The Life And Teaching Of Guru Nanak Dev Ji

Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism and the 1st Guru (Teacher) was born on this day, 550 years ago, in a small village now in Pakistan called Rai Bhoi Ki Talwandi. His father’s name was Mehta Kalu and his mother’s name was Mata Tripta. He had an elder sister, Bebe Nanki, who was 5 years older than him. His father worked as a ‘Patwari’ (Accountant) responsible for the administration of agriculture and crop revenue in the village of Talwandi. His parents were both Hindu Khatris. As a young child, Nanak astounded many with his intelligence and his inclinations towards divine and philosophical topics.

In this early modern period, as a ritual among Hindus, his father Mehta Kalu sent for his family priest (Pandit) Hardial and asked him to draw up the baby’s ‘Janampatri’ or horoscope. Before proceeding to draw up the ‘Janampatri’, he wanted to have a close look at the child. Mata Tripta had some hesitation, but later his request was granted. On seeing him, Pandit Hardial bowed before him and touched his feet. He then congratulated Mehta Kalu and said you are very fortunate to have him as your son. He remarked, “This child will be a great person. He will be loved and respected, worshiped by Hindus and Muslims alike. His name and fame will spread over many lands”. Both his parents felt elated upon hearing this.

His father was a worldly man and wanted his son to acquire wealth, fame, and power so that he should be a successful worldly man too.

Young Nanak was a very unusual child; he never cried, not even when he was hungry. He always had a radiant smile on his face. As he grew older, he did not grow up like other children of his age.

There was a pond of clear water near their house. Young Nanak was very fond of this place. Sometimes he would go near the pond all alone and sit there for hours, meditating with half shut eyes, focusing on God.

Rai Bular the village landlord, used to watch Guru Nanak engage in this spiritual mediation. Today, there is a Gurdwara in memory of Guru Nanak at this pond called ‘Bal Lila’.

In early childhood, his personality developed and became quite evident. Whenever a beggar, a needy man, or a Sadhu (saintly person) called at the door, he would run into the house, take hold of whatever article of food or clothing he could get and give them into the hands of the needy / beggar.

When Guru Nanak was 7 years of age, his father decided to send him to school. He asked his family priest to select a favorable day for commencement of young Nanak’s schooling. On the day selected by Pandit Hardial, Mehta Kalu took his son to Pandit ‘Gopal’, who ran a small school. He offered him 5 rupees and sweets and requested him to accept his son in the school.

Pandit Gopal accepted young Nanak with pleasure. He wrote the ‘Devanagri’ alphabets used for writing Hindi on a wooden tablet and asked his new student to repeat each letter after him. Though he told him to write each letter on the wooden tablet, Guru learned this in no time as he knew it already. The teacher gave him lessons in arithmetic and accounting, and in the same way, he quickly learned the subjects.

One day Guru Nanak took his seat a little apart from his school mates. Soon he began writing on his wooden tablet. The teacher was watching him, and finally he saw that Guru had finished writing and was looking at his wooden tablet with satisfaction and joy. The teacher went to Nanak and asked him to show his tablet. Guru rose and gave his wooden tablet to his teacher. The teacher was amazed beyond all measures.

Pandit Gopal went through the writing over and over; his admiration and amazement increasing after each subsequent reading, he touched the wooden tablet to his forehead and gave it back to Guru Nanak. He was not only astonished, but also convinced that his student was an Avtar, an incarnation of God. He humbly bowed before him and took him to his father.  Mehta Kalu was surprised to see his son and his teacher coming towards him so early in the day. He worried that Nanak must have misbehaved or acted defiantly. On reaching there, the teacher said, “Mehta ji, your son is an Avtar of God. He is not an ordinary mortal. He will be a great Teacher of mankind”.

Mehta Kalu did not believe what he was told as he was a man of the world; he wanted his son to be wise in the way of the world. Upon hearing this, Mehta Kalu insisted that the son continue to be taught by the Pandit despite what his teacher thought. However, Pandit exclaimed, “He knows everything and there is nothing to be known there”. Rather, I have learned from him. He has opened my eyes and I have learned from him. Saying this, the Pandit took his leave and left Mehta Kalu in disbelief and amazement. Thus, Guru stopped going to Pandit Gopal’s school.

