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Guru Nanak Dev (15 April 1469 – 22 September 1539)

September 2nd, 2011

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Guru Nanak Dev was the most profound political philosopher of Punjab in the last thousand years of its history. He can be easily, usually and genuinely included in the Sufi/Bhagti genre poets of Punjab but he is much more than that. Besides his philosophical debates with all schools of thoughts of Hindus and Muslims—the Japji, in particular, provides essence of these themes—he analyzed and described evolving historical socio-political changes, he prescribed an alternative discourse of life. He fiercely opposed religious ritualism, caste system and preached equality of human being without any prejudice to ethnicity and gender. Therefore, the claim of knowing Punjabi thinking discourse would be baseless without studying Guru Nanak although his followers have fallen back to other religions’ like ritualism and discriminatory practices.

Guru Nanak Dev was born on 15 April 1469, into a Bedi Khatari  family in the village of Rāi Bhōi dī Talwandī, now called Nankana Sahib, near Lahore, Pakistan. His father, Mehta Kalyan Das Bedi, popularly shortened to Kalu Mehta, was the patwari (accountant) of crop revenue for the village of Talwandi in the employment of a Muslim landlord of that area, Rai Bular Bhatti (Rai Balal Bhatti). Guru Nanak’s mother was Tripta Devi and he had one elder sister, Bebe Nanaki who got married to Jai Ram of Sultanpur, a steward (modi) to Daulat Khan Lodi, the eventual governor of Lahore.

Rāi Bhōi dī Talwand was a small place with no educational or job opportunities. Therefore Guru Nanak went to Sultanpur Lodhi which was ruled by Daulat Khan Lodhi who later became the governor of Punjab. But at that time Sultanpur Lodhi was the center of power and higher education with many state job opportunities: Sarhand and Lahore were also governed from Sultanpur then. The town was so much known for its educational institutions—one run by Maulana Abdullah was well known madrassas in the region—that even Emperor Aurang Zeb was also educated there. Therefore, Guru Nanak moved there with his only elder sister Nanaki for better education.  

It is evident that Guru Nanak got the best education and was a genius because otherwise he could not have been employed as treasurer or finance minister by the ruler at a young age. As a Hindu he could not attend the Islamic Madrassas but he is known for learning from Muslim scholars, debating them and even joining prayers with them. Guru Nanak was married to Mata Sulakhni at about 19 years of age.

At about age 30, he got the nirvana or transformation and disappeared for three days. Since it was rumored that he was drowned therefore, Daulat Khan searched the river for three days which shows that the ruler had a reverence for him and/or his honesty and competence. Guru Nanak appeared after three days, declared himself neither a Hindu nor a Muslim and who has adopted God’s way by drinking his amrit (nectar). The first verse of Japji and Granth Sahib sums it up as:

Ik Onkar, sat nam, karta pourkh, nirbhau, nirvair

Akal murat ajooni, saibhang, Gurparsad

(God is one, True, Creator of human, Fearless (or not to be feared), Un-vengeful, Formless, Multi-dimensional and Blessing Guru


He quit the job and left for Tilla Gorakhnath. The Nawab owed him Rs. 847 in back salaries—a very big amount at that time—which Guru Nanak gave to his in-laws and bought some land to make arrangements for provisions of his family while he was gone. Towards her end years he established Kartarpur (City ofGod) 1522 and that was his last abode.

After having discussions at Gorkhnath Tilla, about Advaita Vedanta  (unity of God), Guru Nanak accompanied by his devotee, Bhai Mardana, a Mulsim merasi (keepers of inheretence) moved to Nanak Mata Sahib, a place in UP where he spent ten years in meditation and exploring the various dimension of a new way of life. Guru Nanak made three long distance udasis( travels), first towards East India, Second to South India and third towards Arabian Meninsula (Baghdad, Mecca, and Medina). There is still a Gurdwara in Baghdad of that period though it is in need of repair. His fourth shorter travel to Kashmir, Ladakh and Tibet is also mentioned by historians. Accompanied by Bhai Mardana who composed his verses in different ragas Guru Nanak route of travel indicates that he went to all major places of scholarship of all religion specifically the ones known or Advaita Vedanta.

Guru Nanak negated existing organized religions and even jogis: 

kādī kūṛu boli malu khāe / brāhmaṇu nāvai jiā ghāe /
jogī jugati na jāṇai aṅdhu / tīne ojāṛe kā baṅdhu /

The Qāzi tells lies and eats filth.
The Brahman kills and then takes cleansing baths.
The Yogī is blind and does not know the Way.
All three have devised their [own] destruction
Guru Nanak lived in a time when society was going through a tremendous upheaval: old order had degenerated but trying to keep its stranglehold against the news. On political level, during his time, Syed dynasty had been replaced by the Lodhis who were eventually destroyed by Babur. In Babar Bani Guru Nanak describes the conditions of his times and the destruction Babar brought:

pāp kī jaṅñ lai kābulahu dhāiā, jorī maṅgai dānu ve lālo /
saramu dharamu dui chapi khaloai, kūṛu firai pardhānu ve lālo /
kājīā bāmaṇā kī gal khakī, agadu paṛai saitānu ve lālo /
musalmānīā paṛah katebā, kasat mahi karahi khudāi ve lālo /
jāti sanāti hori hinduāṇiā, ehi bhī lekhai lāi ve lālo /
khūn ke sohile gāvīahi nānak, ratu kā kuṅgu pāi ve lālo /
sahib ke guṇ nānaku gāvai mās purī vici ākhu masolā /

