Sikh Gurus: Their lives and teachings
Guru Nanak Dev Ji
Baba Nanak, the great man of God
The guru of the Hindus and the pir of the Mussalmans
-Popular Punjabi saying
Unlike Mahavira and Buddha, Nanak was not born to affluent parents. He was the son of Mehta Kalian Das, a village patwari, at the lowest rung of the revenue hierarchy. His father led a clean life; he was honest and God-fearing. These were rare qualities to come by in those days He was, therefore, greatly respected by the Muslim headman of the village, Rai Bular.
Born on 15 April 1469 at Talwandi in the Sheikupura district of west Punjab, Nanak was the only son of his parents. Their other child a daughter called Nanaki born a few years earlier. The son arrived a long wait. His mother Tripta and his sister Nanaki doted on him. His father, however, was too involved with work to spare any to be with his children. Mehta Kalian Das, also known as Mehta Kalu, was a Bedi, a caste ,.that is supposed to be well versed in the Vedas. As a child Nanak was given the name Nanak Rai in the tradition of the Hindus of the day. Talwandi, the village where he was born, came to be known in due course as Nanakana Sahib-the holy city of Nanak. It is located about fifty kilometers to the northwest of Lahore, the capital of West Punjab in Pakistan.
While playing in the company of other children, Nanak was always fair. He made friends with the poor and the so-called low castes. Muslim boys were as good friends of his as were Hindus. He had a melodious voice and was fond of singing devotional songs.
When he sang, he went into a trance, as it were; phrases tripped on his lips and he composed hymns extempore. He was used to taking long walks and would go out of his village into the fields and jungle in both the morning and the evening. There was always a freshness on his face, a soothing light in his eyes. He was genial and gentle, soft-spoken and amiable.
His sister Nanaki was deeply attached to him. She thought it was probably because he was her only brother, but in her heart of hearts she knew it was more than that. Every time she saw Nanak, she felt a tug at her heart. He was indeed unlike other children. When he was asleep, she found a strange glow reflected on his face. It was enchanting to watch him. She continued to look at him for hours on end. Sitting all alone at times, she would suddenly feel that there was a sweet fragrance spreading through the courtyard and turning her face, she would find her young brother enter the house arm-in-arm with one of his playmates. When he sat in the prayer chamber, she would hear the sound of cymbals being beaten and arti being sung in praise of God. She remained glued to where she sat. It was like divine music traveling from heaven. She had never heard such melody before. No doubt her brother was no ordinary child, but she dared not talk about it to anyone. It was a closely guarded secret with her.
Nanak, who was to emerge in due course as Divine Master, had his first devotee in his own sister. She found in her brother an evolved soul, a messenger of God. The second disciple of Nanak was no other than Rai Bular, the Muslim chief of the village. Day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, he heard amazing stories about Mehta Kalu’s child. His utterances astonished both Hindus and Muslims. They found them bold and meaningful, endowed with a queer charm.
The village school teacher, Gopal Panda, found in a short while that he had nothing more to teach Nanak. Nanak learned reading and writing very quickly. He even composed an acrostic on the Punjabi alphabet. When the teacher tried to teach him arithmetic, he found him equally proficient in figure work. He had little to add to the knowledge of the unusually gifted child. Instead, Nanak told his teacher that without knowing God all other knowledge was meaningless. Without truth, even a cartload of books was of little use:
Burn worldly love
Grinding it into ashes to make ink.
Let your intellect be the fine paper
On which you should write
With the pen of divine love,
As dictated by the Guru.
Write the praises of his Name
Write that He is limitless and great.
Oh teacher, if you were to learn writing this
The truth of it will stand by you
Wherever you are called upon to render account.
Nanak was then sent to a madrasa to learn Persian and Arabic. His teacher was Ruknuddin. The understanding was that after he acquired proficiency in Persian, he might, in due course, succeed his father as the village patwari. Rai Bular would be very happy to have him work with him. Nanak surprised his new teacher with the manner in which he picked up Persian and also Arabic quickly. One day he even astonished Ruknuddin with an acrostic composed on the Persian alphabet.
It was time that Nanak was invested with the sacred thread according to a custom prevalent among the caste Hindus. It is a sacrament like baptism amongst Christians, signifying the spiritual rebirth of a Hindu. Hardyal, the family priest, was invited to perform the ritual in the presence of relatives, friends, and neighbors. The ceremony was to be followed by lavish feasting and rejoicing. However, when the presiding priest approached Nanak to invest him with the sacred thread, he refused to wear it. Young Nanak had no faith in the ritual. He would have nothing to do with a thread which must wear out sooner or later. Everyone present was stunned. They tried to argue with the child but none succeeded in persuading him. When the priest persisted, Nanak went into a trance and sang:
Let mercy be the cotton, contentment the thread,
Continence the knot and truth the twist.
O priest! if you have such a thread,
Do give it to me.
It’ll not wear out, nor get soiled, nor be burnt, nor lost.
Says Nanak, blessed are those who go about wearing such a thread.
Rai Bular, who had been invited to participate in the feast following the thread ceremony, was thrilled to hear it. He complimented Mehta Kalu on his son’s talents. But the devout Hindu in the father would not understand it and was heartbroken.
As he grew, Nanak spent more and more of his time in the company of Hindu anchorites and Muslim dervishes in the thick forest around Talwandi. He was most happy in their company. But the matter-of-fact Mehta Kalu did not approve of it. If he is fond of wandering about in the forest, he said to himself, he might as well take the family cattle out for grazing. He could spend his time in the fields as well as look after the cattle. Nanak agreed to this. He liked tending cows and buffaloes. Accordingly, he led his cattle out for grazing every morning and brought them back in the evening when it was time to milk them. Before long, the cattle were completely tamed. They didn’t bother the cowherd at all. He sat under the trees and sang hymns; the cattle grazed on and frolicked about.
Then one day, an agitated peasant came and complained to Rai Bular that Mehta Kalu’s cattle had ravaged his entire crop and that his son, sent to look after the cattle, was found sleeping under a tree. Rai Bular, who understood Nanak better, didn’t believe a word of it. He decided to verify the loss himself. Out in the field, he did find Nanak sitting under a tree, lost in deep meditation, but the crop allegedly ravaged by the cattle was intact and not a blade seemed to have been disturbed. The peasant who had lodged the complaint could not believe his eyes. He felt frightfully embarrassed. Rai Bular then walked up to the tree where Nanak sat. He found that there was a halo around Nanak’s head. He bowed in reverence and was convinced that Mehta Kalu’s son was a blessed soul; he was no ordinary youth born in the village.
Rai Bular made indulgent inquiries about Nanak every day-where he spent his time, what he did, and so on. Even if it meant going out of the way, he would do so to drop in at Mehta Kalu’s house and meet Nanak. Every time Rai Bular looked at Nanak, he felt charmed. His head would bow before him spontaneously. Every word that Nanak uttered acquired new significance; it haunted him day and night.
On the other hand, Mehta Kalu did not understand a word of it. In fact, he was irritated at the fuss his daughter Nanaki and his mentor Rai Bular made about his son. He thought Nanak was good-for-nothing, that as the only son, he was being pampered by people and spoiled. He thought Nanak showed little interest in any worthwhile activity. And of late he had developed a strange tendency to keep to himself. As far~ as possible, he avoided company and was always lost in thought. His eyes were dreamy. He didn’t eat for days together. At night when everybody slept, many a time Mehta Kalu saw his young son deeply absorbed in meditation. At times he felt as if he heard his sobs. At others, he saw with his own eyes tears rolling down Nanak’s cheeks. It gave a wrench to his heart. Everyone who saw Nanak those days felt that there was something wrong with him. He appeared to be suffering from some ailment. It was therefore decided to have the youth checked. They sent for Han Das, a leading physician. As the old physician was feeling his pulse, Nanak went into a trance and started singing in his melodious voice. The physician !listened to his patient spellbound:
The physician called to diagnose an ailment
Pulls out my arm and feels the pulse.
The simple physician is not aware,
The malady is deep in the heart.
I suffer the pangs of separation
I hunger for Him and suffer.
I suffer the fear of mighty death.
I suffer from the ailments
That must kill me one day.
And no remedy of the poor physician will help
It’s an eternal agony,
No remedy howsoever potent can cure it.
I forgot God, indulged in pleasure
And thus I contracted many an ailment.
I went blind; I must be punished,
And no remedy of the poor physician will help.
The physician heard it and his eyes suddenly opened. Certainly it was a malady beyond his capacity to cure.
Helpless, the anxious parents decided to get their son married before it was too late. They thought that, if bound in marriage, Nanak might start taking interest in household affairs. He might take to some profitable pursuit. Accordingly, a suitable match was found in Sulakhni, the daughter of Mula, a Chona Khatri. Mula was also a patwari of Pakho di Randhawa. Nanak did not object to this, since he maintained that married life did not conflict with spiritual pursuits; and if anything, it helped.Nanak was happily married. He loved his wife. They had two sons. Sri Chand was followed three years later by Lakshmi Chand. Now that he had a family of his own, Nanak was persuaded by his father to engage himself in some profitable pursuit, so that in due course he could stand on his own feet. The father’s counsel was, indeed, reasonable and Nanak readily agreed to it. The father was most happy at this development. He lost no time in placing a suitable sum at his disposal and deputed Bala, one of his servants, to assist Nanak. It was decided that they should go to Chuhrkana, a wholesale market (in the present day Gujranwala district of West Pakistan) and make some profitable bargain. Nanak did go to Chuhrkana. He made the purchases that could make a profit back home. But during his return journey, he came across a band of holy men who, it seems, had nothing much to eat for several days. They didn’t have any clothes either, and winter was fast approaching. Nanak saw their plight and didn’t take a moment to decide to feed and clothe them with what he carried. Placing all, his purchases at their disposal, he walked back home empty-handed, along with Bala. As he came close to his village, he suddenly realized how his father would react to the peculiar bargain that he had struck. He therefore sat under a tree outside the village instead of going to his house. When his father learned of it, he was wild. Nanak tried to explain to him that he had been sent to make a good bargain and that he could not think of a better deal. Mehta Kalu didn’t understand it. As it happened, Rai Bular also turned up on the scene and, listening to Nanak argue with his father the way he did, seemed to agree with every word that he uttered. Nanak was indeed no ordinary youth. Rai Bular became his devoted disciple.
But Mehta Kalu continued to feel miserable. He didn’t understand the ways of his son. Neither Rai Bular nor his daughter could make him see the divine in Nanak. The tree under which Nanak sat outside the village fearing the wrath of his father is still there. It is known as Thamb Saheb-the holy trunk. The devout come and meditate under it.
Nanak’s sister Nanaki had been married to Jai Ram, a Khatri employed as a steward by’ Daulat Khan Lodi, the Governor of Sultanpur. He was visiting Talwandi and, finding his father-in-law anxious about his son, he offered to take Nanak along with him to Sultanpur and find a job for him with his master. Everyone approved of it. Nanak, too, didn’t object to it. Rai Bular wrote to Daulat Khan recommending Nanak in glorious terms. Daulat Khan met Nanak and was most favourably impressed by the charm of his personality and the transparent honesty of his character. He asked Nanak to take charge of his stores. It was the most appropriate assignment for a God-fearing man like Nanak. A few days later Mardana, one of Nanak’s companions from- Talwandi also joined him. Mardana was an instrumentalist by profession; he played on the rabab. While during the day Nanak worked in the Nawab’s commissariat, they got together both in the morning and in the evening to meditate and sing hymns. Their sessions became longer and longer. More and more people started joining them. Before he left his home in Talwandi, Nanak had promised his wife that he would send her part of his earnings, which he continued to do. With the rest of the money he entertained his companions and the poor and the needy that he came across.
