Guru Nanak

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GURU NANAK (1469–1539), first of the ten Sikh gurus. Nanak was the first of the ten Sikh gurus (saintly teachers), a line that ended with the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708. Nanak belonged to the saintly tradition of folk poets of northern India, like Kabir, who died about twenty years before Nanak was born. The verses of both Nanak and Kabir were included in the Adi Granth, the sacred book of the Sikhs. Nanak believed in the Akal Purakh (Supreme Being) and rejected all outward forms of worship.

He was born to a Hindu family at Talwandi, a village in the Punjab. In addition to Hindi, he learned Persian and Arabic at school, then worked as an accountant. He married and had two sons, but then he embarked on a long walking trip, attracting followers everywhere. Hindus and Muslims were equally touched by his teachings. He became a legendary figure, and there are many stories about his life, some of which reflect the radicalism of his belief. Once he saw pilgrims bathing in the Ganga (Ganges) throwing water toward the rising sun, believing that it would reach their ancestors. Nanak turned around on hearing this and threw water toward the west. When asked why he did this, he replied that he was watering his fields in the Punjab. The pilgrims made fun of him, but he replied that if the water they were throwing reached their ancestors, his water would surely reach his fields. It is also reported that he visited Mecca, where he fell asleep with his feet pointing toward the Kaaba. A guard woke him, scolding him for pointing his feet toward God. He then requested that the guard move his tired body in any direction where he thought his feet would not point at God.

In his old age, Nanak returned to the Punjab and lived with his family. There he was joined by a very ardent follower named Lehna. Nanak anointed him, renaming him Angad. Guru Angad then became his successor as the second guru of the Sikhs. It was this act of installing a successor that helped to make Nanak the revered founder of the Sikh faith; otherwise, he might have been remembered simply as one of India's saintly poets and religious reformers.

Dietmar Rothermund


Grewal, J. S. Guru Nanak in History. Chandigarh: Publication Bureau of Panjab University, 1969.

McLeod, W. H. Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. 2nd ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1976.