NĀNAK, GURŪ (Srī Gurū Nānak Dev), founder of Sikh religion and the first of a succession of ten Gurūs or prophet-teachers and disseminator of the divine intimations vouchsafed to him and who became the source of a powerful current of spiritual and social renewal and regeneration, was born on Baisākh sudī 3, 1526 Bk/ 15 April 1469. This is what modern research has tended to establish although by custom his birthday is celebrated world-wide on the full-moon day in the month of Kārtik, October-November. Gurū Nānak was born at Rāi Bhoi Kī Talvaṇḍī, now called Nankāṇā Sāhib, 65 km southwest of Lahore in Pakistan. His father, Kaliāṇ Chand, more commonly known as Mahitā Kālū, belonged to the Bedī clan of Kshatriya Hindus. He was a paṭvārī, i.e. village accountant, in the service of Rāi Bulār, the local Muslim chief, and also had a few acres of his own on which he raised cattle. According to the Janam Sākhīs, traditional accounts of Gurū Nānak's life, the birth of the child was attended by prodigies and prophecies of his coming greatness. The village priest, Hardyāl, was sent for to cast his horoscope. The paṇḍit spoke very auspicious words about the child. He prophesied that he would not only be an adorer of God, but lead many others to Him. Two themes run prominently in the stories of his childhood and youth.
Nānak was a precocious child who at the age of five asked questions about the purpose of life, and who, when sent to a paṇḍit to learn the alphabet, surprised his teacher by composing an acrostic poem with a deeply philosophical and mystic import. On the other hand, he is pictured as a dreamy child often indifferent to his studies and inattentive to everyday duties. His loving parents and sister were delighted to learn about his brilliance, but concerned by his laxness in the tasks of daily life. He let the cattle entrusted to his care wander into a farmer's field and trample his crop. Money given him for business was distributed to the poor or to wandering ascetics. Starting in childhood and throughout his life there are reports of Gurū Nānak's seeking the company — of Hindu and Muslim holy men. From an early age he was in continuing dialogue with the religious traditions and teachers of his time. He did not settle for the routine observance of rituals and rules.
The family grew anxious that Nānak was emotionally or physically ill. Kālū summoned Hardās, the physician, who examined the seemingly obdurate youth. The physician concluded that he had no need of healing, but was set for the healing of many. An invitation came from his sister Nānakī and her husband Jai Rām for him to stay with them in Sultānpur. Despite the sorrow of Mother Triptā at the departure of her son, there was hope that this new setting would energize Gurū Nānak to practical life. Nānak gained employment as the keeper of the modīkhānā, government storehouse, in Sultānpur, from Nawāb Daulat Khān Lodhī. He fulfilled his duties and won the admiration of everyone for his diligence. He gathered a group of disciples for the worship of the one God and meditation on the divine Name. A Muslim minstrel, Mardānā, companion of his childhood days, joined him at Sultānpur, where they organized the singing of hymns, the sharing of a common meal, and urging people to a life of simplicity and righteousness.
One day Gurū Nānak failed to appear for work following his early morning ablutions in the River Beīṅ which flowed past the town of Sultānpur. He had been missing for three days and nights, and it was feared that he had drowned. Rapt contemplation of God had brought him to an intimate communion with the Divine. He seemed to have received a call to go forth into the wider world to preach the vision vouchsafed to him. The Purātan Janam Sākhī describes this mystical experience in terms of a direct encounter with the Divine; also, Bhāī Gurdās who says, Vārāṅ,I. 24, that Gurū Nānak was invested with his commission in Sach Khaṇḍ, the Abode of the Eternal One.
The first words Gurū Nānak uttered on reappearance were: "There is no Hindu, there is no Musalmān." He announced to the world the good news of life lived in communion with the one God who is beyond the religious divisions created by human kind. He was now thirty years of age. He was already married to Sulakkhaṇī, daughter of Mūl Chand Choṇā of Baṭālā (Bhādoṅ sūdī 7, 1544 Bk/24 September 1487) and was the father of two sons, Srī Chand (b. 1494) and Lakhmī Dās (b. 1497). Leaving his family behind and taking Mardānā with him as his sole companion, he left Sultānpur for twenty years of travelling.
It is difficult to establish an exact itinerary of Gurū Nānak's travels. Customarily they are grouped into four lengthy journeys (udāsīs), to the east, south, north, and west. At the end of each, he returned to the Punjab. While his travels took him also to many obscure hamlets, Gurū Nānak travelled as well to the centres of religious pilgrimage. His dialogue with paṇḍits, sādhūs, and yogīs of every sect, as with mūllas, pīrs, and qādīs, was not that of an uncommitted seeker, but that of a teacher. As the Janam Sākhīs report, Gurū Nānak possessed uncanny powers which he used to challenge the religious leaders of his time. In word and deed he proclaimed a new vision of the one God whose power goes beyond the names and forms used by humankind. He visited the places of pilgrimage at Kurukshetra, Mathurā, Haridvār, Banāras, Gayā, as well as those in Bengal, Assam and Ceylon (Srī Lanka). He visited the Sūfī establishments at Pāk Paṭṭan and Multān and shrine sites along the west coast of India.
He travelled beyond India in the west to Mecca, Medina, and Baghdād. There are accounts of still further travels to the east, to Tibet and China. There are legends of travel to mythical places such as Mount Sumeru, and discourses with teachers who had died in previous centuries. The common feature of the udāsī stories is their witness to the integrity of Gurū Nānak's vision of God. He wins over his opponents not simply by magical power or intellectual acumen, but by moral persuasion and the power of loving devotion. He was not a sectarian reformer attached to one community of faith or part of the world. He was preacher of the divine Reality transcending all particularities of race or clan. In the times of travel, he continued to have revealed to him religious verse that eventually entered the Ādi Granth. As he returned to the Punjab, he was ready to settle into the last twenty years of his life, a time of teaching, devotion and the establishment of a community. However, he and Mardānā were caught in the turmoil of the rising Mughal power at the sack of Saidpur in 1520. They were taken prisoner by Bābar but soon released after disclosure of the Gurū's spiritual powers.
Gurū Nānak's years of travelling ended around 1521 with the establishment of Kartārpur. A wealthy follower had donated land on the right bank of the River Rāvī for the village which became the centre of the newly forming Sikh community (panth). He had continued contacts with Nāth Yogīs and other spiritual teachers and engaged in debate with them. However, this was primarily 'a time of consolidation in which his religious verse was reduced to writing and the patterns of worship of the community established. Morning prayers commenced before sun-up with the singing of hymns, followed by a day of work that ended with hymns and prayers each evening. This discipline was extended to other communities as copies of his hymns became available to them. Each centre in turn had a leader to instruct newcomers. Gurū Nānak had not established a vast organization. Instead, he had developed a simple spiritual and moral discipline that had the capacity for reproducing itself. In this discipline and spirituality he established the dynamic that was to determine the future of Sikhism.
