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Guru Nanak: Ahead of His Time--By About 500 Years

Sikh families across America are celebrating the birthday of their religion's founder, a heroic social and political reformer.

By David Waters

Dec. 8--My editor asked me what I was writing about for today.

"Guru Nanak," I said.

"Who?" she replied.


My editor is one of the most intelligent, educated, and informed people I know. And I'm not just saying that because she can delete my column with the click of a mouse.

My point is that even the most intelligent, educated and informed people in this country have never heard of Guru Nanak.

If that's not a shame, it's at least a pity.

Nanak was the founder of one of the world's great religions and was one of history's spiritual giants.

The more we know about people like Guru Nanak, the more we know about God - and each other.

Most of us know plenty about Jesus, Moses, Buddha and, lately, Muhammad.

Many of us have heard of Confucius, Zarathustra (thanks to Nietzsche and Kubrick), and maybe Lao-tze (the man behind the Tao).

Who knows Nanak?

I doubt even Regis Philbin could answer this question: Guru Nanak was the founder of which world religion?

A. Sikhism

B. Jainism.

C. Zoroastrianism.

D. Consumerism.

Don't phone a friend. I'll give you some hints.

Nanak was born in 1469 in northwest India, now Pakistan, a few hundred miles from the Afghanistan border. Like his contemporaries, Luther and Calvin, Nanak was a religious reformer. The most famous and controversial thing he ever said was this: "God is neither Hindu nor Muslim, and the path I follow is God's."

Nanak lived 500 years ago on the border between the Muslim and Hindu worlds. Such a public statement was beyond courageous.

Nanak also was a heroic social and political reformer. He declared that all men are created equal, centuries before Thomas Jefferson did. "Religion lies not in empty words. He who regards all men as equal are religious," said Nanak, who departed from tradition by eating together with people of different castes.

Nanak also declared the equality of women and men, centuries before Elizabeth Cady Stanton did.

The religion he founded stopped women from wearing veils, allowed widows to remarry, and appointed women preachers, centuries before other religions did.

In addition to human equality, he taught dignity of work, charity for the poor and service to others. He preached against idolatry, fanaticism, hate and violence.

"Whom shall I despise since the one Lord made us all?" Nanak said.

Nanak died in peace at age 70, having founded one of the world's great religions.

If you haven't guessed by now, the final answer is:

A. Sikhism.

This morning, dozens of Sikh families across the Mid-South will begin celebrating Nanak's birthday. During the next two days, they'll recite the sacred Sikh scriptures, which describes God as both father and mother.

They'll also talk and pray and sing hymns. Nanak's 974 hymns are a significant part of the Sikh scriptures.

Local Sikhs don't have their own house of worship yet. So they'll meet, as they do two Sundays a month, in rented space at a mall. It's not a problem. As Guru Nanak said: "God has His seat everywhere. His treasure houses are in all places."

That's worth knowing, especially nowadays. Sikhs have had a particularly difficult time in recent months, especially here in America.

Many Sikh men wear turbans and long beards, for religious reasons. Some Sikh women cover their heads with scarves, for religious reasons.

Even before Sept. 11, Sikhs often were mistaken for Muslims. Since then, many Sikhs, like many Muslims, have become targets of ignorance, prejudice and hate.

The Sikh Council reports at least 200 acts of violence against Sikhs and their religious institutions in the United States. That includes one murder.

Last week, President Bush sent a birthday card to the American Sikh community: "I am pleased to send warm greetings to the Sikh community across the United States as you celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak," he wrote.

"Across our nation, members of the Sikh community are proud of their cultural heritage, their ancestry, and their religious beliefs. American Sikhs serve in all walks of life, including our Armed Forces.

"I commend all of you for the dedicated role you play in your community and for sharing the traditions of your faith with your neighbors," Bush wrote.

Those traditions are worth knowing more about.

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