Guru Nanak’s teachings are more relevant today

According to Guru Nanak, Hindus and Muslims have forgotten the true spirit of their respective religions and lost it in the jungle of externals. He described the externals as involvement in frivolous rituals and ceremonies.

The founder of the world’s youngest religion, Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1539) was born in Punjab. ‘Sikhism is one-fourth as old as Christianity’ and ‘about one-third as old as Islam’. By the time Guru Nanak was born, Islam which had arrived in India in the 11th century had taken deep roots in the religious and political life in this part of India.

Hindus and Muslims had lived side by side for four centuries from eleventh century onwards. During this period the relationship between them was ‘sometimes in open conflict’, but was ‘always in uneasy tension’. According to David S. Noss, “the two traditions strongly influenced each other.” They had a deep impact on the culture, traditions, literature, art and architecture of each other. Though each of them borrowed and learnt from the other, they retained their distinctive characteristics in their methods of worship and the core doctrines.

Sikhism arose when various forms of Bhakti movement in Hinduism were at their peak, and Sufism was at its zenith in Islam. Though the Bhakti movement originated in southern parts of India, it soon spread to all parts of the country. Saint poets sang with intense devotion in praise of God and advocated complete and unquestioning surrender to Him. Islamic Sufism marked by mysticism ‘postulated the approach to God through love and voluntary suffering until a unity of will was reached’. Both accepted intuition as a source of knowing God.

Sufis in Islam, like saints in Hinduism, are regarded as ‘friends of God’. They have a direct experience of God. In both, the spiritual master—sant or guru in Hinduism, and the pir in Sufism—plays a key role in guiding one to realise God. According to Teja Singh, both agree that “the best way to approach God was to resign oneself to His will. The easiest way to find God’s will was by becoming a disciple and seeking the guidance of a guru or pir”.

Both were severe critics of religious formalism. They united in rejecting all kinds of ritualism and external forms of worship. Both believed that God is without shape and form. He is one without a second. He has to be reached by internal craving and intensive personal devotion to Him.

Guru Nanak was born in such a milieu in 1469 and at a time when religious pluralism pervaded the society. He learnt his native language from a Pandit and Persian and Arabic from a mullah. At the age of thirty he had his first revelation which changed the course and mission of his life. It is believed that he drowned in the river where he had gone for his morning ablutions. He remained under water for two days during which time it is believed that he had “in fact been raised to the presence of God. Been given a drink of nectar and charged with the duty of spreading God’s name”.

On the third day he emerged from the river. After he regained his consciousness the first words uttered by Guru Nanak were, “There is no Hindu, there is no Musalmaan.” So, Guru Nanak decided to “follow God’s path”. He argued that “God is neither a Hindu nor a Musalmaan and the path I shall follow is God’s path”.

To complete the mission allotted to him, Guru Nanak undertook several travels. Janam Saakhis give an account of Guru Nanak’s life. According to Puratan Janam Saakhi, he travelled to Assam in the east, Mecca, Madina and Baghdad in the west, in the Himalayan region in the north, and Sri Lanka in the south. The exact itineraries of his travel are not known. The attire he wore was a “mixture of Hindu and Muslim modes of dressing”.

After wandering and preaching his gospel for about twenty years, Guru Nanak finally settled down in Kartarpur, where he lived until his death in 1539. The purpose of his teachings was to ‘turn people from futility to truth’. He criticised the rituals of both Hindus and Muslims. In the Adi Granth, he described the Hindus as “having strayed from the primal lord” and as “going the wrong way”. He criticised several rituals of Hinduism which according to him were ceremoniously performed superficially and as a matter of routine, without realising their true spirit. For example, in the thread ceremony ‘the wearer despite wearing it… does wrong and therefore is not approved by God’.

About Hinduism, Guru Nanak says: “There are six Hindu schools of thought, each with its own founder and teacher. The Guru of gurus is One but with many manifestations. In whatever school the glories of the Creator is sung, accept it as your own. As there is one sun but time is divided into many seasons, hours and minutes so there is one God tough with many forms.”

Likewise, in Islam referring to the obligatory five prayers that have to be performed five times a day, and have been assigned five different names, Guru Nanak made alternative suggestions. He said, “Let truthfulness be the first, honest living the second, and charity in the name of God the third. Let your fourth be purity of mind and good intentions, and the fifth the praise and adoration of God. Let good deeds be your article of faith. Thus, you may be called a true Muslim.”

Guru Nanak had an attitude of reverence towards the scriptures of all religions. He compared the religious scriptures with a lamp. According to him, “When a lamp is lit darkness is destroyed. Similarly, by reading the religious books evil mindedness is destroyed.” The foundation of Sikhism is Shabad (word). The manifestation of God as an eternal word is found in Vedas, Puranas and Quran. The Guru time and again says that ceremonial formalism and ritualism lead to distractions, resulting in the loss of its true meaning.

About the Vedas which are the foundations of Hinduism Guru Nanak said, “The Vedas preach the sermon of devotional service to God. Whoever continually hears and believes them beholds the divine light.” He would uphold the same view about other scriptures too.

In saying that there are no Hindus and no Muslims, Guru Nanak implied that both the faiths have forgotten the true spirit of their respective religions and lost it in the jungle of externals. He described the externals as involvement in frivolous rituals and ceremonies. These, he says, are the ‘chains of the mind’. The chains of mind cloud our vision and tempt us to confuse between the peripheral and the core. The peripherals may be different, rather radically different, but the core is the same namely being one with God. By drawing the attention of all to the hypocritical attitude of both Hindus and Muslims he was making a crucial distinction between Hindus and Hinduism on the one hand and Muslims and Islam on the other.

Despite his severe criticism of both Hinduism and Islam, Baba Nanak was dear to the adherents of both the religions as is clear from the following couplet: “Baba Nanak Shah Fakir/Hindu ka guru, Musalmaan ka pir (The sage Nanak, Prince of holy men/A guru of the Hindus and a pir of the Muslims).”

The writer is former professor of philosophy, University of Delhi. The views expressed are personal.