As Sikhs across the world celebrate the birth anniversary of the founder of Sikhism Baba Guru Nanak today, it remains ironic that the two countries that host his legacy do not see eye to eye and are hostile to each other.
Last week, Pakistan High Commission in India gave visas to 3000 Sikh pilgrims to visit Kartarpur Sahib, the resting place of Baba Nanak. It was here that Baba Nanak spent the last few years of his life. He tilled his land and spread the message of peace and humankind.
The pilgrims were initially scheduled to travel via the Attari-Wagha border. But on Tuesday, three days ahead of the Gurupurab, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah announced that the Kartarpur corridor would be opened for Sikhs. This move is being seen as politically motivated, given that the state of Punjab is going to polls early next year. His government is already battling Punjabi sentiment against its stand of the three farm laws. The provincial government in Punjab, led by Congress, had been pressing for opening the corridor.
The corridor was opened for Indians for the first time in 2019 coinciding with the 550th birth anniversary of Baba Nanak — a gesture that was widely appreciated by Sikhs all over the world. Pakistan had revamped the Gurudwara, which for many years had not seen too many pilgrims. This was the second big revamp of Kartarpur Sahib, the first being in the 1920s when the place was damaged in floods. Maharaja of Patiala Bhupinder Singh, grandfather of former Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, had at the time got the premise revamped. After the latest revamp, Kartarpur Sahib was to remain open for Sikh pilgrims all round the year. But it was shut down last year in March because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Baba Nanak legacy lies on both sides of the border. At the time of Partition in 1947, those who suffered most were Sikhs and Muslims living in Punjab. They not only suffered individual monetary and emotional losses but also saw their state being torn into two pieces, due to which the Sikh religion and culture got fragmented.
If the two countries had understood Baba Nanak’s message of universal brotherhood and humanity, India and Pakistan would have been friendly neighbours.
Over the past few years, the relationship between the two countries has taken a nosedive at all levels. Lack of dialogue has only caused more strain than ever before.
Importance of communication
Guru Nanak in his teachings has explained the importance of communication. He has said, “Jab lag duniya rahiye Nanak, kich suniye, kich kahiye”.
Explaining Nanak’s verse, Professor Gurmeet Singh said: “Guru Nanak was the pioneer of interfaith dialogue. He believed that talks should never stop. As long as the world exists, discourse should continue. It eradicates misconceptions and builds understanding. And in the context of India and Pakistan, what better than this Baba Nanak’s teachings.”
Professor Singh is the head of the Guru Gobind Singh Chair, at the Department of Religious Studies, Punjabi University, Patiala.
More than 70 years after the violent partition, when rivers of Punjab turned red with the blood of those massacred on both sides, the bridge to Kartarpur Sahib over river Ravi is no less than a miracle for many in Punjab. For the staunch believers of Baba Nanak and Punjabiyat, this whole movement of opening Kartarpur Sahib is no less than the will of Baba Nanak himself.
“Baba Nanak saw his Punjab live through massacre and blood bath. The river which was once red with the blood, now has a bridge of hope,” said Iqbal Qaiser, a historian and cultural activist based in Lahore. He is also the founder of Punjabi Khoj Garh, an organisation that works for the revival of Punjabi culture.
Over the years, both India and Pakistan have fought four major wars and numerous standoffs and conflicts on borders. But Qaiser believed that if only, India and Pakistan would have tried to understand Baba Nanak’s message, they would have been much better nations. “Wars, swords and bombs can never bring peace. We as mature nations need to understand that it only by understanding our common culture, art and music we can bridge the differences,” he said.
Qaiser further added that Baba Nanak’s message of Ek Omkar (There is only one God) and Awwal Allah Noor Upaya Qudrat Keh Sub Banday, Aik Noor The Sub Jag Upajiya Kaun Bhale Ko Mandhe meaning (First Allah created the light and then by his creative power, made all mortal beings. From that One Light, the entire universe welled up. So, who is good and who is bad?) brings both these nations under one umbrella and sums up the message for mankind and can bring peace to this sub-continent.
