Guru Nanaka was born into a Hindu family in 1439 in what is now Pakistan. Following a transformative realisation while bathing in the river Bein, He gave up his career as an accountant and began to travel throughout India teaching, composing hymns and establishing centres of worship known as dharamsalas.
He taught the absolute unity of God; everything is God, and everything is dependent on the will of God; therefore, spirit and matter are not ultimately antagonistic. Spirit is the only reality, and matter is a form of spirit.
“When I saw truly, I knew that all was primeval. Nanak, the subtle (Spirit) and the gross (material) are, in fact, identical,” Guru Nanak said. “That which is inside a person, the same is outside; nothing else exists; by Divine prompting look upon all existence as one and undifferentiated.”
It was a time in India’s history when Mughal domination had led to increasing tension between Hindu and Muslim. Seeing the divisiveness of human religions, He said: “There is no Hindu or Muslim, so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow the path of God.”
With a group of companions He visited Mecca and infuriated a local official who had discovered that the party were sleeping with their feet towards the Ka’ba, the holy shrine of Islam. As they were dragged away, the Ka’ba was miraculously seen to move also. Guru Nanak declared, “God does not live in one place. He lives everywhere.”
Guru Nanak taught that the way to connect with the Supreme is not through the mind or through rituals, but through direct personal experience. Therefore, He emphasised meditation on the Name and Presence of God.
“As fragrance abides in the flower, as reflection is within the mirror, so does your Lord abide within you. Why search for Him without?”
He also made it clear that realisation of Self/God is not possible without the compassionate agency of a true guru:
“The Guru is my ship to cross the world ocean. The Guru is my place of pilgrimage and sacred stream.”
“Let no man in the world live in delusion. Without a Guru none can cross over to the other shore.”
Before His death in 1539, Guru Nanaka chose one of his followers to take responsibility for establishing the principles He had taught. The principles were then passed down through a succession of gurus in the Sikh religion. Sikhism was not initially intended to be a separate religion from Hinduism or Islam but, due to a long period of persecution, it became increasingly distinct.