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Guru Nanak: The Master Whose Teachings Transcend Boundaries


  – Ananth Seth

Guru Nanak, also known as Baba Nanak, is among the greatest Thinkers, Philosophers, Poets, Travellers, Social Reformers, Mass Communicators and Spiritual Masters the land of Bharat has ever produced. He was born in 1469, in the village Rai Bhoi ki Talwandi (now called Nankana Sahib) near Lahore. The room in which he was born constitutes the inner sanctum of the Gurdwara Nankana Sahib.

Guru Nanak was a precocious child who would spend most of his time in meditation. He lived in troubled times when undivided India was bearing the brunt of Muslim bigots who had no qualms in showing their rabid opposition to the tenets of Sanatan Dharma. It was also the time when Hinduism was undergoing internal reform through the Bhakti movement. When the fight was between “my way to my God” is better than “your way to your God,” the Guru declared that there was only one God (Ik Onkar – the opening words of the Holy scripture Guru Granth Sahib) though there were many ways to reach Him.

Guru Nanak travelled widely in his life time and went as far as Assam in the east, Sri Lanka in the south, Tibet in the north and Mecca and Baghdad in the west. He consciously went on long journeys (called Uddasi, a Punjabi word which, in the humble opinion of the author could be the original etymological root of the word Odyssey) to far off places along with his two companions Bhai Bala, a Hindu, and Bhai Mardana, a Muslim, to hold dialogues with many saints.
During his first Uddasi, undertaken during 1499-1507, Guru Nanak covered most parts of present-day India and Pakistan. His second Uddasi (1507-1514) saw him visiting Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya (around 1511 CE) and most parts of South India and present-day Sri Lanka. In the third Uddasi (1514-1518), he travelled to the North passing through places like Kashmir, Nepal, Sumer Parbat, Tibet and Sikkim in the Himalayas. In his fourth journey (1519-1521) he travelled to the West, visiting places like Mecca, Medina, Baghdad and most other parts of the Middle East. He is the most travelled Prophet in world history, who fulfilled, to a large extent, the Almighty’s Hukm (Fiat) to turn misguided Humankind towards Divinity.

During his travels, he met people of all faiths: Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, Zoroastrians. He also met Kabir, the famous Bhakti saint of Banaras in whose company he spent some time, and who exemplified his vision of an ideal devotee of God with a pure heart and selfless attitude. He met people and had discourses and discussions with the learned and the laymen.

He used the Punjabi language (the lingua-franca of the place where he was born) to communicate his egalitarian teachings. Some of his early followers came from his own Khatri caste. However, for the large mass of Punjabis who were attracted to Guru Nanak’s teachings, it was the content of his teachings (equality), the medium of his communication (Punjabi) and the form of his communication (poetry, song and music), which attracted them to his teachings. Guru Nanak used a logical and scientific approach based on Bibek-Buddhi (intellect) to discourage futile rituals, superstitions and dogmas. It is vital to grasp how he transcended the limitations of geographical space and historical time in delivering a message that had universal relevance. The fact that in his own lifetime, communities of his followers had emerged in what are today India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet and Sri Lanka and even in Iraq and Iran illustrates that his message went beyond geographical boundaries of Punjab.

After his fourth Uddasi, Guru Nanak returned to Kartarpur around 1521 CE where he re-joined the Grahast-Aashram. At Kartarpur, Guru Nanak practised what he preached – Naam Japo, Kirat Karo, Vand Chakko (Worship, Work and Share). Putting on a householder’s dress, he began executing his mission. The daily prayers based on the recitation of the compositions of the Guru, followed by the Langar (which involved community cooking, serving and sharing food), served as agencies of internal solidarity.

The Langar concept was an innovative charity and symbol of equality introduced by Guru Nanak around 1500 CE. Guru Nanak developed it as a part of the institutional framework that helped the community to evolve free of any prejudices. Similarly, Hindu temples of the Gupta Empire era had attached kitchen and alms-houses called Dharma-Shalas or Dharma-Sattras to feed the travellers and poor for free, or whatever donation they may voluntarily leave. These community kitchens and rest houses are evidenced in epigraphical evidence, and in some cases referred to as Satram (for example, Annasya Satram), Choultry or Chathram in parts of India.

The Guru’s written compositions (incorporated into Adi Granth compiled by Guru Arjan) contain truths that pertain not only to the religious aspect of our lives, but also to social and family matters, things that have been ordinarily considered outside the purview of religion. He spoke with authority and conviction on issues like Social Equality, Gender Bias, Casteism and even the issue of autocratic excesses. The concept of Vand Chakna stresses on sharing rather than on hoarding and has withstood continuing attacks from avarice and greed. He strongly disapproved of the practice of sutak, or impurity, attributed to women due to their physiological occurrences, as a result of which they were banned from participating in family and religious functions during such times. He abhorred the practise of Sati and professed against it. Guru Nanak was unsparing in his criticism of those who lost their bearings due to a feeling of power.

The Guru professed that antidote to hubris is Seva, serving strangers. Seva gives life some meaning and adds to the core moral strength of a person. We see people performing Seva at Gurdwaras and at various social occasions.

The 30th day of November this year marks the 551st Birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak, observed across the globe as Guru Nanak Jayanti.  The best way to celebrate Guru Nanak Jayanti is to read the Guru Granth Sahib (the second and ultimate rendition of Adi Granth) so that Guru Nanak’s universal vision is understood and implemented. Let’s conclude this overview with the Jaikaara Jo Bole So Nihaal…Sat Sri Akaal – the one who says that God is the eternal and ultimate truth, will be blessed eternally.

(Author is Hyderabad-based Legal Practitioner)

This Article Was First published in 2020