Guru Nanak Dev



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Fast Facts
Guru_Nanak.jpg
Function: 
Guru
Traditions: 
Sikhism, Sant Mat, Surat Shabd Yoga
Main Countries of Activity: 
India
Date of Birth: 
1469
Place of Birth: 
India
In His/Her Body ("alive"): 
No
Date Left His/Her Body: 
1539
Other Related Gurus: 
all the Sikh Gurus and the Sant Mat Gurus

Biography

Guru Nanak Dev (Punjabi: ਗੁਰੂ ਨਾਨਕ ਦੇਵ, (Hindi: गुरु नानक Urdu: گرونانک Gurū Nānak (15 April 1469, Nankana Sahib, Punjab, (now Pakistan) - 22 September 1539, Kartarpur, Punjab, India), is the central figure in Sikhism, and named as the first of the ten Sikh Gurus.

Birth and early life

Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji was born 15 April 1469 into a Khatri family, in the village of Rai Bhoi Ki Talwandi, now called Nankana Sahib, near Lahore, Pakistan. Today, his birthplace is marked by Gurdwara Janam Asthan.

His father, Shri Kalidas Chandarana, later known as Kalyan Das Bedi, also known as Mehta Kalu, was the patwari (accountant) of crop revenue for the village of Talwandi under the Muslim landlord of the village, Rai Bular, who was responsible for collecting taxes. Guru Nanak's mother was Tripta Devi and he had one older sister, Nanaki.

Gurdwara Nankana SahibThe earliest biographical sources on the life of Guru Nanak recognised today are the Janamsākhīs' (lit. life-accounts) and the vārs (expounding verse) of the scribe Bhai Gurdas.

The most popular Janamsākhī are said to have been written by a close companion of the Guru' Bhai Bala' before Nanak died.[4] However, the writing style and language employed have left scholars such as Max Arthur Macauliffe certain that they were composed after his death.

Bhai Gurdas, purported scribe of the Gurū Granth, also wrote about Nanak's life in his vārs. Although these too were compiled some time after Guru Nanak's death, and are also less detailed than the Janamsākhīs, modern Sikh ideologues tend to hold them in higher regard.

The Janamsākhīs recount in minute detail the circumstances of the birth of the guru. They claim that at his birth an astrologer, who came to write his horoscope ,insisted on seeing the child. On seeing the infant, he is said to have worshipped him with clasped hands. The astrologer then remarked that he regretted that he should never live to see young Guru Nanak as an adult.[citation needed].

At the age of five years Nanak is said to have voiced interest in divine subjects. At age seven, his father, Mehta Kalu, enrolled him at the village school as per the norm. Notable lore recounts that as a child 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 Nanak such as a poisonous cobra being seen to shield the sleeping child's head from the harsh sunlight.

Marriage and family life

Guru Nanak Dev Ji was married to Mata Sulakhni Ji. His marriage to her took place in the town of Batala. The marriage party had come from the town of Sultanpur Lodhi. He had two sons from this marriage; Sri Chand and Lakhmi Chand. The former was a deeply spiritual person and founded a renunciate/ascetic subsect known today as Udasis. The younger son grew up to become immersed in worldly life.

The bhakti movement

The Bhakti movement was an anti-establishment shift in the pysche of the native Indian people, mirrored by the Sufi movement amongst the Muslim population. Far from being an ideology, the tone was set by a number of remarkable religious personalities from all manner of backgrounds and religious dispositions whose teachings became known far and wide. The emphasis was on devotion over and above philosophy, and God over and above thought and circumstances.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji is understood outside of Sikhism mainly in this framwork. His near contemporaries in northern India were personalities like Kabir, Ravidas, and Naamdev. Yet one way in which Nanak stands out is his extensive travels throughout India and beyond.

However, Nanak is not viewed as a Bhagat by Sikhs; rather, these individuals exmply the uniqueness and astonishing nature of the devotes' state. To Sikhs Nanak is a manifestation whereby God was revealed, hence the title Guru. This explains his travel as stated in the previous paragraph. He moved from place to place in order to seek out the devoted, in answer to their religious yearning. As per the janamsakhis, Nanak mysteriously took up the religious form recognisable to different religious groups as he ventured into their different territories - amongst the Shivaites in the south he became like a Shivaite, amongst the Muslims in the west he seemed like a Muslim holyman.

Travels

For over twenty years beginning in about 1497, Guru Nanak traveled by foot throughout India. He traveled as far east as Assam and Burma. To the South he went as far as Sri Lanka (Ceylon). To the north he ventured even to places outside India like Tibet, China and Russia. He also went towards the west into Arabia and Persia, visiting Mecca, Medina and Baghdad, Turkey, Greece and further on.[9]

Last years
As his end approached Guru Nanak Dev Ji would frequently test the devotion of his sons and nearest followers and in doing so demonstrate their state of mind to one another. There were numerous such occasions and one particular devotee, Baba Lehna Ji, rose to eminence because he never faltered in his faith in Guru Ji.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji proclaimed Baba Lehna Ji as the successor Guru, renaming him Guru Angad Dev Ji, meaning 'one's very own' or 'part of you'. This successorhood wasn't a mere gesture. Via a transformation, compared in Sikh tradition as the passing of a flame from one candle to another, the Guru-aspect of Guru Nanak Dev Ji descended upon Guru Angad Dev Ji. Guru Angad Dev Ji became Guru Nanak. In Shri Guru Granth Sahib this is described as having even a physical manifestation whereby Angad in person suddenly appeared to look like Nanak.

