Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, was the son of an official with a small holding of land in a village north-west of Lahore (in present day Pakistan). Guru Ji had his elementary education in the local language of the village and as a member of the Khatri caste his father made sure that he was tutored in the village Gurukul in the ancient Sanskrit and knowing well the value to be gained by learning Persian his father enrolled him with a scholar of that language as well. His father intended to train him as an accountant so that he could get a job in the court of the Muslim governor of the district. But Guru Nanak turned out to be indifferent to any attempt to teach him the standard subjects of business. He soon outdistanced his teachers as each found themselves unable to teach him as he had rapidly mastered the languages they had taught him. He roamed the forests around his village engaging in long discourses with holy men both Hindu and Muslim, who frequented the surrounding jungals, traveling through on their various pilgramages. Mixing with his friends of other castes and religions he was the despair of his parents as he would not attend to family business and spent what ever money they gave him on feeding the poor. When he grew up to be a young man, they arranged a marriage for him. For a time he devoted himself to the care of his wife, and two sons.
Then his search for truth became too over powering, having gone to work for his sister’s brother in the stores of a Muslim official he went out one morning to take his usual bath in a local river only to disappear. For three days his friends and his growing cadre of admirers (Sikhs they were called) feared that he had drowned. Some, jealous of his popularity, started the rumor that he had looted his employer’s stores and run away. On the third day Nanak reappeared and would only repeat, ‘There is no Hindu, there is no Mussulman’. By this statement he was stating that there was no difference between what the the worshippers of the two differing religions – Hinduism and Islam were worshiping, he had realized that there was only one God who was the root of each religion and that service to ones fellow men was the way of realizing their mutual goal of being reunited with God the Father , creator of them all. After arranging for the care of his wife and sons, settling his affairs and quitting his job he and his Muslim friend, a musician named Mardana set out on his first ‘Udasi’ (travel) preaching as they walked from village to village. Guru Ji composed his sermons in ragas (musical modes) which were sung to the accompaniment of Bhai Mardana’s Rabab (a simple lute style instrument) with a curved peg tuning board which could hang over Mardana’s shoulder as he walked.
Wherever they stopped, Guru Ji’s teachings would inspire the people and leave them singing the simple Bani in the fields as they worked. Within a few years these disciples became a homogeneous group whose faith was exclusively the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. In several trips that covered many years the young Guru traveled all over India. With a second companion a Hindu named Bhai Balla they went as far east as Assam, as far south as Sri Lanka and as far to the north as Tibet. Later Guru Ji traveled westward beyond India to Mecca and Medina in Arabia, from where they returned by foot through Al Sham (Greater Syria), Bagdad, Persia and the land we now call Afganistan. Wherever he went, they sang Guru Nanak’s hymns, which told the people that if they wanted to love God they should learn first to love each other and always keep the Name of God on their lips. In a time of brutal oppression, his simple message of one loving God, the equality of men and even women (a radical thought in those days) and a life dedicated to returning to God’s Kingdom, not by practising religious austerities, but by living the life of a simple house holder (Grehsatti Jeevan) building a family and a loving relationship with ones wife and children – to the One God, by ones hard and honest work and even sharing ones blessings with the sick and homeless.
There are countless stories of Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s travels. Once Guru Ji came to a river for his morning bath only to find the water full of many Hindus who were, doing the age old Hindu morning ritual of saluting the Sun. Guru Nanak having grown up in a Hindu family knew just what they were up to. They were taking water in their clasped hands and throwing it at the rising Sun. Already well aware of what they were doing and why, the Guru knew that they had never even questioned the age old ritual. He was the sort of teacher that we all have grown up loving and admiring. The ones we all remember from our childhood, the ones that taught by example actually leading us to discover the answers for ourselves, to feel the answer in our soul, rather than using the age old pedantic method of ‘do and repeat what I say’. So giving them enough ‘rope with which to hang their beliefs’ in such rituals (that they had never even dared to question) he asked them what they were doing. They must have thought him mad, or at the least a stranger from some strange land, who had no idea of the important work they were doing.
One person raising the tone of his voice with each word, replied almost in disgust, “we are offering water to our ancestors who have gone to live in the stars near the Sun–their throats are parched and dry from the Sun’s great heat! Guru Ji replied, “That sounds like a great idea, let me try”. With this Guru Nanak Dev Ji turned in the opposite direction and started tossing handfulls of water towards the west, the crowd was dumbstruck. “What are you doing Fakir Ji?” you are wasting your time, why are you throwing water in the wrong direction. “Why, I am sending water to my parched fields in the Punjab”, he said, “if your water can reach the Sun surely mine can reach the Punjab which is only a few hundred miles away”. With this the people realised their folly, perhaps for the first time they questioned what they had been doing their whole lives.
Another story tells us of the time that Guru Ji met a very rich and successful man. The man invited Guru Sahib to his large and luxurious home. He had accumulated a vast fortune, no doubt by deceit and foul means and he even boasted of his wealth. He asked Guru Ji if there was anything he could do for his guest, such an obvious man of God. Guru Nanak saw a needle on the floor, picked it up and handed it to him, “Please give me this needle in the next world”, he said. With a puzzled look on his face the man replied, “How can I do that; One comes into this world with nothing and leaves it with nothing”. It was so quiet that you could hear that needle drop to the floor as the man realised that he had wasted his whole life and that none of the wealth he had amassed could be taken to the ‘next life.’ He fell at Guru Sahib’s feet. “Forgive me ” he cried.
Guru Nanak Dev Ji blessed him and told him the three rules all should live by:
Naam Japo – Recite the name of the Lord at all times.
Kirat Karo – Do an honest day’s work.
Wand Shako – Share your food with those around you.
Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s crusade was against intolerance which had become, on one hand the practice of their Muslim overlords bent on converting their Hindu subjects, to earn credits (as their ‘good angel’ which they all believed was sitting on their right shoulder) toted up their good deeds so they could enter the Kingdom of Heaven and on the other the meaningless rituals and gross discriminations of caste (and gender) which had become an integral part of Hindu life, where in order for some men (the Brahmins) who had written the laws in the first place to have someone to be superior to they had doomed others to lives as pariahs whose shadows, they told others, would pollute those of the higher privileged casts. Innocent men and women and children who were denied any chance at an education (would actually be killed if they were caught trying to read) and forced to do the foulest of tasks with death being their only chance to enter a higher caste.
Guru Ji spent the last years of his life with his family in the village he and his followers cleared on some land donated by another of his admirers. The village named Kartarpur (the village of the Creator, God’s Village) grew as people heard of this new way of living, where all men and women shared in the work and ate their meals in a communal kitchen (called the Guru ka Langar) with no distinction being made to their former caste. People flocked to the village to hear him sing his hymns. Even today Guru Ji is regarded as the symbol of harmony between the Muslims and the Hindus . A popular couplet describes him as:
The teacher Nanak is the King of holy men. The mentor of the Hindus, the religious leader of the Mussulmans.
Guru Nanak Dev Ji had a following of people from both Hinduism and Islam, it was left to his nine successor Gurus to mold that following into a distinct community with its own language, literature, its own religious beliefs and institutions and its own traditions and conventions.