A story of Guru Nanak from the janamsakhis

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, grew up as a Hindu in the Punjab in India, where Muslims and Hindus lived side by side. Nanak famously preached that there is no Hindu and there is no Muslim, because there is one God for all religions; and there is neither lower caste nor upper caste, for we are all simply human. The following story about Guru Nanak is probably not historically accurate;1 it comes from one of the janamsakhis, collections of tales about Nanak collected a century or more after his death in 1539. This story may wind up in my growing collection of stories for liberal religious kids.

Once upon a time, on one of his missionary trips or udasi, Nanak camped beside the Tigris River. Nanak had been teaching all day, and in the evening an old woman, a Muslim, came to visit him. Weeping, she bowed down at his feet. Nanak asked her to sit next to him and tell him her problems.

“I have been waiting for you for twelve years,” said the old woman. “It was twelve years ago that my son got onto a ferry boat at this very spot to travel to the other side of the Tigris. He was twenty years old, and he was going across the river to visit his sister. The ferry was well out into the river when it suddenly capsized. I watched in horror, trying to see if my son would be safe. Some of those aboard were able to swim to shore, but many were lost. My son was one of those who did not make it back to land.

“I waited all night by the side of the river to be sure,” said the woman, “and at last went home to sleep. I saw you in my dreams, a holy man who held up his hand so that a light shone upon me and filled me with warmth. I knew that you would come and bring back my son to me.”

“Where has your son been for the last twelve years?” Nanak said.

“He has been with Allah,” said the woman.

“Is he content and happy to be with Allah?” said Nanak.

“Oh, yes,” said the woman, “of course he has found perfect happiness with Allah.”

“Then surely you would not be selfish enough to ask your son to leave that perfect happiness to come back to this world,” said Nanak. “For as you know, in this world happiness is rare, while misery is a constant.”

The old woman was silent.

“And have you really been without your son all these twelve years?” said Nanak. “Has he not lived on in your memory? Can you not remember the way he played as a child, the trouble he got into, all the time you spent with him? He was so much a part of you while he was alive that he can never completely go away from you. You have lost his body, yes; but his soul and spirit will remain with you always.”

So it was that Nanak brought her son back to the old woman; though he had really never left her. She touched his feet and went on her way, her soul at peace at long last.

The source for this story is The First Sikh Spiritual Master: Timeless Wisdom from the Life and Teachings of Guru Nanak, by Harish Dhillon (Mumbai: Indus Source Books, 2005; Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2006), pp. 166-167. Although the bulk of the book is a popular historical biography of Nanak, Dhillon also retells several stories from the Nanak janamsakhis, stories which his grandmother told him when he was a child.

1 Not historically accurate according to Dhillon, pp. 155-156.

I have been able to identify only one English translation of a janamsakhi, the B40 manuscript in the possession of the British India Office, translated by W. H. McLeod and publsihed in Amritsar c. 1979.

2 thoughts on “A story of Guru Nanak from the janamsakhis

  1. Erik

    It’s exciting to see you explore these stories!

    You might also look at Sarna’s ‘Book of Nanak’ as an additional introductory resource for English-speaking audiences. Sikhnet also has a wonderful collection of narrated audio files. If you’re interested in exploring historical-critical analyses of the narrative collections, I commend McLeod’s “Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion” to you.

    I do take slight issue, however, with your comment about these sakhis not being ‘true.’ In my personal devotional life, I have found that they betray reality in order to reveal the True – and thereby help me live in the fullest and truest way.

  2. Dan

    Erik @ 1 — You write: “I do take slight issue, however, with your comment about these sakhis not being ‘true.’”

    Sorry, make that “historically true” or better yet “historically accurate” (latter change made in post above). Obviously, there is much moral and spiritual truth in the janamsakhis, as in the Bible — why else would I retell the story here? — while at the same time they would not meet current scholarly standards for historical “truth.”

    Also, this judgment about historical accuracy is according to Dhillon, so I’ve cited Dhillon on that as well — in other words, it’s not my personal judgment, I’m quoting someone else’s judgment.

    Hope this addresses your concern.

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