Having abandoned his job as a store keeper at the court of the governor of Sultanpur Lodhi, Nanak returned to Rai Bhoi di Talwindi. His father, Mehta Kalu, who had shown much annoyance at the spiritual inclination of his only son at an early age, must have been disappointed once again. Unlike earlier, however, he, perhaps, did not verbally express his frustration. Nanak was no longer the teenager he had slapped when he had spent all the money given to him for business to feed hungry ascetics – an incident immortalised in the story of Sacha Sauda, the true bargain.

Nanak was now a grown man, with two sons of his own. Mehta Kalu had felt the responsibility of a household would distract his son from his pursuit of spirituality. He could not understand that Nanak’s search for truth was not a distraction but a lifelong goal, one that would take him all over the world, in a journey spanning well over two decades. At Sultanpur Lodhi, he had done his job diligently but his quest for spirituality had caught up with him. His close friend from Rai Bhoi di Talwindi, a Muslim Mirasi (from a community of traditional singers and dancers) called Mardana, had followed his guru and together they had started singing Nanak’s verses every night, laying the foundation of kirtan in the Sikh tradition. Nanak realised he could no longer perform his duties for the governor with enthusiasm, hence decided to quit and return to his hometown.

Inclusive approach

Perhaps it was also his provocation of the other employees of the governor that hastened Nanak’s decision to abandon the city. His preaching of his message had unruffled the feathers of many powerful people. “There is no Hindu, no Muslim,” he reiterated. These were Nanak’s initial steps towards an inclusive religious approach. In an environment where religious identities and distinct traditions were a source of major conflict, Nanak was preaching the message of shedding away these narrow identities, the source of the conflict. Years later, he would advise his Muslim and Hindu companions to be a good Muslim if one is born Muslim and a good Hindu if one is born Hindu and that is how they will become devotees (Sikh) of Nanak.

This lack of distinct identity influenced his decision when he took on a religious garb to traverse the world in search of spirituality. Harsh Dhillion, in his book on Nanak, describes how he wore a long cloak similar to what the Muslim dervishes wore. However, unlike their green cloak, his was red. There was a belt around his waist similar to those donned by fakirs, while there was a cap on his head covered by a turban. Diffusion of identity was an important consideration for Nanak in adopting this eclectic attire.

His journeys led him to prominent Hindu and Muslim pilgrimages where he criticised dogmatic rituals in both places. True to his Bhakti and Sufi inspirations, his was a spirituality focused on individuality, to search for the truth not in rituals and pilgrimages but within.

After his death, such was the devotion of his assorted group towards him that Muslims wanted to bury him while Hindus wanted to cremate him. There is now at Kartarpur Sahib close to Narowal, Pakistan, both a grave and a smadh attributed to Nanak.

Path of the gurus

One hundred and sixty years and eight spiritual successors later, Guru Gobind Singh, addressing a large gathering of his followers, exhorted them to sacrifice for the right cause. Nanak, too, had asked for sacrifice. But that was a sacrifice of one’s ego to attain access to a higher spirituality. Guru Gobind Singh was asking for a physical sacrifice. The devotees were asked if they would be willing to lay down their lives for their guru. The first five devotees, the Panj Pyare, volunteered. No physical harm was brought to them but the guru, exhorting their example, told his devotees to be ready for a physical sacrifice if the need be.

On the first of Vaisakh (the second month in the Nanakshahi calendar), on that fateful day, the guru also introduced the 5 Ks of Sikhism – Kesh (uncut hair), Kara (bracelet), Kanga (wooden comb), Kaccha (cotton underwear) and Kirpan (sword) – giving his devotees distinct attire that continues to distinguish Sikhs from members of other religious traditions of South Asia. The time of obscurity was over. There was no more room for the dilution of religious identities. The social and political realities facing the followers of the guru at the time of Guru Gobind Singh were drastically different from that during Guru Nanak’s time.

While Nanak lived a life of political obscurity, besides his brief encounter with Babur, the Sikh gurus after the fifth guru, Arjun, found themselves at the centre of Mughal politics. Guru Arjun was assassinated on the orders of Emperor Jahangir and his son, Guru Hargobind, subsequently incarcerated. While Guru Harkrishan, the eighth Sikh guru was summoned to the court of Emperor Aurangzeb, his spiritual successor, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was assassinated on the orders of the Mughal king, pitting his son, Guru Gobind Singh, in a battle with Aurangzeb. The guru wanted all his devotees under one umbrella, of the Khalsa. Muslim and Hindu devotees of the guru needed to enter the folk of Khalsa. Those who didn’t were rebuked.

Guru Tegh Bahadur was assassinated on Aurangzeb's (above) orders, pitting his son, Guru Gobind Singh, in a battle with the Mughal emperor.
Guru Tegh Bahadur was assassinated on Aurangzeb's (above) orders, pitting his son, Guru Gobind Singh, in a battle with the Mughal emperor.

Sikhism under Guru Gobind Singh emerged as a distinct religion of South Asia. He said both Hindus and Muslims had strayed from the right path and only the passage shown by the gurus could lead them to truth. Once, Nanak told his followers they could access god through any path, Hindu or Muslim, if one followed it earnestly. Now, Guru Gobind Singh was telling his followers that both these paths had been corrupted and only the way of the gurus, represented by the Khalsa, could show them the true path.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.