Guru Nanak and the B40 Janamsakhi:

the meeting with Sheikh Sharaf

 Article by J. Singh

9th February 2009

Guru Nanak, the first of the Sikh Gurus and the founder of Sikhism, lived from 1469 to 1539. During that time, he travelled as far afield as Baghdad and Mecca in the West and China and Tibet in the East, as well as the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent. These travels were known as the Udasis or ‘Journeys’, and the Guru spent the majority of his life on such travels. Stories concerning the Guru’s travels are contained within documents known as the Janamsakhis (literally ‘birth stories’), which purport to be the biographical accounts of Guru Nanak’s life.


The Janamsakhis are comparable to the Gospels in Christianity in that both sets of accounts were collated and written up some considerable time after the events that they purport to describe, and both are subject to discrepancies due to the period of time which had passed before their compilation and the personal perspectives of the individuals who wrote those accounts, as well as the possible manipulation and falsification of events. However, just as the Gospels provide an allegorical basis for Christian theology, so do the Janamsakhis provide a narrative setting for Guru Nanak’s teachings and beliefs. The Janamsakhis are important within Sikhism as historical documents because they show how the early Sikh community relied upon stories to provide a basis and an explanation for abstract beliefs as set out within the present-day Guru Granth Sahib in much the same way as the Hindu community sought such theological explanation from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, even if the Janamsakhis cannot be entirely relied upon for their historical accuracy.


The main Janamsakhis, and the ones that are best known amongst Sikhs, are:


  • the Janamsakhi of Bhai Bala (who claimed to be a companion of Guru Nanak on many of his travels);
  • the Janamsakhi of Bhai Gurdas (the scribe who compiled the Guru Granth Sahib at the request of Guru Arjun, the fifth Guru);
  • the Janamsakhi of Bhai Mani Singh (a contemporary of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, who expanded on the accounts within the Janamsakhi of Bhai Gurdas);
  •  the Puratan or ‘ancient’ Janamsakhis as compiled by Bhai Vir Singh (an historian and writer from the 19th Century).


Although Bhai Bala’s Janamsakhi has been criticised by modern historians for its inconsistencies with the other Janamsakhis and its veracity has been brought into question, with some historians questioning whether Bhai Bala ever travelled with Guru Nanak, it is still the most popular of the Janamsakhis and Bhai Bala has been elevated to the pantheon of Guru Nanak’s associates within the communal Sikh consciousness.


There are also various other Janamsakhis which are known to exist and which give accounts which are not to be found in any other Janamsakhi. One such Janamsakhi is the B40 Janamsakhi, which is dated 1790 Sakranti (1733 A.D.). Sikh historians in Punjab appear to have known of the existence of this particular Janamsakhi in the late 19th Century, but it was only following the acquisition of the Janamsakhi by the India Office Library in London in 1907 that it finally came under scrutiny. The Janamsakhi was filed in the India Office Library catalogue under the reference number ‘MS Panj B40’, hence its name. The B40 Janamsakhi has, in recent years attracted much attention due to the fact that it contains perhaps the greatest variety of stories than any of the other known Janamsakhis and in a multitude of Indian dialects, which seem to suggest that it has taken stories concerning Guru Nanak from a wide range of sources.[1]


One of the stories contained within the B40 Janamsakhi concerns a visit by Guru Nanak to Baghdad. It is illustrated with a picture of Guru Nanak, Mardana (his devoted Muslim disciple and companion), and a bearded younger man wearing a woman’s outfit which appears to be a red Punjabi-style suit. [2]


Guru Nanak, Mardana and Sheikh Sharaf

Description of Painting in Gurmukhi and English

The English translation of the accompanying story reads as follows:[3]


‘Once Baba [Nanak] visited the city of Baghdad [where] he observed Sheikh Sharaf wearing the sixteen adornments [that a woman traditionally applied to herself in order to attract her lover]. [He was clad in] female garments and arrayed in all manner of jewellery. To his eyes he had applied black eye-shadow (anjan) and his hands he had stained red with henna. He sang ghazals in the bazaar and drew enormous crowds.


“What dress is this which you have adopted, Sheikh?”, asked Baba [Nanak].


“I have not found my Beloved,” he answered. “To find my Beloved I have adorned [myself] in this manner.”


Sheikhji,” said Baba [Nanak], “the [Divine] Husband takes no pleasure in such attire. It is Truth that he seeks and adoring love that He desires. That which pleases Him is something unusual. If it pleases Him then no matter how [a man] may pour himself out in years of service the service of his entire lifetime is fruitless if he imagines himself to be worth anything. [On the other hand] if [a man] commits the sins of innumerable existences and then, if the Master so wills, meets one who has attained Truth then he is save. It is [dependant on] the favour of the Master. Whatever He desires, that He performs. But you sing ghazals – sing something for us.”


Sheikh [Sharaf] sang [two compositions] in Dhanasari raga.


Rag Dhanasari


Everyday I ask the Brahman astrologer

When shall I find my Beloved?

When shall I be set free from the misery of separation?


I am in torment, O mother; my spirit burns.

I have not beheld my Master; both [my] eyes are filled [with tears].


Every day I despatch the crow [with a message for my beloved].

At night I count the stars, unable to sleep.

As the piedcrested cuckoo cries [for the rain-drop] so I cry [for my Beloved].


Without my Beloved I cannot endure a moment.

