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Beyond Ritualism

Drawing upon the life experiences of Guru Nanak, A Gift of Grace enunciates the spiritual foundation of the guru’s world view and his conception of reality, including the nature of God. Excerpts:

Beyond Ritualism
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An understanding of the mystical significance of the Guru's teachings requires a brief introduction to his life and the core of his message. He was born on 15 April 1469, in a village near Lahore, now in Pakistan. The place was later renamed Nankana Sahib in the Guru's memory. Most accounts of the Guru's life are based on contemporary hagiographical sketches (janam sakhis) written for pedagogical purposes. As a precocious child, Nanak uttered words of wisdom that were beyond the understanding of people around him. The family priest, who read his horoscope, predicted that both Hindus and Muslims will revere him. His name will be known on earth and in heaven. As he walks, the ocean will part to give him way. So will the earth and the sky. He will worship and acknowledge only the Supreme Being, and he will command others to do the same.

Nanak, as a student, surprised his teachers with his sharp and philosophic mind. Married at the age of sixteen, he had two sons. It soon became clear that young Nanak did not have much interest in the material reality of a householder's life. His sister invited him to move to Sultanpur, and persuaded her husband to get him a job with the local nawab. As the job involved only mundane accounting, Nanak spent most of his time on his search for the True One.

In August 1507, the spiritual Nanak had a mystical experience involving a revelation while bathing in the Bein River. After three days, he emerged from the river as a messiah, chanting that there is neither Hindu nor Muslim. His acquaintances were taken by surprise, who had given up on him as drowned. After this great transformational event of self-enlightenment, he was always addressed as Guru Nanak. The Guru subsequently set out on a long journey of discovery, that took him to several of Hindu pilgrimages within India and also to the sacred Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina.

It is difficult to account for the significant influences on the Guru's life, but he shared many of his beliefs with those in mystical and devotional traditions that produced saints like Kabir. There is no evidence to corroborate guesses regarding the Guru's meeting with Kabir, although there is some possibility that they were contemporaries. The Guru witnessed the brutal tyranny of Mughal Emperor Babur's invasion of India and wrote about it. The last part of the Guru's life was spent in Kartarpur, where he laid the institutional foundation of the Sikh faith. Japji Sahib (The Morning Prayer) was written during this period.

The Guru joined his Supreme Beloved on 22 September 1539. The following account of this event appears in Puratan text: 'Guru Baba Nanak then went and sat under a withered acacia, which immediately produced leaves and flowers, becoming verdant again. Guru Angad (his principal disciple and the successor) prostrated himself … The assembled congregation sang hymns of praise, and Baba Nanak passed into an ecstatic trance. While thus transported, and in obedience to the divine will, he sang the hymn entitled Bara Maah (The Twelve Months). It was early morning and the time had come for his final departure….

'Hindus and Muslims, who had put their faith in the Divine Name began to debate what should be done with the Guru's body. "We shall bury him," said the Muslims. "No, let us cremate his body," said the Hindus. "Place flowers on both sides of my body," said Baba Nanak, "flowers from the Hindus on the right side and flowers from the Muslims on the left. If tomorrow the Hindus' flowers are still fresh let my body be burned, and if the Muslims' flowers are still fresh let it be buried."

' … Baba Nanak then covered himself with a sheet and passed away. Those who had gathered around him prostrated themselves, and when the sheet was removed, they found that there was nothing under it. The flowers on both sides remained fresh, and both Hindus and Muslims took their respective shares.

Guru Nanak and Buddhism

Although it is uncommon to find parallels between Guru Nanak and Gautama Buddha, there are many similarities. Both Gautama Buddha and Guru Nanak preached new paths that challenged the established order; both questioned all forms of ritualism; both spoke to ordinary people in a language that they understood; both warned their disciples against blind following of tradition; both advocated the importance of rightful livelihood; both preached equality between all individuals and between men and women; both pushed the middle road, a path that avoids the extremes of asceticism and indulgence; and both spoke about a life of infinite compassion and enlightenment that comes from within oneself.

The basic teaching of Buddhism is found in the Four Noble Truths: this life is characterized by suffering; suffering is caused by craving, desire, and attachment; pain can cease because its cause can cease; and the path of truth that leads to cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path—right understanding, right thought (these two conditions lead to wisdom), right speech, right action, right livelihood (these three conditions constitute morality), right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (the last three conditions lead to increased focus or samadhi).

In Guru Nanak's hymns, there is repeated emphasis on many of the same things included in the Eightfold Path, but the Guru takes a much more optimistic view of life than Gautama Buddha. First, according to Guru Nanak, life has suffering as well as happiness and bliss depending on the choices made by us. This life is an opportunity to show devotion to our Creator and to pray for divine blessings. This life is also the start of our spiritual journey. Second, Guru Nanak commends the path of devotion, with remembrance of the Name as its central discipline, and not the way of intense meditation recommended by Buddhism. Third, in the Eightfold Path, there is no appeal to divine grace, which is an essential prerequisite for completing the spiritual journey described by Guru Nanak. Fourth, unlike Guru Nanak, Buddhism has no concept of God as the Supreme Being. Most Buddhist deities are spirits that are conditioned by their actions, and, as such, are not yet fully liberated.

In spite of these differences, there is much common ground between Guru Nanak and Buddhism, not only on spiritual beliefs but also on social organization. Guru Nanak's conception of sangat (a congregation of like-minded souls) is not very different from the Buddhist sangha (a religious community), where the Buddhist way of life is practiced.

Guru Nanak and Islam

Guru Nanak gives the impression of being a Sufi, in the sense that he was deeply in love with his Creator, and his hymns have the same mystical quality found in the inspired poetry of Sufi saints. He celebrates the beauty and grandeur of the Supreme Beloved in the tradition of Sufi saints, such as Attar and Rumi. Also, the hymns of Muslim Sufi saints like Sheikh Farid were included in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib along with the hymns of Sikh gurus and Hindu saints. In one of his compositions, Guru Nanak debated the question of being a true Muslim. He wrote:

Make the mosque of compassion your prayer mat; make honest living your motto, as the Koran says.

Let modesty be your circumcision, and noble path yourRamadan fast—Such a Muslim you ought to be!

Let good work be your Kaaba, and truth your prophet;let good actions be your affirmation and prayer; let your rosary please God.

Only then, says Nanak, your honor before God be vindicated.

[Raga Majh]

Guru Nanak respected the core of Islam as a true religion, based on divine revelation to the Prophet. Many Muslim saints showed respect to Guru Nanak during his life as a truly enlightened soul.

There is a view that Guru Nanak created a synthesis of the best in Hinduism and Islam. There is no concrete evidence to support this thesis. If anything, Sikhism owes its origin to the spiritual enlightenment of its founder, who wanted to transcend the institutionalized traditional differences among people based solely on their religion. Nanak said that there is neither Hindu nor Muslim. We are all children of one God, who is our sole provider and protector.

(Excerpted with permission from-A Gift of Grace; written by Daler Aashna Deol; published by Niyogi Books. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'The Spiritual Foundation')

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