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Transcendentalism and Pragmatism in
Guru Nanak’s Philosophy

I will try to explain Guru Nanak’s philosophy in a language which I understand and make effort to share my perceptions with you in a language which most of us can follow.  I think every generation must interpret its preceptors and translate their sayings into its own idiom. I will use non-denominational language to explain Guru Nanak’s Philosophy and message. I think religion without philosophy is a mere sentiment and sometimes fundamentalism and philosophy without religion is a mere mental exercise. Religion is not a pastime and not merely a scholarship, nor just a subject of intellectual debate.

Uniqueness of Guru Nanak’s philosophy lies both in his approach and contents of his thoughts. His life is his message and his message is his philosophy. The uniqueness of Guru Nanak’s philosophy lies in (i)  Ecumenism, (ii) Revolutionary nature of his thoughts ;  (iii) Efforts for reconciliation; (iv) Theory of Unity in Diversity; (v) Concept of spiritual equality with emphasis on gender equality; (vi)  Idea of freedom of conscience , with attitude of humility, seva and purity of heart; (vii) Political thought – rejection of tyranny, and advocating  a caring and sharing governance; (viii)  Rejecting all forms of exploitation – political, economic, social and religious; -advocating human dignity, self-respect and feeling of patriotism; (ix) Theory of spiritual socialism, rejecting riches concentrated in a few hands.  Advocating Kirat Ki Kamai and wand chhako   ( earning one’s bread through legitimate  means and sharing the produce with others ).

Guru Nanak introduced traditions of sangat , lungar, community living, community working, community eating, singing and religious tolerance, broadmindedness with secular and socialist predisposition.   His idea was that religion must join the life current of humanity and should be socially and spiritually consistent.

I believe there are 3 angles from which Guru Nanak’s philosophy can be approached. (i) The ideas to reform Hinduism – it’s rituals and mythological  traditions.  To educate the Muslims to shun their feudalistic exclusiveness. (ii) Transform actual men and women---Hindus, Muslims, Yogis and Siddhas through preaching his new thoughts.  (iii) Transcendentalism  i.e. , the spiritual angle.  His approach was pragmatic all along.


(i)  Unlike Islam and Christianity, Guru Nanak’s philosophy does not represent a missionary tradition.  (ii)  From God to Guru, to Sabad , to Bani, to Granth – the syndrome is complete.  (iii) The terms ‘Sabad’ and ‘Bani’  are used in Guru Nanak’s composition.

Historical Background

There were three prominent movements: (i) Bhakti Movement  (ii) Sufi Cult and  (iii) Sant Traditions.  Guru Nanak also noticed the Siddha criticism  addressed to the institutionalization of devotional culture into temple culture.  Ideology of the Bhakti movement was :  (i)  Loving Devotion , (ii) Renunciation  (iii) Asceticism .  The Bhakti movement was against : (i) Ritualism  (ii) Casteism (iii) Brahmans and Qazis.  It rejected Sanskrit and Persian which were the languages of the elite.  The Bhakti Saints used local language in their teachings and prayers.  The Sufi culture among the Muslims tried to resolve through intuition (rather reasoned argument) the conflict of religions dividing people.  However, Guru Nanak appreciated the positive achievement of Islam as well as the Sufi criticism of feudalization of Islam.


There are two dimensions of Guru Nanak’s philosophy, which have been somewhat ignored by scholars and inadequately appreciated by the historians. Guru Nanak had created a unique social awareness about religion and the society.  This social awareness is an important part   of his legacy  and it remains the key to a proper understanding of his transcendentalism.  Guru Nanak’s successors had carried forward his institutions and also created new ones in consonance with this legacy. 

Guru Granth Sahib begins with Guru Nanak’s famous composition, the Japuji Sahib . It opens with the Mul Mantar which is the basic creed of Sikhism.
(i) Unity of God is mentioned at the very beginning to wean away disciples from the worship of many gods and goddesses, which the Hindus used to do. It is an example of his transcendentalism and pragmatism (ii) The emphasis on timeless, formless, birthless and ever existent Truth was meant to discourage the re-incarnation theory and idol worship. This is another example of transcendentalism and pragmatism in Guru Nanak’s philosophy.  (iii) God creates, destroys and preserves. His command is final. His light illuminates everything Teri gat mit to hi jane, Nanak Dass sada kurbane 
(But God alone knows his ways )

Guru Nanak rejected rituals of various religions, which were artificially institutionalized by priests of every religion.   These rituals had nothing to do with the idea of God.  Mere assuming the forms of a particular creed or robes of a particular Order is no religion,  and it is of no use. Belief in God – no outward show , no marks of holiness, no dancing and jumping of jogis, no  ceremonial piety and pilgrimage for show off.

 Kirat Ki Kamai  and wand chakko  implies bread labor theory .  Community living , community earting ,  community prayers and culture of Sangat for communal harmony is a philosophy of spiritual socialism .  This is an example of  transcendentalism  and pragmatism.

Guru Nanak advocated name, Bhakti, Sewa, God’s grace, Guruprasad and righteous deeds. In a hymn in Rag Maru, Guru Nanak says:  Our own deeds  are the cause of our own misery.  This is an example of  transcendentalism  and pragmatism.

Guru Nanak rejected all manners of injustice and exploitation – political, economic, social and religious. He advocated freedom of conscience. Guru Nanak rejected discrimination on the basis of belief and practice. It was unfortunate that gods and temples were taxed at that time. Guru Nanak considered this as an infringement of Divine Order.

Guru Nanak promised no paradise or heavenly luxuries for ritualistic practices.  There was no coercion or earthly inducement to bring others to his path. He was against the so-called asceticism.  However, he was not against normal pleasures of life; happy and healthy life for the individual and for the society. He appreciated prosperity of the land. His religion is the religion of the householder. His approach was pragmatic. He rejected the earlier Indian philosophies which held the external reality and its rich variety as Maya and illusion.  Towards the end, he lived with his own family, tilling his land and giving his transcendentalism  a practical shape at Kartarpur.


Here, transcendentalism  is not the description of the other world, dismissing the temporal one. Guru Nanak’s transcendentalism  does not lie in negating the temporal world as chaos and contradiction.

Transcendentalism does not imply the make-belief of paradise after death, with rivers of milk and honey.  Guru Nanak’s transcendentalism is spiritualism which goes beyond Plato’s logic of social morality.

 Guru Nanak proclaimed: No body is Hindu and nobody is Muslim.  It implies that all human beings are spiritually the same.  Real religion lies in good deeds and purity of heart. Othe hoon de karma de mitare, Te zat kise puchni nahi (God is not going to ask you about your caste and religion. Deeds alone will determine everything).

Guru Nanak has given in his own words his ideas about  (i)  The Supreme Reality, (ii) Creation of the Universe,  (iii) Human soul,  (iv) The object of life,  (v) The means to achieve it,  (vi)  Theory of Karma,  (vii) Salvation and  (viii)  Transmigration.  These are the various aspects of his transcendentalism.  He tried to implement his transcendentalism into practice.  Such as implementing the concept of spiritual equality of man through sangat , langar, community eating, working, singing and living like children of one God.

Guru Nanak thought of the Philosopher King and rejected tyranny, exploitation and injustice. He advocated a secular religion, participatory governance, sharing and caring.  He rejected discrimination made on the basis of belief and faith.  Rah doai, Khasam eko jano.  (There are different paths, which lead onto Him).  How can you interfere in the Divine dispensation?
Learn your own religion deeply, you will start respecting other religions and all differences will cease.  His Ragas   and musical rendering go for beyond parochialism and religious boundaries.  They are another metaphor to understand his idea of transcendentalism.  Guru Nanak adopts pragmatic approach to express his spiritualism.


Guru Nanak was not an ivory-tower philosopher. His approach was pragmatic.  His Udasi Yatras were amazing episodes. He had encountered Gorakhnath Yogis, Buddhists and hundreds of tribes in the Indian subcontinent.   Guru Nanak’s mission was regeneration of mankind, preaching, teaching, awakening spiritual consciousness and bringing back humanity to truth. Guru Nanak went to the people not to preach an already preconceived philosophy but to know, learn and organically unite all thoughts. Udasi was a temporary going out of routine life and not a complete abandonment of the same. Udasi was not at all asceticism, much less renunciation. He had more experience, more travels, and more interactions in a multi-religious and multicultural milieu than any other spiritual leader hitherto in human history.

