Nanak (1469-1539) was born in Bhoi Di Talwandi, now known as Nankana
Sahib, in the vicinity of Sheikhupura, more than two hundred years after
the death of Baba Farid. The long blank in between is mysteriously
inexplicable. No poet or writer of renown seems to have surfaced in this
period. But one cannot accept that the language became barren or dead. Poets
composed and bards sang. Society cannot afford to be silent for long.
One can conjecture that all the creative expression of the period in
question somehow got lost in the whirlwind of time. Literary historians
and researchers may at some point of time discover some material of
value, illuminating the dark patch.
single individual has had more profound impact than Guru Nanak on
society in Punjab during the second millennium. His teachings laid the
foundation of a new religion known as Sikhism. It will be appropriate to
limit our view focusing on some aspects of the sacred verses he
composed in the Punjabi. He was a widely travelled man and a polyglot.
Nanak’s vision reflects a highly-creative synthesis of the
spiritually-inclined Indian humanism and socially-oriented Muslim mystic
thought. He could look beyond the restricting divide that existed
between the Hindus and the Muslims. His scathing critique on the one
hand, dazzlingly exposed the Hindu and Muslim religious trickery, and on
the other, loudly condemned the economic and political exploitation of
the masses by the alien aristocracy and its cohorts. “I am neither a
Hindu nor a Muslim,” he proclaimed in his unending search of a new human
Nanak in his verses challenges the entrenched aristocracy and its
co-opted clergy as well as the new invaders, the Mughal. The vision of
Guru Nanak was not serendipitous. The Bhagti movement had already
transformed the spiritual landscape of the sub-continent. The movement
embodied the defiant spirit of working classes, of artisans in
particular that, with the rise of urban centres, started challenging the
notions of caste, creed and spirituality of upper castes ensconced in
the chambers of power. The Bhagti wave was spearheaded by Tamil mystic
and philosopher Ramanuj in 12th century as a consequence of intellectual
and spiritual interaction between South Indians and Muslim Arabs in the
coastal areas of India.
core of the movement emphasised the all-pervasive presence of divinity
in the universe, rejecting the discrimination on the basis of caste,
class and creed. Love and devotional bond with the divine was the
essence of new way of individual and collective life. Such a view
intrinsically defied the traditional metaphysics that sanctioned
oppressively rigid sociopolitical hierarchy.
Nanak was profoundly aware of the political implications such a new
worldview entailed. Referring to the aristocracy in his composition ‘Var
Malhar’, he lays bare its predatory nature. “Tigers are the rulers,
dogs are the chiefs”, implying that they hunt the people for extracting
their pound of flesh. As to the clergy, he chooses to play on their
pitch exposing their hypocritical practices. “A bloodstain can make the
robe unclean/how can one who sucks human blood, claim purity of heart?”
Nanak, in his never-ending search of truth, visited the holy city of
Mecca. While returning home through Iraq, Khurasan and Afghanistan, he
saw Babar’s military preparations to invade India and predicted the end
of Lodhi rule. Guru Nanak was at Emenabad, in the neighbuorhood of the
present-day Gujranwala, when Babar invaded Punjab. The people of
Emenabad put up a stiff resistance against the invaders. Babar was like a
character one finds in one of Bertolt Brecht’s poems; “where my tank
passes is my street/what my gun says is my opinion”.
in his fury ordered a general massacre of the people. The troops
plundered anything and everything of value that came their way. They
committed mass rape. The Guru graphically describes how all the young
women were plucked from their homes and enslaved. Their beauty and
riches are now bane of their lives — The older ones were forced to grind
corn and prepare meals for the troops…
It was not just the Hindu women who were violated. ‘Turkani’ (the Muslim women) met the same fate.
‘Babar Vani’ graphically paints the scene of carnage: “Creator of all
things, you made him (Babar) the lord of Khurasan, he struck terror at
the heart of India — you sent Yam (the God of death) disguised as the
great Mughal … Terrible was the slaughter, loud were the cries of the
victims, did this not awaken pity in you? —.”
Nanak in a terrific line describes how Lahore, our great city, suffered
when Babar captured and sacked it in the winter of 1524. “Lahore city
was given over to death and destruction for hours”. The translation
cannot convey the immense intensity of utter helplessness, the verse
suggests. Hence the original line in the Punjabi is quoted: “Lahore
shahir, zahir qaher, sawa pahir”. Shakespeare would have loved the
Nanak exposed the barbarity and hypocrisy of this Mughal who in his
chronicle expressed his dislike for all things Indian but in fact
coveted everything Indian in his insatiable lust for riches and power.
