by Bharat Dogra and Madhu Dogra

Guru Nanak

A true mark of greatness is that the message conveyed by a person by work as well words, conduct as well as character, brings solace to people and reduces distress of people in contemporary times, but at the same time is also found to be of enduring importance to people when they cope with difficult problems and issues even after a long time

This is certainly true of the work and teachings of Guru Nanak which continue to have a very inspiring influence after nearly five centuries. While Guru Nanak is very widely recognized as one of the greatest spiritual leaders and social reformers of all times, perhaps more effort needs to be made to more specifically place his life and teachings in the context of present day problems and needs. In this way our deeply troubled world can benefit more from Guru Nanak’s essential message of equality, simplicity, justice and peace and a deep spirituality which can help to spread these basics much more effectively and widely.

Seen in such a present day context, one of the most inspiring aspects of Guru Nanak’s life and work is his work for protection of those who are most distressed , or trapped by society in unjust positions or those who have been temporarily caught in most difficult situations resulting from war and turmoil. 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 when hardly any protection was available from actions of ruthless rulers. The impact of his quiet but firm determination, spiritual strength and fame based on this was such that many prisoners were actually released. Even after this Guru Nanak stayed on for extra time to ensure that they were 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 then to be the lowest of the low by contemporary society. This shows very clearly 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.

While placing himself close to the poor and the exploited, Guru Nanak  at times 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 highly ethical life and 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.

A remarkable 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 superstition based 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.

The society is supposed to have progressed in recent times but can it still claim to live up to the ideals of Guru Nanak, Sant Kabir and Sant Ravidas? Has the discrimination against those considered to be from lower social groups ended? Has many-sided injustice to the poorest sections ended or has it even increased in some ways? How many people in society want today to identify with the lowest of the low as per the path shown by Guru Nanak? These are questions which we need to ponder as we try to find a more compassionate path of progress, guided by the great saints of the Bhakti movement.

The authors have worked together on various issues of social relevance to write several articles and booklets.


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