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Guru Nanak: The Rationalist

Guru Nanak's birthday is something to celebrate. It is a great celebration because of the two themes of Guru Nanak's philosophy: One God. One Humanity.

These themes were built on RATIONALISM.

They were presented through prose and poetry and lyrics and music and metaphor and hyperbole and paradoxical seemly contradictory statements and a love shining through it all.

They are contained in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji - the Sikh form of the Guru today - whose teachings Sikhs are asked to follow and which is a source of celebration of God and the Almighty's great blessings.

I wanted to celebrate it by writing this short-piece on the rationalism of Guru Nanak both at the theological level and at a social level.

Guru Nanak was extremely well-informed through his extensive education in different languages and his travel to the main pilgrimage sites of Hindus and Muslims - such as Varansi,Jaggannath Temple in Puri, Kabbah in Mecca, Medina, etc.

At a theological level, Guru Nanak starts his religious philosophy with a simple proposition: there is One God. He does this by positioning this proposition in Hindu theology - where diversity is worshipped. His logic was that this diversity of forms of worship had a core essence - One God. So he united Hinduism at this level. He further accepted that different names of God existed - e.g. Ram, Brahma, Shiva, Isser, etc. It can either be said that this innovated on existing Hindu philosophy or innovated it. He definitely gave it a coherence to its diversity.

Then he sought to build a bridge with all supporters of monotheism in the world - believers in the Book (Bible) including Muslims. At the time of Guru Nanak, Muslim invasions of India had started. Guru Nanak was educated in Arabic and knew the Koran. His theological mission was to unite humanity under the banner of One God - seeking to discover common ground - even when superficially there were differences. I have argued that the Great Spirit is a reference to the One God in native American religions.

So in terms of worship Guru Nanak created a common understanding of the essence of worship. This was that God's Name is Truth. God's Name was not restricted to one language or religion. So God could be Ram or Allah. All of God's Names are Truth. To pray meant to place the centrality of God's Name into worship. The Lord's Prayer line of "Hallowed by Thy[God's] Name" fits into this view. So do the 99 Names of Allah in the Koran. So do the 1001 Names of Shiva. Prayers evoke the Name of God in different ways.

The third theological point was to argue that if there was One God that God was omnipresent (everywhere). So those who argue that God is in one holy place or pilgrimage site are mistaken in this view. God is everywhere. So the prayer said in one place is equivalent to a prayer said in another place.
So Guru Nanak does not place any extra significance to any one place - because God exists in the homes, in the streets, in the fields, in workplaces, etc. In a way everything is holy because God exists everywhere. Needless to say that God is not limited to the earth or particular cities or countries on earth. So the notion that you can 'turn your back on God' by facing in a particular direction is not considered valid.

The fourth revolutionary point was to argue that God is not subject to the law of birth and death. Birth and death are scientific biological processes. God is above such processes as God is without birth or without death (immortal). Guru Nanak rejected the idea of God taking a human form, when he rejected the concept of 'avatars' ( God coming to visit mankind in a human form). Guru Nanak was also very critical of the notion that some people or even things had special access to God.

I wanted to illustrate that Guru Nanak created a rational basis to theological argument. He translated his key concepts into live examples through metaphors, through application to historical or religious mythical examples, through religious verses and songs, through prayers, etc.

The second form of rationalisation that Guru Nanak carried through was rationalism about society. His theological root of this rationalisation was that only God decides who is high or low. The verse on power and priceless in his basic theological recital (Japji Sahib - Recital Prayer) destroys the notion that power or wealth are in any way morally above God and can buy God morally or have power above God in a moral way. Holiness cannot be bought or taken through power.

Guru Nanak challenged the system of social hierarchy in a revolutionary way. The message was that all people are of equal worth to God and God decides their salvation and not some priests.

He actively attacked the caste system at a theological and social level. Sikh institutional design is geared against the caste system. Eating food together (Guru's food) was not limited to one religious class. It was fairly strictly enforced. So Emperor Akbar had to eat food alongside ordinary people. Caste barriers were strictly forbidden. The second area of actual practice was in the common pools attached to the Sikh Temples - anyone could bathe in these. So the idea of caste purity and impurity was strongly challenged in a practical sense. This does not mean that caste does not exist in Sikh practice, but this is a religious and social corruption of Sikhism in a fundamental way.

Men and women had equal rights in Sikhism in all institutional practice and in society. women can lead prayers, hold any position in Sikh institutions, join the army, be educated, etc. Guru Nanak strongly attacked anti-women practices such as Sati (burning of widows) - which incidentally was practised after the death of Maharajah Ranjt Singh, the great Sikh ruler of the Punjab - which was a corruption of Sikh teachings. He attacked the notion of the veil. Women were equal to men. Female infanticide is outlawed in Sikhism. This again does not mean that sexism and discrimination is absent from Sikh practice, but it is a complete corruption of it. It needs to be rooted out of Sikhism again in a fundamental way.

At a theological level, Sikhism again challenged caste at a design of the Sikh scriptures by including people from all castes into the Sikh holy scriptures. There are numerous verses that state and restate human equality in Sikhism. In the Japji Saib, the verse "all beings have the same One God" (verse 5 refrain) established Guru Nanak's position and he took it to its rational conclusions.

Equality in Sikhism is a vital part of Guru Nanak's rational view of society. This rationalism was common to renaissance and enlightenment philosophies in Europe and America. South Asia is much poorer by rejecting the energy of rationalism, which demands to know why inequality still exists in the world.

Sikhism's second pillar to One God is One Humanity. These are both part of the rationalism and modernism of Guru Nanak. They cannot be separated.

Guru Nanak had a fairly rational view of life including sex (rejected celibacy and accepted life creation and pleasure of children in people's life), life and death (biological processes as well as illusions because the material side is a temporary and not a permanent state of affairs, so managing the material side in a positive and moral way is important), was not prudish ( in one verse on the wonders of God, he describes the wonder of nude people worshipping God -Asa di Varr 'Vismad' -Vismaad nagay firay jant), did not shy away from rational views of living ( in a verse on cleanliness he says - if your hands full of dirt, wash the, if your clothes are soiled with urine then wash them with soap..so practical hygiene is important as well as cleanliness of the mind through worship on One God), mocked those who consider things to be impure (with a saying that in the animal excrement and wood, there is also life and shows how a beautiful lotus grows in a swamp which is so full of life - by understanding modern ecology). The task of modern Sikhism is to employ rationalism as a tool in terms of its theology and in terms of its social interaction.

So I celebrate Guru Nanak's birthday will full zeal. One God. One Humanity. A rational world. Let us seek to unite and not to divide this world.

So Dhan Dhan Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji - (Thank you. Thank You. The Radiant and Dear Guru Nanak Dev)

I wish everyone much joy in this celebration, but let us also pray together in the world and let us also recommit ourselves to the pursuit of human equality - with the flower of diversity kept alive through cultivation.

I hope to be able to extend this article into a full essay and will publish it.
 

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