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Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterji President, Sahitya Akademi National Professor of India in Humanities

Sri Guru Nanak Dev, who is respected all over the world (among intellectual sections with an international approach for matters of the Spirit), as the Founder of the Khalsa Panth, or the Sikh Faith was born on October, 20 1469 A.D. This was a full moon day, the Karttiki-Purnima in the Vikram Samvat Era 1526, according to Hindu computation; and this Karttiki- Purnima is also known as Rasa-Purnima. In India births and other personal events are computed in the traditional way, according Xo the phases of the moon; and although now European dates are coming into vogue, orthodoxy still retains the old usage. This year, (1969), the official celebration, according to Indian calendar, of Guru Nanak’s birth fell on the full moon night of Karttika on the 23rd of November; and this was particularly a great day for India, as it marked the fifth Centenary of the birth of this great teacher. The people of India as a whole, including the millions of Sikhs living within India and scattered all over the world, celebrated with devoted zeal and gratitude this fifth centenary of a great event.

The Government of India, true to its popular character as a Government of the people, have arranged for a year-long celebration of this Centenary, starting on the 23rd of November. Sikh religious institutions (Gurdwaras etc) big and small, have all celebrated the religious side of this great event by instituting regular readings from the Sikh sacred scriptures, and by chanting and singing religious songs and performing all suitable ceremonies. The Government of India has inaugurated a series of Seminars on Guru Nanak and his personality and teachings, in five different important centres in India—Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and Ludhiana, and these Seminars are being held under the auspicious of the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters), Delhi, and its different branches under the direction of Central Ministry of Education, New Delhi. Through these Seminars a good deal of recent information about Guru Nanak is being systematically brought to the notice of the Indian scholarly world, both Sikh and non-Sikh, and their deliberations, often very valuable and presenting new and unexpected aspects of Guru Nanak’s life and teachings will be presented before the public in due course. The intellectual elite among the Sikhs have not remained idle, and as a result we have a series of very valuable books as well as monographs on Guru Nanak, and also on different aspects of his life and character, his personality and teachings, his philosophy and achievements, and on various other matters connected with Sikh Faith. We have thus a great incentive given to the scholarly world in India, and also in some cases outside India, to take up anew and in greater detail the question of Guru Nanak and his Sikh Faith. The memory of a great historical event is in this way conducing to an intellectual upsurge of this character.

Among various books and papers which have come out and are coming out on Guru Nanak, the present work by Dr. Trilochan Singh, Guru Nanak: Founder of Sikhism\ is quite an important one, when we consider its various fresh approaches to the question. The people of the Panjab (and along with them those of the rest of India) became immediately conscious of the value of Guru Nanak’s advent and his teachings after he began to preach to them; and Guru Nanak built up and organised during his lifetime a very important religious persuasion which was broad-based on the foundations of Vedantic Monotheistic Jnana and Puranic Bhakti. The faith preached by Guru Nanak was nothing new for India, it was basically the old monotheistic creed of the ancient Hindus as propounded in the Vedas and the Upanishads—the Vedanta with its insistence upon Jnana or Knowledge of the One Supreme Reality. And this monotheistic basis was fortified, so to say, to put the matter in a simple form by Bhakti or Faith as inculcated in later Puranic Hinduism. The Sikh Panth was nothing but a reformed and simplified Sanatana Dharma of medieval times. But it was not merely that. It brought in something more, and herein lies the special character of the message of Guru Nanak. He insisted upon men having a direct living Knowledge of and Faith in the One Supreme Divinity, in the first instance. The One and the Many were the two sides, the obverse and reverse of the Ultimate Reality that is behind life. The conception of a manifold manifestation of God, as in the various gods and goddesses of Hinduism, greater and lesser, was permitted in Hindu religious consciousness. But with the chal-lenge from Islam, which was hammering at the door of Hinduism, the challenge with its intransigent monotheistic creed, which excluded the slightest suspicion of duality, had to be met by Guru Nanak through an equally insistent conception of and faith in Advaita—the God who is One without a second.

On a lower plane the acceptance of all divine manifestations could be admitted, but Guru Nanak drew the exclusive attention of his followers to the, One and not to the Many. Herein he was a true representative of the ancient sages, the Vedicand Upanishadic Rishis of India.

The next thing that we can note in Guru Nanak, which formed one of the fundamental propositions made by him, was the Absolute Equality of Man and Man. From the very beginning of his career, as a religious teacher, which may be said to have started from boyhood, he had denied the religious support of the Caste System which assumed certain fundamental inequalities among men. Nanak believed in the Human Personality, which was by itself above all labels of race, religion and social status. For him a good Musalman, a Musalman who led a good life, was as good "a man as a Hindu of the same type. This fie sought to impress upon his disciples. There were several other matters, but these two were fundamental. Then, again, he was a believer in a normal human life, and ordinary people were to live according to reason and good sense the normal life of a family man. He never tried to force upon people, as a sine qua non for spiritual development, the life of a celibate monk.

