550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak: How the Guru chose his successor

In this extract, the author describes the life of first Sikh Guru at Kartarpur and how he decided that his sons were not to be his successor. Today, on Nov 12, is 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak

550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak:  How the Guru chose his successor

Roopinder Singh

“The Baba came to Kartarpur and laid aside the pilgrim’s apparel. He clad himself in working clothes and continued the ministry even as he sat on a cot,” says Bhai Gurdas, a very respected Sikh chronicler and interpreter, who was a contemporary of Guru Arjan Dev.

The morning would begin with the recitation of JapJi and singing of As a di Vaar, after which people would continue with their worldly duties. In the evening, Sodhar and Aarti were recited, says Bhai Gurdas.

This was, in effect, an idyllic setting for an ideal community, one in which Guru Nanak’s teachings of equality, sharing, brotherhood, of helping one another and contributing to the life of the community as a whole were to be practiced.

This was not a monastic order, but a lifestyle for the followers and an ideal society of God oriented people. The Sikh tried to incorporate the Guru’s ideals into their daily lifestyle. They also observed religious practices like the recitation of holy hymns.

Looking after his fledgeling community was a busy time for Guru Nanak and his family. His parents were with him as was his wife Sulakhni and his sons Srichand and Lakhmidas. The family was finally together.

With the active support of Sulkahni, known to the Sikhs as Mata Sulakhni, Guru Nanak laid the framework of a casteless society by starting the institution called Langar, or the free community kitchen that serves food to any and everyone. It would eventually have an enormous impact on how the Sikh interacted with society.

By using the instrument of langar, Guru Nanak not only satiated the hunger of his followers, he also made them prepare food for everyone, sit and eat together. With this one act, he demolished the differences of a society built on casteism. Even today in orthodox Hindu homes, it is said that the kitchen gets polluted if a person from a lower caste steps in.

Everyone was expected to take part in preparing meals-cleaning, cooking, serving and, finally, washing the utensils. Thus, what were till then looked down upon as menial tasks, were elevated to the level of service to the community.

There is an interesting anecdote about Bhai Lehna. Wearing fine clothes, which had been sent by his in-laws, Lehna met Guru Nanak in the fields on the outskirts of Kartarpur. The Guru was cutting grass, which had to be carried to the village to be used as fodder. Lehna took the bundle of grass from Guru Nanak and placed it on his head, the conventional way of carrying such weight in rural areas.

Since the grass had come from a rice field, it was both wet and muddy. As Bhai Lehna carried the bundle, water and mud streaked his clothes. When he went to drop the bundle of grass at the Guru’s house, Mata Sulakhni saw his condition and admonished the Guru for making Bhai Lehna carry such a bundle as he was dressed in fine clothes.

To this the Guru said that Bhai Lehna was not carrying a load of grass, but a wreath of sovereignty ! The mud on his garment was as expensive and as rare as Kesar. The Sikh lore is replete with anecdotes about the humility and devotion of Bhai Lehna.


Another story is told of how a wall of a dharamshala in Kartarpur collapsed following incessant rain. Guru Nank told his sons to repair the wall immediately. Since it was night time and both were feeling sleepy, Lakhmidas and Srichand said that they would repair the wall in the morning. But when Guru Nanak got down to repairing the wall himself, his sons joined him and soon the work was done.

Guru Nanak said that the wall had not been raised properly, and asked his sons to tear it down. They did as they were bid. But when the Guru asked them to rebuild it once again, they protested and refused.

Bhai Lehna, however, followed the Guru’s command and continued to build the wall and tear it down again and again till Guru Nanak was finally satisfied. This story is often taken in an allegorical sense of Guru Nanak testing his sons as well as followers for total devotion to see who would be fit to carry on his mission after him.

At this stage Guru Nanak was concerned about the question of succession as there was still a lot to be done for his mission to be complete. He had laid the foundation of a new egalitarian faith, and set up a nucleus of a regenerated society, but it still needed to be nurtured and guided; made stable and self-reliant.


Guru Nanak continued with his routine, but he had made up his mind that his sons were not competent enough to succeed him. Srichand was a person of great learning, but he had turned towards the path of renunciation and was becoming an ascetic, an Udasi.

Lakhmidas was interested a bit too much in worldly affairs and he kept himself occupied in material pursuits. Both were dutiful sons and good human beings, but the Guru felt that they did not have that which was necessary to qualify as his successor and did not conform to the requirements of pursuing his mission.

As Guru Nanak compiled Japji and Asa di Var, it was Bhai Lehna who assisted him in editing. The Guru saw in his devotion and piety a deep understanding of His Word. Guru Nanak thus chose Bhai Lehna as his successor as in him, he found the requisite qualities of piety, humility and devotion. He called him Angad, which literally means a part of oneself.

(This is an extract from the richly illustrated book Guru Nanak : His Life and Teachings published by Rupa Publications Pvt Ltd., Second Impression, 2019, Pages 84, ₹500)

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