Guru Nanak's Birthday is a celebration in Sikhism, an independent faith that developed during the fifteenth century inIndia. The word Sikh comes from the Sanskrit word shishya, which means disciple or student. Sikhs believe that Godwas the original guru (guru means divinely inspired prophet or teacher) and that he chose to reveal his message toGuru Nanak, the first Sikh guru. Sikhs believe that their gurus were prophets sent by God to lead people into truth.They emphasize equality among people of different castes, practice Kirat Karni (a doctrine of laboring), and follow theprecepts of charity.
Sikhism resembles both Islam and Hinduism, but is not directly associated with either. Similar to Hindus, Sikhs believethat the human soul progresses through a series of births and rebirths and that its ultimate salvation occurs when itbreaks free from the cycle. Sikhs, however, reject the Hindu pantheon and do not participate in bathing rituals. Insteadthey worship one God who they believe is the same God of all religions, including Allah of Islam. Unlike Muslims,however, they shun fasting and pilgrimages.
The Sikh holy scriptures are called the Guru Granth Sahib (Guru means divinely inspired teacher; Granth means book;Sahib means revered). A more ancient name is Adi Granth, which means first or original book. The Guru Granth Sahibwas compiled by the fifth Sikh guru, Arjan, and revised by Gobind Singh, the tenth guru. It contains hymns composedby the gurus.
Sikhs do not have an established priesthood. Although individual gurdwaras may employ specially trained people tocare for the Guru Granth Sahib, all Sikhs are free to read from their holy scriptures either in the temple or in theirhomes. In addition, there is no one person to whom all Sikhs look for guidance in religious matters. The Sikhcommunity is called the Panth, and collective decisions may be made by the Panth for the entire community. TheShiromani Gurdwara Parbandhad Committee, whose members are elected, provides guidance for all the gurdwaras inthe Punjab. Individual local gurdwaras elect their own committees to oversee local matters.
Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion. He was born in 1469 at Talwandi, a small village about forty milesfrom Lahore, now located in Pakistan. According to legend, his birth was accompanied by flowers falling from heavenand by musical instruments that started playing on their own.
Although he was born into a Hindu family, Nanak was influenced by Islamic teachings, particularly those of the Sufis, amystical Islamic sect. His curiosity about spiritual matters was evident at a very young age, and by the time he wasthirty, he had experienced a mystical encounter with God. Legend says that he was taken to God by the angels andthat he stayed in God's presence for three days. His absence from the village triggered rumors that he had drowned ina stream where he was last seen bathing. After learning that he had been chosen as a prophet, Nanak reappeared onearth and set off on his mission to spread God's word. He went to Tibet, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Bangladesh, andMecca, proclaiming his message to both Hindus and Muslims, whom he hoped to unite. He wanted to abolish castedistinctions and to promote more liberal social practices, encouraging his followers to work hard and pursue normalfamily relations. His teachings, in the form of poems and hymns, are preserved in the Holy Book known as the GURUGRANTH SAHIB . Those who followed him became known as Sikhs, from the Sanskrit word meaning "disciple."
When Guru Nanak died in 1539, a quarrel arose among his followers. Those who were Hindu wanted to cremate him,but his Muslim followers wanted to bury him. The next day, his body disappeared-Nanak's way of showing them thatthe way of God was neither Hindu nor Muslim, but included both. He was succeeded by nine other gurus who carriedon his work. Sikhs believe that although these ten prophets were different individuals, they all shared the same spirit.
Nanak's birthday is by far the most important of the Sikh gupurbs or festivals to celebrate the birthdays of the gurus; itis comparable to the birthday of Jesus for Christians. The celebration frequently lasts for three days, during whichevery Sikh family visits its local gurdwara or temple. In the village where Nanak was born, now known as NankanaSahib, there is a shrine and a holy tank where thousands of Sikhs congregate for a huge fair and festival. In India,there is a procession the day before Nanak's birthday, led by the Panj Pyare-five baptized Sikhs who represent theKhalsa, or spiritual/military brotherhood that is open to all baptized Sikhs (see VAISAKH). They carry ceremonialswords and the GURU GRANTH SAHIB on a covered litter, followed by schoolchildren, scouts, students, and adultssinging hymns. The procession winds through the streets and ends outside the gurdwara. Other activities during thefestival include prayers, lectures, the singing of hymns, and the distribution of free meals. In Great Britain, thecelebration is a mixture of religious and social activities that includes fairs, games, and stalls offering foods andsweets.
The Guru Granth Sahib is the Sikhs' Holy Book. It is 1,430 pages long and includes all the hymns of Guru Nanak,other hymns and teachings added by Arjan (the fifth guru), and the final additions of Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth andlast guru, who died in 1708). It was the latter who placed a volume of the Holy Book before a gathering of hisfollowers, laid five coins and a coconut in front of it, and bowed his head, declaring that there would be no morehuman gurus; from now on, the Granth was to serve as their spiritual leader. During the first two days of the festival surrounding Guru Nanak's birthday, a ceremony called an Akhand Path begins.This is a continuous, uninterrupted reading of the entire Guru Granth Sahib, timed so that it ends on the birthdayanniversary. Sikhs treat the Guru Granth Sahib with even more reverence than Christians show for the Bible, because it is not onlya religious document but enjoys the same status as a guru. It is kept on a platform under a richly decorated canopyand covered with a special cloth. Sikhs must bow before the Guru Granth Sahib whenever they enter the prayer hall,and they must never turn their backs to it. All those who read it must wash their hands before touching it, and it iscustomary to place an offering of food or money in front of it. Next to the Granth Sahib is what is known as a chaur.Similar to a fly whisk or brush, it is waved over the Holy Book as a sign of respect.
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