Guru Nanak: Biography, Travels & Death

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

To understand the Sikh, we must look at their origins and the first Guru. This lesson follows the life and travels of Guru Nanak, discussing his teachings and finally his selection of a successor.

Early Life

The followers of Sikhism trace their origins to Guru Nanak, who was born in the village of Talwandi, Western Punjab, on April 15, 1469, to Hindu parents. The location of his birth and young life played a significant role in his philosophical development as it was a region of close contact between Hindu and Muslim residents. Guru Nanak's father worked as an accountant for the local Muslim leaders and Guru Nanak attended both a Hindu primary school and a Muslim secondary school.

Earliest Sikh Beliefs

At 13 years of age, Guru Nanak was to go through the rite of passage ceremony wherein a young Hindu male moves from childhood to adulthood. When the time came to accept a sacred thread from the priest, he refused it and recited a poem prizing the right action and compassionate thoughts about symbolic objects.

Worried by his rejection of rituals and his habit of spending days discussing religion with Muslim and Hindu hermits as he watched over the family's cattle, Guru Nanak's parents encouraged him to marry when he was 16 years old. Nanak agreed and enjoyed a happy marriage, which soon produced two sons.

Revelation by God

One morning, he journeyed to the Kali Bein River to bathe, taking his friend Mardana with him. He jumped into the cool water, but to his friend's horror, he didn't surface. Mardana gathered friends from the village to search the river but they found nothing and thus believed he drowned.

Guru Nanak

Rather than drowning, however, Guru Nanak had been taken to commune with God for three days. When he returned, not only did he surprise family and friends who thought he was dead, he astounded them by proclaiming the basic truths of Sikhism, now written at the beginning of the Sikh holy book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.


For several years, Guru Nanak remained in his village, teaching the basics of Sikhism. At the age of 30, however, he knew the time had come to share the message of God with people throughout India and even into distant lands. With his friend Mardana, a talented musician, Guru Nanak delivered his messages in musical hymns. At each place, he set up manjis, local cells or small religious groups.

Travels of Guru Nanak


At Hardwar, Guru Nanak interrupted Hindus ritually bathing to ask why they were throwing water toward the rising sun in the east. When they told him they were sending it to their ancestors in the land of the sun, he threw water to the west. When they questioned the Guru, he explained he was sending water home to his dry fields. Confused, the asked how that would help his fields. He reasoned with them that if they could throw water that reached their ancestors in the land of the sun, surely his fields could be watered only a few miles away. Thus he revealed the folly of their ritual.

Guru Nanak teaches holy men
with holymen

Middle East

On the fourth of his long journeys, he chose to visit the Middle East, traveling to the Holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina followed by a visit to Baghdad. Dressed in the blue cloth of Muslim pilgrims, he traveled as one of them.

When he arrived in Mecca, he was exhausted and soon found a place to sleep on the ground, but his chosen sleeping position pointed his feet toward the Kaaba, the sacred sanctuary structure within the most sacred Muslim mosque. When a watchman saw his position, he kicked the Guru and yelled at him for being so disrespectful toward the house of God. Guru Nanak explained he was very tired after a long journey and meant no disrespect, then asked that the watchman to turn his feet in a direction ''where God is not.'' This angered the guard but also drew many pilgrims and holy men to hear the Guru's words. This afforded him an opportunity to sing a hymn about humility and devotion to God.

Guru Nanak in Mecca
In Mecca

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