The Guru and The Sikhs – 2/11 on Guru Nanak Dev ji

550 Years with Guru Nanak Dev Ji
550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Sikh Guru will be celebrated on November 12, 2019.
550 Years with Guru Nanak Dev Ji
550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Sikh Guru will be celebrated on November 12, 2019.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji was born in Nankana Sahib in 1469 in present Pakistan. He is the Founder and First Guru of the Sikh faith popularly referred to as Sikhi or Sikhism.

There are over 22 million followers of the Sikh faith and is recognized as the 5th most followed faith in the world.

The Sikhs have earned a reputation for bravery, humility, selfless community service, and maintain a distinct identity while remaining very popular among all communities, wherever they live.

Over time, the Sikhs have built a formidable reputation as a martial race, and this reputation, often, stands in contradiction to the image of a selfless humanitarian First Responder in any crisis.

Why did Guru Nanak establish the Sikh faith?

To get a perspective into the mind of Guru Nanak during his early formative years, one has to understand the prevailing times when he was born (1469).

It was a turbulent period when the power was shifting from the Sayyid Dynasty (1415 – 1451) to the Lodhi Dynasty. A new power struggle began for control of the Delhi Sultanate, and people living between the north and north-western regions of present-day India had to bear the brunt of plunder, loot and forced conversion to Islam.

The struggle extended beyond the control for power. The traditional Hindu religion was threatened continuously by different interpretations of Islam, based on who ruled which area. It was a constant fight for the survival of self and identity.

Nanak Dev, as he was called during his growing years, was born in these conflicting times, where each religion was hardening its stance. Despite his soft-spoken, mild demeanor, young Nanak Dev questioned ritualistic practices of the Hindu religion and rigorous implementation of the tenets of Islam. He asked the rationale of both and refused to accept their existing practices.

He expressed himself through singing poetic verses (Shabad), and soon those around him began to be drawn to his words and logic. Guru Nanak learned several languages at a very young age, including Punjabi, Sanskrit, Hindi, and Persian. He read various religious scriptures of Hinduism, Islam, and other faiths, and his views of life and faith developed as a rejection of the existing socio-religious order.

Guru Nanak aimed to promote peace, universal brotherhood, and community service by practicing spirituality and self-improvement as a constant process. He believed all humans were equal and under the control of a single “Supreme Being” or “Ik Onkar.”

His teachings for a Sikhi way of life centered on the Three Pillars:

  • Kirat Karni: Do honest work
  • Vand Chakna: Share what you earn
  • Naam Japo: Pray to HIS name

Followers of his teachings (Sikhi) viewed his message as the Divine Word, and his followers were known as Sikhs. The faith – Sikhi or Sikhism.

He wrote 974 Shabads (Hymns), which are part of the Holy Book Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Read – The Guru and Sri Guru Granth Sahib).

It contains the teachings of 36 Saints, Sufis, and other mystics and including those of 6 Gurus of the Sikh faith, 15 Bhagats, 11 Bhatts, and 4 Gursikhs, all contained in 1430 Angs (pages).

The Guru Granth Sahib is the only religious scripture to include messages drawn from other religions, which also adds to its universal appeal.

Did Guru Nanak plan to create the Sikh as a martial race?

No. Guru Nanak (1469 – 1539) was a man of peace, and he showed people a new way of life; free from superstitions, idol worship, ritualistic practices, and image worship. It was a society where all men and women were equal before the eyes of a single formless God, where no priests or rituals were required to connect a faithful with his or her god. Service to others was considered service to the Supreme Being.

All ten Gurus espoused similar teachings of peace and well-being for all. However, it was the last and 10th GuruSri Gobind Singh Ji (1667 – 1708), who established the Khalsa identity within the Sikh faith.

It was a period under the oppressive rule of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. Several small rulers and non-Muslim communities opposed his rule but could do little.

It was during this period, and under these circumstances that Guru Gobind Singh introduced the Khalsa. The identity of a Sikh as a martial race began and continued to grow.

The Khalsa was trained as a committed warrior, free from all vices and other social malpractices of the time, totally loyal to the Sikh faith, and committed to protecting the weak and poor against tyranny of any kind. The Khalsa emerged as a protector, not a tyrant.

In a period of frequent violence, loot, and plunder by brutal forces, the Khalsa provided welcome protection to local communities. Soon, their reputation spread, as did their self-belief as a martial community.

It was to lead to the Khalsa emerging as a ferocious and fearless warrior and would contribute to the establishment of the Sikh rule, which reached its peak under the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780 – 1839).

Map showing Sikh Empire in 1839
Map depicting the Sikh Empire in 1839

So who is a Sikh, and how is a Sikh different from a Singh and a Khalsa?

Sikhi or Sikhism is a way of life lived according to the guidelines as laid out by Guru Nanak and recorded in the Holy Scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji or Adi Sri Granth Sahib Ji. The holy book comprises 974 Shabads or hymns, spread over 1430 Angs (pages).

There are 10 Gurus in the Sikh faith, and Sri Guru Granth Sahib (the Holy Book) is often referred to as the 11th Guru – a living being and eternal guide, as ordained by the last guru – Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji.

Those who follow the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib, which includes the contribution of the 6 Gurus and other saints and Sufis, are accepted as Sikhs.

However, Guru Nanak started with spreading his message of simplicity, humility, loyalty to the Supreme Power, and community service without distinction of religion, caste, or creed. The message is common to the teachings of the first three Gurus – Guru Nanak, Guru Angad, and Guru Amar Das.

Many follow the teachings of the first three Gurus only and identify themselves as followers of the Sikh faith. They include sections of the Hindu and Sindhi community who follow the teachings of the first three Gurus but do not necessarily adopt the symbols and lifestyle practices taught by the other 7 Gurus, including those espoused by the last Guru, Sri Gobind Singh Ji.

The Namdharis, Nanak Panthis (mostly Hindu Sindhis), the Udasis, etc., all follow teachings of Guru Nanak, and many identify themselves as Sikhs but do not adopt other symbols or practices common to the Khalsa.

According to Guru Gobind Singh, a Singh must maintain the 5 Ks at all times. They are:

  • Kesh: Retain unshorn hair
  • Kanga: Comb to clean and maintain unshorn hair
  • Kaccha: Wear Underwear as a symbol of virtuous character
  • Kara: Wear the Iron bracelet symbolizing a commitment to the Divine Bridegroom
  • Kirpan: Hold a Sword – a symbol of power, indomitable spirit and dignity, and to protect the oppressed

And he also added,

  • Dastar: A turban to be worn as a mark of identity, self-esteem, and pride

Along with the 5 Ks, Guru Gobind Singh laid out certain other lifestyle practices to be recognised as a Singh and Khalsa.

However, not all who identify themselves as a Singh adopt or strictly follow the 5 Ks and yet continue to be considered a Sikh and a Singh. A Singh is one who follows the Sikhi life but may or may not strictly adopt the 5 Ks.

One could be a Sikh but not necessarily a Singh. But all Singhs are Sikhs. However, to be recognized as a Khalsa, one has to be baptized and adopt the symbols and lifestyle, as laid out by Guru Gobind Singh.

Who is a Khalsa?

“He who keeps alight the unquenchable torch of truth, and never swerves from the thought of One God; he who has full love and confidence in God and does not put his faith, even by mistake, in fasting or the graves of Muslims saints, Hindu crematoriums, or Jogis places of sepulcher; he who recognizes the One God and no pilgrimages, alms-giving, non-destruction of life, penances, or austerities; and in whose heart the light of the Perfect One shines, – he is to be recognised as a pure member of the Khalsa” – Guru Gobind Singh, 33 Swaiyyas

The identity of the Khalsa – the Pure One, was introduced by the last Guru, Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, to offer followers of the Sikh faith a sense of identity, dignity, self-esteem, power, and commitment to values in pursuit of “One God.”

He ordained a Sikh may be recognized as a true Khalsa through a process of baptism and adoption of the 5 Ks, as symbols and identity of the Khalsa. A Khalsa has to maintain a lifestyle as per the Code of Conduct defined by Guru Gobind Singh.

A Khalsa is both a Sikh and a Singh. However, a Sikh and a Singh are not necessarily Khalsa.

Read: The Guru and His Followers