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by Jayaram V
Nanak rebukes us because we have forgotten our true nature. We live on the surface; we
lead superficial lives. - S. Radhakrishnan

Guru Nanak is the founder of Sikhism and the first Guru of Sikhs. He is the last in the series
of the greatest prophets born upon earth who were instrumental in establishing major world
religions through their teachings and revelations. Guru Nanak led a simple but
extraordinary life, preaching a straightforward way to find God in one's own heart through
inner purity and social responsibility. He lived in troubled times, when religious practice in
the Indian subcontinent was dogged by spiritual and moral crisis and the country was
witnessing an intense conflict between Hindus and Muslims, aggravated by the religious
zeal of Muslim rulers. It was also the time when Hinduism was undergoing an internal
reform through the bhakti movement. Very few people in his life time would have thought
that Guru Nanak's teachings would eventually culminate in the formation a new religion
and attract millions of followers from various parts of the world.

Guru Nanak Dev was born in 1469, in the village of Rau Bhoi di Talwandi, now called
Nankana Sahib, forty miles from Lahore in present-day Pakistan. His father, Kalayan Das
Mehta or Kalu Mehta, belonged to a sub caste of the Kshatriyas and worked as a tax
collector. His mother was Matta Tripat. The Guru had an older sister called Bibi Nanki.
From an early age Guru Nanak showed particular interest in spiritual matters. He became
acquainted with the teachings of both Hinduism and Islam and met holy men of both
religions. In the process, he developed distaste for the superficial aspects of religious
practice, questioning their efficacy and value in achieving God realization. When his elders
asked him to wear the sacred thread, usually worn by the upper caste Hindus, he refused,
saying that he would instead wear the name of God in his heart as it would never be broken
nor tainted with impurities.

Guru Nanak's parents wanted him to lead a normal householder's life. So in 1487 they
married him to a girl named Sulkhni, of Batala, through whom he had two sons, Sri Chand
and Lakhmi Das. Like many other Prophets, Guru Nanak led an ordinary householder's life,
signifying the fact that a true follower of God ought live in the middle of people and work
for the salvation of himself and others through his good deeds and exemplary life. For some
time he worked as a store keeper in the state granary of Daulat Khan Lodi in Sultanpur,
where he came into contact with a Muslim servant named Mardana. The two were perhaps
destined to meet, as Maradana subsequently began setting music for the hymns Nanak
composed. Together they organized satsangs or religious gatherings, in which they involved
both Hindus and Muslims in singing bhajans or devotional songs in praise of God.

It is said that when he was twenty-eight years, he suddenly disappeared and returned after
three days, revealing that he had a vision of God in which he was made aware of his
mission in life. Declaring himself to be neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, He began preaching
that there was only one God, who could be worshipped by any name and reached directly
by any one, through abiding faith and devotion. He proclaimed God as the creator on whose
command or Hukm moved all things and who being formless and transcendental would not
assume any form, nor manifest Himself physically in our world as an embodied being. But,

as the true witness, He resided in the heart of every one. So the best way to reach Him was
by obtaining His grace through namsmaran or constant remembrance of His name
and leading an ethical and selfless life. Guru Nanak criticized caste and gender inequalities,
idol worship, superficial observances, sacrificial rituals, religious marks, widow burning,
and many other practices which he believed were superstitious and not conducive to
liberation. Among other things he acknowledged as valid were the law of karma, rebirth,
respect for Guru, importance of righteous conduct etc.


According to tradition Guru Nanak traveled widely in his life time and went as far as
Assam in the east, Sri Lanka in the south, Tibet in the north and Mecca and Baghdad in the
west. During his travels, he met people of all faiths: Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims,
Zoroastrians. He also met Kabir, the famous bhakti saint of Benaras in whose company he
spent some time, and who exemplified his vision of an ideal devotee of God with a pure
heart and selfless attitude. In his life time Guru Nanak personified humility and simplicity.
He always presented himself to others as an obedient follower of God who cherished His
company and the sweet nectar of His love in his own heart. He never claimed himself any
special privileges nor prophethood. His teachings stood in contrast with the religious
practices of his time and in due course of time constituted the core teachings of Sikhism. He
worked for the unity of people and universal brotherhood, by emphasizing the underlying
unity of all men and the entire creation and the need for leading socially responsible and
morally pure lives for the collective welfare of all.