As the kulang separated [from its mate] cries [in anguish],

As the fish deprived of water writhes [in agony, So do I suffer the absence of my Beloved]


Hasten not, Sheikh Sharaf.

The one who yearns [for union with the Beloved] will suffer not one wound [but many].

O mad one, have you forgotten [the joy of the Master’s] presence?




Lay yourself in a mill and grind yourself;

Boil your limbs in dye;

As your body is dyed like a cloth,

So is [your spirit] steeped in the fast colour of the divine Name.


Thus is drunk the cup of love,

             [And thus] does one live in this world a life of obedience.            (refrain)


[As a brick is] fired in a kiln;

[As] cotton is teased;

[As] a sesame seed is squazed in an oil-press;

So [by like suffering] is the light [of understanding] kindled [in the man].


[Steel] is heated in the fire of a furnace;

It endures beating by a hammer on an anvil;

[Finally it] is rendered beautiful by the burnisher.


Be the tree from which [the Master’s] rabab is made;

Be slaughtered like a goat [sacrificed to him].

What is the value of futile discussion?

This is the song which Sharaf sings.


Baba [Nanak] then gave his reply.


Rag Dhanasari


I have come to the door of submission;

I have invited the Master into my abode.

             If the Master so pleases He gathers me in His embrace.    1.


In doing this, O mother, I found Him

             Eyes filled [with tears of joy] I beheld [my] beloved and was at peace. (Refrain)


He considered neither my virtue nor my iniquity.

He observed neither my appearance nor physical beauty.

             To him who entered my dwelling I gave my love.    2.


As the chakvi duck gazing at the sun finds bliss;

Like the piedcrested cuckoo which received the raindrop, so is my heart enraptured,

[For] I have met my Beloved and found [the supreme] happiness. How can my value be accounted!


Nanak says, thus does one find delight in the Master.

When a dumb man tastes nectar he can but smile. He who has drunk it – he it is who knows![4]



Sheikh Sharaf touched his feet [and cried], “Wondrously fortunate am I that one so great should have visited me! [Truly] you are the refuge of the poor. Be merciful [to a worthless wretch].”


Baba [Nanak] looked graciously upon him, where upon Sheikh was purged of human understanding and endued with divine reason. The very hairs of his body stood erect and ecstasy came [upon him]. In everything that he could see he perceived God – in everything that existed, both visible and concealed. Baba [Nanak] departed joyfully and going to another place, rested there.’


Sheikh Sharaf, it should be noted, was not a contemporary of Guru Nanak. Sheikh Sharaf al-Din of Panipat (also known as Bu Ali Shah Qalandar) was a popular Sufi saint who had died in the early 14th Century and who, according to legend, had been visited in his dreams by the Islamic Prophet, Muhammad. There are a number of mystical and legendary tales involving Sheikh Sharaf and his teachings, and his tomb in Panipat remains to this day an important place of pilgrimage for Sufis. Guru Nanak would have been fully aware of Sheikh Sharaf’s philosophy, but the two individuals could never have met as Sheikh Sharaf had passed away over 200 years before Guru Nanak was born. There is also the discrepancy in that Guru Nanak met Sheikh Sharaf in Baghdad, but this may be explained by the fact that the Sheikh was known to have travelled extensively, having been born in the city of Ganja in present-day Azerbaijan and gaining 'enlightenment' in Karnal in India, so the idea of the Sheikh having taken in Baghdad in his travels is not entirely remote. Guru Nanak, meanwhile, is famously described as having travelled through Baghdad. Whilst this janamsakhi concerning the Sheikh and the Guru is not historically accurate, it does present an allegorical exposition of Guru Nanak’s own teachings.


Sufi teachings and qawalis (songs) are filled with plaintive images of the singer or writer being the bride of an absent lover (God) with whom the bride desired to be reunited, and for whom the pain of being separated is too great to bear. This story appears to take this to a literal reality, by showing a Sufi teacher going to the extent of dressing as a bride in order to attract God’s attention. Guru Nanak’s teaching to him is that it is not necessary to go to such an extreme in order to achieve unity with God, and that God can be found everywhere once one gains divine enlightenment. When Guru Nanak says that God ‘takes no pleasure in such attire’, it is not a condemnation of wearing the outfit but rather an explanation of why it is not necessary to wear such garments in order to please or be united with God.


The B40 Janamsakhi was completed in 1733, some 25 years after Guru Gobind Singh’s death, and the painting itself shows that cross-dressing was not unknown during the era of the Gurus, even if the historical accuracy of this particular painting and the accompanying story are highly doubtful. Guru Nanak had travelled extensively during his Udasis, and it is again likely that Guru Nanak met people who were cross-dressers or who had same-sex relationships. However, the absence within any Sikh literature, even within the context of this story within the B40 Janamsakhi, of condemnation of cross-dressing per-se or same-sex relationships seems to suggest that the Gurus considered such lifestyles to be irrelevant to living a life as a Sikh. According to this story, Guru Nanak teaches that the importance to living the life of a Sikh is living a life dedicated to Truth and being humble enough to appreciate that all is dependent on the grace of God.


[1] p.4 'The B40 Janamsakhi, an English Translation' – edited by WH McLeod (1979)


[2] The paintings were reproduced in ‘B-40 Janamsakhis Baba Guru Nanak Paintings’, Guru Nanak Dev University (1987)

[3] pp.208 – 212, McLeod

[4] It should be noted that this composition allegedly by Guru Nanak does not appear in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy Sikh scripture.