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Religion Library: Sikhism


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One of the core principles of this 500-year-old religion is the unity of all women and men under one deity. This god is called by many names but has no one name. Sikh tradition refers to that deity by several names, one of which is Kartar "the Creator." Kartar looks over the world he created, and humans have a unique opportunity in this life to enjoy and care for that world. These tenets emerged from the religious experiences of the founder of the Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak (1469-1539 C.E.).

Guru Nanak was born in what is today Pakistan, in the region known as Punjab ("land of five rivers"), in a village called Talvandi. In the 16th century, the rulers of the region were Muslims, as was much of the populace. The rest of the population practiced some form of Hindu religion. The religion Guru Nanak founded was completely distinct from these two, and yet would draw followers from both of these pre-existing traditions.

Guru, meaning revered teacher, is a title that the founder's followers used to address him, along with Baba ("father"). The main sources for Guru Nanak's life and ministry are his own compositions and those of his successors, which are enshrined in the Sikh scripture known today as the Guru Granth Sahib (GG). The Sikh community's bards' writings and panegyrics, as well as early accounts of the Gurus' lives—the Puratan Janam Sakhi—also provide considerable evidence for the Guru's life.

According to Sikh tradition, Nanak was born into a middle-class Hindu family, and Islam probably played an important role in the day-to-day life of his village. His father was a revenue official for the state, and Guru Nanak was trained to follow in those professional footsteps. Working away from his home village in the town of Sultanpur Lodi, located on an important land route, Guru Nanak probably had conversations with the frequent passersby and pilgrims. At an early age, he married a young woman named Sulakhani, and they had two sons, Sri Chand and Lakhmi Das. Sikhs refer to Sulakhani with the reverent title Mata ("Mother"). Though Guru Nanak had a comfortable career as an accountant, he was not content with the life he knew, and sought deeper experiences.

Guru Nanak was dissatisfied with the various expressions of existing religious paths, and sought more complete answers to his questions. He wrote:

Many flavors have I tasted, many costumes have I worn.
Without my Lord my youth slips away—split from him I cry out
! (GG, 1015)