A message for our troubled times

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While Guru Nanak is widely recognized as one of the greatest spiritual leaders and social reformers of all times, there is also need for placing his life and teachings in the context of present day problems and needs.

One of the most inspiring aspects of Guru Nanak’s life and work is his work as a human rights activist. While returning from one of his all too frequent travels, he came to know near Aminabad of the extreme distress of civilians taken as prisoners by an invading army. Guru Nanak protested against this even in those times of ruthless rulers and arbitrary actions. The impact of his spiritual strength and fame based on this was such that many prisoners were actually released.

But Guru Nanak stayed on for to ensure that people were not troubled again. When during his travels he was asked about his caste and his background, Guru Nanak often did not talk about his middle-class background and instead replied that he identifies himself with those who were considered the lowest of the low by society. This reveals that he was deeply troubled by the discrimination against the so-called low castes and was keen to use the influence of his spirituality and the fame based on this to promote the cause of the weakest and poorest sections.


While placing himself close to the poor and the exploited, Guru Nanak refused to accept the hospitality and food of those rich and influential persons who were widely known to be exploiters of the poor. Guru Nanak was a firm believer in communal harmony and this is how he was able to attract followers among Hindus as well as Muslims. This is also why he was equally at ease while travelling without any local contacts to areas dominated by diverse religious communities.

Guru Nanak rejected the exaggerated rituals of various religions, their claims to be the only truth and the strong tendency on the part of religious leaders to carve out a dominant and often lucrative position for themselves. Instead he emphasised spirituality based on a simple and ethical life and direct closeness or bhakti to God based on such a life. Compassion and truth were much more important to him than the rituals and fasts emphasised by so many other preachers. But while stressing on harmony and friendship between people of different religions and sects, Guru Nanak did not hesitate to confront and criticise the exaggerated, irrational and often expensive rituals of various religions which often took precedence over genuine spirituality.

People of various religions, particularly religious leaders, tend to be very touchy on these issues. So it is really amazing that Guru Nanak was able to get away with such opposition of rituals, particularly when he was travelling to new areas where he did not have any supporters or contacts at that time. One reason for this may be that the influence of his spiritual strength protected him, but this can at best only be a part of the explanation, particularly in the context of travel to new areas. This brings us to another special and interesting aspect of the life and achievements of Guru Nanak which relate to his skills as a great communicator.

As he travelled frequently to new places and interacted with strangers, Guru Nanak developed exceptional skills for getting across his point of view even among hostile people in new areas. Quite often when he wanted to oppose some hypocrisy or ritual, he achieved this not by raising a shrill voice against the ritual, but by quietly playing the role of a very innocent person who just could not comprehend or understand the logic or rationale of an empty ritual or a false belief. For example when he wanted to oppose the ritual of offering water to dead parents at a pilgrimage site, he simply stood in the opposite direction to pour water.

As he had anticipated, everyone started shouting at him that he was offering water in the wrong direction. Nanak now played the innocent to perfection and said, “My parents are not dead. They live in a village located in this direction. I thought after looking at all of you that if water poured by you can reach heaven which must be very far away, then surely water poured by me will reach my parents living in my village which is relatively nearer.”

Everyone started laughing instead of getting angry, but in a subtle way Nanak had told them about the absurdity of the ritual. At another time, tired after his travels, he fell asleep with his feet placed unintentionally towards a place of worship. He was rudely awakened by a narrow-minded religious leader who ordered him to immediately remove his feet from the position that pointed towards the place of worship.

Nanak did not move but very calmly told the aggressive man, “I am not aware of any direction where God does not exist. If you know such a direction then kindly move my feet in that direction.” The aggressor lurked away ashamed.

(The writers are, respectively, a freelance journalist who has been involved with various social movements and initiatives and a freelance writer and researcher.)