IIAS ANNUAL NATIONAL INTEGRATION CONFERENCE
Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
(25-26 November, 2019)
Guru Nanak Dev is the founder of Sikhism, which has flourished as one of the four major dharma traditions of Indic Civilization (namely, Sanatan dharma, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism) rooted in the Indian Sub-Continent. The most remarkable thing about this Civilization is that it is dharma-centred and knowledge-oriented. It is also one of the most ancient and living civilizations of the world. The word dharma is a key concept with multiple meanings in Indian tradition. Its conceptual meaning is quite different from religion. Primarily, it refers to the cosmic moral order (Ritam) operating in the universe and a rightful way of living. All the above four dharma traditions exemplify an excellent model of 'unity in diversity'. They present an overall unified vision of reality, cosmos and human existence. They also construct the world view, way of life and core knowledge concerns of Indic civilization. As an eminent dharma pravartak of his times, Guru Nanak occupies a significant position in the Indic Civilization and its dharma traditions.
Apart from being the founder of a new faith, Guru Nanak is also a celebrated Saint-poet who imbibed the spirit of renaissance heralded by the Pan Indian Bhakti movement during the middle ages. This eventful era of Indian history signifies a powerful moment of cultural awakening and self-assertion of the Indian mind after centuries of subjugation and suppression at the hands of foreign invaders. (We have a considerable evidence of the genocide and forcible conversion of the native population at the hands of Arab, Turk, Mughal and Afghan occupying forces during this period.) Guru Nanak himself witnessed horrifying event of Babur's invasion at Saidpur (present-day Emanabad). He provides a graphic description of the large-scale destruction of this invasion in his Bani:
(Having attacked Khurasan, Babar terrified Hindustan.
The Creator Himself does not take the blame,
but has sent the Mughal as the messenger of death.
There was so much slaughter that the people screamed.
Didn't You feel compassion? ||1||)
Guru Nanak compares his contemporary times to mythical Kaliyuga, the dark age of moral disintegration where dharma had taken wing and flown away:
(The Dark Age of Kali Yuga is the knife, and the kings are butchers;
righteousness has taken wings and flown away.
In this dark night of falsehood, the moon of Truth is not visible anywhere.
I have searched in vain, and I am so confused.)
The Saint-poets and Sikh Gurus emerged on this scene as saviours of perennial values and humanitarian concerns of our civilization and culture. Their primary source of inspiration was classical wisdom of Indic knowledge tradition, lying dormant in folk memory. They propagated their message of spiritual enlightenment in the prevalent language of the people, which resulted in re-kindling the integrating and liberating power of universal love in popular consciousness. Guru Nanak was no exception.
Guru Nanak Dev was born in a Hindu Khatri family in 1469 in village Talwandi (now known as Nankana Sahib) situated near the city of Lahore in present day Pakistan. Sikhs around the world celebrate the auspicious occasion of Guru Nanak Dev ’s birth anniversary on the full moon day (Puranmashi) in the Lunar month of Kartik (October-November). Guru Nanak Dev ’s father, Mehta Kalu, was a trader by profession. Desiring his son to attain proficiency in trade, he arranged for learned teachers for his son’s education. These teachers were well versed in traditional learning and classical knowledge available in Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic. Child Nanak was exceptionally bright. His contemplative mind had a deep interest in spiritual knowledge. He often surprised his educators by the depth and sublimity of his knowledge. His rational mind questioned the traditional religious practices and empty rituals. Although he did not condemn these practices and rituals, he sought to introduce the true spiritual meaning in them.
There is an interesting incident relating to this early period of Guru’s life, recounted in his traditional biographies (Janam Sakhis). Guru's father, Mehta Kalu, wanted to test the newly acquired educational proficiency of his son. He sent him to a market place with a sum of twenty Rupees and asked him to make a true deal (sacha sauda) with it. What he meant was a profitable business deal. Nanak, with his spiritual bent of mind, spent the whole amount on the food for the needy. For him this was the true deal ‘sacha sauda’. Mehta Kalu was obviously disappointed by this 'foolish' behaviour from a worldly point of view. In order to dissuade his son from such world-negating tendencies and to make him a responsible worldly man he arranged for his marriage as well as employment.
