The Ten Gurus of Sikhism
From Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh
 
Born in 1469 in a village near Lahore, Nanak was the son of a village official who worked as a revenue collector. According to the Sikh hagiographic tradition … Nanak was of a contemplative cast of mind from childhood. Finding him unsuited to accountancy, his father gave him the work of grazing cattle. One day, while bathing in a river, Nanak had the experience of the Presence of God, and received the gift of the Name. When he came back to his normal consciousness, the first words that he uttered were “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim”. Afterwards, in the immemorial tradition of India, he became a wandering mystic. (Indian Religions, 376-7; cf. Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction [SAVSI], 21)
 
 
What Guru Nanak gave his followers was a path of salvation by means of meditation on the Name. The unique Godhead is revealed in this divine self-expression and also in the promptings of the inner sadguru [True Guru]. By repetition of the Name, which is nothing less than the self-expression of the nature and being of God, one can achieve the experience of God’s existence and freedom from the cycles of rebirth. The Name may be repeated inwardly or audibly, alone or in congregation. This is the sole and sufficient means of liberation. Image-worship, rituals and ascetic practices are useless. In principle, all Sikhs have an equal chance at salvation, since all are equal before Guru and God. There is thus no room in Sikhism for the caste-system or for the systematic subordination of women. (Indian Religions, 376)
 

Japji Sahib
There is One Being
Truth by Name
Primal Creator
Without fear
Without enmity
Timeless in form
Unborn
Self-existent
The grace of the Guru.
 

Mul mantar is the name of these twelve words. A mantar (mantra) is an empowering formula for repetition; mul (pronounced to rhyme with English ‘pool’) means a root (it is etymologically akin to the muli, or white radish). It is as if the whole of the Guru’s teaching (and of Sikh spirituality) grows from and draws sustenance from this statement. His longer compositions develop this theme, and provide the basis of Sikh theology. (SAVSI, 24)
 
MEDITATE
Truth before time
Truth throughout time
Truth here and now
Says Nanak, Truth is evermore.
 

Truth is supreme and with this God is equated. The lines of the Japji Sahib which immediately follow the mul mantar emphasize this. ... At the same time, God is the creator actively participating in the world. The creator-God does not, however, according to Guru Nanak, intervene in the world’s affairs by means of incarnation. This marks a break with widespread Hindu beliefs about Lord Vishnu’s interventions in the form of Rama, Krishna, and other avatars. Nonetheless Ram, Mohan (a way of addressing Krishna), and Hari (the title ‘Lord’ often given by Hindus to Rama and Krishna) recur in the hymns of Guru Nanak as ways of referring to the divine. So too do the Hindu names Shiv (Shiva), Braham (Brahma), and Paramatma (supreme soul), together with words from Islam for God — Allah, Rabb, Khuda, and Sahib.
       For Guru Nanak this ultimate reality is sagun (possessing all attributes), as well as being nirgun (beyond all attributes). This paradox was not a new formulation, but the Guru’s personal experience of what defies human expression that rings through his poetry. The divine is invisible (alakh) and formless (nirankar). God is also niranjan (literally, ‘unsmudged with eyeliner’), that is, unentangled in illusion (maya). (SAVSI, 24-5)
 
By the divine Will, all forms were created;
what that Will is, no one can say.
By that Will, all life is formed
and, by that Will, all are exalted.
The Will determines what is high and what is low;
the Will grants all joy and suffering.
Some are blessed by the Will,
others migrate from birth to birth.
All are within the Will, none stands apart.
Says Nanak, by recognizing the Will,
we silence our ego.
 

Following immediately after the mul mantar, Guru Nanak’s Japji celebrates cosmic order and divine will, a concept he called hukam. It is through the divine will that everything exists, and to hukam everyone should submit. (SAVSI, 25)
 
That One cannot be moulded or made,
Alone immaculate and self-existent.
Those who serve receive honours.
Nanak says, sing of the Treasure of virtues,
Sing, listen, and hold love in the heart.
 So sorrow is banished, joy ushered in.
Through the Guru comes the sacred Word,
through the Guru comes the scripture,
through the Guru, That One is experienced in all.
The Guru is Shiva, the Guru is Vishnu, the Guru is Brahma,
the Guru is Parvati, Laxmi and Sarasvati.
 

The hukam of creation reveals God, and so too does shabad, the word, in the sense of divine revelation, and nam, the name. Nam is central to Guru Nanak’s teaching, as it means not only the word or utterance through which truth is revealed, but is itself the compression or encapsulation of divine reality. Nam is for Guru Nanak the total divine self-expression, rather than merely God’s title or epithet, and on its power human life depends. (SAVSI, 25)
 
Were I to comprehend, Id still fail to explain,
for That One is beyond all telling.
Guru, let me grasp this one thing:
All creatures have one Provider,
may I not forget this....
(Indian Religions, 377-9)

Many terms, drawn from a variety of traditions, are used to designate God, each of them offering a facet of Nanak’s total understanding. ... Consisting of the figure 1 and the letter O, 1-Oankar [pronounced Ik-Oankar] represents the unity of God and is translated in such ways as ‘the One Oankar’ or ‘the One Being’. ‘Oankar’ is actually a cognate of ‘Om’ and can carry the same mystical meaning, though many Sikhs object to any suggestion that it is the same word. ... Another term, one which has achieved a particular prominence in Nanak’s usage, is Akal Purakh, ‘the Person beyond Time’ or ‘the Eternal One’. As we should expect from the Sant background of Nanak’s thought, Akal Purakh is understood as Nirankar, ‘the One without Form’, and repeated emphasis is laid on the ineffable quality of Akal Purakh’s being. ...
 
In contrast to the [sagun attachment to a particular form of the Divine], the bhaktas of the nirgun school turned away from God as Form, giving their attention to God as Name. The Divine of their conception was impersonal and featureless, yet somehow still interested in them and their trials, and willing to come to their aid. There is, to be sure, something paradoxical about the idea of establishing a personal relationship with the Impersonal, and some critics have doubted whether such a thing could really exist. The only answer to this objection is that for several hundred years there have been devotees of the Divine Name who had no interest in the Divine Form, and the literature they produced shows that they knew what they were talking about. (Indian Religions, 357-8)
 
The person who learns how to appropriate the nam will be freed from the chains which bind that person to the wheel of transmigration. The term nam, as used by Nanak and elsewhere in Sant literature, is a summary expression for the whole nature of Akal Purakh and all that constitutes the divine being. It is, to use another favoured expression, sat, or ‘truth’, and one commonly encounters the combination sat-nam or ‘True Name’. ... A knowledge of the divine Name can be attained because Akal Purakh is a God of grace, speaking the Word of divine understanding to all who are prepared to shed their haumai [self-centered concern] and listen in humility. ... Look around you and look within. Both around and within you will perceive the divine Order (hukam), a harmony expressed in the physical and psychical creation, which reflects the divine harmony of Akal Purakh. (Sikhism, 97-9)
 

In order to secure liberation one must attune one’s whole life to that harmony expressed as the divine Name. This purpose one achieves by means of the regular, disciplined practice of nam simaran or ‘remembrance of the Name’. A simple version of this technique consists of repeating a word or expression that summarizes the meaning of the divine Name and thus of Akal Purakh (terms such as sat-nam or vahiguru). Kirtan (the singing of appropriate hymns) is another form of nam simaran, for in this manner also devout believers can attune themselves to the divine. A third method (the most sophisticated version) is a technique of meditation that inwardly reflects upon the meaning of the divine Name, with the intention of bringing one’s whole being into harmony with the divine harmony of the Name. (Sikhism, 99-100; cf. SAVSI, 26)
 
  • Does the Sikh understanding of the Divine Name help to resolve the paradox of cultivating a personal relationship with the nirgun conception of God without Form?
The Ten Gurus
The Development of Sikhism
By directly appointing his successor, Nanak inaugurated a tradition of passing on the head of the Sikh community from Guru to Guru, a practice that continued until the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, after which the institution of the Guru was transferred to the Guru Granth Sahib (a.k.a. the Adi Granth) and the Guru Panth (the Sikh community).
 
• Collected Guru Nanak’s hymns
• Developed the Sikh alphabet
(gurmukhi:
“from the guru’s mouth”)

• Institutionalized the langar
(
communal kitchen)


The Fifth Guru ~ Arjan
b. 1563; r. 1581-1606

 
Compiled the Adhi Granth (the first edition of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh sacred scripture)

Reorganized the tithing system (a tenth of one’s income, goods, or services) and used the funds to build gurdwaras and langars, including the famous Golden Temple (Harimandir Sahib) in Amritsar

The Tenth Guru ~ Gobind Singh
b. 1666; r. 1675-1708


 
Inaugurated sweeping reforms in the tradition that continue to define “Sikh Orthodoxy” to this day.
 
Battle of Chamkaur (December 20-21, 1704)
 
I. The Khalsa
In 1699 [Guru Gobind Singh] announced to his followers the founding of the Khalsa and enjoined its discipline on all who accepted initiation into the order. ... They were to come to Anandpur for the festival [Baisakhi (Indian New Year)] and they were to come armed.
 
