It’s hard to conceive that in this time and ambience of extreme religious and sectarian polarities, any Pakistani would think of sticking his neck out to pay voluminous tribute to the founding father of a non-Islamic faith.

Haroon Khalid is, however, one such intrepid soul who found himself fascinated by the founding father of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, to the extent that he has produced a well-researched and exquisitely crafted biography. Khalid’s moorings as an anthropologist serve him with sound logic to focus on a real-life character who chiselled out a new, syncretic and eclectic faith from the wombs of the South Asian subcontinent’s two principal religions, Islam and Hinduism.

However, the main focus of the scholar in the author is Guru Nanak’s humanism, which became more appealing to him because of Nanak’s provenance as a son of the soil that is now Pakistan. His roots were here, in the heartland of Punjab. That lends Nanak the unique perspective of a ‘home-town boy.’ He was as much a product of the Pakistani Punjab as is, if you like, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

A devotee’s paean to the founder of Sikhism

Khalid grew so enthused by the doings — for want of a better word — of the son of the Pakistani soil that he literally embarked on tracing the footsteps of Nanak, the mendicant humanist, who spent the greater part of his life wandering in search of light, gyan [awareness] and enlightenment.

In an act of veneration for the Sikh saint, Khalid journeyed to all the places in Pakistan traversed by Nanak five centuries ago, visiting sites and gurdwaras that are holy to Sikhs of all persuasion. But Khalid didn’t feel the need to visit sites outside Pakistan where Nanak spent time devoted to meditation. One such place familiar to this reviewer is in Baghdad, Iraq. During my sojourn there, I often visited the unremarkable mazar of the great mystic, Behlol-i-Dana [Behlol the Wise] who was a thorn in the side of the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad. On his way to Makkah for Hajj, Nanak conducted a 40-day meditation at Behlol’s graveside.

In history’s frame, Nanak’s epoch was that cusp of Indian history when the Lodhis were on their way out and the Mughals on their way in. He made it a point to steer clear of the dynastic conflict. In fact, the turbulence and tussle over power rendered Nanak’s passage unhindered. Some of his successors weren’t that lucky, or were unwise to have taken sides in the Mughal princes’ internecine conflicts. Those backing the losing horse paid the ultimate price for their naivety: in its pantheon of gurus, Sikh history hails two as martyrs beheaded by Mughal emperors Jehangir and Aurangzeb.

In its pristine sense, Nanak’s was a movement of a reformer with an idealist streak of mind. He wanted to fashion a faith pooling the best traits of Islam and Hinduism. Born into a Hindu family, he imbibed a lot of Islam from his surroundings. His best friend and wandering companion was a Muslim and a mendicant like him, with the interesting name of Bhai Mardana.

But did Nanak succeed in his life-mission of bridging the gulf between Hindus and Muslims? Did his blending of the two main faiths of India have a meaningful impact on its bastion? Did Nanak’s impeccable humanism prevail in the face of Hindutva’s caste-oriented obscurantism?

The answer is no. Nanak failed, as had Buddha millennia before him. Hardcore Hinduism, swearing by its creed of compartmentalising men by the accident of their birth, had managed to banish Buddhism from India and heaved a sigh of relief when East Asians embraced their exile. Sikhism fared better because of its native Punjab and, more pointedly, because Hindus had no political clout to exorcise Sikhs as they had the devotees of Buddha.

In an act of veneration for the Sikh saint, Khalid journeyed to all the places in Pakistan traversed by Nanak five centuries ago, visiting sites and gurdwaras that are holy to Sikhs of all persuasion.

The Hindu-Muslim cleavage, however, outlived Nanak and still does, even more menacingly than in his lifetime. Khalid has copiously, yet succinctly, narrated the comic-tragic drama that kicked off when it was time to bury Nanak. It almost reads as the defining footnote to Nanak’s failure to mint his humanism as his land’s moral creed: “When Nanak passed away a controversy erupted. His followers started to argue about the rites that they should perform over his body. The Hindus argued that since he was born into a Hindu household they should cremate him, whereas the Muslims argued that since he had challenged the doctrines of Hinduism he was a Muslim and should be buried as a Muslim. Isn’t it interesting to note that in this argument Nanak’s followers lost the point of Nanak’s teachings? If something like this happens several years after one’s death, that is a separate matter, but this was happening right after his death. While this argument was brewing, it turned into a fight, and the group decided to postpone the decision till the next day.

“The next day when the followers of Guru Nanak gathered, they found that his body had disappeared, and there were flowers in its place. It was decided that the flowers be divided into two parts. One of which was cremated and then a samadhi [tomb] was constructed on top, while the other was buried like a Muslim. The Sikhs say that even in death Guru Nanak had performed a miracle.”

Nanak’s romantic humanism does not seem to have survived intact. Not too long after him, Sikh gurus forsook the path of ahimsa [respect for living things and avoidance of violence] dictated by their faith’s founder and took to the sword.

Khalid burnishes the image of Pakistan as a tolerant country for minority rights — something that today’s Pakistan-bashers would find hard to stomach at face value. He cites the case of a Sikh shrine, Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj, built on the site of an erstwhile mosque in the Naulakha Bazaar area of Lahore during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign. Detractors of Pakistan may have a hard time accepting that successive courts of justice in Pakistan accepted the Sikh claim on their gurdwara on that site and rejected the Muslims’ plea that it belonged to their mosque. In 2004, Punjab’s Auqaf Department fully restored the gurdwara, to the delight of the Sikhs.

But if Pakistan is well and truly a tolerant society, how is it that Khalid’s book was printed in India and not in Pakistan?

The reviewer is a retired ambassador with nine published works of prose and poetry

Walking with Nanak
By Haroon Khalid
Tranquebar Press, India
ISBN: 978-9385152993
314pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 28th, 2017