Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembering Guru Nanak

Two saint-poets stand at the beginning of the Indian renaissance that is still gathering force. One was Kabir, a Muslim foundling raised by a Hindu, the other was Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion.

Both of them revived the distilled excellence of Indian tradition, freeing it from centuries of meaningless ritualism.

They were born (Kabir 1440 and Nanak 1469) before Columbus made landfall in Hispaniola and Vasco da Gama came ashore in Kerala; but their legacy is very much part of the modern Indian mainstream.

Both were “Bhakti” (devotional) poets, part of a movement rooted in the Gita that was revived in Tamil Nadu during the long, slow decline of Buddhism, first by the Saiva Nayanars (5th-10th Century) and then the Vaisnava Alwars (6 to 9 Century).

Spreading to North India as Islam made inroads into Indian society the vibrant faith of the Bhakti poets sustained Hinduism as it came under foreign assault and, especially in Kabir and Nanak, sought to enfold the invading religion.

Kabir’s impact on India was spiritual and literary; that of Nanak was more: like the ancient Rishis, the Buddha and Sankara; he set the wheel of Dharma moving anew. The rise of the Sikhs as a warrior community sparked that of the Marathas under Chatrapati Shivaji, and together they doomed the Mughal Empire. To say that is not to slight the Mughals, who were by then thoroughly Indian by blood and vision; but they were, barring Akbar, firmly of the country’s past as Nanak and Shivaji betokened its future.

On 10 November, Nanak's  542nd birth anniversary, all Indians owe it to themselves to consider the significance of his life, for he set India as a whole on the path to rediscovering its own lost self.

He preached a rigorously sensible faith scorning caste and Hindu-Muslim divisions, and asserting without philosophical complexity an intense devotion to the loving, universal and indivisible reality of God.

Almost uniquely for his time, serving the poor was always a special concern to Nanak. At 12, when his father tried to initiate him in business and gave him some money to invest, he fed a number of poor people, declaring that “true business.” The gurudwara of Sacha Sauda now stands where he fed the poor.  

He accepted followers from all backgrounds, declining only those who lived ascetic, isolated lives outside society, a rejection that emphatically located spiritual life within the household. His teachings were an antidote to the weaknesses of India’s fractured, caste-ridden society that had made it possible for Arab, Persian and Afghan invaders to make slow inroads into the country, bringing with them the missionary religion of Islam.

Nanak addressed frontally the new split those invasions had caused, beginning his career as a religious leader in 1496 with the dramatic proclamation: "There is no Hindu there is no Mussulman. I follow the path of God who is neither Hindu nor Mussulman."

His own relations with Muslims were always close: at 16, he went to work as storekeeper for the Muslim ruler of Sultanpur, where he befriended the much older Sufi minstrel, Mardana, later his boon companion as he preached across the length and breadth of India. Nanak went as far as Assam in the east, Kabul in the north, Tamil Nadu in the south and beyond Sind to Mecca in the West.

The scope of his travels underlined his desire to reform the whole body of Hinduism rather than to create a new sect. Islam was as much his object of reform as Hinduism: the story is told that in Mecca, when upbraided for sleeping with his feet towards the Kabba, he asked his inquisitor to point them in the direction that God did not exist.

Did Nanak fail in his wider aim of reforming Hinduism and Islam? Does the existence of the Sikhs as a minority religious community mean that the rest of India has remained and will remain unaffected by his distillation of all that is best in our traditions, Hindu and Muslim?

The answer must be categorically in the negative. If there is one overwhelming lesson from the Indian past, it is that history does not move in a straight line. It has subtle detours and byways, triumphs that turn into long term defeat, weaknesses that evolve into strengths, contradictions that resolve themselves in magical new unities.

Nothing exemplifies that as much as the transformation of Nanak’s legacy. When he died in 1518, the Portuguese were the only Europeans in the Indian Ocean and Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, was still a youth in Afghanistan. In the time the Mughal Empire rose to its intolerant peak Nanak’s peaceable community changed under nine successive Gurus into a cohesive society of warriors, and that had a direct influence on the upbringing of Shivaji in Maharashtra.

The rise of the Sikhs and Marathas doomed the Mughal Empire, laying India open to the stealthy invasion of the British, who sought to strengthen their tenuous control of the country by setting its people against each other on the basis of religion and caste.

In the aftermath of that era the Granth Sahib, containing the hymns of the ten Gurus and of 22 Hindu and Muslim sages, offers the nonsectarian vision that is at once the best of Indian tradition and the hope of our future. For an India committed to the physical welfare of its people yet sustained by its spiritual core it is an invaluable guide. In moving towards that goal, the following extract from one of Guru Nanak’s hymns should serve as an essential adjunct to Satyameva Jayate:

 “Though man perform lip-devotion, penance, and austerities,
   Dwell at places of pilgrimage, bestow alms and perform acts of devotion,
   What are these without the True One?
   As he sows so shall he reap; human life is lost without virtue.
   O silly one, happiness lies in being a slave to virtue.”

No comments: