From the archives: Guru Nanak and his fearless politics


Since 1969, the date of the celebration of the 500th centenary of Guru Nanak’s birth, researchers have focused more on Guru Nanak’s own compositions to understand his response to his time (an approach initiated by JS Grewal in his book, Guru Nanak in history). Guru Nanak is the most eloquent of the religious leaders of medieval India to describe their time. However, religious, social and political aspects are interwoven in Guru Nanak’s compositions. His political point of view is integrated with his metaphysical and ethical considerations. He often uses political metaphors to support a moral idea. Even more striking is his direct political commentary.

The early years

Guru Nanak’s historical background and the extent of his personal experience appear to have influenced his political outlook. Born in 1469, he lived under the reign of three Lodi sultans of Delhi – Bahlol, Sikander and Ibrahim (1451-1526), ​​then saw the beginning of the Mughal reign under Babur. The first years of Guru Nanak’s life were spent in the Punjab, which was under Bahlul Lodi even before he conquered Delhi. Subsequently, Guru Nanak served for 10 years as an official in Sultanpur, which was a pargana under the administration of Daulat Khan Lodi. Guru Nanak seems to have gained first-hand knowledge of how the Afghan administration at the middle and lower levels has encroached on the lives of ordinary people.

He was also able to notice the indifference to governance and the lavish lifestyle of the Afghan ruling class. Below the sultan were the subordinate chiefs and local potentates like raja, rana, rai and rao, who were largely non-Muslims.

Then, during his unusually long journeys, Guru Nanak may have noticed or heard of important political developments and military activities in the subcontinent. The Lodi Sultans remained concerned about the war in eastern and central India. In all likelihood, war between traditional political rivals (such as between the Lodis and Sharqis of Jaunpur) was less likely to be accompanied by a massive slaughter of the submissive peoples. In any case, the province of Lahore remained peaceful during the reign of Lodi until 1519.

The coming of Babur brought about a change of great magnitude. From 1519 to 1524, Babur made successive incursions into the Punjab. He first conquered Bhera east of the Jhelum River, which was the northern limit of the Lodi Sultanate. Sialkot east of the Chenab River was then conquered in 1520, Saidpur (Eminabad) in 1521, and Lahore and Depalpur east of the Ravi River in 1524. As Babur’s memoir attests in the last three places , he used massacre and arson, accompanied by looting, as a tactic of war. The forced extortion of money from the people of Bhera was a way to pay his soldiers. They were also allowed to rape and enslave women.

Guru Nanak had just returned from his travels and was about to settle in Kartarpur. His compositions reveal that not only was he aware of these events, but that he also witnessed the sack of Saidpur by Mughal forces. Probably nowhere else in India would Guru Nanak have encountered such ferocity. Naturally, therefore, his four verses “Babur-Vani” vividly portray the devastation caused by Babur, leading to the establishment of Mughal rule in 1526.

His political metaphors

The number of verses often cited as reflecting Guru Nanak’s political concerns is around 10, but several other verses, phrases and words relate metaphorically to politics.

Guru Nanak appears to be well acquainted with state officials at all levels of the power structure below the rulers. Some of the words that appear often are sultan, patshah, takhat, taj, wazir, diwan, naib, khan, shiqqdar and qazi. For subjects, the term used is raiyat. He also knows the finery of power, such as the court, palaces, armies, trumpets, treasury, coins, wages, taxes, and income-free lands alienated for charitable purposes.

Using metaphors from politics, Guru Nanak indicates his relative place in his system. God for him is “true king” (sacha padshah), or simply patcha (“The king of kings”) or the only sovereign and the only wazir (Prime Minister). He has his court, his throne and his palace, and his service alone is true service. Finding honor in his court is the real goal of human life. Temporal power is transitory; it is an illusion which is irrelevant for liberation in life as the supreme goal of life for Guru Nanak. By implication, one who submits to the “true king” does not need to bow to an earthly king who is a mere mortal.

Wealth versus virtue

Guru Nanak’s moral judgments are embedded in his metaphorical use of political phraseology: greed and sin, together, are the raja and mehta; the lie is the shiqqdar; lust is there naib to give advice; they all conspire together.

Even when the raja (rule), mehta (chief), shiqqdar (administrator of pargana) and the naib (adjunct) refer to specific positions at the time of Guru Nanak, human faults like greed, sin, lying and lust are not specific to his age alone. Likewise, when Guru Nanak refers to rajas as “butchers”, he in fact regards the Kaliyuga (the last and longest of the four cosmic ages) as a “knife” when dharma (righteousness, true faith) vanishes. Grewal contends in his forthcoming book on Guru Nanak (viewed with courtesy of the author) that the passage in which these lines appear portrays Guru Nanak’s “anguish in his spiritual quest” and the reference to Kaliyuga is general, with l oppression as a common trait. Likewise, Guru Nanak seems to denounce political power in general terms when he says that “the raja does justice only when his palm is greased, ”or when the accumulation of wealth and virtues do not go hand in hand, or when attachment to pleasures while forgetting one’s duty leads to the fall of power.

God’s lost mandate

There is a direct denunciation of contemporary rule when Guru Nanak refers to the rulers (rajas) of his time as a miser and “bloodsucker”. Elsewhere, the rajas are lions and the mouqaddam (village chiefs) dogs, they fall on the raiyat day and night. Their agents inflict wounds with (power) claws and the dogs lick the blood and savor the livers.

Here the commentary seems to be about those in power at different levels, regardless of their faith. But when Guru Nanak speaks with regret about the “custom” of taxing “gods and temples”, the reference is directly to the Lodi rule. He also says that such decisions were made by the rulers under the influence of orthodoxy. But this amounted to religious discrimination, which Guru Nanak strongly disapproves of. Thus, Guru Nanak says in the ‘Babur Vani’ that the Lodis lost the mandate of God by their mismanagement of this precious land (Hindustan). Their ruling class amassed wealth by oppressing subjects and indulged in sensual rejoicings and pleasures.

The sins of Babur

According to the verses of “Babur Vani”, Babur descended on Hindustan, moving relentlessly, burning houses, buildings and strong palaces and cutting princes to pieces, and rolling them in dust. In fact, people of all classes have suffered and, above all, their wives, whether they are “Hindus, Turkans, Bhattiani” or “thakurani”. In a sense, Babur was God’s agent sent to punish the Lodis for their wrongdoing, and the people in general for their sin of forgetting God.

However, the atrocities committed by Babur’s forces are denounced by Guru Nanak. They are called “the marriage of sin” (paap di junj) in which the rites of marriage (in fact, rape) were presided over by Satan and not by the qazis and Brahmins. Guru Nanak uses irony when he says that Babur forcefully demanded charity (daan) in cash, in kind and in territory. Guru Nanak is particularly unhappy that this was not a match between equals. He has no problem if the powerful kill each other. Interestingly, Guru Nanak notices the war between the two “powerful” camps when he refers to the Battle of Panipat in which one (Babur) used guns and the other (Ibrahim Lodi) attacked with elephants. Significantly, despite Babur’s victory over the Lodis, Guru Nanak does not absolve him of his responsibility for the atrocities committed by his men, and visualizes an early end to Mughal rule.

A painting of Guru Nanak meeting Babur in his camp

The politics of power

Guru Nanak’s courage of conviction and fearlessness stand out in his political outlook. He strongly feels the spoliation of his “precious” country, “Hindustan”. It cares about the well-being of all its inhabitants, Hindus and Muslims. For Guru Nanak, kingship is a necessary institution; raja is a creation of God, and rulership and wealth are gifts from God. Therefore, the pursuit of power and war among equals is legitimate in the eyes of Guru Nanak. He exalts the warrior who fights for a just cause. Righteous power has a mandate from God. The sovereign loses this mandate when he does not protect his subjects, denies them justice (which is the purpose of power), oppresses, allows corruption and adopts discriminatory policies on the basis of religion. In short, Guru Nanak’s plea for the exercise of power underpinned by ethics has universal validity.

Indu Banga is Professor Emeritus, Panjab University, Chandigarh, and was Professor of History at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar

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