Walking with Nanak is one of the most unusual books that I have ever read. And its author, Haroon Khalid, is clearly a courageous man. I say unusual, because it deals largely with the life of the first Sikh Guru, Nanak, in what is now Pakistan, while describing the gurdwaras and shrines—many of them in a sadly dilapidated condition with Islamic graffiti all over them—that were built in his honour. Courageous, because Haroon Khalid, a young Pakistani who resides in Islamabad, is not afraid to deplore his country’s establishment for its neglect of Nanak’s legacy.
Khalid is also bold in his frequent and pointed criticism of the potentially disastrous direction that Islam is taking in Pakistan: “Various studies have been carried out on the biased nature of the Pakistani education system and the religious puritanism that it promotes through its curriculum. The entire school curriculum has been designed in such a way as to instil in the minds of young students the separateness of Hindus from Muslims, and hence justify the creation of Pakistan.... Nationalism is premised on hatred towards Hindus.... All traces of the Hindu past are omitted from the curriculum. Students from such schools emerge more radicalised and susceptible to Islamic militancy than from your neighbourhood madrasas.” Brave and honest words, indeed!
Walking With Nanak is a charming blend of painstaking historical research, some myth and a little fiction—a blend which works beautifully well. The author traces Nanak’s footsteps (he travelled far and wide for 24 years) in present-day Pakistan. Nanak was accompanied by his loyal follower, the Muslim Bhai Mardana. They both lived through Babur’s invasion of India. Nanak was followed by nine ‘Gurus’, the last one, Guru Govind Singh, being the best known. In fact, most people know of only Nanak and Govind. Aurangzeb died around the time of Guru Govind Singh, Aurangzeb’s death marking the start of the decline of the Mughal empire. Hence, the formation of Sikhism coincided with the rise and fall of the Mughals.
Till the fifth Guru, Arjan Dev, relations between the Sikhs and the Mughals were fairly amiable. However, Arjan decided to support Khusro, the eldest son of Jahangir, who had rebelled against his father. In 1660, Jahangir had Guru Arjan killed, making him the first martyr of Sikhism. It was a fateful turning point in the community. A long conflict between the Mughal authorities and the Sikhs followed (Guru Tegh Bahadur and all the sons of Guru Govind Singh were killed by Mughal rulers).
Circumstances changed Sikhism radically, with the peace-loving Guru Nanak at one pole, and the militant warrior-like Guru Govind Singh at the other. The dichotomy remains to this day. “Guru Hargobind (who succeeded the martyred Guru Arjan) decided to militarise the Sikh community”, writes the author. “It was argued that it was unSikh-like to bear oppression and be unafraid to die in the process, if need be. The foundations of the contemporary face of Sikhism had been laid.”
That is well and concisely put. But it is on Nanak and his teachings that the author mainly focusses on: “Nanak himself had been born into a Hindu household and was then educated in a Muslim milieu; however, he was neither a practising Muslim nor a Hindu. His entire life was a struggle to dilute the differences between these two religious communities. Everywhere he travelled, he offended both Hindus and Muslims by stating that there was no Hindu or Muslim.... If one was a Muslim, then one should be a good Muslim, and if one is a Hindu, then one should be a good Hindu.... Nanak believed in the universality of all religious traditions. He believed that any religion followed in its essence will lead one towards the Truth, a journey that Nanak traversed throughout his life”.
Alas, Nanak’s bid to bridge the divide between Muslims and Hindus failed. The author also makes a pertinent observation when he criticises modern-day Sikhism, with its numerous rituals and its institutionalisation: “Nanak vehemently spoke against organised religion, and yet today, the religion that is attributed to him is one of the most prominent organised religions in the world. He abhorred the concept of associating miracles with religious personalities, but today his biography is nothing but a story of his miracles.”
Or take Nanak’s view on worship: “His message was that work, no matter what it is, should be treated as a sacred activity and hence an act of worship.” In other words, work was worship and worship was not work. In my view, and I daresay also in the view of the author, Nanak was way ahead of his time. The man that he resembled most actually came some four centuries later—Mahatma Gandhi.