Guru Nanak Gurpurab: The First Teacher

Quick Facts

  • Summary: A Sikh festival celebrating the birth of the founder of the faith Guru Nanak
  • 2018 Date: 23rd November
  • Celebrated by: Sikhs, Nanakpanthis, parts of India (as a National Holiday)
  • Linked Holidays: Gurpurab festivals, Vaisakhi (Sikhism)

Background and Theological Significance

Guru Nanak Gurpurab, also known as Guru Nanak Jayanti and Guru Nanak’s Prakash Utsav, is a Sikh festival that celebrates the birthday of the first Sikh Guru, Nanak Dev Ji. Sikhism is a Dharmic faith tradition that has developed in the Indian subcontinent since the fifteenth-century CE and has been guided by a succession of ten ‘gurus’ or spiritual teachers. Guru Nanak was the first of these gurus and is widely considered to be the founder of the Sikh faith. He was born in the city of Nankana Sahib in the Punjab (modern day Pakistan) in the year 1469 CE. His family were Hindus and from an early age Nanak showed signs of a deep spirituality. This did not change as he grew older, despite his marriage and other worldly commitments. According to one tradition, Nanak was once brought up into heaven for three days whilst bathing in a river, an experience that completely enlightened him. He spent many years travelling and teaching and went on to found the faith known as Sikhism. Sikhism is centred on the belief in one divine creator and a commitment to a human society based upon equality and selfless love. Guru Nanak died in Kartarpur in the year 1539 CE and was succeeded by nine other gurus of the faith and later by the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book and ‘eternal living guru’ of Sikhism.

The festival of Guru Nanak Gurpurab is one of the most important celebrations in the Sikh calendar. A ‘gurpurab’ is the observation of the birth or martyrdom of one of the ten Sikh gurus, and these gurpurabs account for the majority of Sikh festivals. Guru Nanak Gurpurab is perhaps the most prominent of these due to the important status of Guru Nanak.

History

The gurpurabs (which literally mean ‘festival of the guru’ in Sanskrit) have been observed since the time of the ten gurus, and there is evidence that Guru Nanak Gurpurab was celebrated by Nanak’s immediate successors. Sikhism typically welcomes the evolution of traditions and customs in relation to festivals, and as such the celebration of Guru Nanak Gurpurab has taken many different forms across India and further afield. Amongst those who celebrate it are Nanakpanthis, followers of Guru Nanak in parts of India and Pakistan who often merge Sikh and Hindu practices.

Although scholars largely agree that Guru Nanak was born in the year 1469 according to the Gregorian calendar, the exact date of his birth is more keenly debated. Some traditions state that he was born on the day of Vaisakha (a major Hindu and Sikh festival in the spring), whereas other traditions believe that he was born on the ‘purnima’ (full moon day) of the Indian lunar month of Kartika. Kartika Purnima is the most widely accepted date for Guru Nanak Gurpurab amongst Sikhs, although this remains controversial in some circles. Although for many years Sikhism employed the Hindu Bikrami calendar, it now uses the Nanakshahi calendar to determine the dates of Sikh festivals. The Nanakshahi calendar has twelve months that align with the solar year, and is influenced by both the Hindu and Gregorian calendars. Guru Nanak Gurpurab always falls in the month of Kartika, the eighth month according to the Nanakshahi calendar, although the exact date of the festival will depend on the occurrence of the full moon which changes from year to year.

What Happens?

Guru Nanak Gurpurab is one of the most prominent Sikh festivals and is typically celebrated over a period of three days. Two days before Kartika Purnima, gurdwaras will hold a special ‘akhand path’ or non-stop recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs often decorate their gurdwaras with candles and diyas at this time. On the day before Kartika Purnima there is a liturgical procession called Nagarkirtan, during which devotees sing hymns of praise and wave flags. On the actual day of the festival, observances typically begin in the early hours of the morning with hymns and readings from the scriptures. Afterwards, Sikhs hold a special community lunch called a ‘langar’ to which all people are invited regardless of race, caste or creed, out of respect for Guru Nanak’s teachings of equality and harmony. One of the most famous foods served at the langar is a type of sweet called ‘kada prasad’. In the evening of Kartika Purnima there are further prayers and acts of chanted worship called ‘kirtan’ in honour of the Guru’s birthday. The festival of Guru Nanak Gurpurab is a time for Sikhs to rejoice in the life and teachings of their founder and work to integrate his teachings into their daily lives.

Guru Nanak with Hindu Holy men‘ is in the public domain

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