (now Eminabad in Pakistan) and elsewhere, he saw a demoralized society badly in need of uplift and empowerment.  As a poet, Guru Nanak displays an unusual passion in his apostrophe to the Lord against Babur’s brutality:

The tormented people’s wails rent the air. Did You not feel compassion, Lord? . . .

If a powerful person strikes out against another equally powerful person, then the mind would feel little grief,

But if a powerful tiger attacks a flock of cattle and kills them, then its master must becalled to account.

Roopinder Singh’s account  of Guru Nanak’s life and teachings in this concise book is evidence enough that he was much more than just the founder of a new faith. As Roopinder notes, while many of the Guru’s original or reconstituted precepts such as the sangat had a spiritual intent and focus, they also operated at a temporal plane. It should be clear that the reach of Guru’s message included (and still includes) the secular world and his thought on social and political matters is imbued with an incredible prescience. In building an egalitarian society, the Guru anticipated many of the widely cherished promises of the U.S. Constitution that remain unfulfilled even today in many African American and other lives. Roopinder Singh rightly notes that the Guru “took the notion of equality for women far beyond what had been done before him” (79).  He and his successors created for women spaces within the Sikh community that were unheard of in the larger patriarchal community.  But many of us would acknowledge that his passionate utterances on equality for women invoke a still unachieved dream both within the Sikh community and in most societies around the world. In a frequently-cited verse (Adi Granth, p.18, p. 473), he makes his bold case for women’s equality in the following words:

From woman is man born

Inside her is he conceived.

To a woman is a man engaged

And a woman he marries.

Woman is man’s companion,

From woman come into being new generations.

Should a woman die, another is sought,

By a woman’s help is a man kept in restraint.

Why revile her, of whom are born the great ones of the earth?  (77)

Roopinder Singh’s book directed at a wide audience opens up the real possibility that the Guru’s message which strikes a chord with believers, agnostics, and atheists, will be heard once again by Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike throughout the world. I hope the Sikhs would take satisfaction in recognizing that the Guru’s message is intended for one and all and should not be confined to the domain of their reverent but obsessive love.  Guided and shaped early on by Guru Nanak’s vision of religious tolerance, Sikhism may, in fact, be legitimately viewed today not only as an ultimate expression in South Asia for religious freedom, but also for what we know as First Amendment rights in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, I would argue that Guru Nanak’s fervent focus in his writings on the spiritual struggle of fighting haumai (ego) has a striking relevance to the many secular spheres of life. The Guru respected learning but knew well that learning alone is not enough: “The educated one should be reckoned ignorant if he shows greed and ego” (5). For the Guru, our enemies are not the members of another faith, nation, or group, but our own hard-to-conquer human proclivities – kam (lust), krodh (anger), lobh (greed), moh (attachment) and hankar (pride). All human beings have the ability to distinguish between good and bad and choose an appropriate course of action.

There is much about Guru Nanak’s life and works that Roopinder Singh had richly packed in the 86 pages of his book for all of us to learn and reflect on.

Roopinder Singh, Guru Nanak: His Life and Teachings. New Delhi: Rupa & Co, 2004. Illustrations and Maps. 86pp. Price: Rs. 295.

1.For a helpful summary of the challenges of Guru Nanak biography, see Chapter IV of Anil Chandra Banerjee, Guru Nanak and His Times. Patiala: Publication Bureau, PunjabiUniversity, 1970.  The book is based on the author’s Sitaram Kohli Lectures at PunjabiUniversity in March 1970. In his Preface, the author invokes the time-honored Kolkata tradition of Sikh Studies and pays homage to predecessors such as Sir Asutosh Mookerjee and Indubhusan Banerjee.

2.For more on the larger social and religious context of Guru Nanak’s life and teachings, see W. Owen Cole, Sikhism and Its Indian Context, 1469-1708. New Delhi: DK Agencies, 1984.