Remembering Guru Nanak Ji

...We also need to remember other aspects of his life and teachings....

When we celebrate Guru Nanak ji’s birthday, we rightly focus on his main teachings of Naam japna, kirt karna, and vand shakna.  We also practice what he taught, through seva, sangat, pangat, and langar. And we listen to kirtan, katha, and path, as Sikhs have done since Guru Nanak founded the spiritually-enlightening, non-ritualistic, inwards-directed, Sikh philosophy and religion more than 500 years ago.

It is good that we remember Guru Nanak in this way. But we also need to remember other aspects of his life and teachings. This article first highlights five aspects of his life, and then covers five of his key teachings. It also draws some lessons from each of them. These could help us reflect on what we might do more of, and do differently, when we honor Guru Nanak. 

First, he was very young when he started seeking answers to the big questions of life. Questions about what life’s purpose should be, and how it should be lived. When he got clarity on the answers, he stood up for what he believed in. He was only about 11 years old when he publicly refused to wear the janeo, challenging the Hindu faith he was born into. He did not wait till he had grown up. He showed that age is no bar for the seeker of Truth and wisdom. It is better to start as early as you can, so that you have time to put into practice what you have learned. 

Second, he did not limit his interactions to his own community. He travelled widely, met people of many faiths, and through careful listening and thinking about what he heard and saw, he decided how he wanted to live his own life, and what he wanted to teach others. He was not shy about sharing these ideas, but he never imposed them on anyone. He spoke in their language, and showed respect for everyone and for every idea he came across. By doing so, he gained respect for himself and for his ideas.

Third, he did not expect quick results, and he put in the time and effort required. Guru Nanak spent 15 years travelling 25,000 miles, much of it on foot, all over India, Lanka, and to and from Arabia. He then spent 18 years establishing a new community of Sikhs at Kartarpur.  By doing this, he showed us the benefits of hard work, patience, persistence, goal oriented-ness, and reliance on the God within (i.e., on the Creator, or Akal Purakh). These good habits and beliefs are essential for every Sikh. 

Fourth, he showed that knowing what to do is not enough, we also need to act that way. His ideas about the new, i.e., Nanak’s, spiritual path of Sikhi were already well-formed by the time he completed his missionary travels, and he had also recorded his teachings in the pothi he always carried with him. But he knew that simply telling people what to do was not enough. He had to show them, through his own actions, what it really meant to be a good Sikh. Words matter, but actions matter more, he showed.

Fifth, he showed that age does not determine spiritual merit, but right guidance and effort does. Bhai Lehna was 28 years old when he first met Guru Nanak at Kartarpur.  He had been a follower of the Hindu faith till then. By learning Guru Nanak’s teachings and practicing what Guru ji preached, in 7 short years, by age 35, Bhai Lehna became Guru Angad. The Third Nanak was 73 years old when he became Guru, the Fourth was 40, and the Tenth Nanak was only 14 years old when he became the Guru. Clearly, with the right guidance and personal effort, great spiritual merit and wisdom can be gained at any age.

These are some aspects and lessons from the life of Guru Nanak, and what followed it. Stated this way, they may seem obvious. But they are worth remembering. There are five other aspects that we often tend to overlook. They relate to his teachings, to what Guru Nanak taught through word and deed.

First, all humans are created equal, and deserve equal respect. Guru Nanak established a new Sikh creed and way of life, but he made no distinctions in his life or teachings on the basis of race, gender, caste, color, or nationality. He asked Sikhs to treat everyone equally, even those who had different religious beliefs and practices. He also asked, in particular, that we treat women and men as equal in every way. Not only in our personal life, but also when congregational actions are taken. This now includes allowing women to perform kirtan at Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, or to take part as a Panj Piara in an Amrit Sanchar ceremony anywhere.  He also asked that we make no distinctions among Sikhs on any basis, be it so-called caste, or economic or social status, or power or influence. Despite this, though we may say that we believe in equality and respect and human rights for all, we often don’t act this way.

Second, the internal life of a Sikh is more important than the external.  We often forget that the teachings of Guru Nanak and his successor Gurus focus largely on the “inner life” of the mind (i.e., the man), not the outer actions of the body (the tan).  If the mind is in tune with Gurbani, our actions will follow Gurmat.  This is easy to say, but hard to do.  It requires more than coming to a Gurdwara to listen to kirtan or katha, or to do langar seva, or to socialize with friends.  Though these congregational actions are important, at the personal level we also need to study and understand the Sikh scripture, the Guru Ganth Sahib, and follow it. It is up to each of us to “look within” ourselves to see how much, and how well, we are focusing on the “inner self” rather than our outward actions and appearance.

Third, the Sikh way of life should be based on teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib.  Guru Nanak’s unique and distinctive message of Sikhi, and the entire Gurbani of all his successor Gurus, are recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib. There is no other Sikh scripture.  And, there can be no difference between the teachings of the Ten Gurus. All Sikhs are expected to follow the Shabd Guru, our only source of spiritual enlightenment, that connects us with the Creator that resides within us, as taught in the Guru Granth Sahib. The scripture says “Shabd Guru Surt Dhun Chela” ('The Shabd is the Guru, I am a disciple to it's beat', SGGS, p. 943, M1), and “Bani Guru, Guru Hai Bani, Vich Bani Amrit Sare” ('The Word is the Guru, the Guru is the Word. Within the Word is all the nectar.' SGGS, p. 982, M4).  Hence, it is important that we know, understand, accept, and follow the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib, the only source of Gurbani and Gurmat.  

