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NĀNAK , Gurū (14691539), was the founder of the Sikh religion and the first of a succession of ten gurūs or spiritual prophets.


Born in 1469, in Talwandi, a small village in northern India (now in Pakistan), Nānak grew up in a religiously diverse atmosphere. A plurality of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jain philosophies and practices circulated in the Punjab of his time. During Nānak's lifetime Babur defeated the Lodi dynasty in the Battle of Panipat (1526) and established the Mughal Empire. Nānak was born into a Bedi family of katriya Hindus. His father, Kalyan Chand, worked as an accountant for the local Muslim landlord. His mother, Tripta, was a pious woman. The parents named him after their older daughter Nānaki. The love and understanding Nānak received from his sister during his formative years were vital to his consciousness. Later he went to live with Nānaki and her husband Jairam in Sultanpur and worked at the local grocery shop. He married Sulakhni, and they had two sons, Sri Chand (b. 1494) and Lakhmi Das (b. 1497).

In Sultanpur, Nānak had a revelation of the oneness of reality. With his proclamation, "There is no Hindu; there is no Musalman," Nānak began his religious mission. Thereafter for twenty-four years he traveled throughout India and beyond spreading his message of divine unity. During most of his travels, his Muslim companion Mardana played on the rebec, while Gurū Nānak sang songs of intense love addressing the ultimate One in everyday Punjabi. The direct and simple style of Gurū Nānak's teaching drew people from different religious and social backgrounds. Those who accepted him as their "gurū" and followed his teachings came to be known as Sikhs, a Punjabi word that means "disciple" or "seeker" (Sanskrit, śiya ; Pali, sikha ).

At the end of his travels, Gurū Nānak settled in Kartarpur, a village he founded by the river Ravi. A community of disciples grew around him here. Engaged in ordinary occupations of life, they denied monastic practices and affirmed a new sense of family. Their pattern of sevā (voluntary service), langar (cooking and eating irrespective of caste, religion, or sex), and sangat (congregation) created the blueprint for Sikh doctrine and practice. In his own lifetime Nānak appointed his disciple Lahina as his successor, renaming him Angad (my limb). Gurū Nānak died in Kartarpur in 1539.

Though there is little historical documentation dating from Nānak's lifetime, his own hymns in the Gurū Granth have survived. He is vividly remembered in the janamsākhīs and the ballads of Bhai Gurdas.


These "birth stories" are short narratives depicting the birth and life of Gurū Nānak. Combining myth, legend, and history, they portray the divine dispensation of Nānak, his concern for kindness and social cohesiveness, and his stress on divine unity and the consequent unity of humanity. The janamsākhīs disclose the illustrious advent of Nānak's birth. In their central concern and luminous descriptions, the accounts of Nānak's birth have a great deal in common with those of Christ, Buddha, and Ka. Just as baby Jesus' stable was lit up by the bright Star of Bethlehem, the humble mud hut in which Nānak was born was flooded with light at the moment of his birth. But Mata Tripta goes through a normal pregnancy, and her Muslim midwife, Daultan, is struck by the extraordinary qualities of the child she delivers.

The janamsākhīs continue to provide fabulous details of Gurū Nānak's entire life. They depict scenes in which dreadful and dangerous elements of nature either protect him (like the cobra offering his shade to a sleeping Nānak) or are controlled by him (with his outstretched palm Nānak stops a huge rock hurled at him). They depict Nānak's divine configuration. At his death, the shroud is left without the body and flowers are found in its place; both Hindus and Muslims carry away the fragrant flowers to cremate or bury according to their respective customs. The quick and vigorous style of the janamsākhīs lent itself easily to oral circulation, and they became popular. The janamsākhīs have also been painted and brightly illustrated. The janamsākhīs provide Sikhs with their first literary and visual introduction to their heritage, and the stories continue to nurture them for the rest of their lives.

Bhai Gurdas

The ballads of Bhai Gurdas celebrate Gurū Nānak as the axial point between the human and the divine and as the founder of a unique ethical and spiritual legacy. Bhai Gurdas (15511636), born twelve years after the death of Nānak, is the first theologian of the Sikh religion. His depiction of Nānak's advent holds special significance in the communal memory of the Sikhs. As Gurū Nānak made his appearance, mist lifted, "light filling the world / Like the stars vanish and darkness recedes as the sun rises." Bhai Gurdas powerfully portrays Nānak as the medium of divine revelation whose inspired utterances (bani) radically changed the world. He focuses on the transcendent aspect of Nānak's personality and his liberating message for his stratified society. Nānak's critique of asceticism, macho behavior, and superstitious observances comes out effectively through Bhai Gurdas's wit and lively meters.

