There are so many different words we could use to describe the character of Guru Nanak – revolutionary, prophet, equal rights advocate, visionary, feminist.
Yet labels fail to account for who he was as a person and the impact that he had – and that he continues to have – on the world around him.
The best way to “know” Guru Nanak is to explore his teachings, both through the devotional poetry that he personally composed and through the early accounts of his life that remain with us to this day.
Some of my favorite stories about Guru Nanak come from the earlier moments in his life. In one instance, Young Nanak’s father gives him money and sends him to town, telling him to invest in the best business that he can find. Young Nanak walks towards the town and on his way he comes across a group of religious devotees who are poor and hungry. Guru Nanak stops to talk with them and, upon learning about their situation, he takes out the money that his father had given him and he donates it to the group.
When Young Nanak returns home, his father asks him about his trip and how he invested the money. Guru Nanak explains earnestly that he had found the investment of a lifetime:
“Father, you asked me to invest in a worthwhile business, a sacha sauda,” he said. “What better investment is there than serving the needy and devout?”
I love this account from Guru Nanak’s life because it illustrates the clarity of his worldview from a young age: his commitment to serving the world around him, especially the less fortunate; his recognition that all people, whatever their social background, are equal and deserving of respect and opportunities; his willingness and ability to challenge social norms; and his focus on building healthier and stronger communities.
These outlooks are basic to who Guru Nanak was as a person, and Sikh-Americans cherish these values to this day.
The foundation of Guru Nanak’s vision is oneness and love. He spoke of One divine reality – Ik Oankar – a creative force that resides within this world and permeates all of creation.
He taught us that worship goes hand in hand with working hard (kirat karni) and serving all Creation (seva). For Sikhs, service is prayerful action that is inspired by humility and gratitude.
Guru Nanak professed that the divine force resides equally within all people, and therefore we all ought to treat one another as the divine beings that we are. According to the Sikh worldview, there is absolutely no room for discrimination, whether on the basis of profession, gender, religion, or any other social distinction.
Guru Nanak’s life provides a model for how to live with inspiration and integrity, how to earn an honest living, and how to share the privileges we enjoy with others. His example also teaches us to lead a balanced life and to mold ourselves as saint-soldiers — people who are spiritually devoted and, at the same time, committed to serving humanity.
The values that Guru Nanak imparted closely mirror some of our most basic American values. Sikhism, like America, places immense emphasis on freedom, equal opportunity, and the pursuit of happiness. They are founded on principles of social equality and justice. Both also benefit from holding worldviews that prioritize acceptance, and the outlook of pluralism has helped both communities thrive in contexts of diversity and difference.
Sikhism and America share the fundamental principles of integrity, hard work, and service, and both seek to uphold righteousness in the face of injustice. When Guru Nanak witnessed the massacres of innocent civilians, he did not stay silent. He spoke out against the then head of state – Emperor Babur – for his role in perpetrating these massacres, and he publicly called out Babur’s actions as being unacceptable and unconscionable.
This tradition of speaking out against oppression and of creating a just and equitable society is one that Sikh-Americans continue to uphold to this day. Sikhs have been contributing to American society for over a century now – yet the community has yet to be accepted as an intrinsic part of the American fabric.
Sikh-Americans helped build the railroads out west, Sikh-Americans served with the US through the World Wars; the inventor of fiber-optics is a Sikh American, as are some of our nation’s largest farmers. I myself am the son of an entrepreneur who helped create more than 500 jobs in South Texas where I was born and raised. And now, more than ever, we are seeing Sikhs becoming politically active and civically engaged.
The commitment to civic engagement has been particularly challenging to maintain in the context of modern America, in which Sikhs – along with a number of other minority communities – continue to be targeted in hate crimes. In the past year, three Sikh Americans, each of whom I know personally, have been brutally assaulted in the place I call home – New York City.
All of this comes just two years after the Oak Creek Massacre, in which a white supremacist opened fire on a Sikh congregation in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six people and injuring several others. This was the most brutal attack on a place of worship since the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Attorney General Eric Holder described the Oak Creek Massacre as a hate crime and an act of domestic terrorism.
In addition to xenophobic hate crimes, the Sikh-American community also faces significant challenges posed by its own government, especially when it comes to discriminatory policies. Some government agencies continue to practice racial profiling, which tends to disproportionately target and alienate Sikh-Americans, while other influential agencies, including the US Military and the New York Police Department (“NYPD“), continue to deny Sikhs the right to serve with their articles of faith intact.
The fact that the government continues to maintain these discriminatory policies in modern America is immensely problematic. These policies perpetuate negative stereotypes about Sikh-Americans that in turn lead to xenophobia and hate violence. Moreover, by institutionalizing discriminatory policies like these, the US Government is giving the American public a green light to discriminate against Sikhs.
We can no longer afford to sit back and allow policies like these to compromise our safety in this country. These issues need to be resolved, and they need to be resolved today, so that our community – and our children – can live in this country knowing that their security and their basic rights are preserved.
Following its traditional approaches and values, the Sikh community has committed to resolving these issues in a way that is fair, equitable, and helps advance the rights of people from all backgrounds. All of this is done as service, in the spirit of Guru Nanak, to help cultivate love and oneness, both within ourselves and within our communities.
As Guru Nanak teaches us:
seva kare su chaakar hoi ….
One who engages in inspired service is His true servant.
The Divine is infused in everything – water, land, and sky.
We are not good, and no one is bad – all are equal.
Nanak submits: The Divine is All-Powerful.
– Guru Granth Sahib, 728
[The above was part of the author’s presentation at the White House in Washington, DC on the occasion of the Gurpurab of Guru Nanak]