I came to appreciate the significance of this year quite late and quite suddenly. Admittedly, among the daily comings and going of life, I wasn’t paying attention. And so, when the last days of October turned to the advent of November, I found myself unprepared in my unmindful state.
This year, by culturally established timekeeping, is the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikhs. Traditionally celebrated in November, tributes to Guru Nanak on this anniversary began appearing on my social media feeds. And, there were nearly as many different characterizations of Guru Nanak as there were tributes: prophet, teacher, inspirer, activist, revolutionary, environmentalist. In reading all of the tributes, I was left with the feeling that no one description, and even the entirety of all the descriptions, was capturing who, or what, was Guru Nanak. Some articles took a dispassionate, academic frame while others harbored a public relations tone (as is often now a motivation in many public Sikh exercises in the west). Still other expressions were more emotional and reactionary. Politicians in the United States and around the world posted their greetings to the community, furiously shared and liked by many. On this this latter note, I detected a sense of inadequacy around celebrating Guru Nanak, that his greatness was evidenced by the famed and elites acknowledging him, and as if this somehow confers his legitimacy. All the while, we know from his life that the Guru rejected such a need for validation.
My inability to wrap my head around these tributes feels like a personal failing and haunts me. How can I relate to Guru Nanak when words about him fail to connect? As a GurSikh — a Sikh of the Guru who is both centuries removed from his existence and yet only seconds removed from his teachings — what does it mean to harbor this inability to capture explicitly the significance of Guru Nanak? As his follower, how can I say I know him when I feel I am unable to fully describe him?
Despite all of the laudatory tributes today, Guru Nanak did not claim for himself any such praise. Quite the opposite, in his bani — his word/speech — he self-describes using terms such as “dust”, “beggar”, “fool”, or “sinner”. His expressed that his human existence was an obstacle to merging with the Divine, and his mission — his entire being — was driven towards reconnection with this all-pervasive entity within and outside of (what we can recognize as) creation. He sought to bring down the walls that separate us from the single, universal Entity — walls constructed with the bricks of five “thieves” (lust, anger, greed, attachment and ego/pride) that distract us from the Divine. Emerging from his mission perhaps comes everything else we may claim about him, but without understanding this foundational aspect of Guru Nanak, everything else feels off the mark.
One cannot read his teachings without reflecting on personal resistances that uphold these walls. Guru Nanak sought to destroy these walls and bring these false houses down, seeking instead shelter within the Divine. He challenged himself, those around him, and those in power with this understanding. Everything is of the Divine and forgetting this leads to our ruin. And so, when I think about my own submission to these obstacles, I see that Guru Nanak is condemning the house I have built. He seeks to destroy these walls to liberate me, and yet, while I understand and accept this truth, in my failings it is hard for me to accept this in a practical way.
On page 943 of the Guru Granth Sahib, a conversation between Guru Nanak and siddhas (Hindu ascetics) is recorded, where, upon their questioning of his spiritual credentials, Guru Nanak relayed to them:
ਪਵਨ ਅਰੰਭੁ ਸਤਿਗੁਰ ਮਤਿ ਵੇਲਾ ॥
From the air came the beginning. This is the age of the True Guru’s Teachings.
ਸਬਦੁ ਗੁਰੂ ਸੁਰਤਿ ਧੁਨਿ ਚੇਲਾ ॥
The Shabad is the Guru, upon whom I lovingly focus my consciousness; I am the chaylaa, the disciple.
ਅਕਥ ਕਥਾ ਲੇ ਰਹਉ ਨਿਰਾਲਾ ॥
Speaking the Unspoken Speech, I remain unattached.
ਨਾਨਕ ਜੁਗਿ ਜੁਗਿ ਗੁਰ ਗੋਪਾਲਾ ॥
O Nanak, throughout the ages, the Lord of the World is my Guru.
ਏਕੁ ਸਬਦੁ ਜਿਤੁ ਕਥਾ ਵੀਚਾਰੀ ॥
I contemplate the sermon of the Shabad, the Word of the One God.
ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਹਉਮੈ ਅਗਨਿ ਨਿਵਾਰੀ ॥੪੪॥
The Gurmukh puts out the fire of egotism. ||44||
It seems to me that trying to describe the significance of Guru Nanak without referencing his bani causes us to miss who he was. In understanding and internalizing the lessons of his bani, may we come to know the Divine as he had. Only then can we perhaps say we know Guru Nanak, and can then educate others as to who he was.