SIKHS across the world are celebrating Guru Nanak’s 550th anniversary today, and the fervour is enhanced by the opening of a key road between Pakistan and India that leads to his shrine in Kartarpur in Pakistan. Among the non-Sikhs who have revered Nanak are great Muslim poets. Nazeer Akbarabadi among them (1740-1830) in a paean to the Guru celebrated him for the succour he brought to those who embraced his message of human fellowship before one God. Allama Iqbal saw him as the seer who raised hopes for India’s social enlightenment after the country exiled Buddhism to foreign shores.
Sikhs who have endeared themselves to Nanak’s world of fraternity include excellent men and women. Foremost these days, in my mind, are the gallant men who escorted Kashmiri women from faraway Pune to their homes in besieged Srinagar. That they did so in the face of a delinquent state underscored the culture that Nanak bequeathed to his followers. Not any less in chivalry were the Sikhs who rushed to give succour and shelter to the communally shunned Rohingya refugees.
In a world overloaded with rites and traditions, Nanak’s followers have spawned a rainbow of eclectic heroes that few other religions can match. Where there are ardent believers and a surfeit of Good Samaritans in the fold, there are socially committed atheists and communists too. There are affluent entrepreneurs, promptly countered by the best trade union leaders and even more militant Sikh peasants.
Let’s put it this way. There would no Bhagat Singh without the message of fellowship and human bonding he imbibed from the saint-preacher from the late 15th century. Bhagat Singh who was hanged at the tender age of 23 wore the turban given by his religion but took it off without offending his community when he needed to disguise himself from his British pursuers to fight for India’s independence. He used Marxism to imagine a socially and politically enlightened post-colonial India at peace with itself. One of his last pieces of writings argued his case for dying as an atheist while still being proud of his Sikh heritage.
Sikhs who have endeared themselves to Nanak’s world of fraternity include excellent men and women.
Open the mind’s apertures a little and you would find an utterly brilliant Sikh politician in Canada, one of several, actually. In 2017, the turbaned Jagmeet Singh, now 40, became the first non-white head of a major Canadian party. His New Democratic Party is as far left as any in a First World country. There are rumours that Singh could become deputy prime minister in Justin Trudeau’s minority government whose numbers he helped slash in general elections two weeks ago.
In any case, it is delightful to hear him switch from fluent English to more fluent French while explaining his stand on issues. They may range from support to gay rights to opposing the expansion of a pipeline that carries oil through Canada’s mountains to its west coast, without first getting cleared by the threatened indigenous people. Leave alone religion, could any Indian or Pakistani politician take a public stand on sexual orientation of their people or oppose a project because the people feared its adverse impact on environment?
Jagmeet was denied Indian visa for his stand on the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. But he sees himself as following Guru Nanak’s path of asking questions relentlessly, to help people fight inequality and ignorance imposed by Brahminical blind faith and superstition. That this follower of Nanak is a first class leader of a First World country says something of his heritage.
Jagmeet Singh’s unique style of turban helps project a stridently multicultural society he wants Canada to remain. He reminds one of liberal writer Khushwant Singh who opposed religious and caste bigotry in the footsteps of Nanak while remaining a self-confessed atheist. How many religious communities can accept the dichotomy?
Harkishen Singh Surjeet was an archetypal Sikh, sporting a turban and a steel kara while leading the largest communist party in India. The affable sardarji was among the last party leaders to promote the use of Urdu to attract the masses, a practice shunned by his successors to the detriment of their cause. If Sikh women are at the forefront of the fight for gender rights it is because Guru Nanak was himself an ardent advocate of gender equality.
There is an uplifting song by the mystical minstrel Lalon Fakir in 19th-century Bengal, which seems to have its origin in Nanak’s teachings. Nanak was on the same page as the weaver-poet Kabir and cobbler-thinker Ravidas, who are thought to have been his contemporaries. “We can tell a Brahmin by his thread. How do we recognise his womenfolk?” Lalon wondered mockingly.
The question may have been lifted from a defining moment in Guru Nanak’s life when he was nine years old. His father, a high-caste Hindu, had arranged for the son’s thread ceremony but Nanak took the issue to his elder sister Nanaki who he loved and looked up to for guidance. He wondered why she never wore the thread. Why was it prescribed for all Hindus but excluded low-caste Shudras?
Nanaki said the question be raised with the Brahmin priest. Nanak was a brilliant student with a deep knowledge of the cultures and religions of his time. He asked the priest to explain the basis for excluding Muslims, many of whom were his friends, and Shudras and women from the thread ceremony. The priest said it was so prescribed by religious texts.
It naturally didn’t wash with the young boy, and after a long and absorbing discussion with the priest he found support from the guests who were listening in. The ritual abandoned, Nanak summed up his thoughts thus: “Make compassion the cotton, contentment the thread, modesty the knot and truth the twist. This is the sacred thread of the soul; if you have it, then go ahead and put it on me.”
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2019