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Guru Nanak and Tibetan Buddhism



I have wanted for a long time to say something about my impressions of the religion of the Sikhs in India, and my connections with it.

After my escape from Tibet, I lived as a refugee in India for several years, alongside so many of my countrymen. There, I had the great good fortune to be looked after by a Sikh family, by Baba Bedi, his English wife, and their three children. While I was with them, I was able to visit many of the Sikh holy places and I was given hospitality there.

My interest in Sikhism is not only a personal one, however.

In Tibet, Guru Nanak is revered as an emanation of Guru Padmasambhava.

Many of our pilgrims visited Amritsar and other holy places, which they looked upon as equal in importance to Budh-Gaya. They always said that the Sikhs treated them with great respect and were very hospitable: "as our expression goes, they bowed down to their feet." It seems that the Sikhs really practice the doctrine of their religion; perhaps they are the only ones who give such wonderful dana (alms) to travellers.

Most Tibetans know that Guru Nanak visited Tibet, and the mystical ideas of our two religions are very similar.

I have noticed that the Sikhs never worship images in their shrines, but that there is in the centre the book, the Guru Granth Sahib. In our tradition, one of the last things that the Buddha said was that in the dark age after his death, he would return in the form of books. "At that time," he said, "look up to me and respect me."

Just as we do not believe in mystifying rituals, so in the Sikh ceremonies, it seems that the people simply read and contemplate the words of their text, so that no misunderstandings arise.

I was interested in the Sikh symbolism of the three daggers: in Buddhism, a knife often appears as the cutting off of the roots of the three poisons: greed, hatred and illusion.

I was also very interested in the Sikh practice never to cut one's hair, as this is also the practice among Tibetan hermits and contemplatives. The most famous of these was Milarepa, who said that there were three things that should be left in their natural state; one should not cut one's hair, dye one's clothes, nor change one's mind.

It is true that most Tibetan monks wear yellow, and shave their heads; these are practices that come from India, and symbolize humility and detachment from worldly things.

Outside the more organized monastic tradition, however, the emphasis is that the natural goodness and power of growth within should be allowed to develop freely without interference from outside.

Both Guru Nanak and the Buddha said to their followers that the real nature of the universe should not be limited by the idea of personal god and gods. Those who made offerings at their shrines should remember that the whole universe was the power offering, offered before and to itself.

It seems that there is very much in common between our philosophies.

For example, the belief in the role of maya (illusion) in bringing suffering and keeping us from salvation is a key part of the philosophy of both religions. Gurbani speaks of moh maya in many places:

houmai maar sadhaa sukh paaeiaa maaeiaa mohu chukaavaniaa
Subduing your ego, you shall find a lasting peace, and your emotional attachment to Maya will be dispelled. 

[GGS 110:1, Guru Amar Das, Raag Maajh]

maaeiaa mohu eis manehi nachaaeae anthar kapatt dhukh paavaniaa
The love of Maya makes this mind dance, and the deceit within makes people suffer in pain.

[GGS 122:1, Guru Amar Das, Raag Maajh]


When I return to India, I hope to increase understanding of the Sikh religion among Tibetan people, and it is my wish one day to translate the Guru Granth Sahib into Tibetan. Now I am living in England, and I can see that much good might be accomplished by Sikhism in England, and Europe and America, and I wish success to everyone whose concern this is.


[First published in The Indian Express, March 6, 1966]

February 7, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: Kanwarjeet Singh (U.S.A.), February 09, 2009, 2:18 PM.

It was great to read this article. All the religions of the world preach and teach the same absolute truths. The problem is with us meek humans not being able to understand their words which we instead take literally and become fanatics. Mohammed, Buddha, Nanak, Jesus and every other spiritual Guru taught the concept of truth, humanity and love. We are all far away from the same. I wish you all the success in translating the Guru Granth Sahib into Tibetan.

2: Manjit Singh (London, U.K.), February 25, 2009, 4:32 AM.

Wonderful article .... it's great to find out about, and meet others in the world, and their beliefs, because it makes it brings us closer to seeing God everywhere and in all.

3: Tsering Dorji (Dharamsala, India), May 01, 2009, 10:36 PM.

I'm a Tibetan monk presently doing my Master's in Buddhist Philosophy at the Institute of Buddhist Philosophy founded under the patronage of the Dalai Lama. I was born in India and have a great interest in Sikihsm. I used to read all the articles about Sikhism I could get. Though there are differences, I found lots of similarities between these two religions. I have started doing some research by finding some time from my busy schedule at the Institute. I'm thinking about writing a book titled: "Guru Nanak in Tibet." Since there is scanty historical information available, I'm facing obvious difficulties. So it will be very helpful if anyone could help me and contribute their own opinion and facts. Thanks a lot. On the basis of whatever little evidence is available at such a distant time, it is clear that the Buddha had sanctified the land of the five rivers. Thus Punjabis were amongst the direct disciples of Lord Buddha. Buddhism was quite flourishing in the north-western part of India, especially in the plains of Punjab till the end of the seventh century a.c., until the advent of Islamic rulers from the Middle East. Moreover, it is said that the fourth Buddhist Council was held in the Punjab at Jalandhar, and two eminent philosophers (two dearly loved and respected by Buddhist followers) i.e. Asanga and Vashubhandu wrote many works in Sanskrit in the fourth century a.c. The other important teachers of Buddhism in Punjab were: Katyayana, Parsva, Vasumitra and Manortha etc. Thanks and tashi delek.

4: Jaz Grewal (Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A.), October 18, 2009, 9:13 PM.

I am Sikh raised in the United States. I was brought up in the Sikh faith, and also with a great admiration for the Buddha since childhood. I consider myself fairly educated in all relgions; however, my special interest as always been in Sikhism and Buddhism. I have learnt a lot about Sikhism because of my grandfather, who wrote a book on Sikhism and was one of the first Sikhs to start a gurdwara in our area. Buddhism I studied on my own and am still learning more about it. I do not know to much about Guru Nanak's sojourn in Tibet, other than that He did travel there and had a discourse with the Buddhists in that area. I definitely encourage research in this area and would like to learn about this meeting between Guru Nanak and the Buddhists. If I could be any help, please let me know.

5: Jiwan Kaur (India), April 28, 2010, 6:10 AM.

Is the author of this article still alive? Does anyone know of his whereabouts? Has the Guru Granth Sahib been translated into Tibetan ... or even the Japji? I would like to know. Is there anything recorded of the discourses between Guru Nanak and the Lamas he visited in Tibet?

6: Alan Richards (Santa Cruz, California, U.S.A.), July 17, 2011, 4:43 PM.

I have had a Buddhist practice for some 15 years now. Recently I had the opportunity to visit India. I loved the Buddhist sites (e.g., Bodh Gaya) that I visited. But, in many ways, the trip's most spiritually moving experience was spending a morning in the Harmandar Sahib. I am a great admirer of Sikhs and Sikhism, and am grateful to have been able to have this experience.

7: Jagpreet Singh (India), August 15, 2011, 10:35 AM.

Dhan Guru Nanak Sahib!

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