How do we represent Nanak?

By Gurnam Singh | UK | OPINION |

As we commemorate the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak our thoughts are firmly focussed on developing a deeper appreciation and understanding of his life, character, mission, message and its relevance to today. In the below three images we see a somewhat conflicting characterisation of Nanak.

On the top image Nanak, which is my personal preference, is presented as a family man, a farm worker, earning a living by ploughing his fields at Kartarpur, as the embodiment of ‘kirat karni‘ or ‘honest labour’. Here his name is simply Nanak, with no attachment to any particular faith!

In the left image, Nanak is presented as a God like figure, an Avtar, where his name becomes Guru Nanak Dev. As far as I know the Guru title was added by his successors, though even in Gurbani, more often than not, the reference is always Nanak, as in ‘kehay Nanak‘ or Nanak speaks… I am interested in the origin of the suffix ‘Dev’, which I assume is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Devta’, or divine being. And so presented as Nanak Dev, we might speculate this is evidence of Hindu appropriation.

There is also reference in Bhai Gurdas’s writing to Nanak being referred to as Peer or Pir which is a title for a Sufi master or spiritual guide; here he becomes refered to as Baba Nanak. The right hand image captures, if you liker the Islamic appropriation of Nanak, emphasising the Muslim prayer cap or Taqiyah. There are also references to Nanak being referred to as Nanak Lama which is an honorific title applied to a spiritual leader by Tibetan Buddhists.

It seems wherever Nanak went he was claimed by the locals who would have inevitably given him the culturally appropriate title, but for me there is profound beauty in simplicity and there can be no better title than ‘Nanak’ which means oneness (from ‘na’ referring to negation of ‘aneik’ or many).

Nanak was a teacher of the world; he rejected religion which he felt was divisive and taught about oneness of all living things and captures this beautifully in the utterance ‘ik oankaar’ and any number of titles cannot capture his greatness.


[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is a Visiting Fellow in Race and Education at University of Arts London and a Visiting Professor of Social Work at University of Chester as well as a presenter at UK-based Akaal channel. This views were shared on his Facebook page]

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.



Annexation of Jammu & Kashmir and the unfolding Hindutva Imperial Project (Asia Samachar, 21 Aug 2019)

Sikhi a ‘new age’ religion? (Asia Samachar, 5 Aug 2019)


ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Southeast Asia and beyond. Facebook | WhatsApp +6017-335-1399 | Email: | Twitter | Instagram | Obituary announcements, click here |


  1. Dear Manjeet Singh ji
    Many thanks for your excellent clarification. All three references as from Guru Arjans bani so sure not problem using the sufux dev, but I would still contend that Nanak simply refers to himself as Nanak, and that is the norm in gurbani, but still I sand to be corrected.
    Many thanks.

  2. In SGGS Ji there are at least two instances where Guruji is referred to as Guru Nanak Dev.
    At angg 430 Guru Arjun Dev Ji says..
    ” Abichal Nagri Nanak Dev.
    At angg 1192 we find the line.
    “Gur Nanak Dev Govind roop”
    In Raag Maru at angg 1102 we find
    “Bohith Nanak Deo Gur jis Har chadaye tis bhaujal tarna”
    Here the word “Deo” is used which is a respectful variation of “Dev”