Nanak


Nanak
/nah"neuhk/, n.
("Guru") 1469-1539, Indian religious leader: founder of Sikhism.

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born April 15, 1469, Rai Bhoi di Talvandi, near Lahore, India
died 1539, Kartarpur, Punjab

Indian founder of Sikhism.

Born into a Hindu merchant caste, he worked as a storekeeper until a spiritual experience incited him to leave his job and family and begin a 20-year phase of travel. He eventually settled in Kartarpur, a village in Punjab, to which he attracted many disciples, and he became the first Guru of the Sikhs. His doctrine stressed the unity and uniqueness of God and offered salvation through disciplined meditation on the divine name. It stipulated that meditation must be inward and rejected all external aids such as idols, temples, mosques, scriptures, and set prayers. After his death the stories told of his life were collected in anthologies called the Janam-sakhis.

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▪ Indian religious leader
Introduction
born April 15, 1469, Rāi Bhoi dī Talvaṇḍī [now Nankana Sahib, Pak.], near Lahore, India
died 1539, Kartārpur, Punjab

      Indian spiritual teacher who was the first guru of the Sikhs, a monotheistic religious group that combines Hindu and Muslim influences. His teachings, expressed through devotional hymns, many of which still survive, stressed salvation from rebirth through meditation on the divine name. Among modern Sikhs he enjoys a particular affection as their founder and as the supreme master of Punjabi devotional hymnody.

Life.
      What little information there is about Nānak's life has been handed down mainly through legend and tradition. There is no doubt that he was born in 1469 in the village of Rāi Bhoi dī Talvaṇḍī. His father was a member of a subcaste of the mercantile Khatrī caste. The relatively high social rank of the Khatrīs distinguishes Nānak from other Indian religious reformers of the period and may have helped promote the initial growth of his following. He married the daughter of a Khatrī, who bore him two sons.

      For several years Nānak worked in a granary until his religious vocation drew him away from both family and employment, and, in the tradition of Indian religious mendicants, he embarked on a lengthy journey, probably traveling to the Muslim and Hindu religious centres of India, and perhaps even to places beyond India's borders. Neither the actual route nor the places he visited can be positively identified.

      References found in four of his hymns suggest that Nānak was present at attacks Bābur (an invading Mughal ruler) launched on Saidpur and Lahore, so it seems safe to conclude that by 1520 he had returned from his travels and was living in the Punjab.

      The remaining years of his life were spent in Kartārpur, another village of central Punjab. Tradition holds that the village was actually built by a wealthy admirer to honour Nānak. It was presumably during this final period that the foundations of the new Sikh community were laid. By this time it must be assumed that Nānak was recognized as a Gurū, an inspired teacher of religious truth, and that, in accordance with the custom of India, disciples who accepted him as their Gurū gathered around him in Kartārpur. Some probably remained as permanent residents of the village; many more made periodic visits to obtain his blessing. All of them listened to the teachings expressed there in numerous devotional hymns intended for communal singing, many of which survive to this day.

      The actual year of Nānak's death is disputed, tradition being divided between 1538 and 1539. Of these two possibilities, the latter appears to be the more likely. One of his disciples, Aṅgad (Angad), was chosen by Nānak as his spiritual successor, and following Nānak's death he assumed the leadership of the young Sikh community as Gurū Aṅgad.

      In view of the size of the following that Nānak attracted, numerous anecdotes concerning the deeds of the Gurū began to circulate within the community soon after his death. Many of these were borrowed from the current Hindu and Muslim traditions, and others were suggested by Nānak's own works. These anecdotes were called sākhīs, or “testimonies,” and the anthologies into which they were gathered in rough chronological order are known as Janam-sākhīs. The interest of the narrators and compilers of the Janam-sākhīs has largely concentrated on the childhood of Nānak and above all on his travels. Among the earlier traditions are tales of visits he is supposed to have made to Baghdad and Mecca. Ceylon is a later addition, and later still the Gurū is said to have traveled as far east as China and as far west as Rome. Today the Janam-sākhīs offer a substantial corpus of hagiographical material, and the more important of these collections continue to be the basis of “biographies” of Nānak.

Doctrine.
      Nānak's message can be briefly summarized as a doctrine of salvation through disciplined meditation on the divine name. Salvation is understood in terms of escape from the transmigratory round of death and rebirth to a mystical union with God. The divine name signifies the total manifestation of God, a single Being, immanent both in the created world and within the human spirit. Meditation must be strictly inward, and all external aids such as idols, temples, mosques, scriptures, and set prayers are explicitly rejected. The Muslim influence is relatively slight; the influence of Hindu mystical and devotional beliefs is much more apparent. Always, though, the coherence and beauty of Nānak's own expression dominates early Sikh theology.

William Hewat McLeod

Additional Reading
W.H. McLeod, Gurū Nānak and the Sikh Religion (1968), attempts to apply strict historical research procedures to the traditions concerning Nānak. Harbans Singh, Guru Nanak and the Origins of the Sikh Faith (1969), is more generous in its treatment of the traditional narratives, but not uncritical. J.S. Grewal, Guru Nanak in History (1969), analyzes the impact of Nānak upon the subsequent history of the Sikh community. Gurbachan Singh Talib, Guru Nanak: His Personality and Vision (1969), studies his teachings. Ganda Singh (ed.), Sources of the Life and Teachings of Guru Nanak (1969), a useful anthology of works dealing with Nānak from the earliest traditions to the present day, includes an English translation of a janam-sākhī (the Mahimā Prakās) and a comprehensive bibliography. Khushwant Singh, Hymns of Guru Nanak (1969), offers a selection of Nānak's hymns in English translation.

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Universalium. 2010.

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