Guru Nanak's Birthday

Guru Nanak's Birthday

Type of Holiday: Religious (Sikh)
Date of Observation: October-November; full moon day of Hindu month of Kartika
Where Celebrated: Great Britain, India, Pakistan, and by Sikhs all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Guru Granth Sahib
Related Holidays: Vaisakh


Guru Nanak's Birthday is a celebration in Sikhism, an independent faith that developed during the fifteenth century in India. The word Sikh comes from the Sanskrit word shishya, which means disciple or student. Sikhs believe that God was the original guru (guru means divinely inspired prophet or teacher) and that he chose to reveal his message to Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru. Sikhs believe that their gurus were prophets sent by God to lead people into truth. They emphasize equality among people of different castes, practice Kirat Karni (a doctrine of laboring), and follow the precepts of charity.

Sikhism resembles both Islam and Hinduism, but is not directly associated with either. Similar to Hindus, Sikhs believe that the human soul progresses through a series of births and rebirths and that its ultimate salvation occurs when it breaks free from the cycle. Sikhs, however, reject the Hindu pantheon and do not participate in bathing rituals. Instead they worship one God who they believe is the same God of all religions, including Allah of Islam. Unlike Muslims, however, they shun fasting and pilgrimages.

The Sikh holy scriptures are called the Guru Granth Sahib (Guru means divinely inspired teacher; Granth means book; Sahib means revered). A more ancient name is Adi Granth, which means first or original book. The Guru Granth Sahib was compiled by the fifth Sikh guru, Arjan, and revised by Gobind Singh, the tenth guru. It contains hymns composed by the gurus.

Sikhs do not have an established priesthood. Although individual gurdwaras may employ specially trained people to care for the Guru Granth Sahib, all Sikhs are free to read from their holy scriptures either in the temple or in their homes. In addition, there is no one person to whom all Sikhs look for guidance in religious matters. The Sikh community is called the Panth, and collective decisions may be made by the Panth for the entire community. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhad Committee, whose members are elected, provides guidance for all the gurdwaras in the Punjab. Individual local gurdwaras elect their own committees to oversee local matters.

Guru Nanak was the founder of the Sikh religion. He was born in 1469 at Talwandi, a small village about forty miles from Lahore, now located in Pakistan. According to legend, his birth was accompanied by flowers falling from heaven and by musical instruments that started playing on their own.

Although he was born into a Hindu family, Nanak was influenced by Islamic teachings, particularly those of the Sufis, a mystical Islamic sect. His curiosity about spiritual matters was evident at a very young age, and by the time he was thirty, he had experienced a mystical encounter with God. Legend says that he was taken to God by the angels and that he stayed in God's presence for three days. His absence from the village triggered rumors that he had drowned in a stream where he was last seen bathing. After learning that he had been chosen as a prophet, Nanak reappeared on earth and set off on his mission to spread God's word. He went to Tibet, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Bangladesh, and Mecca, proclaiming his message to both Hindus and Muslims, whom he hoped to unite. He wanted to abolish caste distinctions and to promote more liberal social practices, encouraging his followers to work hard and pursue normal family relations. His teachings, in the form of poems and hymns, are preserved in the Holy Book known as the GURU GRANTH SAHIB . Those who followed him became known as Sikhs, from the Sanskrit word meaning "disciple."

When Guru Nanak died in 1539, a quarrel arose among his followers. Those who were Hindu wanted to cremate him, but his Muslim followers wanted to bury him. The next day, his body disappeared-Nanak's way of showing them that the way of God was neither Hindu nor Muslim, but included both. He was succeeded by nine other gurus who carried on his work. Sikhs believe that although these ten prophets were different individuals, they all shared the same spirit.

Nanak's birthday is by far the most important of the Sikh gupurbs or festivals to celebrate the birthdays of the gurus; it is comparable to the birthday of Jesus for Christians. The celebration frequently lasts for three days, during which every Sikh family visits its local gurdwara or temple. In the village where Nanak was born, now known as Nankana Sahib, there is a shrine and a holy tank where thousands of Sikhs congregate for a huge fair and festival. In India, there is a procession the day before Nanak's birthday, led by the Panj Pyare-five baptized Sikhs who represent the Khalsa, or spiritual/military brotherhood that is open to all baptized Sikhs (see VAISAKH). They carry ceremonial swords and the GURU GRANTH SAHIB on a covered litter, followed by schoolchildren, scouts, students, and adults singing hymns. The procession winds through the streets and ends outside the gurdwara. Other activities during the festival include prayers, lectures, the singing of hymns, and the distribution of free meals. In Great Britain, the celebration is a mixture of religious and social activities that includes fairs, games, and stalls offering foods and sweets.


Guru Granth Sahib

The Guru Granth Sahib is the Sikhs' Holy Book. It is 1,430 pages long and includes all the hymns of Guru Nanak, other hymns and teachings added by Arjan (the fifth guru), and the final additions of Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth and last guru, who died in 1708). It was the latter who placed a volume of the Holy Book before a gathering of his followers, laid five coins and a coconut in front of it, and bowed his head, declaring that there would be no more human gurus; from now on, the Granth was to serve as their spiritual leader.

During the first two days of the festival surrounding Guru Nanak's birthday, a ceremony called an Akhand Path begins. This is a continuous, uninterrupted reading of the entire Guru Granth Sahib, timed so that it ends on the birthday anniversary.

Sikhs treat the Guru Granth Sahib with even more reverence than Christians show for the Bible, because it is not only a religious document but enjoys the same status as a guru. It is kept on a platform under a richly decorated canopy and covered with a special cloth. Sikhs must bow before the Guru Granth Sahib whenever they enter the prayer hall, and they must never turn their backs to it. All those who read it must wash their hands before touching it, and it is customary to place an offering of food or money in front of it. Next to the Granth Sahib is what is known as a chaur. Similar to a fly whisk or brush, it is waved over the Holy Book as a sign of respect.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Kapoor, Sukhbir Singh. Sikh Festivals. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Enterprises, 1989.


BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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