Reclaiming Guru Nanak's Image


Historian E.H. Carr once observed in relation to studying history, “our picture of Greece in the 5th century BC is defective not primarily because so many of the bits have been accidentally lost, but because it is, by and large, the picture formed by a tiny group of people in the city of Athens.” Critics made the argument that the comment was too specific to a time period and by default off-kilter. Carr though had made a prescient observation. A historian, fundamentally a social scientist, cannot constrain themselves to certain texts and products of a particular time period to comprehend the scope of a dynamic and organic past. This is the same principle followed by another Carrian historian who we recently interviewed, the renowned Dr. Balwant Singh Dhillon of GNDU. Dr. Dhillon’s methodology of studying a particular time period consists of structuring a comprehensive archival repository through which a wholesome, if not entire, picture of the past can emerge. The reliance for a Carrian historian is foremost on textual analysis. This consists of three principles:

-Documentary evidence from within the text.

-The author’s affiliations and background.

-The contemporary time period in which the text was produced.

Of necessity here is to note that given the intersectionality of the Sikh ethos and Sikh history it is prudent to bisect Sikh historic texts into either of two categories:

(a) Of historic value because it belongs to a certain time period (read the mythologized Suraj Prakash and countless interpolated Saakhis which are valueless and are only corroborative on some minor points).

(b) Of intrinsic historic value because it retains significant analytical, chronological and ideological detail.

Similar to Carr’s criticism of sole reliance on Athenian texts, the current crop of Sikh scholars are solely relying on archaic texts written in the 18th century to ply their trade. After a two-hour podcast session with Dr. Dhillon on Banda Singh Bahadur, we were messaged by a scholar of Sikh studies who argued that:

1.) The sole reliance on the aforementioned Sikh texts is a necessity as observers (Sikh and non-Sikh removed from the immediate vicinity of Sikh companionship in the Punjab) retained no understanding of Sikh tradition.

2.) The authors of these texts have a close relationship with the Guru era either by direct companionship, familial or intellectual lineage.

Dr. Dhillon however had already previously articulated to us that the world of Sikh studies, particularly textual studies, is stagnant given that scholars are only capable of reading only a few texts to death without hunting out newer sources. This is not surprising given that impartial historiography is a skill which many current Sikh historians lack. Our rejoinder, in light of the above, was:

Point 1: This arbitrary dismissal of texts outside the oft accepted traditional ones only ossifies stagnated history. The continuity of some Sikh lineages cannot be accepted as evidence of the traditionalist texts authenticity which they hold dear. We need to balance the written word against the doctrinal consistency of the Guru Granth to establish whether the practices mentioned therein hold-up to the yardstick laid down by the Gurus. And secondly, the veracity of current practices need to be adjudged in light of the Guru Granth.

Point 2: In regards to the authors’ own affiliations, once again doctrinal consistency and the three principles observed by Dr. Dhillon should be our intellectual yardstick against which to measure the value of a Sikh text’s content rather than proximity to the Gurus.

The conversation, as far as the validity of historic texts went, ended with us inquiring whether Kesar Singh Chibber’s allusion to caste homicide at the hands of Binod Singh and its justification as a Khalsa practice was valid in light of Gurbani? The other party’s conclusion was simply, no.

Our Principles:​

The study of history in light of doctrinal consistency is a vexing subject. On home turf, it is argued by many self-proclaimed Sikh traditionalists that the doctrinal consistency of Sikhi is unestablished because it is not subject to any existent parameters. Our argument, though, is that irrespective of what they argue (we believe it to be senseless) there are enough discernable elements through which a sense of doctrinal authenticity can be constructed. This, naturally, is dismissed as being westernized lens i.e. dismissing the innate nature of a text under scrutiny. This is a humorous, if somewhat ironic, defense of a text’s reputation which if impugned is irretrievable. It is often argued that such traditionalist texts are dripping with pre-colonial sophistry which consisted of dispersing knowledge out of empathy. But as the Carrian principle holds, the innate reputation/value of any historic text which-if it exists-is able to be revealed by the three fundamental principles of textual analysis empathy and faith aside. How should we approach historic texts then? We would add to the Carrian fundamentals:

Conformance to the ideological doctrines which the author claims to subscribe to.

Rereading Guru Nanak:​

Now how is all the above related to Sikhi’s progenitor Guru? Surely, such a rambling can hold nothing of value as far as our beloved Guru Nanak is concerned? Actually, there is a profound connection. Our most recent episode with Dr. Dhillon focused exclusively on discovering who Guru Nanak was as per his own testimony within the Guru Granth. The current dispersion of the Guru’s image is rooted in the canard that the Guru was some politically correct proto-hyper modernist liberal who was far ahead of his times. A section of Sikh traditional hagiographies and histories have obfuscated the boundaries between relativity and truth to the degree that they would make even postmodernists blush. The image which they convey of the Guru is the traditional Indic Bhakti saint who ardently emphasized the dissolution of identity and self in some ubiquitous overarching senseless universal spirit.

The current crop of hyper-woke cancel culture societies have adopted this very same image to push the line, alongside the ideological opponents of Sikhi, that the Guru was an embodiment of universal love and nothing besides. Remember here that universal love is often an euphemism for sexual desire and religiocide. The very personality of the Guru has been disintegrated into the pseudo-intellectual matrix of neo-modernist scholarship which seeks to alter existent yardsticks to render the truth a variable and by default do away with it altogether. Put more simply, the salient ideological and tangible practicality of Sikhi out of the mix-the faith and its followers are drowned in a faithless postmodernist world. Sans identity, even ideals antithetical to Sikhi will be accepted as being Sikh. It seems that regressing Guru Nanak’s image is not enough for those who will do Sikhi harm; dismantling his ethos will be the highline.

His Own Testimony:​

One idiocy out of countless holds that Guru Nanak taught that before becoming religious, one needs to become human. This is interrelated to another insidious canard which has present day Sikhs lacking any pride in their own unique religious identity: that the Guru envisioned all faiths lead to God. This begs two questions:

i. If the common human supersedes the religious individual than by what rights can the believer of such a myth respect Guru Nanak given the Guru himself was a man of faith?

ii. If the Guru emphasized all faiths lead to God than for what reason did he criticize just about every ideology existent before Sikhi?

The first rejoinder is maneuvered around with the laughable excuse that respect revolves solely around oral expression and not criticizing the Guru denotes respect. The fundamental points of the second rejoinder are usually ignored with the screech that the Guru rejected dogmatism and not devotional practice. This is where Gurbani comes to our aid. It is generally believed that religion initiates virtue in the believer. On the other hand this is often subjective virtue. The Guru’s criticism of Vaishnavism, in total, articulates his belief that non-Sikh devotional practice is God-centric rather than Creation-centric. True God-centricity is in actuality Creation-centricity (as expounded by the sixth Guru to Samarth Ramdas). However conventional religion disparages this truth for the superficial notion of solely loving God at the expense of the life bequeathed to us. The binary is inimical in the long run.

ਵਾਇਨਿ ਚੇਲੇ ਨਚਨਿ ਗੁਰ ॥

ਪੈਰ ਹਲਾਇਨਿ ਫੇਰਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਿ ਸਿਰ ॥

ਉਡਿ ਉਡਿ ਰਾਵਾ ਝਾਟੈ ਪਾਇ ॥

ਵੇਖੈ ਲੋਕੁ ਹਸੈ ਘਰਿ ਜਾਇ ॥

ਰੋਟੀਆ ਕਾਰਣਿ ਪੂਰਹਿ ਤਾਲ ॥

ਆਪੁ ਪਛਾੜਹਿ ਧਰਤੀ ਨਾਲਿ ॥

ਗਾਵਨਿ ਗੋਪੀਆ ਗਾਵਨਿ ਕਾਨ੍ਹ੍ਹ ॥

ਗਾਵਨਿ ਸੀਤਾ ਰਾਜੇ ਰਾਮ ॥

ਨਿਰਭਉ ਨਿਰੰਕਾਰੁ ਸਚੁ ਨਾਮੁ ॥

“The disciples strike the beat and the Gurus dance with their head and feet moving in unison. Such is their inebriety that the dust at their feet flies into their hair. Onlookers see this and laugh at the entertainment. What is this but a charade to acquire daily bread? They roll around on the ground oblivious. They can sing only of Krishan and his milkmaids. They can only sing of Sita and Ram. The true Lord, though, is formless and sans enmity. The true Lord’s wisdom is true.”