What Guru Nanak preached, he practiced.  His life was his message and his message was his philosophy. He taught the Siddhas at Gorakhmatha Temple the right meaning of religion, the right meaning of asceticism, the significance of righteous deeds, duty towards the family and the society.  Guru Nanak asked:   how you can serve the society by renouncing and denouncing the society. 

Guru Nanak had set cells called Manjis.   Those who submitted to his way of life, assembled for meditation and recitation.  In due course of time there came into an existence a network of these cells throughout India and beyond its borders in Sri Lanka, across the Himalayas and in West Asia.   The institution of guruship reflects his pragmatism and foresight.

Guru Nanak’s pragmatic approach is thoroughly evidenced in numerous episodes.  For instance, (i) He rejected janeo ceremony at the age of eight and explained his point of view to the family priest Hardyal.  (ii) He explained the true meaning of knowledge to Gopal Panda, the Village school teacher. (iii)  In reference to offering namaz and prayer at the instance of the Qazi at Nawab’s court, Guru Nanak insisted on unqualified devotation to the  Lord and not just a ritual.   (iv) At  Saidpur, he rejected the hospitality of the rich Malik Bhago and welcomed the poor Bhai  Lalo’s food.  (v) He succeeded in converting Sajjan Thug at Caravan Sarai.  (vi) He explained the truth, underlying vegetarian and non-vegetarian food at Kurukshetra. (vii) At Haridwar, he exploded the ritual of giving water to the Sun God.  (viii)  From Panipat to Delhi, where he refused to work a miracle.  (ix) At Virandavan, he explained that Raslila was a shere waste of breath.  (x) Towards the East, he visited Gorakhmatha, interacted with the devotees of Gorokhnath  and  explain to them,  the true meaning of asceticism. (xi)  At Kamrug district of Assam, Guru Nanak dismissed the black magic of Nur Shah, a witchcraft woman.  (xii) Guru Nanak converted the headhunter Kauda. (xiii) From Assam via.  Orissa, he visited the Jagannath Temple  at Puri and rejected formalism, ritualism and ostentation. (xiv) At Lahore, Guru Nanak converted Duni Chand, a very rich man, by offering him a needle and asking him to return it  to him after his death.  How could it happen, ask Duni Chand.  (xv)  In the South, Guru Nanak had met king Shivnabh and the two girls. Guru Nanak dismissed them completely by ignoring their physical charm. (xvi) In Mecca, Guru Nanak revealed the truth that God is on all sides. He taught that no one religion is better than the other. At the end, it is the deeds of a person that matter and not his caste and creed. (xvii)  While returning from Mecca, he taught a lesson to Wali Qandhari, who refused to give water to Madana, Nanak’s companion. Guru Nanak stopped with one hand a slab of stone which was thrown towards Mardana.  (xviii) Guru Nanak’s garb was composite by nature. He dressed up like Turks, Pathans, while visiting their countries.  (xix)  While returning from Baghdad, Guru Nanak visited Multan, an important Sufi Centre. The Darveshes sent a bowl full of milk to Nanak, who was camping outside Multan. Guru Nanak put a jasmine petal on milk and returned the same to the Sufis, conveying the message that there was no end to knowledge.   (xx) While returning from Afghanistan, Guru Nanak and Mardana reached Saidpur. Guru Nanak protested against the abuse of women (mostly muslim from rich landlord families) and barbarity committed by Babar’s soldiers. Guru Nanak condemned this exploitation and tyranny.  Nanak and Mardana were taken prisoners, and presented to Babar by the jailor.  Babar was also moved after hearing Nanak.


Guru Nanak presents a distinct dispensation. As a result, a new social order came into existence with its own ideology, institutions, organizations and laws , based on the concept of oneness of God and brotherhood of mankind- a common humanity irrespective of  caste, color , creed, gender and nationality. Guru Nanak’s philosophy is a prayer for all.  No one is excluded.  No nation is excluded.  Righteous men of all nations share in the life eternal. Holiness is found among followers of all religions.  Guru Nanak’s philosophy is a cathedral of universal humanism. Guru Nanak philosophy has   played and is playing a constructive role in the present inter religious situation because of its pluralist theology and ecumenism. Transcendentalism and pragmatism are the two inseparable aspects of Guru Nanak’s spiritual philosophy.

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