Guru Nanak (1469-1539), whose 550th birth anniversary is being celebrated on Tuesday, is the greatest thinker, philosopher, poet, traveller, political rebel, social leveller, mass communicator and spiritual master the land of Punjab has produced. He was born in a village, Talwandi Rai Bhoe, near Lahore which was renamed later as Nankana Sahib. The room in which he was born constitutes the inner sanctum of the Gurdwara Nankana Sahib.
There are fairly reliable accounts about Guru Nanak’s life. His was an upper caste Khatri Hindu family and his father was an administrative official in the office of a local Muslim chieftain. In his youth, he used the medium of music, poetry, song and speech to preach the love of God and to attack the politically oppressive policies of the Mughal regime and the socially oppressive practices of casteism of the orthodox Brahminical Hindu religion. He also attacked the wealthy and spoke in favour of an equitable social status for women.
He used the language of the masses, Punjabi, to preach his ideas. This was in sharp contrast to that of the Hindu priests and the Muslim clergy, who used Sanskrit and Arabic respectively. Rejecting Sanskrit (which was called dev bhasha, the language of the gods), Guru Nanak used Punjabi (lok bhasha, people’s language) to communicate his egalitarian teachings. He attracted a following among the lower castes, mainly Hindus but also some converts to Islam.
His followers came to be known as Sikhs; sikh, a Punjabi word, means a learner or a disciple and is a variant of the Sanskrit word shishya. Some of his early followers came from his own Khatri caste. However, for the large mass of Punjabis who were attracted to Guru Nanak’s teachings, it was the content of his teachings (equality), the medium of his communication (Punjabi) and the form of his communication (poetry, song and music), which attracted them to Sikhism. He can, therefore, be legitimately characterised as the founder and articulator of a truly Punjabi religion which attracted followers from all caste groups in Punjabi society but predominantly from peasant and artisanal classes.
The time when Guru Nanak was born was a period of great strife in Indian society, especially in the Punjab region. Guru Nanak responded — as all great thinkers, philosophers and those whom we call prophets respond — to the historical crisis of the society in which he was born. However, it is also vital to grasp how he transcended the limitations of geographical space and historical time in delivering a message that had universal relevance. The fact that in his own lifetime, communities of his followers had emerged in what are today India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet and Sri Lanka — and even in Iraq and Iran — illustrates that his message had transcended the geographical boundaries of Punjab. He consciously went on long journeys (called uddasian) to far off places along with his two companions Bhai Bala, a Hindu, and Bhai Mardana, a Muslim, to hold dialogues with many saints and Sufis — even, some charlatans who claimed some spiritual powers and had some social following.
His written compositions were included in the Adi Granth compiled by Guru Arjan (1563-1606), the fifth Sikh guru. This came to be known as Guru Granth Sahib after the additions made by the 10th guru Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708). In compiling the Adi Granth, Guru Arjan showed a remarkable commitment to pluralism while retaining the unity of thought initiated by Guru Nanak. He included in the Granth the teachings and writings of all the five Sikh gurus but also the contributions made between the 12th and 16th centuries by many Hindu bhakts and Sufi saints such as Baba Farid, Sant Kabir, Guru Ravi Das and Sant Namdev.
The best way of understanding Guru Nanak’s universal vision is to read the Guru Granth Sahib. The ecological message of his teachings, which has strong relevance for our times, is perhaps, the best illustration of the universalism of his teachings.
In the last phase of his life that Guru Nanak spent at Kartarpur Sahib, he provided a practical demonstration of building a community based on strong egalitarian values of cooperative agricultural work and innovative social institutions of langar (collective cooking and sharing of food) pangat (partaking food without distinctions of high and low) and sangat (collective decision making).
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 12, 2019 under the title ‘A humanist above all’. The writer is visiting scholar, Wolfson College, University of Oxford.