By Dr. Manzur Ejaz

Literature review reveals that most commentators enumerate Guru Nanak’s political viewpoints without addressing his fundamental philosophy. Writing on this subject, most have depended upon his lamentation of the Mughal invasion in Babar Bani and some other overt statements against the ruling establishment. As such, Guru Nanak was not a politician in the popular sense of the world and like other world figures of his stature his basic articulations cannot be captioned away as a ‘political agenda.’ Hence, this paper, will first discuss his philosophy regarding the universe and human life. This foundational philosophy will then be linked the political derivation which originated from it. The paper will briefly comment on the ideology practiced by the emerging political class in his name.

Guru Nanak was the first philosopher after Mahatma Gautama Buddha whose universal articulations gave birth to a specific political discourse. Many schools of thought were vying for people’s attention in the 4th century BC.  They all had  ideas similar to Buddha’s but it was he who succeeded in carving out a system of thought which was embraced by people and rulers of many regions of the world including Punjab. Similarly, many Bhagats and Sufis were teaching along the same lines as that of Guru Nanak, but only he was successful in motivating the people to change the entire socio-political order. However, in one significant way, Guru Nanak differentiated himself from Buddha: his message initially attracted the lowest strata of Punjab, unlike Buddha, who was first embraced by rich traders and ruling elites. Nonetheless, both shared anti-caste and anti-gender differentiation ideology.

Buddha remained evasive of the existence of the Supreme Being [USER241] while Guru Nanak seems to affirm this notion:

ੴ ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਕਰਤਾ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਨਿਰਵੈਰੁ ਅਕਾਲ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਅਜੂਨੀ ਸੈਭੰ ਗੁਰ ਪ੍ਰਸਾਦਿ ॥

ੴ सति नामु करता पुरखु निरभउ निरवैरु अकाल मूरति अजूनी सैभं गुर प्रसादि ॥

Ik▫oaʼnkār, saṯ nām ,karṯā purakẖ, nirbẖa▫o nirvair, akāl mūraṯ, ajūnī, saibẖaʼn gur parsāḏ.

(It is one that pervades everything and every entity)

An important question is how Guru Nanak’s notion of Super Being is different from all monotheist religions which preach the similar concept of a “One Being” as a doer of every happening, including the incident of birth. Guru Nanak negates the God-given birth social status but how does this reconcile with his idea of Supreme Being? If the Supreme Being is responsible for a newly born Brahman or Sudra then why and how one can fight the divine will? Consequently, if Supreme Being has given Brahmans and Khashatria the right to rule, then how can low-lying class of artisans and wretched peasantry be justified in adopting politics that is centered around overturning the system allegedly designed by the divinity. Therefore, Guru Nanak’s concept of Super Being must be different from that of a Pandit, Mullah or the Pope. If Guru Nanak was only negating idolatry, as claimed by some Muslim commentators, then no one could have stopped him from converting to Islam. The ruler and his employer was a Muslim and his conversion would have enhanced his career. Therefore, to comprehend Guru Nanak, as a political philosopher of change, one has to differentiate him from other adherents of One Being. [USER242] 

Guru Nanak clearly understood the power and expanse of ideology when he narrated the futile exercise of reading Quran by Muslims (women) and rituals performed by Hindu pandits to blunt the Mughal invasion. He was cognizant of the fact that defending and invading warriors, Ibrahim Lodhi and Babar, belonged to the same religion but because of the lust for power, they fought each other. Thus, he concluded that the professed faith systems are mere wrappings to cover the power hunger of the ruling warrior classes. He asks the Pandit not to lie and abandon hypocrisy “Jooth na bol pande, chond chond pakhandi.” Similarly, he advises the Mullah to make mercy your mosque, faith prayer mat, honest living Quran[USER243]  “Mihir masit, sidak musala, haq halal Quran”.

