The Life and Times of Guru Nanak

The Life and Times of Guru Nanak

Nankana Sahib, Birthplace of Guru Nanak, is now a Gurudwara
Nankana Sahib, Birthplace of Guru Nanak, is now a Gurudwara


Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!

Welcome to the Sikh History podcast. This podcast series transports us back into the lives and times of our ancestors and provides a historic context to the evolution of the Sikh religion, our values, our thoughts, our principles and our ethics.

In this series we chronicle the growth of the Sikh religion from the birth of the founder Guru Nanak in 1469 to the death of Guru Gobind in 1708. This period coincided with the establishment of the Mughal empire in India – The Mughals followed a policy of persecution and oppression. The Sikh gurus opposed such policies and sacrificed their lives to uphold the fundamental rights to religion, justice and freedom.

This episode of the Sikh History podcasts, concentrates on the life and times of Guru Nanak from 1469 to 1539. To understand the birth of the Sikh religion and philosophy, it is very important to first understand the social, cultural and political environment of 15th century in Northern India – and particularly in the Punjab and Delhi. In 1451, before the birth of Nanak, Bahlol Lodi occupied Delhi and founded the Lodi dynasty – Guru Nanak was a first hand witness to the rise and establishment of the Lodi dynasty and then the defeat of the Lodis at the hands of Babur – who founded the Mughal empire in India. The establishment of the Sikh faith was a direct response to the social and political events that played out in the lifetime of Nanak. To understand this part of the Sikh history fully, let’s start with the birth of Nanak.

Nanak was born in 1469 AD – and the most reliable date of his birth is actually 15th April 1469. The fact that we celebrate his birthday on the full moon night of the Kartik month in the lunar calendar is a series of historical inaccuracies – a discussion on this is beyond the scope of this podcast series at this point and we hope to cover it in subsequent episodes.

Nanak was born to an upper caste Khatri family – Mehta Kalyan Das Bedi was his father and Tripta Devi his mother – Mehta Kalyan Das was an accountant for Rai Bhoi, a Muslim chief in the village of Talwandi – about 40 miles west of Lahore in present day Pakistan. This place is now called Nankana Sahib. There is a strong likelihood, and as was the prevalent custom in those days, that Nanak was born in his mother’s paternal home in the village of Kahna Katcha, a village to the south of Lahore, in present day Pakistan. Nanak had an elder sister as well who was called Nanaki.

Even as a child, Nanak asked the most profound questions such as “What is the purpose of life”? By the age of 7, he was sent over to a Hindu priest to learn the alphabets and numerals and by the age of 9, he was learning Persian and Arabic from a Muslim qazi. Again, as was the custom in those times, he was married at the age of 12 to Sulakhini – who was the daughter of Mool Chand of Batala, on the Indian side of Punjab. Sulakhini came to live with Nanak when he was 19 and they had two sons – Sri Chand who was born in 1494 and Lakhmi Das in 1497.

In order to provide a steady source of income for the family, Nanak was sent off to Sultanpur to his sister Nanaki. Nanaki’s husband Jairam was an influential man in Sultanpur and got him a job as an accountant with the Nawab Daulat Khan Lodhi, a distant relative of the reigning Sultan of Delhi Sikander Lodi. Sikandar was the son of Bahlol Lodi who as we got to know established the Lodi dynasty in India.. While Nanak discharged his duties diligently and won the affection of his employer, he was always preoccupied in spiritual matters and he was never at peace with the status quo of the existing social order.

In Sultanpur and across all of Northern India, Nanak saw a society deeply divided between Hindus and Muslims. The Muslims were a relatively new arrival in Punjab – they first started coming in about 1000 AD – eventually they started converting the local Hindu population to Islam through the use of force and enslavement of women and children. An integral part of Muslim society was slavery – the nobles and royals kept domestic slaves – both men and women – these slaves were called ghulams. Unlike in the tales of western slavery, we see that the relationship between the master and the slave in 15th century Punjab was more emotional and humanitarian. On the other hand, the Sufis also played a huge role in the peaceful conversion of people to Islam. Despite the ideal norm of equality in Islam, the Muslim society was degraded into many many social divisions.

The Hindu society was no better either – and the ideal norm was of social differentiation. In the 11th century, Al-Biruni, a famous Persian mathematician who also proposed a method to calculate the circumference of the earth, described in detail the division of the Hindu society. There were at least 36 social groups and except for the higher caste Brahmins and shatrias, the rest lived in abject poverty. The condition of the untouchables was outright inhuman. Women fared no better either; child marriage was rampant, women were regarded as inferior to men and widows in particular were treated with contempt. The Brahmins advocated meaningless rituals as a tool to further oppress the common people. These social norms remained unchanged even in the 15th century. Now add the fact that the Hindus and Muslims were always at odds with each other, we begin to get a sense of the social order – except for a chosen few, everyone lacked the basic human rights of equality, freedom and justice. Any deviation from these social norms, either by a Muslim or by a Hindu, was not tolerable and punishable by law. Living in Sultanpur amidst such a repressive social order, Nanak at the age of 30, proclaimed “There is no Hindu and there is no Muslim” and in this one sentence broke away from the norms of the prevailing society. In very simple terms Nanak asserted that all humans were equal, entitled to a live a life with dignity. Everyone was the child of one God.

