Guru Nanak: Eternal Unifier, Guiding Light As Bigotry Becomes Order Of Day

Nanak’s relevance has grown more than ever before as he preached against religious prejudices and founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion and a synthesis between Islam and Hinduism

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In August 2019, tensions escalated between India and Pakistan when New Delhi stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status to take full control of the Himalayan region, which the two countries have claimed in full since the end of the British colonial rule in 1947. Islamabad reacted to the change in the Muslim-majority region’s constitutional status by downgrading diplomatic ties with India amid a lockdown and a communications blackout to prevent protests over the sweeping changes and sweeping restrictions. The ties between the two countries deteriorated months after they were on the verge of another war in February 2019 when Islamabad retaliated against an Indian airstrike in Pakistan following a car bomb attack in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama. 

Meanwhile, the construction of a corridor to provide visa-free access for Indian pilgrims to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib built at the last resting place of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, in Pakistan continued unhindered. It was finished and inaugurated within a year ahead of Nanak’s birth anniversary in November 2019. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, participated in the inauguration ceremonies of the corridor on either side of the border as the two countries, which have fought four wars, found a rare common ground amid fraught relations.    

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Nanak remained a unifier even as ties between India and Pakistan were at their lowest ebb. High-ranking officials of the two countries, who had been avoiding each other like plague, rubbed shoulders with each other at the inauguration of the corridor on the premises of the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib on the Pakistani side. Centuries after he passed away, Nanak remained an uniter. Nothing symbolises it more than the gurdwara, which stands at the place where Hindus and Muslims, who revered Nanak equally, are believed to have found flowers under a white sheet when they arrived for Nanak’s last rites. Muslims buried a part of the sheet and flowers and built a mausoleum in Nanak’s memory. Hindus put their share in an urn and interred it. 

Nanak’s relevance has grown more than ever before as he preached against religious prejudices and founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion and a synthesis between Islam and Hinduism. The composite culture Nanak contributed significantly to is being torn apart with Muslims at the receiving end of bigotry passed off as nationalism for their erasure with full state patronage. Nanak’s family was Hindu and his association with Muslims was much deeper than is widely known. His teacher was a Muslim and the first to understand his spiritual prowess. He called Nanak a blessed and gifted child and attributed his superior intelligence to it.

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Rai Bular, a Muslim landlord, was the one to prevail upon Nanak’s father and his employee, Mehta Kalu, to allow Nanak’s otherworldly pursuits. While Nanak wandered with holy men, Kalu wanted him to focus on his education. Bular was also the first to report miracles which indicated Nanak’s holiness. Bular, who became Nanak’s first devotee outside his family, is said to have witnessed a hooded cobra shielding the Guru from the sun while he was sleeping under the open sky. He saw this as a sign of Nanak’s spiritualism. Bular also reported how the shade of a tree remained on Nanak even when the position of the sun changed while he slept. He rushed to tell Kalu Nanak was an exalted person upon seeing this. 

Bular was totally devoted to Nanak and convinced Kalu that his son was a man of God. He dedicated much of his land to the Guru. Gurdwara Janam Asthan, which stands at the place of Nanak’s birth, and much of the city around it is located on the land Bular bequeathed to Sikhism’s founder. Rai Hadayat, a 17th-generation descendant of Bular, led Nanak’s 500th birth celebration. Bular’s family has continued a tradition of leading annual processions to celebrate Nanak’s anniversaries in Nankana Sahib in what is now Pakistan. Bular’s descendants are the custodians of the bequeathed land, whose revenues are spent on the welfare of the Sikh community and the maintenance of their places of worship in Nankana Sahib. Sikh emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh bestowed the Rai Bahadur title on Bular’s descendant, Rai Issa Khan, a fellow Bhatti Rajput, and made him a revenue collector in recognition of his family’s contributions to Sikhism. 

