From the Jacket:
In 1469 the tiny village of Talwandi, forty miles south-west of Lahore, witnessed the birth of one of the greatest spiritual leaders of mankind and the founder of India's youngest major religion, Sikhism. Born into a society caught in the throes of orthodoxy and ritualism and further crippled by child marriage, infanticide and a rigid caste system, Guru Nanak was to become the harbinger of a period of social, spiritual and religious enlightenment. Deeply spiritual from an early age, Nanak spent his early years in meditation and in the company of hermits, and is believed to have attained enlightenment at the age of thirty. His teachings, which stressed the omnipresence of the One God, and the importance of love, equality, compassion and community service, appealed to Hindus and Muslims alike. Along with his companion and disciple, Mardana, Nanak spent twenty-three years in travel, which took him to places as far a field as Sri Lanka and Mecca, to spread his message.
Drawing upon the various legends contained in anecdotal biographies and Bhai Gurdas's first heroic ode, and placing them in as precise a historical framework as possible, The Book of Nanak reconstructs the main events of Nanak's life, throwing new light on the life and teachings of a phenomenal seer. The last section of the book also contains original translations of some of Nanak's best known hymns that continue to inspire millions the world over.
About the Author:
Navtej Sarna has contributed short stories to the BBC World Service, London Magazine and the anthologies Signals and Signals 2. His book reviews appear in the Times Literary Supplement, Biblio and other journals.
The five centuries that have elapsed since the time that Guru Nanak walked on this earth are but the blink of an eye in the history of men. Contemporaneous events are well known; men who lived at that time are well remembered. As I write these words, a glance outside the window takes me to the Lodhi tombs, still in good repair, where sultans from the Lodhi dynasty who ruled Delhi during Guru Nanak’s lifetime lie buried. It was Nanak’s time that the first of the Mughals, Babar, invaded India several times, and finally, winning the first battle of Panipat, replaced Ibrahim Lodhi on the throne of Hindustan. His son Humayun, the white dome of whose tomb in Delhi shimmers in the hazy afternoon light, was battling to protect his fledgling empire when Nanak passed away. The Qutub Minar, whose once majestic domination of Delhi’s skyline is now challenged by innumerable high-rise buildings, pre-dates Nanak’s birth by more than two centuries.
Somewhat ironically, events that took place in other parts of the world during Guru Nanak’s lifetime are even more current in our imagination. Columbus, in search of fabled India, stumbled upon the New World. Vasco da Gama found the route to India. Magellan completed the first voyage around the world. Corpus Christi College, that still stands at Oxford, was started, and Martin Luther took up the challenge of Reformation in Germany. We are not therefore dealing with one of the ancients, lost in the mist of time or remembered only through myths and hearsay. Guru Nanak, one of the greatest spiritual teachers mankind has known and the founder of India’s youngest major religion, is young in human memory. His impact is recent, his message fresh.
What is lacking, and that is the reason that the above needed to be said, is precise historical detail regarding the life of Nanak, thus making it sound more distant than it actually is. There are no available records of that time, no exact itineraries of his incredible travels, no eyewitness accounts that would have brought home the immediacy of Nanak’s world to us. For details of Guru Nanak’s life we have to turn to sources which are not biographical in their approach: Nanak’s own writings, Bhai Gurdas’s first var or heroic ode, and the janamsakhis or anecdotal biographies, the earliest of which were written several decades after Nanak’s death. Later writings on the life of Guru Nanak derive essentially from one or the other cycles of the janamsakhis and do not unearth new empirical data.
Guru Nanak’s own writings are contained in nearly 1000 hymns in the Adi Granth, superb poetry set to divine music. These hymns however contain virtually no biographical details regarding places, dates and events connected with Nanak’s life, with the possible exception of Babar’s invasions. Nanak’s message was predicated on the essential belief that he was only a messenger transmitting the divine word from the supreme reality to men. A detailed account of his life would have betrayed this belief.
A brief sketch of Guru Nanak’s life was given by Bhai Gurdas, a nephew of the third Guru, Amar Das, in his first var. Stanzas twenty-three to forty-five of the var contain some biographical material on the life of Guru Nanak. This account, sketchy as it, is useful in that it comes from a source closely associated with the Gurus, fully aware of the message of Guru Nanak and its relevance in that age. The var was written about eighty years after Nanak died.
The genre of the janamsakhis is not one that lends itself easily to the historian’s obsession with facts. Rather, the janamsakhis are popular forms of episodic narrative where names, places and dates are rarely mentioned. They do not follow any predictable chronology, and the authorship of the texts, with the exception of one, is unknown. They are written in Gurmukhi and the language used is Punjabi or Saddhukari. As is often the case with tales of spiritual teachers, the stories are imbued with drama and coloured by people’s imagination and belief; as a result, myths, legends and miracles abound. Since there are clear contradictions among the different traditions of janamsakhis, there is no dearth of issues for pure academic inquiry-only a dearth of definitive sources.
All this however does not make the janamsakhis irrelevant. First, they are all we have. And second, a generous approach towards them, based on their intent and meaning, and armed with a spirit of reconciliation towards the obvious contradictions can help facilitate the reconstruction of the main events of Guru Nanak’s life. It must always be kept in view that these janamsakhis were written not by historians but by believers. The origin of the janamsakhis would appear to be memories of Nanak as orally told and collectively recalled. To this is added, inevitably, piety, faith, reverence and contemporary belief of the writers themselves. The stories thus have a great value not simply as a record of events but as an interpretation of the doctrine. They are a graphic portrayal of the message rather than a mere description adhering strictly to the dictates of time and place.
It would be useful, before proceeding further, to take a brief look at the four traditions or cycles of janamsakhis. Most Sikh children, certainly of the last generation, have heard sakhis or stories at their grandmother’s knee, in which Guru Nanak has not one but two companions, Bala and Mardana. Bala’s name attaches to the most popular and influential of the traditions-Bhai Bala janamsakhi. The reason for the popularity of this set of janamsakhis is the claim, not taken seriously by most scholars, that it was dictated by Bhai Baja in the presence of the second Guru, Angad Dev and forms an eyewitness account of Guru Nanak’s life and travels. It is now believed that the Bhai Baja janamsakhi was grossly interpolated by the heretical sect of Hindalis.
The Puratan janamsakhi is the oldest, believed to be written about eighty years after the death of Guru Nanak. The first manuscript of the Puratan, known as the Vilayat-wali janamsakhi, was discovered ‘partly destroyed by white ants’ in 1872, though it had been brought to London in 1815 by Henry Thomas Colebrooke, a Sanskrit scholar and member of the council of the East India Company in Calcutta. The second manuscript was discovered by Bhai Gurmukh Singh of Oriental College, Lahore in Hafizabad and handed over to M.A. Macauliffe. This came to be known as the Hafizabad-wali janamsakhi. The two manuscripts were collated into a composite whole by the Sikh savant Bhai Vir Singh and published in 1926. A number of other manuscripts were found subsequently, including one dated 1640.
The third janamsakhi, discovered in 1940, is ascribed to Sodhi Meherban (1581-1640), grandson of the fourth Guru, Ram Das. His father Prithi Chand disputed the succession of Guru Arjan and fell away from the Sikh tradition. The shadow of these differences put into question the legitimacy of the Sodhi Meherban janamsakhi, but the recent discovery of an authentic manuscript has again revived interest in this janamsakhi which is now known for its author’s obvious learning and his developed prose form.
The fourth collection is known as the Bhai Mani Singh janamsakhi. The prologue of this collection indicates its origins. When Bhai Mani Singh, a prominent Sikh at the time of Guru Gobind Singh, was requested to retell the janamsakhi of Guru Nanak and thereby remove the interpolations of the heretics, in particular the Minas (associated with the Meherban janamsakhi), he replied that he could not better Bhai Gurdas who had already written the janamsakhi in his first var. The Sikhs said they wanted an elaboration of the var and Bhai Mani Singh agreed to take up the job. The janamsakhi, as it stands today, combines an independent selection of sakhis with borrowings from the Bala tradition. In the epilogue it is mentioned that after the completion of the janamsakhi it was presented to Guru Gobind Singh for his signature. However, scholars have questioned the actual authorship by Bhai Mani Singh, arguing that his name was used more for the purpose of providing status and authenticity.
In view of the paucity of historical detail in the writings available on Guru Nanak’s life, it is not possible to sift legend from fact completely. So this book follows the middle path of setting the abundant janamsakhi lore in as exact a historical framework as possible, and using it as a graphic, though at times exaggerated, portrayal of Guru Nanak’s doctrine.
The aim here is not to establish incontrovertible historical detail, as that is hardly possible without the dramatic revelation of any new sources, but rather to understand the entire spiritual legacy of Nanak, the full significance of the message that he preached. The reconstruction of the main events of Guru Nanak’s life is based on the broad chronology accepted by eminent Sikh scholars and is not necessarily confined to any particular janamsakhi cycle. Stories that sound too fantastic have not been included; at the same time, I have not made any attempt to water down or rationalize the mythical element of the original stories. The test lies in deciding whether a story, despite its mythical content, lies within the accepted legacy of Guru Nanak today, whether it highlights a particular aspect of his teachings. This choice is particularly difficult when it comes to describing Guru Nanak’s travels, for the destinations and itineraries in the sources vary considerably. Bhai Gurdas has left a very reliable, if somewhat sketchy account; a more detailed and systematic account is to be found in the Meherban janamsakhi. Scholars have filled considerable gaps in the accounts by integrating them with the other janamsakhis and corroborating them with local traditions. With some rational extrapolation of the material thus collated, fairly detailed itineraries of Nanak’s four great udasis, or missions, have been drawn up. That is not to say that all differences have been reconciled. Bhai Gurdas, for instance, does not give details of any journey to the south; the Meherban janamsakhi describes two journeys, while the Puratan talks of four journeys, and this is more widely accepted. While the visit to Mecca and Medina is undisputed, the Meherban and Mani Singh janamsakhis take the Guru as far afield as Palestine, Turkey and Syria. In most accounts he has one companion, Mardana; in some, he is accompanied by Bala too. The chronology of the actual travels is also not completely clear as the janamsakhis did not follow any particular order, but concentrated more on the events that took place and the messages they contained. They are not therefore actual travel itineraries but rather structures into which the various stories related to the travels can be conveniently woven. Again the attempt, in the present narrative, has been to follow the mainly accepted stream of thought, tested against the logic of a traveller in those times.
One last thought: the actual events of Guru Nanak’s lifetime and the debates about what did and what did not happen, recede into the background when one absorbs his message as contained in his own writings. A reading of Guru Nanak’s hymns is a deeply humbling experience. We are immediately in the presence of a tremendous intellect, a deep philosopher, a phenomenal poet, a spiritual master. His was a ordinary life; this can be no ordinary story.
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