Though his birth was attended by omens, his childhood most unusual, few of the Hindus and Moslems who knew the gentle Nanak would have believed that he was to be a living fulfillment of the ancient covenant: I shall incarnate among men whenever there is a decline of virtue, and an increase of vice and evil-doing. I shall be born to destroy wickedness, to establish justice and to preserve truth.
India in 1469, the year of Nanak's birth, was dominated both by a priest caste which subjected the people to superstitious idolatry, tedious ritualism and the merciless practices of infanticide, child marriage and widow burning; and by zealous, newly converted Moslems who had swept into the north country in wave after wave, vandalizing and destroying villages, denouncing even the most sacred religious beliefs, and deposing local maharajas in order to confiscate their luxurious estates and palaces. Harassed in body and soul the peace-loving Hindus lived in utter misery until Nanak brought such a belief in the Oneness of God, such conviction in the spiritual brotherhood of man that for a time the stern Islamic monotheism and the broad Hindu pantheism were reconciled.
But he did more. By teaching and example Nanak laid the foundations of Sikhism, a mystical religion of warrior-saints, and the only faith in history which has given birth to a nation.
The Sikhs attracted world attention in 1849 when the defeated Maharaja Dhulip Singh, in a magnanimous gesture, presented to Queen Victoria his fabulous Koh-i-noor diamond, and later joined British arms against the forces of Moslem oppression. Then and now the austere and handsome Sikhs fascinate travelers in the Punjab. Dressed in immaculate tunic, short trousers and turban, wearing their dark hair and beard uncut, they resemble Roman centurions with their proud bearing and splendid physique. Theirs is an air of mystery, a manner of authority and benevolence. Many have been educated in the Sikh university at Amritsar and converse with surprising understanding of the latest scientific or political developments of the modern world, as well as of the metaphysical profundities of ancient scripture.
One can't help but wonder by what power this religion has transformed and welded together not only Hindu and Moslem but formerly arrogant Brahmans and downtrodden Sudras into an extraordinarily fearless brotherhood. For though not all Sikhs belong to the soldier Khalsa order -- some preferring a more contemplative life, while many have turned to farming or business and give attention equally to family, education, finance and government -- all serve under the standard of the One True God and adhere to the high principles of physical, mental and moral purity which Nanak's life exemplified.
Nanak was born in a small village of northern India, since renamed Nanakara, 'Nanak's place,' where his father, a Kshatriva of the warrior and governing caste, was employed by an Islamic feudal lord. As a child his intuitive yearning for truth was often frustrated by the maze of deities and diverse forms of worship existent even in his own community. When seven, he simply refused to study the Vedas until his astonished teacher explained the nature of God; and when nine and about to be invested with the symbolic janeu or three-ply cord which orthodox Brahmans wear about their neck, he disrupted the priest's interminable mantram by reciting a rhyme of his own, asking for a janeu that would insure peace, mercy and understanding!
Growing older, Nanak frequently went into the forest to study for himself the doctrines of the Brahmans, the Moslems, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and the numerous Indian sects. If he met a wandering monk, a Sufi or an ascetic, he would question him avidly; for, while instinctively rejecting rationalization and abhorring ceremonial ritualism, Nanak took every opportunity to learn the real meaning of life. Finally, he knew he must leave his wife and sons, to devote himself entirely to religious study, self-examination and meditation.
After some time, as in a vision, he was 'taken into the presence of God' and beheld the fullness of truth. He saw also his own awesome destiny: to serve as a messenger of the one true religion -- by his life and his words to inspire his fellowmen with the holy Name of Deity.
The power of this exaltation left Nanak dazed and speechless. His neighbors, alarmed by his strange appearance, thought him possessed and were about to have a local mulla exorcise the demon, when suddenly he announced: "There is no Hindu. There is no Mohammedan. All are brothers under God."
There is one God,
Eternal Truth is His Name; Maker of all things,
Fearing nothing and at enmity with nothing, Timeless is His Image;
Not begotten, being of His own Being:
By the grace of the Guru, made known to men.
These words are the essence of Sikhism. They form the preamble of the Japji, are the inspiration of the Granth-Sahib, and have been the daily invocation ever since Nanak uttered them. The particular emphasis here and throughout their literature is on God's Name -- Sat Nam:
By hearing the Name the mind is composed and fixed on God.
By hearing the Name sorrow and sin are no more,
By hearing the Name truth, contentment and divine knowledge are obtained.
So pure is God's name.
To the Sikhs this power of Sat Nam comes not only from its oral or silent repetition, beneficial as the sacred sound may be, but from holding the spirit of God constantly in one's heart and in the back of one's mind, as a mother going about her daily tasks is ever aware of the well-being of her little ones. For when an atmosphere of spiritual purity pervades one's life, he is protected as by a knight's shining armor, and his consciousness is drawn to a higher awareness of mortal events until, as Guru Arjan said:
There comes a moment in the life of man
When he realizes union with the Holy,
From whence there is no coming back for him;
He lives thereafter in the company of God.
The details of Nanak's life and of his travels to the centers of worship in India, Ceylon, Afghanistan and to Mecca are embroidered with legends. The story of his visit to Mecca is typical. Arriving at dusk, he and his followers lay outside the city gates to sleep, when a guard approached and kicked at Nanak's legs, demanding, "Who is this infidel who turns his feet toward God?"
Nanak's reply, "Turn my feet in the direction that God is not," characteristically summarized his whole philosophy. Then he explained to the guard and to the curious who gathered, that he had come to show men the way to truth, and to proclaim the One God who dwells on earth, in heaven and in all directions. He continued, touching on subjects which he and succeeding gurus would present in their hymns and discuss with their disciples: the Oneness of God manifest in the illusory division of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva; the primeval history of earth, including the four yugas or cycles of both cosmic and human time; the evolution of man's inner nature as well as of his physical body -- "His Light is in all the sources of life: the egg, the womb, the sweat and the seed"; the interrelations of karma, reincarnation and the soul's journey through a series of heavens and hells; the higher practices of Bhakti and Raja yoga; and the fourfold path of enlightenment which leads to a nirvanic cessation of individual egoity in divine omniscience.
Although most of these teachings were not new, his interpretations were so fresh and the clarity of his logic so attractive, that people wanted to know more, especially when they discovered he could explain some of the most recondite aspects of their particular faith. Thus his following grew into a sizable congregation of devoted and inquiring members. He called them sikhs, 'seekers of truth' or 'disciples,' and they called him guru, 'teacher,' though he disclaimed the honor, insisting that the Supreme Being is the only true Guru.
One time when traveling into a strange and unknown region, the disciples commented upon their teacher's utter lack of fear. Nanak reassured them: "When we remember the Lord, the fear of death is gone. . . . our enemies are baffled; . . . and many, very many have been saved."
Reflecting upon these words, the weary companions arrived at a sinister looking roadside inn. Trying to disregard their natural trepidation, they accepted the welcome of the pious host and of his assistants who served them, never suspecting that this hostel was a trap, that these men were "thags," devotees of the dark goddess Kali, who, while ostensibly traders or pilgrims, were really the merciless thieves and killers who terrorized country roads, silently strangling sleeping travelers and carrying off their possessions.
Apparently unaware of danger, Nanak asked his minstrel to play the rebeck and, as was their custom, they sang together an evening hymn. Then just loud enough to be overheard, he spoke to his disciples about the terrible sufferings men bring upon themselves by doing evil: "Those who, impure within, seem pure outwardly, fair without and foul within, have gambled their lives away, they have contracted the vile disease of desire; . . . and they wander wildly like demons." As he went on, the thags began to tremble with apprehension. One after the other came to kneel at his feet and confess his crimes, begging to be forgiven. But the Guru shook his head: "Men do not become saints or sinners by merely calling themselves so." Each must free himself from his own karma for "it is he himself soweth and he himself eateth." However, he gave them some hope: if they would give their stolen goods to the needy, and from this moment lead honest lives, as farmers perhaps, letting good works be their worship, they could gain freedom from the wheel of action and in time find happiness. Deeply moved, these men became Nanak's most obedient Sikhs.
On another occasion he came upon a group of women notorious for their black powers. He interrupted their incantations to reprimand them severely for their concentration on godless selfishness which eventually would destroy their souls. Appalled, they listened as he spoke of the influence that good women could have in a community, even against the abominable practices of child marriage, exposure of unwanted babies, and suttee, the custom of self-immolation of a wife on her husband's funeral pyre -- conditions from which these women had, in their way, sought to escape, and which the Sikhs' continual opposition helped to eradicate. He spoke too of the joys of love, the nobility of self-sacrifice, and of the ideal family life: "One need not go searching for God in the forest. I have found him in the home," where daily challenges are opportunities unexcelled for spiritual progress. When he had finished, every one of the women asked to be accepted into the order.
Later on, Nanak met a Jain priest meticulously sweeping the path before him so he might not inadvertently step upon some crawling life. Now the Guru never hesitated to denounce hypocrisy. He stopped the holy man short, asking why such concern for the life of a gnat, yet indifference to the sufferings of mankind? Why debase himself by devotions so paltry when be could embrace the heavenly procession of planets or contemplate the wonders of God glowing in all things within the three worlds? Something in Nanak's remarks apparently carried such conviction that the Jain abandoned his sweeping and thereupon joined the company of disciples.
These words might have been addressed to India's ostracized Sudras, whom Nanak frequently befriended in his protests against the rigidity and cruel oppression of the degenerated caste system. Being a realist, he did not claim that all men are equal, but that each has the innate right to place himself, by his actions and thoughts -- by his karma -- in the caste to which he belongs. Whether it be warrior, merchant, scholar, priest or servant, a man's state and rank depend upon his deeds, not on an accident of birth. A true Brahman is one whose meditation on God and self-control has freed him from "the sensual chains that bind the soul." A true Kshatriya, of the warrior caste, is one "whose valor shows itself in every detail of his life"; whose aim is loving kindness and service to the Lord. Following this belief, all Sikh communities have a common dining room, bathing pool, and all duties are shared equally by the members.
