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Remembering Nanak, The Guru
The Talking Stick Colloquium # 66





Sikh tradition celebrates the coming of Guru Nanak on this day, five hundred and forty two years ago, as the descending of Divine Light on Earth to dispel the mist and fog of spiritual ignorance in an Age of Darkness (KalYug).

Nanak’s appearance was to be the beginning of a new way (panth) that was to crystalize into what we know as Sikhi or the Sikh religion.

Sikhs will celebrate Nanak’s birth, as they have always done, with much fanfare. As a symbolic gesture, their homes will be lit. Taking a cue from traditions that Nanak started, they will gather in congregations across the world and sing hymns of praise to God and share with others the fruit of their labors by organizing community kitchens.

Much of what we know about Nanak the person comes from traditional sources called janam sakhis (literally, birth stories), folklore and oral traditions. The picture of Nanak in the popular consciousness is best captured in a ditty, sung even today and describes him thus: “Nanak is the King of Saints! A Guru to the Hindu and Pir to the Mussalman.”

The image of a spiritual guide and teacher, universally revered by members of faiths that were otherwise antagonistic to each other, is reinforced by accounts of the quarrel that broke out between Hindus and Muslims over his last rites, with each side claiming him to be one of their own. Two monuments honor his memory in Kartarpur (Punjab, in modern-day Pakistan) - one built by Hindus and the other erected by Muslims.

Nanak was born in 1469, in Talwandi, now Nankana Sahib in the part of Punjab now in Pakistan, and died in 1539. The turning point in Nanak’s life came when he was around thirty and employed as a bookkeeper at the royal granary in Sultanpur. By his own account, recorded in Sikh scripture, he received the divine call, and was ushered into the holy presence: “The Lord called me, an unemployed minstrel, to His service. The Master called his minstrel and placed the Robe of Honor to sing true praises.”

Nanak’s experience of the Divine is captured in the credal statement of the Sikh Scripture. It begins with the use of an alpha numeric, Ik Oankar to symbolize the One Ultimate Reality, which is both immanent and transcendent.

The use of an alpha numeric illustrates Nanak’s extensive use of conventions, language, concepts, terms, and poetic forms - from the tradition of his birth. But by investing them with new meaning and providing a new context, he transcends his inheritance.

By affixing a numeral "1," to the traditional representation of the Hindu trinity, "Oankar," he swept aside, in one stroke, the traditional conglomeration of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Instead, Nanak pointed to the One, "Ik", as alone being worthy of worship.

This One is both immanent and transcendent and is accessible - although ultimately unknowable - to one and all through Naam (literally, Name). Naam is the central doctrine in Nanak’s teachings, being "the only fixture in Guru Nanak's house." It comes wrapped in manifold layers of meaning, usage and nuance that cuts across linguistics, philosophy and mystical symbolism.

For our purposes, suffice to say that Naam represents both the creative essence of God as existence as well as the means and methodology for individual salvation.

“The medium is the message”, is a phrase Marshal McLuhan coined to express the idea that the medium embeds itself in the message. Nanak’s use of music and poetry as medium to teach and share is a classic example: his commission was to sing true praises to an unknowable God, which suggests the use of a more redolent and rapturous medium than the usual didactic or moralizing discourse - precisely because Nanak’s experience of the Divine was as one that is beyond ordinary religious definition, Hindu or Muslim.

Not surprisingly, the Sikh Scripture that emerged in Sikh tradition - compiled by the fifth Nanak, Arjan, and invested with the status of Guru (living teacher) by the tenth Nanak, Gobind Singh - is a collection of sublime poetry arranged to music. It is 1430 pages long and a scripture of song and praise, because it is the ecstasy and devotion of music that is the most appropriate vehicle to approach a God who is ultimately unknowable, a God who cannot be confined by religious boundaries but can be celebrated by hymns of praise.

For almost thirty years, Nanak travelled incessantly across India, to Tibet and Sri Lanka, and to Baghdad and Mecca. He met people of all religions and station - in the village square, the street corner, the bazaar or somebody’s home, speaking to them in their own language.

Whether it was at Hardwar, showing the Hindu pilgrims the futility of offering water to ancestors, or at Mecca, asking the Muslim Qazi to point his legs where God was not, Nanak’s logic was irrefutable and his sincerity and unbounded love enough to melt any opposition.

These learning and transforming moments were brought about, not through dogma or debate or the angry waiving of Scripture, or in a formalized teacher-pupil setting.

Nanak changed the protagonists by interacting with them in informal daily settings, in the very ordinariness of life. He did not question their sincerity but simply caused them to question their own beliefs.

That was the genius of Nanak.

