A Teacher for Our Time: The Message of Guru Nanak

by Sam Buntz

Of all the founders of major world religions, Guru Nanak probably remains the least known and least discussed in the West.  This is surprising, considering that the religion he founded— Sikhism—has over 30 million adherents (which, for comparison, is nearly twice as many as Judaism’s total).  Indeed, it is the fifth largest religion in the world.  Yet Sikhs are better known in America for being confused with the followers of another religion: the Sikhs are the people who wear turbans but are not Muslims.  That sentence probably encapsulates your average, fairly well-educated American’s knowledge of Sikhism—through no fault of his or her own, of course.  I don’t mean to berate Americans for their lack of religious literacy—but considering that even Zoroaster (the founder of Zoroastrianism or Parsee-ism, whose followers today number somewhere in the range of 1 to 2 million) has received more press in the West—probably due to the fact that the Zoroastrian conception of God and vision of the Apocalypse influenced Judaism and Christianity—I’d say a decent popular book or PBS documentary on Guru Nanak would be in order at the present time.  The Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad have all been carefully treated in well-written, detailed books marketed to the average reader—but Sikhism’s founder has not yet received quite the same audience in America and Europe.

The lack of proselytizing zeal among the Sikhs—stemming partly from their faith that all humans and, furthermore, all life-forms are on a sure path back to God—may partly be responsible for the Western World’s general unfamiliarity with their religion (though Sikhs would undoubtedly appreciate a wider exposure).  But the message of Nanak is so relevant, so directly related to the concerns of the casual Monotheist-in-the-street—the person who believes in a Higher Power, but finds concepts like that of an eternal hell or the “Wrath of God” to be more than a bit unpleasant—that it demands to be expounded.  Although Nanak is revered as the founder of Sikhism, it seems fair to say—and perhaps most Sikhs would accept this—that he did not consciously intend to found a new religion.  A “Sikh”, after all, is simply a disciple, a follower of Nanak and the nine teachers who came after him (or ten, if you count the Sikhs’ holy book, The Guru Granth Sahib or Adi Granth, which is also revered as a guru).  Sikhism, as an organized religion with a more distinct cultural identity, emerged under the pressure of the later Mughal rulers—like the fanatical Emperor Aurangzeb, an Islamic fundamentalist who intensely persecuted the Sikhs, forcing them to take to the sword in self-defense.

But Guru Nanak himself originally expounded a sort of religion-less religion.  As a young man, he was an ardent spiritual seeker: Nanak was attempting to discover the Grand Trunk Road back to God, seeking to determine how much of the truth lay in Hinduism or in Islam—the latter of which had been making so much progress in India, due to the Mughal conquests and the peaceful missionary activities of mystical Sufi teachers.  As the New Testament says, “Seek and you shall find”—and, for Nanak, the crucial moment of finding, the epiphany or break-through, came when he was meditating while seated in the shallow part of a river (note the curious thematic connection that the Hebrew prophets, or Jesus during his baptism in the Jordan, also experienced major visions while standing beside or while immersed in rivers; I have no idea what that might signify, but it strikes me as interesting). Nanak disappeared—his family found his clothing by the riverside, but no trace of the budding saint, himself.  Everyone assumed that he had died—that he was washed away, drowned.  Yet, three days later, he emerged from the river with the startling pronouncement: “There is no Hindu.  There is no Muslim.”