Guru Nanak travelled a great deal, and certainly during his time, he was, at least among Indians, one of the most widely-travelled of men. He was a good man and a great man, who lived with all his thoughts immersed in the love of God, a man who was meek and humble, and who travelled both to gain experience and knowledge and to share his own knowledge and experience with others. Such a person could not be described as one who was, at least outwardly, anything extraordinary and above the ordinary. But even in this average life of wanderings, to preach the truth that he had intuitively arrived at, there were plenty of instances of a profoundly spiritual character which marked him off from the rest of the world.

Excepting for a few beautiful stories showing his faith and his wisdom, which we can never omit to bring in while speaking about his life and personality, we can dispose of the main facts of his life in a few sentences. He was from his very childhood indifferent to worldly affairs, and to material success, and to money-making. He was deeply religious; he could not tolerate certain sectarian and exclusive ideologies and meaningless ceremonies which were based on these ideologies, as all these militated against his great realisation and sense of his unity with the various component elements in human society. Labels of religion and caste etc. were, as he was convinced, man-made; and so for him they had no spiritual value. He had a normal family life, and he had regard for his wife and children, and he did not approve of the life of a celibate mendicant who abandoned his responsibilities. He had a number of profound spiritual experiences which alone enabled him to take up the role of a teacher both with conviction and with a sense of grace. When he felt that he was in possession of the Truth, he wanted to extend its horizon all through society, if it could be done, and also to share it with others, by undertaking extensive tours. His tours were in his own state of the Panjab and also in Eastern and North-Eastern India, as well as in Southern India, in Ceylon, in Western India, in Central India and also in the lands beyond India, to the North in Central Asia, and to the North-West and West, in Iran and Iraq and even in Arabia. He had the spontaneous homage of a large section of the people who listened to him, and he made both Hindus and Muslims his disciples. After a life of 60 years, almost entirely from boyhood spent in this dispensation, he passed away in 1539, when the light merged into the great Light: jot mai jot samai.

This has been his simple life. But naturally the faith of his devotees came in quite early, and they embellished this simple godly career with a number of legends and miracles. There was no certain record of his life and of his travels, much less of his itinerary in the different parts of India and the world outside India. Contradictory statements were found in his various biographies, the historical values of which has in all cases been questioned, and they require to be sifted with care. We had to be content only with the broad facts, eked out by such details and amplifications as were made by his devoted disciples, who wrote his biographies in an uncritical age. Nevertheless, the main items of his career including his itineraries seemed to be quite clear, as they were also in the case of his great predecessor, in bringing high thinking to the masses of people through religion—Sankracharya—who flourished some 700 years before him. The ‘historical facts’ of Sankaras’s travels as in a work like the ‘Sankara- Vijaya, are of the same nature as of the similar history behind the various Janam-Sakhis (or Stories of Birth) and other literature connected with Guru Nanak. As in earlier times, people in their piety were quite content to take their great religious leader, who was their Master and Guide and Exemplar in life, as a semi-divine person. The broad and essential facts about him were quite enough, and people did not bother for a systematic or authentic biography. A great many stories of pietistic character, and some of them very beautiful in their truth and their human quality—these were quite enough; and they are quite enough for the ordinary run of people for all time.

But when an intellectual interest of the modern type began to develop, which sought to bring in historical Knowledge to the support of Faith, people were not content with this. As it happened in the case of other religious leaders, particularly in India, it was, as Dr. Trilochan Singh tells us, when the poet Santokh Singh attempted the first proper biography of Guru Nanak, known as the Nanak-Prakash, which was written in 1823 A.D., people of an intellectual bent of mind were anxious to find out the historical Nanak, the real Man behind the semidivine Saint, Sage and Teacher. Nanak Prakash has been the great work to fall back upon for a kind of systematic presentation of Nanak’s life and movements, for about a century, and most of the subsequent works were based on this. There were some attempts made by some European scholars, naturally based on Sikh materials, to write biographies of Guru Nanak. One of the earliest books written by a European was R.N. Cust’s Life of Nanak which was written in 1864. During the last two decades of the 19th century, a few other works also came out, and the interest that Bengal had felt in the life of the great Guru and the Sikh Panth also was responsible for giving some books on Guru Nanak and his successors, both for the information of Bengali readers and of the English-reading public outside Bengal. We can mention in this connection the book in Bengali written by Tinkori Banerjee, a well documented little work which came out in its first edition in 1896. Now with the growing interest which is being manifested in Guru Nanak, not only among Sikhs, but also among other Hindus, we have quite a large number of books as well as monographs and papers on Guru Nanak. The Fifth Centenary of Guru Nanak’s birth, which started from November 1969, naturally has come with its quota of such contributions from some Sikh scholars and others on Guru Nanak.

