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Guru Nanak: The Guru & His Hymns 

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By Pradeep Singh

“Under the Guru’s instruction, God’s Word is heard; under the Guru’s instruction, its knowledge is acquired; under the Guru’s instruction, man learns that God is everywhere contained.”… Japji V

Preachers, prophets and preceptors have been a plenty. And no less has been the spiritual dilemma for mankind, ever since its earliest dawns of consciousness. The unfamiliar stirring of the soul even for those who were comfortably placed was increasingly becoming common with the passage of time. From amongst this rose those who chose to ascend the stairway towards the door of the Almighty to seek answers to quell the duality that afflicted the people.

Those who had advanced deeper onto the pathway to God however had to fulfill their self-confessed responsibility of showing the path to others around them. This by nature of the circumstances could only be done through the medium of the local language, intelligible to the commonest of the people. Here the limitations of chosen words were indeed a challenge for even the most evolved masters of the mystery of spirituality. The spoken word was inadequate and unable to convey the Truth that would ease the seekers.

But it came to pass that five hundred years ago blossomed a young man from a child prodigy that the world would soon know as Guru Nanak. Born in 1469 at Rae Bhoe ki Talwandi in a Bedi Khatri household, Nanak as a precocious child from his early years astounded his parents and teachers by his fast evolving perception of spirituality with the ability to express it with spontaneity and clarity for his increasing audience. Besides his many stellar qualities of intellect and as a person, Nanak was a consummate communicator and that too in his unique way. He sang what he had to express whenever his soul welled up with insights. His long time companion, Bhai Mardana, the rababi (rubab player) was often prodded to strum his instrument to accompany Nanak’s singing.

Nanak was an avid and tireless traveller on the perilous paths across the subcontinent and also beyond its borders to the west. His four major journeys over decades with short breaks at home are sacred lore in the Sikh tradition. But all the trodden paths are strewn with songs of Nanak. And these songs (or bani) have been given the place of highest respect in the Adi Granth or the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred literature of the Sikhs and countless others who venerate the holy book in their homes and heart.

Nanak was often in deep meditation to understand the relationship between the Creator (Kartar) and his creation. Finally, he got the mantra that he was so ardently seeking. He was on that day thirty-years, six months and fifteen days old. And the first words that he uttered on his “awakening” were: Ek Omkar Satnam. For the ordinary and simple country folk these three words could not solve the puzzle for them or calm their souls. Language alone was the way to reach out and Nanak did it as he alone has done with great success. He sang his message so that even the village simpleton could connect with the melody of the Guru even if the words were not enough. The sole Creator was the focus of adoration and in the singing all could be a part and grow gradually towards an understanding.

Once awakened, Nanak was unstoppable and he applied the balm of logic and rationality wherever and whenever he found people and institutions floundering on the rocks of superstition, rituals and crass exploitation.

Orthodoxy in Hinduism and Islam had by Nanak’s time a stranglehold on the masses and the rituals of these two major religions had reduced the capacity of individuals to think rationally for themselves, and they had accepted superstitions to be a part and parcel of their daily lives. Nanak found this dysfunctional and loathsome way of society unacceptable and he took it on himself to provide a corrective to this.

One of his earliest measures to attack superstition and credulity in people, Nanak demonstrated tellingly at Haridwar, a stronghold of orthodoxy. Observing many religious minded Hindus bathing and offering the water of the Ganga towards the east, Nanak questioned those present. He was informed that the people were offering water to their departed ancestors to quench their thirst. A while later the crowd saw Nanak also offering water but in the direction of the north. On being asked he replied that he was sending water to his parched fields that needed water. The message that Nanak imparted on the ghats of Haridwar was so illustrative of the foolishness of barren rituals that people understood it and also saw in Nanak the reformer who would go much further to light the path of humanity.

At yet another place, Nanak engaged sadhus and yogis and showed them with his simple but effective reasoning the futility of superficial appearances aimed at deception: “They utter falsehood and their bodies are adorned with piety. They recite the three lines of Gayatri three times a day. They put a rosary round their neck and saffron mark on their forehead. They fold a dhoti round their loins and put a cloth to cover their heads. If they had known the divine law, they would have known all these beliefs and deeds to be futile.” (Asa di Var, p. 470)

Far ahead of his times and unlike many a sage and savant, he championed the cause of gender equality whereby women were put at par with the men folk in important matters. At Kartarpur, where he settled and started a community of followers, women dined side by side with men and in prayer congregations too they were seated together. To those who regarded women as inferior, Nanak had this to say: “From woman is man born; inside her he is conceived; to a woman is man engaged and a woman he marries. Woman is man’s companion; from woman come into being new generations. Should a woman die, another is sought. By woman’s help is man kept in restraint. Why revile her, of whom are born great ones of the earth.”

Nanak’s path was a path of love for the Creator and for his creation and this path was difficult but one sure to lead to a better place here and hereafter:

“If you want to play the game of love approach me with your head in the palm of your hand. Place your feet on this path and give your head without regard to the opinion of others.” (Adi Granth, p. 1412)

Nanak was born on 15 April, 1469. However his anniversary is now celebrated in November, being the month of his awakening or enlightenment.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and author of the Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun ( 2011) and Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun ( 2017). He may be reached at : chpradeepsingh@gmail.com )

Pics Courtesy: Sikh History Museum, Shri Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, New Delhi.