POLITICAL IDEAS OF GURU NANAK,
THE ORIGINATOR OF THE SIKH FAITH
A brief appraisal of the opinions of historians of the Sikhs and prominent writers about the political concerns of Guru Nanak, may form a proper beginning of the present undertaking.
Early historians of the Sikhs generally refused to read a political content in the message of Guru Nanak.1 It is not a coincidence that these are also the supporters of the contemporary British Empire2 It appears that Cunnigham was the first to doubt the veracity of such observations and speaking of Guru Arjan, wrote, “he was the first who clearly understood the wide import of the teachings of Nanak, or who perceived how applicable they were to every state of life and to every condition of society”.3 Indu Bhushan Banerjee while agreeing that, “the future Sikh nation grew on the foundations provided by Nanak” would not assent with Cunningham that “Guru Nanak had some original distinctiveness which alone could provide the basis of the nation”,4 This position runs counter to the underlying thesis of his book and can; in part, be legitimately attributed to his desire to save Guru Nanak for Hinduism as a reformer within its fold.
Arnold Toynbee held Guru Hargobind responsible for violating the “spiritual trust” of his predecessors by entertaining vulgar worldly ambitions” and for transforming the “embryonic church into embryonic state”.5 It is however apparent that he was under a compulsion to fit Sikh history into a framework he had contrived for it. It is now fairly well established that his views in this regard are inadequate as well as untenable even within framework of his own formulation.’6
Generally it is true to say that those who were able to distinguish “that Sikhism should be regarded as a new and separate world-religion rather than as a reformed sect of Hindus”7 are the same who also could appreciate “something positive and realistic” about Guru Nanak’s work which is indicative of “a religion and a state”.8
Sikh literati including men of history, literature, philosophy and theology have always been more explicit and have all along discerned pronounced political currents in the thought of Guru Nanak. Ganda Singh considers him to be “the founder of the militant church of Sikhism”.9 Along with Teja Singh, he is of the opinion that during the entire period of development there was “no break, no digression in the programme of Sikh life”.10 Mohan Singh, studying the writings of Gurus, could discern only “difference of accent” from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh.11 Sita Ram accepts Babarvani verses to be the “first…..voice against oppression”12
Sher Singh dealing with the philosophy of Sikhism, opines that inspite of the development of two hundred years, the basic doctrinal truths, which had been preached by Guru Nanak, remained the same.13 Kapur Singh observes about the formation of Khalsa that “it was a logical development and entelechy of the teachings of Guru Nanak”.14 Kartar Singh sums up the generally held view about the political concerns of Guru Nanak when he says that he would have reacted to oppressions sword in hand like Guru Gobind Singh if he likewise had the nation at his back.15
Any analysis of Guru Nanak’s views must begin by first noting his emphatic claim to prophethood. Disclaiming a worldly preceptor, he accepted God as a original and true Guru to be his sole Teacher .16 Claiming direct and intimate touch with Reality, he asserted that he had been specifically commissioned by God to disseminate Knowledge of the Divine.17 While emphasizing direct inspiration he goes to say,’I have been given a permanent revenue free grant by God himself and others who claim spiritual status are mere temporary tenants’.18 Everything that he uttered was therefore directly inspired and explicitly sanctioned by God.19 It could hardly be otherwise, for, ‘One may speak of Him if one has seen the unseeable One, or else preaching is to no purpose. 20 His mandate to interpret the Will of God was upheld and his status of a prophet was insisted upon by the succeeding Gurus21 and Sikh theologians including Bhai Gurdas and Mani Singh.22 “The Truth which filled his mind was not borrowed from books; it came to him as illumination of his entire life”, and while scholars wrangle loudly over the questions of influences,”so says Nanak, so says Nanak is the burden of his songs”.23
Political views of the Guru are also intimately connected to his acceptance of this world as real and a legitimate sphere of activity for a man of religion. He realized that the ‘Omnipresent One lives in His creation and pervades it in all directions.’24
