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Message of Guru Nanak

Guru Nanak’s message is unique & universal, it’s contemporary & ancient, it’s humanitarian & just.

Message of Guru Nanak

November 2019

ONE GOD: Guru Nanak’s message begins with a belief in ‘One God[i]. He is Truth, without any fear, without any hatred, and He is formless’. The concept of one God, albeit under different names[ii], is similar in many monotheistic[iii] religious traditions. Both in the Christian and Jewish traditions, the name of one God is referred to as Yahweh (often referred to ‘Jehovah’). God is almighty who has created this universe. The worship of God by the Guru is referred to as ‘Naam Japo’ (recite the Name of God), which is similar to the Jewish tradition that refers to God as Hashem (literally, the Name). Islamic tradition also believes in the concept of one God, who created the universe and rules it (Allah). A great deal of misunderstanding exists, however, about Hinduism and monotheism. Hinduism also believes in one God (Brahm); however, the fact that it also believes in the reincarnation of God has created confusion and misunderstanding about one God. According to the Hindu beliefs, when injustices and oppression become unbearable in the human world, God reincarnates to bring justice to humanity. He can come in various forms (Avtar) either Ram or Krishan.

TRUTH SHALL PREVAIL: In all ages, however, God appears as Truth. ‘Truth was there in the beginning, Truth always prevails, Truth is at present and Truth will be in the future’[iv]. The focus on Truth is key to Guru’s understanding of the Almighty. What prevents the human mind from the path of Truth? Five passions- Lust (Kam), Anger (Krodh), Greed (Lobh), Attachment to material things (Moh), and Ego (Ahankar)- are stumbling blocks to attain Truth[v]. These passions can be restrained by meditation to control the mind[vi]. Those who are unable to control their passions will not achieve the liberation of mind. Emancipation of mind and full control over its passions and desires are vital to achieve salvation. Comparatively, in both Christianity and Hinduism, the Truth becomes central to the path to God. In the writings of John, Christianity equates Truth with God: Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’[vii]. In Hinduism, on the other hand, the concept of Satyamev Jayate (Truth alone triumphs) is a central part of teachings of Hinduism[viii]. Bhagwat Geeta also focuses on the practice of Yoga to control the mind to pursue the path of Truth.

THE SOUL (ATMAN): From believing in One God, the Guru continues his message to the domain of soul. It is here in our soul that Divine light exists; in other words, the Almighty lives in every soul[ix]. Thus, there is a difference in the physical body, made up of five elements, the mental body (mind), and the human soul (Atman), the spiritual world. The insatiable thirst for more material things of the body corrupts the soul through mind. Thus, the soul needs protection from the worldly attractions with the help of meditation and right conduct guided by the Word (Shabad) given by the Guru[x]. A clear message is on clean living without an insatiable thirst for material things and never forgetting the Almighty, who has created the universe. Other religious traditions also appear to believe in this distinct division between the body and the soul. The message from the Bible clearly states this difference: ‘do not fear those who kill the body/ but are unable to kill the soul’[xi]. Judaism also believes that the body and the soul are separate yet indivisible partners in human life. It believes that the body is God’s tool to keep a guard for the soul. Although the Islamic holy book is silent on the domain of the soul, the Islamic tradition of recognizing the existence of soul comes from the works of several Muslim Philosophers[xii]

These philosophers recognized the existence of the rational and the non-rational minds in the human body; hence the body and the soul. Indian concept of the soul (Atman), however, is different from the Western traditions in more fundamental ways because it recognizes the infinity of life for the soul. The Soul only transmigrates from one body to another, thus it lives forever. Needless to say, the Divine light in the soul is eternal. Only Guru’s guidance leads a human soul to salvation; thus, it is liberated forever. It is no longer subject to the cycle of life after death.

USELESS RITUALS: The similarity of key concepts of monotheism ends with the traditional organized religious views with Guru’s sharp critique of falsehood in life. Unlike the priestly classes of his times, Guru Nanak’s message is rooted in observations of objective reality. He views people in their practical lives: how they earn their living, how, and if, they share the fruit of their labour with the less fortunate, and if they recite the Naam (God’s Name) with the purity of their minds.


Thus, the Guru begins his intellectual departure by observing the differences in words and the deeds of priestly classes of Islam and Hinduism- hypocrisy of those who proclaim themselves as the guardians of faith. ‘All accept that there is one God, but they are full of ego’[xiii], states the Guru. Instead of focusing on praising the Name of the creator and focusing on good deeds in life, the priests have developed rites and rituals to fool the people. Sikh tradition narrates a story of Guru’s visit to Jagannath Puri temple (one of the holiest shrines of Hinduism situated in Odisha- eastern province). Instead of joining the priests in Aarti (ritual of worship with offering of lights to deities), the Guru brought to the attention of the priests that the vast beauty of nature outside the temple is offering its own Aarti. Look at ‘the sky, it is the prayer-platter, the sun and the moon are the lamps, the stars and the constellations are the pearls and jewels’[xiv]. Nature’s Aarti is much more beautiful and extravagant than the ritual organized inside the temple. He also questions the ritual of five prayers (Namaj) of Muslims. Instead of this meaningless ritual, how about focusing on five great deeds: Truth, Honest earning, donation in the name of God, honest intentions and praise to the Almighty[xv]. The Guru spares neither Brahmins nor Mullahs for advancing various meaningless rituals in the name of attaining God.

FOOLISH RELIGIOUS LEADERSHIP: The Guru also questions the kind of spiritual leadership being provided by the priestly castes and classes by exposing the shallowness of their deeds. They have no clue how to immerse in God’s Name and follow His true path. ‘If one doesn’t know anything, how will he lead[xvi]? A blind leading a caravan will have his followers robbed’. All religious leaders of the Guru’s time urged followers to visit pilgrimage to purify their souls. ‘If your mind is full of ulterior motives (mind is looking at the possessions of others to steal), what kind of purity can come by visits to holy sites’, asks Guru Nanak[xvii]? With the denunciation of superfluous rites and rituals, the departure of the Guru’s message with conventional religious authorities becomes more clear and unique. It’s a story of a message of hope, awakening, logic, reason, and, above all, enlightenment. His devastating critique of the social order based on inequalities, oppression, exploitation, rites, and rituals appeals to the just mind. To awaken the intellectual powers of ordinary people, the Guru used Punjabi language- the language spoken by the people of the region of his birth. The traditional religious authorities used the languages of the learned elite- Sanskrit, Arabic, and Farsi. In a way, they tried to monopolize the knowledge of God. Guru Nanak, on the other hand, spoke directly to the people in their language of daily use. He aimed to connect an ordinary person with his Creator without any middle agents.

HUMAN EQUALITY: In the Indian context, Guru’s sharpest critique focuses on the religious sanctions given to the caste hierarchy. ‘Since God created the entire universe, and only Divine light illuminates all life; how can the Almighty create high castes and low castes’[xviii]? God created man in His image[xix]. Guru believes that ‘everyone belongs to a higher class of humans, there are no lower castes among God’s creations’[xx].  The Vedic Hindu texts provided the religious rationale for the hierarchical classification and the rituals governing caste status and behavior. They divided the society into four classes or castes[xxi], the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishyas (skilled traders, merchants), and the Shudras (unskilled workers). The first and oldest Veda (Rig Veda[xxii]) states that the Purush (the cosmic man) destroyed himself to create a society where the different parts of his body represented the four Varnas: Brahmins came from his head, Kshatriyas came from his hands, Vaishyas came from his thighs, and Sudras came from his feet. Those who came from the feet (the producing classes) were subject to the most humiliating social rituals and exploitation. This religious sanction of society’s vertical social division was a justification to oppress, exploit and enslave the lower strata (workers and peasants) of the population based on the theory of high caste and low caste by birth. Needless to say, Guru Nanak’s attack on this religiously-sanctioned hierarchy makes his message more appealing to the segment of population condemned for centuries.

