Guru Nanak & the Sikh Ideal of Activism

Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh faith and today as Sikhs across the world, including here in Canada, celebrate his Gurpurab (birth anniversary) it is a great opportunity to reflect on what a revolutionary and activist Guru Nanak was. 

Guru Nanak’s teachings are a source of inspiration for us at WSO.  Guru Nanak created a community of activists and taught that his Sikhs would serve all of humanity.  Below are just some of the things that make his message for humanity continue to be incredibly important and relevant and how he truly created the Sikh ideal of activism.

  • Guru Nanak challenged inequality:  well ahead of his time Guru Nanak declared all of humanity as being equal.  Guru Nanak’s first disciple and the first to recognize his spirituality was his sister Bebe Nanaki.  Guru Nanak’s closest companion, Bhai Mardana was from a so-called “low caste”. Guru Nanak rejected religious hatred and taught that actions were much more important than dogma or labels. 
  • He practiced social responsibility and equality:  Guru Nanak taught that there is a duty to share one’s earnings with others and to help those less fortunate.  Guru Nanak began the concept of langar and serving the needy.  Later, when he established the town of Kartarpur, all residents rich and poor worked together for the general welfare.  When Bhai Lehna (later Guru Angad) came to meet Guru Nanak, he first saw him working in the fields like all the other residents of Kartarpur.  Bhai Lehna could not tell from appearance alone that this indeed was the Guru. 
  • He encouraged engagement and activism:  rather than following the concept of ‘sanyaas’ which required people to detach themselves from the world to find God, Guru Nanak taught that a truly spiritual person engages not just with his or her family but with the community.  He taught that earning an honest living is an integral part of living a spiritual lifestyle.  Guru Nanak also taught that a spiritual person cannot remain silent in the face of injustice. 
  • He challenged abuses:  when the Emperor Babar invaded India and was inflicting terror on the people, Guru Nanak openly challenged him and declared him a tyrant.  As a result, Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana were even imprisoned but even in prison he inspired his fellow captives to be in high spirits and have faith. 
  • He inspired people to think:  Guru Nanak rejected blind ritualism and asked that people reflect on what they do and why they do it.   When Guru Nanak wanted to challenge a commonly held belief or practice, he didn’t simply tell people they were wrong, but encouraged them to reflect and come to their own conclusions.  Instead of telling the sun worshippers at Haridwar they were behaving irrationally, Guru Nanak through his actions encouraged them to think about what they were doing.  Similarly when challenging the merchant Duni Chand’s pride over his wealth, Guru Nanak simply asked him to take a single needle into the afterlife.  This question was enough to cause Duni Chand to realize the finite nature of the material world.    
  • He practiced the principle of universality:  Guru Nanak taught that spirituality was a path anyone of any background could follow.  Guru Nanak travelled the world from China to Africa and from Russia to Sri Lanka teaching his universal principles that applied not to just people from one background but to all of humanity.  Guru Nanak’s bani was written in various languages and raags.

This list could go on forever.  These are only a very small selection of the amazing teachings and principles Guru Nanak gave to the world.  At WSO, in our small way, try to live in the spirit of Guru Nanak’s teachings  by raising our voices against injustices and human rights abuses no matter where they may occur.  In the coming year we will continue to endeavour to live up to the amazing example Guru Nanak left for us.    

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