He was free once again to do what he liked; sometimes running, jumping and playing with other children of his age, but more often he would sit at home. Mehta Kalu was advised by the family Priest to send Guru Nanak to the Sanskrit scholar, Brijnath, to continue his education. Here too Guru Nanak was quick to learn Sanskrit. In a similar manner, he taught the Sanskrit scholar Brijnath at the same time.

Having done this again he resumed his former ways of spending time with Sadhus / saintly persons and Fakirs around the forests of Talwandi. He met them and had learned discourses on Vedas, Shastras etc. His father was not pleased at the ways of his only son. He wanted his son to be a successful man of the world. He sought advice from Rai Bular. He suggested that Guru Nanak be sent to learn Persian, the official administrative language used for all state documents and accounts. He promised that if he learnt that language, he would employ Nanak giving him the charge of his office as well as the role of a Patwari in succession to his father.

His father accepted his suggestion and sent Guru Nanak to Maulvi–Kutb-Ud-Din of Talwandi to learn Persian. There too, he astonished his teacher by the quickness with which he learnt all that the Maulvi taught him. After learning Persian as much he wanted, Guru Nanak taught his teacher about God and his ways and made Maulvi Kutb-Ud-Din his student. There are several Persian words and verses found in Guru Granth Sahib ji.

Having finished his Persian education, once again Guru Nanak was free to enjoy God and nature and the society of religious men.

When Guru Nanak was 11 years of age, it was necessary, according to the religious customs of the family, to invest him with sacred thread or ‘Janju’. A day was fixed for the ceremony. His father made great preparations and invited guests. There was a great gathering on the appointed day. A carpet was spread on the raised platform. Pandit Hardial, the family priest, drew a circle on the platform and took his seat. He asked Mehta Kalu to bring his son, for whom the seat was provided facing the priest. Guru Nanak came and took his seat. Hardial began the ceremony by chanting mantras from Vedas to appease the stars. He then blessed young Nanak by reciting Vedic mantras. Then he blessed the sacred thread in the same way. When Hardial lifted Guru Nanak’s arm, holding the thread in his hand in order to put it around Guru Nanak’s neck, he caught the priests uplifted hand and asked, “what are you doing”, what is this cotton thread? Why is it worn? What are the advantages of it?

The priest replied that the sacred thread is the base of Hindu religion. By wearing it, he would be admitted to a upper caste and it symbolizes his having attended the spiritual birth. By wearing this, Nanak would obtain honor and greatness in this world and happiness in the next world. This thread had been endowed with the power of ‘Vedic Mantras’ and it would give him spiritual power. Explaining all this, he proceeded to carry on with the thread ceremony.

But Guru Nanak was not satisfied and said, “If the thread is to be symbol of spiritual birth, it should be something befitting the nature of the spirit of the Soul. The Soul is deathless, but thread may break, get soiled, burnt or lost, then the wearer has to put on a new one. When a man dies, the thread remains with the body. It does not accompany his soul. The soul departs thread-less”. The priest was astonished and said, “everyone wears this thread. What thread would satisfy you”? Guru Nanak replied, “a lasting sacred thread for the soul that can be made by practicing ideals of religion and morality in day-to-day life. There, your soul will be truly invested with a truly sacred thread.

Pandit Hardial agreed with Guru Nanak but argued that everyone should live by noble virtues, but at the same time, must respect the traditional customs created by their forefathers. He further stated, “a Hindu without a sacred thread is a man without religion. I am sure you don’t want to be man without religion, so come and put on the thread”. Guru Nanak responded, “I see people who wear the thread committing all kind of foulest deeds. They steal, rob, kill, deceive and commit countless sins and crimes against fellow creatures”. Pandit Hardial was left speechless. The guests and all those in attendance felt compelled by Nanak’s words pointing at the paradox of the sacred thread. They all admired his courage to inquire about and challenge the rituals of Hinduism.

Mehta Kalu, like all fathers, was anxious to lead his son on the same path, which he himself followed in life to become successful. He did not like his son to sit idle, as his son had refused to qualify himself for earning a living. Since Nanak loved to spend time in nature, he told Nanak to herd buffaloes in the forest. Nanak readily agreed and started taking buffaloes, cows, and their calves to the forest to graze in the morning and brought them back home in the evening. For some time, things went on all right. One day, Guru Nanak took the cattle as usual, and sat under the tree and soon passed into deep meditation. As his cattle started grazing as they pleased, they strayed into a neighboring field and feasted on the green crops. The owner of the field came and drove out the cattle from his land. He approached Guru Nanak angrily, who was lost in meditation. He shook him and exclaimed, “See what your cattle has done to my fields! They have ruined my crops”! Guru Nanak looked up with his eyes warmly, and said, “Don’t get angry; have patience. God will bless the fields. Your fields will give you more returns than ever before”.