 
When the festivities were at their height, the Guru suddenly appeared before the vast assembly and in a loud voice demanded the head of a Sikh. A stunned silence greeted this unexpected request and at first no one was willing to oblige. Eventually Daya Singh, a Khatri from Lahore, stood up and declared himself willing to sacrifice his head if that should be the will of the Guru. Daya Singh was led into a tent, the thud of a falling sword was heard and the Guru reappeared carrying a bloodstained weapon. [The process was repeated until five willing Sikhs were found.]
 
 
Details then vary. One tradition holds that Guru Gobind Singh had actually cut off the five Sikhs’ heads, but replaced them when the drama was over. Another maintains that, with the five Sikhs apparently slain, he drew back the side of the tent to reveal all five alive, accompanied by five slaughtered goats. Yet another insists that the Guru could never have slain goats. Whatever was done behind the screen, the five live Sikhs were dressed in appropriate garments and led out of the tent. There is a substantial number of these miscellaneous details which create considerable feeling on the part of some Sikhs who discuss this issue today, but at least the general picture is clear. The five Sikhs who had volunteered to give their heads were thereafter known as the Panj Piare (the Cherished Five or the Five Beloved). (Sikhism, 51-52)
II. Khalsa Initiation
The next morning the Guru administered the Khalsa initiation to them, the khande di pahul or ‘sword ritual’. For this purpose water was stirred in an iron vessel with a double-edged sword and was sweetened with patashas (sweets) which the Guru’s second wife, Mata Jito, cast into it.
 
 
The Guru then dispensed the amrit (the ‘nectar’ or water thus prepared), first letting it run off his sword on to the initiate’s face five times. Five times he poured it into the initiate’s cupped hands, five times he applied it to his eyes and five times he sprinkled it on his hair. All then had to eat karah Prasad from the same iron bowl. (Sikhism, 52)
 
III. The Promulgation of the Rahit
Next the Guru promulgated the Rahit (the Khalsa code of belief and conduct). All those who accepted initiation into the Khalsa were required as an essential part of the Rahit to wear the Five Ks … so called because each of the five articles begins with the letter ‘k’. These were:


kes (uncut hair)

kangah (comb)


kirpan (sword)

and kachh
(
breeches which must not come below the knee)

Male members were to add the name ‘Singh’ to their given name and female members were to add ‘Kaur’. (Sikhism, 53)
IV. The Establishment of the “Panth”
Amrit-Dhari Sikhs
Those who have been “baptized” into the Khalsa through the drinking of consecrated sweetened water called “amrit” constitute a minority of the total Sikh population though they have, not surprisingly, been extremely influential in defining Sikh “orthodoxy.”
 
Kes-Dhari Sikhs
Literally “hair-bearing” Sikh, referring to a male who keeps his hair uncut, but has not undergone formal initiation into the Khalsa. Kes-dhari Sikhs represent the majority in India and a sizable minority elsewhere.
Sahaj-Dhari Sikhs
Male Sikhs who do cut their hair. There are a significant number of Sahaj-dhari Sikhs in India, but they represent the majority elsewhere.
 

The Death of Guru Gobind Singh
Before he died, realizing his end was near, the Guru summoned his Sikhs and declared that the line of personal Gurus was now at an end. Thereafter they should regard the functions of the Guru as vested in the Granth (which became the Guru Granth [or, more formally, the Guru Granth Sahib]) and the Panth (the Guru Panth). (Sikhism, 58-59)
 
 
Eliciting the word of the Guru from the corporate community has proved to be difficult, partly because the nature of the corporate community has been disputed but more particularly because opinion concerning the Guru’s intention has been divided. Since the death of the tenth personal Guru there has been no single person entitled to speak as the Guru and it is only on rare occasions that the Panth speaks with general unanimity. What are known as hukam-namas are occasionally issued by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (the SGPC), claiming to be the voice of the Guru Panth, but such an occasion is a rare event. The Guru’s voice is largely confined to the Guru Granth.
       The Guru Granth, however, is abundantly consulted, the word of the Guru sought for a multitude of reasons on an infinite number of occasions. Today, as in generations past, the Guru Granth Sahib is venerated beyond all else in Sikhism, and, as we shall see in Chapter 8, it is shown the utmost respect at all times. Non-Sikh observers sometimes suggest that the Sikh attitude really amounts to idolatry. Sikhs are quick to respond to this, agreeing that certainly they pay the sacred volume extreme reverence but emphasizing that this reverence never proceeds to the point of actually worshipping it. (Sikhism, 106-107)