Guru Nanak was not surprised that Babar destroyed mosques and temples without distinction and maltreated  women of every religion including Islam. For him, in practice, the religious power structure was neutral. On the level of the masses, the essence of practiced religion was also the same that provided the justification for continuation of an unjust system through general acquiescence of the people. In other words, people’s belief in the system being divine and their efforts to ameliorate it through ritualistic prayers was responsible for inhuman social conditions. Later-on Bulleh Shah encapsulated this in the following verse:

Kite Ramdas kite Fate Muhammad eho qadeemi shor

Nipat gia dohan da jhagra nikal pia koi hor 

(From time immemorial, somewhere he is named as Ram Da and at others Fate Muhammad. However, when this was resolved, something else came to the surface.)  

Guru Nanak’s major concern was the reality that surfaced after going beyond the misleading byproducts of religion[USER244] . On a practical level, being the son of a land revenue official and a state treasurer himself, he had much better understanding and insight into socio-political structure then those of his fellow travelers who had come through madrassas and temple teachings. The question for him was how to articulate a new system of thought that was rooted in the people’s history but different from their redundant beliefs. Buddha, also from a non-theoretic background, faced the similar problem and devised a module of desirable human life, famously called ‘the middle path.’ Guru Nanak also found and devised a middle-path but his contours were very different from that of Buddha.

Essentially, Guru Nanak’s middle path was rooted in the philosophical discourse of Punjab from ancient times. Historians, archeologists, linguists and other experts agree that Harappa Civilization[USER245]  was dominated by matriarchal system with no signs of organized religion. No temple or palace has been found in any excavation of Harappa civilization sites. Using a comparative method, it has been inferred that having reached a higher level of agricultural mode of production, the Harappans were close to what were later known as Tantrism, Charvak and Jog. These philosophical schools were, on the surface, similar to paternalistic monotheism but in reality, quite the opposite of them. To understand Guru Nanak, it is imperative to clearly understand the distinction between them.

Guru Nanak’s decision to have a dialogue with a major proponent of the school of Jog, narrated in Sidh Ghoshti, proves his affinity and, at the same time, distinctions and disagreements with them. He must have debated the proponents of organized religion while being socially functional before tiag, but his visiting of Tilla Jogian as the first step after tiag, is extremely significant. [USER246] 

Tantrism and Jog are founded and derived from the belief in magic. Belief in magic means that humans can control the nature through awakening the inner shaktis (powers) through certain mantras and body exercises. ‘Tan’ is a common Punjabi word meaning body and, therefore, tantrism is a human-body based system. After discovering the similarity between in how the the human body and the universe work, it was concluded that both function under one universal law: the mechanism of body and the universe are one. Therefore, if one can control one’s body, the universe can be brought under similar control. To attain this goal, one has to concentrate on the body through deep meditation, physical exercises (yoga) and discovering verbal rhythms (mantras). In other words, by making certain changes in human body, universal discourse of nature can be altered. Since the human body is a physical phenomenon, all the ensuing changes can be categorized as materialistic.

Taking the change as transformation of the matter from one state to another, the entire process can be understood as series of ‘causes’ and ‘effects’ on which the entire scientific knowledge is based.  In this way, the whole universe is viewed as an ongoing course of causes and effects. The main thing to be underlined is that this singular universal law is a materialistic law based on the human-body which negates any other, detached, Supreme Being, as a driving force behind every change. In simple words this means that human acts (‘karat’) and not a Super being are the cause of dividing people into castes and genders. This philosophy of Karanvad was the basic universal law practiced by the schools of Tantara, Jog and Charvak. This was ‘Oneness’ [USER247] that was handed down to Bhagats, Sufis and Jogis.

On the contrary, the concept of Super Being, as an eternal force, independent of human existence, evolved from the patriarchal social order. The subjugation of women and large swath of people was explained as the acts of a Super Being and therefore, humans could not do anything about it. This was portrayed as a divine order in which being born as a woman, Sudra or Brahman is independent of human will. A detached Super Being’s acts are also presented as an absolute universal law. But, in this case, the process of change cannot be understood through cause and effect law, because it all depends on the not-to-be-known Super Being[USER248] : it can be categorized as ‘jacamar.’ In this manner both schools of Karanvad and Janamvad believe in a universal law but, in essence, they are contradictory to each other.

