From Kabir to Nanak

Raza Naeem on the Bhakti movement and the rise of Guru Nanak, whose message was one of reconciliation, syncretism and communal harmony

From Kabir to Nanak
Namdev (1270 - 1350) was the son of a tailor. He was born in Sattara division (Mumbai) and his mother tongue was Marathi. He got into bad habits in his youth and began to rob and steal. One day he was standing outside a temple and a lower-caste woman carrying her child arrived and sat down on the floor. The child was constantly crying. The mother tried her best to entertain the child but he did not cease crying, upon which she began to beat him. Namdev felt great pity for the child and approaching the woman, scolded her. The woman said that the child is hungry since the last two days, and was now insisting that she go to the temple and get God’s food from there. Namdev inquired about her husband’s profession. She replied, “My husband was a horse-rider but he was murdered by a dacoit Namdev. Now I only have this skeleton of bones. Do you want me to give the same skeleton to the child to chew on?”

Namdev was so affected by this incident that he abandoned the life of a dacoit (brigand) and became a bairagi. Wherever he went, he would teach people about prem bhakti. While roaming around, he appeared in Punjab at the age of 55 and began to live in a hut that he constructed on the edge of a pond in Bhatiwal, a village of Gurdaspur. One day a storm came and swept away his hut. Then Namdev constructed a second hut on the edge of a jungle. These ashloks were probably recited by Namdev after this incident. He has likened God to a carpenter in them:

“A neighbour asked Namdev

Who built your hut

If you tell the carpenter’s name

I will pay him double his salary

My sister! You cannot find my carpenter

My carpenter is the pillar of the spirit

If anyone wants to have a hut built

The carpenter will have to be paid in love

When purush (Man) breaks ties with his family and friends

Then the carpenter himself goes to him

I cannot describe his appearance

He is present in everything and everywhere

A mute who has tasted ambrosia

How will he tell about its tastiness?”

Religious and inter-communal harmony remained a goal for the Bhakti movement and its offshoots

They were not even in favour of fighting the ruler of the day and the upper classes for social reforms, but they were certain that the hearts of opponents could be changed through prem bhakti - a message of love

Gradually the number of Namdev’s disciples began to grow and a settlement flourished near the jungle which became known as Ghumman afterwards. Namdev’s Samadhi is located there and every year Namdev’s festival is celebrated there on the 13th of January.

Bhagat Namdev’s mother tongue was Marathi but the shabds attributed to him in Guru Granth Sahib are in the Prakrit language of northern India. This Prakrit contains a multitude of Farsi and Arabic words; although the pronunciation of these words is Hindavi. If the shabds of bhagat Namdev are really his own work, they tell us that the language which was prevalent in the Sutlej and Ravi Doab at the end of the 13th century was not very different from the language of Amir Khusrau.

“God! Only you are the support of this blind man

I am poor, miserable, merely Your Name is everything for me

O Karim, O Rahim, O Allah you are Ghani

You are the only One present and I am standing in Your Presence

You are a river of benevolence, You are very Rich

You are Wise, You are All-Seeing, what can miserable me do?

And Namdev’s Swami, You are Forgiving, You are Hari”

To present an image of God by joining the Islamic terminologies of Divine attributes with the terminologies of the Hindu religion is a distinct feature of the Bhakti Movement. In another shabd, Bhagat Namdev says:

“O my friend, o my friend, listen to good news

May I sacrifice myself for you, may I sacrifice myself for you

A kind deed is your forced labour, your name is high

Wherefrom have you come, where were you and where are you going now?

This is the city of Dwarka, speak the truth

Your turban is very nice, and your words are sweet

But what is the use of Dwarka city for a Mongol?

You alone are the Khan (Mongol) amongst thousands

You are like the wheat-complexioned king (Krishan bhagwan)

You are the master of horse, master of elephants and lord of men

You are Namdev’s swami, and the messiah for all”

Sadhana was born in Sehwan (Sindh) and a qasai (butcher) by caste. There are cloaks of obscurity over the circumstances of his life. Just this much can be said with certainty: that he was a contemporary of Namdev. He was drawn away from his profession by sitting in the company of sadhus and sants; and he began preaching prem in Sindh by becoming a bhagat.

Bhagat Namdev is said to have been a bandit earlier in his life

The founders of the Bhakti Movement had preached prem with God and man with great devotion, but their movement could never become so powerful in the Ganges-Yamuna valley that it could change the structure of political and social life of the country with its influence. Kabir, Rai Das, Dhanna, Saeen, Dadu and other bhagats were undoubtedly desirous of social reform with a true heart. But in their opinion the differences of zaatpaat, chhootchaat, pujapaat and class hierarchy are artifices of pandits and maulvis. If people become the devotees of prem and abandon ostentatious rituals, the veils between God and man would be lifted; walls of hatred would fall; Hindus and Muslims, Brahmins and untouchables, rulers and ruled, great and small, everybody will become like brothers; and all the problems of society will be thus dealt with. Obviously these well-intentioned bhakts did not have a detailed consciousness of the economic nature of the differences of caste and the great and the small (maybe it was not even possible); and neither was bringing about social revolution by means of class struggle (social revolution was not possible because revolutionary conditions were not even present).They were not even in favour of fighting the ruler of the day and the upper classes for social reforms, but they were certain that the hearts of opponents could be changed through prem bhakti – a message of love.

This depiction of bhagats shows Ravidas, Kabir, Namdev and Pipa

But many upper-caste people were not prepared to try this prescription of bhakti because it would deal a blow to their social rights and privileges. Consequently, the upper and middle classes of the Ganges-Yamuna valley collectively remained aloof from the Bhakti Movement. In fact, the movement did not become very popular even amongst the ordinary cultivators. Neither the Hindus nor Muslims were willing to transcend religious divides; although relations of compromise were strengthened between both.

But this plant of Bhakti took the shape of an energetic popular movement upon reaching the land of Punjab, and its roots spread far and wide amongst the agricultural settlements. After some time, the political conditions of the country took such a turn that people affiliated with this movement became a unique Sikh nation. The founder of this movement was Guru Nanak.

In a deeply unequal, caste-divided society, before the advent of modern ideas of democracy and equality, movements for change had to rely on a message of love and voluntary reform by the powerful

Guru Nanak was born in 1469 in village Talvandi (Nankana Sahib) of Gujranwala. In those days, Sultan Bahlul Lodhi was the king in Delhi. Nanak’s father Kalu Chand was a khatri by caste and the munim of the Rajput sardar of the village. The jotshi (astrologer) named the child Nanak which like the name of Kabir was prevalent among both Hindus and Muslims. Nanak’s early education was conducted in a paathshaala. At the age of nine or ten, he was admitted to the madrassah of Mullah Qutbuddin; but Nanak’s heart was not drawn towards education. So initially his father entrusted the work of cultivation to him, then shop-keeping, but the result was not successful. Then Nanak was sent to live with his sister who was married to the divan of Nawab Daulat Khan Lodhi. This is the same Daulat Khan Lodhi who had invited Babar to invade India after bcoming upset with the attitude of his relative Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi. He was the subedar of Lahore and Multan. Nanak found a job in the charity house of the nawab and he began to live in comfort. During this time, he married a girl named Sulakhan and had two sons named Sri Chand and Lachmi Das.

But it was a time of great unrest and anarchy. The invasion of Timur (1398) had broken the back of the sultanate. Delhi had become desolate. The subedars of Bengal, Deccan, Sindh, Malwa, Gujarat, Khandesh, Mewar and Kashmir had become independent in their own right. There were frequent rebellions in the remaining regions. Today this nawab refused to obey; tomorrow that raja became insurgent. The sultan’s forces remained busy in subduing the rebellions and the blood of the sinners flowed along with that of the sinless. The disputes between the Turk and Afghan emirs had separately destroyed the administration of the country. Sultan Bahlul Lodhi tried a great deal to prop up the falling wall of the sultanate, but no Balban or Alla-ud-din Khilji was born amongst his successors, who could strengthen the foundations of the sultanate. Hence every person was harassed; there was uncertainty everywhere; and people’s morals were descending daily.

Baba Guru Nanak

Nanak’s heart used to wrench at this decline. He was born in a Hindu household but he was not interested in the Hindu religion. His entire youth was spent amongst Muslims and he used to respect Islamic teachings a great deal; but was greatly saddened by witnessing that the Muslims were as worldly – worshippers of status and just selfish as the Hindus. He felt the maulvi is also as uninterested in the reform and progress of the people as the pundit. Nanak’s heart drew away from the world. He left his job and adopted asceticism, leaving behind his household. A Muslim mirasi of Talvandi Mardana and brother Bala supported him and Nanak set out to search for truth. He would sit in the company of sadhus, sants, pirs and fakirs and learn matters of understanding from them. He became familiar with the Bhakti Movement during this journey. He also benefitted for a long period of time from the company of Sufi Sheikh Sharaf of Panipat; Sheikh Ibrahim, the khalifa of Baba Farid Shakarganj in Pakpattan; and the pirs of Multan. It is said that he had also travelled to the holy places of Iran, Iraq and Arabia. After his return from the journey, he began to teach his creed in the villages of Punjab.

Because Muslims had established their rule here for 500-600 years, and there was hardly a settlement where 3 or 4 houses did not belong to Muslims, so Hindu ears had also become accustomed to the important points of Islam. Therefore Guru Nanak mostly used Islamic terminology whilst inviting people towards his new creed. He was himself greatly influenced by Islam, especially the philosophy of the unity of God; and accepted Muhammad (PBUH) as an ideal personality. Therefore he adopted the Holy Prophet (PBUH) as a model for himself, rather than Kabir and Namdev (Dr Tara Chand, pp. 169)

Guru Nanak firmly believed that the reform of society cannot happen without ending religious disputes. In his opinion both the followers of Hinduism and Islam in the Indian Subcontinent had so far failed to establish anything close to harmony.
It is said that Muslims wanted to bury Guru Nanak according to Islamic rituals and Hindus insisted on cremating him but when the corpse was uncovered, there was nothing found - except a few flowers

Guru Nanak’s instructions included the following:

“Establish the religion of truth. Remove evil. And whoever of the two approaches you, accept it. Refrain from killing the living. Protect the poor. Remember that God’s person is living in 84 lakh of the created.”

He worked to spread a message of intermingling, peace and amity – winning the love and respect of both Hindus and Muslims, and influencing both with his teachings. When he passed away at the age of 70 (in 1539), it is said that that the same dispute arose over his corpse which had happened over the corpse of Kabir. Muslims wanted to bury him according to Islamic rituals and Hindus insisted on cremating him but when the corpse was uncovered there was nothing there except a few flowers. Hindus built the Samadhi of Guru Nanak there and the Muslims built a Mazar but the flood of the river Ravi swept both away.

Raza Naeem is a social scientist, book critic, and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is currently the President of the Progressive Writers Association (Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Musanifeen) in Lahore. His most recent publication is an introduction to the reissued edition (Harper Collins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic partition novel ‘The Weary Generations’ (Udas Naslein). He can be reached at:


Note: All the translations from Urdu and Hindi are by the writer.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979