Guru Nanak's history

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Early Life (1469-1507)

In a simple village of Talwandi, about forty miles from Lahore, were living a Kshattriya farmer and village official named Mehta Kalu and his wife Tripta. Kalu was the son of Sivaram and Banarasi, and the family had come to that village from the Amritsar district some years before. They were worthy people, honest and hard-working, with the normal share of religious piety. Early on the morning of Saturday 15th April 1469, their hearts were gladdened by the birth of a son, whose glory was destined to shine out through the centuries. They called him Nanak, and the astrologer who attended his birth foretold he would rule both Muslims and Hindus and would worship only one God.

At the age of five little Nanak began to talk of God, and his prattling words were admired by all. At seven he was sent to the village primary school under one Pundit and learned what his teacher knew, but he is said to have often embarrassed the poor man by penetrating questions into the reality behind all things. When he was just eight his elder sister, Nanaki, was married to Bhai Jairam, revenue collector for the Nawab Daulat Khan of Sultanpur, and left him alone with his parents. Next year, 1478, they insisted on investing him with the sacred thread to which his caste in Hindu society entitled him, though for a long time he rejected it and asked for a real thread, spun from mercy and contentment, which the pundit could not promise him. At school he learned to read and write, and acquired some sound knowledge of the current Hindi dialect. In order to succeed his father some day as village accountant he learned Persian also, and we have an acrostic in Persian said to have been written in his childhood.

In those days he spent much time in the fields grazing buffaloes, and we are told the shade of a tree under which he rested used to move round against sun so as to give him always of its coolness. His heart was already seeking God. He found no interest in the secular works his father put him to - digging in the fields, working in a little shop, and the like. He sought every chance of slipping away into lonely places where he could feel the unity and beauty of nature and reach out towards that great God, who of His own Love has woven this infinite pattern of loveliness. At times he gathered together a few friends round him, and they sang hymns to the glory of that Creator whom he had begun to love with fiery yearning.

All this piety in their son did not please his parents, for he was their only son and they looked for one to carry on their worldly avocations and to support them when old age drew near. They thought him ill, they sent for the village doctor; he in vain prescribed his remedies, for none could cure the boy's feverish thirst for God. Then they got him married, on 1st April, 1485, to divert his mind from such unworldly thoughts; the girl chosen was Sulakhni or Kulamai, the daughter of Baba Mulaji of Batala, near Gurdaspur of today.

But this ruse too was unsuccessful; when his mother, in understandable exasperation, bade him leave his endless meditations, he lay down for four days unmoving, and said he would die if the Name were taken from him. His poor little wife could do nothing to turn his mind. He now took to meeting sadhus and yogis in the dense forests, giving them food from his father's fields, and talking with them of everything they knew about God and the spiritual path. Seeking their company more and more, he must have gained from them much encouragement in his own search for the one Truth, and it is probable that in this way he confirmed those ideas he shared with Kabir and the great Vaishnava devotees of his age.

In 1497 was born his elder son, Srichand, and three years later came Lakshmidas, but Nanak paid little heed to his family, meditated much, became more withdrawn from the world, and found his greatest creative joy in singing hymns he had composed to God. In contact with the sadhus he also learned how to speak so as to convince others, expressing his views persuasively; though it seems certain that those views welled up from the deeps of inspiration in his own heart and owed little or nothing to what he received from others, either through books or through their words. The family had enough land to support them, so they were never in want, but Kalu again and again tried to induce his son to till the fields steadily and give up his useless dreaming and poetry. He even tried, in vain, to send him for business at Saiyidpur and Lahore; while he was working at Chuhalkana, his father sent the lad twenty rupees to buy goods for trading, but he gave it all away to some wandering ascetics.

Next year, it was in 1504, Bhai Jairam visited his relatives at Talwandi and agreed with Rai Bular, the village Zamindar, that Nanak could well be employed at Sultanpur with him. The idea of his son getting government employ delighted Kalu, and he sent him off gladly with his brother-in-law. Jairam introduced Nanak to Daulat Khan, who appointed him a storekeeper; at last the young man devoted himself to his duties with honest, zeal and efficiency, delighting everyone. Unlike most petty officials of the time, he was totally free from corruption and would not even improperly hold a pie of another's money for a day. He also gave away most of his own salary to the poor.

At this time Mardana, a minstrel, came from Talwandi and joined Nanak as personal attendant. They loved each other from the start, and used to delight each other at night singing sweet hymns to God, Mardana playing the rebeq to accompany his friend. One Bhai Bhagirathi also came from Mailasi, near Multan, and stayed for a while with Nanak as a sort of disciple; his teaching life was beginning.

The Call Of Nanak (1507)

On 20th August 1507 came the day of destiny. After his morning bath in the river, Nanak sat for meditation and heard God's call to give his life for world-uplift, guiding men on the right path to Him. He at once resolved to obey the call; after three days he returned to the office, resigned his post, gave away all he had to the poor, and prepared to set out on foot. The Nawab did all he could to persuade him to stay, being deeply distressed to lose so good and so winning an employee, but others thought he had gone mad. One day, towards the beginning of September, he spoke to the local Muslims, beginning, There is no Hindu, no Mussalman! This was after he first put on Hindu kashaya robes as a sannyasi. Then he attended the mosque prayers with the Nawab and the localQazi; when all prostrated at the call, he remained standing on his feet. This gave some offence and he laughed direct, that there was no prayer as yet, for the Qazi's mind had gone off to a baby filly of his, while the Nawab was thinking of buying horses in Kabul. They had both humbly to confess the fact! When Nanak again spoke in public to the Muslims, he taught them what is a true Muslim, and they declared that he spoke as a real Prophet. The Nawab's storehouses were found to be full, so Nanak got the good man to give away everything in them freely to the poor.

The First Missionary Journey <(1507-1515)

After a brief and apparently uneventful visit to his parents at Talwandi, Guru Nanak went with his companion Mardana, dressed as faqirs or sannyasis, to Aimanabad. Here he was welcomed by a rich fellow-caste man, Malak Bhago, and invited to a feast; but he began his public ministry by deliberately breaking caste, going to the house of Lab, a poor carpenter and spending the night with him in bhajana. When Bhago next morning protested at this, the Guru told him the bread of the rich was full of the blood of the exploited poor. He then took a loaf from Bhago's house and one from Lab's; when he squeezed both, from the one came blood, from the other the milk of human kindness. Thus he showed how the coarse food of the poor offered with love is purer than the finest the rich can give in their pride. Bhai Lab later became a distinguished Sikh.

They went together on their way to Hardwar for the Vaisakh full moon. Seeing the Hindus there throwing water to the east for their ancestors, he turned round and began to throw water in handfuls to the west. When asked what he was doing, he replied, I am watering my dry fields at Talwandi. They mocked at him as a fool, till he pointed out that if their water could reach their ancestors, his could certainly reach his fields, which were much nearer. Thus he made fun of certain superstitious rites, but he told others who were chanting God's Name together, It is true that if you take the Name with love you will not be damned.

At one village in Bengal the wanderers were welcomed with insults and driven away; on departure, Guru Nanak blessed that village with all prosperity. Another village welcomed them with loving hospitality, and Mardana was amazed when his Master said the village would be broken up. When asked to explain, Nanak said, When these people are scattered abroad they will save hundreds besides themselves by their piety.

They traveled down the Brahmaputra, and then took ship for Purl, whither Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had not yet come. When all stood for the evening drati in the great temple, Nanak remained seated and sang his own hymn telling how God is fitly adored by the whole of Nature (GGS. 18). A certain Brahmin was boasting of his clairvoyant powers, so Nanak playfully hid the man's water pot, and all laughed while he vainly sought it everywhere.

They went on by sea or land to Rameswaram; he was wearing wooden sandals and a rope twisted on his head for a turban, a patch and streak as caste maker, and carrying a staff in hand. He defended himself from the criticisms of the Jams of the South and then satirized them mercilessly, and by a short poem now in the Asa di Var converted the brutal ruler of some island on he way. From Rameswaram he crossed the sea to Ceylon: he made the garden of Raja Sivanabha here blossom miraculously and wrote his mystical treatise Pransangali, leaving it with the Raja, who vainly tried to detain this mysterious yogi at his court.

Returning to India, the two wended their way along the west coast to the banks of the Narbada, where the Guru composed the Dakhani Oamkar at Siva's temple and converted a party of thugs. They moved further west, visited Somnath and Dwaraka, where Krishna once reigned as King, and returned homewards through Bikaner. Probably it was on this desert journey that Mardana was distressed by thirst. The Guru said, We must refresh ourselves with God's Name. Take your rebeq and let us sing some hymns. But Bhai Mardana protested he was far too thirsty to sing or play. Nanak produced some fruits for him, but told him not to eat them yet; he disobeyed, eating some while on the way behind his Master, and at once fell down unconscious, so that Gurudeve had to cure him by a miracle. Then Mardana made two conditions for travel with his Master thereafter: he should feed him as he fed himself, and he should never notice what he was doing. Nanak agreed!

They came to Ajmer, and then visited the great Vaishnava devotee Bhakta Dhannajl at'Pushlcara; alter this they came to Mathura, and so to Brindavan. Here they watched the Krishna-Lila, with its actors dancing wildly with simulated emotion, and the Guru satirized with hypocrisy of such a show got up as a means of collecting money from the devout.

He came to Kurukshetra in time for a great fair, where he shocked the orthodox pilgrims by solemnly cooking venison in their very midst. When they expostulated, he pointed out the absurdity of such superstitious regard for the good of the belly and added that those who preached ahimsa often drank human blood in their rapacious greed. He taught them that hermit or householder would reach God through the Name if he followed one of the four paths; company of a saint, honesty and truth, humility and contentment, or self-control.

On the homeward way he just visited his sister and her husband at Sultanpur, and then drew near his native village of Talwandi. First he sent Bhai Mardana to ask if his father was still alive, telling him not to speak of his own return. But Tripta at once guessed the truth and asked Mardana for her son, weeping; she followed him back to where the Guru was waiting. Once more she begged him to please her old age by living at home with her and taking to some trade, but he even refused the food and clothes she brought him in her motherliness, saying, God's word is food, and brooding on Him is raiment!

Then Kalu arrived with a horse to take the wanderer home in order to show him the new house, but Nanak would not do this: for it is not right for a sannyasi to re-enter his family house having once gone out. His father tried even to tempt him with a new wife, but he replied that God's choice of Sulakhni was best and that tie would endure till death. Then Tripta tried to order him to come home and earn a respectable living, while Kalu reproached him for neglecting them for twelve years past; he sent his parents home alone, telling them they would soon be consoled. And so they were, when they saw what their son had become, the Guru of thousands of men and women of every class.

Nanak then went to Lahore as the guest of the rich Dunichand for his father's sraddha ceremony, and took the occasion to discourage all such rites and to convert the rule to Sikh ways of life. At Pathandi he converted many Pathans, and then he visited his wife and sons at Batala on the Beas River; to his uncle he foretold that Babar would shortly conquer the Pathan kingdoms in India. At last, after eight years constant wandering and at the age of 46, he settled on the site of Kartarpur in January 1516, and consoled his old parents by bringing them to live with him there quietly for nearly two years.

The Second Missionary Journey (1517-1518)

The travelers resumed their wanderings late in 1517 by crossing over to Uttarkhand, where the Guru argued with a group of sad has and yogis, again describing for these what true yoga means. Then they paid a short visit to Kartarpur, to console the Guru's parents, and after visits to Pasrur and Eminabad they went up to Sialkot.

Here one Pundit Brahmdas visited the Guru, with a pile of Sanskrit books in hand and an idol hanging on his breast, and twitted the Guru for wearing leather and a rope and for eating meat. Nanaki made no direct reply, but burst into an ecstatic hymn on God and the Guru and the wonders of creation. The Pundit was pleased, but his pride sent him to four faqirs who would show him a guru to his taste; the faqirs sent Brahmdas to a temple, where a woman gave him a sound shoe-beating. This, the faqirs told him, was his real guru, and her name was Maya, worldliness! Cured of his pride, the Pundit hastened back to Nanak and made a full surrender at his feet.

The Guru then visited Srinager and crossed the mountains to Mt. Sumeru, where he had a certain mystical experience among the great siddhas of that remote Himalayan summit. They welcomed him among them as one of their own. Returning to Sialkot, he sent Mardana to purchase a farthing of truth and a farthing of falsehood. He found there an old friend, Mula Khatri, who said, Life is a lie and Death is the truth.

When the Guru came to Mula's house his wife hid him away lest he be converted and join the pilgrims, lying that he was not at home. As he lay hidden there in the house, a snake bit him and he died. Death was indeed the truth for him! At Mithankot they visited Sheikh Mian Mitha, a noted Muslim saint, and the Guru had with him a verse contest convincing him that God alone is true and no prophet or saint can be named along with Him. As the Sheikh fell at his feet in reverent delight, Nanak fell into a trance of ecstatic love and uttered one of his divine hymns. From here they returned home to Kartarpur.

The Third Missionary Journey (1518-1521)

Wearing blue robes, the Guru set out for his last long journey With Mardana once again, and went straight to Pakapattan, the abode of Sheikh Ibrahim, the heir to Sheikh Farid and himself also a great Sufi saint. The Sheikh scolded Nanak for wearing secular clothes even while he lived as a faqir, to which he replied, God is all I have, and He is everywhere, even in these clothes! The two then competed in verse, gradually leading each other up to the sublimest heights of philosophic beauty, and so they passed the whole night in delightful spiritual companionship. In the morning a peasant brought them milk, and when he took away the bowl it had turned to gold and was full of golden coins. Nanak was pleased with this holy man, and as he went his way punned on his name saying, Sheikh Ibrahim, God (Brahm) is in you!

Before he left Pakapattan, however, the Guru made a copy of Sheikh Farid's slokas, many of which are now included in the Granth Sahib. By way of Tulambha, the pair moved on through South Punjab towards the Bahawalpur State. Perhaps this was when the Guru visited a notorious robber who thought he would be an easy victim. But by a few verses Nanak showed that he knew the murderous intention, and he begged for pardon. The Guru replied, Forgiveness in God's Court is gained only after an open confession and full amends done for the wrong. The robber at once confessed all his many murders and dacoities, gave away all his illegal gains to the poor, and under the name of Sajjan became a famous Sikh missionary in all those parts.

They went to Surat, and from there took pilgrimship to Jeddah, and thence went up to Mecca, the holy city of all Muslims. He was roughly awakened from sleep here with his feet pointing towards the holy Ka'ba and was well scolded; he apologized quietly and asked the man to turn his feet anywhere he could where God was not. He often gave the Call to Prayer here, and used to play with the children in the street, being followed about by them much as the Prophet Hazrat Muhammed was in his time. People noticed that there was always a cloud shading his head during the heat of the day.

From Mecca, the two went on to Medina, where the Guru vanquished the Qazis in argument, though we must remark that the Muslims of these parts seem to have been surprisingly tolerant to him; such a miracle could hardly occur in our own days, for travelers like these would barely escape with their lives. They proceeded to Baghdad, where Guru Nanak gave a new Call to Prayer, changing the words of the Creed while acting as muezzin. The people asked him to what sect he belonged; his answer was: I reject all sects, and only know the One God, whom I recognize everywhere. I have appeared in this age to show men the way to Him. Then he repeated the Japji to them, so we are told, and when the son of their high priest challenged the reference to many heavens and under-worlds he gave him a vision of some of these.

Crossing the Iran plateau, they next went to Balkh, for many years the home of the Prophet Zarathushtra, and then on to Bukhara in Central Asia. So they worked their way round by Kabul to Peshawar, where the Guru argued with yogis at the temple of Gorakhnath. Descending to the plains at Hassan Abdal, a noted Muslim center, he was forced to dig a small well for himself, and this drew away the water from a rather selfish saint, one Bawa Wali, living higher up, Wall threw a hill at Nanak, who protected himself with his right arm and left the mark of his hand Panja Sahib on the hill.

By way of Bhera Shahu and Dinga, he came to Eminabad, immediately after Babar's invasion of the Punjab. All was in confusion; Pathan and Hindu houses alike were robbed and burned to the ground, women were driven along shrieking and weeping. Nanak made a pathetic poem about their sufferings. The pair were imprisoned under Babar's officer, Mir Khan, and made slaves. Nanak had to carry loads on his head, Mardana to sweep with a broom or lead a horse. The officer saw the load floating a cubit above the Guru's head, while Mardana played the rebeq and the horse meekly followed him. He reported the wonderful sight to Babar, who came to see it for himself. He found Nanak feeding corn to a handmill and singing some hymn while the mill turned itself.

He prostrated before the Guru and offered him a boon; Nanak asked only for the release of all Saiyidpur captives, but these would not go free unless he too joined them. Then when they all got home they found everyone there had been massacred; Nanak sang a doleful lament in a trance, being deeply moved by the sufferings of the poor people. He went back boldly to Babar's camp and boldly sang to the prisoners held there; Babar offered him a drink of bhang, often used by yogis, but he again fell into ecstasy and the whole body began to shine.

On his request Babar set all his prisoners free and even clothed them in robes of honor, in return for which generous act the Guru promised, Your empire shall remain for a long time. He stayed three days with the Emperor, but refused to accept anything for himself and firmly refused even to think of embracing Islam. When Babar asked him for advice, Nanak told him to rule the people with justice and mercy, and this in fact during his short reign he did. Thus, Guru Nanak saved India at that time from much misery which the invasion must have otherwise caused to her.

After this long journey in foreign lands and his useful contact with the Moghal conqueror, Guru Nanak settled down quietly to live in peace at Kartarpur, almost for the whole of the rest of his days.

Ashram Life at Kartarpur (1521-1539)

He occupied himself largely with vigorous work in the fields, a rich convert having founded there a new village with a Sikh temple, to which disciples gradually began to gravitate rom wherever he had preached his message. He also wrote down many of the hymns he had already sung elsewhere and which no doubt Mardana had committed to memory. Thus the Malar and Majh Vars were written out while Mardana still lived, and the Japji and Asa di Var soon after them; when Mardana died, in 1522, he was succeeded as chief minstrel by his son Shahzada.

The Guru now put off his weird costumes and dressed himself as an ordinary householder of the day. He regularly preached to the great crowd who came out daily to see him, teaching all to live in the world and work, while at the same time thinking of God always and praying for nothing but His grace. His strong personal attractiveness, his loveable ways and playful sense of humour, his persuasive words and simplicity which came out of the heart of his own all-embracing love went straight to the heart of all his hearers; he seemed to draw the poor and sorrowing especially to his arms.

He taught all to &op meaningless outer forms and complications, to cling to the very simple essential Truth, to abandon caste and all other forms of egoistic pride, and to seek refuge only in the Name. His great courage in so boldly speaking out open criticism of Islam and Hinduism wherever he went shows us that he was no milk-and-water moonbaby but a true predecessor of that great hero Guru Gobind Singh. Yet his lively speech radiated love and faith and attracted men as light gathers mothers; says Puran Singh: Wherever he went the hearts of the people were gladdened and they began singing his Song of Silence, which is not written on paper but on the hearts of his disciples, and there it still sings as of old.

Yet in his own person he was the very essence of humility, though always so quietly firm for the truth. He never claimed any extraordinary greatness for himself in spite of his vast influence, deeming himself a mere man among men, mortal and sinful as they were, though conscious of his union with the almighty Lover of all souls. Nor would he hold anything for himself even after settling down to worldly life again; whatever came to him he at once spent away on building almshouses or providing food for the poor.

A shopkeeper convert lived three years with him in those days, and then sold his goods away, took his Guru's blessing, and went to Ceylon, where he converted that same Raja Sivanabha who had been the Guru's host long before. To this man, as he left, Guru Nanak promised Whoever bathes in cold water and for three hours before dawn repeats God's Name with love and devotion shall receive nectar at God's door and be blended with Him who is unborn and self-existent.

One morning the Guru noticed a little boy of seven who came daily for the dawn prayers and quietly slipped away immediately afterwards. Nanak asked the lad why he came and was delighted by his wise and pious answer. This was Bhai Budha, who until his death installed the first five of the guru's successors. In those days early each morning the Sikhs repeated the Japji and Asa di Var in the Guru's presence, following these with more hymns, the Guru freely explaining and answering questions on points in them until about 9.30. Then followed the drati-prayer taught at Purl, and after that came breakfast, all the Sikhs taking food together as one family. More singing and preaching followed, with manual labours, and after the Rahiras at sunset they had dinner together, followed by more songs; at about 10 they sang the Sohila and then all slept, though a few rose for prayer also in the night.

Somewhere about the end of 1531 the Guru wrote his exquisite mystic poem on the Twelve Months, its theme being the loving union of the soul with God. One day in 1532 Lehna, the priest of Durga in Khadur, was led to the Guru, and he saw the goddess whom he worshipped adoring Nanak's feet. He surrendered to Nanak at once and became his favourite and most faithful disciple. Once when his friends congratulated the Guru on having so many converts he replied that he had in fact few real disciples; he then assumed a terrible form and many ran away from him at once, others only stopped to pick up some money and run; only one yogi, two other Sikhs and Lehna remained. The Guru asked these to eat of a stinking corpse, and only Lehna was ready for this; he found himself chosen as the Guru's eventual successor and the carrion turned to sweetest prasad; Nanak's own two sons had already proved themselves to be not perfectly obedient. On Lehna's < intercession all the deserters were forgiven and recalled to their Guru's side.

Early in 1539 the Guru attended the Sivaratri festival at Achal Batala, where he wrote the Sidha Goshti, which is believed to be a report of a discussion held there with certain yogis who followed Forakhnath; huge crowds saluted him with deep reverence. He proceeded further to Pakapattan and called again on Sheikh lbrahim; the old man rose to receive his great visitor with deepest reverence, the two embraced, and spoke of God to each other in verse all that night; they were most loving to each other and each was thrilled by the sayings of the other. He visited dipalpur and went as far as Multan on this his last journey, and then returned home through Lahore. He did not again leave his Ashram while in that body. On 2nd September he had Bhai Budha formally install Lehna, later Guru Angad, as his successor, laying before him five paisa and a coconut as offerings; the crowds there began to sing and for five days festival was maintained, a sweet feast of song. Nanak fell into an ecstatic trance; his gaddi had given to Lehna, the Name as heritage to his two sons.

  • The above article thanks to Duncan Greenless M.A. (Oxon)

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