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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 47, November 12, 2011

Guru Nanak Combined Bhakti and Social Reforms with Great Communication Skills

Saturday 12 November 2011, by Bharat Dogra, Reshma Bharti

November 10 marks Guru Nanak’s birth anniversary.

Guru Nanak combined deep spiritual yearnings with ideas of social reforms that were far ahead of his times. He emphasised equality at all levels—social, economic and religious—and openly declared that he is with those whom the society considers to be the lowest of the low. He openly spurned the hospitality of the most powerful persons and told them on their face that he cannot accept the invitation of exploiters. He spoke strongly against superstitions and rituals which had no rationality.

What is most remarkable is that Guru Nanak was able to preach radical social reforms not only in those areas where he had many followers, but in addition even in entirely new areas. He travelled thousands of miles, reaching as far as Baghdad and Mecca (apart from covering very vast areas of the Indian subcontinent). Even in areas he was visiting for the first time and hence had no followers, he was able to challenge superstitions and mindless ritualism, and this too without evoking any violent reactions.

How could he achieve this? Certainly his entire personality, built on great moral strength and the courage that comes with it, had an important role in this success, but at the same time we should not neglect an important factor—Guru Nanak’s great communication skills from which present-day communication experts can still earn a lot.

When Guru Nanak visited Hardwar, he saw a lot of people engaged in the ritual of offering water to their ancestors. He did not oppose them, did not say a word against their ritual, but quietly started offering water in another direction. The people gathered there questioned him as to what he was doing. Nanak was actually waiting for just this kind of question. He replied innocently that he is irrigating the fields in his village. People laughed and said how can fields located so many miles away be irrigated by dropping water here. People thought they were making fun of Nanak but Nanak was waiting actually just for this stage. He now replied as innocently as before: “If the water offered by you can reach your ancestors who are in heaven, then surely the water offered by me can reach my village which is much nearer.”

This incident shows how great communication skills can be used to challenge empty rituals without causing any offence. No direct offence was caused, yet the message against ritualism was effectively delivered.

In another often-quoted incident Nanak in the course of his long travels was very tired and felt asleep under a tree. He was suddenly woken up by a mulla who angrily told him that his feet should not be in the direction of the mosque. Nanak quietly told him to change his feet in that direction where God doesn’t exist. As the mulla also agreed that God is present everywhere, he just could not decide in which direction Nanak’s feet should be moved and so left him in peace.

These great communicative skills of Guru Nanak were certainly very helpful in his tireless efforts to take this message of bhakti and social reforms to more and more people, but we should never forget that Guru Nanak’s amazing achievements were based mainly on his tremendous moral strengths. This is what enabled him to confront even invading armies. At the time of Babur’s invasion, for example, he mixed among people providing solace.

When news about this people’s saint reached Babur, he wanted to meet him. Babur was so impressed by Guru Nanak that he accepted Guru Nanak’s demand for releasing several prisoners—ordinary citizens who had been detained unjustly. Even after the prisoners were released, Guru Nanak stayed on for some more time, providing solace to people tormented by all the sudden upheaval and violence.

The strength of Guru Nanak’s moral and spiritual achievements enabled him to create a firm foundation for social reforms so that even his radical messages could be accepted without any violence. There is much that the social reform movements can learn from Guru Nanak even today

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