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Parsing a Parable:
The Final Resting Place of Guru Nanak

by I.J. SINGH

 

 

Some wheat, some chaff. That's life.

These are high holy days for Sikhs as we mark the birth of Guru Nanak, the Founder of Sikhi.

Let's parse a parable of his life from the end of his days.

We know that anything and anyone that lives a life as flesh must perish and die one day. Everyone is mortal and his or her earthly sojourn must end. So, for Guru Nanak also the time came for an end to his earthly existence.

But this unique man continues to inspire millions even today. It was no different when the time came to die over 500 years ago. His message was common to mankind and people flocked to him from both religious traditions that made up society across the Indian subcontinent then - Hinduism and Islam.

Nothing surprising in that so far.

Then, tradition and history tell us, at his death a quarrel broke out between his followers who had been Hindus and those who had come from Islam. This tells you how hard it is to transform or reinvent oneself. The baggage of the past accumulates in life and it isn't always easy to shake it off or see clearly through its fog.

So what? You might ask.

Nanak was no more but what to do with his body; his followers loved him so much. The Muslims wanted to bury him in accordance with Islamic requirements and rites. The Hindus wanted to follow the Hindu way and cremate Nanak. Emotions ran high; compromise was not on the table.

It is rightly said that people will argue for religion, wrangle over it, fight for it, kill for it and even die for it but they will not readily live for it.

The war of words over Nanak's body lasted through the night.

In the morning, when they lifted the sheet that covered Nanak's corpse, there was no Nanak but only a bunch of fresh flowers.

A miracle, the people thought, had saved them. They could divide the flowers - those who came from Hinduism could cremate them, those who came from Islam would bury their half. Both were satisfied.

Hindus erected a memorial to Nanak; the Muslims erected their own. The two stand even today, next to each other. What a wonderful tribute to Nanak; the man, his life and his work.

This is what our tradition tells us. I have never heard a differing version. This is what I have heard all my life. It is what I have personally used to describe how awe-inspiring Nanak must have been. And everyone celebrates the visionary Nanak who inspired such reverence in those who were traditional enemies amongst themselves.

It seems to me today that some vitals are missing in the story. These are things that make me wonder at the nexus of fact and fiction that might have produced the parable. This wonderful story that mixes so beautifully history and myth unravels before my eyes.

Let's probe some factoids of history that we know to be true - they are evidence-based - but find no place in the parable. I don't see how they could have been irrelevant to the story that has been imprinted in our consciousness for half a millennium.

We know Guru Nanak was a married man, a householder with a wife, Sulakhni, and two grown sons, Srichand and Lakhmidas. Did they have an opinion on the last rites for Guru Nanak?

He had also passed the mantle of Guruship to Bhai Lehna and installed him as Guru Angad. History doesn't tell us how many hours, days or weeks Guru Nanak outlived the moment when he personally nominated and installed Guru Angad - delegating to Angad the office and its authority along with the responsibilities of the Guru.

Notice that the parable informs us of disagreements between his followers who had come to him from different faith traditions. But it speaks not a word about what Guru Angad might have said or done to dampen the fires. Guru Angad must still have been at Kartarpur because Guru Nanak's mortal coil must still have been there waiting to be laid to its final rest. That could have been one of the earliest if not the first responsibility of the second Guru. What did he say or suggest?

The parable says not a word and nor does history, about what Guru Angad said or did. Was he not in the loop?

Guru Nanak's two grown sons also must have been there along with their mother - Guru Nanak's wife. Did they have an opinion? What was it and how did they (the family of Guru Nanak) express their preference? The parable offers nary a word.

To me, these questions leave the parable awfully and unexpectedly incomplete.

I know that parables come from the heart (faith) while history emerges from the head (evidence); they often merge, sometimes seamlessly, and become integral and inseparable elements of a culture. They both provide us magical and informative windows to a people and a time, and yet either, alone, remains incomplete. Accuracy and reliability are different matters altogether.

This is the way all cultures (and religions) are, whether it is Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any one of the varieties of human religious experience. 

