15 April 1469: Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism and first Sikh Guru, was born

One of the great saints of medieval India and the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, was born on 15 April 1469 at a time when large swathes of north and central India were ruled by the Lodhi dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate. When he died 70 years later, the Mughals had seized power in India.

His birthplace is now known as Nankana Sahib. It is near Lahore in Pakistan.  

Guru Nanak’s parents were Kalyan Chand Das Bedi, an agricultural revenue official in Talwandi village, and Mata Tripta. The young Nanak had a melodious voice, which was noticed by Rai Bular, the Muslim landlord for whom Kalyan Chand worked. Legend has it that he would sing praises to God from an early age and in school and surprised his teachers by his spirituality.

In 1485, his parents married him to Sulakhni.

For several years Nanak worked in a granary shop. The story goes that when he was falsely charged with embezzlement, he resolved to turn his back on worldly affairs. Thereafter, Nanak left his home and started the wandering life of a preacher.

A childhood pal, Mardana, would accompany him. One of Nanak’s first disciples was Lalo, a carpenter.

Spreading the word

Guru Nanak stressed on the importance of leading a simple life, avoiding idol worship and treating men and women equally. He is said to have boldly declared that “there is no Hindu, nor any Mussalman”, thus emphasising the brotherhood of man and oneness of God.

Guru Nanak’s founded three basic tenets of Sikhism. These were Naam Japna (directly practising meditation on God by means of chanting, singing, reciting and treading on the righteousness path); Kirt Karni (leading an honourable household life; earning one’s bread through honest hard work; accepting both pain and pleasure as gifts from God; being always truthful; leading a life based on decency); and Vand Chakna (the idea of sharing wealth within the community).

The last is a particularly important aspect of Sikh community life and extends to Sikh attitudes towards members of other faiths as well.

Nanak is said to have undertaken five major journeys in his life, gathering thousands of followers in the process. These were: from 1499-1506, covering places like Sultanpur, Panipat, Delhi, Assam and Sialkot; from 1506-1513, in which he reportedly went as far as Ceylon; 1514-1518 where his itinerary is said to have included Kashmir, Nepal and Tibet; 1519-1521, during which he went to the Arab world and Mecca; and 1523-1524, which was mainly within Punjab. 

The first Guru

In his later years, it is believed that Nanak met the first Mughal emperor Babar, who was impressed by the Sikh Guru. After decades of travel he eventually settled into the life of a household. Institutions such as the langer (the Sikh community kitchen) came into being during this time.

After appointing Bhai Lehna as the next guru (named Guru Angad), Guru Nanak left the world on 22 September 1539. Both as a founder of a new faith and through his extraordinary travels to spread the message of peace and unity, Guru Nanak occupies a unique place in Indian history.

As the writer and journalist Khushwant Singh wrote in the Outlook magazine: "The roots of Sikhism lie deep in the Bhakti form of Hinduism. Guru Nanak picked what he felt were its salient features. . . . A slogan ascribed to Guru Nanak is kirt karo, vand chhako, naam japo (work, share what you earn, take the name of the Lord). There’s little doubt that Nanak felt he had a new message that needed to be conveyed after him, as he nominated his closest disciple Angad to be his successor in preference to his two sons.”

Also on this day:

1963 — Manoj Prabhakar, Indian cricketer, was born  


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