Monday, March 12, 2007

What did Guru Nanak look like? Textbooks in California

In California, the Times reports that the School Board unanimously voted last week to alter a seventh grade textbook image relating to Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion (or panth), after protests from the Sikh community.

The controversial image isn't the big one pictured, but the small one (I've added a circle to make it clearer). The image is a 19th century painting of Guru Nanak wearing a crown and what looks like a somewhat cropped beard. Both the crown and the beard shape are troubling to Sikhs, who are accustomed to seeing images of Guru Nanak more along the lines of the bigger image to the right -- flowing white beard, and humble attire.

Though the New York Times has good interviews with community members on this, the Contra Costa Times actually spells out the issue more clearly:

The image is taken from a 19th-century painting made after Muslims ruled India. The publisher used it because it complies with the company's policy of using only historical images in historical texts, said Tom Adams, director of curriculum for the Department of Education.

After Sikhs complained that the picture more closely reflected a Muslim man than a Sikh, Oxford offered to substitute it with an 18th-century portrait showing Guru Nanak with a red hat and trimmed beard. But Sikhs said that picture made their founder look like a Hindu.

The publisher now wants to scrap the picture entirely from the textbook, which was approved for use in California classrooms in 2005. There are about 250,000 Sikhs in California.

Sikh leaders say they want a new, more representative image of Guru Nanak, similar to the ones they place in Sikh temples and in their homes. The publisher has rejected those images as historically inaccurate. No images exist from the founder's lifetime, 1469 to 1538. (link)

All of this raises the question -- what, in fact, did Guru Nanak look like? We don't have any images from his lifetime, and the later ones are clearly products of the values of their eras. What, historically, do we actually know? I went to Navtej Sarna's recent book, The Book of Nanak, to see what I could find out.

First off, I would recommend Navtej Sarna's book -- it's part of a series Penguin is doing, that also includes The Book of Mohammed. It's short, but it's well-written and accessible.

Secondly, Sarna states the obvious problem with any historical account of Guru Nanak: we don't have official (as in modernized, chronological) histories to work with, but rather a series of Janamsakhis, some of which were written down shortly after Guru Nanak's lifetime by personal associates, while others were written down a bit later -- at two or three degrees of separation. Some of the relevant manuscripts are mentioned, sketchily, at the Wikipedia site for Janamsakhis. (This Wikipedia entry could be improved!)

Some professional historians simply opt out of saying anything concrete about Guru Nanak's life. J.S. Grewal, for instance, in The Sikhs of the Punjab, goes right into textual analysis of passages from the Adi Granth, and doesn't mention any Janamsakhis. Sarna, for his part, acknowledges that his own work is based on the Janamsakhi materials, and proceeds on the basis that some of what is described is factual, while some must be under the category of folklore, and educated guesses have to be made. Along those lines, he comes up with a surprising description of Guru Nanak's attire:

Nanak was accompanied by Mardana on his travels, who carried his rabab. He dressed in strange clothes that could not be identified with any sect and symbolized the universality of his mesage. He wore the long, loose shirt of a Muslim dervish but in the brownish red colour of the Hindu sanyasi. Around his waist he wore a white kafni or cloth belt like a faqir. A flat, short truban partly covered a Qalandar's cap on his head in the manner of Sufi wanderers. On his feet, he wore wooden sandals, each of a different design and colour. Sometimes, it is said, he wore a necklace of bones around his neck. (53-54)

Unfortunately, Sarna does not tell us which Janamsakhi this derives from -- and I'm sure people would be interested to know, since this is a bit different from the common image of Guru Nanak. Sarna does later mention that at the end of his travels, Guru Nanak gave up these "travel clothes" and adopted the ordinary dress of a "householder."

At every point, however, what's emphasized is the strength of Guru Nanak's personal humility and his rejection of personal wealth or political power (which is not the same as a rejection of the material world). So the crown that's pictured in the first version of the California textbook is certainly incorrect. The rest, however, is probably open to conjecture and argument.


One other thought: this controversy is obviously part of a new pattern of textbook contestation in California. An earlier chapter occurred last year, when the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation wrote long reports offering their criticisms and suggestions of the representation of Hinduism in California school textbooks. In a post on the subject, I reviewed the details of those reports, and came to feel that some were good suggestions, while others seemed to be cases of whitewashing history. Though some of the dynamics are similar, this is a very different (and indeed, much simpler) case.


Amardeep said...

NOTE: The following is a comment from Ruchira Paul. She asked me to post it, since Blogger is acting funny.

* * *
"The publisher has rejected those images as historically inaccurate. No images exist from the founder's lifetime, 1469 to 1538.

Then why did they put in the 19th century depiction with the crown and other embellishments?

Although thoroughly non-religious myself, I am with the adherents on this one. When a historical figure is elevated to the stature of a spiritual figure in the minds of followers, it matters little what he or she "really" looked like in life. The pictorial depictions of holy men and women assume an allegorical value which has not much to do with historical accuracy. The same goes with religious relics. Whether a footprint belonged to Ram, the hair is from Prophet Mohammeds beard or the Shroud of Turin indeed covered Jesus' dead body is not of essence. That millions belive they did, is what matters. Such is the nature of faith. One can debate the human propensity to "believe beyond reason" as is now happening frequently via Dawkins, Dennett, Atran and others. It is of little value to nickel and dime about the minutiae of faith. It is pretty telling isn't it that religious folks are quite "rational" about other people's religious superstitions and historical inaccuracies but cling tenaciously to their own irrationalities? Sam Harris the militant atheist who has been pilloried for his shrill assault on religion has pointed this out repeatedly.

