Life & Teachings of Guru Nanak
India has seen the birth of four world religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and the youngest of them all is Sikhism. It was founded in the 15th century by the great poet-saint Guru Nanak as a synthesis of the best precepts of Hinduism and Islam. Many other religious preachers of the time taught along similar lines but what made Guru Nanak’s philosophy have a lasting impact was its innate humanity, spirit of tolerance and belief in one Supreme Being. Like many of the bhakti saints of medieval India he wove his teachings into poetry and then set them to music.
These serene hymns of a truly humane teacher are sung with reverence till today, bringing peace, guidance and solace to people. Guru Nanak believed one can gain spiritual harmony through prayer and hymns. That God is one, is the truth and this made him immortal.
Guru Nanak was born in 1469 AD in a village called Talwandi, near Lahore in modern Pakistan. Today this holiest of Sikh pilgrimages is called Nankana Sahib. His parents were Hindus of the Kshatriya caste of Bedi and the boy was taught Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit and Hindi. This was medieval times with the Lodi kings ruling in Delhi and Nanak’s father worked for the local governor and hoped that his son would also do so one day. But the boy spent his days in meditation and often spent time in the company of wandering sadhus asking them many philosophical questions.
Nanak was married to Sulakhni and had two sons and even worked for a while at Sultanpur but his heart was in spiritual matters. Then in his thirtieth year he disappeared for three days and while bathing in the river Bein had a mystical experience where he heard the voice of god calling him to his mission. This was of singing the praise of the Almighty through the sacred Word (Nam), through charity (dan), ablution (ishnan), service (sewa) and prayer (simran).
When he came back Guru Nanak’s first words to the people who greeted him were, “There is no Hindu; there is no Mussalman.” And this message of tolerance and synthesis was at the heart of his preaching that he carried around the country through many years of travelling. He wandered across the Indian subcontinent in the company of two men, Bala a Hindu and a Muslim rabab player named Mardana. All the while he was composing hymns that he sang and taught to people as a form of prayer. And even today, in Sikh gurudwaras across the world, the day begins with the singing of his poetry in the melodious shabad kirtans.
Legends say Nanak’s travels took him as far as Baghdad and Mecca and also south till Sri Lanka and north into the deep Himalayas. At many of these places gurdwaras stand today like the one at Rameswaram which was also visited by him. In 1526 AD Nanak also saw the invasion of Babur, who would later establish the Mughal Empire, and Nanak spoke about the tragedy of war in his songs.
Guru Nanak travelled for most of his life but he always came back to his family because he did not believe in the life of renunciation as an ascetic. He spent his last years with his family and disciples in a settlement he founded beside the river Ravi called Kartarpur in Punjab. Here he put into practice all he had taught about equality, tolerance and the value of truth among a growing number of disciples. He died in 1539 AD at the age of seventy after handing over the work to the next guru Angad.
After Guru Nanak there were nine more gurus and through their efforts the words of Guru Nanak were kept alive and Sikhism became a faith that grew into a religion followed by millions. Many of the gurus were also poets and all their creations are compiled in the sacred scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib. Even for people of other faiths the lyrical words of this wise, compassionate saint offer both succour in moments of sadness and also great joy. When Guru Nanak left this mortal world both the Hindus and Muslims claimed him as their saint. As one couplet says,
“Guru Nanak shah faqir, Hindu ka guru, Mussalman ka pir.”
The Teachings of Guru Nanak
The word Sikh comes from the Sanskrit word Shishya or disciple and the role of the guru and the disciple is at the heart of Sikhism. It is the guru and the words of the gurus that guide the followers to the right path in life.
It is a religion that speaks through song, the poetry of not just Guru Nanak but also some of the gurus who followed him and even Hindu and Sufi mystic-saints like Kabir, Namdev and Sheikh Farid. The Guru Granth Sahib contains the compositions of other gurus like Angad, Amar Das, Ram Das, Arjan Dev, Tegh Bahadur and Gobind Singh. Each hymn is set to a North Indian classical music raga and is sung at the gurdwaras every day.
The Sikh scholar Bhai Gurdas said about the teachings of Guru Nanak, “Miti dhund, jag chanan hoya” – his words were like the first rays of dawn that dispelled the darkness. And Japji, the first prayer in the Guru Granth Sahib that encapsulates his philosophy as it starts, “There is One God. He is the supreme truth. He, the Creator is without fear and without hate.” As Guru Nanak had decreed, the Japji is sung at the time of day he called ‘amrit vela’ – dawn, when the air is like nectar.
Guru Nanak praised one god who he described as Truth and said we should seek a direct communion with Him through prayer. He was against the worship of many deities, the religious rituals before images, the role of priests and the caste system. For him all religions were the same, speaking of the same values and everyone was welcome in his home and heart. He was also deeply opposed to the inhumanity of the caste system. Love and tolerance were at the heart of his teachings and so all his disciples lived as equals, worked next to each other, cooked and ate together.