The GurŪ Granth

The Sikh scripture compiled in 1604 contains 974 hymns by Nānak on a wide range of themes. The opening hymn is Nānak's Japu, which is the quintessence of Sikh philosophy. Nānak's metaphysical vision of the divine, his ethical stress on social equality, and his aesthetic approach form the basis for the entire Sikh scripture.


The Gurū Granth begins with Nānak's formulation, "Ik Oakār" (literally, "1 Being Is"). Without using any terms, Nānak designates the divine as the numeral 1. Oan is the primal syllable of Indian thought. Nānak's character for the word oan has an arc flying off, as though it were a geometric symbol for the infinity of the numeral 1. In a milieu seething with Hindu-Muslim conflict, the realization of the divine One was critical for Nānak. But his view differed from Hinduism in which the singular reality can be incarnated in myriad ways. Nānak explicitly qualifies that the One cannot be installed (thapia na jae ), cannot be made (kita na hoe ). Nānak's "Oneness" did not correspond with the Islamic notion of one God either, because his vision of the One includes a plurality of approaches to the divine. In his Baburvani hymns, Nānak specifically criticizes the narrow religious worldview that was imposed by Babur's Mughal regime on the people of India.


More than a theological belief, "Oneness" is an active and dynamic awareness of the infinite within the human self. Such a consciousness gets rid of dualities (dubida ) and petty selfishness (huamai). The One pervades each being, says Nānak: "there is a light in all and that Light is That One." How then could there be hegemonies of caste, race, religion, or gender? Nānak's metaphysical insight aimed to reproduce an egalitarian ethical system. He rejected the fourfold caste system in which a śūdra was below the brahman. He rejected notions and practices that relegated women below men. He spoke against beliefs concerning the pollution associated with menstruation and childbirth and against the sexist practices of sati and purdah. Nānak's fivefold spiritual journey (in the finale of his Japu ) urges men and women to:

  1. live morally in this diverse and variegated planet earthdharam ;
  2. expand their knowledgegian ;
  3. refine psychological and intellectual facultiessaram ;
  4. work vigorouslykaram ;
  5. bring into their daily activities the truth (sach ) that is present in all the continents and constellations alike.

Nānak boldly affirms life on earth and makes personal, economic, social, and political concerns a part of his religious worldview.


Nānak provides no proofs, arguments, rules, theories, or prescriptions. In order to bring about a real change in his divisive society, he wanted to reach into the very consciousness of his people. Inspired poetry (bani or shabad) was his means. Aesthetics was his approach. "Only the relisher of fragrance can recognize the flower," he claimed (Gurū Granth 725). His passionate utterances celebrate the singular creator and exult in wonder at the beauty and vastness of the cosmos. Through his aesthetic discourse, Nānak tried to awaken his followers and revitalize their senses, psyche, imagination, and spirit.


For the twenty million Sikhs living around the globe, Nānak is a continuing reality. Their day begins by reciting his sublime poetry. Sikh homes, places of business, and sacred spots display his images. Wearing an outfit combining Hindu and Muslim styles, his eyes rapt in divine contemplation, and his right palm imprinted with the symbol of the singular reality, Gurū Nānak inspires his viewers to discover "That One" for themselves.

See Also

Ādi Granth; Sikhism.


For Gurū Nānak's biography, see Hew McLeod, Gurū Nānak and the Sikh Religion (Oxford, 1968; reprint, 1996); and Harbans Singh, Guru Nanak and Origins of the Sikh Faith (Bombay, India, 1969). Mcleod analyzes janamsākhī literature in The B40 Janamsakhi (Amritsar, India, 1981). Translations of Nānak's poetry include Gopal Singh, Sri Guru Granth Sahib: English Version (Chandigarh, India, 1978); G. S. Talib, Sri Guru Granth Sahib: In English Translation (Patiala, India, 1987); and Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus (Delhi, 2001). C. Shackle analyzes Nānak's language in A Gurū Nānak Glossary (London, 1981). Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (Cambridge, U.K., 1993), is a feminist interpretation of Nānak's work.

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh (2005)