Note: This article was originally published on July 13, 2019 and is being republished on November 30, 2020 on the occasion of Gurupurab.
The five centuries that have elapsed since the time that Guru Nanak walked on this earth are but a blink of an eye in the history of mankind. Contemporaneous events are well known; men who lived at that time are well remembered. If we speak of him in Delhi today, a few miles away lie the Lodhi tombs – still fresh reminders of the dynasty that ruled Hindustan when Baba Nanak was living.
Not far away from these tombs is the tomb of Humayun, who was struggling to save his fledgeling empire when Guru Nanak left his mortal confines. Humayun’s father, Babur, had usurped the power of the Lodhis during Nanak’s lifetime. In fact, if you look further south in Delhi, the Qutub Minar, which once dominated the skyline, predates Nanak’s birth by more than two centuries.
Events that happened in other parts of the world at the same time are, somewhat ironically, even more current in our imagination: Christopher Columbus, in search of fabled India, stumbled upon the new world; Vasco da Gama found the route to India; Magellan completed the first voyage around the world. Corpus Christi college, which still stands at Oxford, was started and Martin Luther took up the challenge of reformation in Germany.
Within 50 years of Guru Nanak’s passing, William Shakespeare would start writing his plays.
The point is that we are not here dealing with one of the ancients, lost in the mists of centuries and remembered only through hearsay and myth. Guru Nanak, one of the greatest spiritual teachers, philosopher and poet and the founder of India’s youngest major religion, is young in human memory.
His impact is recent; his message is fresh and relevant.
What makes it sound more remote at times than some of the other events and personalities I mentioned earlier is the lack of precise historical detail of his life. There are hardly any direct available records of events of his life, no exact itineraries of his incredible travels, no eyewitness accounts by those who met him. Nanak’s own writings contain virtually no biographical details with the possible exception of Babur’s invasion.
He saw himself only as a messenger, sent by an act of providence, transmitting the received divine word from the supreme reality to men. A detailed account of his own life would have belied this belief. Bhai Gurdas’s vars written some decades after Nanak’s passing, do contain some biographical detail, including of his travels. For the rest, we have to depend on the janamsakhis, also written decades after his death – and there are several cycles of these with their own differences.
Nevertheless, the actual events about Guru Nanak’s lifetime and the debates of what happened and what did not, recede into the background when one understands and absorbs the message contained in his writings – nearly 1,000 hymns contained in the Guru Granth Sahib – superb poetry set to divine classical music. His writings bring us immediately close to a tremendous intellect, a deep philosopher, a phenomenal poet and a spiritual master.
To try and encapsulate the philosophy and legacy of Guru Nanak in one talk or article is an overly ambitious task and one that is bound to come short.
For my purpose, I would like to focus on two aspects of his life and teachings as defined by his extensive travels and his later years at Kartarpur as a householder.
Guru Nanak is said to have spent more than 20 years (historian Hari Ram Gupta puts this at 25 years from 1496 to 1521) on the road, carrying out the mission that he was charged with – to spread the ultimate truth and put mankind on the path to salvation.
In the process, these travels gave him an opportunity to observe the workings of the religions of the day in actual practice and to debate and discuss these matters of the spirit with sages and seers. Also, it gave him an opportunity to be present on the spot and dispel ignorance and blind superstition of which there was no dearth in that age:
Bhai Gurdas wrote:
Dithe hindu turaki sabhi pir paikambari kaumi katele
Andhi andhe khuhe thele
(I saw Hindus and Muslims, holy men of all kinds/ The blind were pushing the blind into a well)
In the days when there were no fast or sophisticated means of travel, Nanak undertook four long journeys, called udasis, signifying detachment. Scholars have laid out detailed routes, even maps showing these journeys but these are I believe based not on any concrete evidence but on the janamsakhi references to various places and the commonly used routes of the day.
It is believed he travelled as far as Assam in the east, present-day Sri Lanka in the south, Mount Kailash in the north and Mecca-Medina in the west. Some accounts take Nanak even further afield, right up to Turkey, but there is no confirmation. His mission took him to snowy heights and across burning deserts, through little villages and mighty capitals, among the ordinary as well as learned, to fairs, festivals, to temples, mosques and khanqahs.