Consider the nature of the pronouncement: Nanak did not say something like  “Hinduism is false or “Islam is false.”  Rather, he expressed the deeper truth that, from the Divine Perspective, all religious distinctions are illusory—there is no follower of one sect or another; there is only the soul, longing for its Source.  After expressing himself in this rather sublime and shockingly direct formulation, Nanak said, “Since there is no Hindu, and there is no Muslim, whose path shall I follow?”  He answered by stating, “God’s.  I will follow God’s path.”  Nanak was determined not to inherit his spirituality second-hand—he didn’t want to get it from the priestly class of Hinduism and Islam, the Brahmins and the Kazis, but straight from the Source itself, from the Power that had formed all religions.  (I’ll note here too, that the parallels with Christ are striking—Jesus is reborn as a world-changing Messiah,  in conflict with the priestly class, after his immersion in the Jordan and his experience of the Descent of the Dove—the Holy Spirit, the Power of God.    Likewise, Nanak felt the descent of God’s Power, the Naam, and emerged from the river after three days, as someone who not only was in contact with that Power, but could put others in contact with it, as well.  (Additionally, the three-day disappearance interestingly mirrors Jesus’ three days in the tomb before his resurrection.)

During his experience in the river—when, in his meditations, he’d been taken to the highest heaven, Sach Khand, the very throne-room of God—Nanak had discovered a way to God that wasn’t based on outer forms or rituals, but on devotion, love, self-surrender, and a direct attachment to the Power of God.  The essence of Nanak’s teaching involves the supreme importance of God’s Naam—the Name or Word.  It bears a marked similarity to the identification of Christ with the Word or Logos of God—the Creative Power that has made or manifested everything.  The Naam is not any sort of human word, one that can be formed vocally or through writing.  Rather, it is—or can be spoken of as—the eternal stream of God’s creative energy—the Power that is manifesting the entirety of the universe (and other universes) at all times, now and forever.  (The idea is related to the “Music of the Spheres”, described by Pythagoras—which John Milton imagines ringing in the birth of the Christ Child in his poem on the Nativity.)  Through Simran—the remembrance of names of God throughout the day and in meditation—Nanak showed his disciples the way to bring the divine presence into everyday life, to find a contact with the higher power of the Naam, which goes beyond all spoken names.  Continual devotion and self-less service helped pave the way.

While Islam and Christianity threatened unbelievers with endless roasting in hell, impaled on whatever spit a rather angry and—shall we say?—frowny-faced Deity had sharpened and prepared for them, Nanak preached a God of Mercy and Universal Love.  Embracing the Hindu conception of reincarnation and karma, while holding fast to the idea and the experience of one transcendent God beyond all names and forms, Nanak did not see life as a term after which the conventionally pious would be eternally rewarded in paradise, while the wicked would get their horribly just deserts.  Rather, he saw life as a sort of school—all human beings were here to struggle against their egotism (haumai) and surrender to the greater, all-inclusive Naam of God.  All the karmic punishments doled out for failings were merely a way of helping that struggle progress—they were ways of instructing and rehabilitating the soul, not Divine Retribution or Wrath.  God’s Grace was an essential ingredient in helping lift the soul out of the world of karmic justice, liberating it from birth and death, and leading it into the deathless state of God-Consciousness.

Obviously, to offer up an exhaustive study of Nanak’s teachings is far beyond the scope of this miniature essay—suffice it to say that he took equality between genders, races, and religious adherents as a given.  Today, in Sikh Langars throughout India—gigantic kitchens and dining halls—free food is served up to everyone without distinction, taking all diets into account (vegetarian and halal), allowing everyone to honor their spiritual equality through a communal meal.

It only remains to give a brief taste of Nanak’s personality—that vital influence which re-made the souls of so many people.  It’s often said—and, I believe, perfectly possible—that Nanak made four epic journeys, during the space of about twenty-five years, which took him to places like Arabia and the Levant, all the way back through Nepal and Tibet.  During the course of his travels, Nanak had occasion to both instruct and disconcert the people he met on his way, often at the same time.  For instance, when he encountered a group of Hindu yogis, who were demonstrating their spiritual attainments by publicly levitating, Nanak sent his own shoe flying (miraculously) into the air.  It slapped each of the yogis directly on the face, before returning neatly to its owner’s foot.  The message, of course, was that such spurious magical attainments mean little or nothing—it is only the awareness of God that gives peace.

