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.”


3 thoughts on “A Teacher for Our Time: The Message of Guru Nanak

  1. Hmm, I think I’ve fallen victim to this myself. Never thought about googling Guru Nanak at all.

    I’ll remember an Interfaith dialogue I was at a number of months ago, and we were considering visiting a Sikh temple (we eventually did):

    “Hey, let’s visit a Sikh temple!”
    “A what?”
    “A Sikh temple!”
    “A what?”
    “You know, Sikhs?”
    “A what!”



    P.S. I wouldn’t say Emperor Babur was not religious, per say. He was…interesting. I highly recommend his autobiography, although I haven’t read it myself, I know a number that have and will do so soon:


    • Yeah — I went to a Sikh temple once in the Boston Area, and it was a really cool and interesting experience. Good free food at the langar too.

      Babar didn’t really adhere to any of the rules, I suppose — I remember reading that he broke his wine cups and vowed never to drink again at some point, though, after partying really hard… I’ll check out the Baburnama too, thanks for linking!

      • Yea, I got food as well.

        Babur was interesting, certainly. His hole family was. He had an uncle that would drunk for months at a time, then swear to never do it again, and start a few months later again. But he would never miss a prayer, even when drunk! Despite the fact that the Quran explicitly says prayer is not accepted under influence….


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