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Guru Nanak’s Life and Teachings Shaping Religious Movement

August 16, 2023

The Sikhs’ retellings of Guru Nanak’s life, known as janam sakhis, highlight his early introspection and activism. They speak of his integrity and commitment to the truth even at a young age. They recount their extraordinary and life-altering meeting with God. A friend of Nanak’s took him river-bathing one day. Nanak vanished without a trace, and his distraught companion eventually made it back to Sultanpur with the terrible news and the garments Nanak had left on the bank before he vanished. However, Nanak showed up again three days later. A few moments after he climbed out of the water, he proclaimed, “There is neither Hindu nor Muslim.” He continued by saying that because God was neither Hindu nor Muslim, Nanak had decided to follow God’s path instead. In one of his songs, Guru Nanak spoke about his mystical experience with God, in which he was transported to God’s court and offered a cup of amrit, the heavenly nectar. God’s name was conferred to him through this nectar, and he was tasked with spreading it.

Guru Nanak was so shaken by this accusation that he quit his employment and spent the next several years wandering across India and, according to some early Sikh texts, the Middle East. He used lyrical songs called shabads to spread his message. Mardana, a musician and naturalized Muslim, accompanied him, as legend has it. Guru Nanak sang songs about the unity of God, human equality, and the pointlessness of useless rituals.

The anecdotes that sprung up in his followers’ company hint at the profundity of his teachings. For instance, he allegedly visited Makkah. His long trek ended with a nap in the expansive arcades of Makkah’s hallowed Ka’bah. An official woke him up and admonished him for sleeping with his feet pointing toward God’s sanctuary of worship. He said, “Then turn my feet so that they point away from God, and I will sleep that way.”

After some time, Guru Nanak returned to the Punjab with his family. He gave up the ministry to focus on farming and instead founded the Sikh community of Kartarpur. His followers formed a tight-knit group that shared meals, chores, and worship. He spent his final two decades helping to establish the first Sikh society. Guru Nanak chose a devoted disciple to take over the care and leadership of the community before his death. A “limb” of Guru Nanak, he called him Guru Angad.

When Guru Nanak was 70 years old, he passed away. Tradition holds that on the day he died, Nanak gathered his followers around him to comfort them. Muslims wanted to bury him as a great saint, while Hindus said his remains should be cremated. Put flowers from the Hindus on my right side and flowers from the Muslims on my left,” Nanak instructed. My body should be burned tomorrow while the Hindu flowers are still blooming, and buried while the Muslim flowers are still in bloom. After he had died away, a sheet was placed over him. The following day, the Muslim and Hindu flowers were still beautiful, but there was no one under the cover.

Although followers from both the Muslim and Hindu faiths were drawn to Guru Nanak, he was neither religion. Both of them, he said, were wrong. In this, he was in the company of the mystics, including the Sufi saints and the bhakti singers whose encounters with God shook up their religious canons. Guru Nanak’s holy hymns sang praise to the One who defies human classification and is beyond the reach of human institutions. His straightforward approach to hard effort and enthusiastic praise created the basis for a new religious movement.

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