Nanak was born to a Hindu family in 1469. Had there been application forms to fill chances are he would have referred to himself as Hindu. His successors and followers would probably have called themselves Nanakpanthis. There is general agreement that Sikhism remained a group within the Hindu fold for over half a century after Nanak before assuming an independent identity from the time of Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth guru.
Nanak was a fakir in the true sense. From the age of 30 he spent almost 25 years travelling intermittently in four or five long trips or udaasis to Tibet in the North, Bangladesh and Assam in the East, Sri Lanka in the South and Mecca and Iraq in the west. Evidence of his travels to Mecca where he may have gone as a Haji is weak but there is little doubt that he was a widely travelled man. Back-of-envelope calculations suggest he and his companions Mardana and Bala would have walked over 25000 kms. Much of his learning came out from what he thus saw and experienced.
Unlike others who have founded religions, Nanak suffered no persecution and faced no violence. In fact he had not even set out to start a religion. He was not a messenger of god and certainly not god himself. Miracles attributed to him and the other gurus are products of over-enthusiastic imagination of passionate followers. He was a common householder with uncommon thinking and yet more uncommon sensitivity.
Conceptually his thinking was closer to Islam than Hinduism. He believed in one God for whom all human beings are equal. He rejected ritualism, idolatry and the caste system all of which he felt created barriers between god and the individual but were core to brahmanical thinking of the era. In time to come his thinking would become key Sikh beliefs.
Guru Nanak was followed by a lineage of nine gurus. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru ordained that after him the Granth Sahib would be the Sikh guru for all times to come. Interestingly the Mughal era ran co-terminus with the period of the living Sikh gurus. Guru Nanak was 57 when Babur attacked and Aurangzeb and Guru Gobind Singh died within a year of each other.
Between them the ten gurus straddled over two centuries of a changing political and social landscape. What started as a philosophic bridge between two radically different religions was to weave its way initially through social reform, persecution, peaceful resistance, sacrifice and finally armed struggle. A 200 year journey softens rough edges. Though they may have stood for the same values, the personalities and reactions of Guru Nanak, Guru Arjan Dev and Guru Gobind to similar situations may have been totally different. This healthy diversity has helped Sikhism avoid dogmatic thinking. If and when there are exceptions they are despite the value system, not because of it.
Through most of this period, the axis of confrontation, if it can be so described, was never linear. And certainly not between the average Hindu and Muslim both of whom suffered equally in a society segmented on religion class and caste. Despite Nanak’s harsh words in Babarvani, Babar held him in esteem and according to Sikh history they met cordially at least once. The second, third and fourth gurus had excellent relations with Humanyun and Akbar. Jehangir’s son Khusrau sought Arjan Dev’s blessings. Dara Shikoh was a friend of Guru Har Gobind. Guru Gobind Singh was traveled to the Deccan with Bahadur Shah, son of Aurangzeb.
According to at least one narration of the events, a Hindu Chandu Lal had connived to ensure Arjan Dev’s capture and death. Guru Gobind Singh’s initial battles were with Hindu hill states. Before raising the Khalsa, Guru Gobind Singh had Afghan soldiers in his Army. Likewise, it was not uncommon for Mughals to have Hindu generals and soldiers. The medieval world was not as simplistic as it sometimes reads.
Nanak’s successors continued on the reformist path of Guru Nanak. Angad, Amardas and Ramdas promoted guru-ka-langar where all would sit together, irrespective of religion, gender, class or caste and share food. This must have been an iconoclastic blow to the rabid untouchability of the day and the practice of feeding brahmins to earn moksha. Guru Amar Das rejected the practice of purdah and sati and encouraged widow remarriage in an era in which widowhood would otherwise mean end of life.
Animosity with the Mughals began with the fifth Guru Arjan Dev who took over in 1581. By then the Nanakpanthic movement had grown well beyond a critical mass. Arjan Dev’s success in winning over adherents threatened the clergy on both sides. In his autobiography, Jehangir lamented that the guru was converting many people including some Muslims. Resentment turned into hatred when Jehangir discovered that Arjan Dev had blessed his much-admired but rebellious son Khusrao when the latter was on his way to Lahore. After a short one-sided battle, Khusrau was arrested and later blinded and Arjan Dev was tortured and killed.
Arjan Dev was a crucial game-changer. Obviously a strategist at heart, he understood that time had come to institutionalize the beliefs and practices of the faith as a crucial first step towards converting it to a religion. He also composed the Adi Granth which would later become the Guru Granth Sahib. The text included works of Sikh gurus as also hymns of over a dozen Hindu and Muslim poets including Nam Dev, Ravidas, Kabir and Sheikh Farid.
With such an array of contributors largely from the Sufi and Bhakti schools, the Granth Sahib is more philosophic than proscriptive. Unlike the Bible and the Quran which were written post the events they describe, the hymns comprising the Granth were not composed for a religion, they were imbibed by it. The religion followed a philosophy, did not dictate it. That makes it quite unique as a religious text.
After Arjan Dev’s death, it was clear that for Sikhism to survive, it would need to secure itself. His successor Guru Hargobind was the first Sikh guru to personally excel in horsemanship and weaponry as much as he did in matters spiritual. He raised a modest force of a few hundred horses. He wore two swords one each as a mir and a pir, symbolically for protection of both the temporal and spiritual worlds. With Guru Hargobind, the military tradition of the Sikhs had taken its first step.
By the time the ninth guru Teg Bahadur took over in the early 1660s, Shah Jehan’s extravagance, expensive internecine wars of succession and uprisings across the kingdom had driven the empire to bankruptcy. Somewhat overwhelmed by the scale of the temporal problems, Aurangzeb withdrew into austere religiosity. He imposed the Jizya sending out a signal that bigotry would not be frowned at.
Ever willing to please his emperor and probably hoping to find a place in heaven, his governor of Kashmir resorted to exceptional viciousness to force non-Muslims to convert. As a last resort, about 500 Kashmiri pandits sought Teg Bahadur’s intervention to secure them. That the pandits approached him rather than Hindu religious leaders of the time was a tribute to the status that Teg Bahadur enjoyed. He decided to lead this delegation.
Teg Bahadur was arrested and brought to Delhi. After considerable torture he was beheaded for refusing to convert. Taking relations between the Sikhs and the Mughals to their lowest at any time.
His son Gobind Rai was 9 when he took over in 1675. By the time he matured, the map of India was looking different. The Marathas had demonstrated how an ageing empire can be rendered helpless by a determined and motivated enemy. This would have been a source of ressurance and inspiration to one who had lost two of his ancestors to the Mughals and could see the bigotry getting worse.
But to replicate the Maratha success he would need a larger, better equipped and better trained army. Though his grandfather Hargobind had made a beginning, there was still no real military tradition among the Sikhs. The average Sikh was still a common man who found succor in Nanak’s entirely non-violent preaching. In his own words, the challenge was considerable ‘sava laakh ko ek ladaaun, Tabhe Gobind Singh naam kahaun.’ He had to create soldiers who could take on a lac of the enemy. He set about the task in right earnest.
After his Baisakhi address to a large gathering at Anandpur Sahib in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh asked for five men willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. One by one, he took them into a room and emerged after a few minutes with an unsheathed sword dripping with blood. Once the five had ostensibly been thus sacrificed, he came out of the room, this time with all the five. They had passed the ultimate test of courage and commitment. He christened them Panj piaras who would lead the process of re-inventing the community. Interestingly they included a barber, a water-carrier, a shop keeper, a tailor and a farmer. Probably exactly as Nanak would have wished. This was just the beginning.
He understood that rapid growth can also dilute the values a community stands for. His challenge was to keep the Khalsa (or the pure Sikhs) true to their original values. He directed the Khalsa to drop surnames as they cued caste and instead suffix Singh against their names thereby eliminating even a trace of caste-based prejudice. His own name changed from Gobind Rai to Gobind Singh. This was also not all.
If the Khalsa was to be his army, the next step was to make them look and feel special. Armies do that today with glamorous uniforms and medallions but in the absence of mass production, uniforms had yet not made an appearance in India. In any case uniforms can be discarded; he wanted something more integral. He ordained that the Khalsa would wear the five K’s of Kesh and kanga, kada, kacha and kirpan. Kesh (with kanga) or long hair as it symbolized saintliness and the Khalsa were saint soldiers, Kada as a bangle of strength and distinction, Kacha or a long pair of shorts which is easier to fight in than a dhoti which was the standard dress and the kirpan for self-defence.
Thus was born the world’s youngest religion. Of saints and soldiers.
Much later just before his death, he declared that he was the last living guru and after him the guruship would pass to Guru Granth Sahib. Which is why Sikhs often personify it as Sri Guru Granth Sahib.