Sikh belief and practice often mix evidence-based history with what is only circumstantial and sometimes even with what is clearly neither history nor evidence but is merely a habit of the heart. Sometimes the mixing is so intimate and flawless that the intervening seams all but disappear.

My opinions derive their credence from a perusal of the legends of Ramayana and Mahabharata, in the Hindu tradition, the mythology of Genesis in the Old Testament that is the founding document of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as the enchanting mix of fact and fiction in Sikh traditional lore.

Does unraveling of a foundational parable in Sikhi make me uncomfortable? Not at all!

We are speaking here of the commonality of human existence through time and culture and across the seas. The study of history tells us that history itself gets altered by the process of studying it. Much as an experimental animal reacts to the expectations of the observer, similarly history uncovers itself to reflect and fulfill many of the views of the scholar who parses and
records it. Even the best evidence gets tainted in the process. Such evidentiary bias is universal.

History and parables, even though they overlap at the periphery, are entirely different processes and serve different purposes. Parables are morality plays; their role, no less important than history, is to provide us an easily swallowed sugar-coated pill. As examples, I point to Biblical writing in Genesis, events of the birth of Jesus, or his arising from the dead. These are clearly
not history; to weigh them on the scale of evidence would find them wanting, even silly. As morality plays, such matters remain supreme - ask any believer.

The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl tells us that history is an argument without end. He is right or else history would become a closed black book; our connections to the past would then become tenuous, the present lose all meaning and the future would have no legs.

I know many readers will be uncomfortable with my unraveling a dearly loved and beautiful parable of the life of our Founder-Guru that carries a timeless lesson on religious tolerance. But keep in mind also my unquestioned love for Guru Nanak. I am reminded of some words of the poet Richard Lovelace:

"I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not Honour more
..."

[Here Honour stands for Duty.]

If the Ramayana or Mahabharata reflect the background and biases of the authors, just as the authors of Genesis had their own worldview that colored what they imagined, similarly the legendary poet Santokh Singh, writer of Suraj Parkash, or the oft quoted mystic Bhai Vir Singh had their own lens thorough which they saw the world.

And don't underestimate the biases and the colored glasses through which any reader (that is, you and me) reads and internalizes what is written.

T.S. Eliot tells us:

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving.


There is also the other side of the coin, to which he further says:

We shall not cease from exploration

And in the end of all our exploring


Will be to arrive where we started


And know the place for the first time.


Separating wheat from chaff, like unraveling strands of history is a never-ending task that every generation must do for itself. But it is not work; it is a pleasure.

 

ijsingh99@gmail.com

November 22, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Sandeep Singh Brar (Ontario, Canada), November 22, 2010, 8:48 AM.

Interesting analogy used here. Chaff is a waste product from grain processing, which leads to a metaphorical use of the term, to refer to something seen as worthless. This is commonly used in the expression "to separate the wheat from the chaff" from Matthew 3., where it means to separate things of value from things of no value. As that analogy applies here, it suggests that history is the thing of value, while the parable or myth or story is the thing of lesser value that needs to be deconstructed. Perhaps the quest to separate the wheat from the chaff is not the high moral duty of each generation that it is made out to be. History is already a listing of events, carefully selected and separated from a specific perspective, with the rest thrown away. A parable is an entirely different vehicle and concept. It is not meant to convey history (although that may be a by-product); instead, it is mean to convey a teaching, a lesson, a concept, something to think about. In this specific parable, what Guru Angad was doing or what the Gurus' sons were doing has nothing to do with the parable and are completely irrelevant to the purpose of the parable and it's demonstrating of the universal appeal of Guru Nanak' to diverse groups of Hindus and Muslims at the time. Nothing has been unraveled here; the parable, like all those of the various Janamsakhi stories are wonderful in conveying the sense of what Guru Nanak's teachings were about. Parables are an entirely different concept and existence from history. Moses did not really part the Red Sea, did he? Jesus did not really walk on water, did he? Guru Nanak did not really move Mecca, did he? Baba Deep Singh did not really fight on without his head, did he? Those are not the questions to apply to parables, the question to apply is what does this story teach us in terms of spiritual lessons, that is the essence of the parable and its worth. Today, we live in a world where there is a disconnect between the two realms of history and spirituality that existed in the past when these parables were written. Today the touchstone of validity being applied to the parable is the question - is this historically correct or scientifically possible? In the time of the Janamsakhis, when the author(s) wrote about the funeral of Guru Nanak or when Bhai Gurdas, one of the most respected Sikhs of his time, wrote about Guru Nanak moving Mecca when his feet were moved, the intention of the author was - what can I write that best conveys the essence of Guru Nanak's teachings. As a historian and a Sikh, I view history being like the words of a song, parables being like the music of a song. The song is beautiful only when I hear both. I end with some interesting historical tidbits: Apparently the story of a holy man's body turning into flowers is not unique to Guru Nanak, but the same parable has also been used in reference to other Indian saints as well. I've also read an early Persian account of a traveler's visit to the original tomb of Guru Nanak, a tomb that no longer exists as the river changed its course and washed it away - nature giving us an interesting related parable: worship the man's teachings, they have permanence, not his physical body or the tomb representing the impermanent things in life.

