History of Sikhism

The Life of Guru Nanak

Guru Nanak (20 October 1469 - 7 May 1539) is the founder of Sikhism and the first of the ten Sikh Gurus. He was born in the village of Talwandi, now called Nankana Sahib, near Lahore in present-day Pakistan. His parents, Mehta Kalu and Matta Tripat, were Hindus and belonged to the merchant caste. Even as a boy, Nanak was fascinated by religion, and his desire to explore the mysteries of life eventually led him to leave home.

Nanak married a woman named Sulkhni, of Batala; together, they had two sons, Sri Chand and Lakhmi Das. His brother-in-law, the husband of his sister Nanki, got a job for him in Sultanpur as the manager of the government granary, but his employment there wouldn't last long.

One morning, when he was 28 years old, Nanak went (as usual) down to the river to bathe and meditate. It was said that he was gone for three days. When he reappeared, filled with the spirit of God, he said, "There is no Hindu and no Muslim." It was then that he began his missionary work and the religion of Skihism was born into the world.

Guru Nanak's Journeys

Tradition states that Nanak made four great journeys, traveling to all parts of India, and into Arabia and Persia; visiting Mecca and Baghdad. He spoke before Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Parsees, and Muslims. He spoke in the temples and mosques, and at various pilgrimage sites. It was during this period that Nanak met Kabir (1441-1518), a saint revered by both Hindus and Muslims.

Wherever he went, Guru Nanak spoke out against empty religious rituals, pilgrimages, the caste system, the sacrifice of widows, of depending on books to learn the true religion, and of all the other tenets that were to define his teachings. Never did he ask his listeners to follow him. He asked the Muslims to be true Muslims and the Hindus to be true Hindus.

Guru Nanak in Punjab

After the last of his great journeys, Guru Nanak settled in the town of Kartapur (in Punjab) on the banks of the Ravi where he taught for another fifteen years. Followers from all over came to settle in Kartapur to listen, and sing, and be with him. During this time, although his followers still remained Hindu, Muslim, or of the religion to which they were born, they became known as the Guru's disciples, or sikhs. It was here his followers began to refer to him as teacher, or guru.

It was here that the Guru told his followers that they were to be householders and could not live apart from the world—there were to be no priests or hermits. Here is where the Guru instituted the common meal; requiring the rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim, high caste and low cast, to sit together while eating. Here is where Lehna, later to be Guru Angad, came to be with Guru Nanak.

Just before Guru Nanak died, he called his disciples together and requested them to sing Sohila, the evening hymn. To satisfy both his Hindu and Muslim follower as to the funeral arrangements it is said he did not allow his body to remain behind.

The Ten Gurus of Sikhism

Sikhism was established and developed by ten Gurus during the period 1469 to 1708. Sikhs regard the ten Gurus not as divine, but as enlightened teachers through whom God revealed his will. Each Guru appointed his successor. Guru Nanak Dev was the first Guru and Guru Gobind Singh the final Guru in human form. Guru Gobind Singh designated the Sri Guru Granth Sahib the ultimate and final Sikh Guru.

The ten Gurus are:

  1. Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1539). The founder of Sikhism (see above).
  2. Guru Angad Dev (1504-52). Developed Gurmukhi, the script used for the Punjab language and composed 62 hymns that were later included in the Guru Granth Sahib.
  3. Guru Amar Das (1479-1574). Became Guru at the age of 73. Organized three annual gatherings for Sikhs, set up the first pilgrimage site at Goindval Sahib and introduced Sikh rituals for birth and death. His most famous hymn, Anand Sahib, is part of Sikh daily ritual.
  4. Guru Ram Das (1534-1581). Founded Amritsar, the holy city of Sikhism. His followers dug the pool that became the holy lake surrounding the Golden Temple. Composed the Lavan marriage hymn, still used in Sikh marriages.
  5. Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606). Collected the hymns of previous Gurus and added 2616 of his own to form the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism. He also built the Golden Temple.
  6. Guru Hargobind (1595-1644). The son of Guru Arjan. Proclaimed that the Guru is a military leader as well as spiritual leader, leading to conflict with the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
  7. Guru Har Rai (1630-1661). Grandson of Guru Hargobind.
  8. Guru Har Krishan (1656-1664). Younger son of Guru Har Rai. Became guru at the age of 5 and died of smallpox at the age of 8. He is the only Guru depicted in art without a beard.
  9. Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-75). Great-uncle of Guru Har Krishan. Was barred from Amritsar by Sikh rivals, so founded the Sikh center of Anandpur. Was beheaded in Delhi by Muslims for helping Brahmins avoid forcible conversion to Islam.
  10. Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708). Son of Guru Tegh Bahadur. Second only to Guru Nanak in importance, he is often shown prominently next to Nanak in Sikh art. Resisted oppression by Muhgal and Hindu authorities, exemplifying the Sikh ideal of the heroic saint-soldier. Founded the Khalsa and Sikh baptism, composed many poems, and nominated the Sikh sacred text as the final and enduring Guru.