Nanak (1469-1538) was an Indian religious reformer and founder of the Sikh religion. He combined elements of both the Moslem and the Hindu traditions in his teachings.
Nanak was born into an upper-caste Hindu family near Lahore. His environment was richly immersed in Hindu and Moslem religious culture, especially their mystical and devotional forms. The religious life of the times was marked by a syncretic vitality which saw the emergence of a number of ecstatic devotional movements combining aspects of both religious traditions. He married and fathered several children and worked as a storekeeper and clerk for the Moslem governor of the province.
But Nanak's sensibilities moved him more and more to feel a deep, if at first ill-defined, religious calling. He finally underwent a decisive religious experience in which— according to Sikh tradition—he had a vision of God's presence summoning him to a prophetic mission for the "one God whose 'Name is True' (Sat Nam), the Creator, devoid of fear and enmity, immortal, unborn, self-existent, great and bountiful."
The universal thrust of Nanak's mission was signified by his insistent affirmation that "there is no Hindu and no Moslem"—only those who are the disciples (Sikh means disciple) of the one God. He left his family and began a long period of wandering and preaching in the company of a Moslem minstrel who provided musical accompaniment for the evangelistic hymns in which Nanak's prophetic message was expounded. His teachings were unsystematic but imbued with a profoundly self-consistent devotionalism which combined Islamic monotheism with pervasive aspects of Hindu mysticism.
Nanak deliberately attired himself in a costume which represented the garb and symbols of both religious traditions, and he visited the major holy places, where he preached and sang, frequently in criticism of the archaic traditional rites. And he preached against caste and other traditional hierarchies: "What power has caste? It is the reality (of faith) that is tested. He who obeys God's order shall become a noble in his court." At first he was often rebuffed, treated with hostility, and occasionally imprisoned. His moods of despair are reflected in some of his sayings: "The Age is a knife. Kings are butchers…. Justice hath taken wings and fled…. In this dark night of falsehood the moon of Truth is never seen to rise."
But slowly Nanak acquired a wide following. By the time of his death the movement was securely instituted and was maintained by his designated successors—the gurus (teachers).
The little sect was at first rigorously pacifist. Nanak's sayings were collected in the principal Sikh holy book—the Adi Granth (Original Book), and the life of the community was centered on the famous place of worship at Amritsar. However, as the community grew in strength and economic power, it encountered increasing hostility from both Moslem and Hindu orthodoxy. Eventually, it assumed the role of an aggressive, often warlike, socio-political sect which, ironically, provided the British colonial armies with some of their best fighting men.
Further Reading on Nanak
For material on Nanak see Ernst Trumpp, The Adi Granth (1877); Max A. Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors (6 vols., 1909); Hari Ram Gupta, A History of the Sikhs from Nadir Shah's Invasion to the Rise of Ranjit Singh, 1739-1799 (3 vols., 1944-1952); and John C. Archer, The Sikhs in Relation to Hindus, Moslems, Christians, and Ahmadiyyas (1946).