2: Bibek Singh (Jersey City, U.S.A.), November 22, 2010, 11:08 AM.

Yesterday, I read in a newspaper that as per Sant Singh Chatwal (hotelier), Mr Obama did not visit Amritsar so that the SGPC could not influence him. Till the day before yesterday, I was aware of only two versions/ excuses, and now we have the third one. So after, say 200 yrs, someone will write a story that will suit him/ her, or theaudience, on that day. It may read - "The first black US President, a Christian as per the White House, did not visit the first Gurdwara due to ...". Same is the situation with this parable. Unfortunately many Indians (read Hindus), even today, associate the concept of God with a 'man having miraculous powers'. I personally experienced this when last year I told my South Indian colleague about Guru Nanak. His immediate response was - 'Did he display any miracles during his life time?' So my personal guess is that someone must have 'created' this parable, so that the audience of the story could easily conceptualize Guru Nanak's message to the world. How can there be a miracle greater than the one in his message! Who needs one?

3: Mlle. S. (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), November 22, 2010, 11:29 AM.

I loved your article. As a Jewish American, I see much of our Torah as parable and teachings. For example, the story of Adam and Eve reminds us that we are all brothers and sisters, for if we descend from one couple, then we are all related. It also teaches us that if you commit a murder, you are potentially wiping out the whole future of the human race (for if Adam were to have died in the parable, man would have been no more). The Garden of Eden may not have been historical, but for countless Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and others who read the story in good faith, it should remind us of our common humanity and our common origins. I would like to point out, though, that most of my Christian friends - and they are mostly 'moderates' - do believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact. It is sometimes difficult to have a discussion of parables when another person insists that the version of history they learned is absolutely, positively correct and should be taken on faith.

4: Kiran Kaur (Leeds, United Kingdom), November 22, 2010, 2:46 PM.

While agreeing with the main thrust of the article, I want to clarify one point. The automatic assumption that Guru Nanak's sons and Guru Angad, for example, would have been present at Guru Nanak's 'funeral', or would have had an opportunity to have a say in the final arrangements is, I believe, erroneous. We have to put ourselves into a time-frame when word of a death took days, if not weeks, to travel the smallest of distances. Transportation too would be equally tardy for those heading to the bereaved community. We simply cannot assume certain things for that period which are automatically taken as a given in today's society. Therefore, no meaningful conclusions can be drawn from such assumptions. Also, if I may move to another point, parables generally are history in that they have a kernel of truth in them, around which is built a story, a teaching and a moral. We simply cannot discount the whole story around his funeral, for example, based on our current-day, so-called logic which is purely illogical because it is based on a whole house of cards of assumptions. I would say that it is entirely feasible, possible and probable that the various communities would have quarreled over the funeral arrangements. The one thing that was probably added as an embellishment is the idea of flowers being found in place of the body. The point is well made in the form of what I would say is not only parable but poetry! In Sikhi, we have the advantage that we are dealing with historical people and events which undoubtedly happened. Most other faiths, unfortunately, are saddled with almost a complete absence of historical fact; all they have, often, is legend and - more often than not - it is a regurgitated one from other, older traditions. Let's not unnecessarily take on analogies from other faiths when they simply do not apply. The legend of the the virgin birth or the resurrection, for example, has no factual basis - according to Christian historians themselves. The story of Guru Nanak's death is factuallty based, albeit embellished with the added details of miracle. Let's be careful - as all farmers are - in separating the wheat from the chaff, and not throwing out the wrong half!