In the very first portions of the Japji Saheb, Guru Nanak critically evaluates and negates the prevailing modes of thinking and ritualistic practices through which the essence of the universe or Super Being is being explored, asserted or worshipped. Some of these modes and rituals are rebutted by Guru Nanak in the following manner:

The Super Being is not an abstract thought born out of mere speculation and logical inferences. This way he demolishes all the scholastic schools of religion. 

ਸੋਚੈ ਸੋਚਿ ਨ ਹੋਵਈ ਜੇ ਸੋਚੀ ਲਖ ਵਾਰ ॥

Socẖai socẖ na hova▫ī je socẖī lakẖ vār.

However, the anti-scholasticism method of silent meditation, practiced by some spiritualistic orders, does not fulfill the purpose either: 

ਚੁਪੈ ਚੁਪ ਨ ਹੋਵਈ ਜੇ ਲਾਇ ਰਹਾ ਲਿਵ ਤਾਰ ॥

Cẖupai cẖup na hova▫ī je lā▫e rahā liv ṯār.

By remaining silent, inner silence is not obtained, even by remaining lovingly absorbed deep within.

Similarly, he places Mimansa school’s use of rhetorical tricks as a futile practice:

ਸਹਸ ਸਿਆਣਪਾ ਲਖ ਹੋਹਿ ਤ ਇਕ ਨ ਚਲੈ ਨਾਲਿ ॥

Sahas si▫āṇpā lakẖ hohi ṯa ik na cẖalai nāl.

Hundreds of thousands of clever tricks, but not even one of them will go along with you in the end.

Guru Nanak takes account of numerous other such modes and proves those to be superfluous, self-serving and deceptions. But he does not undertake this exercise [USER249] to prove himself to be ‘holier than thou.’ He is genuinely agonized over finding the truth while the multitude of existing methods are proving to be false, or just noise:

ਕਿਵ ਸਚਿਆਰਾ ਹੋਈਐ ਕਿਵ ਕੂੜੈ ਤੁਟੈ ਪਾਲਿ ॥

Kiv sacẖi▫ārā ho▫ī▫ai kiv kūrhai ṯutai pāl.

So how can you become truthful? And how can the veil of illusion be torn away?

After critically evaluation of existing ideologies, Guru Nanak, finds the answer in ‘Hukam’ (order, universal law).

ਹੁਕਮੀ ਹੋਵਨਿ ਆਕਾਰ ਹੁਕਮੁ ਨ ਕਹਿਆ ਜਾਈ ॥

Hukmī hovan ākār hukam na kahi▫ā jā▫ī.

All things come into being by this law and this cannot be termed as verbal order.

ਹੁਕਮੀ ਹੋਵਨਿ ਜੀਅ ਹੁਕਮਿ ਮਿਲੈ ਵਡਿਆਈ ॥

Hukmī hovan jī▫a hukam milai vadi▫ā▫ī.

ਹੁਕਮੀ ਉਤਮੁ ਨੀਚੁ ਹੁਕਮਿ ਲਿਖਿ ਦੁਖ ਸੁਖ ਪਾਈਅਹਿ ॥

Hukmī uṯam nīcẖ hukam likẖ ḏukẖ sukẖ pā▫ī▫ah.

.ਇਕਨਾ ਹੁਕਮੀ ਬਖਸੀਸ ਇਕਿ ਹੁਕਮੀ ਸਦਾ ਭਵਾਈਅਹਿ ॥

Iknā hukmī bakẖsīs ik hukmī saḏā bẖavā▫ī▫ah.

ਹੁਕਮੈ ਅੰਦਰਿ ਸਭੁ ਕੋ ਬਾਹਰਿ ਹੁਕਮ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥

Hukmai anḏar sabẖ ko bāhar hukam na ko▫e.

