Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill
Scholars who have studied Sikhism have often called it an offshoot of some pre-existing religious body, or a mélange of Hindu and Muslim beliefs. This is offensive to the tradition, which vies for its own uniqueness, for several reasons. For one, Guru Nanak (1469-1539) was a fierce iconoclast, as his writings testify. There was little in any of the religious practices of his time that he found appealing, and much of his career was dedicated to laying the groundwork for a new way of life that broke with existing religious systems. Moreover, the Sikh way of life is rooted in a unique tradition of revelatory scriptures penned from Guru Nanak's own hand. No other tradition's scriptures are authoritative in Sikh life. That the Sikh Gurus included the compositions of non-Sikhs in their scriptures—the Guru Granth Sahib (GG)—Sikhs would argue, is a testament to the Gurus' tolerance of others.
Around 1500, when Guru Nanak lived, Punjab was a place of vibrant religious exchange. His place and time of living are important to understanding Sikh history's unfolding. Sultanpur Lodi, where he spent formative years working and raising a family, was on a trade route on which merchants and pilgrims of various religions travelled. To the west lay Mecca and Baghdad, to the north lay the mountains revered by yogis, and to the east lay the important towns of Hindu veneration—Haridwar and Benares (Kashi). Guru Nanak lived through, and wrote about, the transition between the Afghan Lodi Sultanate in Delhi and the Mughal Empire of the Turks. At Kartarpur, also located at an important crossroads, the early Sikh community looked inward for justice and equality and found it in nature, in the free kitchen (langar), and the equality of all their members. Community members also found a good deal of economic success in agriculture, artisanship, and trade.
The Guru participated in inter-religious dialogue, but was an independent thinker who responded critically to what he saw as the hypocrisy of religions around him. His compositions record the dialogue, discussions, and disagreements he had with his religious counterparts on the nature of divinity and how to live the good life. Moreover he showed his followers a new path in a community that he forged at Kartarpur. The most virulent of Guru Nanak's polemics were reserved for those at the top of the religious hierarchies: those Hindu Brahmins and Muslim law-givers whose moral authority he believed had been corrupted by their coalescence with the powers of the day. He wrote:
You can teach a million law books, and a million Brahmins can read holy stories
But so long as your honor is not in His accounts, none of these are any use! (GG 413)
Guru Nanak demanded that religious leaders hold themselves to higher personal standards:
Stupid ones sing songs of God
Hungry Mullahs live in the mosques
Do-nothings pierce their ears and become Yogis
Renouncing wealth, another loses his place in life
Some call themselves 'Guru' but beg around
Don't pay them any heed
Only he who earns his food and gives charity
Knows the true way, says Nanak (GG 1245)
It is clear from historical sources that the members of the new community revered Guru Nanak's own teachings as the center and foundation of their spiritual lives. Guru Nanak's successor, Guru Angad (1504-1552), wrote that he had little to teach those lucky souls who had learned from Guru Nanak himself (GG 150). Guru Nanak's teachings, enshrined in his compositions and added to by his successors, became the basis for Sikh scripture.
This scripture is one of the unique aspects of the Sikh tradition amongst the world religions. Included in it are the poems of those religious personalities, from a variety of religious backgrounds, whose ideas meshed with Guru Nanak's. The low social status of many of these writers testifies to the Sikh ethic of egalitarianism, and the multi-faith authorship of the verses speaks to the openness of the tradition to acceptability of ideas that resonated with the Sikh tradition's own ethics.
1. How do Sikhs feel about their tradition being described as a mix of Hinduism and Islam, and why?
2. How might have Guru Nanak's geographical location have had an influence on his religious experiences and thought?
3. What role did Guru Nanak's teachings have in the early community? In what form are they available to Sikhs today?
4. What were some of the most important institutions of the early Sikh community?