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Hindus had always believed that, as the Shreemad Bhagavad-Gita promised, "Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice ... and a predominant rise of irreligion, at that time I [Shree Krishna, God] descend Myself" (G 4:7). Therefore, as Prahlada Maharaja had once cried out for help against his evil ("asura") father Hiranyakashipu and received Vishnu's help (in the form of Nirsimhadeva), so too, they cried out to God for relief (SR 257, SB 2.7.14).
As Bhai Gurdas, a Sikh apostle, explained:
"Heaven at last heard the prayers of the people, Guru Nanak was sent to the world. The disciples met and drank the nectar of his lotus feet, and realized the Divine in this age of materialism (Kali-yuga). Guru Nanak reestablished Dharma. All castes he merged into one caste of man. The rich and the poor he brought on one level. From this Founder of Humanity a new race of love goes forth. In humility they bow down to each other. The Master and the disciple became one ... (SR 12,13).
Guru Nanak was born in 1469 note 22. at Rai Bhoeki Talwandi (now Nankana Sahib) located in Punjab province, West Pakistan note 23.. From early childhood, it is said, the light of God shown brightly within him. 'He was born to deliver India from its oppressors even as, as stated above, Nirsimhadeva had liberated the righteous Pralada.' Nanak was unconcerned with worldly affairs. His sole desire was to know and reveal God, for "only He can produce true peace and justice."
At the age of seven Nanak was sent to school. As his instructor, Pundit Gopal Das, instructed the children on the alphabet, Nanak asked for the spiritual applications of it. Such significations are important in Hindu Dharma, but they are primarily known only to the scholars. The Pundit was unable to offer this knowledge, so Nanak proceeded to teach the inner significations of every letter, including their bija or seed meanings, along with their applications, to the class, including the astonished teacher. This first divine instruction ('gurmat') of Nanak so impressed Pundit Gopal Das that he took the seven year old back to his father and proclaimed, "Mehtaji (Nanak's father), your son is an Avatar note 24. and has come to redeem the victims of Kalyug note 25. (the age of falsehood). He is destined to be a world teacher, there is nothing that I can teach him" (SR 14).
According to the Detroit Sikh Missionary Center, non-Sikh commentators often say that Nanak studied extensively in the various schools of Indian thought. This, they say, would explain his amazing mastery of all forms of Indian philosophy. Sikhs reject this however, maintaining that Guru Nanak received all his knowledge and wisdom directly from God. He was, they believe, a vessel which God "filled to over-flowing with the Divine Light ('Jot')". His training, the little of it there seems to have been, had no bearing on his message (SR 15). The above exploit is intended to demonstrate that by the age of seven Guru Nanak possessed more knowledge than most of the teachers with whom he would have studied. That he did not learn his teachings from other humans was confirmed by his first teacher's proclamation. To truly master the alphabet would itself take a lifetime of learning. Guru Nanak was clearly God-taught. This is the Sikh teaching.
At nine years old Nanak refused to accept the sacred Brahminical thread, stating that he wanted only the eternal Thread of God: Such a thread, once worn will never break, nor get soiled, burnt or lost. The man who weareth such a thread is blessed (Asa di Var, Slok Mohalla, quoted in SR 17). In other words, the Brahminical thread was supposed to represent one's understanding and piety. Nanak preferred to receive that praise from God, not man. It is also significant that by rejecting the thread Nanak was rejecting the caste system as well.
For much of Guru Nanak's life he traveled extensively, preaching his message of love and devotion to the one God. One example of these teachings and travels will have to suffice for the present endeavor.
Guru Nanak once visited Jagannatha Puri note 26., one of Hinduism's four holiest mandirs note 27.. As usual, he did not visit as a votary, but "to teach the people that the worship of God was superior to the worship of the deity" (SR 37, emphasis theirs). The high priest recognized Nanak and invited him to take part in the artik or ceremony. Nanak declined, which outraged the priests. He replied by raising his eyes to heaven and uttering a most beautiful Sabad (divine utterance). This Sabad reflects the Sikh view of God nicely:
The sun and moon, O Lord, are Thy lamps; the firmament
Thy salver; the orbs of the stars, the pearls encased in it.
The perfume of the sandal [tree] is Thine incense; the wind is Thy fan;
all the forests are Thy flowers, O Lord of light.
What worship is this, O Thou Destroyer of birth?
Unbeaten strains of ecstasy are the trumpets of Thy worship.
Thou hast a thousand eyes and yet not one eye;
Thou hast a thousand forms and yet not one form;
Thou hast a thousand pure feet and yet not one foot;
Thou hast a thousand organs of smell and yet not one organ
I am fascinated by this play of Thine.
The Light which is in everything is Thine, O Lord of Light.
From its brilliancy everything is brilliant;
By the Guru's teaching the light becometh manifest.
