Guru Nanak: Traveller, teacher, anthropologist and much more

I find the idea of Nanak as a teacher and anthropologist particularly appealing. Such a depiction is consistent with the definition of ‘Sikh’ as a ‘learner’ or ‘seeker of truth’ and Sikhi as the path to becoming a ‘Sachiara’ or somebody who has managed to control the ego and live according to the divine will - DR GURNAM SINGH


By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

Whilst there is no disagreement about the birthplace of Guru Nanak, namely, Rai-Bhoi-di Talwandi, presently Nankana Sahib, in the Shekhupura District of West Punjab, there is no consensus on his birth date. Various groups identifying with the ‘sampardai’ tradition that operate under the aegis of a hereditary spiritual leader (referred to as Sant and/or, Baba, and/or Brahmgiani) follow the Vikram Samvat Lunar calendar, and therefore contend that he was born on Puranmashi of Kattak in 1469. They build their case around the Bhai Bala Janamsakhi, and based on this reference, celebrating Guru Nanak’s Gurpurab in the month of November has become popularly embedded in the Sikh collective consciousness.

On the other hand, there are those scholars and organisations that are broadly identified with the intellectual traditions associated Singh Sabha and Sikh Missionary College. They argue that the actual historic birth of Guru Nanak was on Vaisakhi, which falls on 14th April each year. For them, Sikhi, and hence Guru Nanak’s mission, represents a clean break from the Sanatan worldview, and accordingly this means also breaking free from the Vikram Samvat calendar in favour of the Nanakshahi Calendar, which was approved by Sri Akal Takht in 2003. They assert that 14th April should be the Gurpurab date, both because of its historic accuracy, and because it is a fixed date and thus avoids the confusion that Sikhs have with Gurpurab dates.

I sometimes wonder what Guru Nanak would make of this and many other disputes and practices amongst the Sikhs that centred on different interpretation of his teaching’s, life and mission! Indeed, I sometimes play a mind experiment and think, what if Guru Nanak walked past any Gurdwara today, typically established in the name, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, of a particular Sant and or/caste, what would he think? On entering and seeing the place immersed in all kinds of pomp, ceremony, rivalries, ritual and gluttony, I sometimes wonder if he would even recognise it as something related to his own teachings! I suspect, given his mission to encounter and engage with all kinds of people, practices and philosophies, and his profound humility, he would relish the prospect of doing ‘goshti’ or dialogue with Sikh religious leaders of today, though I am less sure they would reciprocate the same level of humility and openness!

Guru Nanak, having challenged much of the orthodoxy of his time, in his own words in Maaroo, First Mehla: (P991 GGS), outlines the treatment that he received at the hands of both members of his family and friend circle, but also the priestly classes.

ਕੋਈ ਆਖੈ ਭੂਤਨਾ ਕੋ ਕਹੈ ਬੇਤਾਲਾ ॥ ਕੋਈ ਆਖੈ ਆਦਮੀ ਨਾਨਕੁ ਵੇਚਾਰਾ ॥੧॥ ਭਇਆ ਦਿਵਾਨਾ ਸਾਹ ਕਾ ਨਾਨਕੁ ਬਉਰਾਨਾ ॥

Some call him a ghost; some say that he is a demon. Some call him a mere mortal; O, poor Nanak! ||1|| Crazy Nanak has gone insane, after his Lord, the King. I know of none other than the Lord. ||1|| Pause ||.

Though he outlines this experience in the third person, it seems clear that he is in fact this a narration of his own experience.

Most of the iconography about Guru Nanak, especially on his immense travels across the known world, depicts him a Godly figure, an enlightened person, and the embodiment of the divine being. Influenced by the prevailing dominant traditions of Islam and Hinduism, Nanak is invariably presented as a ‘Peer’ and ‘Guru’. Muslims refer to him as Baba Nanak and Hindus as Guru Nanak, and Sikhs deploy both depictions along with ‘Satguru’ or the true Guru. Bhai Gurdas Ji captures these elements when he refers to Nanak as ਜਾਹਰ ਪੀਰ ਜਗਤੁ ਗੁਰੁ ਬਾਬਾ ॥੩॥ or the ‘manifest spiritual teacher of the whole world’.