The fundamental truth of Nanak is conveyed in the opening verse of Sikh Scripture where he questions the prevailing modes of religious formalism and ritual, warning us that no ritual, undertaken for its own sake, will bring fulfillment. All religious paraphernalia, is unavailing if not accompanied by an inner sense of submission and surrender to the Divine Will (Hukam).

We require, then, not so much an alternative set of praxis (practice), or exclusive focus on religious ritual, but a different paradigm or way of looking at life - one that requires an expansion of our consciousness that is guided by a sense of the Holy in all human activity.

Our lives, then, must reflect the qualities of this timeless, eternal Being in whom we are anchored: we must be creative, fearless and without malice as we go about the business of our life.

Lets sing songs of praise with Nanak.


As part of this week's Talking Stick Colloquium, we'd love to hear from you on the following two questions:

1   What role has Guru Nanak's life and teachings played in your personal spiritual growth?

 2  Which aspect of his life and teachings grabs you first and foremost?



[Courtesy: Huffington Post. Edited for]

November 10, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), November 10, 2011, 8:40 AM.

Guru Nanak is the embodiment of what is good on Earth, where we are otherwise plagued by unnecessary complexities and dualities.

2: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), November 10, 2011, 11:57 AM.

Guru Arjan, in praise of Guru Nanak [GGS:865]: Gur kaa sabad na maytai ko-ay /Gur Nanak Nanak har so-ay" - 'The Guru's Word being Guru Nanak's Word, it is imperishable because Guru Nanak is God Himself.' Here Guru Nanak has been identified with God in the sense that a person should be as great as God Himself to be Guru of mankind. And that is what life asks of each individual.

3: Devinder Singh (India), November 10, 2011, 11:27 PM.

Ajit Singh ji: I believe that Guru Arjan's is a message holding out that each one of us can identify with God.

4: Raj (Canada), November 10, 2011, 11:45 PM.

"naa elam nu yaad hai kuch/ naa hunar hi janada hai/ darvesh di sadaa si kithay khap gayee pataa hai?" Dr. Surjit Singh Patar on the 500 birth anniversary of Guru Nanak.

5: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), November 11, 2011, 1:10 AM.

Guru Nanak was a cool teacher - I love how he relates to people from all walks of life - he shows the sensible way. Hindus still do the water-towards-the-sun thing. I love his normal childhood - his parents not understanding/ seeing who he is, I love his older sister's love for him and his traveling companions. I have a wise friend named Bala too and he hugs trees, is very compassionate towards all living things and sings in the park. I love that Guru Nanak didn't have sons he trusted to do the sensible thing. I love that he traveled and came home to be a farmer and spend time with his family and the next Guru. So glad Guru Nanak existed - wish I had met him. I love that Guru Nanak was a cool teacher, farmer, brother and friend.

6: Nav Kaur (Australia), November 11, 2011, 3:20 AM.

I know very little of the genius of Guru Nanak, but of the very little i know - he's a symbol of humility and a creative divine spirit. He conveyed to us that we all have the potential to attain such a high spiritual state by overcoming the ego and its shortcomings. However with the limitations of our egotistical minds and emotions, this is no doubt a difficult path. Guru Nanak's life, his teachings and ideals, leave me in awe. Perhaps one day, with Waheguru's blessings, I will be able to really grasp the genius of our incredible Guru Nanak. Happy Gurpurab!

7: Ravinder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), November 11, 2011, 9:55 AM.

To try and capture Guru Nanak in a thousand words or less certainly qualifies as being foolish. I doubt that he can be captured in a gazillion words - IF he can be captured in words at all. But I was foolish enough to try this, despite my better judgement, because I had to find some way to express and share my intense love for our Baba. He is da man! I told Sher how difficult it was writing this - every time I wrote the word Nanak, I had to stop because a gush of love would overcome me. In the end, the Baba himeself helped me complete this piece and stick with the 1000-words-or-less editorial guideline!

8: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 11, 2011, 11:07 AM.

Every year we remember Guru Nanak by printing his pictures in the Punjabi print media which ultimately go in the garbage and nobody cares. Almost all of us have pictures of Guru Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadar and Guru Gobind Singh in our homes. These pictures are not real or original but only imaginary. There is no difference between a picture and an idol and Guru Nanak had rejected the concept of idol worship but we Sikhs are still into it. Likewise there are many such things we follow against gurmat. Unless we Sikhs follow true Sikhi as per Gurmat we will not be able to increase the awareness of Sikhism or introduce our Gurus around the world. Guru Nanak traveled walking around to far away places of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Mecca, Baghdad, Kamroop (Assam), Tashkand and many more. He traveled far and wide to spread the word of gurbani and covered most of India, present day Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, South West China, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. According to Prof. Gurbachan Singh, Principal of Gurmat College, there were 30 million Sikhs (followers) during his time; today we are not too many more around the world.