O Lalo, bringing the marriage party of sin, [Bābur] invaded from Kābul, demanding our land as his wedding gift.
Modesty and dharma have vanished, while falsehood stands tall like a chieftain.
The qāzīs and the Brahmans have lost their function; now the Satan conducts the marriage rite.
The Muslim women read the Qur’ān, and in despair they cry out “Khudā.”
The low castes and the Hindu women are subject to the same writ.
O Nānak, the wedding songs of murder are sung and the saffron of blood is sprinkled.
Singing the praises of God, Nānak narrates this account in the city of corpses

In such condition Guru Nanak asks the fundamental question in Japji, his first writing-how can one live an authentic life in times of lies (kiv sachiārā hoīaī, kiv kūṛai tuṭai pāli).  He condemned the clergy as parasites and having no honor:

giān vihūṇā gāvai gīt// bhuke mullāṅ ghare masīti//
makhtū hoe kai kaṅn paṛāe// fakaru kare hour jāti gavāe//
guru pīru sadāe maṅgaṇ jāe// tā kai mūli na lagīai pāe//
ghāli khāe kichu hathahu dei// nānak rāhu pachāṇahi sei//

One who lacks wisdom, sings [dharmic] songs.
The hungry mullah turns his home into a mosque.
The unemployed [yogī] has pierced his ears.
He lives in poverty and gives up his honor.
Another calls himself gurū and pīr, yet he goes around begging.
Never touch the feet of such a person.
One who eats the fruits of his hard work, O Nānak, that person knows the Way.

Guru Nanak addresses all the issues of his time, raising voice against economic exploitation showing that exploitation of human beings is built into the very productive process of his society. He was against parasitism and against idlers and called upon everyone to live a productive life with contributing to society with his/her labour and sharing the fruit of this labour in common—Kirat Karo Vand Ke Chhako (Do your work and distribute it equitably).

Guru Nanak condemned the caste system, opposed the monopoly of knowledge and god claimed by Brahmins and Mullahs. He preached radical gender equality and was against political oppression as well. While much of the discourse surrounding women during this period is misogynist, Gurū Nānak makes a very different statement concerning them:



bhaṅdi jaṅmīai bhaṅdi niṅmīai bhaṅdi maṅgaṇ vīāhu //
bhaṅdahu hovai dosatī bhaṅdahu calai rāhu //
bhaṅdu muā bhaṅdu bhālīai bhaṅdi hovai badhānu //
so kiou maṅdā ākhīai jitu jaṅmahi rājān //
From woman, man is born. Within woman, man is conceived. To woman, he is engaged and married.
He befriends a woman, and through the woman new generations arise.
If a woman dies, he seeks another. To women he is bound.
Why call her bad? From her kings are born?


Bābā Nānak’s concern with the marginalized and oppressed elements of society is captured best by the following shabad. He calls them nīcā aṅdār nīc, the oppressed of the oppressed:
nīcā aṅdari nīc jāti, nīcī hū ati nīcu//
nānak tin kai saṅgi sāthi, vaḍiā siu kiā rīs//
jithai nīc samālīani, tithai nadari terī bakhsīs//

Those who are lowest of the low class, the very lowest of the low;
Nānak seeks the company of those, for what benefit can be derived from imitating the high classes?
The place where the lowly are cared for, it is only there your merciful glance and grace exist.



Guru Nanak wanted to create a humanistic society with enlightenment and productive labor as its basis. For him there is no Hindu or Mussalman only Insaan-Human beings, manifestation of the divine. One does not have to go to temple, mosque, jungle, Banares or Badrinath to achieve salvation or Mukti. Instead, he preached:


Koi Bole Ram Ram Koi Khudaye

Koi Seve Gosainya Koi Ramaye

Koi  Nahve Teerth Koi Hajj Jawe

Koi Ohrde Neel Koi Saffed


Guru Nanak was different from other Sufi/Bhaghat thinkers because of his exposure to the socio-economic system. Being a son of a Patwari he had experienced the entire land revenue system and socio-economic relations of peasantry, especially, under a new convert Muslim feudal. When he moved to Sultanpur with his sister’s family he must have learnt from his brother-in-law who was a steward of Daulat Khan Lodhi. The he himself managed the financial affairs of Daulat Khan who was, practically, ruling Punjab from Sultanpur. Therefore, one can see that he had experienced the all the power tiers from a patwari to being a finance minister of the ruler. In addition, he was married at age 16 and lived with his wife for decade and a half. So, he had run a household himself and tasted the pains of common parson as well. He abandoned the domestic life after such long experience at the age of 33 while other Sufis went directly from madrassas to assume spiritual leadership.


Guru Nanak’s had a complete comprehension of the entire system and provided direct commentaries on historical developments, analysis and prescription. But alas, like all the founders of—Sikhism is an organized religion in every sense—his perception were turned into ritual against which he had rebelled and gone on long and tedious journey of life. Guru Nanak’s appreciation would be much greater if he is taken as an independent poet, philosopher and analyst and not merely a leader of a particular religion.




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