Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill

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)

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.

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