Last Days

After traveling for twenty years, Guru Nanak decided to resume life as a householder. He
acquired farmland on the banks of river Ravi in central Punjab and founded a town,
Kartapur (the city of God). A small community of followers, mostly Hindus, gathered
around him and began practicing the new creed he preached. Probably to preserve his
teachings for future generations, he began composing hymns of great beauty in Gurumukhi,
which became part of the Adi Granth (the original book), the holy book of Sikhs. At
Kartarpur he introduced the practice of offering three daily prayers to God and also the
institution of langar or community kitchen, where the followers shared food to signify the
equality of all human beings. After institutionalizing the office of Guru and appointing
Guru Angad as his successor Guru Nanak finally passed away at the age of 70.


Nanakji taught that if God was to be found, he would be found in the inner chambers of
human heart. If man is intoxicated enough with the name, memory and thought of God, he
would experience Him in his own self. For Nanakji such a person was a true yogi and a true
Brahmin, not the one who wore orange robes for appearance sake or some one who was
born into a Brahmin caste. Nanak Dev castigated ostentatious display of religiosity and
superficial observation of religious conduct. He laid emphasis on inner virtue and
adherence to truth, sincerity and honesty in devotion to God. Without these man is devoid
of any hope to earn the grace of God.

According Guru Nanak God may be known to man by many names and attributes, but there
is only one God. He is the creator (kartar) and sustainer of all, who abides in the realm of
eternity, casting His graceful glance over His entire creation and who responds to the call of
His true devotees, who are pure in their minds and hearts. In God's realm there are

innumerable worlds and beings, who are showered by His grace when they submit to His
Hukm (command). His supreme power is characterized by the twin principles of justice
(nian) and grace (nadar). In the creation of God, human beings occupy the highest position.
All human beings are created equal and endowed with the same potential to achieve mukati
or liberation, which is freedom from the cycle of births and deaths and union with God.
What prevents human beings from achieving it is their haumai or self-centeredness, which
can be overcome by cultivating love (bhau) and fear (bhai) towards God, which is possible
only through constant remembrance of the names of God (namsmaran), good works (kirat
karana), charity (vaad chhakna) and overcoming the five vices, namely lust, greed,
attachment, anger and pride.

Guru Nanak traced the progress of the human beings on the path of liberation in five distant
phases by attaining five distinct ideals: dharam, gian, saram, karam and sach. In the first
phase man comes to know about God and his supremacy as the creator and upholder of
divine justice (dharam). In the second he gains the knowledge (gian) and immensity of
God's complex creation. This awareness creates in him the feelings of humility (saram) and
self-surrender. This prompts him to overcome his self-centeredness and indulge in good
actions (karam) such as constant remembrance of God's name, giving charity and doing
selfless service. Doing good works, finally he becomes eligible for the divine grace through
which he comes face to face with the divine Truth (sach) and attains liberation.

The teachings of Guru Nanak are very relevant in the modern world, which is presently
suffering from a deep moral and spiritual crisis, characterized by religious animosity,
unbridled materialism, moral decline, superficial religiosity and misuse of religions and
religious symbols. Even if you are not a Sikh, you can still apply his teachings to your
daily life and benefit from them immensely, because his teachings transcend social and
religious barriers and appeal to us directly as the guiding principles of an ideal human life
that can bring out the best in our character and reconnect us with our source. If you ignore
the subsequent developments that took place in Sikhism, where it developed its own
religious formalities, symbols and code of conduct, you can be a Sikh without wearing the
turban or the beard or the remaining Ks or without ever visiting a Gurudwara.

Just as a Brahmin does not become a true follower of God by merely being born in the
Brahmin caste or wearing religious marks, Guru Nanak would have declared that a Sikh
would not become a true devotee of God and followers of his teachings by just being born
in a Sikh family or wearing the five Ks or visiting a Gurudwara or by superficially reciting
the Adi Granth. More important than all these is adhering to truth, devotion to God,
constantly remembering His name, practicing inner purity by overcoming the five enemies
of lust, greed, attachment, anger and pride, cultivating selflessness and doing selfless
service to humanity.

To realize God you do not have to renounce the world or become a monk. You do not have
to wear orange robes or a beard or long hair, or subject your body and mind to severe
austerities. You can lead a normal and ordinary life, as a householder, just as Nanakji did,
doing whatever you are interested in, but with a selfless attitude, keeping your heart and
mind filled with devotion to God and dedicating your life to the service of God and His
creation. These are the values taught by Guru Nanak. They are still relevant today as they
were centuries ago and can be of immense help, if we want to focus more on our inner
connection with God rather than the Hukms and fatwahs (commands) of authoritarian
institutions and mere superficial observances of each religion.

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