I am quite curious as to why western publishers would take it upon themselves to create their own version of eastern religious figures. Do they similarly quibble about the blonde, blue eyed Jesus who we know was of middle eastern, Semitic origin? What about Virgin Mary in her Raphaelite radiance? The Nepalese Buddha has lotus eyes and a Grecian nose in the vicinity of the Indian subcontinent and becomes increasingly far eastern looking as we travel through Thailand, Laos and Japan. Mohammed took care of such controversy by banning images and portraits of him. That is why I broke ranks with the free speech purists when the Danish cartoons controversy unfolded. Where most liberals (with whom I would agree on most matters) saw freedom of expression, I saw mischief.

Guru Nanak's picture on the top with the simple turban and tunic is the most widely recognizable image to millions of Sikhs and non-Sikhs. If it is good enough for the devotees, it should be good enough for the publisher."

On a separate topic on Sikhism, I posted an ancient sketch of mine on my blog of the gorgeous Anandpur Sahib Gurdwara. Take a look when you have the time.


Ruchira said...

Trying this comment to test Blogger eccentricity.

The difference between the history of Hinduism controversy in California text books and this one is that in the former case, there was considerable disagreement among co-religionists about the accuracy of the narrative. In this case, most Sikhs seem to agree on what an acceptable image of Guru Nanak is.

[It looks like Blogger wants to call me Ruchira although I had registered as Ruchira Paul. If this is all there is to it, I'll play along.]

Anonymous said...

i take it then, that amardeep will be similarly respectful of hindu belief that the babri masjid is the site of the birth of lord rama?


Anonymous said...

the objectors in the hinduism controversy were white men from harvard and non-believing leftists, not believers. there is double standards at work here, isnt that so, dr singh?

Ruchira said...


Although your question is directed at Amardeep, I will take the liberty to present my own view on the question you have posed.

Most Hindus DO NOT believe or do not care if the Babri Masjid was the birth site of Ram. You are extrapolating a minority belief into a generalized one for political purposes. Most Sikhs (through the commonest depiction in Gurdwaras and in Sikh homes) have agreed upon an acceptable image of Guru Nanak. This case, as Amardeep points out, is relatively simple to resolve.

Amardeep said...

I tried to respond to anonymous a bit earlier, but found that now my own comments are getting swallowed by blogger!

Anyway, here's what I would say on the Ayodhya case:

I am *respectful* of the belief that Ayodhya is the birthplace of Rama. Though I would ask the same question: is there real archeological evidence for that?

The ASI report published in 2003, suggesting that archeologists had found the bases of pillars indicating a large structure, was a tainted, politically motivated document. Many archeologists came out in print discrediting it, and some people who had actually been on the dig walked away and said that nothing significant had been found.

What would really be needed would be an outside group of archeologists from a country not connected at all to India, or to either Hinduism or Islam.

I have the utmost respect for the Ramayana as a text, and the traditional importance given to the *idea* of Ayodhya there. But the connection between that ancient religious tradition and this physical site (i.e., the Babrji Masjid specifically) is weak at best.

Anonymous said...

how do you know this, dr paul? isnt it odd that all statistics are favourably lined along your political beliefs?

apu said...

if no images exist from Guru Nanak's lifetime, what makes the publisher so sure that the 19th century one is better than all other commonly used pictures of Nanak ?

tiku said...

amardeep or ruchira - Isn't it likely that all Gurus before Gobind, were likely clean shaven and without turban?
Also - how do you know that the entire Sikh community is on agreement on this issue?

Amardeep said...

Tiku, as I've said, we don't *know* anything definitively.

But educated guesses can be made based on the existing folkloric accounts (such as the one given above). Moreover, his Khatri caste background does not tell us very much about how he dressed, since in his writings he repeatedly talks about how he rejects all markers of caste and rituals associated with caste. Since the air was so thick with Sufism and Bhakti, it's not at all implausible to guess he might have kept a beard.

But again, that's a guess.

Ruchira said...


Like Amardeep, I don't know anything definitively except for the most common depiction of Guru Nanak that I have witnessed in Gurdwaras and Sikh homes. Absent any other historical "proof" the most popular becomes the most "accurate."

I think I made it very clear in my first comment that images of gods and godly men are not about historical accuracy but have more to do with the comfort level of the adherents of a faith. In fact rather than man being created in god's image, god has been spawned from man's own image - in every faith.

Please look at what I said about Buddha and Jesus mirroring the features of the regions to which the devotees belong rather than reflecting their own ethnicity about which there is not much debate.

The same holds true for Guru Nanak being made to look like a post Guru Govind (the 5ks) era figure rather than a Hindu. It again goes to the comfort level of the followers infused with the idea of what their faith represents. Sure, it is emotional air brushing but religious people are "emotional" about their faith.

Rama S. said...

Unnecessary controversy created again.

But, you have nicely analysed in your post. A scholar's post.

Harbeer said...

Is this not murti puja on the part of the offended Sikhs? According to my teachings, I would think that no picture is better than any picture.

Anonymous said...

dudes. these guys never existed at all. get the book"divine initiation" from it explains all in detail.