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The Talking Stick Colloquium #47
Janam-Saakhis: Fact, Fiction or Myth





On a dark and overcast August night in 1499, while the city of Sultanpur slept, the mellifluous strains of Guru Nanak's kirtan filled the air. Accompanied by Bhai Mardana on the rabab, Guru Nanak sat on the banks of the Bein (or Kali Bein), a river that flowed just north of the city, singing praises to the One.

Suddenly, Guru Nanak jumped into the river and disappeared. All efforts to find him failed. Just when people had given up hope, he re-appeared on the third day.

Guru Nanak was transformed. The Nanak who had plunged into the river was a resident of Sultanpur, employed at the royal granary with a wife and two sons.

The Nanak who emerged three days later had been metamorphosed into Guru Nanak, spiritual beacon to the world, proclaiming "Na ko Hindu na Mussalman" - ('There is no Hindu, no Muslim') and with a keen sense of mission to spread the message of Naam.

I doubt that there is a Sikh who has not heard this story, or saakhi as it is called in Sikh parlance. It captures Guru Nanak's enlightenment and the start of his mission as Guru. This is the starting point of the Sikh Panth.

A saakhi, literally meaning witness or testimony, is a traditional or hagiographic account, chiefly associated with the life of Guru Nanak or of the Sikh Gurus that followed. There is a substantial body of saakhis in Sikh tradition on Guru Nanak in particular, collectively known as Janam Saakhis or 'life stories' that have evolved over time.

There are multiple Janam-saakhi versions that have evolved out of the oral tradition, with some of the more notable narratives being the Puraatan Janam-saakhis, Bhai Bala's Janam-saakhi, Mehervan's Janam-saakhi and the B40 Janam-saakhi.

The variety reflects the emergence of distinct traditions and movements within the pPanth, each with competing and conflicting claims to the office of Guru Nanak.

Saakhis were part of the oral tradition and long played an important role in the transmission of Sikh history and teachings within the community.

Today, saakhis get a bad rap. A rational bias and a pervasive scientific culture makes it difficult to see past the logical structures of our mind; increasingly, truth and fact must coincide, meaning that empirical evidence has become the ultimate test of truth. Imagination and intuition are not to be relied upon or resorted to.

Because saakhis are amply laden with miracles, we tend to dismiss them as myth and legend, if not fable. As historical accounts, it is not difficult to puncture them because they are not very fussy about historical detail or facts.

This is rather unfortunate, in my opinion, because in doing so, we are shutting off other modes of understanding life.


Let's take another look at saakhis and determine if we should indeed be as dismissive of them as we have become?

In attending to saakhis, we ought to remember that a saakhi should not be held to the scrutiny of a modern historian. W.H. McLeod, in his seminal work, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, did just that and, not surprisingly, concluded that the Janam-saakhis could not be trusted as historical documents.

Well, Janam-saakhis are historical accounts but not history as we understand it today.

The purpose of saakhis is not to record historical fact (although saakhis allude to historical events) but to bear witness or testimony to Truth.

There is a difference - often lost - between a fact and Truth. The historian, E.H. Carr in his classic work, What Is History, draws this distinction beautifully. For those interested, it is a slim book and an easy read.

Facts are cold and unmovable, he tells us (like Independence Day being the 4th of July) but Truth is interpretation and depends on the individual's location in history - which he likens to a procession in Time.

Saakhis are the "literature of the Spirit," symbols that try to capture universal clues of human potential.

Consider the saakhi of Guru Nanak's disappearance in the River Bein. On the face of it, it is quite fantastic; it is physically impossible. But if we go beyond logic, it yields profound meaning and instruction.

What is the significance of the plunge into the River Bein? Quite simply, it is pointing to the first requirement of any meaningful and creative achievement: total surrender to and absorption into its depths. Guru Nanak's dive into the river and his enlightenment that followed is a hint: one must dive deep into the depths of our consciousness to achieve self realization.

This is a requirement on the spiritual path. One must practice inwardness.

Guru Nanak's first utterance after he emerged bears witness to what he saw: that all outward distinctions are false; indeed, we are from the same source. Guru Nanak's realization should become the guide for us. When we experience the same truth, we know that we have been to the same spot (in our consciousness) that
he visited. His experience becomes affirmation for us.

Enlightenment for Guru Nanak resulted in a lifetime of tireless work: he had a strong sense of mission (he alludes to it in Ragh Manj, GGS:150), traveled ceaselessly (29 years, as a traveling salesman for Waheguru), founded a commune that became the foundation of the Sikh nation. 

The message is clear: with the Guru's shabad, dive deep into your consciousness; cure yourself of haumai (all of our addictive, neurotic behavior) and return with a clear sense of mission - to be executed in a spirit of service.

Ultimately, saakhis teach us how to experience life - where the inner and outer worlds resonate. It is in this resonance (of being inner centered and outer driven) that we will find the rapture of being alive. 


March 7, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: I.Singh (Chelmsford, MA, U.S.A.), March 07, 2011, 8:29 AM.

Great topic. Looking forward to the discussion. To build upon what you presented as the need to differentiate fact vs. truth, I always say that we focus too much on the "saakhi", and forget the "sikhia". All stories have lessons or teachings. Let's take the saakhis for what they are and extract the sikhia from them and apply it to ourselves along with scripture (bani) and discipline (rehat) to bring harmony in our lives and the lives of others.

2: Gobinder Singh (U.S.A.), March 08, 2011, 4:58 PM.

My opinion is slightly different on this topic. We should view these documents as historical documents only in the sense that they provide us interesting insight into the early Sikh oral traditions and also offer little glimpses into the lives and times of Guru Nanak. But, at the same time, how can we accept these writings for sikhia when their premise is fabricated? The Bala Janamsaskhi, for example, is neither that old as it claims to be (1528 Bikrami) nor written on the behest of Guru Angad. It was a later version with stories copied from the Puraatan Janamsaakhi and fabricated with ill intentions, most likely by Niranjanas. The writings try to project Baba Hindal as superior to Guru Nanak. The Bala Janamsaakhi is also the primary source which resulted in the change of Guru Nanak's birthdate from Vaisakh to Kattak. All other Janamsaakhis and historical references point to Guru Nanak's birth in Vaisakh (March/April). We should preserve Janamsaakhis for anecdotal history of the Guru period but anything more than that will probably cause more harm than good! A better take on this subject will be to deduce facts out of various Janasaakhis and establish a concrete history of Guru Nanak's life and his travels, which can be corroborated from external sources as well.

3: J. Kaur (San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A.), March 08, 2011, 9:31 PM.

Without saakhis, we would lose a rich part of our heritage. Our oral tradition which has passed down centuries of old stories from grandmothers to grandchildren has fostered a sense of intrigue and inspiration to succeeding generations of Sikhs. When we get so cerebral that we lose sight of how effective a saakhi is for a young child, we lose the ability to relate to our little Khalsa.

4: Manvinder Singh (Wilton, California, U.S.A.), March 10, 2011, 11:04 AM.

Janam Saakhis are not just old stories. They are truthful accounts provided by witnesses. Their premise is not fabricated either. It took almost a thousand years for Christians to decipher what their true canon was. People trying to make sense out of Janam Saakhis are not spiritually evolved enough to fully understand the events that transpired. The Janam Saakhis and their miracles, which McLeod tried to understand, were absolutely beyond his comprehension. How do you explain to a frog living in a well all its life, that the Challenger Deep in the Pacific ocean is where the deepest waters on earth are. I agree with S. Ravinder Singh ji. Mcleod was never able to enter the spiritual realm.

5: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), March 11, 2011, 5:47 AM.

Interesting topic and a wonderful exchange thereon. I refer readers to a column that I wrote titled FACT, FICTION & MYTH. It was posted on (July 23, 2008, #94 in my list of columns), and can be accessed by readers. It started with Janam Sakhis, and went on to note similar writings in Christianity, as well as in secular fables such as the celebrated ones credited to Aesop the Slave. Such tales and fables are not always pure unadulterated history - many are pure fiction - though they often start with a small dollop of fact. What they do is to provide a life lesson and an unexcelled wonderful window into the lives and perceptions of a people at a given time that is otherwise largely inaccessible to us. I noted then that "Scholars can dismiss the complex mixture of fact and fiction and often do, but they have an impact more vibrant and longer lasting than either fact or fiction alone."

6: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), March 13, 2011, 11:45 AM.

Please excuse my late entry. I was avoiding it but I see that we still need more clarity than simply marveling at the magic in these tales. We cannot examine the Janam-saakhis as history. We need to derive history by reading them through the eyes of the narrator. By McLeod's (and today's) standards, we could cast doubt on the birth, life and travels, even the fact that Guru Nanak ever existed. Wisdom lies in examining the hagiography by the standards of its era and its native region. The Jananm-saakhis are eye-witness, oral account of the facts, narrated by Bhai Bala who was a contemporary of Guru Nanak. They bear the tradition of that time in Punjab: recording the facts (if at all) without any regard to historical precision. People argue that there is no proof that Bhai Bala ever existed. This is unwarranted. There is no proof that he did not, either. Most Sikh scholars, including Bhai Kahn Singh, never raised this question. Bhai Bala does not mention himself in the Janam-saakhis because he was the narrator.

7: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), March 13, 2011, 11:47 AM.

We must also remember that the Janam-saakhi is neither complete nor completely accurate. It includes only the episodes that were significant to the narrator for sharing the lessons Guru Nanak gave, not to record history. We also see many shabads inserted later. Thus, we know that additions have been made to the original manuscript. As you said, "Well, Janam-saakhis are historical accounts but not history as we understand it today. The purpose of saakhis is not to record historical fact (although saakhis allude to historical events) but to bear witness or testimony to Truth." We need to learn how to extract history from this testimony.

8: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), March 13, 2011, 11:49 AM.

I read each saakhi as a fact that perhaps, was not narrated accurately. I prefer to obtain the glimpse into that period and the lesson enshrined in each saakhi, rather than dissecting it for accuracy, but a historian cannot do so. For example, I absolutely believe the River Bein episode. Guru Nanak could have stayed immersed in the water for three days. This is not fantasy. Not that Guru Nanak was trying to impress someone, but many yogis can demonstrate this even today. It is also possible that Guru Nanak wanted complete solitude for three days and, went away. People feared that he had drowned. As a Sikh with bias, what really happened is not important to me. If I was a historian, I would admit my inability to argue for or against either possibility.

9: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), March 13, 2011, 12:08 PM.

Most tales are condensed and sketchy. Some are easily misunderstood and thus viewed as contradictory to the teaching of Guru Nanak. Let us examine the Kaaba episode. We see that, on one hand, Guru Nanak abhorred performing 'miracles' to prove his own greatness. On the other hand, he performed supernatural acts for expediency, to travel long distances, and to teach simple lessons. I feel that this was the only way to overcome, within his lifetime, the widely prevalent ignorance. (This mode was abandoned after the seed of Sikhi and Shabad Guru had been sown, after finding a gurmukh: Guru Angad). People see this as contradictory and thus they declare these accounts in the Janam-saakhis as figments of imagination. This could be avoided if the lessons in these tales dominated our search. Guru Nanak impressed the sweeper (and the Qaazi) that God was in all directions, not just in the direction of Kaaba and this is the only part that is important. Whether he did this by physically moving the Kaaba (which, I believe was unnecessary, something that Guru Nanak could have, but would not have done), by creating an illusion just for the sweeper, or simply by sharing his overpowering spiritual insight (which, I believe, must have happened), we do not know. But missing this detail should not make us dismiss the entire episode.

10: Jugroop Brar (Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A.), March 13, 2011, 4:23 PM.

Janam-Saakhis and all other miracles are true and they actually took place. We are all manmukh and not gurmukh. Our avasthaa is not that high. Ram Rai performed more than 70 "miracles" and they were documented by the Mughal Court and he was not even a Guru. Baba Atal and Baba Gurdita had to give up their bodies for performing miracles. I have personally had experiences which are near miracles and turn in course of events just by ardaas. You have to believe that what gurbani, Janam-Saakhis and Bhai Gurdas di Vaaraa(n) describe are true.

11: K. Singh (MA, U.S.A.), March 14, 2011, 4:54 PM.

I am not going to discuss whether saakhis are fact or fiction. I am going to emphasize the point made by J. Kaur in regards to relating to our little Khalsas. It is the saakhis that a mother and a father tell their little baby and children that takes them along in Sikhi and starts to perk their interest. It is saakhis that have filled all our years as we were growing up. It is because of saakhis that we started to read more about Sikhism. It is the saakhis that help light the Sikhi josh within us. It is the saakhis that make us proud of who we are. If you take those away, you will lose a big part of Sikhi and will have no stories to tell your children.

12: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), March 15, 2011, 11:16 AM.

Regardless of our personal bias, we seem to agree that there is value in saakhis that makes them worth preserving and perpetuating. As J. Kaur and K. Singh have pointed out, saakhis constitute learning through stories. Like you, I grew up on saakhis that have left an indelible mark - the only difference is that as I have grown older, I see hidden meanings as well. Saakhis are versatile: they can entertain, instruct and bear witness to Truth.

13: Brijinder Singh (New York, U.S.A.), March 18, 2011, 6:02 AM.

I agree with most of the comments. Janam Saakhis are a great tool to teach children about Sikhi. We should focus less on the magic and "miracles" in them, and more on the lessons learned from them.

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Janam-Saakhis: Fact, Fiction or Myth"

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