across the world are celebrating Guru Nanak’s 550th anniversary today, and the
fervour is enhanced by the opening of a key road between Pakistan and India
that leads to his shrine in Kartarpur in Pakistan. Among the non-Sikhs who have
revered Nanak are great Muslim poets. Nazeer Akbarabadi among them (1740-1830)
in a paean to the Guru celebrated him for the succour he brought to those who
embraced his message of human fellowship before one God. Allama Iqbal saw him
as the seer who raised hopes for India’s social enlightenment after the country
exiled Buddhism to foreign shores.
have endeared themselves to Nanak’s world of fraternity include excellent men
and women. Foremost these days, in my mind, are the gallant men who escorted
Kashmiri women from faraway Pune to their homes in besieged Srinagar. That they
did so in the face of a delinquent state underscored the culture that Nanak
bequeathed to his followers. Not any less in chivalry were the Sikhs who rushed
to give succour and shelter to the communally shunned Rohingya refugees.
In a world
overloaded with rites and traditions, Nanak’s followers have spawned a rainbow
of eclectic heroes that few other religions can match. Where there are ardent
believers and a surfeit of Good Samaritans in the fold, there are socially
committed atheists and communists too. There are affluent entrepreneurs,
promptly countered by the best trade union leaders and even more militant Sikh
it this way. There would no Bhagat Singh without the message of fellowship and
human bonding he imbibed from the saint-preacher from the late 15th century.
Bhagat Singh who was hanged at the tender age of 23 wore the turban given by
his religion but took it off without offending his community when he needed to
disguise himself from his British pursuers to fight for India’s independence.
He used Marxism to imagine a socially and politically enlightened post-colonial
India at peace with itself. One of his last pieces of writings argued his case
for dying as an atheist while still being proud of his Sikh heritage.
mind’s apertures a little and you would find an utterly brilliant Sikh
politician in Canada, one of several, actually. In 2017, the turbaned Jagmeet
Singh, now 40, became the first non-white head of a major Canadian party. His
New Democratic Party is as far left as any in a First World country. There are
rumours that Singh could become deputy prime minister in Justin Trudeau’s
minority government whose numbers he helped slash in general elections two
case, it is delightful to hear him switch from fluent English to more fluent
French while explaining his stand on issues. They may range from support to gay
rights to opposing the expansion of a pipeline that carries oil through
Canada’s mountains to its west coast, without first getting cleared by the
threatened indigenous people. Leave alone religion, could any Indian or
Pakistani politician take a public stand on sexual orientation of their people
or oppose a project because the people feared its adverse impact on
denied Indian visa for his stand on the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. But he sees
himself as following Guru Nanak’s path of asking questions relentlessly, to
help people fight inequality and ignorance imposed by Brahminical blind faith
and superstition. That this follower of Nanak is a first class leader of a
First World country says something of his heritage.
Singh’s unique style of turban helps project a stridently multicultural society
he wants Canada to remain. He reminds one of liberal writer Khushwant Singh who
opposed religious and caste bigotry in the footsteps of Nanak while remaining a
self-confessed atheist. How many religious communities can accept the
Singh Surjeet was an archetypal Sikh, sporting a turban and a steel Kara
while leading the largest communist party in India. The affable Sardarji was
among the last party leaders to promote the use of Urdu to attract the masses,
a practice shunned by his successors to the detriment of their cause. If Sikh
women are at the forefront of the fight for gender rights it is because Guru
Nanak was himself an ardent advocate of gender equality.
There is an
uplifting song by the mystical minstrel Lalon Fakir in 19th-century Bengal,
which seems to have its origin in Nanak’s teachings. Nanak was on the same page
as the weaver-poet Kabir and cobbler-thinker Ravidas, who are thought to have
been his contemporaries. “We can tell a Brahmin by his thread. How do we
recognise his womenfolk?” Lalon wondered mockingly.
question may have been lifted from a defining moment in Guru Nanak’s life when
he was nine years old. His father, a high-caste Hindu, had arranged for the
son’s thread ceremony but Nanak took the issue to his elder sister Nanaki who
he loved and looked up to for guidance. He wondered why she never wore the
thread. Why was it prescribed for all Hindus but excluded low-caste Shudras?
the question be raised with the Brahmin priest. Nanak was a brilliant student
with a deep knowledge of the cultures and religions of his time. He asked the
priest to explain the basis for excluding Muslims, many of whom were his
friends, and Shudras and women from the thread ceremony. The priest said it was
so prescribed by religious texts.
naturally didn’t wash with the young boy, and after a long and absorbing
discussion with the priest he found support from the guests who were listening
in. The ritual abandoned, Nanak summed up his thoughts thus: “Make compassion
the cotton, contentment the thread, modesty the knot and truth the twist. This
is the sacred thread of the soul; if you have it, then go ahead and put it on
Naqvi is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Headline: Sacred thread of the soul
Source: The Dawn, Pakistan