Sikh Philosophy

Guru Nanak – Message of Equality

21st November 2007

Guru Nanak Dev Ji is the founder of Sikhism. Although it is believed that Guru Nanak was actually born sometime around the festival of Vaisakhi in April 1469[1], his birth is traditionally celebrated 15 days after Diwali in accordance with the lunar calendar. In 2007, this anniversary will take place on 24th November.

It was exactly 500 years ago in 1507 that the Guru began to preach his beliefs throughout central and southern Asia. The fundamentals of Guru Nanak’s philosophy are the belief in one God for the whole of mankind, that all religions are pathways to that same God, that all equal regardless of caste or gender, education for all, and the creation of an inclusive society by the redistribution of wealth. If looked at from a secular and socio-political viewpoint, Guru Nanak can been seen as a predecessor to Marx and Engels.

Guru Nanak’s travels as a preacher took him as far afield as Mecca, Baghdad, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. There are numerous accounts of Guru Nanak’s travels that have collated in the Janamsakhis (literally ‘birth stories’). These accounts were written in the aftermath of the death of Guru Nanak, and in that respect are quite similar to the Gospels relating to Jesus within the Christian tradition. Although the historical veracity of some of the Janamsakhis is questionable, they provide information as to the context of Guru Nanak’s teachings as well as provide vivid illustrations of his teachings in action. The Janamsakhis also have their basis within the legends and oral tradition concerning Guru Nanak passed on from generation to generation.[2]

One of the most famous of these stories or legends concerns a visit by Guru Nanak, accompanied by his faithful friend Mardana, to Eminabad in present-day Pakistan. Whilst there, Guru Nanak decided to stay with a low caste individual called Bhai Lallo who was an impoverished but hard working carpenter. Bhai Lallo shared his humble food with the Guru and Mardana for the duration of their stay with him. After a few days at Bhai Lallo’s home, Guru Nanak was invited by a wealthy government official of the same caste as himself called Malak Bhago to a feast that was being held in honour of all eminent individuals in the area. It should be noted here that Guru Nanak was born into a Hindu family.

Guru Nanak refused the invitation and Malak Bhago, who was angered at that refusal, ordered the Guru to attend his property and explain the refusal. The Guru asked Bhai Lallo to come with him to Malak Bhago’s home and to bring a chapatti with him. When he was questioned by Malak Bhago as to why he continued to stay at the home of someone who was of a lower caste and bring shame upon his own caste by his actions by refusing to dine with his own caste, Guru Nanak replied that he wanted a chapatti from Malak Bhago.

The chapatti was placed in a plate before him, and Guru Nanak then asked Bhai Lallo to give him the chapatti that he had made at home. The Guru then proceeded to squeeze both of the chapattis. The chapatti from Malak Bhago produced droplets of blood whilst the chapatti from Bhai Lallo gave droplets of milk. The astonished crowd asked what this meant. Guru Nanak’s reply was that Bhai Lallo was a hard working and dedicated worker who lived a pure life, and this was reflected in his food. Malak Bhago, however, earned his living through the blood, sweat and tears of others by corrupt and dishonest means, and again this was reflected in his feast.[3]

Another story related to Guru Nanak states that he stayed at the home of a leper during his travels as no-one else was willing to accommodate the Guru in that area, and as a result of the Guru’s stay, the leper was cured of his leprosy.

The Janamsakhis also give an account of Guru Nanak visiting the home of an excessively wealthy man who had several flags outside of his home, each of which represented 100,000 rupees that he had accumulated. Guru Nanak asked the man to carry a needle into the next world for him, and when the reply came that it was impossible for the needle to carried after one has died, the Guru then asked how he expected his wealth to follow him after his death. The man, understanding what the Guru had meant, then redistributed a portion of his wealth to the poor in his area.[4]

Regardless of what one’s view is of the miracles attributed to Guru Nanak, the general theme to be taken from these stories is that all people should be treated as equal, that one should work hard in one’s life in order to reap honest rewards, that one should contribute to society in whatever way possible, and that one should never shirk from one’s responsibility to others.

Guru Nanak’s philosophy and teachings continue to have resonance today. It is only by treating individuals as equals that a truly inclusive society can exist. In that context, shunning or judging people because of their sexuality, for example, is morally wrong and contradicts Guru Nanak’s teachings. Guru Nanak challenged the prejudices that existed in society in 16th century Southern and Central Asia. Five hundred years may have passed since Guru Nanak commenced his travels, but many of those prejudices are still strong and new prejudices have emerged over time, such as homophobia.

The only way that such prejudices can be challenged is through egalitarianism and education. These prejudices will fade over time, just as caste is no longer a major barrier to employment or success in one’s life.[5] The question is how a society can be truly egalitarian in the way that Guru Nanak envisioned it to be whilst inequalities continue to be perpetuated by individuals.

Sikhism is a reformist religion, closer in many respects to Socialism than to some other belief systems. By allowing Sikhism to become a conservative rather than a progressive movement, it is a rejection of Guru Nanak’s stance on equality for all. In one of his earliest compilations, Guru Nanak stated that:

Virtue and Vice do not come by mere words,
Actions repeated over and over again are engraved on the soul [6]

Until we heed these words, live by these teachings and act to make society truly egalitarian, Guru Nanak’s message of equality will continue to fall on deaf ears. It is up to each of us, collectively and as individuals, to take action and ensure that this message of equality becomes more than just a mere message and is transformed into a reality.

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[1], which gives the date as being 15 April 1469
[2] for more information about Janamsakhis
[5],%20K.%20R for the appointment of a Low Caste Hindu as Indian President in 1997.
[6] – Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p.4, verse 20.

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