|The Golden Temple in Amritsar (Punjab, India) (the Harmandir Sahib). Image Source: www.bestattravel.co.uk|
Living in the village of Talvandi, most likely populated by a majority of Hindus, Nanak was raised in the Hindu faith, but Sikhs insist that the spiritual qualities of the child were similarly recognized by the Hindus and Muslims.
|A Digambara Jain Guru, Śri Vidyāsāgar Ji Mahārāj, and his disciples. Image Source: http://www.herenow4u.net/index.php?id=66291|
|The Hindu Kush Mountain Range. Image Source: http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/art-108669/The-lofty-snow-covered-peaks-of-the-Hindu-Kush-range|
The cultural backdrop and existential philosophical curiosity of Sikhism finds its origins in the Indian/Hindu traditions surrounding the role of the guru, along with other "native" theoretical notions pertaining to karma, samsara and moksha. Another purely Indian/Hindu concept is that of nirguna brahman, a manner in which the Divinity is perceived "without attributes" - essentially meaning without any iconographic representation of God; this last contribution could also be a Muslim contribution to Sikhism, since there is a proscription in Islam against the creation of sentient living beings, and most importantly against iconic depictions of Allah - God.
The Muslim historical "current" can be said to have been introduced into the Indian universe with a violent shock in the form of raids, because the Muslim conquests of India started with Mahmud of Ghazni - Ghazni is located on the other side of the Hindu Kush, which corresponds to the border region of present-day India and Afghanistan. Between the years 1000 and 1026, Mahmud led to 17 separate raids infiltrating the Hindu Kush mountains into the Indian subcontinent, looting Hindu temples of their precious stones and returning home each time with these riches which he appropriated from the Hindus. However, Mahmud and his army did not return to Ghazni merely with booty, but also with masses of Indian prisoners who became his slaves. In fact, it is thanks to these slaves that the town of Ghazni, where Mahmud came, became therefore a work, a great center of Islamic culture during that time.
On one of these particular raids into India, in 1024, Mahmud left Ghazni, crossed the the Hindu Kush mountain range with 30,000 of his fellow Muslim brethren, fully armed, infiltrated India which lay on the other side of the mountains. This particular raid history records as a bloody battle that is supposed to have claimed the lives of an estimated 50,000 people. It can therefore be said that this raid by Mahmud of Ghazni was one of the first of many Muslim conquests into India that would make the Islamic world collide with the neighbouring Hindu universe. Although Mahmud's death in 1030 marked the end of his reign of terror over North India, and that following this the territories he had conquered would subsequently be lost by his followers; in spite of all this, it can nonetheless be stated that this violent clash between the Muslim and Hindu/Indian worlds would mark the beginning of a cultural convergence in the Punjab, where centuries later Guru Nanak (b. 1469) would be born.
|The Qutb Minar in Delhi. Image Source: http://indiatourismportal.com/destinations-in-india/Monuments-in-Delhi/qutub-minar-delhi.shtml|
In order to better understand Guru Nanak's world - in 15th century Punjab - while it is important to acknowledge the cultural foundations of the Indo-Islamic cultural presence in North India, it is just as important to look at those Muslim conquerors who would follow in Mahmud of Ghazni's footsteps. Other Muslim rulers who had witnessed Mahmud's successful raids, in turn, also saw what India promised them - not only the chance to fight for the wealth and riches India had to offer, but also to fight for Allah against the Hindu infidels. Around 1206, the Sultan Aibak Kutb-ud-din established a kingdom - or rather a sultanate - in the north of India. Its capital city was Delhi. Much blood was shed, as there are hundreds of thousands of Indians who were killed when the Sultanate of Delhi conquered most of the land between the Indus and Ganges rivers. Impressively, the Qutb Minar - a minaret built by the Sultan Aibak Kutb-ud-din in the year 1198 - still stands in Delhi to this day. The red sandstone and marble minaret has stood the test of time and is an exquisite example of Indo-Islamic Afghan architecture. Aside from being the tallest minaret in India, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Qutb Minar was built under the reign of Kutb himself to commemorate his victory over northern India. For several centuries after the Delhi Sultanate was established, the Muslim conquerors following in the footsteps of Sultan Kutb followed a policy of cruelty to Hindus. The Muslim conquests of India, however, do not end with the establishment of Islam in North India with the Sultanate of Qutb.
The existence of the Sultanate of Qutb did not prevent other attacks from the Muslim world - this time from a man named Timur (or Timer Lang or Tamerlane depending on sources), a Mongolian warrior who came from afar - from the region of present Uzbekistan in Asia Minor. At the end of the year 1300, Tamerlane had conquered much of Central Asia and continued until he founded an empire which bore his name, called the Timurid Empire. Despite the fact that Tamerlane was a Muslim Mongol warrior, this did not prevent him in the least from attacking the Delhi Sultanate. The end result: in 1398 Delhi was destroyed and thousands of people, Muslims and Hindus, were killed.
This is where Guru Nanak's (1469-1539 CE) world and reality seem to take shape, for during his native Punjab was part of the Muslim conquests, which after the establishment of the reign of the Tamerlane - after his death his Mongol descendants would inherit his conquests, forging out an empire which would simply be known as the Mongol Empire - or rather known by its Persian version which is Mogul (also spelled Moghul). In Guru Nanak's lifetime, he lived under the reign of the Mongol leader Babur - a descendant of Tamerlane - who established this succession of power over the Punjab region. Even if the reign of Babur lasted only a few years, until his death in 1530 (by comparison Guru Nanak died in 1539), it is under his reign that the Mogul dynasty was established.
On the map you can see the final result of these Mogul conquests which Tamerlane commenced. The grandson of Babur, called simply Akbar the Great, became recognized as one of the greatest monarchs in history (contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I of England). Akbar became emperor in 1556 at the age of 13, and reigning for almost 50 years, early in his reign he managed to spread the Mogul Empire to comprise all the territories of northern and central India. It can be seen that the era in which the Guru Nanak lived - under the reign of Babur - that in the Punjab, was a significant historical period of social upheaval and great cultural change - not only a convergence of two cultures and/or religions, but quite literally a clash of civilizations between Islam and the Hindu/Indian worlds.
|Guru Nanak and Mardana.|
When he was thirty, Guru Nanak had his most powerful religious experience. When left alone in the woods one day, he had a vision. He met God and he received his destiny religious leader. It is after this vision he declared his famous sentence that "God is not a Hindu nor Muslim, and the path I follow is God's way." This sentence is the foundation on which rests Sikhism; a declaration of belief that is just as important to Sikhs today as is the shahadah (the testimony of faith) for Islam.
|A Rajput ruler submits to Akbar in 1568. Image Source: "A Second Paradise: Indian Courtly Life 1590-1947," by Naveen Patnaik (New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1985), p. 39. Made Available at www.columbia.edu|
|Image Source: www.ottawasikhsociety.com|