Guru Nanak, a great seer and a true son of soil! — Part II
Sikh holds a Chaur on the occasion of the 542nd birth anniversary of
Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of the Sikh faith, in Kolkata November 10,
2011. The Chaur is used to fan the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy religious
book of Sikhs, as a sign of reverence and respect for the scriptures. –
and political consciousness is an intrinsic element of Guru Nanak’s
poetic being that rejects the one dimensional view of life.
between the material and the spiritual is alien to him. In his verses,
mundane and sublime together create an intricate network of
interconnections that sustains individual and collective existence. His
endeavour aims to grasp the totality of life. His holistic vision is a
product of his intense intellectual and spiritual odyssey as well as the
outcome of his long travels. He visited the Central Asia and the Middle
East. He toured almost the whole of India and even went to Sri Lanka.
His journeys exposed him to diverse cultures and societies that helped
him evolve his unique worldview underpinned by spiritual humanism.
after the Lord Buddha, was the second sage of immeasurable depth who
challenged philosophically and morally Indian society which had
internalised the notion of inequality as raison d’être of its existence.
Unwavering faith in the equality of human beings irrespective of caste
and creed is the lynchpin of his moral and metaphysical construct.
was a great doubter. He always questioned the given, handed down from
generation to generation in the garb of sacred tradition. He challenged
what was forced down the peoples’ throat as the gospel truth by
religious groups with vested interests in support of oppressive
they go to bathe in sacred waters with a deceitful heart and lust of a
thief With a dip they change their being into a new one Though they
wash their wrap of its dirt but their heart nurses venom; fresh and
spares neither Hindu priest nor Muslim Mullah. “No more the chants of
Qadi and Brahman. The Satan himself now solemnizes the nuptials”.
an exposé of the Muslim and the Hindu clergy that paddled holy garble
in the name of piety! He has nothing less than utter contempt for the
ruling elite’s socio-political system.
“Greed is the ruler, sin is the treasurer and falsehood is the ministration–.”
Mao he does not believe that people are never wrong. Despite his
immense love for the people he has no illusions about the popular
mindset created by historical conditions in a society based on
hierarchy. So he is not reluctant to tell the truth and “To tell the
truth is revolutionary”, says Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci who
bravely resisted the falsehood of Mussolini’s fascism. The cultural
hegemony of ruling elite creates norms that are internalised by the
people and thus become ‘common sense’ values of society at large. People
identify their interests with the interests of their oppressors and
become unwitting tool of maintaining the status quo instead of
Nanak, centuries before Gramsci’s exposition of cultural theory,
realised that people had to emancipate themselves from the clutches of
cultural hegemony of the ruling classes in order to be themselves. Upper
classes do not maintain their dominant position just through political
violence and economic coercion but also through ideology. People under
the influence of dominant culture of ruling cliques accept the
subterfuge which perpetuates their false consciousness.
“Subjects, blind and ignorant, submitting (to the oppressors) are as good as dead — .”
Nanak loved debate and dialogue to explore the reality. He, in his
famous encounters with the traditional clerics, scholars, ascetics and
mystics, questioned the answers they offered to solve the mystery of
existence. He, in fact, went one step further and had the intellectual
courage to question the very questions the tradition asked. His use of
Socratic irony facilitated him to challenge the age old metaphysical
narrative which was a socio-political ploy to keep the people subjected
to the old order; religious and secular.
Nanak as a poet remains unequalled. He is not only profound and
prolific but also most diverse. The number of genres he wrote in or
created is simply stunning. The genres he employed for his expression
include Shloka (couplet) Kafi (lyric), Var (epic) Baran mah (poem of
twelve stanzas corresponding to the twelve months of the years), Aarti
(Hymn), Sohle (Eulogy/Nuptial song), Sidhgosht (dialogue), Pahir (verses
describing the four stages of life) and Sithni (a poetic composition
designed to express the mundane experiences of life). And the above list
is not exhaustive. The variety of meters (Chhandhas) he effortlessly
plays with is immense. No poet before or after him has displayed such a
virtuosity and artistic skill though he himself shows extreme humility, a
mark of true saintliness, when he talks of himself:
‘Useless bard I was! The Lord assigned me a task Sing of time, day and night, he ordained’.
his song of time is indeed immortal. His was a divinely inspired voice,
expressing not only the ‘sigh of the oppressed’ but also making the
oppressed aware of the conditions that compelled them to sigh. Poetry
for him was revelation of the veiled, both mundane and sublime. Word
uttered in a state of wakefulness was a means of emancipation and
“Praised be the paper, praised be the pen, praised be the pot, praised be the ink, praised be the writer who writes the truth”.