Guru Nanak: Harish Dhillon; Indus Source Books, Mumbai; pp 224; Rs 195.00
This extremely well-written book on Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, described as ?the youngest religion of the world? is part of a series on Spiritual Masters published by the Mumbai-based publishing house, Indus Source Books which has already to its credit a book each on the Buddha and Sai Baba. Harish Dhillon'sstudy of Guru Nanak is third in the series and a most welcome addition, especially because there is so little known about this greatly saint who revelled in his ordinariness, constantly denied that he was in any way a saint, a saviour or a redeemer and who not even claimed any divine inspiration. Yet, not only was Nanak loved and respected in his own life time, his name continues to be revered in millions of homes across the country, and even abroad. His name is inscribed as Hazrat Rab-i-Majib, Baba Nanak Faqir Aulia on a memorial in Baghdad. In his own native land he is known as Satguru Nanak Dev. Sujan Rai Bhandari, a contemporary of Aurangzeb, writing a hundred and fifty years after Nanak'sdeath, referred to him as ?the chosen man of the world? during whose time ?he was the leader of the caravan on the Path of Truth? and ?the torch bearer on the way of real religion?.
Apart from this and a brief biography written by his near contemporary Bhai Gurdas there is little authentic information available on Nanak. Even the first attempts at writing Nanak'sbiography, the Janmasakhis could only draw upon oral traditions. As Harish Dhillon writes, one often thinks of Nanak as belonging to the mythical times of King Arthur, rather than, as Navtej Sarna so pertinently points out in his excellent work: The Book of Nanak, someone who lived at the time when Columbus discovered America and Magellam completed his first voyage round the world, and the printing press was invented. That is why it needs to be stressed that Nanak founded the youngest religion in the world 1,400 years after the birth of Christ and about 900 years after the birth of Islam.
Nanak was born on the night of Vaisakha Sudh 3 corresponding to April 15, 1469 to a family in Punjab. The timing of Nanak'sbirth will explain the emergence of a new religion. By the beginning of the 15th century, India had witnessed Islamic rule, mostly in north India. Starting with Mahmud Ghazni'sfirst invasion of India in 1001 AD, Muslim hordes had again and again sought to establish their presence in Bharat and they included the Ghoris, the Tughlaqs, the Suris and the Lodhis. The coming of these invaders started a process of ?assimilation? but only culturally. In terms of religion, Islam could never accommodate with the prevailing ?Hinduism?. Hindus were invariably considered a threat to Muslim rule and they were subjected to every kind of humiliation and brutality by Muslim rulers in an attempt to force them to convert to Islam.
As Dhillon correctly notes: ?For almost five hundred years the Hindus groaned under the yoke of Muslim rule-the cruelties and barbarism heaped upon them in the name of religion were beyond anything that they had endured in the past.? Dhillon provides details of the barbarities and insults heaped on Hindus by barbarian Muslims and writes that the time was ripe for the reformist movements in Hindu society. As Dr R.C. Majumdar notes in his preface to The Delhi Sultanate (published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan), ?It was the age of those mystic saints like Ramananda, Kabir, Chaitanya and Nanak whose noble lives and religious teachings, embodies in simple pious sayings, may be looked upon as the richest legacy of the period.? Adds Majumdar: ?These great religious teachers ushered in a Catholic spirit in religion and elevated it to a high spiritual level and by their precept and example shed a lustre on the age.? How did they go about it? What, for example, are the origins of Nanak? What moved him to be what he was and became? Dhillon has taken great pains to describe the birth, childhood and growth of Nanak and his various travels to Macca and Medina and back to Punjab via Iran and Afghanistan at a time when communication was immeasurably hard and travel was only for the truly adventurous.
And yet Nanak travelled far and wide, from his native Punjab to Benaras, Golaghat, Shillong, Chittagon and Dhaka, Calcutta (then only a village), Cuttack, Puri, Central India and then all the way down to Sri Lanka and thence to west India all the way to Gujarat and from there back to Punjab via Rajasthan. Undoubtedly Nanak and his followers had tremendous stamina; His message was clear: ?There is no Hindu or Mussalman, and so I can be neither. I worship only the one and only Eternal Lord.? Dhillon not only records Nanak'sextensive travels but his teachings as well. There is long composition by Nanak which his followers recite like the Japji and which Dhillon describes as a ?popular folk form of a heroic ballad? known as the var and consists of twenty four pauris or verses and fifty nine slokas or couplets.
There is reference, too, to Onkar which is a summary of the discourses Nanak gave to learned men. There are references too, to Rehras or the evening prayer which Sikhs recite around sunset and the four short hymns by Nanak beginning with the Sodar, literally ?the gateway to God?. And Nanak'sBani sums up his perception of God, existence and man'splace and role in the world. Dhillon'sbiography of Nanak happily covers Nanak'sfull life and is an easy read and brings out not only the spiritual man but the social reformer as well.
Nanak was opposed to idol worship; he was against the caste system. Writes Dhillon: ?Nanak preached that life is real and not maya or illusion. In this concept Nanak shows a spirit of affirmation which is the essence of all his teachings. He supports the institution of marriage and family and encourages man to be positive and productive member of society. He exhorts us to remember that the Supreme Reality that created this universe will not neglect His creation.? As was stated earlier, the Janmasakhis were the first attempt to compile a comprehensive biography of Nanak, but as Dhillon ruefully admits, interesting and fascinating as they were, they do not carry the stamp of authenticity. But no matter. What Nanak sought was to bring about not a synthesis of Islam and Hinduism but to emphasis such similarities between them as could be acceptable to both Hindus and Muslims, both of whom claimed Nanak as their own, as was best noticed during Nanak'slast hours so beautifully pictured by the author. Nanak did not seek to change Hinduism which, because of its very catholicity would have been hard to change anyway. But if his teachings have survived, it is because, as Majumdar puts it ?their root lay deep in the soil of India?.