Our deeply troubled world today badly needs the essential message of peace, simplicity, equality and inter-faith harmony which Guru Nanak, the great spiritual leader and social reformer, spread with so much skill and even greater courage during the greater part of his eventful life.
It may be unconventional to speak of human right activism in those times but giving specific examples we can nevertheless say that one of the most inspiring aspects of Guru Nanak’s life and work was his work as a human rights activist. While returning from one of his all too frequent travels, near Aminabad he came to know of the extreme distress of civilians taken as prisoners by an invading army. Guru Nanak protested against this even in those times of ruthless rulers and their arbitrary actions. The impact of his spiritual strength and fame based on this was such that many prisoners were actually released. But Guru Nanak stayed on for extra time to ensure that they are not troubled again.
When he was asked about his caste and his background at the time of his travels to far-away places, Guru Nanak often did not tell his real middle class background and instead replied that he identifies himself with those who were considered the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of the society of those times. This reveals that he was very troubled by the discrimination against the so-called low castes and he was very keen to use the influence of his spirituality and the fame based on this to promote the cause of the weakest and poorest sections. This also shows that he was very ahead of his times in term of the priorities of his social reform.
While placing himself close to the poor and the exploited, Guru Nanak refused to accept the hospitality and food of those very rich and influential persons who were widely known to be exploiters of the poor.
Guru Nanak was a firm believer in communal harmony and this is how he was able to attract followers among Hindus as well as Muslims. This is also why he was equally at ease while travelling without any local contacts to areas dominated by diverse religious communities.
Guru Nanak rejected the exaggerated rituals of various religions, their claims to be the only truth and the strong tendency on the part of religious leaders to carve out a dominant and often lucrative position for themselves. Instead he emphasized spirituality based on a simple and ethical life and direct closeness or bhakti to God based on such a life. Compassion and truth were much more important for him compared to any rituals and fasts which were emphasized by so many other preachers.
Another special and interesting aspect of the life and achievements of Guru Nanak relates to his skills as a great communicator. As he was travelling very frequently to new places and inter-acting with strangers, Guru Nanak developed exceptional skills for getting across his point of view even among hostile people in new areas. Quite often when he wanted to oppose some hypocrisy or ritual, he achieved this not by raising a shrill voice against this ritual, but by quietly playing the role of a very innocent person who just could not comprehend or understand the logic or rationality of an empty ritual or a false belief.
For example when he wanted to oppose the ritual of offering water to dead parents at a pilgrimage site, he simply stood in the opposite direction to pour water. As he had anticipated, immediately everyone started shouting at him that he was offering water in the wrong direction. Nanak now played the innocent to perfection and said, “My parents are not dead. They live in a village located in this direction. I thought after looking at all of you that if water poured by you can reach heaven which must be very far away, then surely water poured by me will reach my parents living in my village which is relatively nearer.” Everyone started laughing instead of getting angry, but in a subtle way Nanak had told them about the absurdity of the ritual.
Similarly in another instance when he was very tired in the course of his travels, he fell asleep with his feet placed unintentionally towards a place of worship. He was rudely awakened by a narrow minded religious leader who ordered him to immediately remove his feet from the position that pointed towards the place of worship. Nanak did not move but very calmly told the aggressive man, “I am not aware of any direction where God does not exist. If you know such a direction then kindly move my feet towards that direction.” The aggressive man did not have a reply to this and lurked away ashamed.
While his birthday is being observed far and wide, one wonders whether his most essential message of peace, equality, non-discrimination, simple and ethical life , compassion and opposition to exploitation is really getting the attention it badly needs in our troubled world.
If India remembers the essential message of the great saints of bhakti and sufi movements like Guru Nanak and Sant Kabir, this will help the country to get its basic priorities right and with this yearning we need to explore and study the life and teachings of these great reformers and spiritual leaders.
Bharat Dogra is a Coordinator of Save the Earth Now Movement . He has also contributed short biographies of social reformers, spiritual leaders and freedom fighters. Details of his work can be seen at bharatdogra.in