Even today Sikhism is the most generous and open of faiths. Everyone is welcome at the gurdwaras where food is served to all in the langar where everyone sits together and they are served by the devotees. People offer sewa at the gurdwaras doing the humblest of tasks and sewa and langar teaches them both tolerance and humility.
Guru Nanak spoke of three actions that should be followed by every Sikh: Vand Chakko – share with others and help others in need. Kirat Karo – make an honest living. Naam Japna – chant the holy name.
The tradition established by Guru Nanak was for the guru to select his successor and nine gurus followed him. It is through the efforts of these gurus that the Sikh nation evolved in the Punjab and Sikhism took the form of a religion.
The Ten Gurus
Guru Nanak Dev (1469 – 1539)
Guru Angad (1504 – 1552)
Guru Amar Das (1536 – 1574)
Guru Ram Das (1534 – 1581)
Guru Arjan Dev (1563 -1606)
Guru Hargobind (1595 – 1644)
Guru Har Rai (1630 – 1661)
Guru Harkishan (1656 – 1664)
Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621 – 1675)
Guru Gobind Singh (1666 – 1708)
The Guru Granth Sahib, also called the Adi Granth was first compiled by Guru Arjan Dev and Bhai Gurdas when they developed the gurmukhi script. In this book Guru Arjan Dev collected all the poetry of not just the earlier four gurus but also the works of many Hindu and Sufi mystic saints. Guru Arjan Dev said of the Adi Granth, “In this vessel you will find three things – truth, peace and contemplation; in this too the nectar that is the name of the master which uplifts all mankind”.
Then copies of the sacred book were sent to Sikh temples where they were enshrined in a place of honour and people bowed before its wisdom. These temples came to be called gurdwaras or the gateway to the wisdom of the gurus and at the heart of each gurdwara is the Guru Granth Sahib.
A final version of the Guru Granth Sahib was compiled by the tenth guru, Gobind Singh and today the sacred scriptures have over 3500 verses. He also ended the traditional position of a guru saying that from then on the guru of the Sikhs was going to be this sacred book. They were to seek guidance in the pages of this collection of wisdom. He wrote, “Guru Granthji maanio. Pargat guraan did eh”, acknowledge the Guru Granth Sahib, as the body visible of the Gurus. Guru Gobind Singh, a true warrior-poet was himself a prolific writer and much of his work is collected in the book called the Dasam Granth.
During the time of the Mughal king Akbar there was great amity between the Sikh community and the monarch. Akbar even visited Guru Arjan Dev and offered him land for his community. However from the time of Akbar’s son Jahangir the Sikhs faced persecution at the hands of the Mughals and it was from here on that the Sikhs developed a military wing to protect the faith.
Guru Gobind Singh, son of Tegh Bahadur became the tenth and last guru and he developed a powerful Sikh army he called the Khalsa or the Pure. He gave the Khalsa its own identity with the five symbols of the Sikh soldier of faith called the ‘five kakkars’ – kesh (unshorn hair and beard), kanga (comb), katcha (knee length breeches), kara (steel bracelet) and kirpan (sabre).
At the heart of the Sikh people there remains the peaceful, tolerant and generous spirit of Guru Nanak and their gurdwaras still open their doors to strangers with food and shelter. And every morning all across the land they welcome the dawn with the mellifluous songs of the Gurbani.
Guru Nanak, poet, mystic, saint will always be a part of the soul of India.
There are gurdwaras, big and small everywhere the Sikhs reside in India. However some have gathered a special sanctity that brings devotees there in the thousands. Guru Nanak’s community was a simple one and their worship was in small gatherings but as the community grew, the later gurus organised the faith and built places of worship that came to be called gurdwaras – home of the gurus. Many of these gurdwaras were built by the gurus or are connected to their lives. Each gurdwara has a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, all religious ceremonies are held before the sacred scriptures and the shrine offers free food at the langar.
The spiritual heart of Sikhism is its most famous shrine, the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar in Punjab. It is also called Darbar Sahib and is famous across the world as the Golden Temple as it is gilded with gold. The third guru, Amar Das discovered a beautiful pool of water where he decided to build a tank. It was the fifth guru Guru Arjan Dev who began work on building a temple at the site and reflecting the open and tolerant spirit of the faith he got the Sufi saint Mian Mir to lay the foundation of Harmandir Sahib. Soon the town that grew around the shrine came to be called Amritsar, the pool of nectar. The present temple was built all in marble by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab in 1803 AD and it is said that 400 kg of gold was used to gild the domes.
While he was building the temple Arjan Dev was also compiling the Adi Granth, the first version of the Guru Granth Sahib and he decided that the sacred book should be placed in the sanctum of the new temple. In 1604 AD it was installed with great reverence in the Harmandir Sahib; with Arjan Dev carrying it on his head. The oldest living disciple of Guru Nanak, Bhai Baba Buddha was appointed the first granthi, the custodian and reader of the sacred scriptures. Even today this ceremony is enacted as Palki Sahib when at dawn the Guru Granth Sahib is carried from the Akal Takht, where it is kept at night, to the Harmandir Sahib in a decorated silver and gold palanquin.
The Harmandir Sahib stands in the middle of a large pool called Amrit Sarovar, its shining golden walls and domes reflecting in the blue waters. It is a harmonious blend of Mughal and Rajput architectural styles with a marble parikrama, a circumambulation path around the pool that is walked in a clockwise direction. Pilgrims walk across the pool by a causeway and gate called Darshan Deori to enter the Harmandir Sahib. Here the Guru Granth Sahib is placed on a dais in the main hall in the ground floor under a jewelled silk canopy. The air always echoes to the readings of verses by granthis and the melodious singing of shabad-kirtans, by the ragi singers.
Unlike the sacred places of other religions where the shrine is built at a higher level, here one has to walk down to enter, a quiet reminder to the pilgrim to be humble. Also it has four doors open to people of all faiths and castes, reflecting the generous spirit of Sikhism. The temple precinct has many other buildings like the five storied Akal Takht which is the temporal headquarters of the faith. There is also the Guru ka Langar where thousands of pilgrims are fed every day and the guesthouses Guru Ramdas ki Sarai and the Guru Nanak Niwas where pilgrims can stay for three nights.
Anandpur means a holy city of bliss and the pilgrim town stands by the river Sutlej, in the picturesque foothills of the Himalayas in Punjab. It was built by the ninth guru Tegh Bahadur on land donated by the queen of Bilaspur. For three days after the Hindu festival of Holi a special ceremony of Hola Mohalla is held here. It was started by Guru Gobind Singh, who built the Sikh as an army to defend the faith. The festival is a show of the warrior spirit of the Sikhs and even today there are displays of sword fights and other martial arts by the blue clad Nihangs. The main gurdwara in the town is the Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib and there are also the Gurdwara Sisganj Sahib and the Gurdwara Bhora Sahib.
This extraordinary gurudwara stands beside an icy lake on a glacier high in the Himalayas in the Chamoli District of Uttarakhand. Guru Gobind Singh wrote in his autobiography ‘Bichitra Natak’ that he had meditated by a lake in the Himalayas and for centuries Sikhs had searched for the site. In 1934 it was finally located at Hemkund by a retired army man and granthi Baba Modan Singh and gradually a gurudwara was built here. The gurudwara is in a pentagonal shape with a roof in the shape of an inverted lotus and stands at a height of 15,200 ft. It is surrounded by seven snowy peaks and is only open from May to October when the snow melts. Every year Nihang Sikhs of the Damdami Taksal climb the sacred hills and place flags called nishan sahib on the peaks. The site is also near the Valley of Flowers.
Located in Bathinda in Punjab, the gurudwara is one of the five seats of temporal authority of Sikhism called a Takht. The others are the Akal Takht, Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib, Takht Sri Patna Sahib and Takht Sri Hazur Sahib. Guru Gobind Singh who was a poet-soldier and a prolific writer in four languages stayed here in 1705 AD while he was preparing the final version of the Guru Granth Sahib.
During his travels Guru Nanak had come to Patna on his way to the pilgrim town of Gaya. This gurudwara in Patna in Bihar also commemorated the place where Guru Gobind Singh was born in 1666 AD. He spent his early years here before moving to first Paonta Sahib and then Anandpur Sahib. The gurudwara was built in 1839 AD by the Sikh king Maharaja Ranjit Singh at a site beside the river Ganga. The museum inside the shrine has a Guru Granth Sahib with Guru Gobind’s signature.
This gurudwara by the banks of the river Yamuna in Himachal Pradesh marks the site where both Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh stayed. Legend says the name of the town came from the words ‘paon’ – foot and ‘tika’ – stopped because Guru Gobind took shelter here. He was just nine years old when his father Guru Tegh Bahadur died. He was brought here from Patna and spent his childhood here. The museum displays some of the weapons of the warrior-guru.
This popular gurudwara in New Delhi was built in the memory of the eighth guru Har Krishan. He was still a boy when he was made the guru. He was brought to Delhi by Aurangzeb and was staying here near the village of Raisina in a mansion owned by Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur when he fell ill and died. The gurudwara was built by the Sikh general Baghel Singh in 1783 AD and has a sacred pool called arovar and its waters are said to have healing properties.