EXPLOITATION IS SIN: The Guru’s message not only focuses on the equality of people; it also condemns the exploitation of fellow human beings. One has no right to take possession of the fruits of labour of others. Guru compares this kind of exploitation to ‘a sin as big as Hindus eating beef and Muslims eating pork’[xxiii]. Sikh tradition narrates a story of how the Guru refused a dinner invite from a rich landlord, Bhago, and accepted the same invite from a poor carpenter, Bhai Lalo. Guru Nanak compared the food of Bhai Lalo with pure milk because it was earned through hard and honest labour. He compared the food of landlord Bhago with blood because it was obtained through the exploitation of labour of others. A comparative look reveals a similar message in the Christian tradition. In taking sides with the poor, Jesus attacked the Pharisees and Sadducees for their self-indulgence and greed. They were known for their oppression and exploitation of the poor peasants. Society was conditioned by social distinctions and it relied on a slave economy. Jesus' preaching about the 'Kingdom' made it abundantly clear that God took seriously the concerns of the poor and needy: the poor would be blessed in the realization that the 'Kingdom of God' was theirs. Judaism’s belief that human beings are creations in the Divine image implies that any insult to an individual, by extension, is an affront to God. In reminding us that the poor person is our sibling, the Torah (the Jewish Holy Book) emphasizes that, like us, this person is a manifestation of the divine image and should be treated as such.

DIGNITY OF LABOUR: The Guru simply does not condemn exploitation of others but calls on humans to earn an honest living by working. In fact, hard and honest work is one the three pillars of Sikhism- Naam Japo[xxiv] (recite the name of the Almighty), Kirat Karo (earn your living by hard work and honest means), and Vand Chhako (share the fruit of your labour with the less fortunate)[xxv]. As a result of this three pillar approach, an important institution of Langar (community kitchen) has emerged in Sikhism. Sikh temples (Gurdwaras) keep their doors open to people of all faiths, castes, and creed to enjoy free food prepared by devotees. By way of comparison, the Christian tradition also values the principle of honest living. In the Old Testament, Zechariah writes: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor”[xxvi]. A verse in Proverbs explains the Judeo-Christian tradition of helping the less fortunate: ‘He who is generous to the poor makes a loan to the LORD; He will repay him his due’.

OPRESSOR RULERS AND BRUTAL INVADERS: The Guru’s critique is also not limited to the spiritual-religious and socio-economic domains, he also condemns the horrible attitude of the rulers, who cannot be trusted. He calls the Kings ‘bloodthirsty Lions, and their courtiers, dogs’[xxvii]. They are ‘sleeping (meaning being ignorant) in their high offices because they are so indifferent toward the problems of the people’. The message conveys the unjust and exploitative socio-political order of the times. Guru Nanak also lived at a time of transition of foreign rulers: From Lodhi (1451-1526) dynasty, established by Afghani Behlal Khan Lodhi, to Mughal (1526-1857) dynasty, established by Babur, who originated from Uzbekistan. The Guru condemns the ‘Mughal invading party of sinners, who are collecting taxes with brute force[xxviii]. Moral and religious conduct has disappeared, and Falsehood prevails’, The warfare between the Lodhis and Mughals was brutal and barbaric. The ordinary people were crushed, mutilated and killed in this bloody conflict. The Guru asks the Almighty to explain this brutality[xxix]. ‘If the powerful kills the powerful, one can understand; however, if the powerful is here to crush the weak, only God is answerable’[xxx]. Needless to say, the Guru’s message is to side with victims of both cruel rulers (Lodhis) and the invading hordes of barbarians (Mughals). 

SPIRIT OF DEMOCRACY: Guru’s life and hymns also support the spirit of democracy. ‘So long we live, we must express our opinions and listen to the opinions of others’[xxxi]. The hymns of the Guru give evidence of his dialogue and debate with other religious and spiritual leaders of his time. Sikh tradition narrates a story of his visit to Mecca. He was sleeping with his legs facing the holy Masjid. A Qazi woke him up and objected to his feet facing the God’s worship house (implying God lives in the mosque). Guru asked the Qazi to move his feet toward a direction in which God does not reside. The Qazi was impressed with the logic of Guru’s query and abandoned his quest. The spirit of democracy requires patience of listening to different opinions and expressing one’s own logic and reason. Guru’s life and hymns are imbued with this spirit of democracy.

