The First Master
The founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak was born on April 15, 1469
in the Western Punjab village of Talwandi. He was born to a simple Hindu
family. His father Mehta Kalian Das was an accountant in the employment
of the local Muslim authorities.
From an early age Guru Nanak made friends with both Hindu and Muslim
children and was very inquisitive about the meaning of life. At the
age of six he was sent to the village school teacher for schooling in
reading and writing in Hindi and mathematics. He was then schooled in
the study of Muslim literature and learned Persian and Arabic. He was
an unusually gifted child who learned quickly and often question his
At age 13 it was time for Guru Nanak to be invested with the sacred
thread according to the traditional Hindu custom. At the ceremony which
was attended by family and friends and to the disappointment of his
family Guru Nanak refused to accept the sacred cotton thread from the
As a young man herding the family cattle, Guru Nanak would spend long
hours absorbed in meditation and in religious discussions with Muslim
and Hindu holy men who lived in the forests surrounding the village.
Thinking that if bound in marriage Guru Nanak might start taking interest
in household affairs a suitable match was found for him.
At age 16 he was married to Sulakhani daughter of a pious merchant.
Guru Nanak did not object as he felt that married life did not conflict
with spiritual pursuits. Guru Nanak was happily married, he loved his
wife and eventually had two sons Sri Chand in 1494 and Lakshmi Chand
three years later. Now that he had a family of his own Guru Nanak was
persuaded by his parents to take a job as an accountant in charge of
the stores of the Muslim governor of Sultanpur Daulat Khan Lodi. Guru
Nanak agreed and was joined by his family and an old Muslim childhood
friend Mardana, a musician by profession.
Guru Nanak would work during the days, but early in the mornings and
late at nights, he would meditate and sing hymns accompanied by Mardana
on the rabab ( a string instrument). These sessions attracted a lot
of attention and many people started joining the two.
Early one morning accompanied by Mardana, Guru Nanak went to the river
Bain for his bath. After plunging into the river, Guru Nanak did not
surface and it was reported that he must have drowned. The villagers
searched everywhere, but their was no trace of him. Guru Nanak was in
holy communion with God. The Lord God revealed himself to Guru Nanak
and enlightened him.
After three days Guru Nanak appeared at the same spot from where he
had disappeared. He was no longer the same person he had been, there
was a divine light in his eyes and his face was resplendent. He remained
in a trance and said nothing. He gave up his job and distributed all
of his belongings to the poor. When he finally broke his silence he
uttered "There is no Hindu, no Muslim".Guru Nanak was thirty
years old at this time in 1499. The next stage of his life began with
extensive travels to spread the message of God. Accompanied by his Muslim
rabab player Mardana for company, Guru Nanak undertook long journeys
to convey his message to the people in the form of musical hymns. Guru
Nanak choose this medium to propagate his message because it was easily
understood by the population of the time. Wherever he traveled he used
the local language to convey his message to the people. Wherever
he went he set up local cells called manjis, where his followers could
gather to recite hymns and meditate.
After his first long journey, Guru Nanak returned home after twelve
years of propagating his message. He then set out on a second journey
traveling as far south as Sri Lanka. On his return north he founded
a settlement known as Kartharpur (the Abode of God) on the western banks
of the Ravi river. It was also here that he met a young devotee
who would later go on to serve five of the following Gurus, Baba Buddha
(the revered old one).
On his third great journey Guru Nanak traveled as far north as Tibet.
Wherever Guru Nanak traveled he always wore a combination of styles
worn by Hindu and Muslim holy men and was always asked whether he was
a Hindu or Muslim. Guru Nanak visited Sheikh Ibrahim the muslim successor
of Baba Farid the great Sufi dervish of the twelfth century at Ajodhan.
When asked by Ibrahim which of the two religions was the true way to
attain God, Guru Nanak replied; "If there is one God, then there
is only His way to attain Him, not another. One must follow that way
and reject the other. Worship not him who is born only to die, but Him
who is eternal and is contained in the whole universe."
On his fourth great journey in life Guru Nanak dressed in the blue garb
of a Muslim pilgrim traveled to the west and visited Mecca, Medina and
Baghdad. While in Baghdad contradicting the Muslim priests views that
their were only seven upper and as many lower regions Guru Nanak shouted
out his own prayer saying, "There are worlds and more worlds below
them and there are a hundred thousand skies over them. No one has been
able to find the limits and boundaries of God. If there be any account
of God, than alone the mortal can write the same; but Gods account does
not finish and the mortal himself dies while still writing. Nanak says
that one should call Him great, and God Himself knows His own self."