In May 2018, the Shiromani Gurdwara ParbandhakCommittee (SGPC), which manages Sikh places of worship, acknowledged Bular’s ‘immense contribution’ to Sikh history and erected his portrait at Amritsar’s Central Sikh Museum. The SGPC unveiled another Muslim Nawab Rai Kahla’s portrait at the museum in July 2017 for sheltering Nanak’s spiritual successor, Guru Gobind Singh, in 1705. Kahla ruled a small principality in Punjab when he offered Guru Gobind refuge in defiance of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb’s decree. Guru Gobind gave Kahla a holy pitcher known as Ganga Sagar, which holds water despite its asymmetrical holes, and a sword as a token of gratitude. Kahla’s descendants have preserved the relic, which they took to Pakistan in 1947 after they were uprooted from the Indian side of Punjab at the time of the Partition in 1947. It has remained in the custody of Rai Azizullah Khan, a former Pakistani lawmaker, since 1975.

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The courage Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan, the ruler of Malerkotla in what is now the Indian side of Punjab, showed in speaking out against the execution of Guru Gobind’s sons, Zorawar and Fateh, in 1705, ensured his kingdom remained untouched in 1947 when the subcontinent’s division triggered violence. The violence left around a million dead and triggered a virtual exchange of populations between the Indian and Pakistani sides of Punjab. It damaged the centuries-old coexistence and continues to cast a long shadow. But Malerkotla has remained untouched by the upheavals. It remained the Indian Punjab’s only Muslim pocket while the rest of the region was emptied of Muslims in 1947. It continues to be an exception even amid the fresh wave of violence against Muslims thanks to what is seen as Guru Gobind’s blessings to Malerkotla. Guru Gobind is believed to have blessed the nawab that ‘his roots shall forever remain green’ when he learnt about his stand against Zorawar and Fateh’s execution.

Baba Bulleh Shah, a Muslim saint and direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, also spoke out against the Mughal highhandedness. He was a friend of the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur and hailed Tegh Bahadur as a ‘holy warrior’ when he was executed. The saint earlier dissuaded the guru from seeking revenge on Muslims for Aurangzeb’s attitude towards the Sikhs. He followed in Nanak’s footsteps and promoted inter-religious harmony. Nanak in fact travelled to Arabia in the 16th-century with his Muslim companion, Mardana, for inter-religious dialogue, which provided him deep insights into Islam. In Baghdad, Nanak stayed with a Muslim saint. A courtyard at the tomb of the saint in Baghdad commemorates Nanak’s stay in the city. 

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The Muslim descendants of Mardana, known as rubabis, performed kirtans or devotional songs at Amritsar’s Golden Temple for generations before partition ended the tradition. They began the practice at the instance of the ninth Sikh Guru Guru Tegh Bahadur as Mardana played a musical instrument called rubab as Guru Nanak sang his poetry. Baptized Sikhs alone have since 1947 been doing kirtans as partition tore apart Punjab’s syncretic culture. But syncretism remains integral to Sikhism, whose scripture Guru Granth Sahib includes the writing of Muslims including Baba Farid. Guru Arjan, who compiled the first edition of the scripture and had it installed in 1604 at the Golden Temple, is widely believed to have invited Mian Mir, a Muslim saint, to lay the shrine’s foundation in Amritsar. 

Muslim holy men such as Farid, whose picture adorns the entrance of Gurdwara Janamasthan and is among revered Muslim figures in Sikhism, also made vital literary contributions. Waris Shah gave full shape to Heer-Ranjha and contributed to Punjab’s syncretic culture until the revivalism in the 19th century weakened it. But Nanak has remained a guiding light, who in poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s words ‘awakened India from a deep slumber.’ Iqbal hailed Nanak as ‘mard-e kaamil [perfect]’ in a poem about him. Iqbal lamented ‘our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]’; did not recognise the worth of that ‘jewel of supreme wisdom’. In another poem, Iqbal paired Nanak with Muslim saint Moinuddin Chishti and wrote: ‘The land [India] in which Chishti delivered the message of truth; the garden in which Nanak sang the song of oneness that homeland is mine, that homeland is mine.’

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan