Guru Nanak has been called “one of the greatest religious innovators of all time”. He travelled far and wide teaching people the message of one God who dwells in every one of His creations and constitutes the eternal Truth.He set up a unique spiritual, social, and political platform based on equality, fraternal love, goodness, and virtue.
Guru Nanak’s words are registered in the form of 974 poetic hymns in the holy text of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, with some of the major prayers being the Japji Sahib, the Asa di Var and the Sidh-Ghost. It is part of Sikh religious belief that the spirit of Guru Nanak’s sanctity, divinity and religious authority descended upon each of the nine subsequent Gurus when the Guruship was devolved on to them.
Family and early life
Nanak was born on 15 April 1469 at Rāi Bhoi Kī Talvaṇḍī (present day Nankana Sahib, Punjab, Pakistan) near Lahore. His parents were Kalyan Chand Das Bedi, popularly shortened to Mehta Kalu, and Mata Tripta. His father was the local patwari (accountant) for crop revenue in the village of Talwandi. His parents were both Hindus and belonged to the merchant caste.
He had one sister, Bebe Nanaki, who was five years older than he was. In 1475 she married and moved to Sultanpur. Nanak was attached to his sister and followed her to Sultanpur to live with her and her husband. At the age of around 16 years, Nanak started working under Daulat Khan Lodi, employer of Nanaki’s husband. This was a formative time for Nanak, as the Puratan (traditional) Janam Sakhi suggests, and in his numerous allusions to governmental structure in his hymns, most likely gained at this time.
The earliest biographical sources on Nanak’s life recognised today are the Janamsākhīs (life accounts) and the vārs (expounding verses) of the scribe Bhai Gurdas.
Gurdas, a scribe of the Gurū Granth Sahib, also wrote about Nanak’s life in his vārs. Although these too were compiled some time after Nanak’s time, they are less detailed than the Janamsākhīs. The Janamsākhīs recount in minute detail the circumstances of the birth of the guru.
Rai Bular, the local landlord and Nanak’s sister Bibi Nanaki were the first people who recognised divine qualities in the boy. They encouraged and supported him to study and travel. Sikh tradition states that at around 1499, at the age of 30, he had a vision. After he failed to return from his ablutions, his clothes were found on the bank of a local stream called the Kali Bein. The townspeople assumed he had drowned in the river; Daulat Khan had the river dragged, but no body was found. Three days after disappearing, Nanak reappeared, staying silent.
The next day, he spoke to pronounce:
“There is neither Hindu nor Mussulman (Muslim), but only man. So whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God’s path. God is neither Hindu nor Mussulman and the path which I follow is God’s.”
Nanak’s teachings can be found in the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib, as a collection of verses recorded in Gurmukhi.
There are two competing theories on Guru Nanak’s teachings. One, according to Cole and Sambhi, is based on hagiographical Janamsakhis, and states that Nanak’s teachings and Sikhism were a revelation from God, and not a social protest movement nor any attempt to reconcile Hinduism and Islam in the 15th century. The other states, Nanak was a Guru. According to Singha, “Sikhism does not subscribe to the theory of incarnation or the concept of prophethood. But it has a pivotal concept of Guru. He is not an incarnation of God, not even a prophet. He is an illumined soul.”
Nanak was raised in a Hindu family and belonged to the Bhakti Sant tradition.Scholars state that in its origins, Guru Nanak and Sikhism were influenced by the nirguni (formless God) tradition of Bhakti movement in medieval India. However, Sikhism was not simply an extension of the Bhakti movement.Sikhism, for instance, disagreed with some views of Bhakti saints Kabir and Ravidas.
The roots of the Sikh tradition are, states Louis Fenech, perhaps in the Sant-tradition of India whose ideology grew to become the Bhakti tradition. Furthermore, adds Fenech, “Indic mythology permeates the Sikh sacred canon, the Guru Granth Sahib and the secondary canon, the Dasam Granth and adds delicate nuance and substance to the sacred symbolic universe of the Sikhs of today and of their past ancestors”.
Although the exact account of his itinerary is disputed, he is widely acknowledged to have made four major journeys, spanning thousands of kilometres and thirty years, the first tour being east towards Bengal , Assam and Manipur, the second south towards Sri Lanka, the third north towards Kashmir, Ladakh, Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh and the final tour west towards Baghdad, Mecca and Medina on the Arabian Peninsula.
Nanak appointed Bhai Lehna as the successor Guru, renaming him as Guru Angad, meaning “one’s very own” or “part of you”. Shortly after proclaiming Bhai Lehna as his successor, Guru Nanak died on 22 September 1539 in Kartarpur, at the age of 70.