Haroon Khalid’s latest book, Walking with Nanak, seeks to retrace the steps of the great man on his journey of spiritual growth
The geographical tract of land once known as the Indian subcontinent has been host to some of humankind’s earliest and most influential civilisations and spiritual movements. Now demarcated into Pakistan and India due to religious antagonism, the interpretation of religions was once less rigid in the region. Saints and followers of various religious doctrines were more willing to accept the universal message of truth, fairness, and kindness espoused by other belief systems.
Guru Nanak was one such son of the region whose unease with rigid ideological divisions led to the birth of a new religion, Sikhism. Haroon Khalid’s latest book, Walking with Nanak, is an attempt by the author to retrace the steps of the great man on his journey of spiritual growth.
The title of the publication is a befitting paean to Sikhism’s founder who covered the length and breadth of South Asia on foot over a period of 24 years. A map at the beginning of the book provides the reader with a rough guide about the eleven cities in Pakistan that the author was able to visit on his quest to recreate the travels of Guru Nanak and his Muslim companion, Bhai Mardana.
It is also befitting that Khalid is accompanied on his travels by Iqbal Qaiser, a leading authority on the history of Sikhism in Pakistan. The book has been dedicated to Mr Qaiser, and Khalid’s admiration and respect for him is apparent throughout the travelogue.
Walking with Nanak is not a linear study of the spread of Sikhism. It is as much about charting the transformation of Nanak’s religious philosophy into an institutionalised doctrine as it is about discovering the human frailties of the men behind the movement.
Khalid begins with the story of Guru Nanak, and gradually presents a portrait of all ten gurus -- referred to as the reincarnations of the first Guru or leader of Sikhism. The antagonism between the Sikh gurus and the Mughal emperors is situated at the centre of Sikhism’s evolution into a politicised religious institution commonly associated with militarism. Chapters alternate between focusing on a particular guru and discussing a significant event in Nanak’s life. Khalid uses texts from the Janamsakhis, a collection of records maintained by Sikh devotees; to present the trajectory of Nanak’s strengthening spirituality. These records are supplemented by the writer’s own imagination, as stated by him, and prevent the book from becoming a dry historical biographical account.
Nanak was a poet; and Khalid peppers the book with some of his best known verses to present the softer side of a religion today associated with its symbol of the kirpan (sword).
The sky the salver, the sun and the moon the lamps,
The stars studding the heavens are the pearls,
The fragrance of sandal is the incense,
Fanned by the winds all for Thee,
The great forests are the flowers.
What a beautiful aarti is being performed
For you, O Destroyer of fear.
-- (‘The First Sikh Spiritual Master: Timeless Wisdom from the Life and Teachings of Guru Nanak’ by Harish Dhillon)
Another technique used by Khalid to humanise the history of Sikhism is his focus on the camaraderie enjoyed by Nanak and Bhai Mardana. The mentor-student relationship is one of the strongest themes in the book -- made more striking through the parallel account of Khalid’s relationship with his own mentor, Iqbal Qaiser. The repeated references to Nanak’s role as a spiritual guide for Mardana are mirrored in the author’s recognition of the mentoring role of Mr Qaiser in his own life.
At various points in the book, Khalid makes a deliberate attempt to step into the wandering Nanak’s shoes, and emerges every time with a renewed appreciation of Qaiser’s role in helping preserve the legacy of Sikhism in Pakistan.
The question of preservation of non-Islamic sites in Pakistan is also a concurrent topic in the book. Here, Khalid takes it a step further and muses multiple times about the better attention and respect these gurdwaras would have received in India. The Pakistan-India border is oft mentioned as a stroke of fate that relegated some of the gurdwaras to a state of forlorn neglect.
Retelling the stories of forgotten shrines is Khalid’s passion and forte. This is apparent in the manner in which important incidents in Guru Nanak’s life are presented -- through the connection with locations at which they are said to have occurred. For a non-Sikh reader, it is interesting to learn that the gurdwaras associated with Guru Nanak were constructed on the sites where he rested and/or performed a miracle.
While most Pakistanis are familiar with Nankana Sahib and Hassan Abdal as two of the holy sites for Sikhism, not most are aware of the smaller gurdwaras scattered throughout the country. As Khalid too learns on his journey around the country’s south, many consider Nanak’s regional identity as a Punjabi to mean that his spiritual quest during the fifteenth century was restricted to the Punjab.
Khalid’s previous books have focused on the place and practices of religious minorities in Pakistan, and as such, the subject matter of his latest publication appears to be a natural extension of his fascination with communities on the margins of Pakistan’s historical narrative. In-depth research on Pakistan’s minorities is hard to come by, and even less in the form of a book powered by a personal project. Consumed by the nationalistic fervour of our security state, the cultural legacies of non-Islamic communities in Pakistan are gradually being eroded to the point of non-existence.
As Khalid and Iqbal Qaiser’s travels around Pakistan demonstrate, the religious affiliations and characteristics of multiple places of worship are being subsumed by Islamic architecture and symbolism. Yet, not all is lost. It is by the dissemination of knowledge through work like Qaiser’s that various Hindu shrines and Sikh gurdwaras have received attention from the concerned authorities and been saved from irreparable ruin. There remains hope that as long as the citizens of a nation maintain a curiosity about the intermingling strands of their history, extremism and religious intolerance will not be able to wipe out the traces of a more tolerant past.