Wherever he looked he ‘found the Merciful one whose very shadow the earth is’.25 Guru therefore denounced asceticism and advocated the fulsome life of a house-holder setting the example himself by, in addition, accepting the secular professions of a civil servant and an agriculturist. His concern for the material world was as great as his preoccupation with the spiritual one and he essentially sought to secure the next by worth while social and political activity in this26 ‘Those who serve others in this world are respectfully received in the next’ 27 Guru reproached Bhangarnath for having renounced the world and held life in society to be a precondition for spiritual attainment.28 His favourite expression for ideal balance is that one must live unsoiled by the dross but in the midst of everything as the swan lives in water without getting wet.29
In relation to activity in this world, the most significant and frequent description of God by Guru Nanak is in a vocabulary befitting an emperor .30 He consistently addresses Him as “my king, true king, and king of kings, He has his court, His throne and His palace. He is the sole Sovereign and sole Wazir. He has his eight-metal coin, the Word. To Him belongs real command; all power and praise belong to Him alone Indeed to find honour in His court is the aim of human life”.31 God is the only Sovereign entitled to the allegiance of mankind.32 True Sovereign performs truly sovereign functions of destroying the evil doers33 and of promoting the good.34 He dispenses even handed justice. Together, these constitute the aim of all earthly political activity.
Essentially because soul’s innate and intense desire to know God and to become one with His cannot be fulfilled otherwise. There are several passages of the Guru describing this yearning.35 Those who feel no such yearning are termed as animals wrapped In human skin.36 As a Guru the knower of Reality, he prescribes that for successful catering of this divine inclination of the soul, a seeker must here and now attain the status of a liberated one. In terms of individual personality and psyche, the exercise seeks the complete and absolute transformation of both. The process is variously expressed by Guru Nanak as that of ‘rust being turned into gold’37 of’ ghosts and animals being transformed into angels’ 38 and of ‘a crow becoming a swan.’39 This miracle according to the Guru is to be attained by successfully imbibing attributes which the knowing Guru has revealed to be those of God. For a human being that is the only method of living in God. The unusual metaphor describing the state is, ‘companions of the Guru have become philosopher’s stone on coming in contact with philosopher’s stone’.40 There are specific references in the form of particular illustrations like the suggestions that by contemplating on the Fearless One, one becomes fearless. The culmination is to become like the One you serve.41
There is much in Guru Nanak which establishes that the vital process must remain a dead letter unless political conditions conducive to it prevail. Victims of Babar’s invasion for instance are in no position to serve God.42 The opportunity is also denied to those overrun by an alien culture.43 The Guru is emphatic that no religious activity under such circumstances is possible at all. It is obviously the duty of a God-oriented man to take effective measures so that such contingency does not arise. Significantly, he rules out divine intervention for the purpose.44 The obligation to perceive evil and to engage it in battle with a view to eradicating it is solely that of a man of God. Guru is not averse to the use of force for the purpose and advocates active resistance in even contest; he deplores that the natives did not repel the sinning hordes of the invader Babar.45
Those who are called upon to rule too have their obligations. Nothing comes to anyone as a result only of his striving, by performing penances or by observing rituals but in accordance with His will (hukam) and by His grace (nadr). He creates everyone;46 elevates as well as degrades.47 Rulers must e spiritually wide awake people, who constantly live in values derived from revealed attributes of God, otherwise they are base pretenders.48 Firm commitment to justice and equity alone makes rulership legitimate. The exercise of sovereign power must also be free of evils pointed out by the Guru. There are loud and strong suggestions in Guru Nanak which indicate that a rular loses the right to rule when he fails to comply with the above requirements.49 This loss of mandate is to be taken seriously by men of religion who must execute the command.
