The Zindagînamâ is written in classical Persian and consists of 510 verses. It is a long, and consistent poem that heralds key aspects of the Sikh tradition using Islamicate vocabulary. According to tradition, it was written upon the poet’s arrival to Anandpur and presented as a gift to the Tenth Guru who was so fond of its content, that he renamed the composition from Bandagînâma (guidance of spirituality) to Zindagînamâ (Guidance of life).
Sarup Das Bhalla in 1775 comments on the Zindagînamâ in the following way:
Nand Lal prepared the Bandaginama and presented it as a gift to the True Guru. The True Guru effaced the title Bandagânamâ to Zindagînamâ. The text was recited in the Bahir Tavil style in Persian and afterwards placed in front of the Guru. Hearing it the True Guru was filled with mercy. He noted that it consistently pronounced the mystical knowledge of the Divine. It makes dharma clear and always brings peace upon its reader. Reading it the mind will achieve glory and be free from adversity. The splendour of the mystical awareness of the Fearless Lord will then become manifest within the heart. Indeed, without the True Lord nothing can be known.
The Zindagînamâ is roughly centred on four themes: Meditation (Zikr-e-Haqq), the devotees of God situated in the Sat Sangat (Mardân-e-khudâsat) The Perfect Spiritual Guide and Guru (Murshid-e-Kâmil) and proper conduct in this world (Adab). The first theme excels the others by far and there is a constant reiteration of virtues of living a spiritual life based on meditation on the Name of God throughout the whole composition.
An early 18th-19th century manuscript of the Zindaginama in Gurmukhi script.
The composition opens with a long eulogy of meditation and praises those who live a spiritual lifestyle in a world of materialism. The composition then goes on to discuss the qualities of the people engaged in the Sat Sangat. The attributes and qualities of the men in the sat sangat are contrasted with those men and women who live a vain lifestyle devoid of any spiritual goals who are engaged in the gratification of the senses and entrapped in their lust and ego. The focus on inner spirituality is expressed in metaphors of various worlds, diamonds and jewels hidden inside the mind and are reiterated several times throughout the composition (As also expressed by Guru Nanak; Inside the mind are gems, rubies and diamonds, if only You knew). These hidden wonders of the mind can only be manifested and come to blossom through spiritual practices. The poet uses the metaphor of a garden:
Your mind has been radiant with Divine splendour. You were just a flower (not long ago), and now you have blossomed into a full fledged garden embellished with scores and scores of flowers. You should enjoy taking a walk inside this garden of yours and soar around like a chaste and innocent bird within it. 55-56.
There is a constant focus on inner spirituality and the inner journey that the seeker on the path travels on, which must be based on a sincere faith and relationship with the Guru and Master (Murshid-e-Kâmil) and the seekers already travelling on the path (Mardân-e-Khudâsat). A great majority of the verses in the Zindagînamâ are actual praises of the Gurmukh saints whom he met (probably during his stay in Multan, Agra or Delhi) who travel on the path of the virtuous. In this way the Zindagînamâ can be regarded as a poem that eulogises the Gurmukhs whom he regards as the true men of God. The poet wishes to enhance and describe the various attributes they acquire and manifest while walking along this path. One example of this praise is:
When they talk, they shower words of the Nectar of Truth. With their glimpse, the eyes become more bright and soothed. They keep on meditating day and night; even in their worldly guise, living in this world, they become perfect human beings (Mard-e-Tamâm).With everything around them, they are independent yet immune to the effects of material distractions… Even though they are dressed in worldly clothes, their tradition and practice are religious (Rasam-e-Dîn). There is no one like them in this world.
The great fascination of the saints in the Sat Sangat is expressed throughout the poem and in many instances they are likened to the Guru himself. The role of the saints is to provide spiritual example and testament to the practices given in the Guru Granth Sahib(Kitâb-e-Haqq).
The compositions of Bhai Nand Lal are known for their approach of contextualising the Sikh tradition using Islamic vocabulary. In the Zindagînamâ the poet takes the notion one step further when he adopts the Sikh tradition into Islamic cosmology. A famous hadith of the Prophet says that:
By Him in Whose Power is the life of Muhammad, without doubt, my Ummah [panth] will be divided into 73 groups. [Amongst these] only one will enter Paradise.
For Bhai Nand Lal, the Gurmukh panth is the one and pious group that will be liberated and he encourages the remaining 72 groups of Islam to seek shelter at their feet ‘Without any doubt, we should consider this group who is beyond the cycle of birth and death, to be the shelter of the 72 groups [of Islam]'. In this way, the Gurmukh panth is absorbed into Islamic cosmology and turned upside down. Other, but more subtle references are made to the Quran. A famous Quran’ic verse says that Allah is closer to the believers than even their main artery. Bhai Nand Lal makes a subtle reference to this verse in his section on the praise of devotion. Approaching the Sufis, the poet writes “When the True Master is nearer to you than your main artery O ignorant person! Then why are you roaming around jungles and the wilderness? When someone who is familiar and well conversant with The Path becomes your Guide and Master, you will be able to achieve solitude within the company of noble people.”
In total, the whole of the Zindagînamâ is a praise of living a spiritual lifestyle and a eulogy of those who have stepped on the path and devoted their life to God.