Since this scripture is in Gurmukhi script and the Panjabi language, we need to know both the script and the language to follow and understand what is written in Guru Granth Sahib. For those not conversant with Panjabi, there are reliable sources of Gurmat knowledge in English. The benefits of doing this are many. The more we understand the Sikh scripture properly, the easier it becomes to recognize the correct interpretations of Gurbani – that is, explanations that are consistent with the entirety of the contents of Guru Granth Sahib.  It also becomes easier to weed out the ignorantly-mistaken or deliberately-misleading interpretations of Gurbani that distort the messages of Guru Granth Sahib. We need to take effective corrective action at the personal as well as community levels, before it is too late.  

Fourth, Guru Nanak used his ability to sift right from wrong, and asks us to do the same. During his visits to religious places for study and discussion of various faiths, Guru Nanak used his remarkable ability to sift through ideas to come up with a distinctive philosophy of the Sikh religion. In the process, he determined what would be right for Sikhs to believe and follow, and what they should not believe and follow. This, he recorded in his pothi, which he personally handed over to his successor Guru. Sikhs are fortunate to not only have Guru Nanak’s teachings to guide us, but our scripture also asks that we think deeply so that we too may sift right from wrong and good from bad, just as Guru Nanak had done. 

Reliable and authoritative research-based writings and videos on Gurmat are now available in Panjabi and English, but one has to be selective, for there is also a lot of mis-information and dis-information on the internet and elsewhere. To separate the authentic from the incorrect and misleading, we need to develop our own critical thinking skills so that we are no longer so easily misled by spurious writings, videos and movies, not only of the Guru Sahibs’ life-stories (e.g., the various Janamsakhis that talk of miracles, rituals, etc.) but also of the distorted translations and interpretations of the contents and authentic messages of Guru Granth Sahib. We are aware of this, but we all need to spend more time and effort to develop our own abilities and knowledge of Gurbani to separate the good from the bad. 

And finally, Guru Nanak asks us to develop good personal values and virtues, and to live accordingly. This is an important teaching of Guru Nanak, and perhaps one of the most difficult to follow. Sikhs are asked to develop five main Godly-virtues: sat, santokh, daya, dharam, and dheeraj – i.e., pursuit of the Truth or good character, contentment, compassion, faith, and patience – and many other virtues, such as love, duty, humility, discernment, self-control, etc.  Sikhs are also asked to avoid or reduce five main human vices or bad qualities: kaam, krodh, lobh, moh, and ahankar – i.e., lust, anger, greed, attachment, and arrogance – and many other vices, such as ego, jealousy, backbiting, enmity, hostility, etc.  

Cultivation of good personal values that are dormant within us and avoidance of the bad qualities must start early, with guidance from parents and teachers and learning from other adults and role-models in Sikh history. It must remain a deliberate and continuous life-long effort. It requires constant vigilance, since the personal vices we must guard against are also within us, always ready to take our thoughts, words and deeds in the wrong direction. This vigilance requires conscious self-monitored mental effort, lest we go astray. It also requires a willingness to accept our own responsibility for what we do or don’t do, lest we waste valuable opportunities to live the way Gurmat teaches us. Here too – as in Gurmat Vichar programs more generally, and in our personal efforts to follow the Sikh way of life – age is no bar for learning or doing what is right from the Sikhi point of view, as first taught by Guru Nanak ji.

The main message of all this is simple: We need to learn, understand, accept, and follow Gurmat early in life, and continue the learning process – that may require some corrective un-learning and re-learning – even as adults. The messages of Shabd Guru in the Guru Granth Sahib must be our only source of spiritual guidance. We need to be aware of and effectively counter efforts to mislead us.  And we must train our mind to think critically and develop good values and attitudes and avoid the bad ones, so that we could sift right from wrong, make sensible choices in light of Gurmat, and act accordingly.

These are just a few ways of remembering and honoring Guru Nanak’s life and teachings. All these ways are necessary. They are also doable, provided we put our mind to it and remain focused on the spiritual goals we seek. They apply equally to every Sikh – young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, educated or not, black, brown or white – just as Guru Nanak taught us.  Let’s remember his teachings all the time, not only on his birthday, and let’s act accordingly.

Paramjit Singh Sachdeva, PhD

*For related writings by the same author, see:
A Sikh’s Conversations with God, 10 Sept 2021: https://www.sikhnet.com/news/sikh%E2%80%99s-conversations-god;
The Life and Legacy of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji, 15 Nov 2020: https://www.sikhnet.com/news/life-and-legacy-guru-nanak-sahib-ji;
Celebrating Vaisakhi, 8 April 2021: https://www.sikhnet.com/news/celebrating-vaisakhi;
and several books:  Appreciating Sikhism (2008), Appreciating All Religions (2011), and Sikh Dharam (2015).

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