It is in the context of the above discussion that some of the most poignant political comments of Guru Nanak must be interpreted. He has mentioned martyrdom in war amongst the accepted modes of attaining salvation.50 He is certain that under certain circumstances it is more honourable to resist and die than just to live on.51 Most significantly he recommends dying for a cause of God stating a person who dies thus attains summum bonum.52 In an oft repeated couplet he requires a lover of God, to be ready to sacrifice his head on the path of love.53
In an ideal political set up, grave duties are cast upon a man of God. He must fully appreciate the conditions under which a mandate to rule is granted. It is his pious religious duty to discern when it has been violated. There is also no doubt that the attainment of summum bonum by him squarely depends upon his promptness and willingness to execute the command of God withdrawing the mandate. No sacrifice is to be considered too great for the purpose. If one shirks one’s duty in this regard, one is no man of religion, does not live in the light of God and exists only at the animal level wasting the unique opportunity given for salvation.
From his utterances it is possible to precisely enumerate some of the evils the Guru would like the people to resist. Denial of justice, oppression, arbitrary curtailment of right to life, dishonouring of women, plunder, undermining the accepted social norms of a cohesive group are amongst the specific forms of evil the Guru abhors. Many of the above are mentioned in the Babarvani verses.54
Conclusions: The most significant single factor in the political thought of Guru Nanak is the firm belief that an individual cannot tread the spiritual path alone, that eventually salvation outgrows the bonds of personal relationship of the individual with God and must take the society, social and political organisations into account. His teachings which make life in society a pre-condition to spiritual fulfilment, exclude the possibility of regarding the highest worldly position as incompatible with the purest spiritual life in fact, it is possible to suggest that Guru Nanak considers politics to be the ultimate test of faith.
For Guru Nanak the sole aim of individual existence on earth is the attainment of the highest spiritual status or consciousness. Consequently, the ultimate aim of social and political activity as envisaged is to facilitate its attainment. Accordingly, for him, such activity becomes meaningful and relevant if it seeks the spiritual welfare of the people and only in proportion to the extent it serves to bring it about.
He, however, denies to the state the power to regulate matters of spirituality or conscience. He resents such interferences by the contemporary state and some of his most vehement denunciations are in this context.55 He advocated that the primary allegiance of a man of God must be to righteousness, truth and conscience and denied the claim of the state exclusively to rule over the souls of its citizens. His ideal appears to be a sovereign individual in the image of God he worships and imitates as a matter of religious discipline. Constituted as it was, political authority is consistently disregarded by him and is held directly responsible for many ills of contemporary society. On emerging from the river Vein after receiving his commission to prophethood, he made a statement repudiating allegiance to a temporal power. The messengers came and said, ‘Nanak the Khan has summoned you’ and Baba Nanak replied, ‘he is your Khan, what do I care for him.’56 It was perfectly in line with his pronouncement: ‘he who stands in the presence of God needs to bow to no other.’57
From heartfelt laments about violation of other people’s culture by powerful aliens, which abound in Guru’s bani, it is legitimate to conclude that Guru’s concept of basic political organization revolves around the cultural cohesiveness of a people. He would have society as a conglomeration of such units with inviolate autonomy existing freely and so regulated as to be without an inclination or an opportunity to violate any other similar unit.
Guru Nanak is imbused with the concept of intrinsic worth of human personality. He believes that an individual, with the help of God, can transcend his baser self. He is certain that by right conduct, incessant striving, rigorous discipline and God’s grace, an individual can lift himself to divine status. That is the gurmukh, the sadh, the jiwan mukta, the ruler or panch - in a word the ideal man. of Guru Nanak and Guru Granth.
God as love stands for peace and harmony in his creation. It is His Will that those who love him must not await a miracle to restore peace. It is the knower of the Will, the gurmukh, who must execute it and restore normalcy. He must be the shelter of the shelterless, a refuge for the weak, as God showers His grace where the weak are supported.
1 For instance, Sir Charles Gough accuses other writers of Sikhs of telling “more than they knew”. And though he himself wrote less than a page and a half on Guru Nanak in a book relating to Sikh Wars, still ventured an opinion that the Guru founded a “sect entirely religious without any political aim or organization”.