5: Sukhdev Singh Shergill (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), November 23, 2010, 2:35 AM.

This is an excellent article. I have baulked at this parable when it came to Nanak's body turned into flowers. I basically dismissed it as a miracle which had nothing to to do with Sikhism and the Guru. I.J. Singh has done a superb analysis. I disagree with Kiran Kaur. It is high time that we separate the wheat from the chaff. For how long Sikhs should continue to believe that Guru Gobind Singh, before his birth on earth, was meditating at a spot where Gurdwara Hemkunt stands? Not to worry about throwing the wrong half. Even the blind would not make this mistake. The twisted clergies (of all religions) would, of course, retain the chaff!

6: Dr. Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 23, 2010, 6:22 AM.

True strength of the human spirit and soul has not yet been charted by this mortal world - I would like to believe that Moses had the ability to part the Red Sea to save his race (and now scientific evidence is emerging how it is possible to part a body of water by invoking various forces of nature in a certain manner); that the resurrection of Christ is a truth (people have woken up from a proclaimed dead state after minutes/ hours - (re which scientific community cannot confer any explanation except to call it a miracle); that Guru Nanak's body ultimately changed into blossoming flowers (as we don't know how long Muslims and Hindus argued over his remains - mind you, they continue to argue until the present, though over different issues now). In all these discussion, we keep on forgetting that these stories/ parables/ myths/ saakhis remind us how extraordinary we are as human beings! - and what we can accomplish if we focus our strengths, thoughts and energies TO DO THE RIGHT THING (to save the planet, to beat hunger and poverty, etc.). All of us are also capable of doing extra-ordinary feats (part the Red Sea or transform into blossoming flowers or wake up from a dead/ comatose state) to save our entire human race, which is undeniably in peril. And this we can only accomplish if we cease to ... I will leave it up to the imagination of the reader(s)to find their answer/ focus so that it becomes their own parable!

7: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), November 23, 2010, 9:58 AM.

Interesting article. But I will appreciate it if someone can explain how the Retthaa (bittar poision) tree in Pilibhit, U.P., India, became sweet at the hands of Guru Nanak. The tree continues to bear sweet fruit even today whereas all other trees of the same species are bitter and actually poisonous, as they are supposed to be.

8: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), November 23, 2010, 2:28 PM.

Most readers are exploring the "seeming miracle" of a human body transforming the next day into fresh flowers. But that was not the emphasis in my retelling of a well known parable. I understand why parables carry magical moments, and sometimes the magic stems from the language used in retelling a momentous happening like Guru Nanak's passing away and capturing the love his followers felt for him. In fact, I have a whole essay on sikhchic.com titled "Fact, Fiction & Myth" on such matters. In this column today, my focus was intentionally narrower. I wondered why there is no mention - and has likely never been - any mention of any role played at that time by Guru Nanak's family (wife and two sons) or the Second Master, Guru Angad, either to calm troubled waters or offer advice. Did they play any role? I imagine they had opinions and their thoughts were sought by the followers (Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims). There must have been conversation on what to do; it is in this that the parable seems incomplete. The intention was not to weigh the parable on the scale of credibility and attack what was not credible. There is no question that in this utopian community at Kartarpur, the community's voices likely carried more weight than those of others. I just wonder what those others might have thought or said. The intention was never to throw out the baby with the bath water.

9: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada.), November 23, 2010, 5:27 PM.

Guru Nanak's life was according to his bani and not as per so called historian or saakhikars. When it became clear that the final days of Guru Nanak were near, a dispute arose among his followers. His Hindu followers wanted to cremate the remains while his Muslim followers wanted to bury the body following Islamic tradition. Nanak brokered a compromise by suggesting that each group should place a garland of flowers beside his body, and those whose garland remained unwilted after three days could dispose of his body according to their tradition. However, the next morning, upon raising the cloth under which the Guru's body lay, only the flowers shared between his followers were found. The Hindus cremated their flowers whereas the Muslims buried theirs. The Guru departed to heaven as he came from it. He breathed his last at Kartarpur, on Monday September 22, 1539 A.D.

