At Sultānpur, probably in 1499, Nānak experienced God's call while bathing in the River Bein. After a mystical experience, reputedly of three days' duration, he reappeared, gave away his possessions and repeated, ‘There is neither Hindu nor Muslim’, probably meaning that the majority were not truly religious. He then devoted his life to preaching.
Nānak set out with Mardānā on a series of travels to many places (udāsī), including notable pilgrimage centres. In each place he taught the people, sang his hymns, discussed religion with Hindu and Muslim divines, and established a dharmsālā as a centre of worship.
Eventually Nānak settled in Kartārpur where followers gathered and observed a daily regimen of bathing, hymn-singing, and eating together in the Gurū-kā-laṅgar. Among these devotees was Lehṇā, later Gurū Aṅgad, whom Nānak designated his successor as Gurū, in preference to his sons. Thus the Sikh movement continued with a succession of human Gurūs beyond his death, which probably occurred in Sept. 1539.
Gurū Nānak's teachings, as recorded in the Ādi Granth, form the basis of Sikh theology. The Mūl mantra encapsulates Nānak's assurance that God is one, the creator of all, and immune from death and rebirth. He is formless and immanent as realized in the mystical union to which human bhakti (devotion) is directed. To refer to God, Nānak used many Hindu and Muslim names (e.g. Hari, Rām, Khudā, Sāhib), but especially Sat(i)nām, i.e. his Name is Truth, as opposed to illusion.
By meditating upon God's name (nām japan, nām simaran) the individual can master the wayward impulses of the man (mind) and so conquer haumai (egoism) and the five evil passions. But above all one must trust to the Gurū—the guide to salvation from the karmic cycle of rebirth—who discloses the śabad (word of divine manifestation). Nānak stressed the irrelevance of caste. Inner purity was what counted—not asceticism but purity amid impurity, spiritual detachment while shouldering the family responsibility of a grihasth (householder).
The Ādi Granth contains 974 hymns (including pauṛīs and śaloks) composed by Gurū Nānak. Of these, the most famous compositions are Japjī, Āsā kī Vār, Sodar, Āratī, and Sohilā, all repeated daily, and the bārah-māhā (in Tukharī, rāg).
Gurū Nānak's birthday is celebrated annually on the full moon of Kārttika (Oct.–Nov.) in accordance with the Bālā janam-sākhī, although scholarly opinion, based on the other janam-sākhīs, sets his birth in Baisākh (Apr.–May).
In popular iconography Nānak is represented as a robed figure with radiant face and flowing white beard, wearing a turban, and holding a rosary.
Nanak (1469-1538) was an Indian religious reformer and founder of the Sikh religion. He combined elements of both the Moslem and the Hindu traditions in his teachings.
Nanak was born into an upper-caste Hindu family near Lahore. His environment was richly immersed in Hindu and Moslem religious culture, especially their mystical and devotional forms. The religious life of the times was marked by a syncretic vitality which saw the emergence of a number of ecstatic devotional movements combining aspects of both religious traditions. He married and fathered several children and worked as a storekeeper and clerk for the Moslem governor of the province.
But Nanak's sensibilities moved him more and more to feel a deep, if at first ill-defined, religious calling. He finally underwent a decisive religious experience in which— according to Sikh tradition—he had a vision of God's presence summoning him to a prophetic mission for the "one God whose 'Name is True' (Sat Nam), the Creator, devoid of fear and enmity, immortal, unborn, self-existent, great and bountiful."
The universal thrust of Nanak's mission was signified by his insistent affirmation that "there is no Hindu and no Moslem"—only those who are the disciples (Sikh means disciple) of the one God. He left his family and began a long period of wandering and preaching in the company of a Moslem minstrel who provided musical accompaniment for the evangelistic hymns in which Nanak's prophetic message was expounded. His teachings were unsystematic but imbued with a profoundly self-consistent devotionalism which combined Islamic monotheism with pervasive aspects of Hindu mysticism.
Nanak deliberately attired himself in a costume which represented the garb and symbols of both religious traditions, and he visited the major holy places, where he preached and sang, frequently in criticism of the archaic traditional rites. And he preached against caste and other traditional hierarchies: "What power has caste? It is the reality (of faith) that is tested. He who obeys God's order shall become a noble in his court." At first he was often rebuffed, treated with hostility, and occasionally imprisoned. His moods of despair are reflected in some of his sayings: "The Age is a knife. Kings are butchers…. Justice hath taken wings and fled…. In this dark night of falsehood the moon of Truth is never seen to rise."
But slowly Nanak acquired a wide following. By the time of his death the movement was securely instituted and was maintained by his designated successors—the gurus (teachers).
The little sect was at first rigorously pacifist. Nanak's sayings were collected in the principal Sikh holy book—the Adi Granth (Original Book), and the life of the community was centered on the famous place of worship at Amritsar. However, as the community grew in strength and economic power, it encountered increasing hostility from both Moslem and Hindu orthodoxy. Eventually, it assumed the role of an aggressive, often warlike, socio-political sect which, ironically, provided the British colonial armies with some of their best fighting men.
For material on Nanak see Ernst Trumpp, The Adi Granth (1877); Max A. Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors (6 vols., 1909); Hari Ram Gupta, A History of the Sikhs from Nadir Shah's Invasion to the Rise of Ranjit Singh, 1739-1799 (3 vols., 1944-1952); and John C. Archer, The Sikhs in Relation to Hindus, Moslems, Christians, and Ahmadiyyas (1946). □