9: Manpreet Kaur (Delhi, India), November 11, 2011, 11:19 AM.

Mohan Singh ji: There IS a difference between a picture and an idol. A picture is a mere image, no more, no less. An idol is something you worship, expecting it to do you favours in return for silly things you do to it or in front of it. There is nothing wrong in owning or making pictures; but treating it like an idol or having idols at home or doing stupid things around them is against Sikhi - and is not for Sikhs. Hope that makes the difference clear.

10: Balbir Singh (Germany), November 11, 2011, 12:57 PM.

Rarely does someone receive true Naam Simran as Gur Parsad and remembers Guru Nanak and thanks Him for the gift.

11: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey,U.S.A..), November 11, 2011, 5:30 PM.

Guru Amardas [GGS:644]: "Naanak naam tinaa ka-o mili-aa jin ka-o dhur likh paa-i-aa" - 'Nanak, they alone are blessed with the gift of Naam in whose destiny it is so ordained by Waheguru". Balbir Singh Ji, we remain busy in worldliness. We fail to realize in our minds that Waheguru, the source of lasting happiness, is within us.

12: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), November 12, 2011, 9:43 AM.

Has anyone done the foot journey to all the places that Guru Nanak had been to? That would make an interesting travel blog. Perhaps a gurdwara could sponsor such a project for individuals keen on and committed to journey the trail Guru Nanak made more than 500 years ago. I love Sobha Singh's imagination of Guru Nanak but I think we all can go deep into our hearts and imagine what Guru Nanak looked like and how much we miss him.

13: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), November 12, 2011, 1:22 PM.

Manjeet ji in comment # 12 finishes by saying "how much we miss him ..." Well, he's ever present in his bani and easily encountered there ...

14: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 13, 2011, 11:12 AM.

Gurbani reveals the best image of Guru Nanak. In one of his lectures, Maskeen ji once said that Guru Nanak was physically tall, slim and strong from within, with a smart face and a sharp mind.

15: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), November 13, 2011, 11:27 AM.

Mohan Singh ji, it would be really interesting to see a quote, if any, from gurbani - or the janamsakhis - which describes a physical image of Guru Nanak

16: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas, U.S.A.), November 13, 2011, 7:57 PM.

On this auspicious gurpurab, many honest/thoughtful views expressed include his journeys, imperishable words, a cool teacher, symbol of humility, Naam gift-giver, embodiment of goodness, 'dhund mitao'; all befitting and inspiring reflections. We all agree on these respecful personal and individual tributes. Is this all he practiced in his life? If not, then a few reflections on certain practical aspects he espoused deserve some consideration. For example, lack of truth, humility, equality, respect, goodness among us is not much different today than the folks he encountered in his time. He demonstrated and represented acts that are worth more than earning our sense of love, respect and overwhelming gratitude. We should talk about his courage, determination and willingness to travel on foot as far as he did in those dangerous, unimaginable and difficult circumstances; which remain significant and valuable traits today. Thoughts upon his means for food, sleep, clothes, washing, facilities, monies in his travels; all are more significant to us these days than perhaps during his time. Imagining communication in different languages, maintaining calm/control in adverse situations, convention-defying acts in dangerous circumstances, are the reasons that prompt us to attend seminars to learn by using him as an example and a source of practical knowledge. Talking about unity among people, in purpose, in divinity, remains as elusive within us today, as he observed in people in those days. Lack of our practice and attitude in discussing these aspects of his life remains a mystery. It will be more meaningful a tribute to him and his life when our reflections include the differences we as his followers may have made in influencing the life of today's inhabitants of this planet. Otherwise, Guru Nanak's life and his work remains a good repository of historic significance and our reflections thoughtful and proper in perception; but in reality, these are hollow, superfluous, worn out and ritualistic. There is nothing wrong in this approach; it is rather in accord with well known and established ancient human ways, regardless of the context, religious or otherwise. These views portray my perception of the reality, and are not meant to offend or show disrespect for views of others.

17: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), November 13, 2011, 10:58 PM.

How to paint strong from within, a smart face and mind? Van Gogh did say that some pictures are too beautiful to paint. The closest I can get to an image of the Guru is to find a Gursikh who is totally devoted/ respectful to gurbani. The Sikh I met who come close to my mind of visualizing the Guru is Baba Naranjan Singh ji from Patiala. I attempted an image, a painting of him, because I had missed him - I rarely miss people.

18: Balbir Singh (Germany), November 15, 2011, 4:44 PM.

Did the Gurus after Guru Nanak celebrate his birthday?

19: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), November 16, 2011, 1:11 PM.

Balbir Singh ji: A wonderful thought! Every Sikh should ponder this question.

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The Talking Stick Colloquium # 66"

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