Gough, Sir C and Arthur D. Innes, The Sikhs and the Sikhs Wars, A.D. Innes & Cov., London 1897, V.18.
Payne who did not understand Guru Granth and found it unreadable, had no access to Guru’s Word nevertheless observed that Guru Nanak did not “profess to be the founder of a new nation, his purpose was ethical not political”
Payne, CH., A Short History of the Sikhs, Thomas, Nelson and Sons, London, 29 and 25.
Same could be said of others of the above category including General John J.H. Gordon, The Sikhs, Blackwood & Sons, London 1904, 24 and of W.L.M. Gregor, The History of the Sikhs, Vol, James Madden, London 1846,39,44.
2. Some modern historians of the Sikhs like Reverend W.H. McLeod also fall in this category.
3. Cunnigham, Joseph Davey, A History of The Sikhs, John Murray, London 1849, 53. This position appears to have been taken hesitantly as it is also observed by him that the Guru had no clear views on “political advancement.” Ibid., 48.
4. Indubhushan Banerjee: Evolution of The Khalsa, A. Mukherjee & Co. (Private) Ltd., Calcutta (2nd Edn.) May 1963, 19.
5. Cf. Toynbee, Arnold J., Study of History, 10 Vols., Oxford University Press, 1935-54, V 187, 665-67, 673, VII 414-415, VIII 466.
6. Cf. Singh, Kapur, Prasaraprasna, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar 1988, 197-206.
See review by Daljeet Singh “The Sikhs - “History, Religion and Society by W.H. Mcleod”, The Panjab Past and Present, Punjabi University, Patiala, April 1989, 250-59 for discussion on position of Sikh ism on the issue.
also cf. Grewal, J.S., “Toynbee’s Interpretation of Sikh History”, Punjab History Conference, Patiala 1969,304-10.
7. Field, Dorothy, The Religion of The Sikhs, (1901) (Reprint) Ess Ess Publications, Delhi 1976, 10 and 60.
8. Archer, J.C, The Sikhs in Relation to Hindus, Moslems, Christians and Ahmadiyas,Princeton University Press, 1946,60-61.
9. Singh, Ganda, “The Maratha-Sikh Relations”, The Panjab past and Present, Punjab! University, Patiala, October 1967, 311.
10. A Short History of The Sikhs, Orient Longmans Ltd. Bombay, 1950, 14.
11. An Introduction to Panjabi Literature, Amritsar 1951, 65-66.
12. “Nanak Bani Vich Phalsafa”, Madh Kalin Punjabi Sahit, (Pbi), Bhasha Vibhag, Patiala 1970, 64.
Singh, Lal: “Guru Nanak da Shahkar”, Shabdarath Bani Guru Nanak Dev Ji, (Pbi), Bhasha Vibhag, Patiala 1970, 31 comment on Babarvani verses is that they represent “a revolutionary call... sharpened on the spiritual sharpener to become a sword’s edge”.
13. Gurmat Darshan (Pbi) Shromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Comittee, Amritsar, 1962
14. Cf. Preface to Prasharprasna, Hind Publishers Ltd., Jullunder, 1959, 12.
15. Use of Guru Nanak Dev, Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana, 1958,231 f.n.
16. Sorath, Guru Granth, 599. Aprampar parbrahm parmeshar Nanak gur milia soi jio.
also, Ramkali, Guru Granth, 878.
Gur Parmeshar Nanak bhetio sache sabad nibera.
17. Var Majh, Guru Granth, 148. Hau dhadi bekar kare laiya. Rat dihai kai var dhurhu farmaiya. Dhadi sache mahal khasam bulaiya.Sachi sift salah kapra paiya.
18. Guru Granth, 1286.
19. Tilang, Guru Granth, 722.Jaisi mai avai khasam ki bani taisra kari gian ve Lalo. also Wadhans, ibid., 566.
Ta mai khaiya kaihan ja tujhai kahaiya.