Bhāī Gurdās, poet and a near-contemporary, characterizes in a picturesque stanza the role of Gurū Nānak as a teacher:
As Gurū Nānak made his appearance in the world,
There was light everywhere,
As when the sun rises
The stars vanish and darkness retreats,
Or as when the lion roars
The deer flee in panic.
Wheresoever the Gurū set his foot,
That spot became sanctified.
Spots once sacred to the Siddhas
Do celebrate Nānak now.
Every home is turned into a Dharamsālā.
And every day into a festival of praise to the Divine.
By manifesting the Eternal Name,
The Gurū redeemed all the four corners and all the nine realms of the earth.
God's own witness had appeared in the Kali age
(Vārāṅ, I. 27)
This appraisal of Gurū Nānak and his work was recorded about sixty years after his death. Its basic notions, however, must have been in formation for some time before they found such reverberating expression. The writer was both a poet and a scholar. Apart from his capacity for imaginative recreation, he could formulate intellectually. He interpreted and conceptualized aspects of the developing faith in a manner both original and authentic. He was a close associate and disciple of Gurū Arjan and wrote in his time — Gurū Arjan who in direct spiritual descent was Nānak himself, Nānak V. Yet the memory of Gurū Nānak and his teaching remained powerfully effective and this Bhāī Gurdās captured eloquently in his verse.
Manifest in the imagery of the lines quoted is the apprehension of the Gurū as a redeemer. His appearance in the world was an act of providence. The truth he enunciated dispelled ignorance and sin. He wandered abroad preaching. Places of worship were set up where he visited. Faith was restored to the householder. His home became his temple where he practised prayer and adoration. The Gurū's message was meant for all mankind. The purpose of his coming in the Kali age, the least pious of the classical time-cycles, was to demonstrate the way of God. This sense of the transcendental and universal character of Gurū Nānak's prophecy dominated Bhāī Gurdās' insight. It was present among the Gurū's immediate followers. This is how the writers of Janam Sākhīs had understood him and this is what they attempted to convey in their own style mixing myth, legend and history together. This style was the way of men of that time to say that they had encountered a charismatic being whose presence and words had revolutionized their world. The order of nature was reversed and so were the lives of many men. The crushed fields grew thick with grain, the murderous criminal turned a saint, the boiling cauldron was cooled. The very fact that myth and miracle were used becomes in this sense a historical datum. This evidence is relevant to understanding Gurū Nānak and finding the true measure of his genius.
In addition to the poetical testimony of Bhāī Gurdās, the stories transmitted by the Janam Sākhīs and the living tradition which goes back half a millennium, there is the Gurū's own word preserved in the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Running through this entire body of verse is one clear note of witness to the will and being of God. To this theme he was wholly committed. From this commitment arose his unbounded love, his deep compassion and active concern for the welfare of man. His compositions are devoted to musings upon the Creator and His attributes, to singing His greatness, to depicting his own lyrical realization of Him and to identifying the prevalent inequalities and injustices which he regarded as wrongs against His order. In all this he speaks as a witness to revelation. He has seen or heard something of God to which he calls the attention of men. "As the Lord sendeth His word so do I deliver it," reads one of his verses. Another,"Nānak proclaimeth the truth of the Eternal" or, "I communicated only the command from above." Again, "I spoke only what Thou made me to speak." It is clear that Gurū Nānak believed himself to be performing a divinely appointed commission. All that follows for him-his travels, his disciples, his discourses with the Sūfīs and the Siddhas, the learned and the law-givers, his teaching of the mighty and the humble, his redeeming of the sick and the sinful, his perception of the tragic and the comic in the situations he encountered, his founding of Kartārpur, his laying down the rules of fraternal living, his creation of the laṅgar and the holy fellowship (saṅgat), his song and his poetry—spring from this awareness.
Bhāī Gurdās portrays the advent of the redeemer in the setting of a corrupted society. "The Merciful Master," he says, " heard the wail of the earth and sent down Gurū Nānak." How does he portray the scene into which the Gurū came: "There prevailed much ill will in the world. Men had become split into four castes. They measured their lives into four separate āshramas, or stages. The sannyāsīs had their own ten denominations, the yogīs their twelve different paths. So were the Jains divided into sects, continually in mutual conflict. The Brāhmaṇs set the Vedas, Shāstras and Purāṇas one against another. The expounders of the six schools of philosophy created many discords and gave rise to much dissimulation. The people paid court to spells and incantations, to alchemy and thaumaturgy. From one God they had made many, and carved countless well wrought and not-so-well wrought forms in stone and wood. All were lost in superstitiousness."
"As there were castes among the Hindus, so there were sects among the Muslims. Useless conflicts prevailed among them. The Ganges and Benares were sacred to the Hindus and Mecca and Kaabā to the Muslims. For Hindus religion meant the holy cord and the forehead mark, for Muslims circumcision. Rām and Rahīm were the same One God; yet two divergent courses were drawn from Him. The Hindus neglected the teachings of their books, Muslims those of their scripture. Both had succumbed to worldly temptation. The Brāhmaṇs and the Mullās squabbled endlessly and the truth was passed by. None ever gained liberation thus."
Bhāī Gurdās' description stresses the point that religious life at the time of Gurū Nānak had become concerned with mere externals. Form took precedence. Outward observance was established as an end in itself. The reality of faith was lost in the superstition which dominated men's lives. Discords made in the name of religion disrupted and devitalized society. For the common man, be he Hindu or Muslim, faith was centred in external authority and was expressed in conventional ceremony and ritual. For the Hindu community religious authority rested in the Brāhmaṇs as a class. What was required of the common man was the performance of practices laid down for his caste. To this he gave unquestioned obedience. For the Muslim, faith was anchored in the authority of the 'ulemā who interpreted for him his duty. This dominance of religion by authoritarian, ritualistic and morally indifferent formalism was a phenomenon then common to both East and West. Also common to both was the beginning of a criticism of it and a search for an inner, personal faith. Just as Western Christendom was being awakened to new vitality by the preaching of Martin Luther and John Calvin, in India an impulse for reconstruction issued from the teaching of Gurū Nānak. There is no historical link between the great leaders of the age of reform in these mutually remote areas of the world, yet illuminating parallels are seen in the way the two movements originated and in the motives that inspired them. There was a common criticism of superstition and idolatry, of false teaching and ritual. Faith was declared by reformers in East and West as man's personal relationship to Gad. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were what the philosopher Karl Jaspers would characterize as an "Axial Era" in human history. It was a time in which the human spirit felt stirred to find anew the authentic in religion. In this age of turning, Gurū Nānak was to light the way into the future for the religions of India.