The owner was not satisfied with the kind words of Guru Nanak and went to Rai Bular to lodge a complaint. He was in great anger, shouting and complaining that Guru Nanak’s cattle had spoiled all his crops. While he had left for Rai Bular, Guru Nanak sitting there, looked at the fields with fixed eyes, full of love and compassion on the ruined crops. In a split second, the fields were blessed by God and became lush green again and abundant with rich crops.

The owner went to Rai Bular and informed him of his loss and implored him to compensate him. Guru Nanak requested Rai Bular to see the destroyed field of crops before pronouncing his judgment. Rai Bular ordered one of his men to go with the owner of the field and look at the crops and evaluate the loss. The two arrived at the field, and to their, astonishment, found all the fields green and the crops intact. The owner could not believe his eyes. He touched the crops with his hand, and bent his head and said, “I was not lying, my eyes did not deceive me. The crops were eaten up by Mehta Kalu’s cattle. A miracle has happened”. They both went back to Rai Bular and informed him that the crops were intact. Rai Bular had already heard about Guru Nanak’s wisdom and the strange happenings he was involved with. He was convinced in his belief that Mehta Kalu’s son was a man of God. Rai Bular said, “God loves him and I bow my head before this man of God”.

On another occasion, Rai Bular witnessed another astonishing scene. He was on horseback returning from another village when, from a distance, saw that Guru Nanak was lying asleep on the ground. He saw a large Cobra was holding its wide hood over the Guru’s head. It was thus protecting Guru Nanak against the hot sun’s rays. Rai Bular thought that the Cobra had bitten Guru Nanak and he was lying dead. He hurriedly approached that spot and the Cobra folded its hood and slithered away. He saw Guru Nanak was fast asleep and the sun’s rays were falling on his face and realized that the cobra had shaded his face from the sun. Rai Bular was filled with wonder and joy. He jumped down from his horse. Guru Nanak got up, greeted Rai Bular with a smile. Rai Bular touched Guru Nanak’s feet, embraced him, and kissed his forehead, and from that day onward, he believed him to be a Messenger of God.

Guru Nanak’s parents had great anxiety over the ways of his life. All the efforts to persuade him to pursue a worldly life had gone in vain. His much-worried parents decided to get him married and bind him to the ties of the world. They thought his wife would change his ways and make him a responsible house holder. They consulted his sister Bebe Nanaki and her husband. They readily agreed, and accordingly Guru Nanak was engaged to Mata Sulakhni, the daughter of Baba Mul Chand of Batala.

Guru Nanak was married in 1487 CE to Mata Sulakhni and proceeded to become a good and successful home holder. He began to assist his father in looking after the cultivation and collect rent from the tenants. He also began to run a grocery shop. He thus engaged in earning a livelihood. Mehta Kalu decided to extend his son’s business activities. He planned to make him a trader and gave him 20 rupees to begin trading in goods and merchandise. He advised him to take his childhood friend, Bala, with him. They left early next morning. On their way to buy goods, they took a shortcut through the forest. In the forest, he met a group of ‘sadhus’ (saintly persons). These men of religion wore no clothes except their undergarments. They were weak & lean. Guru approached their Head Saint. He bowed before the ‘Sadhus’ and sat near them to talk. He learned that they had not eaten for the last 5 days. Their vows forbade them from begging for food. They relied on God for food. They were content to eat whenever and whatever God sent to them in his mercy and provided for them. Guru Nanak was deeply impressed by their faith and trust in God. He said to himself that there can be no better and more profitable bargain than that of feeding such hungry devotees of God. He, along with Bala, went to market, bought food, cooked and served them. This historical place where the hungry men of God were fed by Guru Nanak is the site of Gurudwara called ‘Sacha Sauda’, which means good bargain. The concept of Langar (Community Kitchen) was this way started by Guru Nanak with just 20 Rupees which is now followed at Gurudwaras and Sikh congregations across the Globe.

Having invested his capital in a bargain which appeared to him to be the best and most profitable, Guru Nanak came home and when his father leart about what Nanak had done, he got angry and slapped him. His elder sister Bebe Nanaki who was visiting them, came in between to save his brother from the beating of his father.

Rai Bular, the ruler of Talwandi was an ardent admirer and disciple of Guru Nanak. Hearing about the recent incident of the good bargain made him very sad. He discussed with Guru Nanak’sbrother-in-law, Diwan Jai Ram, to find a job for him in Sultanpur, so that he would no longer have a problem with his father. Mehta Kalu also agreed readily to send Guru Nanak to Sultanpur. Soon as Diwan Jai Ram reached Sultanpur, he succeeded in finding a job for Guru Nanak. A few days after his arrival at Sultanpur, Diwan Jai Ram took him to the Governor, Nawab Daulat Khan Lodhi. The Nawab agreed to employ him and appoint him as in-charge of his ‘modikhana’ (the granary store). He was made a ‘modi’ (store keeper) and was tasked with maintaining the accounts of all the transactions as dues were collected in the form of grain. The grain would then be issued out to the Nawab’s household, army, police etc. All payments were made in grain and the remaining surplus was sold to the people.

Guru Ji performed all of his duties efficiently and to the satisfaction of everyone. According to many historical records, while weighing provisions, when he would count from 1 onwards, once he reached the number “thirteen”, referred to in Punjabi as ‘Tera’, he would continue to repeat “tera” and dispense grain. The word ‘tera’ also carries the meaning “I am yours” which would put him in a meditative state when thinking about God. This meant that the poor would receive more grain than they would pay for.

For some time, Guru stayed with his sister and later moved to his own house, with his wife. In due course, two sons were born to them. Baba Siri Chand and Baba Lakhmi Das. While continuing to work in Sultanpur as the ‘Modi’, Guru Nanak did not neglect his divine duties. Guru was liked by everyone and some people became jealous of Guru Ji. They reported to the Nawab that his ‘Modi’ was dishonest and careless. They said, “He is not dispensing your granary correctly. It will soon become empty and he will run away”. Upon hearing this, the Nawab inquired into the matter. When the granary’s inventory was audited against the accounts, they found them to be in surplus and therefore more profitable. The Nawab’s regard for Guru Nanak increased with each accusation that was proven false.

Guru Ji served at the Nawab’s ‘Modikhana’ for 12 years and then began to feel that his first mission was complete. He felt humanity at large was calling him. Early one morning, he went as usual to bathe at Bein river stream. An attendant sat near his clothes. Guru Ji plunged into the stream and did not come out for a long time. The attendant watched in great anxiety. He then looked into and along the river stream, but Guru Nanak was nowhere to be seen. At last he concluded that Nanak must have drowned. He went and informed Diwan Jai Ram and the Nawab. The news of Guru Nanak drowning spread rapidly and people flocked to the stream. Jai Ram and Bebe Nanaki were among them. Nawab Daulat Khan Modi also reached to the spot and divers were told to dive and search for the body however all efforts were in vain.

After three days, Guru Nanak appeared with orders from God, the Creator, about what he was to do. He then went to his home and gave away everything he owned to the poor. A big crowd assembled outside his home including Nawab Daulat Khan. They inquired from Guru Ji about what had happened to him but he remained silent.

When he finally responded, he said the words, “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim” and spoke the Mool Mantar, which was revealed to him during the three days he spent in the river, establishing the basic tenets of Sikhism as we know them today. This momentous day marked the beginning of the phase in his life that was devoted to his divine mission.

In 1500 CE, he embarked on this mission and travelled in all 4 directions and visited the various centers of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sufis, Yogis and Sidhas reflecting the religious diversity present in the subcontinent at the time. He met people of different religions, tribes, cultures and races. He travelled on foot with his Muslim companion Bhai Mardana. His travels are referred to as Udasis. He made four (4) Udasis. In his first Udasi, he travelled to central and eastern India. He visited two major cities of Haridwar and Varanasi. He travelled as far as the eastern part of India bordering China.

In his second Udasi from 1506-1513, he travelled to South India. In this second Udasi, Guru Nanak visited most parts of Sri Lanka. In the third Udasi from 1514-1518, Guru Nanak travelled through the difficult terrains of the Himalayas and covered places like Kashmir, Nepal, Tashkent, Tibet and Sikkim. In his fourth Udasi from 1519-1521, he travelled to Arab countries through Central Asia including Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In his fifth and final journey, which lasted for two years, Guru Nanak travelled and focused on spreading his message within the region of Punjab which transcends the boundaries between modern day India and Pakistan. He was accompanied by Bhai Mardana. It is believed by Sikhs that Guru Nanak Dev Ji spent 24 years of his life journeying and covering a staggering distance of 28000 kilometers by foot to engage in dialogues about the truth of God.

Teachings of Guru Nanak Dev Ji

  1. Submission to the will of God (Waheguru)

Guru Nanak Dev Ji said that everything happens by God’s grace, so rest assured God knows better what is right or wrong for us. We should accept his decision with / without any qualm.

  1. There is one God

Guru Nanak Dev Ji remarked “I am neither Hindu nor Muslim, I am a follower of God”. In Sikh religion, God is both with attributes and without being omnipresent, shapeless, timeless and invisible.

  1. Goodwill for all – Sarbat Daa Bhala

Guru Nanak Dev Ji passed the message of universal brotherhood. He said that religion is not merely consistence of words but actually looks at all men and women equally. In our prayer, we say this line towards the end of our daily Ardas, “Lord make everyone in the world prosper and be in peace”.

  1. To Speak the Truth (Sach Sunaisi Sach Kee Bela)

Guru Nanak Dev Ji told the Muslim Emperor that you are not King Babar but King Jabar, meaning you are a ruthless King. We should always speak the truth without any fear. The victory of truth is not dependent on ending or suppressing falsehood but in standing firmly by truth.

  1. Service and meditation (Sewa and Simran)

Guru Nanak Dev Ji said that no one can save anybody else. It is only Guru who guides us to safety and to be saved one has to follow the right path of Sewa and Simran. The concept of Sewa underlies the community kitchen or langar that Guru Nanak Dev Ji established.

  1. The Three principles of Guru Nanak Dev Ji

(A.)  Vand Chhako: (sharing with other, helping those with less who are in need.)

(B.) Kirat Karo: (earning / making a honest living without exploitation or fraud)

(C.)  Naam Japo: (chanting the Holy name and thus remembering God at all times)

  1. Shun Five Evils

Guru Nanak Dev Ji asked his followers to shun five evils – ‘Kaam’, ‘Krodh’, ‘Lobh’, ‘Moh’ & ‘Hankaar’ (Lust, Anger, Greed, Attachment & Ego) as these lead to illusion.

  1. Importance of Guru (Teacher)

Guru Nanak Dev Ji placed a great emphasis on Guru in our life. Solution occurs not from pilgrimage or rites etc. but through heart, spirit and soul. Guru, according to him, is the voice of God, the true source of knowledge and salvation.

(9) No Discrimination

Advocating for egalitarian principles, Guru Nanak Dev Ji strongly condemned against all artificially created divisions and discrimination both in word and deed.

(10) Against Rituals / Superstitions

Guru Nanak Dev Ji preached against superstitions, false, ritual worship of demi-gods and goddesses. He stressed there is only one God who is shapeless, timeless, invisible and omnipresent.

Guru Nanak Dev Ji did not differentiate between men or women disciples and gave both of them an equal status. He said, “From woman man is born; within woman man is conceived, to woman he is engaged and married. Woman becomes his friend and through woman the future generations come. When his woman dies, he seeks another woman; to woman he is bound. So why call her bad? From her, kings are born, from woman, woman is born; without woman, there would be no one at all.

At the time of his departure from the world, he ordered his followers to follow second Guru, Shri Guru Angad Dev Ji. Through his teachings, he had become extremely popular among both, Hindus and Muslims. Both communities claimed Guru Nanak to be one of their own. When Guru Nanak Dev Ji approached his final days, a debate between Hindus and Muslims arose as to who should be given the honor to perform his last rites. While Hindus and his ardent followers Sikhs wanted him to be cremated, Muslims wanted him to be buried as per their custom. Since they could not find an amicable solution, they asked Guru Nanak himself what needs to be done to his mortal remains. Guru Nanak Dev Ji asked them to bring flowers. He asked Hindus and ardent Sikhs to place their flowers on opposite sides of his body. He said the honor of performing last rites will go to the party, whose flowers remain fresh for a night. When Guru Nanak Dev Ji breathed his last in 1539 CE at Kartarpur, now in Pakistan, the religious communities followed his instruction. However, the biggest surprise was that Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s mortal remains had disappeared and all they could see in place of his body were fresh flowers.

*The Author – Upjit Singh Sachdeva is the Honorary Consulate General of India in Liberia. He can be contacted at

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