Guru Nanak’s 550 Years: ‘There’s No Hindu, There’s No Muslim’
Image of Guru Nanak (L) and late writer Khushwant Singh (R) used for representational purposes.
Image of Guru Nanak (L) and late writer Khushwant Singh (R) used for representational purposes.(Photo: Arnica Kala / The Quint)

Guru Nanak’s 550 Years: ‘There’s No Hindu, There’s No Muslim’

(The following has been excerpted from the new, updated edition of ‘The Sikhs’ by Khushwant Singh, with permission from the publisher, HarperCollins India. The sub-headings are not part of the book, and have been added by The Quint.)

Guru Nanak (1469–1539) was the son of a petty official living in a village some thirty miles from Lahore. He took to studying the Hindu and Muslim religions almost from his boyhood, and found himself constantly involved in argument and discussion with itinerant holy men.

Nanak was content to be a teacher. He made no claims to divinity or to kinship with God.
Image of book cover for Khushwant Singh’s (new and updated) book republished by Harper Collins, ‘The Sikhs’.
Image of book cover for Khushwant Singh’s (new and updated) book republished by Harper Collins, ‘The Sikhs’.
(Photo: Harper Collins India)

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Guru Nanak’s Companions: A Marginalised-Caste Hindu & A Muslim Musician

Although he married and reared a family, the urge to find spiritual truth for himself proved too great. He temporarily abandoned his family and became a wanderer. He fasted, prayed and meditated. After many years of ascetic life, thought and contemplation, he felt qualified to convey his experiences to the people. He started with the simple statement: ‘There is no Hindu, there is no Mussulman.’ He took as his companions a ‘low-caste’ Hindu and a Muslim musician, and the three went preaching from hamlet to hamlet. The Guru composed his sermons in verse, which his Muslim colleague set to music and sang with the lute.

He was strongly opposed to asceticism involving renunciation of the world.

His teachings fired the imagination of the Punjab peasantry and a large number of followers gathered around him. At first they were merely known as his disciples, in Sanskrit shish. Some time later these disciples became a homogeneous group whose faith was exclusively the teachings of Nanak. The ‘shish’ became the Sikh (corruption of the Sanskrit word). Nanak was content to be a teacher. He made no claims to divinity or to kinship with God. ‘I came in the course of nature’, he said, ‘and according to God’s order shall I depart.’

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Guru Nanak Had Courage to Practice What He Preached

He did not invest his writings with the garb of prophecy, nor his word with the sanctity of a ‘message’. His teaching was essentially a crusade against cant and humbug in religion, and he had the courage to pattern his life according to his teachings.

Two incidents in his life illustrate his method of approach. He went to bathe in the Ganga as all devout Hindus did. The Brahmins bathed and threw water towards the rising sun as an offering to their dead ancestors. Nanak faced the other way and threw water in the opposite direction.

When questioned, he answered: ‘I am watering my fields in the Punjab. If you can throw water to the dead in heaven, it should be easier to send it to another place on earth.’

Guru Nanak Strongly Opposed Asceticism

On another occasion, he happened to fall asleep with his feet towards Mecca. An outraged priest woke him up and rudely drew his attention to the fact. Nanak simply said: ‘If you think I show disrespect by having my feet towards the house of God, turn them in some other direction where God does not dwell.’ As he himself had combined his mission with the domestic obligations of a husband and father, he advocated a way of life which allowed for the discharge of civic obligations with the spiritual. He was strongly opposed to asceticism involving renunciation of the world:

Religion lieth not in the patched coat the yogi wears,
Not in the staff he bears
Nor in the ashes on his body
Religion lieth not in rings in the ears, Not in a shaven head
Nor in the blowing of the conch shell.
If thou must the path of true religion see
Amongst the world’s impurities, be of impurities free

When Guru Nanak died, his body became a subject of dispute. The Muslims wanted to bury him, the Hindus to cremate him.

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Guru Nanak’s Life was Mostly Spent in Bringing Hindus & Muslims Together

There are no totally reliable accounts of Nanak’s travels. By the time his biography came to be written, sixty or eighty years after his death, a mass of legend had been built around incidents of his life. He apparently travelled all over India and even as far as Persia or Arabia. His life was mostly spent in bringing Hindus and Muslims together. His personal success in this direction was remarkable. He was acclaimed by both communities. When he died, his body became a subject of dispute. The Muslims wanted to bury him, the Hindus to cremate him. Even to this day, he is regarded in the Punjab as a symbol of harmony between the two major communities. A popular couplet describes him:

Guru Nanak Shah Fakir.
Hindu ka Guru, Mussulman ka Pir.

(Guru nanak, the King of fakirs.
To the Hindu a Guru, to the Mussulman a Pir.)

Guru Nanak made people come to him, not through a sense of remorse or repentance, but as to one who was at once warm-hearted and understanding – a friend and a father.

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Guru Nanak Got People to See the Ridiculous Without Being Ridiculed

The success of Nanak’s mission in the short space of twenty to thirty years of teaching calls for comment. It was partly due to the fact that the ground had already been prepared for him by the Sufis and the Bhaktas. It was chiefly due to his own personality, in which he combined a gentle disposition with a stern and uncompromising attachment to principle; humility with a conviction of the greatness of his mission; and, above all, a kindly sense of humour, with which he got the people to see the ridiculous without being ridiculed. He made them come to him, not through a sense of remorse or repentance, but as to one who was at once warm-hearted and understanding – a friend and a father. He did not spare himself from his humour:

When I am quiet, they say I have no knowledge;
When I speak, I talk too much they say;
When I sit, they say an unwelcome guest has come to stay;
When I depart, I have deserted my family and run away.
When I bow, they say it is of fear that I pray.
Nothing can I do that in peace I may spend my time.
Preserve Thy servant’s honour now and hereafter,
O Lord sublime.

The following that Nanak had created in his lifetime could at best be described as a group dissenting from both Hinduism and Islam. It was left to his successors to mould this group into a community with its own language and literature, religious beliefs and institutions, traditions and conventions.

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