Guru Nanak - life and teachings

Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh,


Artist's impression of Guru Nanak

Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh is a Sikh greeting. Waheguru is a Sikh word for the God, literally meaning 'wow guru you are amazing'. The greeting means that the khalsa belongs to the Waheguru and so does his accomplishments. This greeting is full of faith and humility. Khalsa comes from the Persian word 'khalis' meaning pure. The look that the Guru has given the Sikhs, with uncut hairs and beard is an unadulterated physical look, and is called the khalsa look. Similarly, if anyone keeps his mind and soul as pure as he or she was born, i.e with no hate, no greed, no cheating, no discrimination, no material attachment is called khalis, the pure. Any human being who is in complete submission to the God, keeps his physical look unadulterated, his soul as pure as baby's, is considered as the Khalsa. And because of the Khalsa's absolute submission to the God, whatever he achieves takes no credit for himself, instead in all humility, attributes everything to the God.

Guru Nanak dev ji is the founder of the Sikh religion. He was born in 1469 AD in a place now known as Nankana Sahib, a city named after him. His birth is celebrated on the full moon of October/November. The first biography written by bhai Bala mentions his birth in October / November which started the tradition of celebrating his birthday at this time. But later Sikh scholars believe Guru Nanak was born in April and his birth coincides with Vaisakhi. Because celebrating it in October / November became tradition among Sikhs, it wasn’t changed for some reason. If Macauliffe’s work is true, it was also left on this day to stop Sikhs from going to Hindu festival of diwali and focus on gurbani during this time.

Guru Nanak was referred to as Guru by the Sikhs. The word Sikh means a student and guru means the teacher. In regards to the Sikh religion, Sikh is a student of his guru seeking the truth of life. And guru, literally meaning, destroyer of darkness, shows the path from ignorance and false rituals to the true purpose of life.

The time Guru Nanak dev ji was born in, is generally referred to as the dark ages, as all the three aspects of society - the administration, religious and social were corrupt and ruthless.

To talk briefly about administration, there was no stability in terms of the government. The kings were being overthrown by new kings, invasions and loots were common. The royal households had infighting for the thrown. And the administrators were immoral and corrupt.

If we see the religious fabric at the time, religious clerics were greedy, always trying to please the administration in return of money and other favors. They had forgotten their religious duties and were using religion for their personal gains. The religious clerics could never be challenged and would often make traditions and rituals to benefit themselves. They would often introduce superstitions and make ways to swindle money out of the innocent people.

The society was broken into different castes, sub castes, religion and gender. The low caste people were being treated as untouchables, i.e., if you touch them you get impure. They lived a life of slavery whose only purpose was to do the menial jobs that nobody else would do. The worst thing was one could not change their caste. It was decided by which family one is born into. So if one is born into the priest class, he is a holy man no matter how foolish he is. And if one is born in a low caste, he will stay untouchable throughout his life, no matter how kind, humble or hard working he is. They had no access to education, had no permission enter the places of worship and not even allowed to hear any prayers. The life of women wasn't very good as well. They were meant to serve their husband and family. They had no role outside the house. They were considered impure in terms of the religion and hence were never a part of any religious ceremonies.

Religiously, everybody was trying to prove their religion is better and always denigrating the other faiths.

Guru Nanak was born in a Hindu high class family. His early education was in local school in the village. He was a bright student. He used to spend most of his time in meditation. While his friends have fun, he would prefer spending time singing God's praises.

From his early age he was a rational thinker and never believed in rituals as a way of attaining God. At the age of 8, as part of the ritual he was meant to wear a cotton thread, which means initiation into the faith and accepting Brahmin, priest, as his guru. On the day of the ceremony, when the priest asked him to wear the thread, he questioned him whether this thread will go to heaven with him. The priest said no, nothing goes with us after death and similarly this will burn with body. Guru Nanak said ‘what is the point of wearing your cotton thread if one doesn't improve his actions? Even after wearing the thread one keeps committing robberies, cheatings and uses foul language. He uses deception against his own fellows. The cotton thread then gets old and is thrown. A new thread is then put on. If the cotton thread would have any strength it will not break like that. Instead put on thread of good values which will stay with you forever and also accompany you when you depart from this world.’ Guru Nanak said, I don't need a thread which will not go with me, instead, I will wear the thread which is made of mercy, contentment, high moral character, and the truth. If you have such a thread I'm more than happy to wear it. Such a thread will not get dirty, neither will it break nor will it burn. Blessed are those who wear such a thread. We will all leave this world leaving all the beauties and clothes. Only those will shine in God's court who wears such a thread.

He stressed highly on selfless service. There is a very famous story of him, known as story of the true business. When Guru Nanak was 18 yrs of age, his father gave him money and asked him to do profitable business. He asked him to go to the city and buy goods which they can then sell and make money. Guru Nanak dev ji's friend Bhai Mardana accompanied him. On their way, they passed through a village where they saw poor people, who were starving and shivering in cold. Guru Nanak dev ji said to his friend Bhai Mardana, helping these people is the most profitable business I can see. Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana bought food, clothes and blankets and distributed. When his father came to know of the deed, he wasn't very happy. He scolded him and called him foolish. But that deed started a tradition. Tradition of langar. Langar is a free kitchen where anyone can go and have food irrespective of caste, colour, gender and religion. All the gurudwaras in the world, the Sikh place of worship, serve Langar. In Langar we all sit together on the floor in a queue. We don't care who is sitting next to us or who is serving us. The concept of Langar was revolutionary in 15th century because sitting next to people of lower caste was not even thinkable. Sitting on the floor teaches us humility.

Guru Nanak used to go in the river nearby to bathe and meditate daily. One day he disappeared, people thought he has drowned and started looking for him in the river. He came back after three days. His first words on return were that God doesn't care what religion we belong to but instead weighs our lives against our actions and deeds. We are all equal in front of him irrespective of religion, caste or gender. Those three days are considered as the time of his enlightenment.

To spread this message of equality and high moral values, Guru Nanak dev ji travelled long distances on foot over a period of twenty four years. It is estimated he travelled between thirty to forty thousand miles. He did five missionary odysseys in his lifetime. First four in each direction and the fifth one was around the Punjab region. He concluded his journeys at the age of fifty six and settled in Kartarpur. He made this place as his base for the rest of his life.

His words to his friend and companion Bhai Mardana was never to cut his hairs, always meditate on God's name and serve the people who come to your door with utmost respect and selflessness. Nature has made us all perfect. Whether we are thin or big, tall or short, bald or hairy we are perfect and beautiful in ourselves. Keeping hairs uncut is accepting this perfection and completeness. It's like appreciating our body and a way of saying thank you to the God for making us who we are.

He always preached simple living and high thinking. There are three pillars of the Sikh faith. Work hard, meditate on the God's name and share your earnings.

In the fifteenth century, there was a religious belief of leaving homes, living life as a celibate in the jungles and hills. Guru Nanak dev ji talked about finding peace while fulfilling our social responsibilities. If we can't find peace at home we will not find peace anywhere else. Leaving the social responsibilities can never be a shortcut to finding peace. He spoke about winning over the mind. We are in constant struggle with it. There are five vices, also known as thieves, which keep distracting it from achieving the true potential. These are lust, anger, greed, material attachment and ego. To counter these vices we must have five virtues which are truth, contentment, compassion, humility and love. By overcoming the five thieves or vices, we can achieve the ultimate heights in our lives. He also explains how to win over mind. It's through meditation, singing praises of the God, by doing selfless service and doing the company of holy people.

Serving people selflessly gives us contentment and helps build caring and strong society. Selfless service is like a medicine to disease called ego. Ego gives rise to jealousy, hate, anger and superiority complex. These are the vices that take away contentment from mind and make us unhappy. Selfless service brings ego down making us happy. Happy and content mind is gives us peace of mind.

He physically left this world on 22nd September 1539 after passing the guruship to Guru Angad dev ji.

My intelligence and understanding is limited and Guru Nanak dev ji's life and teachings are many. I can only talk, write and discuss as per my intelligence and I guarantee I had lot of shortcomings. Kindly pray to the God to make me worthy enough to understand and spread this message of unity, humility, equality, service, simple living and high thinking.

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