The hum of the Guru Granth Sahib being recited resonates across the tiny room in which Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, is said to have been born. The room opens into a white marbled courtyard. The grandeur of the gurudwara that stands here today is in sharp contrast to what must haven the simple house of the accountant Mehta Kalu, Nanak’s father. Perhaps the only link to the original structure is a small well at one corner of the courtyard with a plaque specifying that this was a part of the Sikh Guru’s home.
It was a cold evening descending into the night as the last rays of the emaciated January sun scattered inside the courtyard. I sat next to the Granthi (priest) of the gurudwara, listening to stories about Nanak’s miracles. Only a few days ago, we had celebrated the winter festival of Lohri at the gurudwara Janam Asthan in the city of Nankana Saheb near Lahore, and I was back for more. His thick kara swung frantically as he narrated these stories passionately, his Punjabi accent affected by his Pakhtun origins. He wore proudly the 5Ks of Guru Gobind Singh – kesh, or uncut hair; kara, a steel bracelet; kanga, a wooden comb, the steel sword called the kirpan and kachera, the cotton shorts – which set him apart from the overwhelming Muslim majority of this city in the heart of Pakistan’s Punjab.
Nanak, on the other hand, would have disappeared into the crowd inconspicuously. He had a thick beard that could not be differentiated from the beards of Muslim Sufis or Hindu bhaktis. His turban had still not acquired the Bagdadhi-style characteristic of Sikhs today and was typical of many Punjabis of his time. His attire amalgamated diverse religious traditions, as though chosen carefully to defy association with a particular creed.
There was a tap on my shoulder. I looked around to see a young Sikh boy with a thin beard that barely covered his jaws wearing jeans and a blue sweater. He told me not to sit with my back towards Nanak’s shrine. Apologetically, I turned around, conscious not to hurt his or anyone else’s religious sensibilities, after spending months trying to win the community’s trust and interviewing them. The Granthi continued with his stories but I couldn’t concentrate any more. My mind was wandering with Nanak, traveling with him as he went on one pilgrimage and then another, criticising religious dogma and doctrines, offending the sensibilities of the believers.
Though my body was at Nankana Sahib, my mind was with Nanak in the holy city of Mecca, which he is believed to have visited. Tired after his long journey to the holy city, he fell asleep, unaware that his feet were facing the Ka’aba – a structure in the Grand Mosque considered the holiest Islamic site. In the middle of the night, an offended Muslim scholar woke him up and told him to turn away from the shrine.
According to the legend, whichever direction Nanak put his feet, the shrine followed. Eventually, Nanak retorted, “Turn my feet in the direction where God does not reside.”
On another pilgrimage, Nanak found himself in the ancient city of Saidpur in Pakistan, now called Eimanabad. Here, he found the shabbiest hut and asked its occupant, a carpenter named Bhai Lalo, for some food.
On the same day, Malik Bhago, a corrupt noble and the richest man in the city, had been throwing a lavish feast at his haveli. Nanak, who had been invited for the feast, chose to come calling on Bhai Lalo instead.
Offended by this, Malik Bhago summoned Nanak to his house. Standing in the corrupt minister’s court, Nanak was asked to explain his audacious action. In response, Nanak took in his hand the dried roti that Bhai Lalo had given him and crushed it, causing milk to ooze from it. He then took a piece of bread from Malik Bhago’s feast, which, when crushed, oozed blood. “That is because his roti has been earned by the labour of his hard work, while yours by sucking the blood of the labourers,” Nanak said.
It is through this story that Nanak the political revolutionary comes forward. His observation about the exploitation of the poor by the nobles and landlords could easily fit into the Marxist framework.
This was of course before the institution of Sikh gurus, which began with Nanak, emerged as a feudal structure. This was before Emperor Akbar gave a vast tract of land to Guru Amar Das’ daughter, who went on to become the wife of Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru. This was also before Guru Ram Das’ eldest son, Prithi Chan, rebelled against his father, and petitioned the Mughal court to allot the property left behind by his father to him. This was also before the time Guru Har Rai rallied behind Prince Dara Shikoh, son of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, in the battle with his youngest brother, Aurangzeb, for the throne. This was before all the properties, wealth, supporters, donations and friendship with Mughal Kings and princes.
According to legend, the first interaction between a guru and a Mughal King was between Nanak and Babur in Saidpur. Upon conquering the city, Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, incarcerated Nanak along with other citizens. The prisoners were forced to work on a stone mill, where Nanak performed a miracle and made the grindstone move on its own. Seeing this, the sentries informed the emperor who summoned the guru.
While I reflect upon these stories, one of Nanak’s poems comes to mind, which tells us what he thinks about miracles being associated with saints. Once, when asked if he could perform miracles, Nanak is believed to have sarcastically said:
Dwell then in flame uninjured,
Remain unharmed amid eternal ice,
Make blocks of stone thy food,
Spurn the solid earth before thee with thy foot,
Weigh the heavens in a balance
Then ask thou that Nanak perform wonders
But Nanak did perform miracles. His miracles were in his words. They were in his poetry. And they were in his humanism. I sat there at the shrine of Nanak, with my back now resting on a pillar.
It was time for the evening prayer to end. One by one, devotees bowed in front of the Adi Granth. The Granthi then placed the Living Guru in its room, in a ritual that is repeated every day in every gurudwara of the world.
Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak.