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By - Dr. V. Raghavan

The role played by the Sikhs in the history of India is well-known but the contribution of the Gurus who founded Sikhism has not been so widely known and appreciated. The songs of Nanak and his successors form a precious part of the heritage of mystic religious poetry with which the Saints of India have enriched the local languages and sustained, inspired and guided the life and spirit of the people of the different regions of the country. But it cannot be said, even in respect of the scholarly and literary world, that the utterances of the Gurus have been as widely known and studied beyond the Sikhs who worship them as their sacred scripture and embodiment of divinity. From devotion and right conduct to the one highest Truth, devoid of name and form, the songs articulate and celebrate every aspect of spiritual life and stand in the glorious company of the outpourings of the Saints who appeared at different times and vitalised the faith of the people in every part of the country, the Devaram and Divya- prabandham of the Nayanmars and Alwars of Tamilnad, the Padas and Vacanas of the Haridasas and Sivasaranas of Karnataka, the songs of Bhaktas like Narasi Mehta, Mira, Kabir, Surdas and Tulsidas, the padas of Vidyapati and the writings of Sankaradeva in the East and of the music of Tyagaraja in the South.

The recent 300th Guru Govind birthday celebrations and the present celebration on a national scale of the Quin-centenary of Guru Nanak, the first of the Gurus and Founder of Sikh religion and thought, have served to create a country-wide interest in this valuable and voluminous branch of Indian literature. National celebrations like these will go a long way in the mutual understanding and appreciation of the cultural contributions of the languages and literatures of the different parts of the country and in the effective achievement of that emotional integration which is the utmost need of the hour. The message of Nanak as that of Kabir is addressed alike to Hindus and Muslims. Mohammed Iqbal whom the author of this Volume has quoted, observed that Guru Nanak’s Japji, is the quintessence of the Koran, and that Nanak was indeed a better exponent of the real tenets of Islam than many others who were ignorant of its spirit. It cannot be said that the study and writings in the subject of the Saint-Singers of India have been copious. Much remains to be done in the linguistic, literary, historical and philosophical exposition of this song-literature of India. While we are grateful to those who have taken interest in this line of work in the past, we should now undertake a planned project on the Saint-Singers of India comprising Bibliography, Dictionary, Translation, History and Exposition. The Nanak Quin-centenary, which has called forth a rich output of essays and studies will, I hope, lead towards such a comprehensive and scholarly undertaking.

My first contact with Dr. Trilochan Singh, among Sikh scholars and writers, was through the UNESCO- sponsored English translation of The Sacred Writings of the Sikhs, in which he is the Chief Translator. My own work on the Saint-Singers and the Nanak Seminars of the Sahitya Akademi have brought us together and I have had the benefit of his other writings on the life and work of the Sikh Gurus, A Brief Sketch of Guru Nanak; Guru Nanak's Religion: A Comparative Study of Religions, True Humanism of Guru Nanak; A Brief Sketch of Guru Govind Singh; Guru Govind Singh's ‘The Jap’ and Guru Tegh Bahadur, Prophet and Martyr.

Dr. Trilochan Singh has dealt with the thought, the teachings of Guru Nanak in his works referred to above, and in the present undertaking he has given us the detailed biography of the Founder of Sikhism. In an earlier brochure of his he has given A Brief Life Sketch of Guru Nanak and in his Foreward there, he had said that can complete biography of Guru Nanak entitled i(Guru Nanak : Founder of Sikhism” is under preparation by him and that this volume of over 500 pages embodies his intensive research into old traditional biographies of the Guru called Janma Sakhis and other historical records, and that he has been at this for the last fifteen years. The present Volume to which he has asked me to add an Introduction represents that exhaustive biography.

I gladly agreed to add my note to the Volume, as it afforded me an occasion for reading a connected account of the life and travels of the Guru and all the incidents with which traditionally, many of his songs have been woven and through which one is enabled to see the living expression of his godly spirit and teachings.

From the time of Vedic Rishis, the practice of moving about holy spots and sacred waters, visiting shrines and meeting other holy men (Tirthayatra Kshetratana and Satsanga) have been the effective technique of spreading the teachings and also making the masses feel the living presence amidst them of the sages. Not only the Vedic Rishis but also the characters in the Epics and the Great Acharyas or the founders of different systems of philosophy have all adopted this method of sacred tourism and thereby not only propagated the teachings but also made almost every small part of the country a holy place, fragrant with the memory of some teacher or other or of some miracle of his. This was also the way in which was achieved an integration of the hearts of the people and attunement to a common spiritual ideal. The author of this Volume correctly observes in his brochure on the, “True Humanism of Guru Nanak” “by travel from country to country, from one cultural region to another, Guru Nanak showed that a diversity of religious creeds, though a historical fact, is not an unsurmountable obstacle to human cooperation. In the face of individual and cultural divisions, he established good fellowship, brotherly intercourse and a spirit of union among various religious cultures making his humanism the meeting ground of all.” It is in this light that we have to understand the traditional accounts of the lives of all the sages and saints; although the particularities of incidents and circumstances vary, all of them fall into a common pattern, oriented towards the same ultimate purpose and bringing out all the facets of the personality of a teacher and the manifold ways in which his spiritual realisation, power and grace enlightened, uplifted and blessed the people.

As it is a special characteristic of Nanak’s teachings, that they comprehended not only the diverse indigenous faiths but also those of Hinduism and Islam, it is specially characteristic of Nanak’s life that he traversed, in the course of his spiritual guest, not only this whole vast country but also the island of Ceylon in the South and what is more, the countries beyond India, on the west, covering the Islamic world. It is in this respect that the scope of his life and mission is widened and comes to us with a more comprehensive and modern force.

The only considerable sources on the seventy years of the life of Nanak, from Talwandi to Kartar- pur, are the traditional Janma Sakhis. These are not really histories but hagiological accounts, mahatmyas. In the words of the author of this Volume they “are not life-stories of Guru Nanak”, “they are stories about Nanak, and crude mixtures’ of his life and legends” (p. 492). There is very little of external historical sources. In the situation, historical scholars have been very skeptic and have not been able to accept the adequacy of evidence even on such widely accepted beliefs as the Guru’s visit to Ceylon or his meeting with Babar1. Our biographer errs neither with such historians nor with the all-accepting devotees. As he has stated in his Preface, “he does not believe in the miracles and legends; he has for years been sifting the different Janma sakhis, examining the oldest manuscripts of these, and has provided here a synthetic narrative, not claiming either to have resurrected the historical Nanak nor to have reerected the Sage Nanak. “I have” he says ‘“tried to present the historical Nanak as a personality; laying stress in every chapter on his inner and outer developments and his responses to the social, cultural and political challenges, in the context of the political and cultural environments of the place and period. I have tried a synthesis between history as it happened and the interpretation of history, between Nanak the Man and his developing poetry and philosophy of life.” He calls this biography an “attempt to clear the way to the understanding of the historical, as well as the Sage Nanak we know from his writings.” (Preface p xi). He has used the writings of Nanak to check the material of the Sakhis (p. xii). Each chapter has Notes and References in which the authorities used are cited.

The Sakhis contain incidents and anecdotes; some are palpably anachronistic e.g. Nanak meeting Goraknath on Sumeru or going in to the sea and meeting Matsyendranath or even meeting Kabir at Banaras which the author has rejected; but this is the time-honoured way of integrating and establishing the spiritual tradition of a teacher. The incidents and anecdotes should be understood in depth and not on their nominal data. These encounters with ritualists and Pandits, in early life or later, emphasis the eternal truth proclaimed by the Upanishads that the Self is not to be realised by acts or learning both of which It transcends. His resort to any shrine or saint, Hindu or Muslim, underlines the universality of spiritual life and mystic experience transcending all names and forms.

The initial ignoring of the Saint, then the stages of ridicule, opposition, debate and victory over the detractors or opponents, the growth of admirers and adherents, the school of thought taking shape and gathering momentum—all this follows the common pattern of the life of a Saint or Teacher—after whom a new faith is founded. The anecdotes are therefore to be taken as a commentary on the songs of the Guru, such as has been written on most of our Saints; where they are in harmony with the meaning and spirit of the Songs they are to be taken as an upabrh- mana, a supplementation or amplification of the Songs; where they are against, they are to be ignored. To emphasise an idea or the uniqueness of a teacher, exaggeration is the time-honoured technique and if the Janma Sakhis, like their kindred writings, belittle other scholars, teachers and faiths and glorify their hero we should not be hard on them as this is a failing which even the so-called modern critical scholars are prone to.

Naturally, the attention of one like me is drawn especially to that part of the narrative which deals with Nanak’s itinerary in the South. His was the time of a great ferment of Bhakti, of Sankaradeva and Chaitanya in the East and Purandaradasa and Arunagirinatha in the South. The traditional accounts on Nanak mention a number of holy places in the South, sometimes with corrupt forms of their names, but none of the persons mentioned seem historical or important. The author of the biography says that intensive research in South Indian documents may yield corroborative data but what has so far been known does not throw any light. The exception seems to be Nanak’s visit to Ceylon. The author has been able to get a piece of epigraphic evidence, which he has set forth and discussed on pp 269-71, according to which, in the fifteenth year of King Parakramabahu, a religious teacher named Jnanakacharya is said to have visited Jayavardhana; it is argued that this may refer to Nanakacharya and the King Sivanabha of Ceylon of the Sakhis may be Vijayabahu VII, C. 1528 A.D. It is quite likely that at that time, already traders and Sadhus from Panjab had been moving about in South India.

The present biography is one more in the series of devoted studies which, Dr. Trilochan Singh, as a scholar, writer and a follower of the faith, has been contributing towards a better and fuller understanding of the Sikh Gurus and their lives and teachings. We congratulate him on this exhaustive account and look forward to his proposed critical analysis of the Janma Sakhis.


December 30, 1969.

V. Raghavan

Notes and References

1. E.g. see the recent work ‘Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion', by W. H. Mcleod, Oxford, 1968.