Another tale involves Nanak’s journey to Mecca.  In the Arab world, it’s considered quite offensive to point the soles of your feet directly at someone else, yet Nanak, after arriving in Mecca, slept with his feet pointing towards the Kaaba—the sacred space which Muhammad had cleared of idols, re-dedicating it and its sacred black stone to God, and toward which every devout Muslim prays.   When the people present demanded that he move his feet, he did—but the Kaaba vanished, and re-appeared wherever Nanak’s feet were pointing.  The chastened crowd of Muslim pilgrims was forced to imbibe Nanak’s lesson, so mischievously inculcated: there is no place where God is not.  Also, on a different occasion, the Emperor Babar—a not especially devout Muslim— offered Nanak a hit on the medieval Mughal equivalent of a bong.  Nanak politely declined, saying that he had already become intoxicated on the Naam—an infinitely higher kind of bhaang (cannabis) than that which Babar had just offered him.  The emperor was evidently perplexed, but somewhat humbled.  Nanak had impressed him.

This is only a tiny sliver of Nanak’s dharma—an extremely, even absurdly brief glimpse at a genuine Saint.  Interested as Western people have been in learning more about the teachings of Buddha and the teachings of great Hindu figures like Paramahansa Yogananda, there would likely be a strong desire to learn more about so illustrious and powerful a figure as Nanak if one could be awakened.  His teachings reverberate with a quality both timeless and somehow modern—exalted in their philosophy, but simple, direct, and utterly practical in their approach.  A good dose of Nanak’s wisdom would prove to be an immensely effective tonic for what ails the consciousness of the contemporary, spiritually-interested person.  As Nanak said at the end of the Jap Ji (a poetic scripture that quintessentially distills his teachings): “Those who have communed with the Naam, their toils shall end, and their faces shall flame with glory.  Not only they shall find salvation, O Nanak!  But many more shall find freedom with them.”


Sufi vs. Salafi: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam

by Sam Buntz

Islam is so diverse as to utterly defeat the attempt to describe its various divisions in a mere blog post.  Fundamentalists often claim that Islam is a singular entity, and assert that they possess the purest form of it—but every honest scholar knows that this is wrong.  Nonetheless, we can see roughly three big trends or movements within contemporary Islam (as I discovered in a number of my college religion courses—to give credit where it’s due):  the fundamentalists (or Salafists and Wahhabists), with their popular movements, their crudely harnessed mob-strength, and their ridiculously narrow interpretations of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s traditions; the progressive reformers, who want to adapt Islam to a Western Enlightenment approach, to make its claims subject to the believer’s reason; and finally, the traditionalists, who live in accordance with a wide variety of Islamic legal schools, who support the classical tradition of Islamic learning, who often practice forms of spirituality and mysticism that date back to Islam’s origins (yet are considered heretical by fundamentalists), and who side with many of the cultural and artistic values that characterized the Islamic World’s periods of renaissance.

The first and the last of these groups are the most numerous—though, unfortunately, the fundamentalists seem to have more manpower and zeal on their side.  If they aren’t numerically superior—and they may or may not be (I don’t know)—they are, at least, far more vocal than the traditionalists, who often take a quietist approach, continuing to do what they intend to do, but remaining politically invisible.  Yet it is the traditionalists who likely hold the key to defeating  fundamentalism, because they possess Islam’s sources of strength: it’s classical tradition, its ideas—the Spirit that speaks through its greatest artistic and cultural productions belongs to them (or, they belong to it).  If Nietzsche was correct when he said that “the greatest ideas are the greatest events”, the tide of history may well lie with these apostles of Islamic Renaissance—provided they can transfer their ideas into the realm of action.