It is said that Nanak remained in the service of the Nawab for about two years. Then early one morning, accompanied by Mardana, he went to the river Bain, close by, for his bath. He did this first thing every day. To Mardana’s surprise after Nanak plunged into the water that morning, he didn’t appear on the surface. Mardana waited and waited. Then panic-stricken, he ran to the town to seek assistance. Evidently Nanak had either been drowned or washed away by the river, which was in spate. The Nawab, who had become a great admirer of Nanak, got the best divers to scrounge the river thoroughly. But Nanak was nowhere to be found. Then some wicked people started a whispering campaign. They alleged that Jai Ram’s brother-in-law had embezzled the stores and, fearing the consequences, he had fled or maybe he had committed suicide by drowning himself. The stores were thoroughly checked and it was found that the inventory and the accounts were absolutely in order.
To everybody’s surprise, on the third day Nanak appeared in the town as if from nowhere. There was a great relief in the Nawab’s household and rejoicing among Nanak’s relatives and friends. But Nanak was no longer his old self. He was altogether a changed man. There was divine light in his eyes and his face was resplendent. A halo seemed to crown his head. People flocked to have a look at him. Nanak wouldn’t speak to anybody. He was in a trance. He gave up his job with the Nawab and distributed all that he had to the poor. Accompanied by Mardana, the rabab player, he left the town.
When he broke his silence after a few days, his first utterance was:
There is no Hindu, no Mussalman. He spoke in ecstasy. He was no longer Nanak, the dreamy-eyed youth from Talwandi, he was Guru Nanak, a messenger of God, ordained to propagate His Name and the virtues of truthfulness and clean living. His second utterance was:
One must labour to earn and share one’s earnings with others. These were the two cardinal principles of Guru Nanak’s teaching when he started his life-long mission. It is said that he was thirty years old when he left Sultanpur.
Before he took his leave, the Nawab asked Guru Nanak what he meant when he said, There is no Hindu, no Mussalman. Perhaps the Hindus were no longer Hindus but the Mussalmans remained devoted to their faith. At this, Guru Nanak uttered these words:
Let God’s grace be the mosque, and devotion the prayer mat.
Let the Quran be the good conduct.
Let modesty be compassion, good manners fasting,
You should be a Mussalman the like of this.
Let good deeds be your Kaaba and truth be your mentor.
Your Kalma be your creed and prayer,
God would then vindicate your honour.
The qazi in the Nawab’s court, however, was not convinced. If you are not a Hindu, he said, you must join us in prayers, we who are devout Muslims believing in the unity of God. Guru Nanak was certainly willing to keep company with those who had faith in God. He agreed to join them in prayers. But when the qazi commenced the prayers, Guru Nanak stood aside and watched with a smile on his lips. As soon as the prayers were over, the infuriated qazi asked Guru Nanak, Why didn’t you join us in prayers after agreeing to do so? Guru Nanak told him politely, I did not join you because all the while you were saying the prayers, your mind was on your filly left loose back at your place. You feared that she might drop into the well of your courtyard. The qazi heard it and was silenced. In that case, you could have given me your company, said the Nawab. Yes, but you were buying horses in Kabul, observed Guru Nanak. The Nawab heard it and fell at the Guru’s feet. He was, indeed, a man of God. God spoke through him.
Guru Nanak’s times were difficult. The means of communication were forbidding. Messages had to be carried by word of mouth from town to town and from village to village. Guru Nanak undertook long journeys to north and south, east and west. He had with him Mardana, the Muslim rabab player, for a companion. Mardana played on the rabab and Guru Nanak poured out the inspired word in some of the finest poetry in the language. Not only this, most of it can be sung to music in prescribed ragas. With illiteracy rampant around him, Guru Nanak purposely chose this medium to propagate his message. He also endeavored to set up cells called man us, where those who subscribed to his way of life assembled for meditation and recitation of hymns. In due course, there was a network of these cells throughout India and beyond its borders in Sri Lanka, across the Himalayas, and in West Asia.