Born in 1469, in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, Guru Nanak Dev Ji is the first guru and founder of the Sikh religion – the fifth-largest religion in the world.
Born into a Hindu family of a high caste, Guru Nanak had a revelatory experience at a young age, denounced his faith and caste, and realized that “there is one God and one human race.”
He travelled extensively to spread his belief that we can find the divinity within each of us through prayer, humility, service, meditation, and virtuous living. He was a poet, a mystic, a philosopher, and a singer who denounced ritualism as well as discrimination against women and those of lower socioeconomic status. Nanak’s followers became known as Sikhs, which means seekers of truth.
Guru Nanak became the first Sikh Guru and his spiritual teachings laid the foundation on which Sikhism was formed. Considered a religious innovator, Guru Nanak travelled across South Asia and the Middle East to spread his teachings.
He advocated the existence of one God and taught his followers that every human being can reach out to God through meditation and other pious practices. Interestingly, Guru Nanak did not support monasticism and asked his followers to lead the life of the honest householders. His teachings were immortalized in the form of 974 hymns, which came to be known as ‘Guru Granth Sahib,’ the holy text of Sikhism. With more than 20 million followers, Sikhism is one of the important religions in India.
Nanak was born into a middle-class Hindu family and raised by his parents, Mehta Kalu and Mata Tripta. He spent most of his childhood with his older sister, Bebe Nanaki, as he was fond of her. As a child, Nanak went on to astound many with his intelligence and his interest towards divine subjects.
For his ‘upanayana’ ritual, he was asked to wear the sacred thread, but Nanak simply refused to wear the thread. When the priest insisted him, a young Nanak took everyone by surprise by asking for a thread that is sacred in every sense of the word. He wanted the thread to be made of mercy and contentment and wanted continence and truth to hold the three sacred threads together.
In 1475, Nanak’s sister got married to Jai Ram and moved to Sultanpur. Nanak wanted to stay with his sister for a few days and hence went to Sultanpur and started working under the employer of his brother-in-law. During his stay in Sultanpur, Nanak would go to a nearby river every morning in order to bathe and meditate.
One fine day, he went to the river as usual but did not return for three days. It is believed that Nanak went deep inside the forest and stayed there for three days. When he returned, he looked like a man possessed and did not utter a word. When he finally spoke, he said, “There is no Hindu and no Musalman.” These words were the beginning of his teachings which would culminate in the formation of a new religion.
Nanak then came to be known as Guru Nanak (teacher) as he travelled far and wide to spread his teachings. He founded Sikhism, one of the youngest religions, through his teachings. The religion emphasizes on the importance of leading a spiritual life without embracing monasticism. It teaches its followers to escape the clutches of ordinary human traits, such as lust, rage, greed, attachment and conceit (collectively known as the ‘Five Thieves’).
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion, which believes that God is shapeless, timeless and invisible. It also teaches the concepts of worldly illusion (Maya), Karma, and liberation. Some of the key practices of Sikhism are meditation and the recitation of Gurbani, the hymns composed by the Gurus. The religion also advocates justice and equality and urges its followers to serve mankind.
Guru Nanak taught that every human being is capable of attaining spiritual perfection which will ultimately lead them to God. He also said that rituals and priests are not required in order to have direct access to God.
In his teachings, Guru Nanak emphasized that God has created many worlds and also created life. In order to feel the presence of God, Guru Nanak asked his followers to repeat the name of the God (Nam Japna). He also urged them to lead a spiritual life by serving others and by leading an honest life without indulging in exploitation or fraud.
Through his teachings, Guru Nanak had become extremely popular among both the Hindus and the Muslims. His ideals were such that both communities found it ideal. They both claimed Guru Nanak to be one of their own and needless to say, Guru Nanak’s ardent followers who called themselves the Sikhs (disciples) were also in the race along with the Hindus and the Muslims.
According to the legend, when Guru Nanak approached his final few days, a debate between Hindus, Muslims, and the Sikhs arose as to who should be given the honor to perform the last rites. While Hindus and Sikhs wanted to cremate the mortal remains of their Guru as per their custom, the Muslims wanted to perform the last rites according to their beliefs. When the debate failed to conclude amicably, they decided to ask Guru Nanak himself as to what needs to be done. When they all approached him, Guru Nanak asked them to bring flowers and lay them next to his mortal remains. He asked the Hindus and the Sikhs to place their flowers on the right side of his body and the Muslims to place theirs on the left.
He said that the honor of performing the last rites would go to the party whose flowers remain fresh for a night. When Guru Nanak breathed his last, the religious communities followed his instructions. When they came back the next morning to see whose flowers remained fresh, they were surprised to see that none of the flowers had wilted, but the biggest surprise was that Guru Nanak’s mortal remains had disappeared and all they could see in place of his body were fresh flowers. It is said that the Hindus and the Sikhs picked up their flowers and buried it, while the Muslims did the same with their flowers.