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Nanak (1469-1536) - India’s Renaissance Reformer That World Never Heard Of

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Nanak (1469-1536) - India’s Renaissance Reformer That World Never Heard Of

Admin Singh

Jun 1, 2004
Guru Nanak was a child prodigy, showing early maturity when questioning his teacher on meaning of life and his priest on meaning of Janeu. A born linguist, he mastered Sanskrit and Arabic, two languages in which the Hindu and Islamic literature was written, the literature that he read in depth, and Persian which was the official language of his time, at a very young age. He communicated in the countries he visited in their language, wore their clothes and ate their food.

To spread his message, he travelled the length and breadth of the Indian-subcontinent to Nepal and Tibet in the north to borders of Burma in the East, Ceylon in the south and Mecca, Medina and the neighbouring countries in the Middle East to the west. Within India he travelled extensively to meet and have discourse with Indian scholars of various faiths. He travelled to Mecca by sea with the Muslim pilgrims on Haj and returned to Panjab overland via Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, along the well-travelled military and trade routes.

Not much is known about the details of his travels in the Arab world but reason and Guru Nanak’s innate curiosity and search for knowledge dictates that his travels in the realm of the Ottoman Empire, which was at its peak in the 16th century when Guru Nanak visited the Middle East, would have been a must and travel within it would have been safer than it is today. Ottoman Empire was a powerful multinational, multilingual empire controlling much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.

It is more than likely that he must have, in addition to Mecca, Medina and Baghdad, that is commonly referred to about his Middle East travels, visited, Konya, Turkey. Konya was a Centre of learning for Sufi Islam established by the followers of Maulana Jallaluddin Rumi, himself a transplant from present day Afghanistan of Persian parents.

[Rumi, Poet, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, also known as Jalāl ad- Dīn Muhammad Balkhī, Mawlānā/Mevlânâ, Mevlevî/Mawlawī, and more popularly simply as Rumi, was a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. Wikipedia. Born: September 30, 1207, Vakhsh, Tajikistan; Died: December 17, 1273, Konya, Turkey; Buried: Mevlana Museum, Konya, Turkey]

[Rumi and Guru Nanak’s portraits and the inscription of Commencing Verse of Aad Guru Granth Sahib in an ancient Zoroastrian Temple in Baku, Azerbaijan are published with permission from Dr. Devinder Singh Chahal from his book “Nankian Philosophy: Basics for Humanity”.]
Maulana Jallaluddin Rumi of Konya, Turkey.png

Sufis consider themselves to be the original true proponents of this pure original form of Islam. Guru Nanak was drawn to Islamic scholars of Sufi Islam than the Islam practiced in India by the rulers of his time. During his studies of Islamic literature, it stands to reason that Guru Nanak had access to Rumi’s writings and must have engaged in discussions with Sufi scholars in India.

Guru Nanak must have found Rumi’s philosophy to his liking:

“I’m not from the East or the west.
I’m not Christian or Jew or Muslim.
I’m not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen.
I do not belong to any established religion or any cultural system.
I/m neither body nor soul, for I belong to the Soul of my Beloved.”

If Guru Nanak did travel to Konya, his travels would surely have taken him to Jerusalem, place sacred to the three Semitic religions and on to Istanbul and may be Baku, Azerbaijan. Background for Guru Nanak’s portrait below is intriguingly similar to views of Straits of Bosporus in Istanbul today. With today’s research this is the closest we come to placing Guru Nanak in Istanbul, Turkey.

A narrative to his visits to Mecca, Medina and Baghdad has been found in “Babania Kahania” by Inderjit Singh Jhajj, given to me by Dr. Harbans Lal:
Guru Nanak Portrait - Rooli Books from the The Sikhs by Khushwant Singh and Raghu Rai.png

“During Guru Nanak’s journeys in the Middle East, a local author, Taajudin Naqshabandhi, joined Guru Nanak and remained with him for roughly one-and-a-half to two years. Taajudin documented his time with Guru Nanak in great detail. Four centuries later, a young man from Kashmir, Syed Mushtaq Hussain, chanced upon Taajudin’s handwritten manuscript while studying to become an Islamic scholar. This manuscript changed Mushtaq’s life. He converted to Sikhism and went on to become the renowned Sant Syed Prithipal Singh.

In the absence of any facility available for copying the book in facsimile, Mushtaq Hussain took notes from Taajudin's manuscript. He also took notes from another book, Twarikh-e-Arab, written by Khwaja Jainul Abdin, a Muslim author who also accompanied Guru Nanak during his travels to Mecca. Mushtaq’s notes later formed the basis of the Punjabi book, Babe Nanak di Baghdad Pheri.”

Inderjit Singh Jhajj, December 26, 2012

Another intriguing look into Guru Nanak’s travels to the Middle East comes from “My Travels outside Bombay: Iran, Azerbaijan, Baku” by Ervad Shams-Ul-Ulama Dr. Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, B. A., Ph. D. C. I. E. (1854-1933).

What you see below is the Commencing Verse of the Adi Granth, courtesy Dr. Devinder Singh Chahal. It is inscribed in stone above a doorway of a temple that originally was a prominent centre of Zoroastrianism in Baku, Azerbaijan, that fell into disrepair after onset of Islam. Long ago, traders from India managed to get permission to convert a small portion of this complex of Zoroastrian Temples as their place of worship.

I first saw it in Dr. Chahal’s magazine and then on web under “My Travels outside Bombay: Iran, Azerbaijan. Baku” by Ervad Shams-UI-Ulama Dr. Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, B. A., Ph. D. C. I. E. (1854-1933). He had gone on a pilgrimage to the places associated with his Zoroastrian ancestors.

My latest exposure to reference to this inscription came in 2014 when I read, “A Journey from Bengal to England, through The Northern Part of India, Kashmire, Afghanistan, And Persia, And into Russia, by the Caspian-Sea” By George Forster. In the Civil Service of The Honourable The East India Company. Printed for R. Faulder, New Bond-Street, London, 1798. (Original Edition).

George Forester had left Bengal for this overland Journey from Calcutta on March 23, 1782 arriving in London on March 31, 1784. Quite a feat! On March 27, 1784 he visited this temple complex in Baku, saw these inscriptions both in Gurmukhi and Devnagri script and met a group of aging ‘Moultan Hindu Traders’ who told him that they were the last ones because their children are not interested in following in their footsteps.

Straits of Bosporus, Istanbul, separating Asia from Europe.png
Now this is something worth researching by a Sikh scholar. Did Guru Nanak visit Konya and Istanbul in Turkey and perhaps Baku in Azerbaijan where he ran into Traders from Multan from his backyard in Panjab?

After all these carvings were there in 1784 only two and a half centuries after Guru Nanak and trade between India and that part of the world had gone on for centuries. In fact, it is highly likely where the ancestors of many Panjabi’s came from. My last name is Shergill, two Persian words, sher+gill put together, and meaning the same as in today’s Panjabi. And, to boot, there is still a province of northern Iran along the south shore of the Caspian see called, ‘Gilan’, land of Gilanis/Gils/Gills/Shergills/McGills/Cowgills/Sc argills, Gilberts, Gilroys etc.

It is time for us to bring the teachings of Guru Nanak to the notice of the outside world. Best way to do that is through the medium of English first and then translation from English into other languages. What I think we need to concentrate on is to take advantage of the electronic media and use the pages of The Sikh Bulletin to coordinate the translation of the Bani of Guru Nanak into English. For sure there are several versions of it already but none of them do justice to what the Guru is saying.

I ask the readers of The Sikh Bulletin in the Diaspora to create a dharamsal in their own homes, become missionaries for Guru Nanak and let their computer be the channel of communication and Social Media the Courier Pigeon.

Email to me one hymn of Guru Nanak and its English translation that you think is worthy of being brought to the notice of the population in the countries of our residences. We will invite our readers’ opinions, arrive at a consensus and then make it available for everyone to use.

Guru Nanak was One of a Kind, just as his concept of Kartar/Creator was One and Only. The world had never produced anyone like him before nor since. His philosophy is unique and is applicable in all countries and cultures at all times.

He possessed a brilliant mind. He was a Deist two centuries before European intellectuals coined the term. Deism rejected revelation and authority as a source of religious knowledge with the conclusion that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe. Deism gained prominence among intellectuals during the Age of Enlightenment, especially in Britain, France, Germany and the United States, who, raised as Christians, believed in one god but became disenchanted with organized religion and notions such as the Trinity, Biblical inerrancy and the supernatural interpretation of events such as miracles. Included in those influenced by its ideas were leaders of the American and French Revolutions.

Commencing Aad Guru Granth Sahib.png

Guru Nanak threw away centuries old maryada of the faith of his birth. At a very young age he refused to wear the janeu; discarded the caste system; preached against idol worship; recognised the equality of mankind; asserted the equality of men and women; opposed the practice of ‘sati’ (self- immolation by widows upon their husbands’ death, still prevalent in Hindu society), rejected the then prevalent concepts of karma, after life salvation, tapasya, heaven and hell, incarnation, transmigration, 84 lakh juni, yatra to holy places, fasting, multiple gods and goddesses, and of course, unique only to Sikhism, wished ‘sarbat da bhala’. He gave us nothing like Ten Commandments or Sharia Law. Instead the Guru simply says ‘do not commit an act that you will later regret and do not eat or drink that is unhealthy for your body and mind’. He wanted mankind to use ‘bibek budhi’, the only species that has it.

In this special issue some hymns have English translation by Dr. Devinder Singh Chahal from one of his articles and English translation of all the hymns quoted by Dr. Baldev Singh in his manuscript that we are planning on publishing this year.

[This book has now been published and is also available free in electronic format at our website: Printed copies are available for $5.00 US and Canada plus postage.]

Some Contemporaries of Guru Nanak and some who came later but developed their theories similar to Guru Nanak’s on the basis of their own ‘bibek budhi’:

Guru Nanak (1469-1539):

Nicolaus Copernicus, Poland, (1473-1543). They shared the modern concept of Cosmos.

Martin Luther, Germany (1483-1546). Guru, had he met him, would have advised him against attempting reformation of Christianity because a religion can never be reformed.

Vasco da Gama, Portugal (1460-1524). Michelangelo, Italy (1475-1564).
Henry VIII, England (1491-1547).
Babur, Uzbekistan (1483-1530). Started Mogul dynasty in India.
Galileo, Italy (1564-1642) believer in Copernicus cosmic view; spent last nine years of his life under house arrest by the Pope for contradicting Bible which claims Earth as the center of the Universe.

Environmentalism (2015) What a refreshing change from the Vatican, in Galileo’s time and now. Pope Francis Encyclical on climate change (2015) is very refreshing and completely opposite to his predecessors’ actions. It took the world 500 years to catch up with Guru Nanak, and yet not all the world.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published his ‘On the Origin of Species by means of natural Selection, in 1859, 300 years after Guru Nanak had expressed it in his hymns.

Alfred Wagner (1880-1930), Germany hypothesized in 1912 that the continents are slowly drifting around the Earth. He too had used his bibek budhi, as Guru Nanak did, by observing the coast lines of world’s oceans and got laughed at because he could not explain the mechanism. Answers came half a century later with advancement in science.

Hardev Singh Shergill

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