(Japji) In 1916 a tablet with the following inscription was uncovered
in Baghdad, "In memory of the Guru, the holy Baba Nanak, King of
holy men, this monument has been raised anew with the help of the seven
saints." The date on the tablet 927 Hijri corresponds to A.D. 1520-1521.
On his return journey home he stopped at Saidpur in western Punjab during
the invasion of the first Mughal Emperor Babar. Guru Nanak and Mardana
were both taken prisoner by the Mughal's. While in jail Guru Nanak sang
a divine hymn about the senseless slaughter of the innocents by the
Mughal invaders. Upon hearing it the jailer reported it to his king.
Babar sent for the Guru and upon hearing him realized that Guru Nanak
was a great religious figure. He asked for the Gurus forgiveness and
set him free offering him a pouch of hashish. Guru Nanak refused saying
the he was already intoxicated with the love and name of God.
After having spent a lifetime of traveling abroad and setting up missions,
an aged Guru Nanak returned home to Punjab. He settled down at Kartharpur
with his wife and sons. Pilgrims came from far and near to hear the
hymns and preaching of the Master. Here his followers would gather in
the mornings and afternoons for religious services. He believed in a
castless society without any distinctions based on birthright, religion
or sex. He institutionalized the common kitchen called langar in Sikhism.
Here all can sit together and share a common meal, whether they were
kings or beggars.
While working the fields one day in 1532 Guru Nanak was approached by
a new devotee who said, "I am Lehna," Guru Nanak looked at
him and replied, "So you have arrived Lehna - the creditor. I have
been waiting for you all these days. I must pay your debt." ("Lehna"
in Punjabi means debt or creditor.) Lehna was a great devotee of the
Hindu God Durga. One day having hearing about Guru Nanak and his teachings,
he decided to visit and see the Guru for himself. Once Lehna met Guru
Nanak he left his previous beliefs and became an ardent disciple of
the Guru. Lehna's devotion to Guru Nanak was absolute, when he was not
working on the farm, he would devote his spare time to the contemplation
of God. Over time he became Guru Nanak's most ardent disciple.
Guru Nanak put his followers to many tests to see who was the most faithful.
Once while accompanied by Lehna and his two sons Guru Nanak came across
what looked like a corpse covered with a sheet. "Who would eat
it?" asked Guru Nanak unexpectedly. His sons refused, thinking
that their father was not in his senses. Lehna though agreed and as
he removed the cover he found that it was a tray of sacred food. Lehna
first offered it to Guru Nanak and his sons and then partook of the
leftovers himself. Guru Nanak on seeing this replied;
"Lehna, you were blessed with the sacred food because you could
share it with others. If the people use the wealth bestowed on them
by God for themselves alone or for treasuring it, it is like a corpse.
But if they decide to share it with others, it becomes sacred food.
You have known the secret. You are my image." (Janamsakhi)
Guru Nanak then blessed Lehna with his ang (hand) and gave him a new
name, Angad, saying "you are a part of my body". Guru Nanak
placed five coins and a coconut in front of Guru Angad and then bowed
before him. He then had Bahi Budhha anoint Angad with a saffron mark
on his forehead. When Guru Nanak gathered his followers together for
prayers he invited Angad to occupy the seat of the Guru. Thus Guru Angad
was ordained as the successor to Guru Nanak.
Feeling his end was near, the Hindus said we will cremate you, the Muslims
said we will bury you. Guru Nanak said; "You place flowers on either
side, Hindus on my right, Muslims on my left. Those whose flowers remain
fresh tomorrow will have their way." He then asked them to pray
and lay down covering himself with a sheet. Thus on September 22, 1539
in the early hours of the morning Guru Nanak merged with the eternal
light of the Creator. When the followers lifted the sheet they found
nothing except the flowers which were all fresh. The Hindus took theirs
and cremated them, while the Muslims took their flowers and buried them.
Thus having spread the words of reform throughout his lifetime, Guru
Nanak successfully challenged and questioned the existing religious
tenants and laid the foundations of Sikhism.