As we celebrate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev ji, saint-composer and amongst the great spiritual leaders, his ideas, thoughts and teachings assume far greater relevance today than ever before. They can promote peace, equality and prosperity across the globe.
In a world that is increasingly fragmented with a narrow, tunnel vision, bigotry and dogmatism, we have to walk on the path shown to us by Nanak and other illustrious gurus to dispel the darkness that constantly threatens to envelop individuals, communities and nations.
Our worldview has been continually broadened by the timeless messages of enlightened pathfinders like Guru Nanak.
The “seers” like Guru Nanak see what ordinary people do not. They enrich people’s lives through their insights and ideas. In fact, that is the meaning of the word “guru”. Guru is one who provides illumination, dispels doubt and shows the path. Each one of us, in whatever walk of life we are in, has so much to learn from the teachings of this great personality.
Guru Nanak was a great champion of equality. For him, the differences and multiple identities based on caste, creed, religion and language were irrelevant. He had said, “Preposterous is caste, vain the distinction of birth. The Lord gives shelter to all beings”. He aimed at creating a casteless society in which there is no hierarchy.
Respect for women and gender equality is another important lesson to be learnt from Guru Nanak’s life. Referring to women, the Guru says: “How can they be inferior when they give birth to men? Women as well as men share in the grace of God and are equally responsible for their actions to Him.”
For him, the whole world is God’s creation (Jeeye kaa ik daata) and all are born equal. There is only one universal creator. “Ik Omkaar Satnaam.”
Echoing the Sanskrit saying “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” that describes the whole world as one family, Guru Nanak Dev goes on to say:
“When he stops thinking in terms of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’/Then no one is angry with him./When he clings to ‘my own, my own’/Then he is in deep trouble./But when he recognises the Creator Lord/Then he is free of torment.”
This spirit of living together and harmoniously working together is a consistent thread of thought that runs through Guru Nanak hymns.
What is remarkable about Guru Nanak is the fact that he not only formulated the principal doctrines of Sikhism, but took care to ensure that his teachings would endure.
The ideal of equality was given a concrete institutional form in the community meal, “langar”, where all devotees, irrespective of caste, creed, region and religion sit in a row called “pangat” to share a meal. The place of their meeting, called “dharmsal”, is regarded as sacred and the common religious congregation — “sangat” — was open to all.
These institutional structures are an eloquent testimony to the Guru’s timeless vision of equality and non-discrimination. This spirit of equality began with Guru Nanak’s clear recognition that there is no distinction between a Hindu and Mussalman. For him, no country was foreign and no people were alien.
It is worth noting that Guru Nanak initiated inter-faith dialogue way back in the 16th century and had conversations with most of the religious denominations of his times. The world needs such spiritual leaders who can engage in a meaningful dialogue to exchange ideas in order to promote peace, stability and cooperation.
Guru Nanak’s vision was pragmatic and holistic. It was not a vision of renunciation but of active involvement. Between the ascetic and the epicurean, Guru Nanak chose the middle path — the Grihastha Ashram or the life of a householder. It was an ideal path as it offered opportunities for social, material and spiritual growth of an individual.
Work, worship and share (kirat karo, naam japo and vand chhako) was the motto he placed before his disciples. Earn by honest labour and share the earnings with the needy. He suggested that one should share one’s prosperity with others who needed help. He advocated the concept of “daswandh” or donating one-tenth of earning among needy persons.
Nanak was an extraordinary saint who synthesised the best elements in various religions and spiritual traditions.
I am happy that the corridor that connects the Sikh shrines of Dera Baba Nanak Sahib in Punjab to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur in Pakistan, the sacred space where Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life, has been opened to enable pilgrims to visit the shrine.
Guru Nanak’s vision is timeless and has as much relevance today as it was when it was expounded five centuries ago.
If we can internalise and integrate these messages in our daily lives and reshape our thinking and actions, we can certainly discover a new world of peace and sustainable development.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 12, 2019 under the title ‘A vision for equality’. The writer is Vice President of India.
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