Going back to the 15th century, in a village named Nankana sahib, near Lahore (present-day Pakistan), the founder of Sikhism- Guru Nanak Dev Ji was born. His birthday, a significant religious event, is celebrated all over India, especially in Punjab. However, in 2019, this auspicious occasion was celebrated in a historical manner.
In 2019, on the occasion of Guru Nanak Dev's 550th birth anniversary, for the very first time, entry to Kartarpur Sahib (in present-day Pakistan), the place where Nanak Ji spent the last years of his life, was permitted. This event was made possible with the cooperation of the Indian and Pakistani governments. Borders were opened for all Indians wanting to visit the holy place through a special establishment of the Kartarpur corridor.
This undoubtedly makes us wonder about the life of the great spiritual leader. How was he able to touch the hearts of so many individuals? What was his philosophy? What were his ideals? Let’s dig deeper into the inspirational and eventful life of the first Guru of Sikhism- Guru Nanak Dev Ji.
Guru Nanak Dev
Guru Nanak Dev was born in a Vedic Kshatriya caste to Kalyan Das Mehta, also known as Mehta Kalu, a local patwari (accountant), and Mata Tripta. He also had an elder sister, Bebey Nanaki, who was also the first one to notice his divine soul.
From a very young age, Guru Nanak Ji's ideas and actions were often subjected to the critical gaze of his elders. When other children of his age engaged in sports and fun, Nanak acquainted himself with religious scriptures and learned different languages such as Sanskrit, Persian, and Hindi. It didn't take long for the people to realise that he was truly unique.
As time passed, he refused to follow traditional religious procedures and actively opposed the societal practices of the caste system, idolatry, etc. widely prevalent at that time. One such incident was when Nanak Ji's parents told him about the thread ceremony that was to be conducted for him like every other boy who belonged to his caste. He strongly refused to take part in the ritual, saying that it is people’s actions and individual qualities that distinguish them from others rather than a religious thread.
Nanak did not follow any rituals blindly. He trusted the existence of God but denied to follow any kind of customs in his life. His attitude soon became a source of worry for his parents. In fact, the story of "Sacha Sauda" (the true bargain) also accounts for how a teen Nanak was slapped by his father when he had spent all the money given to him to feed hungry ascetics instead of striking a good business negotiation deal with merchants.
As Nanak grew into a young man, he continued to rebel against religious practices and traditions. In 1487, Guru Nanak Dev Ji married Mata Sulakhni and was soon blessed with two sons, Sri Chand and Lakhmi Das. The family, accompanied by Bhai Mardana, a Muslim childhood friend of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, then moved to Sultanpur Lodhi, where he worked as an accountant. To his parent’s relief, he had finally settled into a happy family life. However, his spiritual inclination was still intact. While he worked during the days, in early mornings and nights, he meditated and sang hymns with friend Mardana. Moreover, it is said that while he worked, he distributed all the food grains to the poor saying, “Sab Tera" which means “all yours".
Guru Nanak with Bhai Mardana playing the rubab
A famous anecdote on how Guru Nanak Ji attained enlightenment is from the days when he was in his late 20s. It is said that a 28-year-old Nanak went down to meditate in a river. For three days, there was no sign of him. However, when he reappeared, it was visible to all that he was a changed man. He was filled with the divine energy of God. The first thing he said after reappearing from the river was, "There is no Hindu, no Musalman". From here, he started his mission to teach the world the doctrine of Sikhism- a religion that ignores all caste and religious barriers and gives utmost importance to the notion of humanity. From here, a new phase of his life began.
After attaining spiritual enlightenment at the age of 28, Guru Nanak Dev started travelling to different parts of the world. Within the next 30 years, he made four great spiritual journeys, traveling across India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, and Persia. Wherever he travelled, he carried an attire inspired by both Hindus and Muslims.
He visited head centers of all religions and had discourses with head priests of various sects of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. One of his great qualities was that he never asked anyone to become his follower. Instead, he asked Muslims to be true Muslims and Hindus to be true Hindus. He taught people to respect each other as God existed inside every human being, and preached that respecting each other would help one to directly connect with God without the need of following any rituals. His message of brotherhood, equality, and honest living touched the hearts of individuals from all religious backgrounds.
Guru Nanak Dev on his Sacred Journey
One of the incidents that exemplify the Guru’s emphasis on honest living is when he chose to attend a feast organised by Lalo, a low caste carpenter instead of Malik Bhago, the local chief of the town. When asked for the reason behind this decision, the Guru sent for the meal served by both of them. Holding these in separate hands, he squeezed them. While blood came out of the rich food of Malik Bhago, milk oozed out of Lalo’s simple meal. This was because Malik Bhago’s riches had been amassed by exploiting the poor, while what Lalo offered was the outcome of her hard-earned honest work.
Another popular anecdote from his travels is from his visit to Mecca where he accidentally fell asleep with his feet pointed towards the holy Ka'ba. When a man questioned him for disrespecting God by turning his feet in his direction, Guru Nanak replied, "Good man, I am weary after a long journey. Kindly turn my feet in the direction where God is not".
After searching for the right path to life and inspiring many across different countries, Nanak Ji returned home to Kartarpur, Punjab. Pilgrims from all over the world went to him to hear his beautiful hymns, filled with morals and values of life.
Nanak Ji leaves for Heavenly Abode
In Nanak Ji’s last days, Hindus and Muslims argued about how his last rites would be performed. While Hindus wanted to cremate the Guru, Muslims wanted to bury him as per their religious tradition. To solve the issue, Nanak Ji suggested both the religious communities to lay down flowers on both sides of his body, where the right side belonged to Hindus and the left to Muslims. Whichever community’s flowers remained fresh the next morning, the last rites would be performed according to their will. When everyone returned the next day, the only thing they could find in place of the body was fresh flowers. Seeing this, Hindus cremated the flowers on their side while Muslims buried them. Thus, even at the time of his demise, Guru Nanak delivered the lesson of peace and tolerance among both the communities (something we need to remind ourselves at present as well).
Guru Nanak Dev