Young Nanak was married to Sulakhani of Batala and they had two sons, Sri Chand and Lakhmi Das. With the help of his brother-in-law, he obtained the job of a store keeper in Sultanpur at government's granary. After laps of some time, one morning, he went as usual down to rivulet Baini to bathe and meditate. It proved to be the most significant event in Guru Nanak's life. Guru Nanak entered the river and suddenly disappeared from the sight of his companions, who searched for him everywhere in vain. Fearing, Nanak had drowned, the companions dejectedly returned home. But a veritable miracle happened. After three days Nanak re-appeared on the river bank. He looked spiritually transformed. He remained silent for some time. Then suddenly he uttered an enigmatic sentence: "na koi Hindu na Mussalman" (There is no Hindu, no Mussalman)
Janam Sakhis have woven a mythical narrative around this event which symbolically highlights it as a moment of enlightenment. Nanak quit his job and distributed all that he had to the poor. Nanak set out on his spiritual journeys in four directions. He visited almost all the famous Hindu religious centres, spread over length and breadth of Indian Subcontinent as well as to far off places in South Asia, Tibet and Arabia, covering about 30,000 kilometres.
In the later years of his life, Guru Nanak founded a township of Kartarpur (presently in Pakistan) on the banks of river Ravi in Punjab and settled down as a householder. Here, he donned the robes of a peasant, earning his own honest living by cultivating the lands. Followers came from near and far to listen to the Master. He introduced the institution of Langar (free communal kitchen) at Kartarpur, establishing the basic equality of all people regardless of their social and economic status. Sometime before his demise, Guru Nanak installed his devout follower Bhai Lehna as next Sikh Guru.
Guru Nanak composed his poetic compositions in the genre employed by Bhakti poets, known as Bani or Gurbani in Sikh tradition. This Bani of Guru Nanak Dev is included in the holy text of Sikhism, known as Guru Granth Sahib. As we know, Guru Granth Sahib is an anthology of the poetic utterances, reflecting the philosophical meditations of the inspired souls. This holy anthology contains the Bani not only of Guru Nanak Dev and other Sikh Gurus but also those of other medieval Indian Saint-poets belonging to different religious and cultural traditions. Prominent among these Saint-poets are Jaidev, Namdev, Sheikh Farid, Kabir and Ravidas. Chronologically these Saint-poets belong to the vast expanse of five centuries (12th to 17th) and geographically they represent the regional and cultural diversity of the Indian Sub-Continent.
The Bani of Guru Nanak, as incorporated in Guru Granth Sahib, consists of about 974 hymns including some of the longer compositions like Japji Sahib, Asa di Var, Barah Maha, Sidh Gosti and Onkar (Dakhni). The characteristic feature of his Bani is that its hymns are composed in various classical and folk literary forms and meters. These hymns tend to employ mostly the lyrical and the didactic modes of expression. They have been arranged in nineteen classical Indian ragas with indications of folk tunes here and there. In fact, poetry and music are integral elements of its discourse. They introduce a dimension of depth in the meaning and import of the message. However, the poetry of Guru Nanak cannot be taken as pure and simple poetry in the ordinary sense of the term. It is primarily a meditation on the nature and experience of Braham (Ultimate Reality):
(I do not sing just a song or a birhara O Nanak,
I reflect upon Braham.)
In fact, Guru Nanak is a philosopher-poet. His meditation on the nature of Ultimate Reality (Braham) is a search for final meaning of human existence. But this consciousness of the Ultimate Reality (paramartha chetana) provides it a transcendent vantage point and a liberative vision to re-define the existential social concerns of human life. Guru Nanak takes the ideological position of the oppressed sections of society:
(Those who are low in caste, the lowliest of the low,
Nanak seeks the company of those,
Why should he try to compete with the great?
O Lord, thy grace is showered upon, were the lowly are cared for.)
The Bani or discourse of Guru Nanak presents the idea of the spark of divine light residing in the heart of everyone, as evidenced in the following verse:
(The distinctions of jati, baran and kula are eliminated,
When we contemplate upon the Word of the Guru.)