ਨਾਨਕ ਹੁਕਮੈ ਜੇ ਬੁਝੈ ਤ ਹਉਮੈ ਕਹੈ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥੨॥

Nānak hukmai je bujẖai ṯa ha▫umai kahai na ko▫e. ||2||

Asserting the domain of ‘Hukam,’ everything is said to come into being by this universal law. Reading it in reverse order, it also means that the universal law which is the foundation of every creation is termed as ‘Hukam.’ The second part of the line “hukam na kahi▫ā jā▫ī” refers to the conventional Muslim belief that God uttered “Fayakun” and the universe came into being by that verbal order. In following lines, Hukam, as universal law, is elaborated. The argument concludes that being under or in Hukam is not a matter of choice and if this is realized then no one can claim to be exception or unique. “Hukme andar sabh ko” means that one can alter the course of nature as claimed by magicians or spiritualists. In this way he, like prophet Muhammad, rules out the possibilities of miracles and other nature altering claims. This is one major point on which he takes a departure from Tantarwad.

Embracing the universal law of joga school, Guru Nanak differed with abandonment of the world and the ritualistic practices of tantrism generally practiced by Jogis. In dialogue with Sidhs, Guru Nanak reiterates the agreed upon universal law but does not concede to the ritualist aspects. [USER2410] After Guru Nanak, Waris Shah was the only one in Punjabi philosophical discourse who undertook a fundamental dialogue with the institution of Jog. In the footsteps of Guru Nanak, he also agreed with their conception of universal law but negated the abandonment of the society. Waris Shah [USER2411] was blunter in refusing this:

Rannan koolon je warjde chalian noon, eh guru nan banh ke chowne je

(If the men are forbidden from the women, one cannot milk (procreate from) the gurus).

Guru Nanak’s distinctions with Jog were significant. In Jog, two basic principles are essential: one, to awaken the woman from within, called the “woman law”, the second is practice of five “M”, mas (meat), matasa (fish), madh,(wine or intoxicators), madhona (sexual intercourse)  (roasted corn). Such practices are considered absolutely essential in Jog to reach a state of mind and be transformed into an embodiment of universality. Bulleh Shah incapsulated this experience in saying that, “Jab jogi tum wasal karo ge, bang kahe ya nad wajaie”  (O Jogi when you will experience togetherness, it does not matter if you call out for prayers or blow conch.)

It appears that Guru Nanak accepted the woman awakening within as he uses the word “khasam” quite often but, seemingly, rejected ritual of the five “M.” For him, such a state of mind can be achieved without any rituals and just by adopting a different social discourse. Guru Nanak does not accept Jog’s assertion that human body has to be brought into a certain state through consumption, practicing certain body rituals or by annihilating the ego through begging etc. 

ਭੁਖਿਆ ਭੁਖ ਨ ਉਤਰੀ ਜੇ ਬੰਨਾ ਪੁਰੀਆ ਭਾਰ ॥

Bẖukẖi▫ā bẖukẖ na uṯrī je bannā purī▫ā bẖār.

The hunger of the hungry is not appeased, even by piling up loads of worldly goods.

Kaam kroDh ahaNkaar nivaarai gur kai sabad so samajh paree.

Discard sexual desire, anger and egotism, and through the Word of the Guru's Shabad, attain true understanding.

ooNDha-o khapar panch bhoo topee.

Let your mind turn away in detachment from the world, and let this be your begging bowl. Let the lessons of the five elements be your cap.

kaaN-i-aa karhaasan man jaagotee.

Let the body be your meditation mat, and the mind your loin cloth.

sat santokh sanjam hai naal.

Let truth, contentment and self-discipline be your companions.

In contrast, while Waris Shah rejected social abandonment prescribed by Jog, he embraced the five “M” and takes Ranjha through madh (intoxication) and madhona (sexual intercourse). Guru Nanak’s path was to cleanse all rituals including that of Jog to which he, generally, agreed otherwise. The question is how ‘Hukm’, the universal law, has to be understood differently than the organized religions’ belief in perpetual divine intervention. If “Hukam” is taken to be an imposed order from without, then Guru Nank’s differentiation will be rendered meaningless. Guru Nanak’s concept of “Hukam” can be better understood by the way he portrays relations in society. This can be seen in two ways:  on the one hand how social relations can be in violation of “Hukam” and on the other,  the manner in which they become constituent of it.