GENDER EQUALITY: The Sikh holy scriptures are exceptional for explicitly including the equality of women because of the first Guru’s guidance and preaching. Guru Nanak criticizes his contemporaries for lowering the status of a woman. ‘Why speak low of a woman, who gives birth to Kings?’[xxxii]. Further, ‘she gives birth to us, we marry women. Our relations are established through women, and women are responsible for our genealogy’. Other than God, it’s a woman who creates life; yet she is subjected to a status lower than the male gender. Both prevailing religious traditions, Hinduism and Islam, had practically and theoretically lowered the status of women to subordinate levels. Even in the higher caste Hindus, the woman’s status was always inferior. Interestingly, the same religion (Hinduism) revered three female goddesses with utmost devotion: Goddess of Power (Durga), Goddess of Wealth (Laxmi) and Goddess of Knowledge (Sraswati).

By way of a conclusion, we can see that Guru Nanak’s message is unique and universal. It’s contemporary and ancient. It’s humanitarian and just. It calls into question the hypocrisy of living of not only ordinary people but also religious and spiritual leaders. It emphasizes clean and honest living, the dignity of labour and sharing with the less fortunate, and, above all, it reminds us to be humble and keep the Name of the Almighty in our minds while living and breathing every moment of our lives. Achieving God, in the words of the tenth Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh, is simple: ‘Those Who Love God, Shall Attain Him’[xxxiii]

Dr. Shinder Purewal,
Professor of Political Science,
Kwantlen Polytechnic University,
Surrey, BC, Canada, V3W 2M8
Email: [email protected]

[i] Ek Onkar, Sat Naam, Karta Purkh, Nirbhao, Nirvair, Akal Murat….
[ii] Koi Bhole Ram Ram, Koi Khudae
[iii] Original Greek: monos (alone) and theo (God)
[iv] Aad Such Jugad Such, Haibhee Such, Nanak Hosee Bhee Such….
[v] Kya Aaran Man Vich Loha, Panch Agan Tit Lag Rahi….
[vi] Man Jeete Jag Jeet…
[vii] John (14: 6-7)
[viii] Full line reads, ‘Truth alone triumphs, Not Falsehood’….
[ix] Duja Kaon Kaha Nahi Koi, Sabh Mea Ek Nirnjan Soee
[x] Nanak Te Suhagani Jinaa Gurmukh Pargat Hoey
[xi] Matthew (10:28)
[xii] Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina.
[xiii] Eko Ek Kahe Sabh Koi, Haome Garb Biape.
[xiv] Gagan Me Thaal Ravi Chand Deepak Bane, Tarka Mandal Janak Moti.
[xv] Panj Nimaj Vakhat Panj, Panje Panja Panje Nao….
[xvi] Aap Na Bujhan Lok Bhujai, Aisa Aagu Howan….
[xvii] Nawan Chale Teerathi Man Khote Tan Chor….
[xviii] Ek Noor Se Sabh Jag Upje Ko Bhale Ko Mande
[xix] Akaal Moorat…
[xx] Sabh Ko Ucha Akhea Neech Na Deese Koi
[xxi] Sanskrit term for caste is Verna (Colour)
[xxii] The Rig Veda is the world’s oldest written document.
[xxiii] Hak Praya Nanka Us Soor Us Gae
[xxiv] Jini Naam Dhayai Gae Musakat Ghal, Nanak Te Mukh Ujhle Keti Chutti Naal
[xxv] Ghal Khae Kish Hath De, Nanak Rah Pachhane Se
[xxvi] Zechariah 7:9-10
[xxvii] Raje Shih Mukadam Kute, Jye Jagain Baathe Sutte
[xxviii] Paap Ki Janj Lai Kabulo Dhaya, Jori Mange Daan Ve Lalo….
[xxix] Khurasan Khusman Kea, Hindustan Draya, Aape Dosh Na Daee Karta, Jam Kar Mughal Charaya
[xxx] Je Sakta Sakte Ko Mare, Ta Man Ros Na Hoee, Sakta Seeh Mare Pae Vagee Khasme Sa Parsaee
[xxxi] Jab Lag Duniya Rahea Nanak Kish Sunye Kish Kahea
[xxxii] So Kion Manda Akhaiye Jit Jamme Rajan
[xxxiii] Jin Prem Kio, Tin Hee Prabh Paeo

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