The Indian subcontinent is home to one-fifth of the world’s population. It also where one of the oldest civilizations of the world thrived. The geographic area has been marked by consistent inter-religious experiments over many centuries, giving birth to many new faiths of great significance. It has also been where great men have pondered the relevance of religion and dared to push its boundaries for the better. The region has seen the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, two of the most humane religions in the world. Around the fifteenth century, India birthed a man who took the best from all the religions of the land to create an exalted understanding of faith – Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak’s experiments with Religion led to the rise of Sikhism.
The Child is the Father of the Man
Guru Nanak Dev was born in 1469 in Talwandi, a village in the Sheikhupura district, 65 km. west of Lahore. His father was a village official in the local revenue administration. As a boy, Sri Guru Nanak learned, besides the regional languages, Persian and Arabic. He was married in 1487 and was blessed with two sons, one in 1491 and the second in 1496. (Read more about his early life here).
It is said that when he was 12, his father gave him twenty rupees to start a business. He spent the entire money to feed the impoverished. When his father questioned him, he replied that service to the needy was the only ‘true business’ or ‘sacha sauda‘ of man. The Sacha Sauda Gurudwara is said to stand today where he fed the poor.
The Basis of Nanak’s Religion
The foundation of Guru Nanak’s vision is love and service. He spoke of one Divine Reality – Ik Onkar – a supreme force that fuels life. At the age of 27, he had the epiphany that God was neither Hindu nor Muslim. It was the commencement of his journey on the divine path.
For the next 25 years, Nanak toured the length and breadth of the country. He met prophets, saints and ascetics of all religions, cherry-picking the best of all faith. He also assiduously rejected the fallacies of organized religion. The summation of his discourse is known the world over as Sikhism.
Northwards: Guru Nanak’s Tryst with Buddhism
Did you know that many statues of Guru Nanak are found in a number of Buddhist temples in Ladakh, Sikkim, and Tibet? Nanakis widely respected by many Buddhists who consider him as a saint in the name of Guru Gompka Maharaj or Guru Rinpoche, the precious one. In Tibet, Guru Nanak is considered as a reincarnation of
Guru Padmasambhava, the man who brought Buddhism to Tibet.
There are many legendary tales about Guru Nanak which are popular amongst the Buddhists. Once Guru Nanak had defeated a demon with a boulder and the people of Ladakh fondly worship him in Gurudwara Pathar Sahib for this heroic tale. There is also another tale about how he had turned a frozen lake into the sweet water with his rosary in Tibet and thus they started lighting buttered-lamps to worship Nanak. The lake is known as Gurudongmar lake since then and is currently located in Sikkim, India. The villagers still believe that “whoever takes the water of this lake will gain virility and strength”. The lake which is unfrozen even in subzero temperatures is a popular tourist destination.
There are many teachings in common in these two religions. The middle path of living, the importance of congregation called Sangam/Sangat, the importance of prayers and meditation, the individual’s responsibility for their destiny, even the idea of a warrior monk, the saint-soldier tradition.
The Sikhs, in return, have great respect for Buddhist teachers. So much so that a Sikh escorted the Dalai Lama to India when he exiled Tibet. The Golden Temple is a popular travel destination for the Tibetan pilgrims who come to pray there. Punjab, the Sikh homeland, was formerly called Gandhara, the home of Mahayana Buddhism. The Sikh practice of never to cut one’s hair is also practiced among some Tibetan hermits.
East Ahoy: Meeting with Chaitanya
Guru Nanak traveled eastward all the way to Bengal and Assam. He stayed in Calcutta, Patna, the Dhansiri Valley of Assam, Burdwan, Medinipur, Cuttack, and Puri, among other places. He left a deep imprint wherever he went. The Manuscript copy of Ishvar Das’ “Chaitanya Bhagvat” mentions that in Puri, Nanak stayed with Shri Chaitanya. Shri Chaitanya instructed his disciple Udyata to act as the personal attendant of Guru Nanak, which shows the tenderness, personal affection which the great Vaishnava saint showed for the Guru. The impact of Guru Nanak’s meeting with Sri Chaitanya appears to have been deep and profound, and its memories lingered for over hundred years in the minds of Vaishnava scholars. Ram-Narayan Misra, a contemporary of Guru Arjan, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, even wrote a Bengali commentary on Dasam Sikandha.
The Islam Connect
In his quest to understand faith holistically, Guru Nanak traveled far and wide. His fourth and final Udassi (travel) was to Mecca, with Bhai Mardana. This was probably his most controversial trip since the infiltration of Mecca by non-muslims is forbidden in Quran. However, back then, Mecca was only a part of a vast, open desert and Nanak is believed to have been dressed as a Fakir. Some Muslims also believe that Guru Nanak was originally a follower of Islam. Nonetheless, his adventures deep into the heart of Muslim territory brought him in touch with Sufi saints.
The Best of All Worlds
Guru Nanak’s preachings came in the backdrop of fundamentalist domination from all religions, on one hand, and the spread of teachings of Sufi and Bhakti saints, on the other. He rejected asceticism of all kind and concluded that teachings of bhakti and Sufi differed only in form, not in content. It was from the teachings of Muslim Sufis (notably Sheikh Baba Fariduddin Ganj Shakar) and Sant Kabir that Guru Nanak drew his inspiration. He preached monotheism and quiet devotion to God. His hymns were drawn from different sources. Out of Nanak’s teachings came an enduring religious community with distinctive history and evolution separate from all the existing religions in the fantastic land of India, but drawing the egalitarian aspects from all. Guru Nanak was truly a guardian of the human faith.