Indian religions love their wandering heroes. There’s the Buddha, who wandered for six years; Mahavira, who doubled that; and the many saints and yogis of Hinduism who meander homeless all across the Indian past. The 15th century founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, also took to the road—for some 23 years. He made it as far afield as Mecca and Medina, as well as to the mythic Sumeru, meeting emperors and carpenters, sages and thugs along the way—or so say the Janam Sakhis, a collection of hagiographical stories about his life.
But there’s a crucial difference between Nanak and the Buddha or Mahavira, who renounced their families and communities to find spiritual truth. After Nanak achieved enlightenment, he returned to the fertile fields of the Punjab, and made room in his religious life for members of his previous, unenlightened domesticity. For him, devotion did not require asceticism, renunciation or an attachment to holy men and their institutions, but what scholars of the Sikh religion have called a ‘disciplined worldliness’.
The writer and diplomat Navtej Sarna recounts a well-known story that captures something of Nanak’s philosophy and personality: “He’s supposed to have met a large number of very wise siddhas, the old spiritual sages who have gone away and have been meditating in the Himalayas for years and years. And they ask him, ‘Child, what is the situation down in the world?’ So he said, ‘What can there be? If all the wise men have come here, what do you expect to be happening there?’ So, from this you can see that his belief was that this world is a real world, and you have to seek salvation within it. There is no other world to seek salvation in. That is cowardliness—renunciation of this world. You have to seek salvation through your living.”
Nanak insisted that religious beliefs are not just to be felt in this world, but should change it. As a result, his life and afterlife, through the religion he founded, have often challenged India’s other communities of faith, including at times that most modern one—the nation.
Nanak was known during his lifetime as Baba Nanak (the title of Guru came later). He was born in 1469 into a relatively well-to-do family. His father was possibly an accountant, and his education may have included Persian (the signifier of a superior education at the time), taught to him by a Muslim tutor. He later wrote hundreds of beautiful hymns and poems in his own language, Punjabi, drawing on Persian and Arabic words—verses that often combine poetry, spiritual striving and agricultural labour into hard-working metaphors:
As a team of oxen we are driven
By the ploughman, our teacher.
By the furrows made are thus writ
Our actions—on the earth, our paper.
The sweat of labour is as beads
Falling by the ploughman as seeds sown.
We reap according to our measure.
Some for ourselves to keep, some to others give.
O Nanak, this is the way to truly live.