Satgur nanak pargatya, miti dhund jag chanan hoa
Jio kar suraj niklea tarey chhapey andher paloa —
Emergence of Guru Nanak, lifted mist and spread light everywhere
As with the rising of sun, stars hide and darkness vanishes —
– Bhai Gurdas [1551-1639], Varan 1.27
Guru Nanak’s birthday is traditionally celebrated on the day of full moon in the month of kartik [katak in Punjabi] and is an occasion for joyous celebrations and prayer for Sikhs and other believers the world over.
Nanak [1469-1539] was born in a place called Talwandi, now known as Nankana Sahib, in Pakistan Punjab to Hindu parents. He showed early inclination for search of truth and was deeply distressed by the divide between religious precepts and practice and questioned ritualism shorn of deeper commitment as a path for deliverance. It was his routine to remain absorbed in meditation for hours and while the Guru chanted God’s praises, Mardana, his Muslim companion, would play on rebeck.
In a society deeply divided along religious lines, his first pronouncement after what is said to be his enlightenment was – there is no Hindu and no Muslim – albeit we are all children of one God. He took his message of love and prayer to all and every where that he could reach spending over twenty years traveling far and wide to Bengal in the East; Sri Lanka to South; Arabia, Iraq, Central Asia, Afghanistan to far West; and Tibet in the North – Mardana accompanying.
For Guru Nanak one single essence pervades the entire multiplicity of the cosmic existence. God is immanent in His creation and this world is his home. The world is intended by God to be a place of beauty, an arena for virtuous deeds and moral actions and not a place of suffering or sin.
God communicates with his creation through His infinite, abiding love – connect therefore with Him through love. Think, speak, sing, live love – for peace and tranquility within; harmony without. Nanak sang praises of God – kirtan – in rapturous love and commended sacred music as the most apt mode of worship in the troubled age – kaljug – that we are living through.
Nanak preached that even though the supreme aim of human life is unity with God, this aim has to be accomplished living in a world that is real. He encouraged his followers, Sikhs, to take a holistic look at life and man’s place in the Divine scheme of things. He argued that as humans, they have the rare opportunity, blessed as they are with intellect and ability to discriminate, to use their free will to make such choices that may bring them closer to God.
The Guru did not commend denial and austerities as a way to salvation. His persuasion was for virtuous living, truthfulness, contentment and contemplation along with rising above life’s bondages and moderation as an expression of true religiosity. Truth is the highest, he said, but higher still is living in Truth.
Nanak believed that equality and justice are basic pre-requisites of a civil society. He vehemently raised his voice against any discrimination because of class, caste, gender or religious persuasion. Violence is to be abjured especially against the weak and innocent. Referring to the terrible suffering of innocent victims of war, the Guru even chided God – “Didn’t Thou feel their anguish?”
The life and teachings of Nanak are possibly a very unique example in inter religious relations. His message was to be good practitioners not mere prisoners of rituals or professors of one’s persuasion. He had numerous dialogues with leaders of all persuasions during his extensive travels. Sidh Gost in the scripture is a record of Guru Nanak’s conversations with sidhas, a sadhu tradition active at the time.
When the Guru settled at Kartarpur in 1521, he started the practice of morning and evening prayer sessions and kirtan in the dharamshal that he established there to continue his missionary. He was following God’s command, said he. His dharamshal was open to all and the rural folks gravitated in large numbers to hear the spiritual message he passed to people as it was revealed to him.
So even as we celebrate the day with prayer, charity, sharing and renewed commitment to his teachings let us remember that an important legacy of Guru Nanak is that religion is not something unrelated to our societal behavior. Let our collective judgment on the issues of right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice be such as to help bring the world we are living in closer to Sikh Gurus’ vision of – halemi raaj – a civil society rooted in justice, equality and liberty and governed by principles of empathy, modesty and understanding.