There is no geographical order in the janamsakhi accounts of Guru Nanak’s travels, nor is there any great uniformity in regard to the number of udasis or the places visited. But the immensity of the undertaking is confirmed by the poetic vision of Bhai Gurdas:
Babe tare char chak/nau khand prithvi sacha dhoa.
(The Baba traversed the nine regions of the earth, as far as the land stretched.)
Today gurudwaras and shrines mark Nanak’s travels to these far-flung places; local legends and well-preserved impressions of his sandals further establish the fact that Guru Nanak indeed travelled extensively. Some other things we know for certain, including from Bhai Gurdas – Nanak was accompanied by Mardana on his travels, who carried and played the rabab, and also became an interesting protagonist of the many sakhis that are attached to these travels. One cycle of janamsakhis and several illustrations show Bhai Bala, but that is not borne out by other sources.
According to some sources, Guru Nanak dressed in strange clothes that could not be identified with any sect and symbolised the universality of his message. He wore a loose long shirt of a Muslim dervish but of brownish-red colour of the Hindu sanyasi. Around his waist he wore a white cloth belt like a fakir. A short turban partly covered a qalandar’s conical cap in the manner of sufi wanderers. His slippers were often of two different colours and design.
Sometimes it is said he wore a garland of human bones around his neck. On his journey west that took him to Mecca, he wore a shirt that was blue, donned a cap over his head, held a staff, with a holy book under his arm and an earthen goblet and prayer mat slung over his shoulder. On the journey north, he is believed to have worn leather on his feet and wound a rope around his body in view of extreme weather.
As Bhai Gurdas wrote:
Babe bhek banaia udasi ki riti chalai
Charhia sodhan dharth lukai
(The Baba donned robes, and in the tradition of detachment
Went out to put humanity on the right path)
Many are the stories contained in the janamsakhis about how Nanak brought home his message during these udasis. His purpose was to dispel the ignorance that he saw all around him. The constraints of time allow us only to touch on a few. I would choose these simply because they seem to best illustrate the nature of debate and discourse that Nanak had with the representatives of various religions and because they are my personal favourites.
Somewhere during their first udasi, Guru Nanak and Mardana reached the Jagganath temple in Puri in Odisha. This temple is known for its annual procession when the idol is mounted on a huge chariot and the multitudes that gather vie with each other for the privilege of pulling the chariot.
It is an inexorable sea of humanity that moves with this idol, a phenomenon that gave the word ‘juggernaut’ to the English language. Here is one version of what happened there: When Guru Nanak and Mardana camped near the temple, their hymns and music attracted several devotees on their way to them temple, annoying the priests. One day the chief priest came to Nanak and invited him to join the aarti or the evening prayer in the temple and Guru Nanak readily accompanied him.
It was a beautiful ceremony, conducted at dusk. The priest placed earthen lamps filled with ghee on a bejewelled salver decorated with flower petals and sweet incense. They lit the wicks and swung the salver pendulum in front of the image while the congregation sang hymns, blew conches and tolled the bells.
Nanak sat unmoved through the ceremony, and when the priests expressed their anger and surprise, he responded with a song now part of the Granth Sahib. The song describes the celestial aarti in which the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars, the wind, the forests, and the unstruck music pay obeisance to the great Creator. This according to the Nanak was the true aarti that could be offered to God:
The sky the salver, the sun and moon the lamps,
The stars studding the heavens are the pearls
The fragrance of sandal is the incense
Fanned by the winds, all for thee
The great forests are the flowers
What a beautiful aarti is being performed
For you, O destroyer of fear.
The Jagganath temple visit is also important for the meeting between Nanak and the Bengal reformer Chaitanya Mahaprabhu – it is recorded that they talked to each other and sang hymns together. Also, it is known that Debendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore listened to the aarti being sung at the Harmandir Sahib, was deeply moved by it and included the aarti in the Bangla script in his autobiography.
The third udasi of Guru Nanak was to the north. He travelled widely in the Himalayas and several scholars have constructed possible routes that he could have taken, based on the local traditions still extant in the mountains and the gurudwaras founded down the centuries.
Legend has traced his steps to Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, Ladakh and even Nepal and Tibet. Many of you may have been to Pathar sahib in Ladakh, which has an impression of Nanak’s back and there is an impression of his sandals in Kathmandu. I remember Bhutanese pilgrims coming to Rewalsar and referring to “Lama Nanak”.
The central event of this northern udasi is the visit to Mount Sumer, recorded in all the janamsakhis and also by Bhai Gurdas – Mount Sumer is said to none other than Mount Kailash, the abode of Shiv and Parvati. There on Mount Kailash and the crystal-clear waters of Mansarovar, the source of the Sutlej, and Rakas Tal is based the meeting of Nanak with 84 siddhas, among them the ancient Goraknath, Machendranath and Charpat Nath, or perhaps the successors of these famous ancient souls, who had meditated long and deep and possessed great power and wisdom.
In Bhai Gurdas’s version of the meeting, the siddhas express amazement at seeing Nanak: “O youthful one! What power brings you to these heights? Who is that you worship?”
And Guru Nanak replied: “the eternal Lord alone.”
The Siddhas ask him how the world below was faring. Guru Nanak made no secret of what he felt. He told them that darkness, sin and injustice had taken over the world. Corruption was rampant; the fence itself had begun to eat the crop.
Sidh chhapi baithe parabati kaunu jagat kau par utara
(The wise siddhas had escaped into the remote caves and mountains – who would then redeem the world?)
The siddhas then argued that it was not possible to be part of the world and follow the path of meditation and spirituality. Nanak replied that one had to be as a lotus in the water that remains dry. Or the duck that stays dry even as it goes against the current. One had to be part of the world and yet be unaffected by it through meditation on His Name.
From the fourth udasi to the west and to Islamic countries, the visit to Mecca is well known. So I will talk a bit about the visit to Baghdad, also mentioned by Bhai Gurdas.
Phir Baba gaia Baghdad no bahari kia Asthana
Ik baba akal rupu duja rababi mardana
(Then Baba went to Baghdad and camped outside the city
He himself one with the Timeless, and his rabab player Mardana)
Baghdad was then a great centre of Islamic learning, art and culture. On the outskirts of the great city, in a graveyard, Mardana strummed the strings of his rabab in holy melody and Nanak sang holy hymns. When this was reported to the Pir-e-dastgir of Baghdad as being against the teachings of Islam, he came out to meet Nanak and inquired:
Puchhia phirikai Dastgir kaun phakir kis ka ghariana
(What faith do you belong to, and what sect of fakirs he came from)
Nanak kal vich aia rab phakir iko pahichana
Dharth akash chahudis jana
(Nanak has come to this world in kalyug – he has rejected all fakirs except the supreme being, who is all pervasive – in the heavens, the earth and all four directions.)
During his stay in Baghdad, the Guru also met another pir known as Bahlol who had several discourses with him. Finally, Bahlol and his son became followers of Nanak, who then stayed there for about four months. A shrine in Baghdad, also known as the tomb of Bahlol marks the visit of Guru Nanak and his association with Bahlol. There is a beautiful poem by Swami Anand Acharya, an itinerant Hindu monk who wrote it after visiting the legendary place of the meeting. To quote just a couple of verses from it:
What peace from Himalaya’s lonely
Caves and forests thou didst carry
To the vine groves and rose gardens
What light from Badrinath’s snowy
Peak thou didst bear to illumine
The heart of Bahlol, thy saintly
Eight fortnights Balol hearkened to
Thy words on life and the Path
And Spring Eternal, while the moon
Waxed and waned in the pomegranate grove
Beside the grassy desert of the dead…
The Kartarpur years
Finally, after more than twenty years of crisscrossing the land in all directions, it was time to go home, to Kartarpur on the banks of the Ravi. Guru Nanak shed his travelling garb and adopted the dress of a simple householder and farmer.
Phiri baba aia kartarpur bhekh udasi sagal utara
Pahiri sansari kapde manji baith kia avatara
(Then Baba returned to Kartarpur and discarded the wanderer’s robe
He donned the clothes of a householder and changed to that role)
During his travels, he had met and talked to all kinds of people and dispelled the forces of darkness, the mists of superstition and the chains of ritual. He had spread far and wide his message of true love, equality and compassion, truth and truthful living. He had explained through his discourses the all-pervasive, timeless nature of the Creator.
Now it was time to show in practical terms that renunciation and asceticism were not the answer to life’s challenge. True religious discipline had to be forged while living in the world, amidst all its challenges and temptations, troubles and joys. The spirit of affirmation is an essential aspect of the Guru’s teachings. The world that is real has to be accepted as a reflection of divine purpose. He supported institutions such as marriage, family and society and brought them within the ambit of religion.
In Kartarpur, Nanak occupied himself with vigorous work in the fields. He also wrote down many of the hymns he had already sung elsewhere, including the Japuji. A community began to gather around him at Kartarpur and grew steadily. Men of all callings and faiths – householders and ascetics, destitute mendicants and wealthy merchants, Brahmins and dervishes, Hindus and Muslims came there drawn by this message of piety and humanity.
In the words of Professor Puran Singh, Guru Nanak “radiated love and faith and attracted people like light attracts moths.” This was not a monastic order that was being built up but a fellowship of ordinary men engaged in ordinary occupations of life- farmers, artisans, traders and those who were considered members of the lower professions. They had forsworn previous allegiances and had taken Guru Nanak as their guide and teacher.
Kartarpur also saw the establishment of the dharamsal – or place of worship which would later adopt the name of gurudwara when the Granth Sahib, then accorded the status of a Guru by the tenth Guru was placed in it. Bhai Gurdas says:
Dharamsal kartarpur sadhsangati sach khand vasaia
Vahguru Gur shabad sunaiya
(The dharamsal at Kartarpur was inhabited by the holy congregation as heaven itself and the word of God was given by the Guru to the people)
In fact, the metaphor of the dharamsal is also used to show that Guru Nanak had wrested religion back from the priestly classes -who had because of their vested interests made it moribund and ritualistic – and restored it to the householder. In Bhai Gurdas’s words :
Ghar Ghar andar dharamsal, hove kirtan sada visoa
(every home has become a place of worship
where the singing of hymns has become a daily liturgy)
A number of other important traditions were started at Kartarpur, in particular, the traditions of kirtan and langar – or in other words – sangat and pangat. The kirtan included the singing of the Japuji and Asa di var in the mornings and the Sodar in the evening, as well as the Sohila before retiring. The singing in a sangat or congregation of these compositions in praise of the divine induces a mood of contemplation of God’s name – as anybody who has listened to an inspired kirtan session will testify.
These hymns were received wisdom through the agency of the Guru. Sangat had a social implication as well – the creation of a brotherhood or fraternity. A member of the sangat was known as bhai or brother. The sangat brought together men not just in spiritual pursuit but also in worldly affairs, forging a community of purpose as well as of action, based on mutual equality and brotherhood. The disciples mixed together without consideration of caste or status.
Bhai Gurdas mentions the names of the leading Sikhs of the time even mentioning some castes or profession – among the disciples mentioned are Mardana and Daulat Khan Lodhi – both Muslims, Bura or Bhai Budda – a jat of the Randhawa caste, also Ajita Randhawa, Phiran a khaira jat, Malo and Mango who were musicians, and several others of different castes – the sangat was thus a melting pot for the high and the low.
The langar or the community kitchen where the rich and the poor sat down in a pangat to eat the same food irrespective of caste or social standing or rank. A key element of this restructuring of the religious and social life was the spirit of seva or voluntary service – something that the Sikh panth is known the world over for today. This way the langar was different from the soup kitchens run in sufi khanqahs – those were meant as alm-houses but langar turned this practice into a positive and active brotherhood.
The years that Nanak spent as a householder after his travels, and of course also between his travels, were a demonstration of his belief in practical virtue rather than abstract piety. The lessons to the community of followers were kirt karo – do work; nam japo – meditate on His Name; vand chhako – share in charity.
The society at Kartarpur thus became a precursor of historical Sikhism. Caste, icon-worship and empty ritual were its main rejections and its mainstay was a fervent faith in the Divine, ethical living and a full affirmation of life and creation.
Its ideals of fraternity and brotherhood in sangat and pangat as well as of service and the recitation of bani would prove to be essential elements of self-identity, established in Guru Nanak’s time itself and further crystallised by his successors. Ultimately, they would come to full flower under Guru Gobind Singh through the formation of the Khalsa.
Adapted from the text of the speech delivered by Navtej Sarna at Bhai Vir Singh Sadan on March 29, 2019.
Navtej Sarna is a diplomat and former Indian Ambassador to the US, and the author of The Exile and We Weren’t Lovers Like That. He has previously served as the High Commissioner of India to the UK and the Ambassador to Israel.