Although attracted to spiritualism, he did not adhere to religious conventions and refused putting on sacred thread according to the traditional Hindu custom. In spite of his marriage and his father’s insistence that he pursue a career, the young man pursued his spiritual quest, spending hours in meditation and in religious discourse with Muslim and Hindu saints.
Nanak donated all his belongings to the poor, renounced the world, and made an extensive tour of the Indian subcontinent and according to the tradition went even to Mecca, Medina, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. During his travels to places of worship of both Hindus and Muslims, Nanak developed his religious thought and monotheism, belief in one god, who was timeless and everlasting.
Like the Bhakit saints of India, he visualized an egalitarian society without any discrimination between different classes and religion. He was against all forms of rituals and proclaimed that there was neither Hindu nor Muslim, emphasizing brotherhood and peaceful coexistence between the followers of the two religions.
Nanak’s message against caste distinctions, ritualism, superstition, and idol worship attracted adherents and he mixed freely with low-class people during his travels. He distributed money among the poor and maintained a common kitchen where all could dine together.
Nanak identified himself with the downtrodden and declared that he was the lowliest of the low. He held woman in high esteem and once exclaimed, “Why denounce her from [of] whom even kings and great men are born?” Nanak advocated an honest livelihood, life of purity, and shared earnings.
He believed in rebirths and taught that good deeds and chanting God’s name could end the cycle of rebirths. Finally he settled as a farmer in a place called Dera Baba Nank in Punjab, attracting large number of disciples with his simple and universal message.
The followers of Nanak were called Sikhs (disciples) and he was their guru, the first of nine gurus. The second guru was his son Guru Angad (1504–52). The three essential elements in Nanak’s teaching were Nam Simran (thought about God), Kirt Kaara (living a normal life), and Wand Chhako (sharing with needy).
In time, guru, shabad (ideology), and sangat (organization) also became important. Sikhism emphasized the necessity of family life and all gurus, except for the eighth, were married, leading normal family lives. Work was emphasized and the gurus earned their livelihoods in different vocations. There was no place for ascetics in Sikhism.
The Adi Granth that forms the basis of Sikh theology is the record of Nanak’s teaching and the holy book of Sikhism. It was transcribed by Bhai Gurudasin in the 16th century in Punjab, a vernacular language of northern India.
The Sikh way of life became popular among many people, and Sikhism was a dynamic and growing religion. The third Mughal emperor, Akbar, gave a grant of land to the Sikhs as a sign of approval. The fifth guru, Arjan Dev (1563–1606), who had compiled the Granth Sahib, built Amritsar as a holy city for all Sikhs and laid the foundation of Harmindar Sahib (the Golden Temple).
The martyrdom of the Sikh leader during the revolt of Emperor Jahanair transformed Sikhism into a militant religion and long conflict with imperial power began. The militarization of the Sikh community became marked under fifth guru, Hargovind (1595–1644), at the time of Shah Jahan (1592–1666).
Sikhs rose up against the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb (1618–1707), who executed Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth guru). His son Govind Singh (1666–1708) then fought against Aurangzeb by founding a military brotherhood called Khalsa (pure). Govind Singh was the last guru. As the Mughal Empire disintegrated, the Sikhs established a state and strove for regional independence.