Sacred Narratives

Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill

In Sikh thought, the story of the universe begins with the divine utterance (kavao) that created it. This story of God's absolute creative power is told in the teachings of the Gurus themselves. According to Guru Nanak (1469-1539), before creation there was utter darkness for billions of years. Kartar, a Sikh word for "God," created the worlds, bringing them from nothingness to manifestation (Guru Granth Sahib [GG] 1035-6). On contemplating the source of the uncountable worlds that exist beyond the earth, Guru Nanak wrote:

You expanded it all from only one command
From which flowed a million rivers
What words do I have for your creativity?
I cannot even offer myself once to you
! (GG 3)

Guru Nanak's successors also attested to the divine's creative majesty. For example, Guru Amardas (1503-1574) wrote: "He himself creates the reasons, and He watches over the universe he fashioned" (GG 37).

The story of how the Gurus founded the community is told in the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture). The second Guru, Guru Angad (1504-1552), told about Guru Nanak; the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan (1563-1606), talked about his father and predecessor, Guru Ramdas (1534-1581). Building on this tradition were the bards who found employment at the Gurus' courts. A pair of such bards, Satta and Balvand, along with a group of bards known as "Bhatts," commemorated the succession of the Guru's office, from the first to the fifth. Another poet named Sundar narrated the third Guru's final moments, and his passing of the office of Guru to His successor. All of these writings are enshrined in the Sikh scripture.

Outside of the scriptural text, oral traditions about Guru Nanak's life seem to have been committed to writing in the late 1500s. Some of the earliest and most important accounts of Guru Nanak's life and ministry are available in what is today known as the Puratan Janam Sakhi ("old life account"). The Janam Sakhi remembers a key moment in the founder's life when Guru Nanak was reported to have been lost in a river, which he experienced as a spiritual call to the divine court. At this court the Guru drank from a bowl of immortal nectar. In this mystical realm, Kartar commanded Guru Nanak to preach remembrance of Kartar, charity, and hard work.

The Puratan Janam Sakhi depicts Guru Nanak's conversations with holy men from a variety of religious backgrounds who acknowledged his spiritual credentials and converted to his way of life. The Janam Sakhi accounts emphasize Guru Nanak's calling to spread his message, his instruction to people from all walks, and his travels to converse with hermits, scholars from Mecca, Hindu priests, and Sufi shaykhs. He goes on five trips in different directions, singing his compositions and teaching his way of life. He establishes dharamshalas ("houses of teaching"), the early gurdwaras where his disciples (Sikhs) meditated and sang his compositions. The Janam Sakhi also depicts Guru Nanak's establishment of a successor in Guru Angad.

Bhai Gurdas (1551-1636), a scribe, poet, and historian, recounts a fuller version of the Sikh sacred history. Bhai Gurdas begins with the world's creation by Kartar's command, through all ages of human history, to Guru Nanak's mission and beyond. According to Bhai Gurdas, human society had deteriorated in the period before Guru Nanak; Hindus and Muslims were engaged in practices that fueled hatred of each other, moral corruption, and social disorder. Guru Nanak was sent by Kartar to redeem the world in this "Dark Age."

Self-sacrifice is a central theme of the Sikh sacred story and the Sikh nation's self-conception. The community remembers the deaths of the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan, in 1606, and of Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth Guru, in 1675 as martyrdoms; both Gurus were executed while being held as political prisoners of the Mughal Empire.

One of the central stories in the Sikh community concerns the sacred commemoration of the Khalsa ("the sovereign body") and the establishment of the Singh warrior identity. Here too the idea of self-sacrifice is key.

This event took place at a famed Vaisakhi (spring harvest) festival in the 1690s. According to the community's sacred memory of this historical event, the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), gathered the community and, while holding a sword, called for someone who would be willing to offer his head to the Guru as a sacrifice. One after another, five Sikh men volunteered themselves, each of them being taken individually into a tent where, it was presumed, they were beheaded. The Guru's bloody sword seemed to confirm this. After the five offered themselves, the Guru returned to the community, followed by the five men clothed in new robes and turbans. These five are remembered in the Sikh community as the five beloved ones (panj piare); they are the first Singh warriors and the beginning of what is known as the Khalsa.

The Khalsa is the entire sovereign Sikh community. Those Sikhs who undergo a carefully prescribed initiation ceremony, called the Khande Di Pahul, and enter into a fuller spiritual evolution are known as Amrit-dharis ("bearers of nectar"). All Sikhs are invited to pursue this level of spiritual development.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the Sikh explanation for the creation of the universe?
2.     What are the Janam Sakhis?
3.     How does the tradition justify martyrdom?

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