What pleaseth Thee is the real Arti.
O God, my mind is fascinated with Thy lotus feet as the
Bumble bee with the flower: night and day I thirst for them.
Give the water of Thy grace to the sarang note 28., Nanak, so that he may dwell in Thy name.
(Dhanasri Mohalla, quoted in SR 38).
Sikhism continues to thrive in the Punjab. According to Pramjit, from the fifties to the seventies many Sikhs left their traditional ways and adopted western methods of dress and behavior. During this time the religion was faithfully observed primarily by the older generations. Due in large part to the political conflicts between Sikhs and Hindus however, especially around the Darbar Sahib ("Court of the Lord") or Golden Temple note 29., many younger Sikhs have returned to a fundamentalist observance of their religion. The political turmoil, as well as what Pramjit views as the Hindu-designed poverty of the region, has led many Sikhs to leave the Punjab and take refuge in the West.
The early Sikh immigrants were mainly male. They typically remained socially isolated or sought to blend in. With the immigration of entire families in the 60's, 70's and 80's however, social anonymity became more difficult, if not impossible. Sikh children were enrolled in the public schools and Sikh women were seen shopping and running errands. The Sikh presence in the West could no longer be concealed. They began to publicly live their cultural identity in whatever society they found themselves.
In 1969 the Sikh Missionary Society was formed in Britain with branches in Canada and America. This institution sought to educate and encourage Sikhs in the practice of their religion. To preserve the cultural identity and integrity of the Sikh community, it began teaching the Punjabi language to its Western born children. The Society's intention is not to convert Westerners to Sikhism, although they are welcome to join, and many have, but rather to promote religious tolerance and encourage everyone, from within their own religion, to seek and serve God in their own way.
Even if the Indian government yields, and the Punjab is established as an independent Sikh homeland, the influx of Sikhs to the West, along with their influence, is certain to increase in the years to come. The Sikhs and their religion are in the West to stay.
The Guru Granth Sahib begins with the Sikh definition of God:
There is but one God
He is the Eternal Truth
The Creator, All-Pervading Divine Spirit
Unfearful, Without hate and enmity
Immortal Entity, Unborn, Self-Existent, and
He is realized by His Own Grace.
Who was True before the Creation
Who was True in the beginning of the Creation
Who is True now, and
O Nanak, Who shall be True for Ever.
The entire Guru Granth Sahib is viewed as the explanation of the above definition. Within these lines resides the heart of Sikhism. God, for the Sikhs, is the Unseen, the Infinite and Eternal Being Who is not subject to death or change. At first glance this definition seems to suggest that the Sikhs view God in the same light as most other theistic religions. Such is not the case. Its Indian origins are clearly seen in the Sikh view of God note 30..
Harmonious with Islam, Christianity and other monotheistic religions, Sikhism depicts an utterly transcendent Deity Who is concerned with the world and its inhabitants. According to Sikhism however, those aspects of God which are knowable or describable, "My gracious Lord, keep me under Your protection," are only a small portion of the Divine Nature (GGS 53). Sikh teacher Pramjit Singh explained this to me as saguna ("with qualities") and nirguna ("without qualities") Brahman or "vast expanse" (P; EDY 64). As in some post 8th or 9th century B.C.E. Hindu philosophy, Sikhs acknowledge the existence of these two levels of reality note 31... Brahman, according to Hindu thinkers such as Shankaracharya, is ultimately nirguna, devoid of qualities. It is utterly one, indefinable and indivisible. According to Shankara's interpretations of the Upanishads, all particulars which exist, from the basest to the most exalted, are real only in that they arise from nirguna Brahman. It is only due to avidya or "all-pervasive ignorance" that they seem real. In reality, only Brahman exists, and it only as nirguna. All else is saguna and destined to total reabsorption into the a-cosmic totality which is reality (ER 10.58).
Sikhism is in basic agreement with this understanding, but adds, along with Shree Ramanuja note 32.., Radhakrishnan and others, that "The Absolute [Brahman] is a living reality with a creative urge. When this aspect is stressed, the Absolute [Brahman] becomes a Personal God, Ishvara [in saguna]." Ishvara is not therefore something different or added to Brahman, It is Brahman (ER 59). It is for this reason that Sikhism speaks of God as both an Impersonal Cause-Ground and a Personal Divinity: "He has no name, no dwelling-place, no caste; He has no shape, or color, or outer limits. He is the Primal Being, Gracious and Benign, Unborn, ever Perfect, and Eternal. He is of no nation, and wears no distinguishing garb; He has no outer likeness; He is free from desire. To the east or to the west, look where you may, He pervades and prevails as Love and Affection (Dasam Granth, Jap 80, SW 267). "God is indeed Limitless, but we limited beings try to limit Him in measured and restricted terms, for we cannot know Him at all until we become one with Him" (S 37).
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