Nanak's mission had not been to establish a formal religion, to erect temples or to write doctrine. It was simply to declare that of all religions the best is the recognition of that indwelling divinity who speaks through the gentle voice of conscience, that of all shrines the most sacred is "the heart in which the Lord indwelleth!" And though he left no organization or collection of teachings, the power of his message was so alive in the hearts of his hundred thousand followers, that his holy inspiration was transmitted through a succession of ten gurus for two and a half centuries.
This succession is an interesting facet of the Sikh tradition. Their belief in the transmission of Nanak's spiritual essence, as one lamp is lit from another, with each succeeding guru different in character and ability, is not unique in history. Occult and kabalistic records mention frequent occurrences of the "transference of inner power" from a deceased adept, in voluntary and conscious incarnation, into the younger body of another human avatara. A familiar example is the historic record of the Tibetan lamaistic succession.
According to the Sikh belief, Nanak's divine light was held as "an umbrella of spiritual sovereignty" over the head of each who occupied the throne of guruship. And though not all were men of great learning or in the prime of their power, each was singularly able to perpetuate and fulfill the initial inspiration, their varied contributions helping to build Sikhism into the remarkable organization that it became.
Angad was Nanak's immediate successor. He compiled the Guru's teachings, as he remembered them, in the Japji or 'Meditation.' This was enlarged into the Granth-Sahib or 'Holy Book,' by Arjan, the fifth guru, who also included hymns of other teachers, as well as miscellaneous poems in Sanskrit, Persian and Hindu dialects that echoed Sikh idealism. A complete revision and translation into gurumukhi, their specially simplified language, by Gobind Singh, the tenth guru, placed this sacred volume beside the world's foremost religious literary treasures,
It was during Guru Arjan's administration (1563-1606) that the Golden Temple of Amritsar was built on land granted by the illustrious Akbar, who saw in Sikhism the possible universal religion he dreamed of establishing. The beauty of this edifice is breath-taking. Harmonious in form and proportion, it stands in the center of the crystal-clear, spring-fed Lake of Immortality, with its golden dome and cupolas rising into the vivid Indian sky.
The interior is a lacework of marble and silver, ornamented with diamonds, rubies and precious gems, and yet it is the house of simple faith, without idols or shrines, serving its members as a dwara, 'a doorway to the divine.'
By now Sikhism had become a religion of wide popularity and of acknowledged value, Guru Arjan had inaugurated an esoteric body of scholars and metaphysicians who, though pledged never to reveal the secrets of their order, lived such exemplary lives that their influence extended far beyond the Punjab and long into the future. However, a new trend began to develop when the Moslems captured Arjan and sentenced him to death. The cryptic message he sent advising his son to "sit fully armed on the throne," was taken literally. Rather than interpreting it metaphorically as suggesting the battle each must wage against his lower nature, or perhaps even against the domination of friends and family who would deter his progress, the young guru took up the sword as emblematic of Nanak's indomitable opposition to evil, making it the Sikh badge of leadership. He vowed to make of the home-loving, contemplative devotees a military theocracy, capable of driving his father's murderers entirely out of the country and ending the bitter conflicts between Moslems and Hindus.
This military organization was fully developed by the tenth and last guru, Gobind Singh, who established the elite Khalsa-Sangat, 'Pure Congregation.' Initiates, required to prove themselves ready at a moment's notice to fight -- to die if need be -- for justice and truth, were given a new name, Singh, 'Lion,' and were distinguished by wearing five articles symbolic of the virtues of their order: uncut hair and beard, short trousers, an iron bracelet, a steel sword and a hair comb.
The formation of the Khalsa and its subsequent popularity strengthened the religious and social organization of the Sikhs. Their training was premised on the conviction that while proper diet and exercise (meat was allowed provided the animal had been humanely slain, but tobacco, wine and all stimulants were forbidden) would develop physical and mental prowess, the discipline of spiritual living would develop inner stamina and wisdom. The results were outstanding. The acts of courage in battle and in civilian affairs, the trustworthiness and compassion of the Sikhs now became proverbial.
Gobind Singh felt content: his members were ready to carry on the temporal administration of their community. At his death in 1708, he designated the sacred book, now to be recognized as the "Guru-Granth," as his spiritual successor. It would be the voice of the immortal Teacher and would supply all the leadership and all the wisdom the disciples would need. Henceforward, he said, each Sikh should be his own guru, and by his life, his devotions, his study -- by his relentless effort to destroy wickedness, and to establish righteousness -- each would carry on the torch of their founder, Nanak.
Today, with a membership well over eight million, Sikhism hopefully will continue its valiant battle for truth. Its history is a luminous testimony to the fact that no matter how dark the age, mankind is never without spiritual preceptors whose teachings, resounding through the ages like a temple gong, are so simple even the humblest can understand.
He who preserveth the Lords name in his inmost heart,
Who seeth the light of the Lord in all hearts, shall know God.
The man who knoweth God extendeth a saving hand over all humanity.
(From Sunrise magazine, July 1971; copyright © 1971 Theosophical University Press)
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