Did Guru Nanak travel to Rome and meet a pope?

Although lots of people are trying without success to make sense of the latest Islamic State truck bomb to claim many innocent lives (on 24th November 2016, at least eighty Iranian and Iraqi Shia Muslims were murdered in Shomali in Iraq when returning from the Arbaeen ceremony in Kerbala), it is right to turn our attention from such Sunni-sourced prejudice and blood-lust, for now at least.

The post that follows is purely for light relief. For about three years, a growing number of Sikhs have got excited because evidence is said to exist to prove that Guru Nanak travelled all the way to Rome where he had a fruitful encounter with a pope. Below is the text of an email I sent to a good Sikh friend whose wishful thinking may be getting the better of him.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

All this speculation about whether Guru Nanak visited Rome and had an encounter with one of the popes is very interesting, but I am not sure how seriously we should take it. Also, based on Sikh sites devoted to the matter, I am getting confused: is it being suggested Guru Nanak actually met with Pope Paul III? Most Sikh sites/articles devoted to the matter suggest the visit to Rome took place in 1520 (or 1518).

Paul III was on the papal throne from 1534 to 1549. Guru Nanak died in 1539. This means that overlap in their lives when Paul III occupied the highest office in the Roman Catholic (RC) Church was only 5 years’ maximum. It is possible they met, but not probable. I say this partly because of Guru Nanak’s age at the time when the meeting could have taken place (1534 to 1539). He would have been very old and, even if unusually fit and healthy for someone of such advanced age in the early 16th century, unlikely to undertake long, dangerous and expensive journeys far from home. 

Although some Sikhs suggest Guru Nanak may have travelled as far as Italy, is this really likely? If he undertook such a journey, where is the evidence for the visit in Sikh/Indian records? It is unlikely he got even as far as Istanbul/Constantinople (another place some Sikhs believe he may have visited) in Ottoman Turkey (where in all likelihood he would have encountered an extremely hostile reaction. In fact, his religious message would have been thought so bizarre that, if not murdered for his beliefs, he would probably have been imprisoned), but to have travelled so much further to Italy/Rome seems inconceivable. Surely, if travelling so far, Sikh/Indian records will indicate a time when he was absent from Punjabi/Indian soil for a great length of time. Two to three years? Five years? Perhaps even longer? Moreover, in all probability the same records will confirm, or at least speculate about, where he went.

Even if Guru Nanak had travelled to Italy, what common language would he and members of the papacy have shared/spoken so that he could express his thoughts?

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Stories about Nanak’s highly improbable visit to Italy have engaged a growing number of Sikhs since 2013 or 2014, when text in an old book was unearthed purporting to confirm Nanak had visited Rome (and other towns in Italy?), but, in most descriptions of the text, this is said to have happened in 1520 (or 1518). On the internet I find no confirmation of the visit from RC sources, whether in 1520 or any other year, which surprises me. If Guru Nanak is described in positive terms by one/more popes, why is there no evidence for this in papal records? The RC Church has in recent years tried to confirm its commitment to interfaith dialogue; a visit to Rome by Guru Nanak would be something to shout about/celebrate.

Note that Paul III was one of the popes whose condemnation of heresy was unequivocal. He set up bodies to suppress people who subscribed to beliefs which did not conform with RC orthodoxy. Would such a person (or any earlier pope, for that matter) have celebrated Guru Nanak in the way being suggested? In all probability he would have regarded Guru Nanak with much the same distrust that Guru Nanak might have encountered in Ottoman Turkey. Pope Paul III established the Inquisition in Italy, imposed censorship, commissioned the infamous Index of forbidden books and approved the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), all of which were designed to suppress heresy, so it is very unlikely he would have looked kindly on Guru Nanak, someone the Church would probably have dismissed as a pagan. Earlier popes would have had very similar attitudes toward manifestations of faith diverging from RC orthodoxy. At the time, the Church was vehemently opposed to Protestants (who emerged on the scene from 1517), Jews and Muslims, all of whom were Abrahamic in common with the RC Church, so why suddenly be so accommodating about/sympathetic toward a strange person from a distant land subscribing to a religion so alien to Roman Catholicism in its beliefs and practices because of its Indian origins? 

I tracked down an interesting document released by the Vatican to celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak in November 2014, but totally absent from the text is any suggestion that Guru Nanak visited/may have visited Rome in 1520 or any other year. This would have been the ideal opportunity for the Vatican to offer confirmation about the story, but it fails to do so. 

We must not forget that the founders of a number of religions are said to have engaged in long journeys from home to suggest, among other things, that a particular expression of faith might have universal applications/relevance (note the Buddha, for example). My guess is that many of these stories about long distance travel are fabrications/wishful thinking dating from long after the founder’s death. That Guru Nanak might have got even as far as Ottoman Turkey (and survived) is in itself incredible, but to have got so much further to Rome (whether by sea or overland) almost impossible to envisage. Travel in the early 16th century was slow and very dangerous, especially for those far from home without knowledge of the local language and originating from a land about which people in the West knew very little (such people from distant and largely unknown lands were often regarded as threats by the people said to be their hosts). Also, how would Guru Nanak have funded such an expedition? The cost would have been prohibitively high.

Anyway: one Sikh source about the matter cannot agree whether it is 1520 or 1518 when Guru Nanak visited Rome. And when I typed “The Vatican confirms that Guru Nanak visited Rome” into my search engine, not one RC source came up (as indicated above). All the links listed were to Sikh sources. I also typed the name of the archbishop (Dom José Ronaldo Rebeiro) said in some Sikh sources to have confirmed the visit, but, again, nothing of substance came up relating to the story.

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

An early inspiration for the story derives from an article dated 23.11.13 in the “Jakarta Times” in Indonesia (of all places). At least the article is written with clarity, but no reference is made to a text or document to support the story (although the name Dom José Ronaldo Rebeiro crops up again).

The fact that the actual words of the archbishop said to confirm the visit appear in NONE of the many Sikh, etc. sources for the story, and the fact that such evidence cannot be gleaned on the internet, worries me immensely. But even more worrying is the apparent silence from the Vatican itself. Surely at least one person associated with the Vatican must have spoken about this to confirm that the text/story has some substance.

In the text meant to confirm the visit, Nanac’s (as the name is spelled) religion is not identified. Thus, he is described as neither a Hindu nor a Sikh. Nor is he called a guru. There appears to be no indication of the land from which he came, but surely this, at least, would have been recorded, no doubt to considerable wonder. In other words, there is simply nothing in the text to suggest Nanac is Guru Nanak! There is not even the suggestion that he wore a turban or had a long beard, things which one might expect to be mentioned because both would have been deemed oddities in Rome in the early 16th century.

A general point. While claims are made for the Buddha, Muhammad and Guru Nanak (and, to some extent, Abraham and Moses) undertaking journeys of epic proportions (note Muhammad and his “miraculous night journey” to heaven/paradise), it is interesting that, as a general rule at least, no such claims are made on behalf of Jesus (whose wanderings were confined more or less to modern-day Israel, a very small nation state. Yes, I know all about the claims made on his behalf about visits to Glastonbury, but let’s get real, shall we?). But which founder today has the most followers globally? Yes, Jesus. And Hinduism, a religion devoid of a known founder (no doubt because the religion is so old and has evolved/changed so much over time), has the third largest number of followers globally. Founders travelling vast distances do not guarantee a religion’s numerical popularity. Or, to put this another way, does it matter whether a founder has travelled far from home or not?

Another point. The text accompanying the photos in the last email you sent me say Nanac “had more human qualities than any Christian can think of”. This does not necessarily mean Nanac is not a Christian (and it definitely does NOT confirm that Nanac was either a Hindu or a Sikh); it could mean he is a Christian manifesting more human qualities than Christians can identify. And what exactly is the “part of Sikh doctrine” said to be painted on the dome of St. Peter’s? If it is known about/so easy to see, why are we not told what it is? I cannot find evidence for it in any Sikh, etc. source.

Oh yes: as far as I can see, only one Sikh source identifies some documents said to “prove” the story: shabad.co.uk In one such document, reference is made to “Sanctus Nanacus Di Indi”, which, far from being a reference to Guru Nanak, may refer to a highly respected Christian of Indian origin (perhaps even to a Christian saint of Indian origin). Could Sanctus Nanacus be a member of one of the ancient Christian churches in India considering affiliation/unity with the RC Church, perhaps because the ancient Indian church feels vulnerable in an overwhelmingly non-Christian environment? Such a situation would justify/explain a visit to Rome so Sanctus Nanacus could discuss the matter with the head of the RC Church.

Anyway, this is all interesting stuff! My conclusion? Possible, but not probable. And the evidence for the visit is so far extremely weak.

St. Mary's RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

St. Mary’s RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

P.S. One somewhat confused and confusing Sikh source about the story implies that Guru Nanak told a pope that no person has the right to enslave another person, and that this rather unexceptional bit of advice (even by the standards of the early 16th century when slavery was a common practice in most parts of the globe) was in some way enlightening for the pope who heard it. This got me thinking about all the time Guru Nanak spent, or might have spent, on his travels to distant lands (some Sikhs now make a case for him travelling as far as West Africa). If he had spent extra time in the Punjab/India, perhaps he could have done more to rid his homeland of slavery. I do not know how many slaves existed in what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh when Guru Nanak was alive (the number of enslaved people will no doubt have been very large), but today in India alone there are 18 million slaves. Needless to say, no other nation state has such a large population of slaves.

How depressing that India, a nation state with one of the highest levels of commitment to religious faith, is also the nation state with the most people living in slavery. Is this further evidence that religion is often a barrier to people securing the basic human rights that everyone ought to enjoy (please examine the previous post for more information about how the basic human right to express your religion and belief is denied to countless millions of people)?       

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One thought on “Did Guru Nanak travel to Rome and meet a pope?

  1. Blodeuwedd

    Purely in the interests of accuracy, I should point out that Jesus was reputed by some to have travelled to India and taught there. I do not think this is any more probable than Nanak’s visit to Rome, but given that it is a popular legend, it should probably be mentioned.

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