(To Sikhs, although there were ten separate Gurus in physical form, there was actually only one single Guru whose metamorphosised light moved from one successor or vessel to the next, granting a kind of rebirth to those personalities on their initiation. Hence they all held the original name of 'Nanak'.)

Shortly after proclaiming Lehna as the next Guru, Nanak announced that the time of his death had arrived, and retreated to a tree whereby he sat in the lotus position and the praan (life-force) was guided upwards and outwards from his body. The date was said to be 22 September 1539 according to the western calendar.

Teachings

Guru Nanak Ji's teachings come down today foremostly in the Guru Granth, a vast collection of revelatory verses recorded in

From these some common principles seem discernible. Firstly a supreme Godhead who although incomprehensible manifests in a variety of religious forms, the Singular 'Doer' and formless source of all forms. It is described as the indestructible or timeless form and in both impersonal and personal forms. Salvation or liberation depends on the grace ('nadir'- glance) of God alone and although outside the power of the individual, manifests through the individual whom is seen to be unceasing in their efforts. Religious awakening is compared to undergoing a living death.

Guru Nanak Ji describes the dangers of the self (haumai- 'I am') and calls upon devotees to engage in worship through God's name and singing of God's qualities, discarding doubt in the process. However such worship must be selfless (seva)- which could be said to be similar in principle to the nishkaam worship elaborated in the Bhagavad Gita. God's name cleanses the individual to make such worship possible. This is related to the revelation that God is the Doer and without God there is no other. Guru Ji warned against hypocrisy and falsehood saying that these are pervasive in humanity and that religious actions can also be in vain. However the practice of satsang is considered exalted. It may also be said that ascetic practices are disfavoured by Guru Nanak Ji who suggests remaining inwardly detached whilst living as a householder.

Through popular tradition, Guru Nanak Dev Ji's teaching is understood to be practiced in three ways:

Naam Japna: Chanting the Holy Name and thus remembering God at all times (ceasless devotion to God)
Kirat Karō: Earning/making a living honestly, without exploitation or fraud
Vaṇḍ Chakkō: Sharing with others, helping those with less who are in need
Guru Nanak Dev Ji put the greatest emphasis on the worship of True Name (naam japna). One should follow the direction of Awakened individuals rather than the mind (state of manmukh- being led by the mind)- the latter being perilous and leading only to frustration.

In the context of his times, reforms that occurred in the wake of Nanak's teachings and the bhakti movement at large included bhakti devotion being open to all castes, women not to be marginalised from its institutions, and both Godhead and Devotion transcending any religious consideration or divide, as God is not separate from any individual.

Common errors today are to understand Guru Nanak Dev Ji as a mere reformer or intellectual thinker. People tend to think of him as someone who attempted to reconcile Hindu and Muslim differences, and consequently of Sikhism as a thoughtful and conscientious attempt to combine elements of Hinduism and Islam. However, a close study of even a few of his sloaks quickly dispel this false notion. Guru Nanak Dev Ji spoke from direct understanding as an Awoken personality and not as a scholar, utilising the language of [Punjab] at the time as a person of Hindu background living in a highly Islamicised state. He encouraged people to worship within their own traditions, but to keep the focus on God's names rather than egotistic considerations.

Baburvani

Baburvani (Babur's song) - pronounced BaaburVaani - are verses in a hymn composed by Guru Nanak and found in the Guru Granth Sahib that refer to the Moghul invasion of India, an event that occurred during Nanak's lifetime.[8] The notable aspect of these verses is that we do not usually find such elaborate descriptions to outside events in bhakti verses of many bhagats, despite this being such a tumultuous time in Indian history. The Mughal Emperor Babur's invasion of India brought with it bloodshed, plunder, destruction, and massacres.

In this hymn Guru Nanak uses the metaphor of the marriage party, describing the march of Babur and his army of dogs, ravaging through beautiful Khorastan and coming to defile the jewel-like bride Hindustan (India). The ironic use of terms associated with marriage customs seems to be a subversion of the populist and widespread archetype of 'the beloved' that preoccupied Northern Indian religious and artistic thought at the time.

Guru Ji puts this event up to the prospect of a merciful yet all-powerful God, describing powerfully yet with muted economy the state of events and how this related to questions of suffering and oppression, and the transcience of life.

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Books & Media

Recommended Books: 
Cover image

Understanding Sikhism (Understanding Faith)

by W. Owen Cole

(Paperback)

One of the world's major faiths with more than 20 million adherents, Sikhism is a religion which most people, including academics, seem to ignore. This introduction assumes no prior knowledge on the part of the reader. At the center of the religion is the scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, and it is the focus of Sikh theology and practice to the extent that no one is allowed to come between it and the believer. There is no priesthood. A particular aspect of Sikhism is its relationship with and attitude to other religions, something of particular significance in our multi-religious society. This book is written by a non-Sikh who has a PhD in Sikh studies.

Pro Opinions

Devotion with complete dedication

NIDHI PARKASH's picture

Amongst the Avtaars, Prophets, and founders of established religions only Guru Nanak's life story is firmly grounded in history having objective and scientific evidence.