Remembering Guru Nanak

published on October 30, 2009

V.N. Gopalakrishnan, Mumbai

Guru Nanak Jayanti is the birthday of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru and the founder of Sikhism. It is one of the most sacred festivals and is celebrated by the Sikh community all over the world. The celebrations are especially colourful in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and other parts of the country. Sikhs settled in Malaysia, Singapore, East Africa, UK, USA and Canada also celebrate the festival.

The word ‘Sikh’ is derived from Pali ‘Sikkha’ or Sanskrit ‘Sisya’, meaning ‘disciple’. Sikhs are disciples of their ten Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak (1469 -1539) and ending with Guru Govind Singh (1666 -1708). The festivities in the Sikh religion revolve around the anniversaries of these Gurus. They were responsible for shaping the beliefs of the Sikhs. Their birthdays, known as Gurpurabs, are occasions for celebration and prayer among the Sikhs. The birthday of Guru Nanak falls on Kartik Poornima and this year according to the Gregorian calendar, it will be on November 2.

The celebration is generally similar for all Gurpurabs but only the hymns are different. The celebration usually lasts for three days. Generally two days before the birthday, Akhand Path (a forty-eight-hour non-stop reading of the Guru Granth Sahib (Holy book of the Sikhs) is held in the Gurudwaras. Akal Takht is illuminated on Guru Nanak Jayanti in Harmandir Sahib Complex in Amritsar.

The day prior to the birthday, a procession is organised which led by the Panj Pyaras (five beloved ones). They head the procession carrying the Sikh flag, known as the Nishan Sahib and the Palki (palanquin) of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. They are followed by teams of singers singing hymns, brass bands playing different tunes. The ‘Gatka’ teams (martial arts) display their swordsmanship and devotees sing the chorus. The procession pours into the streets which are covered with buntings and decorated gates for this special occasion. The leaders also spread the message of Guru Nanak on the occasion.

On Gurpurab day, the day begins early in the morning with the singing of Asa-di-Var (morning hymns) and hymns from the Sikh scriptures followed by Katha (exposition of the scripture) together with lectures and recitation of poems in praise of the Guru. Following that is the Langar or special community lunch, which is arranged at the Gurudwaras by volunteers. The idea behind the free communal lunch is that people should be offered food in the spirit of seva (service) and bhakti (devotion).

Guru Nanak’s Asa-di-Var lays down the fundamentals of Sikh belief about God. He calls God the ‘indweller of nature’ and is described as filling all things ‘by an art that is artless’. “He is not an impotent mechanic fashioning pre-existing matter into universe. He does not exclude matter but includes and transcends it. The universe too is not an illusion. Being rooted in God who is real, it is a reality; not a reality final and abiding, but a reality on account of God’s presence in it.” (Guru Granth Sahib – II.1).

Guru Nanak focused on two things in his religious work: the holy Word and the organized fellowship called Sangat. The idea of holy fellowship led to the establishment of local assemblies headed by authorized leaders called Masands. Every Sikh was expected to be a member of one or other of such organizations. The Guru was the central unifying personality and in spite of changes in succession, was held to be identical with his predecessors.”

Guru Nanak was born on April 15, 1469 into the Bedi Kshatriya family (a prominent Hindu community of Punjab), in Rai Bhoi di Talwandi, renamed as Nankana Sahib, in Lahore (now in Pakistan). His birthplace is marked by Gurudwara Janam Asthan. His father, Mehta Kalyan Das Bedi, popularly known as Mehta Kalu, was the Patwari (Accountant) of Rai Bular Bhatti, a Muslim landlord. Guru Nanak’s mother was Tripta Devi and he had one sister, Bebe Nanaki. Guru Nanak was married to Mata Sulakhni and had two sons-Sri Chand and Lakhmi Chand. Sri Chand founded an ascetic sect known as the Udasis. Later Gurus used to visit Sri Chand as a revered ascetic.

Guru Nanak received an education in traditional Hindu lore and in the rudiments of Islam. Early in life, he began associating with holy men.  For a time, he worked as the Accountant of the Afghan chieftain at Sultanpur. There a Muslim family servant named Mardana, who was also a rebec player, joined him. Guru Nanak began to compose hymns and Mardana put them to music. The duo organized community hymn singing. They organized a canteen where Muslims and Hindus of different castes, could eat together.  He was not inclined to scholastic pursuits but tried out less intellectual occupations like farming and cattle-herding.This was perhaps symbolic of his commitment to service and hard work.

Guru Nanak had his first vision of God at Sultanpur, in which he was ordained to preach to mankind. Guru Nanak preached liberal doctrines both religious and social and tried to harmonise Hinduism and Islam by his life and teachings. He composed many religious hymns which formed the nucleus of the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs. He was followed by nine other Gurus, in succession, under whom Sikhism gradually developed and received its final shape. Almost all the Gurus composed religious songs and hymns, which have been collected in the Guru Granth Sahib. The Granth also includes compositions Hindu and Muslim saints. Guru Nanak had an eventful career spanning 70 years. He traveled widely in India and is said to have visited Persia, Iraq and even Mecca.

The earliest biographical sources on the life of Guru Nanak are the Janam-sakhis (life stories) and the Vars (historic ballads) of Bhai Gurudas. The most popular Janam-sakhi is written by Bhai Bala, a close companion of the Guru. The Janam-sakhis recount minutest details of the birth of the Guru. At the age of five, Guru Nanak showed interest in divine subjects. At the age seven, his father enrolled him at the village school as was the custom. Notable lore recounts that as a child Guru Nanak astonished his teacher by describing the implicit symbolism of the first letter of the alphabet, which is an almost straight stroke in Persian or Arabic, resembling the mathematical version of one, as denoting the unity or oneness of God. Other childhood accounts refer to strange and miraculous events about Guru Nanak witnessed by Rai Bular such as a poisonous cobra being seen to shield the sleeping child’s head from the harsh sunlight.

Guru Nanak combined Hindu Bhakti with Muslim brotherhood and taught men how to reach god by love and simple worship. His generous recognition of saints and Sufis endeared him to those that saw God in temples as well as those that saw Him in mosques. So when he died, both groups appropriated him as their own.

 (Author is a social activist and Director, Indo-Gulf Consulting. He can be contacted on [email protected])

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