A few works that I have seen do not seek to give a systematic and historically accurate presentation, in so far as it is possible to do it, of the facts of Guru Nanak’s life. There have been some very learned and well-written treatises on Guru Nanak’s ideas and teachings as well as on his organisation and his achievement, his personality and character. But a factual study of his life seeking to give in a proper historical sequence all that he did and said, at home and in his travels, is still a desideratum. But Sikh scholarship combined with Sikh piety and faith, has not lagged behind, and among such works relating to a proper biography of Guru Nanak, one must mention a number of papers and monographs which have been appearing in different Sikh Journals, like the Sikh Review of Calcutta. The question of Guru Nanak’s travels— a proper itinerary mentioning the places which can be expected to ,have been visited by him and the contacts he might have made with different personalities in the context of his travels, his routes and his sojourns, his conversations and his discussions, all this have been sought to be found out through investigation and also through legitimate surmise. Attempts have been made to place on a map the routes of his travels, and to relegate the great stories or events, in the traditional account of the great Guru, with actual places and with actual personalities.

The present work by Dr. Trilochan Singh, as far as I can see, fills, more than any other book that I can think of, the lacunae which are still painfully noticeable in the study of Guru Nanak’s life. Dr. Trilochan Singh has got the requisite qualification for undertaking a work of this nature. He is not only well-up in the Guru- Vani, the basic writings of the Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak, and with all great books of Sikh history and tradition, but he possesses, also the very necessary knowledge of connected matters like the history of religious movements, contemporaneous with or anterior to the advent of Guru Nanak, and in the history of the Sikhism. He knows not only the language of Guru-Vani but also his own mother-tongue Panjabi, and besides of course Urdu, and Persian, Sanskrit and Hindi, and several other related languages: and I can testify from my personal knowledge to his very close acquaintance with the Bengali language also- This is a rare accomplishment, and in some respects helpful in his work. Then, his book he intends to be a repository of attested facts connected with the life of Guru Nanak. He does not simply give a short hear-say evidence, nor does he take things as they are described with naive faith or credulity. One great value of his Guru Nanak: Founder of Sikhism, is that he makes a statement in a simple unadorned manner and in support of his text to establish a point, he, brings in corroborative quotations from Guru Nanak’s own words as in the Guru-Granth. Statements made in the text are always fortified in this way by giving full quotations in the Notes and References to the various chapters from relevant literature, whether Sikh, as in the Panjabi language, or in the Guru-Vani speech, and from historical and other works which supply him with his source-material. The quotations from the Sikh and other Indian texts are always given for convenience in the Roman script, in a rough- and-ready but very practical system of transliteration, and they are always accompanied by English translations. In this way we have here a first-rate fully documented statement of the main facts of Guru Nanak’s life, including his long travels and actual or possible disputations and discussions which he had in the course of these travels.

A work of this type is unquestionably unique. Dr. Trilochan Singh has already made his mark as a historian of Sikhism following this method. In 1967 he brought out a fairly extensive work of research, which I think, can be described as quite outstanding for Indian history. It was his biography Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru who was martyred under orders of Aurangzeb in Delhi: and the place of martyrdom is now seat of a very great centre of Sikhism in North-India—the Sis-ganj Gurdwara in Chandni Chauk. In this book Dr. Trilochan Singh has given what may be considered to be the attested facts established with the help of authentic historical documents and supported with quotations from all sorts of Sikh and other religious writings which are ancillary for the purpose; and these are given in Roman transcription with translation in each case. The value of such work would be admitted to be inestimable.

Sikh scholars have been trying for the last few decades to piece together the history of the great Guru’s travels. One serious attempt started during the second decade of this century by some Sikh military men in the British Indian Army, finding themselves in Mesopotamia—Baghdad—during the First World War, and they attempted to re-discover the path of Guru Nanak during his sojourn and journey in and about Baghdad. In this way, bit by bit, the full itinerary of Guru Nanak has been sought to be discovered and brought together. The same thing has been done in the case of the itineraries of Chaitanya by a scholar of the erudition of the late Sir Jadunath Sarkar, eminent historian of the late mediaeval period of Indian history. Scholars of Assam have similarly tried to establish the long series of pilgrimage routes which were followed by Sri Sankara Deva.

One can have the highest praise for these attempts. But all that can be said at the present day is that the matter requires to be further studied and weighed out. There is also (and naturally enough) deep down in the religious consciousness of Sikh writers, who took up this work as a pious duty, primarily with Guru Nanak as a God-inspired Saint, as they are accustomed to look upon him. Guru Nanak was one of the greatest spiritual personalities, and therefore in the first instance, it would be only proper to expect that the light of his wisdom and faith also spread; during his travels and this light must have illumined the minds and spirits of all and sundry who came in touch with him. Great souls seek the company of or community with great souls—“like unto like”: and therefore it would be a subject of anxious enquiry to find out whether there was an actual dialogue, and mutual benefit through this dialogue—particularly from the light which the illustrious Guru Nanak shed around him—between some of the greatest contemporaries of Guru Nanak in other centres of India, specially with Sri Sankara Deva of Assam and with Chaitanya Deva of Bengal. A similar idea we find in early medieval India when it was thought that it would be only natural that some of the great poets of Sanskrit like Kalidasa, Bhartrihari and Bhavabhuti were contemporaries, and. that they met at the court of some great king like Vikramaditya or Bhoja, whose dates, imaginary or' actual, were ignored. It may not be as bad as that in the case of Guru Nanak and his other two contemporaries. At least they lived within the same period (Sankara Deva flourished from 1449 to 1569, Guru Nanak from 1469 - 1539, and Chaitanya from 1485 to 1533). About these religious leaders in the East having met Guru Nanak, there is no authentic or ancient document or tradition. An Oriya biography of Chaitanya the date of which is not known, and the authenticity of which has not yet been fully established, has been laid under requisition by Dr. Trilochan Singh, to establish that Guru Nanak and Chaitanya had met and stayed together for some days and participated in their devotional singing of Kirttans. I would consider this to be doubtful because Chaitanya’s Bengali Kirtanas centering round the love of Radha and Krishna would not meet with the fullest approval of Guru Nanak, primarily because he was a Nirguna Upasaka—a devotee of the attributeless God. Deep down below the surface, there is of course the fundamental agreement of all religious aspirations. But it would be quite an assumption that there was a meeting and that there was an immediate understanding. This interview and dialogue between Chaitanya and Nanak attributed to the Oriya poet Ishvaradasa of unknown date and authenticity has been taken over by believing research scholars following Dr. Trilochan Singh and possibly it will become established as genuine fact in the life of both of these great saints.

But it would be best to wait and shift the evidence more thoroughly. Similarly with regard to the visit of Guru Nanak to Ceylon, Dr. Trilochan Singh, following some other scholars, has connected Guru Nanak with a teacher from North known as “Jnana- kacharya” who held disputations with Ceylonese Buddhist scholars in the court of a Sinhalese king. Herein also we should have the fullest caution.

But, I need not start what is called in Sanskrit “Makshiki-Vritti—the fault—finding operation of a fly which would seek to find out a sore or an eruption on the body. Whether it has been successfully done or not Dr. Trilochan Singh’s work, and of other scholars striving on the same lines of investigation, do certainly present to us as kind of framework of wood a Kathamo, as we use the Bengali expression— for a factual study of Guru Nanak’s great life. There has to be a rigorous checking up with the toponymy of India in the 15th and 16th centuries A.D. before we can set about identifying places mentioned in the traditional biographies of Guru Nanak Deva. We should for example eschew all mythical place- names like the country of Rani Nurshah, Kadali Vana and Ashoka-Vana in Ceylon regarded as historical. But these identifications, and our anxiety to establish them, do not at all touch the fringe of Guru Nanak’s great glory in the dissemination of his ideas and bringing life to a people which seemed to be dying both in the material and in the intellectual as well as in the spiritual plane. The greatness of Guru Nanak is the greatness of his Spirit, and not the greatness of his geographical wanderings or in the peregrinations in the quest of truth. But that he impressed people everywhere by his profound godliness and his faith in God is the fact which comes out from the plethora of miraculous stories which are said to have taken place in faraway places, for which authentic evidence would indeed be extremely difficult to procure, and even to find a continuity of a sure tradition. But still, whatever Dr. Trilochan Singh has been able to glean in this matter from diverse sources, acknowledging his obligation to previous workers in this field in every case, and modestly claiming for himself what he himself was privileged to discover, has been placed in this book before the scholarly world in a spirit of sincere desire to find out the truth. He has not remained content just to give an occasional casual reference to a Sikh text, but has in almost all cases, wherever it was necessary given original quotations in Romanized Panjabi or Gurvani, and this is something for which Dr. Trilochan Singh can be heartily congratulated—he deserves our grateful thanks for this.

This book has come up to over 500 pages. I think that, as it stands, it will remain as a sort of great source-book for facts of Guru Nanak’s life. And such a source book, well documented is something which very properly makes its appearance 500 years after the birth of Guru Nanak. Those who are interested in Sikh studies, and above all in the great personality of Guru Nanak Deva will have reason to thank both the learned author Dr. Trilochan Singh and the Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Sis-Ganj, Chandni Chauk Delhi for giving out at the proper time this very fine and conscientious piece of research work. Wah-i-Guruji ka Khalsa Wah-i-Guruji ki Fateh

Suniti Kumar Chatterji


16, Hindusthan Park, Calcutta-2 9 December 25, 1969