Equality of all human beings is the essence of “Hukam” irrespective of birth, gender or class (Ek drishti kar samsarye jane), and discrimination is its negation. The producer is the sole legitimate consumer of its produced goods and services while everyone else living on the surplus, usurped through force or religious exploitation is a negation of ‘Hukam’. For Guru Nanak even fakirs and Jogis are not justified to live on other people’s surplus production.

Raje sinh mukkadam kute

(Rajas are lions and officials are like dogs)

Kali kati, raje kasai

(Time is knife, rulers are butchers)

Je rat lage kapada jama hoye palit

Jo rat peeve mansa, tinh kyon nirmal chit

(If blood touches then dress becomes dirty. Those who drink human blood, how their heart can be pure)

Rejecting the caste system and gender-based discrimination he says:

Jate dai kiya, hath sache parkhaiye

Muhra howe hath, mariye chakhiye

(Caste is meaningless, truth is to be practiced. Pride of caste is like poison in hand that kills if tasted)

Bhand jamiye, band nimiyen, bhand mangan viyah

Bandhu howe dosti, bhandhu chale rah

(One is born from woman, in woman one is conceived, to woman he is married. Woman is the friend, through woman lineage continues)

In these quotations, “Hukam” is clearly defined as verifiable social conditions known to everyone. The path of Hukam lies in negation of class, caste and gender. Furthermore, the human body must produce for its own sustenance while all other modes of consumption are illegitimate and barbarianism. In this way, Guru Nanak reinterprets the materialistic universal law believed in Jog and other such schools, but it has to be devoid of ritualism. Within these parameters, Hukam is strictly tied to causal relationship i.e. if any prescribed condition is violated, Hukam is negated. Therefore, Hukam as a universal law, is neither metaphysical nor special treatment of body parts. Other than Guru Nanak, no one else in Punjab’s philosophical discourse has defined the universal law in such concrete terms. Most intellectuals have rejected the orthodoxy of organized religions without identifying the concrete social manifestations of ideology of the establishments. No wonder, Guru Nank’s “Hukam” pierced through the hearts of the downtrodden leading up to a political transformation.

Guru Nanak’s internalization of universal law was rooted in cultural ethos of Punjab, continuing from ancient times. His choice of language being Punjabi [USER2412]  as opposed to Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit, and his use of musical composition, played an essential part in spreading the word. Buddha had done the same by rejecting Sanskrit and using Prakrit commonly understood by common people. However, Guru Nanak fundamentally differed from Buddha and Jogis in not establishing exclusive stangha[USER2413]  away from the society. After all the Buddha sangha and Jogi tillas had to be sustained by surplus produced by others. That is why Buddha sangha needed rich patrons and Jogis sustained themselves through alms which depended on surplus produced by working people. By rejecting the use of surplus, Guru Nanak forced his followers to fight within the system to get their fair share and not take refuge in Bhats and tillas. This led to the political activism of the down-trodden classes.

To summarize the basic philosophical tenants of Guru Nanak that led to the political movement are as follows:

(1)   His concept of universal law or Supreme Law based on causation or Karanvad inculcated the idea that human beings are responsible for creating good or bad conditions. These conditions cannot be assigned to will of any outside force and injustices are not going to be redressed or compensated in another word. Therefore, the humans are responsible for creating a just and harmonious society.  

(2)   To reject escapism, Guru Nanak, did not create “parallel living” enclaves like Buddha and Jogis. For him, disconnection with society was neither possible nor desirable because in “parallel living” one still consumes the surplus produced by society and remains dependent on it. For him “the middle path’ was to struggle within the society, fulfilling social responsibility, but with a transformed mindset. Before completely giving up his household life, he ensured to make provisions for his wife and two sons: he gave the money to his in-laws to take care of his family.

