How to Start a Religion (Part 1)

The spread of ideas about our own moral obligation to ourselves and others crops up repeatedly throughout history. It tends to arise in times of disenfranchisement and when power is being consolidated beyond the control of the populace. In the 16th century one man started a movement by refusing to bend to the surrounding system. His words sharpened the minds of many and his refusal to pay taxes to a corrupt power structure saw these freethinkers martyred until the movement became a religion unto itself. While the religion still stands today, the founding principles set 400 years ago have changed from its initial philosophy somewhat. Looking back at the origins of these principles, could we learn from what they achieved?

At the end of the 15th century, religious dogma and governance was reaching new heights and powers. The heavy taxes and decades of austerity imposed on an increasingly penniless population had been pushing people towards the fringes of society until they dropped out or dropped dead. Questions began to arise about the power structures at play and the people at the top of the chain. With vast swathes of land paying dues to a centralised state and little of this money seemingly trickling down to the people, a few thinkers and writers were starting to turn the population against the systems that they found themselves embedded into.

Some of you may recognise this as the state of Europe around this time, with Erasmus and Martin Luther spreading the word of Humanism. The idea that human life could and should be valued above that of religious ideals empowered the members of the population of Europe to think of themselves as more than just tax payers in God’s eyes, stripping power from the Catholic church as it did so.

But where in one place religion withered, religion was born anew elsewhere as a similar spread and subsequent throwing off of societal shackles occurred. 

Before the British invasion-by-commerce of the 18th century and subsequent imperial rule in the 19th century that led to the partitioning of it’s most powerful states India was even greater in size than it is now. Both Bangladesh and Pakistan resided within its boundaries, with Pakistan and the north eastern states making up the Punjab, India’s breadbasket and most prosperous region. Due to the fertile soils of the Indus valley and its proximity to the Himalayan foothills it was both rich and beautiful. Both Muslims and Hindus resided side by side with other ethnic minorities creating a diverse patchwork of culture and beliefs. 

However, the higher rungs of a rich societal tapestry was not immune to corruption any more than the arguably more monotheistic society of Europe and it was this that was to light the spark of a new religion in the region.

Backhanders and heavy taxation in the northern provinces of India were as rife as they were in Rome and high agricultural taxes saw Punjabi farmers becoming increasingly disenfranchised with local governance. By this period of the early 16th century, many of these landowning farmers in the Indus valley were made up of an ethnic group called Jats. Historically a nomadic people from central Asia, Jats may well be descended from the Indo-Aryans of Persia and ancient Scythia and it’s thought that they are the ancestors of modern gypsies. Eventually some migrated into the fertile Indus Valley in search of a place to settle. Their nomadic lifestyles could also be interpreted as a search for identity between the many ingrained cultures of the region, with both Muslim and Hindu societies requiring class and caste to fall hand-in-hand with religion and civilisation. 

The sun rises over the Punjab

But while the place of origin for these nomads may be lost to history, their temperament is not. As early as the 8th century the civilisational stubbornness of Jats is referenced in scripture.

“Resistant to external influence” is how Islamic writers between the 8th and 13th centuries described them. While making up large portions of the workforce and armies across western south Asia for centuries they had continuously curtailed any attempts to shepherd them into any common culture. Their militant stances and unwillingness to bend even led them to later be mentioned in the memoirs of a famous Ruler of Kabul as “troublesome and problematic”. After all, people who didn’t open themselves up to taxation or bribery didn’t make easy subjects.

A map showing the distribution of modern day Jat people across India and Pakistan, in what was all largely the Punjab region before the British imposed partition in 1947

For their efforts they were classed as outsiders by local governments, the Hindu rulers of the 11th century Punjab designating them “low Shudras” – the lowest caste in Indian society. However a people who were not particularly happy with falling in line in the 11th century were not particularly taken with the idea a couple of centuries later either.

Despite their classification as low caste, the Jats managed to carve out a noble life for themselves in Punjab as farmers, providing food for the local population. By the 16th century, they had miraculously been elevated from low Shudra to low Vaishiyas; or lower middle class. It’s recorded that by this time the Jats owned substantial amounts of land on both sides of the Ravi River, one of the five major tributaries to the Indus River running through the Valley (“Paanj” in Hindi is five, hence Punjab). This acquisition of land meant that some Jats became very prosperous. Even so, this was quite a leap for an ethnic group to make given the rigidity of the caste system, but not all together inconceivable. Given that the Jats were now major suppliers of food to the local Hindu population, it’s unlikely that the Hindus of the area would have wanted to be seen as consuming food created or supplied by their lowest caste. 

Despite this elevation, the Jats are not recorded as recognising themselves in the Hindu caste system and for all intents and purposes carried on as outsiders, finding their role in the surrounding society as suppliers rather than participants. They were still largely treated as outsiders, with bureaucracy often working against them, allowing land to be annexed and stolen by well connected members of Muslim or Hindu society. This lack of regard for their well-being encouraged the separation of Jats from the surrounding society and helped foster a further resentment for what they saw as corruption and ill will.

This resentment had only got worse with successive invasions of first the Mangols in the late 1300’s and then finally the Mughals from Afghanistan in the early 1500s. A system of heavy agricultural taxation and military campaigns had given the burgeoning Mughal empire the funds necessary to dream of expansion and it looked towards the rich and fertile lands of Punjab.

Babur, Ruler of Kabul and the founder of the Mughal Empire

The first of the Mughals, Babur, was initially invited to invade the northern provinces of India by a prosperous Muslim politician called Daulat Khan Lodi who sought to cement his own legacy in Lahore. At this time Babur was already a powerful figure, the aforementioned Ruler of Kabul and a direct descendant of both the great Timur and Genghis Khan and had desired a seat in “Hindustan” for some time. However, this invitation by the aspirational Daulat Khan was to be the stepping stone toward the realisation of Babur’s dream rather than Daulat Khan and the start of a 300 year long occupation of the Punjab by the Mughals, as well as a founding pillar for a brand new religion.

The story of this new religion really begins with the return of a young man, Nanak, to his village in Lahore province along the River Ravi. Born about 40 miles from the city of Lahore to a revenue collecting father in a Punjabi farming community, he had seen his fellow countrymen toil in the fields just to suffer the taxation of provincial pen-pushers. A short stint working for his fathers boss, a certain Daulat Khan (although at this time yet to have offered his infamous invitation), as a grain agent had given him further insight into the inner workings of the system he had been born into. Namely a system of corruption and bribery. So, at the age of 27 he took himself away from his village of Talwandi. 

In order to gain some perspective on the life he was living and discern more about the life he wanted to lead, he set off towards the middle east. At this time the region spanning the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley had seen successive successful empires. By western accounts the Timurid empire that was to be found at the time of Nanak’s journey was nothing more than the dregs of Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, but in reality it was a culture to which many writers and painters, both European and Asian owe a great deal. From the mid 15th to the early 16th century the great court administrator Nizam al-Din Amir Alishir Nava’i, a “humanist par excellence”, was transforming the empire into one of learning and opulence. So much so that he is recorded as being “instrumental” in the spread of Persian literary humanism. Not just across the empire he helped oversee, but “deep into the heart of the Indian subcontinent”. 

There among the poetic high literature and great minds of the Persian empire of the time Nanak developed ideas that he chose to bring back with him and build on in his home province of Lahore. Somehow he thought, he would aim to create a new society that was free of the corruption and taxes that were found in the surrounding towns and cities of his homeland. By taking back ownership of their minds, he would encourage people to take back control of their land and resources. A sort of South Asian humanism. 

“The vast consequences of the height of Persian literary humanism attained during the Timurids was such that its resonance extended for centuries, well into the Mughal dynasty in India and the Safavid period in Iran”

– Hamid Dabashi, The World of Persian Literary Humanism   

Accounts have been given and books written on the where and when of this young man’s travels, most of them describing four long journeys before his eventual return to his village of birth.

In fact there are thousands of verses of narratives, given the name Janamsakhis, that tell of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak, detailing at length four missionary journeys where he spreads the word of God and Sikhism. However many of these have been written in more recent centuries, posthumously and somewhat hagiographically. The writings most likely to give us a true idea of both the early Gurus life and his original reasoning for starting his new community is the Puratan Janamsakhi. In these first writings, understood to be written around the 16th century or just after (around the time Nanak lived), there is a brief mention of a journey to the Persian west. However they largely focus on the future Gurus early manhood and the founding of his first experimental community after his return from this journey.

Having settled back into Talwandi, the young Nanak had started to draw together some of his fellow villagers to discuss the ideas that he had come across and developed on his travels around the old Persian empire. These ideas centered around a sense of moral obligation to both oneself and his or her fellow humans, no doubt influenced by the humanism spreading from the region at the time. In a culture largely composed of religions requiring devotion to deities, these themes of devotion to oneself must have seemed rather refreshing to some. German philosopher and good friend of Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, would later recognise these themes over two hundred years later as the key elements in European Humanism

“a Sikh is … a student who is always eager and passionate to learn how to grow into his full potential as a true and conscious human being”

– Guru Nanak, Kapur 155

The young Nanak had started to convey these themes and ideas through a number of poetic hymns, a number that by his death in 1539 would reach 974 and be built upon by subsequent Gurus to form the backbone of Sikhism. The poetic manner in which he chose to convey these thoughts mirror the literature that was to be found in the Persian empire of the time through which he had just traveled. Many of the poems and stories of Timurid Persia dealt with the human condition and what makes us who we are, much like the hymns Nanak wrote in his time. So much so that it’s almost certain that the future Guru learned a great deal as he traveled around the region west of the Punjab. Many of the hymns he wrote follow an imagery that artfully uses nature and particularly agricultural metaphors to convey their message and meaning. His compositions invoke much passion for the beauty of the natural world found in the Indus Valley. 

With these hymns Nanak began to draw some villagers into his philosophy. Some local Muslims and low caste Hindus could see some truth in his words, recognising the changing world around them and wanting some change from what they started to see as a “tightening noose” of religious society. However Talwandi was soon deemed to not be the best springboard for this new burgeoning community of thinkers. Being a traditional farming community, it was founded by previously high-caste Hindu who had converted to Islam and although the village is unrecognisable today, in those days it most likely had a mosque at its center. The Puratan also mentions a temple there, likely to be Hindu.

 With a clean break from the stifling surrounding cultures in mind and a small following now at his back, it might be time to move further afield. The stories tell of the Guru using his compositions as his guide, settling on a pristine piece of land that is both beautiful and fertile. However in reality, the young Nanak was very careful about where he chose to build his settlement for his new community, later to be named Kartarpur.

His father-in-law worked for a local Jat chieftain who could facilitate the acquisition of land along the fertile River Ravi. Nanak’s own knowledge of the land and soils also made certain that he could choose a place where soil fertility and substantial subsoil water made living off of the land a viable possibility. Furthermore the land he chose was extremely close to a well known pilgrimage route that traversed the Indus Valley. Pilgrims, often travelling hundreds if not thousands of miles in the hope of enlightenment were often open minded people in search of meaning if not a new, better way of life than the one they had left. The location of Kartarpur was a smart placement for someone hoping to turn wondering minds towards a more conscious way of living. 

The area surrounding Kartarpur, along the River Ravi, was also largely inhabited by Jats. Many Jats had looked to the religions of the area to fulfill their search for a socio religious identity, but many more remained stubborn and outcast. The future Gurus views on political corruption cited in some of his compositions, coupled with his way of wording these moral lessons in agricultural terms, began to draw these farming Jats to him. Figures given to us in the Puratan show that of the first congregation at Kartarpur, a large percentage were Jats. Furthermore upon his death, it was the Jat members of the Sikh community that were his most trusted successors. 

Already disenfranchised by the succession of revenue demanding bureaucrats that followed in the wake of the Mangol and now Mughal invasions, the Jats were more than happy to listen to Nanak. Especially when he spoke of the need to repurpose this revenue to their own needs. Afterall, Nanak knew how useless the system was to the community having been surrounded by family members working as revenue collectors and he himself a book keeper for Daulat Khan. Taxes are supposed to be paid by the people so that public works can be undertaken, on a more beneficial and larger scale than the individual could manage with just their own income. However the revenue paid by these farmers of the Punjab rarely came back around and it was an early proposition of the young Nanak to instead hold onto this money, so it could be used within the community. If they were to be separate from the state and ask for nothing from it, what was the need in paying dues to the pen-pushers in Lahore and beyond? 

Many scholars will contest that Guru Nanak believed in the creation of what would become known as the Manji system. This was a method for Sikhs to avoid taxation by the Mughal emperors that was built upon by the fifth Guru Arjan, that led to the latters unfortunate death and martyrdom at the hands of the Mughals. However the understanding of the endemic corruption and anti-establishment sentiments in Guru Nanak’s early compositions, plus the way he organised the first Sikh congregations in Kartarpur and eventually further afield seem to indicate that he did indeed want to create an alternative system for his followers…

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