When we read and discuss about the life and teachings of some of the greatest spiritual leaders and social reformers we should of course first and foremost see this it in the context of the historical conditions prevailing at that time as this is important to understand the context of what these great leaders did and what they preached. However it is in addition very interesting and useful to see their life and teachings in the context of present day problems and debates.
Some of the big issues of those times like sectarianism and social discrimination not only remain with us today but in addition sometimes there is risk of even greater violence and harm associated with these issues today as modern technology and weapons can be misused by forces of sectarianism . With ecological ruin and weapons of mass destruction posing a survival crisis there is increasing need of the message of a simple and peaceful life as the base of sustainable human existence. This message is basic to the teachings of some of the most revered spiritual leaders in our history and we can still learn a lot from how they mobilized a very large number of people with such teachings, and that too in such ways that their teachings had a very durable impact and retained their hold over people for several centuries. human existence
This is certainly true of the teachings of Guru Nanak which continue to have a very inspiring influence after nearly five centuries. While Guru Nanak is very widely recognized as one of the greatest spiritual leaders and social reformers of all times, there is also need for placing his life and teachings in the context of present day problems and needs. In this way our deeply troubled world can benefit more from Guru Nanak’s essential message of equality, simplicity, justice and peace and a deep spirituality which can help to spread these basics much more effectively and in more durable ways than what the latest communication technology can achieve on its own.
One of the most inspiring aspects of Guru Nanak’s life and work is his work as a human rights activist. While returning from one of his all too frequent travels, near Aminabad he came to know of the extreme distress of civilians taken as prisoners by an invading army. Guru Nanak protested against this even in those times of ruthless rulers and their arbitrary actions ( are things really much different today?). The impact of his spiritual strength and fame based on this was such that many prisoners were actually released. But Guru Nanak stayed on for extra time to ensure that they are not troubled again.
When he was asked about his caste and his background at the time of his travels to far-away places, Guru Nanak often did not tell his real middle class background and instead replied that he identifies himself with those who were considered the lowest of the low by contemporary society. This reveals that he was very troubled by the discrimination against the so-called low castes and he was very keen to use the influence of his spirituality and the fame based on this to promote the cause of the weakest and poorest sections.
While placing himself close to the poor and the exploited, Guru Nanak refused to accept the hospitality and food of those very rich and influential persons who were widely known to be exploiters of the poor.
Guru Nanak was a firm believer in communal harmony and this is how he was able to attract followers among Hindus as well as Muslims. This is also why he was equally at ease while travelling without any local contacts to areas dominated by diverse religious communities.
Guru Nanak rejected the exaggerated rituals of various religions, their claims to be the only truth and the strong tendency on the part of religious leaders to carve out a dominant and often lucrative position for themselves. Instead he emphasized spirituality based on a simple and ethical life and direct closeness or bhakti to God based on such a life. Compassion and truth were much more important for him compared to any rituals and fasts which were emphasized by so many other preachers.
Another special and interesting aspect of the life and achievements of Guru Nanak relates to his skills as a great communicator. As he was travelling very frequently to new places and inter-acting with strangers, Guru Nanak developed exceptional skills for getting across his point of view even among hostile people in new areas. Quite often when he wanted to oppose some hypocrisy or ritual, he achieved this not by raising a shrill voice against this ritual, but by quietly playing the role of a very innocent person who just could not comprehend or understand the logic or rationality of an empty ritual or a false belief.
For example when he wanted to oppose the ritual of offering water to dead parents at a pilgrimage site, he simply stood in the opposite direction to pour water. As he had anticipated, immediately everyone started shouting at him that he was offering water in the wrong direction. Nanak now played the innocent to perfection and said, “My parents are not dead. They live in a village located in this direction. I thought after looking at all of you that if water poured by you can reach heaven which must be very far away, then surely water poured by me will reach my parents living in my village which is relatively nearer.” Everyone started laughing instead of getting angry, but in a subtle way Nanak had told them about the absurdity of the ritual.
Similarly in another instance when he was very tired in the course of his travels, he fell asleep with his feet placed unintentionally towards a place of worship. He was rudely awakened by a narrow minded religious leader who ordered him to immediately remove his feet from the position that pointed towards the place of worship. Nanak did not move but very calmly told the aggressive man, “I am not aware of any direction where God does not exist. If you know such a direction then kindly move my feet towards that direction.” The aggressive man did not have a reply to this and lurked away ashamed.
Bharat Dogra is a the Coordinator of Save the Earth Now Movement . His latest book Man Over Machine –A Path Towards Peace has just been published by Vitasta.