20. Gauri, ibid., 222.
Adist disai ta kahia jae.
Bin dekhe kaihna birtha jae.
21. Gauri M.IV, ibid., 308
Satgur ki bani sat sat kar janhu gursikhu
har karta apmuhhu kadhae.Gauri ki Var M.IV, ibid., 306.
Ih akhar tin akhia jini jagat sabh upaia.
Sorath M.V Guru Granth 628.
Dhur ki bani aae tin sagli chint mitai.
22. Bhattan de Swaiye, Guru Granth, 1395.
Ap narayan kaladhar jag mahi parvario.
Jot rup ap Guru Nanak kahaio.
Varan Bhai Gurdas Ji, (Pbi.), Shromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, February 1952, Var I Pauri 35. Ik baba akal rup.
Mani Singh, Bhai, Sikhan di Bhagatmala, (Pbi.).
Khalsa Samachar, February 1955, 90.Jis nirnakar da vichar devte brahmadik nahin pai sakde so Guru Nanak ji hain.
23. Sesagiri Rao, K.L., “Guru Nanak and The Hindu Heritage”, The Journal of Religious Studies, Punjabi University, Patiala, September 1969, 48.
24. Srirag, Guru Granth, 83-84.
Kudrat kar ke vassia soi.
Jeh dhir dekha teh dhir mauzood.
25. Maru, Guru Granth, H138.
Jam dekha taih din dayala....
Jag tis ki chhaya jis bap na maya.
26. Ramali, Guru Granth, 952.
Karni bajhon bhist na pai.
27. Srirag, Guru Granth, 26.
Vich dunian sev kamaie ta dargah baisan paie.
28. Varan Bhai Gurdas Ji, op. cit. 20.
29. Sidh Gosht, Ramkali, Guru Granth, 938.
Jaise jal meh kamal nralamu murgai naisane.
30. For an almost complete compilation of such terms see Sekhon, Sant Singh,
Madh Kahn punjabi Sahit,(PbL), Bhasha Vibhag, Patiala 1970, 118-26.
31. Grewal, J.S., Guru Nanak in History, Panjab University, Chandigarh 1969, 148-49.
32. Suhi, Guru Granth, 729. Ja kau mahal hajur dujaia nivai kis.
33. Maru, Guru Granth, 1028. Asur sangharan ram hamara.
34. Gauri, Ibid., 224. Daint sanghar sant nistare. Sri Rag, ibid., 59.
Sukh data dukh metno satgur asur sanghar. cf. also Gauri, ibid., 224-25.
35. One such passage is found in Rag Wadhans, ibid., 557-58.
36. Malhar, ibid., 1284. Pasu manas chum plete androh kalia
Suhi, ibid., 751.
Mul na bujhan apna se pasua se dhor jio.
37. Maru, ibid., 990. Bhaia manur kanchan phir hovai je gur mile tineha.
38. Parbhati, ibid., 1329. Satgur paaiai pura navan pasu prethu dev kare.
39. Srirag ki var, ibid., 91. Jo tis bhavai Nanka kagu hans kare.
40. Basant, ibid., 1172. Paras bhet bhae se paras Nanak har gur sang thiai.
41. Gauri, ibid., 223. Bhai rach rahe so nirbhauhoai. Jaisa seve taiso hoai.
Ramkali, ibid., 931. Jin jata so tis hi jeha. Ibid., 936.
Tin hi jaisithee rahan jap jap ridai murar.
Sidh Gosht, ibid., 943 (cf. also Freedkot Wala Teeka, Bhasha Vibhag, Patiala 1970, p.1940). Anhat sunn ratte se kaisai Jis le upje tahi hi jaisai
42. Rag Asa, Guru Granth, 417. Ik na wakhat khuha ikna puja jae....
Ram na kabhu chetia hun kahni na milai khudai
43. Ramkali, ibid., 903. Kal puran Kateb kuran Pothi pandit rahe pura.
Nanak nao bhaia rahman. Basant, ibid., 1191. Ad purakh kau alllah kahiai sekhan aai vari. Deval devtian kar laga aisi kirat chali. Dhanasari, ibid., 662. Thaanast jag bhrisht heo dubta iv jag. Khatrain ta dharam chhodia malechh bhakhai gahi. Srisht sabh ik varan hoi dharam gat rahi.