Muslim veneration for Baba Nanak
Apart from the Sikhs, a large number of Hindus, including Sindhis are followers of Baba Nanak. Even in Pakistan, the Muslims venerate him as a Sufi saint. “Kings and politicians can never bring peace, the messengers of God, be it the Pirs, Sadhus or the Sufis and their teachings can bring people together,” he added.
As poet, philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal said:
Phir Uthi Akhir Sada Touheed Ki Punjab Se, Hind Ko Ek Mard-e-Kamil Ne Jagaya Khawab Se
(Again from Punjab the call of monotheism arose
A perfect man roused India from slumber).
Baba Nanak revolved against caste, creed embedded in Hinduism. He gave the message of universal brotherhood and oneness of God and condemned all kinds of religious discrimination and atrocities.
Baba Nanak was born at a time when undivided India was struggling with both internal and external conflict. Invaders from Central Asia including the Lodhis and the Mughals made their way into India from Punjab. The state had witnessed massive violence and bloodshed. Within the country too, the caste system was eating away the society.
Islam had spread through Europe and Africa with its message of brotherhood and egalitarian society. But in India, it faced resistance from upper-caste Hindus, who became consorts of Muslims Kings and did not allow Islam’s universal message of social justice to take roots in India.
“Even Islam was not spared by the Brahmins. Soon the upper caste Hindu converts were being addressed as Syed and Sheikhs. And Muslims were identified by their profession based on their caste order,” explained Professor Arshi Khan of Aligarh Muslim University.
It was here that Baba Nanak appealed to both Hindus and Muslims. Both the religions were marred with orthodox, religious extremism, superstitions, and caste system. Baba Nanak through his teachings reminded society about universal brotherhood and tried to establish an egalitarian society.
Na koi Hindu na Musalman (There is no Hindu no Muslim), says Baba Nanak
Nanak challenged religious orthodoxy
In today’s India and Pakistan, where religion is dominated by extremism and attacks on the minorities, vandalising their places of worship is the norm, teachings of Baba Nanak can spread the message of religious tolerance. Baba Nanak who believed in Sarbat da bhala (Welfare of all) had announced to the world, Na koi Hindu na Musalman (There is no Hindu, no Muslim) and that all were equal in the eyes of the creator.
Unlike the typical Pirs and the Brahmins, who survived on alms, Nanak taught his disciples to earn their bread. He said “Kirt Karo, Wand Chako and Naam Japo.”
His message to society was to work and earn. Share your food and wealth with others and pray to the supreme creator. He challenged both Hindu and Muslim orthodox and opened his house for all. it was at Kartarpur Sahib, where Baba Nanak started the tradition of langar (community kitchen) which was open to all, irrespective of religion and caste.
The Sikhs believe that it is the tradition of langar started by Baba Nanak that is going on to date in gurudwaras all over the world. The gurudwaras serve free food to all and everyone from a king to a beggar sits in the same row and eats.
It is this langar tradition of Guru Nanak that reaches out everywhere in the hour of need. When the Kashmiri Muslim students were driven out of Indian universities after the Pulwama attack in 2009, it was Punjab and the teachings of Nanak that gave these students shelter, langar and a safe passage.
Even during the pandemic, not only did gurudwaras provide food to lakhs of people each day, but when the country was dying because of lack of oxygen and when the price of these cylinders had soared manifold, the Sikhs of Baba Nanak started Oxygen langar, providing free cylinders. Delhi’s Rakabgunj Gurudwara had managed to procure oxygen concentrators even before the government of India and had started a 200-bed facility in the gurudwara premises. These facilities were open to all irrespective of caste and colour and gender.
Guru Granth Sahib, the religious text of the Sikhs, incorporated in it the teachings of six Sikh gurus, the Sufi saints and the Bhatts. The Sikhs who believe in monotheism and are against idol-worshipping bow before the Granth Sahib as their ultimate Guru.
And as Iqbal Qaiser says, “It is only Baba Nanak who could have made the world bow before his Muslim musician, Bhai Mardana. His companions during all his journeys included Baba Farid, Sant Kabir and Sant Ravidas. One a Muslim, other from a backward class, and the third one belonging to the untouchable leather-working chamar community.”