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Gurus The Final Resting Place Of Guru Nanak


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Some wheat, some chaff. That's life.

These are high holy days for Sikhs as we mark the birth of Guru Nanak, the Founder of Sikhi.

Let's p{censored} a parable of his life from the end of his days.

We know that anything and anyone that lives a life as flesh must perish and die one day. Everyone is mortal and his or her earthly sojourn must end. So, for Guru Nanak also the time came for an end to his earthly existence.

But this unique man continues to inspire millions even today. It was no different when the time came to die over 500 years ago. His message was common to mankind and people flocked to him from both religious traditions that made up society across the Indian subcontinent then - Hinduism and Islam.

Nothing surprising in that so far.

Then, tradition and history tell us, at his death a quarrel broke out between his followers who had been Hindus and those who had come from Islam. This tells you how hard it is to transform or reinvent oneself. The baggage of the past accumulates in life and it isn't always easy to shake it off or see clearly through its fog.

So what? You might ask.

Nanak was no more but what to do with his body; his followers loved him so much. The Muslims wanted to bury him in accordance with Islamic requirements and rites. The Hindus wanted to follow the Hindu way and cremate Nanak. Emotions ran high; compromise was not on the table.

It is rightly said that people will argue for religion, wrangle over it, fight for it, kill for it and even die for it but they will not readily live for it.

The war of words over Nanak's body lasted through the night.

In the morning, when they lifted the sheet that covered Nanak's corpse, there was no Nanak but only a bunch of fresh flowers.

A miracle, the people thought, had saved them. They could divide the flowers - those who came from Hinduism could cremate them, those who came from Islam would bury their half. Both were satisfied.

Hindus erected a memorial to Nanak; the Muslims erected their own. The two stand even today, next to each other. What a wonderful tribute to Nanak; the man, his life and his work.

This is what our tradition tells us. I have never heard a differing version. This is what I have heard all my life. It is what I have personally used to describe how awe-inspiring Nanak must have been. And everyone celebrates the visionary Nanak who inspired such reverence in those who were traditional enemies amongst themselves.

It seems to me today that some vitals are missing in the story. These are things that make me wonder at the nexus of fact and fiction that might have produced the parable. This wonderful story that mixes so beautifully history and myth unravels before my eyes.

Let's probe some factoids of history that we know to be true - they are evidence-based - but find no place in the parable. I don't see how they could have been irrelevant to the story that has been imprinted in our consciousness for half a millennium.

We know Guru Nanak was a married man, a householder with a wife, Sulakhni, and two grown sons, Srichand and Lakhmidas. Did they have an opinion on the last rites for Guru Nanak?

He had also passed the mantle of Guruship to Bhai Lehna and installed him as Guru Angad. History doesn't tell us how many hours, days or weeks Guru Nanak outlived the moment when he personally nominated and installed Guru Angad - delegating to Angad the office and its authority along with the responsibilities of the Guru.

Notice that the parable informs us of disagreements between his followers who had come to him from different faith traditions. But it speaks not a word about what Guru Angad might have said or done to dampen the fires. Guru Angad must still have been at Kartarpur because Guru Nanak's mortal coil must still have been there waiting to be laid to its final rest. That could have been one of the earliest if not the first responsibility of the second Guru. What did he say or suggest?

The parable says not a word and nor does history, about what Guru Angad said or did. Was he not in the loop?

Guru Nanak's two grown sons also must have been there along with their mother - Guru Nanak's wife. Did they have an opinion? What was it and how did they (the family of Guru Nanak) express their preference? The parable offers nary a word.

To me, these questions leave the parable awfully and unexpectedly incomplete.

I know that parables come from the heart (faith) while history emerges from the head (evidence); they often merge, sometimes seamlessly, and become integral and inseparable elements of a culture. They both provide us magical and informative windows to a people and a time, and yet either, alone, remains incomplete. Accuracy and reliability are different matters altogether.

This is the way all cultures (and religions) are, whether it is Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any one of the varieties of human religious experience.

Sikh belief and practice often mix evidence-based history with what is only circumstantial and sometimes even with what is clearly neither history nor evidence but is merely a habit of the heart. Sometimes the mixing is so intimate and flawless that the intervening seams all but disappear.

My opinions derive their credence from a perusal of the legends of Ramayana and Mahabharata, in the Hindu tradition, the mythology of Genesis in the Old Testament that is the founding document of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as the enchanting mix of fact and fiction in Sikh traditional lore.

Does unraveling of a foundational parable in Sikhi make me uncomfortable? Not at all!

We are speaking here of the commonality of human existence through time and culture and across the seas. The study of history tells us that history itself gets altered by the process of studying it. Much as an experimental animal reacts to the expectations of the observer, similarly history uncovers itself to reflect and fulfill many of the views of the scholar who p{censored}s and
records it. Even the best evidence gets tainted in the process. Such evidentiary bias is universal.

History and parables, even though they overlap at the periphery, are entirely different processes and serve different purposes. Parables are morality plays; their role, no less important than history, is to provide us an easily swallowed sugar-coated pill. As examples, I point to Biblical writing in Genesis, events of the birth of Jesus, or his arising from the dead. These are clearly
not history; to weigh them on the scale of evidence would find them wanting, even silly. As morality plays, such matters remain supreme - ask any believer.

The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl tells us that history is an argument without end. He is right or else history would become a closed black book; our connections to the past would then become tenuous, the present lose all meaning and the future would have no legs.

I know many readers will be uncomfortable with my unraveling a dearly loved and beautiful parable of the life of our Founder-Guru that carries a timeless lesson on religious tolerance. But keep in mind also my unquestioned love for Guru Nanak. I am reminded of some words of the poet Richard Lovelace:

"I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not Honour more ..."

[Here Honour stands for Duty.]

If the Ramayana or Mahabharata reflect the background and biases of the authors, just as the authors of Genesis had their own worldview that colored what they imagined, similarly the legendary poet Santokh Singh, writer of Suraj Parkash, or the oft quoted mystic Bhai Vir Singh had their own lens thorough which they saw the world.

And don't underestimate the biases and the colored glasses through which any reader (that is, you and me) reads and internalizes what is written.

T.S. Eliot tells us:

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving.

There is also the other side of the coin, to which he further says:

We shall not cease from exploration

And in the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Separating wheat from chaff, like unraveling strands of history is a never-ending task that every generation must do for itself. But it is not work; it is a pleasure.


November 22, 2010



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