The Bani of Guru Nanak projects a philosophy of enlightened living. It is not just a metaphysical speculation. It turns out to be a philosophy of action which lays emphasis is on shared communal experience and on purposeful involvement in social concerns.
Guru Nanak recontextualises the Vedic conceptualization of Brahman, as one of its core tenets and follows the overall pluralistic vision of the Indic Civilization relating to truth and reality. It conceives of the Ultimate Reality as both immanent and transcendent and lays great emphasis on moral virtues and truthful conduct (sachiar) more than on empty ritualism. The poetic discourse of Guru Nanak presents a radical humanitarian vision reality and society. It emerges as significant ‘knowledge text’ incorporating deep philosophical meditations on the eternal verities of human existence as well as a radical vision upholding human equality and dignity. The originality of this vision and its dialogical relationship with past and present establishes the unique identity of Sikhism.
The year 2019 marks the 550th Birth Anniversary of Guru Nanak. Various institutions are celebrating this auspicious occasion. The government of India has also decided to commemorate this event at a national as well as international level. This historical event at this juncture is a worthwhile occasion to revisit his biographical accounts, his Bani and philosophical and social vision to understand their significance in our contemporary context.
A Seminar on 'Guru Nanak Dev, his Bani and his Vision', is being proposed to be organized by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla from November 25 to 26, 2019. Hopefully, it will generate considerable academic interest in that direction. It will help us to understand the spectacle of Guru's life, his philosophic vision and his message to the humanity.
Some of the aims and objectives of this seminar will be
revisit the literary, cultural and philosophical traditions of India.
Guru Nanak Dev is the founder of Sikh Panth (Sikhism) and upholder of universal Dharma.He is a self-confessed poet and a philosopher. He travelled far and wide and visited prominent places of worship and spiritual learning in the Indian subcontinent and Middle East.As a poet-philosopher, he is also one of the prominent personalities of medieval Indian Renaissance. This era of Indian history is known as a moment of re-awakening of the spirit of Indic Civilization and Its knowledge tradition. The Bani of Guru Nanak Dev can rightly be considered as an epitome of Indic Knowledge Tradition. The proceedings of the Seminar will hopefully generate a fresh insight about the charismatic personality Guru Nanak Dev, his world view and humanitarian vision. The contemporary relevance of Guru's philosophical vision and its radical socio-cultural significance can hardly be over-emphasised. The discourse on the biographical and spiritual texts of Guru Nanak Dev will help in creating a new narrative about Guru Nanak Dev in the context of contemporary spectrum of Indian Society. This Seminar will also help in understanding Guru's life and his universal humanitarian message from the Pan-Indian and Pan-Asian perspective.
Some of the suggested topics:
Call for Papers:
A limited number of participants will be invited for the Seminar. Those interested in participating should send (preferably by email) an abstract (500 words) of the proposed paper along with their brief bio of around 200 words to:
Former Professor and Head,
Department of Punjabi,
University of Delhi
Former Professor and Chairman,
School of Punjabi Studies,
Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar
M: 98550 57639
With a copy to:
Academic Resource Officer,
Indian Institute of Advanced Study,
Rashtrapati Nivas, Shimla- 171005
The last date for submission of abstract (500 words) is 29th September 2019 till 12:00 midnight. The Institute intends to send Invitation letters to selected participants by the 14th October, 2019. It is the policy of the Institute to publish the papers not proceedings of the seminars it organizes. Hence, all invited participants will be expected to submit complete papers (English or Hindi), hitherto unpublished and original, with citations in place, along with a reference section, to the Academic Resource Officer, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla– 171005 by 31st October, 2019. IIAS, Shimla will be glad to extend its hospitality (free hospitality is provided only to the seminar participant) during the seminar period and is willing to reimburse, if required, rail or air travel expenses from the place of current residence in India, or the port of arrival in India, and back.
Note: Plagiarism is a serious academic offence and the Institute reserves the right to cancel the selection/participation of a candidate found guilty at any stage.
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