(3)   To break down the caste barriers he introduced the concept of ‘langar’ (collective eating) which was a general practice among Buddhists and Jogis. But for Guru Nanak, it was less to feed the poor and more to demolish the inbred caste discriminations which, symbolically, centered around the kitchen and eating utensils. He made sure that ‘langar’ did not become a permanent source of nourishment for the escapists. Furthermore, ‘langar’ was also meant to play a part in ending gender discrimination.

(4)   By using people’s language and folk music tradition, he not only spoke to the heart of downtrodden but also distanced himself from all sorts of establishment elites, religious or otherwise. In doing so, he revived a mode of resistance that had survived under the centuries old oppressive ruling class culture, first through Sanskrit and then by Persian. In this manner, he managed to enforce a complete break with imposed ideology and its trappings. Through multi-dimensional mediums he made it possible for the people to experience core sensibility of resistance encompassing each and every aspect of life.

Given the general philosophical context, Guru Nanak was conscious of the ongoing political happenings affecting the multitude. His condemnation of Mughal invasion, led by Zahir ud Din Babar, was a unique bold step that other opponents of elites like Bhagat and Sufis had avoided. Guru Nanak’s exposure of Babar’s cruelty and destruction of people of all religions and his criticism of the parasitic ideology that incapacitated elites and preachers of all religions, showed that the ideological vacuum had to be filled by a culture of resistance. Furthermore, such a resistance should not be limited to prolonged slow change of behaviors as preached by other anti-establishment ideologues. On the contrary, the resistance should address the immediate issues as well. This is the main reason that, in coming years, his ideology gave birth to a political movement resulting in realignment of ruling classes. In short, Guru Nanak created a person [USER2414] who has to emerge from the native soil, thoroughly believes in human equality, does not take refuge in “parallel living” arrangements or and does not wait to change human behavior and fight against injustices.

The political resistance movement that was based on his legacy accomplished some fundamental goals like permanently closing the doors of invasions that had wrecked Punjab for 2,500 years. Looking from this angle, it was a nationalistic movement having lasting effects on the future of Punjab. However, the new alignment of ruling class, though emerged from artisans and oppressed peasantry, took the path of their predecessors whether Mughal or Hindu rajas before them. Despite, his compassion and sense of justice and religious tolerance, Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s formation of a very large haram was no different than what Muslim rulers did. The eleven women committing sati, burning themselves on Maharaja’s pyre, was revival of primitive Hinduism. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that by the advent of 20th century Sikh Gurdwaras were taken over by Hindu Mahants, some of whom were selling cigarettes (Hasan Abdal Gurdwara) from these sacred places of worship. Additionally, they prohibited the entrance of low caste Sikhs into Gurdwaras. Though liberated from Mahants long time ago, Gurdwaras are just like mosques, temples, synagogues and churches of organized religions, practicing religion as a set of rituals that Guru Nanak fought so vigorously against. Sikhism is well and alive like Buddhism but is anyone following/practicing teachings of the founding  philosophers[USER2415] ?

At the murderous mayhem of Punjab partition, Amrita Pritam cried for Waris Shah to rise from the grave to witness the blooded five rivers and its ruined whaling daughters. But I pine for the rebirth of Guru Nanak to demolish the walls of ritualistic religions and other ideologies that have enslaved the human mind and soul.


 [USER241]Do you mean “Super” or “Supreme”

 [USER242]I don’t understand this point – obviously he meant Supreme Being as God and not Pope or Mullah. What does conversion have to do with any of this. 

 [USER243]This doesn’t make sense, not a complete sentence.

 [USER244]Not clear what you mean by “apparent distinctions” – is this what you mean?

 [USER245]Which is an ancient Punjabi civilization

 [USER246]Have no idea what tiag is or what this means. I am guessing you are writing to a learned audience.

 [USER247]It seems like you just introduce this here – what is this alluding to “the concept of human-body based materialistic law”? If so, please just state that for clarity.

 [USER248]“the Super Being not being known”?

 [USER249]What exercise?

 [USER2410]So both abandoned rituals but Guru Nanak did it in a different way? How was it different?


 [USER2412]What was his choice?


 [USER2414]“the ideal person as someone”?

 [USER2415]“the founding philosophers”