Whilst all these depictions have their own relevance, on a personal level, as a Sikh and academic, I find the idea of Nanak as a teacher and anthropologist particularly appealing. Such a depiction is consistent with the definition of ‘Sikh’ as a ‘learner’ or ‘seeker of truth’ and Sikhi as the path to becoming a ‘Sachiara’ or somebody who has managed to control the ego and live according to the divine will. In the following lines from a shabad, written in Raamkalee, Dahknee, Ongkaar bani (Guru Granth Sahib, p930), Guru Nanak offers a clear method for understanding devotional text: ਸਮਝੈ ਸੂਝੈ ਪੜਿ ਪੜਿ ਬੂਝੈ ਅੰਤਿ ਨਿਰੰਤਰਿ ਸਾਚਾ ॥ By reading, studying and researching one understands and realises that the truth dwells deep within.

I am often asked, why there are so many divisions amongst Sikhs? My answer is simple, we have abandoned the kinds of critical reflective thinking that Guru Nanak advocated and have replaced that with ritualistic reading, singing and narrow lists of do’s and don’ts. I am not arguing for some moral relativism, but that Nanak’s teachings were based on proving you with the tools to discover for yourself what is right or wrong rather than having it imposed as in the case of the Muslim Sharia. One such example is the line from Guru Arjan (p269 GGS), which is very similar to Kant’s Categorical Imperative. ਰਹਤ ਅਵਰ ਕਛੁ ਅਵਰ ਕਮਾਵਤ ॥ ਮਨਿ ਨਹੀ ਪ੍ਰੀਤਿ ਮੁਖਹੁ ਗੰਢ ਲਾਵਤ ॥ One who does not practice what he preaches will suffer the fate of birth and death through their life. Hence, whilst rituals, chanting and very precise rules imposed by a clergy may provide certainty and even feelings of elation, but I am less sure about their value in terms of navigating the ongoing challenges and changes that humanity faces and engaging learning about our place in the world. Moreover, such an approach, which I refer to as a ‘performative or behavioural Sikhi’ rather than ‘living, learning and loving Sikhi’, is in the long term likely to fuel rather than control the ego!

Through the pervasive concept of ‘rahao’, the Guru provides us with a beautiful methodology for reflective reading, where the emphasis is on ‘sehaj’ or ‘state of peace’, ‘steady’, ‘equipoise’. Gurbani, though written in the poetic form, has its own unique system, of which the ‘rahao’ is very important. Rahao literally means ‘pause’ or ‘wait’. In most Shabads it appears once, and it is used to depict the central theme of the Shabad. When the Shabad is sung, the rahao line usually forms the antra or chorus line. Thoughtful critical reflective reading requires one to utilise logic and reason, to appreciate context, the role of metaphor, simile, personification, abstraction, and emotion. One also needs to appreciate the very particular rules of grammar in Gurbani and the function of ‘laga matra’ (vowels) and ‘visram’ (punctuation) in this regard. This is even more important where the poetic form is concerned. Ritualistic speed reading may provide some psychological benefits, but it is only through methodical, slow and reflective reading that one can maximise the chance of coming close to the true meaning and understanding.

Some people reading this article may feel that to assign labels, such as ‘teacher’ and ‘anthropologist’ to Guru Nanak, or to criticise certain Snatan traditions that have become part of Sikhi, is be disrespectful to those who hold a different perspective. And from their perspective, no doubt they would feel justified in their view. For all Sikhs, there can be no doubt that Guru Nanak is the personification of divinity, the physical embodiment of ‘God’ or ‘Akaal Purakh’ on Earth, and in this regard, he holds the same status for Sikh’s as Christ does for Christians and Mohammed does for Muslims. We are all followers of Guru Nanak but that does not mean we may demonstrate our devotion and commitment to his teachings in the same way.

We can all agree, I think, Guru Nanak rejected false rituals and idol worship, that he emphasised the pervasive nature of the formless, timeless, universal divine entity, which he terms ‘Ik Owankaar’. But, as his writings uncover, we must not forget the centrality of reason, knowledge, reflection and realisation coupled with love and devotion to Sikh teachings, and in this regard, all Sikhs must identify with being scholars. But mere scholarship is not enough; It is when the head meets the heart and the hand that one can fully appreciate the greatness of Guru Nanak. And whether you are commemorating it on 8th Nov or 14th April, may I wish you a happy Gurpurab.

Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at

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


Guru Nanak’s Life and Works: A Scientific Perspective (Asia Samachar, 27 Oct 2022)

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