-Guru Granth, 465.

This single verse should be enough to dispel the myth that the Guru articulated that his Sikhs respect all faiths. In reality the Guru never favored political correctness at the expense of the truth. Here, he candidly dismisses Vaishnavism’s foremost deities when comparing them with the singular Creator who he envisions as being birthless and who acts through the common man. From this example and multiple more, we can easily deduce the Guru was by no means concerned with emotions and sentiments; favoring the truth above them come what may. A radically different Guru Nanak, by his own testimony, to what has been spoon fed to us for centuries past.

A Battle-Hardened Warrior:​

What motivated Guru Nanak to do what he did? Our thesis is that the Guru was aloof from the notions of political correctness which we mistakenly believe he respected. What compelled him to visit one religious site after another only to debate with their adherents and then dismiss their cherished beliefs? Here often the argument for pluralism is brought to the fore. We would like to make a crucial distinction here. Religious pluralism is different from social pluralism even though both are intertwined at a certain existential point. Guru Nanak dismissing the Hindu and Islamic beliefs does not imply he sought their active effacement. Rather, he established a boundary which he underscored universally to show what was the truth and what was antithetical. His expectation was that the Sikh conduct would naturally inspire non-Sikhs to gravitate towards the Sikh ethos. This does not encourage the Sikhs to resort to forced conversions. That said, the onus is on them to prove the validity of the Guru’s principles even if this involves wounding sentiments.

What compelled Guru Nanak to establish the foundations for a new faith removed from conventional religiosity? In his own words:

ਜਗੁ ਬਿਨਸਤ ਹਮ ਦੇਖਿਆ ਲੋਭੇ ਅਹੰਕਾਰਾ ॥

“When I looked at the world, I found it burning in arrogance and avarice.”

-Guru Granth, 228.

Having decided to plant the seed of Sikhi, the Guru traveled far and wide to see whether any other ideology was conversant with the profound truths of life. His conclusion:

ਕਉਣੁ ਗੁਰੂ ਕੈ ਪਹਿ ਦੀਖਿਆ ਲੇਵਾ ਕੈ ਪਹਿ ਮੁਲੁ ਕਰਾਵਾ ॥੧॥

“Which Guru should I go to who knows how to value you my Master?”

-Guru Granth, 730.

The Guru found no ideology which was capable of appreciating the truths of life ergo his pointed criticism of them.

ਤਟ ਤੀਰਥ ਹਮ ਨਵ ਖੰਡ ਦੇਖੇ ਹਟ ਪਟਣ ਬਾਜਾਰਾ ॥

“Multiple sacred rivers and sites, the nine realms and bazaars of various cities-all these I saw.”

-Guru Granth, 156.

He strengthened his stance by confronting the various religious personalities he encountered and aimed to liberate the intellectually defunct masses from the grip of atrophied religions. Ganges or the Mecca, the Guru stayed true to his beliefs and continually articulated the pointlessness of the credos built up around them. These experiences hardened him against hypocritical emotionalism-something which the current generation is ignorant of given its pandering to the myth that Guru the envisioned all faiths leading to God. Which God? The one who the Guru explains is not even conceptually present in other faiths?

ਕਉਣੁ ਗੁਰੂ ਕੈ ਪਹਿ ਦੀਖਿਆ ਲੇਵਾ ਕੈ ਪਹਿ ਮੁਲੁ ਕਰਾਵਾ ॥੧॥

Guru Nanak was a Battle-Hardened warrior of faith who, as is evident, did not allow wounded hearts to restrain him from articulating the truth. Anyone who ignores this only ignores it at the truth’s expense.

Sovereign Visionary:​

For the last two decades of his life the Guru settled at an embryonic city he established: Kartarpur. The common practice for religious figures, until this point, was to solidify their reputation as mystics by word of mouth and set-up hamlets which housed ascetics and renunciates. Guru Nanak, contrarily, built a bustling nascent city in which he emphasized a new political system. Kartarpur was constitutionalized by three factors which all citizens were expected to uphold:

Wholehearted involvement in a progressive enterprise.

Accumulation and utilization of knowledge.

The betterment of society.

The city was wholly Sikh given that the fundamental doctrines of the faith laid down by the Guru were too radical for the times. The establishment of Kartarpur being a historic fact, it lends a new light to the Guru’s words in the Guru Granth disproving the canard that he was a renunciate. The core character of Kartarpur, its Sikh identity and the Guru’s expectation of worldly involvement underscore Sikhi’s political nature. Guru Nanak was well aware that sociopolitical contribution/involvement defines a faith’s potency to a great degree and for this very reason he bequeathed the Sikhs civic foundations upon which he envisioned them continually raising their own sovereign states. On par was his expectation that wherever they be they would be foremost in whatever undertaking came to define their purpose in life.

A cynical society fed up with religious mendacity and political atrophy has redefined the Guru as being opposed to politics. This revamping emanates from the subconscious inability to cast off its chains and better itself and the world surrounding it. Whatever this society’s claim to Guru Nanak, the Guru in his lifetime criticized its constituents as being nothing more than living corpses given they were unable to better their lot.

ਜੇ ਜੀਵੈ ਪਤਿ ਲਥੀ ਜਾਇ ॥

ਸਭੁ ਹਰਾਮੁ ਜੇਤਾ ਕਿਛੁ ਖਾਇ ॥

“If you exist to live then you forfeit all sense of honor. All you touch and do is rendered sinful.”

-Guru Granth, 142.


The interconnection between belief, irrespective of its religious/secular nature, and politics was an element which the Guru was well conversant with. Given that he himself designed a religiopolitical society, it is no surprise he commented upon the similar setups of prior atrophied faiths:

ਕਾਦੀ ਕੂੜੁ ਬੋਲਿ ਮਲੁ ਖਾਇ ॥

ਕਾਦੀ ਕੂੜੁ ਬੋਲਿ ਮਲੁ ਖਾਇ ॥

ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣੁ ਨਾਵੈ ਜੀਆ ਘਾਇ ॥

ਜੋਗੀ ਜੁਗਤਿ ਨ ਜਾਣੈ ਅੰਧੁ ॥

ਤੀਨੇ ਓਜਾੜੇ ਕਾ ਬੰਧੁ ॥੨॥

“The Qazi (reformer) is blind and consumes only filth; the Brahmin (intellectual) inflicts pain by misleading the masses; the Yogi (spiritualist) is himself a blind fool leading the equally blind masses. This is the way of tyranny and destruction. All three annihilate themselves and their followers.”

-Guru Granth, 662.

When Babur invaded the subcontinent, he exhorted the masses to arise and defend themselves without awaiting divine intervention otherwise only they themselves would be responsible for their own fate.

ਖੁਰਾਸਾਨ ਖਸਮਾਨਾ ਕੀਆ ਹਿੰਦੁਸਤਾਨੁ ਡਰਾਇਆ ॥

ਆਪੈ ਦੋਸੁ ਨ ਦੇਈ ਕਰਤਾ ਜਮੁ ਕਰਿ ਮੁਗਲੁ ਚੜਾਇਆ ॥

ਏਤੀ ਮਾਰ ਪਈ ਕਰਲਾਣੇ ਤੈਂ ਕੀ ਦਰਦੁ ਨ ਆਇਆ ॥੧॥

ਕਰਤਾ ਤੂੰ ਸਭਨਾ ਕਾ ਸੋਈ ॥

ਜੇ ਸਕਤਾ ਸਕਤੇ ਕਉ ਮਾਰੇ ਤਾ ਮਨਿ ਰੋਸੁ ਨ ਹੋਈ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥

ਸਕਤਾ ਸੀਹੁ ਮਾਰੇ ਪੈ ਵਗੈ ਖਸਮੈ ਸਾ ਪੁਰਸਾਈ ॥

ਰਤਨ ਵਿਗਾੜਿ ਵਿਗੋਏ ਕੁਤੀ ਮੁਇਆ ਸਾਰ ਨ ਕਾਈ ॥

ਆਪੇ ਜੋੜਿ ਵਿਛੋੜੇ ਆਪੇ ਵੇਖੁ ਤੇਰੀ ਵਡਿਆਈ ॥੨॥

ਜੇ ਕੋ ਨਾਉ ਧਰਾਏ ਵਡਾ ਸਾਦ ਕਰੇ ਮਨਿ ਭਾਣੇ ॥

ਖਸਮੈ ਨਦਰੀ ਕੀੜਾ ਆਵੈ ਜੇਤੇ ਚੁਗੈ ਦਾਣੇ ॥

ਮਰਿ ਮਰਿ ਜੀਵੈ ਤਾ ਕਿਛੁ ਪਾਏ ਨਾਨਕ ਨਾਮੁ ਵਖਾਣੇ ॥੩॥੫॥੩੯॥

“The one Maker has formed both Khurasan (Persia) and Hindustan (the subcontinent) alongside the rest of Creation. The residents of Hindustan fear those of Khurasan. The cowards have no one to blame but their own insipid selves for their fear. Yet they cast around to pin the blame on another and this is why the Mughal (tyrant) crushes them underfoot.

The cowards make their Conscience the first casualty of conflict. They feel no grief at the calamity befalling them and their fellows. You, the true Maker, are the Providence which provides for all. When one comprehends this fact, they become powerful. When another power attacks such a powerful individual, then the target does not fear the aggressor in their minds for they have become as equally powerful.

But the cowards? They die a conscientious death and have only themselves to blame for their lot in life; they moan about like weak herdsmen. The jewel-like Conscience is silenced by obsession with illusory pursuits. Once silenced, then one becomes a dead-dog while living. Unable to express concern at anything. The mind attaches, the mind separates; this is its greatness.

But if one uses such a miraculous mind to claim virtue yet indulge in hypocrisy, then they are nothing but insects in their Maker’s gaze. Die and die again to acquire something in life. This is the glory of true wisdom.”

-Guru Granth, 360.

Could these really be the words of the apolitical Guru Nanak of today?

On Force:​

Through his own experiential living Guru Nanak laid down the foundations for the institute of the Khalsa. The most galling idiocy to affect the Sikhs today is derived straight from Indic culturalism that conflict is only weaponry. This is an entirely subjective take. Guru Nanak’s own words make clear he was at the centre of conflict for most of his life. Even Kartarpur, by necessity, would have retained a defensive policy. We believe that if the mists of history can be cleared than surely evidence will be forthcoming that even Guru Nanak resorted to the sword to defend himself and the hapless masses. It is ridiculous to believe that a figure like him would sit mum while his Sikhs were beset by political and religious tyranny on all fronts.

Our belief is that had Guru Nanak been present during the period of Guru-era wars, he would have picked up the sword himself to defend Sikhi. Had he been in the vanguard of Banda Singh’s forces, he would have warred for Khalsa-Raaj and to revolutionize Punjab. Did Guru Nanak mandate force in his own words? Yes. Two prescient examples, among a plethora, should suffice:

ਮੂਰਖ ਗੰਢੁ ਪਵੈ ਮੁਹਿ ਮਾਰ ॥

“The bond with a fool is one of a fist in the face.”

-Guru Granth, 143.

This singular line is the predecessor to Guru Gobind Singh’s famous maxim in the Zafarnamah that when all measures are breached than resort to force becomes divinely justified. And if in the process of curbing a foolish community, institute or state one’s life is on the line? Guru Nanak sanctifies the endeavor:

ਮਰਣੁ ਨ ਮੰਦਾ ਲੋਕਾ ਆਖੀਐ ਜੇ ਕੋਈ ਮਰਿ ਜਾਣੈ ॥੨॥

ਮਰਣੁ ਮੁਣਸਾ ਸੂਰਿਆ ਹਕੁ ਹੈ ਜੋ ਹੋਇ ਮਰਨਿ ਪਰਵਾਣੋ ॥

“If the masses were enlightened they would not vilify death as an evil. True death is the prerogative of valorous heroes; such deaths are appealing to their Maker.”

-Guru Granth, 579.

The Guru In His Own Words:​

The mental picture we have engrained in our minds of Guru Nanak is a compound of the Orientalist archetype of some wise man of the east; Hindu renunciate and Islamic sage. The more modern variation is Sobha Singh’s imaginative rendering of what he believed the Guru to be like on canvas. The question for us in light of the Guru’s own words is that which Guru Nanak will we select to follow? The Guru as per his own words or the Guru whose image has been spoon-fed to us by forces antithetical to Sikhi?