10: Jodh Singh (Jericho, New York, U.S.A.), November 23, 2010, 5:47 PM.

We call this and other stories from Guru Nanak's life parables, using a term borrowed from the Christian Bible. I believe they are true happenings. Otherwise, nobody would have followed Guru Nanak. He could not have been able to go to Mecca, none other than a Muslim is allowed there even today. I believe Guru Nanak had all supernatural powers and was able to run the Chakki of Babar and could teach a lesson to Koda the Cannibal and to Wali Kandhari. I have seen some miracles in my life from three saints, one Hindu, one Muslim and one Sikh. Millions of people would follow them and they still lived in extreme poverty or humility. Baba Nanak was a blessed soul and he was called by God as depicted in the Guru granth.

11: Gurinder singh (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), November 23, 2010, 5:53 PM.

Miracles are not caused but they do happen as an act of God in honour of His devotees. One example is falling of Sulhi Khan in a brick kiln when he was coming to attack Guru Arjan. There is a shabad in the Guru Granth on this.

12: Devinder Pal Singh (Delhi, India), November 24, 2010, 5:01 AM.

It's often said that Guru Nanak, after handing over the gurgaddi to Guru Angad, went to Kartarpur and spent all his time there till he left for his heavenly abode. Nowhere have we come across that he suffered from any ailment, nor did he prophesy his departure from earth. One od his sons is known to have preached Guru Nanak's teachings and was instrumental in taking His message far and wide. It is not known whether his children were with him and also his wife. The questions posed, apparently to anull the incident and term the story as a parable, will pose more questions, each of which would need answers eventually leading the learned to state that all history regarding our Guru is a question. May I suggest to the learned to instead dig into whatever is available as records and only then put across their findings and understandings and so also the questions. In those days, the root records were kept by record-keepers at Hardwar. Guru Nanak is known to have questioned many social practices and in effect discouraged religious visits to Hardwar, maybe that is one reason we do not find any writings as to where the consigned flowers were immersed in the waters. If anyone has any answers, perhaps it would highlight associated aspects, logically or hypothetically. Till we have any such finding, please let's respect what has been passed through the generations because our Guru practiced his preachings and that needs no evidence. We have Bhai Mardana as his companion and also the Shabad "Awal Allah noor upaayyah kudrat ke sub bande/ Ik noor te sub jug upujjeyaah kaun bhaley kaun mandey". Guru Sahib's life is full of evidence that what happened after he left for his heavenly abode was only natural.

13: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), November 24, 2010, 9:07 AM.

Guru Nanak was no different from Akal Purakh. Gurbani says "Har ka sevak so har jeha/ Bhed na janoh maanas dehaa" [GGS:1076]. It translates to: God's messenger is like God, because of his human figure, he should not be considered separate from God.

14: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), November 25, 2010, 9:27 AM.

If we call this story a parable, as the author has done, then there is no room for speculation. A parable is by definition trying to convey a moral or a truth by means of a story. If we were to wear the lens of a historian, then the questions raised in the essay would be relevant - perhaps necessary.

15: Sukhbinder (Surrey, Brtish Columbia, Canada), November 27, 2010, 12:17 AM.

I congratulate you on pointing out the difference between parable and history. This is a very important line to draw. Miracle stories like this distort the message of Sikhi and make the message less believable. This is the information age and the age of critical inquiry.

16: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), November 28, 2010, 4:03 PM.

Not quite fast or so rigid in definitions, Ravinder. True that a parable is a story told to illustrate a "moral or spiritual truth" and that truth and its lesson remain uncontested in my retelling and parsing of this parable. (I am not parsing the lesson here.) But many, if not most parables are derived from and based on historical nuggets (truths) and that deserves parsing. And that's what I have attempted without diminishing the moral/ spiritual lesson.

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