The life of the founder of a religious tradition is often a site of tremendous creative and reconstructive activity for those that follow him or her. The Sikhs are no exception in this regard. The production and dissemination of accounts of the life of Guru Nānak provided an opportunity for Sikhs to speak to much broader issues and concerns in their day-to-day lives over time, and their immediate and more remote understandings of the past and of the places in which they lived. Auerbach’s comment that, “the concept of God held by the Jews is less a cause than a symptom of their manner of comprehending and representing things”1 is apposite here. In this paper, I will take up Sikh hagiography and its construction of the life and times of Guru Nānak and suggest that it provides a range of very useful insights into Sikh ways of “comprehending and representing things”. The major form of Sikh hagiography of Guru Nānak is the Janam Sākhī. Each of
these texts recounts episodes in his life. Most are structured around the travels of Nānak and particularly to places of pilgrimage (tīrtha or tīrath), in the four directions (a stereotyped journey known as the digvijaya in Sanskrit, “the conquest of the directions”). The term is a composite of sākhī, meaning a witness, testimony or teaching (and, by extension, a narrative episode) and janam “birth”. The major, and overlapping, traditions of Janam Sākhī are:
(1) The Bālā Janam-Sākhīs. These include the earliest extant janam sākh ̄i manuscript, dated 1658.