When they reached Hassan Abdal, a town west of today’s Islamabad, Bhai Mardana is believed to have complained to Guru Nanak of thirst. Using his miraculous powers, the first Sikh guru told his lifelong companion to climb atop the mound overlooking the town where a Muslim sufi, Wali Qandhari, lived by a pool. The sufi was about to give Mardana water, the Sikh legend goes, when he learned the visitor was accompanying another saint. Jealous, he mocked Mardana and asked him to have Nanak arrange for water if he were such a powerful saint. In spite of Qandhari’s rejection, Nanak has Mardana trek up twice more, to no avail. Nanak eventually makes water gush out from under his feet, deprives Qandhari of his water, and stops a boulder thrown at him from atop the hill with a bare hand, leaving his handprint on it.

There are many such stories of saints doubting the miraculous powers of Nanak or showing hubris before they are confronted and humbled by the guru. In Sialkot, Nanak is believed to have chastened the arrogant Hamza Ghous, who had taken it upon himself to destroy the ancient city. Not far from there, at Pasrur, Nanak is said to have encountered another sufi saint, Mian Mitha, and bested him in his knowledge of Islam. It’s an old tradition in religious literature to underscore the superiority of one saint, or religion, over another. It’s not unique to Sikhism; similar stories abound in Jain and Buddhist writings.

In the Hassan Abdal story, though, there is a peripheral theme: Mardana’s utter loyalty to and obedience of his spiritual master.

The Janamsakhis, which are essentially Nanak’s hagiographies, are replete with stories showing Mardana’s unquestioned devotion to his guru. They came from the same town – now Nankana Sahib in Pakistan – and were companions since adolescence. When Nanak moved to Sultanpur Lodhi for work after his marriage, Mardana followed him. He was with Nanak when he went on his first udasi, or journey, and when Nanak, after over two decades of travel, returned to Punjab. In some narratives of Nanak’s life, Mardana dies on their return journey, while others suggest he settled with Nanak at Kartarpur, where he died.

It is one Janamsakhi story connected to Mardana that captures the essence of Nanak’s teachings. Mardana is once said to have asked Nanak about his religion so he could convert to it. Nanak responded that if one were a Muslim, he should strive to be a good Muslim; if he were a Hindu, he should become a good Hindu. That is how anyone could become Nanak’s Sikh, his disciple. So, in a way, by remaining Muslim, Mardana became the first Sikh. Sikhism, of course, was still far from being an institutionalised religion. Nanak’s religion was as flexible as Mardana’s identity: a Muslim who was also a Sikh.

Not merely teacher and disciple

In the Janamsakhis, Mardana’s character is deployed to portray Nanak the teacher. It is in teaching Mardana that Nanak teaches his followers. He also serves as the symbol of the fragile humanity in contrast to which Nanak’s spirituality is established. While travelling together, it is always Mardana who feels thirsty, hungry or tired; Nanak exhibits none of these human characteristics. Iqbal Qaiser, a Punjabi poet, feels that Mardana symbolises the material world and Nanak the spiritual. In Nanak’s philosophy, the two are wedded. He exhorts his followers to strike a balance between the two, for going to the extreme on either side is a distraction.

In reality, though, Nanak’s relationship with Mardana may have been more complicated than that of teacher-disciple as depicted in the Janamsakhis. In his biography of the Sikh guru, Harsh Dhillon describes how Nanak, the scion of the Bedi clan, the reciters of the Vedas, learned classical ragas and Hindu devotional songs from Mardana, a Muslim Mirasi. The Mirasi – the word is derived from “miras”, meaning inheritance – were bards who went village to village singing folk and devotional songs. They also accompanied warriors into battle, singing songs about the bravery of their ancestors. In addition, they memorised the pedigrees of prominent families of their regions. For their knowledge of family histories, they were sometimes called to resolve property conflicts. Unlike the Bedis, who were upper caste, the Mirasis were considered lower caste. Indeed, in contemporary Punjab, Mirasi is used as a caste slur.

Thus, while Nanak was the spiritual teacher, Mardana was the music teacher. And music played an instrumental role in the preaching and development of Sikhism. Nanak taught through his poetry, which he sung to Mardana playing the rubab. It took Nanak’s message to thousands of people during his lifetime, and millions afterwards. Nanak and Mardana founded the tradition of kirtan, which was institutionalised by the later gurus. From Nanak until Partition, following in the tradition of Mardana, it was Muslim rubab players who performed kirtan in gurdwaras. In the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism, the verses are accompanied by the ragas in which they should be sung – ragas that were first taught to Nanak by Mardana.

There is another key message to be drawn from the story of Nanak and Mardana. Being from the high caste Bedi clan and yet associating with a low caste Mirasi, Nanak challenged the caste system.

As Sikhism developed, Mardana came to acquire great significance. His caste became insignificant to the new religion, and by implication the very notion of a caste hierarchy. His poetry, along with that of later Sikh gurus, was included in the Guru Granth Sahib. An image of Mardana holding the rubab became ubiquitous to Nanak’s depictions; his presence essential to Nanak’s stories. The story of Bhai Mardana became the story of Guru Nanak.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.