Just as important as his attestation of the eternal verities was Gurū Nānak's role in reformation. Earlier Hindu Bhaktas and Muslim Sūfīs had proclaimed the ideal of purity of devotion as well as of conduct and indicated the way to religious reconciliation and regeneration. But it was Gurū Nānak who created the means for realizing in a practical way the potential of these developments. In his intuition spiritual and temporal claims were wrought into a single focus and he presented an integrated and substantive view of human destiny. He questioned more effectively the current assumptions and values and, in the mode he had established, life seemed to swing from its old ways into new. To quote Joseph Davey Cunningham, an early historian of Sikhism:
In the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Hindu mind was no longer stagnant or retrogressive; it had been leavened with Muhammadanism, and changed and quickened for a new development. Ramanand and Gorakh had preached religious equality, and Chaitan had repeated that faith levelled caste. Kabir had denounced images, and appealed to the people in their own tongue, and Vallabh had taught that effectual devotion was compatible with the ordinary duties of the world. But these good and able men appear to have been so impressed with the nothingness of this life, that they deemed the amelioration of man's social condition to be unworthy of a thought. They aimed chiefly at emancipation from priestcraft, or from the grossness of idolatry and polytheism. They formed pious associations of contented Quietists, or they gave themselves up to the contemplation of futurity in the hope of approaching bliss, rather than calling upon their fellow creatures to throw aside every social as well as religious trammel, and to arise a new people freed from the debasing corruption of ages. They perfected forms of dissent rather than planted the germs of nations, and their sects remain to this day as they left them. It was reserved for Nanak to perceive the true principle of reform, and to lay those broad foundations which enabled his successor Gobind to fire the minds of his countrymen with a new nationality, and to give practical effect to the doctrine that the lowest is equal with the highest, in race as in creed, in political rights as in religious hopes.
One conspicuous mark of Gurū Nānak's teaching was its spirit of affirmation. It took the world as real and embraced man's life in its various aspects. Withdrawal was considered the negation of faith. Contrary to the prevailing notion of piety, the emphasis was not on turning away from reality but on a willing, even joyous, acceptance of it. In one of his hymns Gurū Nānak said:
Real are your realms and real your universes.
Real are your worlds and real the created forms.
Real are your acts and real your purposes.
Real is your fiat and real your court.
Real is your order and real your word.
Real is your mercy and real your mark of grace.
Millions call upon you as True Reality.
Real is the energy you have created.
Real is your name and real your praise.
Real is your Nature, Eternal Sovereign.
Gurū Nānak thus proclaimed the world to be the creation of God, reflecting the divine being and divine purpose. By placing a positive value on the natural order, he brought worldly structures — the family, the social and economic systems — within the orbit of religious concern. Human life was considered an opportunity for an individual to develop personally by practising piety and by devoting himself to the service of his fellowmen thereby improving man's condition as a whole. "The body," said Gurū Nānak, "is the palace, the temple, the house of God: into it He has put His eternal light." The life of faith was not to lead men away from this world. The true man of faith did not retreat from the world, but
battled in open field,
with his mind perfectly in control
and with his heart poised in love,
all the time.
From this attitude of acceptance and affirmation was derived a keen concern for the actual life-situation of the day. Gurū Nānak displayed a highly developed awareness in treating of it. His compositions sketch a sensitive picture of the prevalent confusion and crisis. For this social criticism alone his work would be of remarkable relevance and significance. From the high-handedness of the kings to the injustices and inequalities which permeated the system, nothing was outside the scope of his contemplation. He frankly censured the State and held it responsible for many of the sins of the society in his time. He uncovered the moral decay that had set in under despotic rule. He showed how cant, hypocrisy and superstition passed under the name of religion, how people began aping the dress and language of their masters and how life in general was being drained of healthful and constructive impulses. For him the Brāhmaṇs and Mullās whose piety had been reduced to an effete, soulless routine, unjust qādīs and other state functionaries, empty customs and ritualism and institutions such as caste were the symbols of contemporary decadence and these became the subjects of his sarcasm. He disapproved of idolatry, polytheism and the attendant sacerdotalism and there was powerful exposure made in his hymns of the superstitions of the Hindu and the Muslim alike and of the formalism which dominated their religious practices. The invasion of the country by Bābar's armies roused his concern. He was appalled by the pusillanimity shown by the rulers of India in meeting the challenge. The śabdas he uttered on this theme are unexcelled for their power of expression and moral keenness. His poetry has important social meaning. Nowhere else in contemporary literature are the issues in the medieval Indian situation comprehended with such clarity or presented in tones of greater urgency.
Of the times in general Gurū Nānak said:
The times are like a drawn knife, the kings like butchers,
And righteousness hath fled on wings.
The dark night of falsehood prevaileth,
The moon of truth is nowhere visible.
Sin is the king and greed the minister, and falsehood their chief agent.
Lust is their constant counsellor.
The people are ignorant and supinely render fealty.
Priests dance and play music, make all kinds of masquerade,
And shriek and scream while singing balladry.
Fools pass for the learned, sophistry for wisdom,
And everyone seeks nothing but pelf.
Those who do good acts forfeit the merit,
by asking for deliverance as reward.
Some call themselves men of continence,
But they know not the way and in ignorance abandon their homes
Some perform the Hindu worship at home,
But they read the Qurān in public
And observe the code of the ruling Turks.
Oh! Give up the pretence, friends!!
They who eat men say regularly their nāmāz.
They who wear the sacred thread use knives to cut men's throats.
And they call priests to their homes to perform the rites of worship.
Modesty and honour are nowhere in sight,
Nānak, falsehood prevails everywhere.
They who put the sacred marks on their foreheads
And girt their waists with loincloth,
Become butchers for the world with knives in their hands.
To win the favour of the rulers they clad themselves in blue.
This sense of discontent with what he saw emerges through several of the Gurū's śabdas. It found expression repeatedly in his references to cruel and unjust monarchs, fawning, corrupt ministers and officials, pharisaical priests and leaders of religious sects. Neither did he condone the ascetics who disowned the world and in their despondent outlook became a burden to the community. He spoke often with humour more than anger. Yet his purpose was always clear. He had deep sympathy for the common mass of people and had a strong feeling of kinship with them. He said, "Lowly among the lowliest am I, the lowliest of all. I am with them and to them I belong. I envy not the mighty." Further on he proclaimed that "where the poor are owned there will God's grace be manifested." Any imposition on the people hurt him and excited his compassion. He protested against oppression of every kind . An open tragedy like the one that struck Saidpur was sure to move him profoundly. Yet there were in his response to it certain individual elements. He made the woes of the inhabitants of the unfortunate town his own and experienced in his heart the agony and sorrow of the moment. From this deep feeling issued poetry intensely human , vivid and meaningful, instinct with an artistic awareness of ironic fate. The pathetic imagery however was informed by a perceptive conscience. The incident was not treated as an isolated one, but placed in the larger social and historical perspective. Decline in moral standards must lead to chaos. A corrupt political system has in it the germs of its dissolution. Lure of power divides men and violence unresisted tends to flourish. It could not be wished away by magic or sorcery. The Gurū reiterates his faith in the Almighty and His justice. But so acute was his realization of the distress of the people that he could not resist making the complaint, "When there was such suffering, such killing, such shrieking in pain, did you not feel pity, O God? Creator, you are the same for all" (GG, 360) The people for him were the Indian people as a whole, Hindus and Muslims, the highcaste and the low-caste, soldiers and civilians, men and women.
In spite of some of the conciliatory trends, the Hindu-Muslim polarity was a persistent factor in the Indian life. Gurū Nānak had clearly seen beyond this and declared early in his career, "There is no Hindu and there is no Musalmān." All his teaching and work had been a substantiation of this statement. In his discerning appraisal of the total Indian situation in his time and in the practical way in which he addressed himself to some of the deeply rooted problems and shortcomings and to reshaping the social mores and bringing into play new elements, Gurū Nānak transcended the rather limited framework of other contemporary advocates of reform belonging mainly to the mystic orders in Hinduism and Islam.
Emphasis on equality and ethical conduct took precedence in Gurū Nānak's scheme of reform. The society in which he lived was torn with divisions. There were antagonistic religious communities each with its own sects and castes. There were classes condemned to perpetual subservience. No common point of appeal to the people as a whole existed. Gurū Nānak began by saying that one, Eternal and Infinite God was the creator of all things. All His creatures were equal before Him and to make distinctions among them was sinful. The designations of Hindu and Musalmān meant nothing to him. He pointed the way for people to look across these. "There is no Hindu and there is no Musalmān." All men were God's own creation. "Two ways are made out. But is not one God the master of all, Hindus and Muslims?" "False," he said, "is caste, and false the titled fame. One Supreme Lord sustains all." "Know men by their worth. Do not ask their caste. There is no caste in the next world." "Neither caste nor position will be recognized hereafter. They alone will be pronounced good whose merit is reckoned worthy of honour." "Neither caste nor birth will be enquired... As you act so will be your caste and your status."
Gurū Nānak was acutely conscious of the position of inferiority assigned to women. He had many bold and sympathetic words to say for them. Among his followers they were given full equality with men. In one of his śabdas, he said:
Of woman are we born, of woman conceived,
To woman engaged, to woman married.
Woman we befriend, by woman is the civilization continued.
When woman dies, woman is sought for. It is by woman that order is maintained.
Then why call her evil from whom are great men born?
From woman is woman born,
And without woman none should exist.
The eternal Lord is the only one, O Nānak,
Who depends not on woman.
The last couplet proclaims the Gurū's belief, repeatedly expressed in his hymns, that God is self-created and above the cycle of life and death.
Gurū Nānak discounted the houseless state and insisted that liberation was won in the world itself – “amid its laughter and sport, fineries and foods.” He firmly supported marriage and family. In the home alone could man fully realize his destiny. How should he conduct himself in the world? A symbolism frequently used is that of the lotus-flower which remains in the pond untouched by its impurities. Living thus “in the midst of wife and children one would,” said the Gurū, “gain liberation.” “By a life of service in this world alone will one become entitled to a seat in the next.” “There can be no love of God without service.”
Service, devotion and love were accounted as of real importance. "He who cherishes a sight of His gate, cares neither for liberation nor for heaven," said the Gurū. Practical virtue was made an essential ingredient of piety. "Truth is higher than everything else, but higher than truth is true living." For this life true and worthy there are no substitutes. "Outward forms", formulas, incantations, image-worship, esoteric observances, charities and pilgrimages do not avail. The giving of alms out of ill-gotten gains was commented upon thus: "If a thief robs a house and out of his booty gives away alms for the sake of his forefathers... they will be regarded as thieves and the go-between will have his hands chopped off. For that is justice" (GG, 472). So were renunciation, austerities and penances rejected. "Some worship stones, some go to visit places of pilgrimage and some take their abode in forests. They roam and they falter. How can one become pure until the mind is rid of contamination? He is honoured who achieves the truth." But "truth is not achieved by mere performance of prescribed acts." "Bathing in sacred pools will not help if one has not shed one's ego." "Nor will the sacred mark on the brow or the janeu profit." "Useless is worship without faith, restraints without truth and the sacred thread without self-control. You may wash and bathe and run the mark of your caste across your forehead. Yet purity will not be attained without pure conduct."
These were the words addressed to the Brāhmaṇ. To the Muhammadan the Gurū said, "It is not easy to be called a Musalmān. If there were one, let him be so known. He should first take to his heart the tenets of his faith and purge himself of all pride. He will be a Muslim who pursues the path shown by the founder of the creed, who extinguishes anxiety about life and death, who accepts the will of God as supreme, who has faith in the Creator and surrenders himself to the Almighty. When he has established his goodwill for all, O Nānak, will he be called a Musalmān" (GG,141). And to the yogī, "Religion lies not in the patched garment, nor in his staff, nor in besmearing the body with ashes. Religion lies not in suspending large rings from split ears, nor in shaving the head, nor in the blowing of horns. To live uncontaminated amid worldly temptations is to find the secret of religion. Religion lies not in empty words. He who regards all men as equal is truly religious. Religion lies not in wandering outside to tombs and places of cremation, nor in postures of contemplation. Religion lies not in roaming abroad, nor in bathing at places of pilgrimage. To live uncontaminated amid worldly temptations is to find the secret of religion" (GG, 30). Thus spoke Gurū Nānak to the Vaishnavite and the Shaivite, the tāntrist and the penitent, the sannyāsī and the dervish, the Bhakta and the Sūfī, the Paṇdit and the Mūllāh, the Jain and the Siddha. Through them he was speaking not only to the contemporary situation but to men of every age. His purpose was not to criticize any sect or order, but to call the attention of the people to the persistent fallacies which distorted the essential integrity of humanity. All the time he was asking them to press beyond rituals to recover the basis and motivation for truthful, moral action. He believed that "no one ever reached paradise by subscribing to mere forms. One secured release only by practising the truth."
Gurū Nānak stressed the futility of charms, spells and the many superstitious observances then widely current. Just as he was concerned to establish the true value of faith and the purity of religious practice, he sought to free the people's minds from the pervading sense of fear. He had spoken of the oppression by authority, political as well as ecclesiastical, and of social inequity. He also perceived the harmful effects of mental enslavement and wished to see the people outgrow their inertia and credulousness. He asked them to rid themselves of the influence of the sadhus and the faquirs. "Show no reverence," he said, "to those who call themselves gurūs and pīrs but go about begging for alms. They alone who live by their own labour and share the fruit with the others have found the right path " (GG,1245). He denounced belief in magic and mantras and the irrational notions of defilement by touch and impurity said to attach to occasions such as childbirth. Men were all equal and there was, according to him, no question of one born in a certain class being polluted by the touch of him born in another. He said:
If you believe in pollution at birth,
there is pollution everywhere.
There are creatures in cow-dung considered
sacred by Hindus, and in wood.
There is life in each grain of corn.
Water, the source of life and sap for all
things, has life within it.
Then how can one escape pollution?
Pollution pollutes only the ignorant.
The pollution of the mind is greed,
the pollution of the tongue lying.
The pollution of the eyes is to look with
covetousness upon another's wealth,
upon another's wife and upon the beauty
of another's woman.
The pollution of the ears is to listen to slander.
The pollution in which the people commonly believe is all superstition.
Birth and death are by divine will, by divine will men come and go.
What is given to us to eat and drink is pure.
They who have arrived upon the truth remain untouched by pollution.
Like birth, death was by God's will and, as such, not to be dreaded. "Death," said Gurū Nānak, "was the privilege of the brave" (579-80). Such language was unique in an age dominated by timidity and apprehensiveness. Death was not to be regarded as the unspeakable dread that crippled every moment of life, but as the portal by which men entered a new realm of God's wisdom and love. Many śabdas can be quoted from his compositions similar in tenor to some of the mystical poetry of that time, though in such hymns also the unique quality of his imaginative and aesthetic intuition will be easily distinguishable. But there are many more, singular in style and character. In understanding and analyzing the true nature of the Gurū's legacy the departures he registered have to be especially noted. Reference has been made to the ringing note of protest in his utterances and his social consciousness—characteristics in which he was distinctly in advance of his times. But he did not confine himself to decrying the evils of a decadent age. He not only recognized the prevailing woes and shortcomings, but also proceeded to set in motion a current of practical reform. If he said that all men are equal, he established the Gurū kā Laṅgar emphasizing in the common meal true fellowship and equality. To the saṅgats, or holy associations, which sprang up in the wake of his preaching, men and women were admitted without distinctions of caste and creed. To recall people from their indolence, resignation and masochistic self-depreciation, he taught them to put their trust in One Formless God, and make this faith the basis of a chaste and courageous living. Sevā, or the spirit of active love and service, was presented as the highest ideal. The seeker was expected to live in the world, engage himself in normal activity, never forswearing his moral obligation, and to become an active agent in promoting the social ends of the community. Kirat karnī, vaṇḍ chhakaṇā te nām japṇā, i.e., te earn one's living by honest labour, to share with others the fruit of one's exertion and to pursue the discipline of nām summed up the instruction of Gurū Nānak. It became the operative principle in the life of the community that grew around him.
All of Gurū Nānak's teaching is set forth in verse. His genius was best expressed in the poetical attitude. No other way would have been adequate to the range and depth of his mood —his fervent longing for the Infinite, his joy and wonder at the beauty and vastness of His creation, his tender love for his fellowmen, his moral speculation and his concern at the suppression and exaction to which the people in his day were subject. His compositions reveal an abounding imagination and a subtle aesthetic sensitivity. The language in which his hymns were composed was Punjabi — the common tongue of the people among whom he was born. This choice itself was significant. For the first time Punjabi was used extensively and consistently for literary expression of this order. The fact was illustrative of the process of resurgence which the regional languages all over India were then undergoing. The results for Punjabi were dramatic. From a spoken tongue it turned in Gurū Nānak's hands into a subtle medium of self-revelation. The creative energy it acquired from him informed its subsequent growth and continues to be a vital influence to this day.
Gurū Nānak treated the language with delicacy and innovation. The core of his vocabulary was the speech of the common man in the Punjab of his day. To this he brought fresh elements from his power of vivid imagery and from his vigorous observation and extensive experience of travel and contact with a variety of people. He freely drew upon the terminology of the Upanishads accessible to him through the Sant tradition, of the Yogīs, Siddhas and Sūfis. When he was addressing his words to a Muslim, he tended to depend more on Persian and Arabic. There are śabdas by him in Apabhraṅṣa and at least two in which Sanskrit predominates. Yet in the main body of his verse ingredients from diverse sources blend together and the impression is given of aptness and harmony. The most characteristic quality of his poetry is the eloquence of its symbolism and the down-to-earth, sinewy presence of its Punjabi vocabulary. Gurū Nānak's figures were taken from all different aspects of life in the Punjab — farming, the trades and the crafts, the ceremonial observed by various faiths and sects, conjugal life, hunting, music, dancing, games such as chess and chaupaṛ and the amusements of rope-dancers, acrobats, and mimics. He revealed a close familiarity with peasants, artisans, diverse characters in contemporary religious life, figures of Purāṇic mythology, birds and animals, flowers and trees, the state regalia, gradations of bureaucratic rank, bridal toilet, articles of luxury, and so on. In the imagery drawn from farming Gurū Nānak enunciates how truth might be reaped, "Make body the field, the mind the ploughman, honest labour the irrigating water. Sow the seed of the Lord's Name. Let contentment be.the leveller and humility the fence. With deeds of love the seed will fertilize" (GG, 595). And again, "If good actions be your farm and if you sow it with the seed of Divine Word and water it daily with truth, you would be a good farmer and reap the crop of faith. Then will you know the reality of Heaven and Hell." God has been called the farmer par excellence. Gurū Nānak designated himself as His bailiff. The world is to the Creator what clay-pots are to the potter. The four-fold division of the time-cycle has been compared to four sides of the chaupaṛ — board, creatures to chessmen. "The dice is cast by the Creator Himself. Beaten is his chessman who does not gain favour in the Lord's court. He never wins the board." A man devoid of God's remembrance is compared to a wall with sand inside it and a mind without peace to the forest-deer skipping out stealthily to nibble at young sprout. The fisherman's net ensnaring unsuspecting fish is the metaphor used to describe death. The guilty man who dissembles and bends low to show his humbleness is likened to a hunter who bows down to take aim at the deer.
The ravages caused by foreign invasions turned into telling imagic features in Gurū Nānak's apprehension and supplied some of the symbolism of his poetry. Describing how man is overwhelmed by the five enemies, i.e. lust, anger, greed, attachment and ego, he wrote, "They are five whereas I am alone. How shall I defend my house and property against them?... The citadel (body) was demolished, the temple inside was plundered and the lone woman (soul) was captured." In this simile are mirrored the scenes of destruction the country had witnessed repeatedly. Humorous observation was not foreign to Gurū Nānak's insight. This was in fact more in character with his genial and robust temperament. "Of little worth," reads a couplet, "is the cow without milk, the bird without wings, the vegetation without water, the king without salaam who is acknowledged by nobody" (GG, 354). Then, "He who imbibes not the Name will regret his coming into the world like a crow flying to a deserted house." Similarly, he who imbibes no virtue wastes away his life. "He looks in all four directions bewildered like a trader without merchandise." To quote another verse, " What is cold to a stone or home-life to a eunuch?"(GG, 143)
The underlying singleness of theme which inspired Gurū Nānak's verse led to some inevitable repetition. But it was rescued from plain uniformity by the variety of his language and imagery and by the variety and range of its metre. His creative impulse held its sublime level through extensive stretches of composition. No prosaic moralizing was permitted to stifle the ardour of his inspiration. In addition, there was variation in mood — from mystical and lyrical to philosophical and critical, from devotional and contemplative to aesthetic and sensuous. This was accompanied by an awareness of his role of poetic revelation. More than once in his compositions he referred to himself with the designation of poet. He revelled in this office. He was happiest singing the infiniteness of God and of the creation flowing from Him. He sang of the Divine both in His impersonal and personal aspects — as devoid of all attributes, formless and ineffable, standing over against the whole realm of becoming, and as Creator who makes himself known by his Word and acts in human lives through His grace. His yearning for Him, rendered often in the allegory of conjugal love, and his descriptions of nature have provided the Punjabi language with some of its literary masterpieces. This poetry contains one of the most intimate and magnificent expressions of faith in the Transcendent. It is a seriously given testament about God's existence and a sterling statement of a deeply experienced vision of Him. Yet underlying this is a spirit of utter humility and the consciousness that Reality was beyond limit and ultimately unknowable. In the Japu Gurū Nānak said:
There is no limit to the praises of Him that are being sung, no end to the ways
in which He is described.
There is no limit to what He does for us, and no end to what He gives.
There is no limit to what He sees, and no limit to what He hears.
None can divine the limit of His purposes,
None can know the limit of what He has
brought into being, and of the nature and size of all that exists.
Many yearn to discover His limit,
But His limit cannot be fixed.
None know the limit.
The more we say the greater He seems to become.
Great is the Lord, high His seat,
And higher than the highest His Name.
He that would know how high He is must first be as high as He is.
How great He is He alone knows.
What is given us is by His bounty and grace alone.
The natural beauty and sincerity of Gurū Nānak's song had a convincing power. This became an important element in his way of teaching. Another influential factor was music of which he made extensive use. Above all was the attraction of his own person. He lived among men with graciousness and humility. Few could resist his intensely human and sympathetic manner. The fame of his holy life was widely spread and drew towards him men from all sects and strata. He had an especially charming and spontaneous way with the crowds. He mixed with them freely and showed great presence of mind and courage in dealing with them. He could improvise gestures humorous and dramatic to provoke their observation and interest. Thus he won his audiences instantly. The teaching was indirect and incidental, never direct or by didactic discourse. A common method was the recitation of hymns of his own composition, accompanied by Mardānā on the rebeck. The power of his words and his self-effaced, deeply absorbed personality touched the hearts of men. His own pure example and the earnestness of his moral precepts awakened their conscience. For many this meant complete transformation of their lives. Gurū Nānak discountenanced miracles as a means of spreading his message. He declared that these supernatural or miraculous powers did not belong to the spiritual way of life: they "were extraneous matters altogether."
His teaching was addressed to all men. For this, or for any other purpose, he recognized no differences of caste, race or religion. He treated all sects and communities alike. He spoke to Hindus and Muslims, Siddhas and Sūfīs in the same tone. He attacked sterile ceremonial forms, but never any religious faith. In his spirit of tolerance and consideration towards the faiths of other men, Gurū Nānak showed a remarkably modern sensibility. His conception of reform in religion was liberal. It was broader than that of a Bhahtī teacher or a cultic reformer. He broke new ground in contemplating not only the removal of certain abuses, but, ultimately, the unity of religion. In calling upon Hindus to become better Hindus and upon Muslims to become better Muslims he was pointing towards a new religious culture.
It would, however, be wrong to picture him as undertaking a kind of syncretistic union between Hinduism and Islam. He was not striving to achieve a judicious mixture of elements from each that would be acceptable to all. His intention was more radical. He was seeking a new religious alternative beyond what was to be found in conventional Hindu or Islamic belief. This could be arrived at by penetrating more deeply into the basic core of ethical and spiritual truth in all the great religious traditions. It is the external and conventional shell of religion that divides men. Its essence unites. Gurū Nānak visualizes a humanity enriched by a moral faith large enough to embrace all, in which mankind is free of religious antagonisms because men's hearts and minds are grounded on the Real. The inner coherence and uniqueness of Gurū Nānak's teachings fulfil rather than deny those of other traditions and teachers.
Since Gurū Nānak's message is conveyed in poetical form, it does not have the coherence of a reasoned or systematic treatise. His genius was artistic rather than cerebral. Yet his poetry represents a striking intellectual discipline. His teachings emerge from his exalted hymns as an organic whole and any apparent contradictions disappear if they are studied together. In these influences can be traced reflections of earlier traditions. All great religions of the world had their precursors. Gautama and early Buddhism were preceded by the intellectual critics of Brahmanic orthodoxy and exponents of severe yogic asceticism. Jesus and primitive Christianity show the influence of Hebrew prophets, Essene sectarians and Rabbinic teachers. Similarly, Gurū Nānak was the product of his times and of the heritage that had come to him. But his originality, like that of the other great teachers, lies in his reassertion of the eternal truths and in what he made of his inheritance and what he created out of the matrix of his own personality.
To assure the community of his disciples a continuing witness to his teachings, Gurū Nānak appointed a successor. The succession of teachers and leaders was not to be dynastic, and thus he bypassed his own sons. A disciple was chosen and was made by the Gurū an equal with himself. He transmitted to him not only his responsibilities but, as the poets declared, his light as well. Gurū Nānak saw his successor in his own image and paid him the reverence due to the Gurū when he proclaimed his succession. This procedure was repeated successively over eight generations. The Sikh community thus has ten spiritual guides succeeding one another, who are regarded with equal adoration and honour. They were conscious witnesses to the presence of Gurū Nānak guiding the community that had developed under his care.
There is interesting contemporary testimony to the pervasive influence of Gurū Nānak among his followers as mediated through the other Gurūs. Sattā and Balvaṇḍ, the minstrels who recited the holy hymns for the Second Gurū, Aṅgad, thus sang in an ode which is preserved in the Gurū Granth Sāhib. "Gurū Nānak invested Lahiṇā with the mark of Gurūship... He, i.e. Gurū Aṅgad, had the same light, the same method; it is the Master who had changed his bodily frame." About the Third and Fourth Gurūs, Amar Dās and Rām Dās, they said, "The wise being, Gurū Nānak, descended in the form of Amar Dās.... The sect was astonished to see Nānak's canopy over Amar Dās' head. Gurū Amar Dās obtained the same throne, and the same court.... Hail, hail, Gurū Rām Dās! God who created you has decorated you.... You are Nānak; you are Lahiṇā you are Amar Dās" (GG, 966-68).
Bhāī Gurdās, in one of his stanzas, said, "In his lifetime Nānak installed Lahiṇā and conferred on him the regalia of Gurūship. Gurū Nānak turned himself into Aṅgad by transferring his light to him.... Aṅgad had the same mark, the same umbrella over his head and was seated on the same true throne as Gurū Nānak. The seal from Gurū Nānak's hand passed on to Gurū Aṅgad and thus was his sovereignty proclaimed... Lahiṇā obtained the gift from Nānak and to the house of Amar Dās it must descend." And, then, on to Rām Dās, Arjan and Hargobind. "Arjan," says Bhāī Gurdās, "transformed himself into Hargobind and chiselled his own image upon him" (Vārāṅ, I. 45-48).
This awareness of the personality of Gurū Nānak acting amidst them through the successor-Gurūs was so permeant among the Sikhs that Mobid Zulfiqār Ardastānī writing a century after him in his Persian work Dabistān-i-Mazāhib said, "The Sikhs say that when Nānak left his body, he absorbed himself in Gurū Aṅgad who was his most devoted disciple, and that Gurū Aṅgad was Nānak himself. After that, at the time of his death, Gurū Aṅgad entered into the body of Amar Dās. He in the same manner occupied a place in the body of Rām Dās, and Rām Dās in the same way got united with Arjan... They say that whoever does not acknowledge Gurū Arjan to be the very self of Bābā Nānak becomes a non-believer."
Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, last of the Gurūs, himself wrote in his poetical autobiography called Bachitra Nāṭak, "Nānak assumed the body of Aṅgad... Afterwards Nānak was called Amar Dās, as one lamp is lit from another... The holy Nānak was revered as Aṅgad. Aṅgad was recognized as Amar Dās. And Amar Dās became Rām Dās... When Rām Dās was blended with the Divine, he gave the Gurūship to Arjan. Arjan appointed Hargobind in his place and Hargobind gave his seat to Har Rāi. Har Krishan, his son, then became Gurū After him came Tegh Bahādur."
This oneness, this unity of the Gurū came home to the Sikhs through their belief in the presence of Gurū Nānak in them. For the Gurūs themselves this presence was a constant reality, an inspiration and the norm in the exercise of their spiritual office. They wrote religious verse in the name of the First Gurū. All their hymns in the Gurū Granth Sāhib bear the nom-de-plume of Nānak. Thus we have the compositions of Nānak I, Nānak II, Nānak III, and so on. They have a remarkable correspondence of tone and concept: in both utterance and deed later Gurūs, Nānaks themselves as the followers believe, were acting out the inspiration mediated to them from Gurū Nānak.
The development of Sikh thought and life may be understood as the outcome of the interaction of the original impulse imparted by Gurū Nānak and the exigencies of contemporary social environment. Challenges arose; new situations demanded and elicited new answers. Points of transfiguration were reached and worked out. Yet it is possible to discern in this process a basic harmony and continuity attributable primarily to the ever-present Nānak legend.
Each of the successor-Gurūs contributed towards the evolution of the creed and civil organization in accordance with the spirit of the teaching inherited from Gurū Nānak and the existing historical factors. The Fifth Gurū, Arjan, for instance, gave the Sikhs their holy book, the Granth Sāhib, and their holy centre, the Harimandar, now the Golden Temple of Amritsar. In the Book which he compiled he included the hymns of his predecessors and his own and of some of the saints, both Hindu and Muslim. Among the latter were Rāmānand, Kabīr , Nāmdev and the Sūfī mystic Shaikh Farid. To the growing intolerance of the ruling authority Gurū Arjan responded by resignedly accepting martyrdom with extreme torture; his successor by sanctioning the use of arms.
History from henceforward took a more decisive turn in a series of events now well known. In the midst of warfare and great suffering a firm hold was maintained on the insights which had been the guiding principles since the time of Gurū Nānak. The struggle which Gurū Gobind Siṅgh had to endure was held to be God's way of fulfilling Gurū Nānak's mission. Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's own verse, no different from Gurū Nānak's in its transcendental quality, bears witness to the certainty of this conviction. In practice a strictly ethical and moral discipline was evolved and adhered to. No differentiation was made between the Hindu and the Muslim. Several staunch followers of Islam did, in fact, align themselves with the Gurū against the imperial armies. Pīr Buddhū Shāh, a Muslim leader of considerable religious influence, took part in battle on his side along with his sons and disciples. A joint, harmonious Hindu-Muslim being was as much a reality in Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's vision as in Gurū Nānak's.
How was the eternal Reality conceived by Gurū Nānak? While involved in human affairs, God is not subject to the unstable and corruptible world of which human beings are part. Hence there can be no avatārs that incarnate God, nor can God be present in an idol. At the heart of what Gurū Nānak taught is the affirmation of God as Formless, Nirankār. God is ineffable, beyond time, beyond human perception and thought. Yet God is not the great cosmic negation. Each one of these affirmations — the formlessness of God, the ineffability of God—expresses the divine freedom to exist beyond fear and enmity, beyond karma and caste, beyond death and hatred. God is nirguṅa — without attributes, absolute, unmanifest — and saguṇa — with attributes, conditioned, manifest. God has an inscrutable Will (hukam) comprehended by no one, and a power beyond all human might. Yet this hukam is the divine order which structures the world and shapes human destiny.
God is not eternal silence, but comes to expression through the divine Word, Śabda, which is the vehicle of revelation. The Word is the means by which men and women know God and the way to liberation. As the believer meditates on the. Word, bondage to the world, to fear and to injustice is overcome. The Word has the power of freeing humankind from the radical self-centredness, haumai, that leads to the endless cycle of reincarnation. The Word as the divine selfmanifestation is the most immediate and direct expression of God, and as such is truth. The divine truth given by the Word provides the enlightenment needed to overcome human entrapment in māyā, that false estimate of the world's importance that blinds human beings to God.
The divine śabda is the word of the Gurū. It is the Gurupadesh, the word imparted to human beings by the divinely given spiritual preceptor. While there is evidence of God in nature and history, human beings are blind to this truth unless enlightened by the guru. Gurū Nānak redefines the meaning of the term "gurū". In the bhaktī or devotional traditions of Hinduism the gurū is needed to lead believers along the pathway to liberation. The gurū is the object of devotion through whom the voice of God is heard, and in whom the being of God could be experienced. Gurū Nānak, too, repeatedly affirms the necessity of the gurū, yet he repudiates any notion of the guru's being an Avatār. The gurū is an essential link in the divine self-disclosure, but he remains a human link. The gurū is to be honoured for the truth that comes through him. In worship Sikhs acknowledge "the grace of the Gurū." But it is finally God who is the Satgurū, the true spiritual preceptor.
A gurū ordinarily stands in a succession of spiritual teachers and validates his mission by tracing the line of teachers of which he is a part. But Gurū Nānak is without a gurū who Validates his revelations, because for him God is the Gurū. The satgurū, the true teacher, is the inner voice of God made known by mystical devotion in the depths of the human soul. The gurū brings the Word of God, the voice of God, and the truth of God. Divine truth has been disclosed through Gurū Nānak; this divine revelation may now centre in Scripture and community, as Sikhs later recognized that the spirit of the Gurū had gone into the Ādi Granth Sāhib and the Khālsā.
To be associated with the transitory and evil ways of the world is to be bound by Yama, the god of death, and to be destined for unending rebirths. To be linked with the divine Name is to grow in likeness to God until union with the divine brings release into bliss. Human nature is determined by that to which human beings are related. This basic human nature Gurū Nānak calls man, often translated "mind", "heart" or "soul". The man is the indestructible part of a human being. It is the abode of God in the self. But in the unregenerate, the manmukh, the man is not fixed on God. It is, under the control of haumai, self-centred and egotistical, and has become attached to the world. The man is victim of māyā, the misunderstanding of the world which gives it a false vision of ultimate reality. Release from this bondage to self and world is made possible by God's grace revealed through the Gurū and a spiritual discipline, sādhanā, capable of relating human beings to God. This spiritual discipline, is not a new set of rituals, ceremonial laws or ascetic austerities. Gurū Nānak repudiated Brahmanical ritualism and Islamic legalism as pathways to release. The pathway is that of an interior religion of love for God opened by nām simaran, devoted repetition of the divine Name. The discipline of nām simaran or nām japaṇā is devotion to the divine Name and its constant repetition. The nām is not the host of words by which people speak of God. The nām is more than Hari, Śiva, Rām or Allah, although these names may help in remembering God. The nām is the sum of all that God is and has revealed. The divine Name discloses the reality of God and the pathway to union with Him.
To repeat the divine Name is not a magical formula to be chanted mechanically. It is the way in which the man, the inner self, fastens on God so that finally human reality is ingrafted into the divine. To repeat the Name is to remember God, who as Satgurū is in the human heart. As God's Name is sung in worship, it stirs up this deeper remembrance of truth, sach. Acts of justice and mercy spring from the recollection of the Name because the divine being transforms human being. In Gurū Nānak's description of the pathway to liberation, there is a call for the redirection of the will by each person who would walk in it. But to all who follow this pathway of recollection of nām comes the experience of vismād, the incredible awe and wonder of knowing the greatness of God. While there may be moments of sudden insight for the believer, Gurū Nānak teaches a pathway of gradual growth towards union with God. He speaks of five khaṇḍs, or stages of ascent, leading to the ultimate sach khaṇḍ, union with God and freedom from transmigration.
The Spiritual pathway revealed to Gurū Nānak leads to union with God. It is not the lonely pathway of the ascetic who retreats to forest or cave. It combines meditation on the divine Name with the fulfilling of the responsibilities of everyday life. The meditation transforms the very quality of everyday life. As the believer conforms more fully to the life of God, he or she is freed to live by God's ways in the world. As God lives beyond the constraints of caste, so God calls human beings to live the same way themselves. Gurū Nānak took practical steps to break with caste by starting free community kitchens, gurū kā laṅgar, in all the centres where his followers gathered. There, irrespective of caste, people were invited to eat together. The common meal expresses the common standing all people have before God. It establishes the basis for a new community, a community based on obedience to the divine Will. Settling at Kartārpur Gurū Nānak came back to community and family life, where he affirmed the way in which devotion to God and the fulfilment of the duties of the householder belong together. To reach eternal bliss does not mean retreat from everyday life. It is to find God who is both transcendent and immanent in the midst of the ordinary.
The life of Gurū Nānak merges outward into the ongoing life of the Panth, the community of the faithful. The religious framework within which Sikhism interprets the continuing experience of Gurū Nānak is its understanding of the term gurū. The gurū is both a particular human person and the gurū is God himself. The power of being a gurū transcends any particular time or person because it is an aspect of God. The faithful community is related to Gurū Nānak by more than memory. The voice of God that spoke through him spoke through other Gurūs and continues to speak through the Gurū Granth Sāhib. The experience of the continuing presence of Gurū Nānak in the community is most real. The power of the Gurū to bring humankind into a new relationship with God is not proved by unusual happenings in his life, but by the contemporary experience of his power. The charismatic experience of the interpretation of time in which the Gurū comes to his people has been institutionalized in the form of Holy Scripture and holy community. His Sikhs continue to experience the presence of Gurū Nānak guiding them along that pathway to union with God he so powerfully revealed.
Gurū Nānak was not an impersonal oracle of revelation whose precepts expressed an abstract truth. He was the embodiment of this truth. His actions interpreted his words, and his words his actions. Gurū Nānak is a present spiritual reality, not merely a figure of the past to be recalled by historical reconstruction. The story of his life is central to the Sikh religion and is to be made known by careful historical analysis and in the fervent meditation of the faithful. Both historical scholarship and devotion bear witness to Gurū Nānak.
Having installed the most deserving of his disciples, Bhāī Lahiṇā, whom he renamed Aṅgad, his successor to Guruship, Gurū Nānak cast off his mortal frame on Assū vādī 10, 1596Bk/7 September 1539.
Donald G. Dawe