The fundamentalists treat the Qur’an as though it were a magical tome that somehow interprets itself.  It is not—nor is any holy book (the question of divine inspiration aside).  It requires interpretation, and interpretation is the moment when power is exercised—the moment when the individual interpreter wrestles the maximum amount of meaning out of the text. The traditionalist Sufis (mystics) and others who embrace the elements of Islamic Renaissance—who adopt a humane understanding of the book and the Prophet’s sayings, and who practice a religion open to joy, open to the arts, open to music and dance (open to a religion that doesn’t consider stringed instruments to be more some sort of abomination, for one thing)—these free-spirited Muslims, actually have the weight of tradition distributed on their side of the balance.  Their interpretations are stronger—they know which sayings of the Prophet are more authentic and have a more advanced pedigree, than do the fundamentalists.  And their strength is, in large measure, provided by a spiritual respect for the Human, for the divine qualities visible in men and women, created both in the Image of God.  This gives them an edge and fuels their arguments, because it is a respect and a reverence that they share with Islam’s greatest luminaries: intellectual titans like Al-Ghazzali and Ibn Arabi, ecstatic poets like Rumi and Hafiz, and, of course, the Prophet Muhammad himself.

To get a good idea of what this looks like in practice, you only need to read or listen to an activist like Ed Husain—himself a Sufi—his compatriot, Maajid Nawaz, or a great scholar and preacher like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (born Mark Hanson), or to look up a Youtube video of the great Sufi singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Facing the rise of fascism and communism, W.B. Yeats observed, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”—but such spirits as these are not lacking in moral courage, conviction, or “passionate intensity.”  Husain frequently makes fascinating points—for example, demonstrating convincingly during a debate with the estimable critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali, that the fundamentalist argument for executing apostates is actually quite weak, and can be rectified by a more thorough understanding of the tradition.  As someone who had formerly been a fundamentalist and an extremist, Husain understands the mindset of many of the young converts to such causes, and he is able to craft his arguments in ways that directly and even devastatingly undermine the fundamentalist claim to a more accurate interpretation of the scriptures—in ways that would catch the attention of someone who had initially been seduced by those claims.

Husain, Nawaz, and their cohorts see the attempt to defeat radical Islamism through violence as being ultimately counterproductive—Islamism being like the hydra that sprouts ten new heads every time you cut off one.  Obviously, the U.S. is far better off relaxing from any prospective large-scale military crusades against world Islamism—the war is primarily a war of hearts and minds, a war of intellectual attrition, a war fought with the pen, the camera, the human voice.  It may be that the most effective thing the U.S. can do to help the traditionalists, the Sufis, and the scattered Islamic rationalists would be to fund more cultural programs and schools—things we’re already doing to some extent.  But we could find more ways to use the private sector to counter the oil money that the Saudis are using to get their own noxious Wahhabist fundamentalism into American and European mosques—and countless mosques further abroad—instead funneling cash to the defenders of Renaissance.  For example, Coca-Cola funds what might be Pakistan’s most popular TV program—“Coke Studio”, a showcase of traditional religious music, most often inspired by Sufism.

The founder of psychoanalysis once said something peculiarly relevant to this struggle.  At the end of Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud predicted that “Thanatos”, the death-impulse—humanity’s urge to deface itself and its creations, as represented, in his day, by Fascism and Stalinist Communism—would find itself challenged once again by “Eros,” the impulse for life and love: “The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of the communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction…And now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers,’ eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary.  But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”

It remains to be seen whether Islam can defeat many of its adherents’ own death-impulses—cancerously eating away at it from within—and re-affirm its own joyful and exuberant tendencies, its native love of life and its moods of devotional ecstasy.  This question is just as up-in-the-air as it was when Freud posed it with regard to his own historical situation—and it cannot yet be answered.  The situation is, no doubt, dire—but Fascism fell, and Soviet Communism fell.  The radicals who support a perverted though widely popular version of Islam may find their own aims suddenly overturned—the tide of history astonishingly reversed.  You never know when the dying embers of a Renaissance might suddenly be re-kindled to glowing life…


Audio of Ed Husain debating Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the proper response to Islamic Fundamentalism:

Audio of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan performing “Tumhen Dillagi Bhool”, a transcendent example of qawwali music:

Video of Maajid Nawaz on his experiences: