Guru Nanak’s Contemporary Europe
– The Times –
To understand how far ahead of his time Guru Nanak was in crusade for human rights and social justice, let us have a cursory glance over Europe of his time (1469-1539 CE).
Europe was divided yet united – divided politically in nation states, duchies and principalities, but united in faith, Christianity.
In the middle of fifteenth century, Christian world was Roman Catholic world. The Pope is Bishop of Rome and according to Roman Catholic belief, the successor to St Peter, the first Bishop of the See of Rome (the Holy See).
Thou art Peter, and upon the rock (Petra) I build my Church... and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shalt be loosed in heaven. (Matt 16. 18-19)
The Pope claims to be representative of Christ and head of all Christianity. And, the Roman Catholics believe in Papal infallibility.
At the time Guru Nanak (b 1469) started walking on this earth, Pope Paul II was at the helm of affairs in Rome.
He “was among the worst of Renaissance popes; a vain, intellectually shallow, ostentatious playboy... like his predecessors, Paul II tried to mount a crusade against the Turks [Muslims], but did not find enthusiasm among Christian rulers.” (Richard P McBrien, Lives of the Popes, pp 263-264)
Paul was succeeded by Pope Sixtus IV. In 1478 he issued a bill in 1480, establishing the Spanish Inquisition, against heresy among the conversos (converted Jews and Muslims – the new Christians).
Pope Sixtus IV was followed by Innocent VIII, pope from 1484 to 1492. In 1484 a bill of Innocent VIII advised the officers of the Inquisition, to remain alert against the practice of witchcraft. ...The Pope was here faithful to Old Testament, which had commanded, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” - Exodus, xxii, 18.
In the year following the promulgation of the bill, forty-one women were burned for witchcraft in Como alone. ...in 1510 ...we hear of 140 persons burned at Brescia for witchcraft, and in 1514, in the pontificate of the gentle Leo, three hundred more were burned at Como. In 1518, the inquisitors burned seventy alleged witches, and had thousands of suspects in their prisons. (Will Durant, The Story of Civilization V, p. 527)
It was during his papacy that the Moors (Muslims) were expelled from Granada, restoring the whole of Spain to Christian rule. Jubilant Innocent VIII in gratitude awarded the conquerors, Spanish king Ferdinand V of Aragon, and his wife [Isabella of Castile] and his successors the title “Catholic Kings”.
On July 20, 1492 five days after his death, the entire Jewish community, some 200,000 persons were expelled from Spain. Tens of thousands of refugees died while trying to reach safety.
After Innocent VIII came Alexander VI, Pope from August 26, 1492 to August 18, 1503 “most notorious Pope in all history” (Richard P McBrien, Lives of the Popes, p 267). To be elected he had promised a crusade against the Turks, but his consuming passions turned out to be gold and women. The political act for which Alexander VI is most remembered, occurred in 1493 when he drew a line of demarcation between Spanish and Portuguese zones of exploration, which brought Portuguese Vasco de Gama to India in 1498, and took hordes of conquistadors to South America, whose shameful atrocities committed against the natives and treacherous acquisitions met papal approval.
During his papacy, tens of thousands of Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity in Portugal. The chief Rabbi, Simon Maim was one of those who refused to be converted. He was kept buried in earth up to his neck for seven days until he died.
During the papacy of Julius II (1503-1513), one hundred and forty persons were burned at stake at Brescia.
The Jews and Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity were brought under the purview of Inquisitions. Converts suspected of relapsing into Judaism or Muhammadanism, and Christians charged with heresy were made to confess under fear or torture and put through trials without witnesses, as “informers were promised full secrecy and protection”. People were encouraged to inform against their friends and relatives.
“If a baptized Jew still harbored hopes of a Messiah [as for Christians, Jesus the Messiah has already come]; if he kept the dietary laws of the Mosaic code; if he observed the Sabbath as a day of worship and rest or changed his linen for that day; if he celebrated in any way any Jewish holy day; if he circumcised his children, or gave any of them a Hebrew name, or blessed them without making the sign of the cross...signs of secret heresy [were] to be reported at once to the tribunal”[ the Suprema ], “imperium in imperio, rivaling the power of the sovereigns”
The accused faced punishments from fines and confiscation of property to banishment. Ultimate punishment was burning at the stake. (See: Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, VI, pp 209-212)
“…first auto-da-fe of the Spanish Inquisition was celebrated on February 6, 1481, with the burning of six men and women. By November 4, of that year 196 had been burned; seventy-nine had been imprisoned for life. ...At Ciudad Real in two years (1483-84) burned 52 persons…”
Juan Antonio Llorente, a Spanish priest, general secretary of the Inquisition from 1789-1801 estimated that from 1480 to 1488, 8,800 persons were burned and 96,494 punished.
Horror stories of the period would fill volumes, but let us understand that concept of human rights had no place in European life then.
How did the people of Spain react to the Inquisition? The upper classes and the educated minority faintly opposed it; Christian populace usually approved it. The crowds that gathered at the autos-de-fe showed little sympathy, often active hostility, to the victims; in some places they tried to kill them lest confession should let them escape the pyre. Christians flocked to buy at auction the confiscated goods of the condemned. (Durant, V, p 215)
Augustine monk Martin Luther triggered the Reformation movement by challenging the authority of Popes to sell indulgences –pardons of temporal punishment due to sins or “tickets to heaven” against cash contributions. He posted his famous ninety-five Theses [arguments] on the church door in Wittenberg against pope’s authority. Luther was excommunicated.
Luther’s movement was met with a Counter Reformation and large-scale bloodletting. In 1514, three hundred persons were burned at Como and 70 more in Brescia in 1518.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a contemporary of Guru Nanak (1469-1539). Luther wanted great reforms in the Church, but what was his record in human rights? What about religious freedom? What about universal brotherhood, or the unity of the Godhead.
“Luther in 1521 declared that heresy should be subject to no physical penalty, but ten years later he assented to the death penalty for blasphemy.” (Dictionary of the History of Ideas, New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1973)
Luther’s defiance of the authority won him many admirers among peasants – he himself came from the peasant stock. They took him seriously when he wrote, “Christian man is the most free lord of all and subject to none”.(On Christian Liberty, 1520) In 1525, when Swabian peasants protested and rebelled demanding redress of oppression and unjust duties imposed by lay and ecclestial lords, Luther said, “The fact that rulers are unjust and wicked does not excuse tumult and rebellion; to punish wickedness does not belong to everybody, but to the worldly rulers who bear the sword.”
But, those who bore the sword did not punish the wicked; they crushed those who raised a Voice.
“The nobility ferociously crushed the revolt. Historians estimate that over 75,000 peasants were killed in 1525.” (Mckay, Hill Buckley, A History of World History, Third edition, p 541)
Originally, Luther was against violence, and was tolerant towards the Jews, hoping to attract and convert them to Protestantism. But later, incensing that the Jews had not followed his brand of Christianity, he outlined eight actions to be taken against them:
Burn all synagogues;
Destroy all Jewish homes;
Confiscate all Jewish holy books;
Forbid Rabbis to teach on pain of death;
Forbid Jews to travel;
Confiscate Jewish property;
Force Jews to do physical labor;
And in case the preceding restrictions proved insufficient, expel all Jews.
On one occasion, Luther said:
“I would threaten to cut their tongues out from their throats, if they refuse to acknowledge the truth that God is a trinity and not a unity”.
[Four hundred years later Adolph Hitler proudly claimed Luther as an ally. (He saw the Jew as we are only beginning to see him today). ‘When the Nazis carried out the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom in Poland on November 9-10, 1938, they announced that the action was taken in honor of Luther’s birthday’ – November 10) (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 205.
Another celebrity of this age was Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), a political philosopher, who gave the West, in 1513, ill Principe (The Prince) its bible of political science, one of the most frequently reprinted books in any language. He first explained the mechanics of politics as power for power’s sake (Norman Davies, Europe, p 473).
He reasserted the age-old philosophy that effectiveness alone counts in politics; political actions should not be restricted by consideration of morality or good or evil.
“A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary... to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it, according to circumstances. (The Prince, Chapter 15)
“War should be the only study of a prince. He should look upon peace only as a breathing space which... gives him the means to execute military plans.” Machiavelli has had no shortage of disciples. (Norman Davies, Europe, p. 520. Oxford, 1996)
“Whoever wishes to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature whenever they find occasion for it. ...Frauds, cruelties and crimes committed in order to preserve one’s country are honorable frauds, ‘glorious crimes’, ...There is no ‘natural law’, no ‘right’ universally agreed upon; politics must be held completely independent of morality.” (Will Durant, History of Civilization, V, pp 552, 556, 559; The Prince, xxv; Dictionary of the History of Ideas, III, p 116)
In 1516, Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia, meaning “No Place” describing his search for an ideal form of government, in a land where property was held in common, and all religions were tolerated. But, when in England, the British Parliament, complying with the wishes of King Henry VIII, got passed the Act of Supremacy (1534) abolishing papal authority, he declined to accede, and was executed in treason. (Norman Davies, Europe, pp 490-491)
The Jews had been persecuted in the Christian world for centuries, and continued in this age of Reformation, also called the “Golden Age”. They had been expelled from England in 1290, and were not admitted until the rule of Oliver Cromwell in 1650.
200,000 Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. (Rabbi Joseph Teleshkin, Jewish Literacy, p 205. New York: William Morrow, 1991.)
Jews were expelled from Sicily in 1493; from Lithuania in 1495; from Portugal in 1496, replaced by conversion in 1497. (Haim Beinart, Atlas of Medieval Jewish History, p 80, 1992: Simon and Schuster)