Guru Nanak coined the concept of Ek Onkar, which is central to the monotheistic aspect of the Sikh religion. In short, he defined God as: One, the supreme truth, the creator, without fear and hate, omnipresent and free from birth and death, beyond expression, and full of Grace. Guru Nanak chartered a new order – and mixed together religious, social and political responsibilities to form a complete set of moral and spiritual guidelines. He envisioned a social revolution that would pull down the tyrants and exploiters, and create an equal and just society for the previously downtrodden, humble and weak. For the rest of his life Guru Nanak preached the equality of humanity – his teachings were for all irrespective of their present practices, caste structures, gender, or any other social, political affiliations. He accorded women equal status in society, in sharp contrast to existing practices.

For the next 24 years, Guru Nanak traveled far and wide in all the four directions. He felt he had a moral obligation to transform the society. In his first udasi or voyage from 1500-1506, he traveled east to as far as Assam. On his way, he stopped in Banaras where he collected the works of Kabir, and it is through this painstaking effort, that we know about Kabir’s life and philosophy. In his second udasi from 1506 to 1513, he traveled South all the way to Colombo in Sri Lanka. From 1514-1518, Guru Nanak traveled North to Ladakh, Tibet and came around through Nepal. His final udasi was towards the west to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Along the way he stopped at Baghdad in Iraq, where he is still revered as the only person who knows the truth. We will cover each of these udasis in more detail in forthcoming podcasts.

While on his udasi’s, Guru Nanak was not much troubled by the political establishment of Sikandar Lodi, the ruler of Punjab and Delhi. Sikandar died in 1517and left the empire to his son Ibrahim Lodi. Ibrahim was not a particularly strong leader, and sensing an opportunity, Babar, a Central Asian conqueror and a direct descendent of Ghenghis Khan, repeatedly attacked the plains of Northern India. In 1526, at the First battle of Panipat, Babur famously defeated and killed Ibrahim Lodi and established the foundation of Mughal empire in India.

This period between 1519 and 1526 was the most dramatic in the political landscape of Punjab and this is reflected in the hymns composed by Guru Nanak during that time. In his hymns, Guru Nanak specifically called out Babur as an oppressive and barbaric tyrant. Nanak’s teachings recognized the fundamental human rights of equality, freedom and justice. He provided a moral justification to the use of force if it was imperative to preserve the dignity of human life. These teachings later laid the foundations of the Khalsa under Guru Gobind.

Babur, the first Mughal emperor died in 1530. This was a relatively peaceful period in history and there were no further skirmishes with his son Humayun. This peaceful period allowed Nanak to consolidate his disciples and lay a solid foundation for the Sikh community.

Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life living with his wife and family at Kartarpur, in West Punjab now in Pakistan, by the banks of the river Ravi. Guru Nanak earned his living as a farmer and reflected a positive and healthy attitude towards life. He established a dharamsal or a place of congregation which became the nerve center for Sikh philosophy. Guru Nanak preached the name of God, affirmed his belief in the equality of all mankind and upheld the right to a dignified life, free from religious coercion, social bondage and political oppression.

Guru Nanak laid down strict ethical tests for his disciples. He emphasised that Truth is higher than everything. But higher still is truthful living. As such, he laid down guidelines, of a series of cardinal virtues as essentials for the religious discipline of a Sikh. In short, nam japo or to remember God in one’s actions, kirt karo, or to earn through honest and creative work, and wand chhako- or to share earnings with others, became the hallmark of the new Sikh society.

Guru Nanak preached in the language of the people, Punjabi, which had its own Gurmukhi script . Along with Mardana, a Muslim musician and one of Guru Nanak’s first followers, he composed music to his hymns in the classical Indian Ragas – these hymns contain deep philosophical ideas in the common language – this shows that Guru Nanak had perfect control over language, both written and as spoken and understood by the common people.

Guru Nanak also instituted the concept of sangat or congregation, which was the mixing together of devotees in worship – in the recitation of hymns and singing of shabads, and listening to discourses. These congregations also provided the people a platform to exchange views on common problems, and generate a feeling of communal and national consciousness.

One of the hallmarks of Guru Nanak’s Dharamsals was the langar, or common kitchen, where all devotees were served free food irrespective of caste, creed or gender. This was revolutionary because it ended social discrimination and fostered a spirit of a community. In his lifetime, Guru Nanak was able to create a community of people who had much more in common amongst themselves than to the communities they originally belonged to. Kushwant Singh, the famous Sikh author, has proposed that this ideal gave birth to the collective Punjabi consciousness and the Punjabi nationalism as distinct from all others.

Perhaps, Guru Nanak’s greatest contribution for consolidation of the Sikh faith was appointment of Guru Angad as a successor to carry on his work. Guru Nanak passed away peacefully in 1539, at the age of 70 leaving behind many zealous and admiring disciples.

In this episode we have talked about the life and times of Guru Nanak. He was born in a society deeply divided into Hindus and Muslims. Within each of these religions there were further subdivisions and discrimination that deprived the people of an honorable life. Women were treated as inferior to men and the general atmosphere had deteriorated and common man was brutally oppressed by the ruling classes. Added to that, the times were of tremendous political activity and the Lodi Empire was defeated by Babur – who established the oppressive Mughal empire in India. In this society, Guru Nanak’s Sikhs or disciples rebelled against the established social order and created a whole new identity for themselves. Some of the significant values Guru Nanak instilled in his followers were: a belief in one God; a rejection of an ascetic lifestyle, the importance of hard work, a casteless society that guarantees equality for all humanity and working towards the betterment of all. In the next episode, we will talk about Bhai Lehna, who went on to become Guru Angad, the second Sikh Guru. We will talk about his role in consolidating the legacy of Guru Nanak – and in furthering institutions that gave the Sikh religion a firm and solid foundation. So keep listening.

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh.

Artwork: Nankana Sahib, Pakistan, birthplace of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism