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Religion Library: Sikhism


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When he was around 30 years old, he had a profound religious experience. Tradition recounts that Nanak was bathing in a river when he disappeared for three days. Having been well-respected and favored by his townsmen, they sought for him frantically. He re-emerged to a mourning populace three days after his disappearance, and reported having been summoned to Kartar's court. His first words after his reemergence are said to have been: "There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim."

Guru Nanak's experience can be interpreted to mean that from the divine perspective, superficial clinging to religious labels is a moot point. According to Sikh tradition, religions of Guru Nanak's day, obsessed with issues of identity and hatred of the other, had missed the real point of religion and their legitimacy was thus tarnished. This opened the door for a distinct religiosity that Guru Nanak taught, which became the foundation for the Sikh community.

According to Guru Nanak, how did his relationship with the divine unfold? He wrote:

I searched in four directions, and I searched within myself
I relished in the True, indescribable Being
I was lost, but the Guru has shown me the way
Hail, True Guru! Who has merged me with truth
. . . (GG 149)

That is, for Guru Nanak, the true Guru was the voice of Kartar that spoke to him from within in the form of the sabad, or the Word. For Sikhs, this Word is manifest in Guru Nanak's own compositions. Through his travels, Nanak continued to spread his message and gain followers. Singing of his profound experiences with the Word, his compositions became the bedrock for the Sikh scripture. As his fame spread, people came to his village seeking him. He eventually founded a community in a town he called Kartarpur, "Town of the Creator." In this town, Guru Nanak's own home was at the center of the town's social life and was the location where he offered teachings.

This community would have expressed a very family-oriented and agrarian ethic. Guru Nanak spoke highly of women and they probably played very important roles in the life of the community. The community's social makeup included a broad mix of classes, which represented a new development in the caste-bound India of the day. Guru Nanak's own closest companions were all from "outcaste" groups. Ethical living in the context of family engagement, in accordance with Guru Nanak's teachings, are deeply important to the Sikh way of life.

Guru Angad (1504-1552), who was named Lehna before being selected as Guru Nanak's successor, discovered the community when he heard someone in his village reciting a morning prayer and inquired about the composer of that composition. It was Guru Nanak's composition. Lehna believed he had found his true guide in Guru Nanak, and sought out the community at Kartarpur. Later, when Guru Nanak chose Lehna as his successor he renamed him "Angad," which comes from the word for limb. The implication was that the second Guru's mission was an extension of the first Guru's mission.

Study Questions:
1.     What did Guru Nanak think of the Hindu and Muslim religions?
2.     How did Guru Nanak's relationship with God unfold?
3.     Describe the early Sikh community, and who led the community after Guru Nanak.