Guru Nanak

There is One God
He is the supreme truth.
He, The Creator,
Is without fear and without hate,
He, The Omnipresent,
Pervades the universe.
He is not born,
Nor does He die to be born again,
By His grace shalt thou worship Him.

Before time itself
There was truth,
When time began to run its course
He was the truth.
Even now, He is the truth
And Evermore shall truth prevail.
(Beginning of Japji – The Morning Prayer of the Sikhs, by Guru Nanak, transl. Khushwant Singh)

Guru Nanak

Guru Nanak with his companions Bhai Balu and Bhai Mardana, unknown artist.

Guru Nanak (1469–1539 C.E.) founded the Sikh community in the early sixteenth century. Born into a high-caste Hindu family near Lahore, India, in 1469, Nanak became increasingly disenchanted with the society in which he lived. Eventually, around 1500, he left his householder life to wander the world in search of a better way to live. His twenty years of travel took him far and wide, and the Sikh tradition, as recorded in the Janam Sakhis (The life stories of Guru Nanak), has him visiting many religious centers, as far as Mecca to the west, Dhakka to the east, Sri Lanka to the south, and Kashmir to the north. During his travels, he wrote hymns that commented on the current political situation, engaged in ethical and religious debates with other religious figures, and praised God. In the early 1520s, he returned to his home province of Punjab, acquired a piece of land on the Ravi River, collected his hymns into a book, and established a community where he put the previous two decades of meditation and learning into practice. Before his death in 1539, he appointed a successor, Guru Angad, to carry the flame of the guruship.

Nanak identified three key virtues for living a morally righteous life that were essential to the search for liberation from this world—meditation on the divine name (nam), charity (dan), and purity (ishnan). This search for liberation (moksha or mukati) certainly echoes much of the Indian religious thinking of the time, but Guru Nanak brought a social consciousness to his philosophy that set him apart from other religious thinkers. Although the concepts of nam and ishnan speak to the personal dimension of this process, the emphasis on dan, or charity, puts the search for liberation firmly in the world. The individual is not to seek liberation on his or her own; rather, he or she must actively participate in communal life. Thus the search for liberation and the path that leads to it becomes more collective than personal. Guru Nanak’s community on the Ravi, named Kartarpur (City of God), reflected these three ideals (nam, dan, ishnan) and their communal orientation. Meditation on the name took on various forms, including individual recitation of hymns to God that Nanak had composed in the early morning, at sunset, and at the end of the day, congregational singing of hymns at the Gurdwara (House of the Guru), and emphasis on hard work as part of a social commitment to keep the society going. The ideal of charity was institutionalized in the form of langar, or the communal meal served to all. Based on the Sufi practice of langar, the community at Kartarpur worked to supply food for anyone who wanted to join the meal regardless of social standing or religion. All the food and labor was considered seva, or service, presented before God. Finally, the importance of purity extended to eating and drinking habits as well as to personal hygiene issues, such as bathing regularly.

Nanak presented God as the eternally unchanging formless one. God is beyond time, beyond all human description, and beyond human intellect. He is all-powerful, omnipresent, and omniscient. He is the creator of all and will be the ultimate destroyer of all. However, Guru Nanak broke from his fellow spiritual leaders by insisting that his followers develop a relationship, no matter how imperfect it might be, with God. Thus, it is not by personal effort that liberation is achieved, but by God’s grace (nadar, from the Persian nazar, meaning “glance”) that one is saved. Only by receiving the “glance” of God can one be released from self-centeredness (haumai), and this release is accompanied by an awe-inspiring experience of God and a resulting bliss (visamad).

Though personal effort is not enough on its own for liberation, he said, it is still absolutely necessary to the process. Since God is the ultimate cause (kartar) of everything, a person’s relationship to the world is important. Nanak encouraged his followers to engage the world as it is all God’s creation, and even the most mundane parts of life, such as farming or churning the butter, are elevated to spiritual acts. Thus, although God may be ultimately unknowable to the human mind, nevertheless Nanak did attempt to describe him, and that description is often couched in familiar terms. Guru Nanak used language from various avenues of life to describe God: In agrarian language, he is the great farmer (vadda kisan); in the language of artisans, he is the potter; and,most significantly, in the language of politics, he is the patshah, the great king. Thus, Nanak left a legacy of personal meditation on the Name (nam), firm commitment to hard work and service to humanity in the search for liberation, and active participation in worldly affairs such as politics.

It is important to recognize the political dimension of Guru Nanak’s life. Although he certainly was a great religious leader, he also had a keen interest in political life. He was insistent on just rule and believed that the right to rule came from moral righteousness, which could only be obtained by following the path set out by God. Even his conception of God was linked to his concern about the legitimacy of rule, as God is called the king of kings and justice is meted out in his divine court.
(Daniel Michon in „Holy People of the World“)