44. Rag Asa, ibid., 360. Eti mar pai kurlane tain ki darad na aaiya
cf. also Guru Granth 417, 418.
45. Rag Asa, ibid., 360 Ratan vigar vigoai kutti muia sar na kaai. Ibid., 417.
Aggo de je chetie ta leait mile sajaai.
46. Japji, Guru Granth, 7. Jor na raj mal man sor. Wadhans, ibid., 566. Sarbai samana ap tuhai dhande laiya. Ik na tujh Id kiai rajai ikna bhikh bhavaiya. Asa, ibid., 472. Ik nihali pai savan ikna upar rahan kharai.
47. Ibid., 472. Nadr upathi je karai sultana gha karaida.
48. Japji, ibid., 3 Panch parvan. Panch pardhan, Panchai pavhi dargahai man,
Panchai sohai dar rajan.
49. Asa, Guru Granth,417-18. Jis no ap khuvai learta khus laai changiai....
Jin ki chiri dargahi phati tinha mama bhai.... Jai tis bhavai dai wadUiai jai bhavai dai sajai.
50. Var Asa, Guru Granth, 467. Lakh surtan sangram ran mahi chhutai pran.
51. Guru Granth, 142 Je jivai pat lathi jai Sabh haram jeta kichh khaai.
52. Wadhans, ibid., 579-80. Mahli jaai pavhu khasmai bhavhu rang sio ralian manei… Maran Mansa suria haq hai mam parvano.
53. Slok Varan te Wadhik, Guru Granth, 1412. Jau tau praim khailan lea chau, Sir dhar tali gali more ao.
54. Popularly known as Babarvani verses are four in number. Three have been composed in Rag Asa by Guru Nanak and one is in Rag Tilang. Altogether they add up to ninety-nine lines.
In greater part of these verses, Guru describes the woes of an unequal contest.
He sees it as potentiality of the evil to triumph and perpetuate itself if inadequately resisted. He redicules the efforts of those who pretended to provide supernatural support against the offenders, and advises that being adequately prepared to resist is better preparation against such an eventuality. He exhorts the victims not to be overawed by the barbarian hordes, as their success, being in violation of God’s Will, is ephemeral. They would soon reap what they had sown if resisted effectively by the God-oriented.
Brutal violation of a people, their culture and religion agitates him much. A third part of the verses is devoted to depicting the sad plight of women which has particularly moved him. He considers it to be the consequences of evil being given a free hand. The victims have not made adequate preparation, have been lured to life of wanton luxury, and material pursuits, lived in ignorance of God’s Will, so they must share the responsibility for what is happening to them.
Guru prefers a people capable of protecting the honour of their women-folk and maintaining their religious, political and cultural heritage inviolate. God is unequivocally accepted as the final arbiter in political power, as in everything else.
55. Rag Asa Guru Granth, 470 Kal main bed atharban hua nam khudai al/ah bhaiaa.... Var Malar ibid., 1288. Hansan bajan te sikdaran ehna pria nao. Fadkhi lagi jat fahainagai nahi thao. Dhanasari ibid., 662. Thanst jag bhrisht hoe dupta iv jag.
56. Puratan lanamsakhi Bhai Vir Singh (ed)., Khalsa Samachar, Amritsar 1971,113. See also, Bhalla, Sarup Das, Guru Nanak Mahima, (Pbi.) (Reprint) Bhasha Vibhag 1970,34.
57. Rag Suhi, Guru Granth, 729. la Kau mahal hajur dujai nivai kis.
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