EVOLVING TRADITIONS AND THE GURU GRANTH SAHIB
Traditions are hard to form, but once they take root in the mind of a person, it is equally difficult to undo their tenacious hold. In the olden times, traditions originated in the limited scope of knowledge and experience of those societies. Their argument or logic in imposing a tradition or custom was subject to the limitation of their awareness and the known facts. It happened in the field of mundane as well as spiritual and metaphysical matters, in medicine, astronomy, science and philosophy. Man always believes himself at the threshold of the ultimate, as the final and whole truth. Thus, the definition of truth has changed very often. People have stuck to their brand of truth even when the validity of those theories has long since eroded and disappeared. That is the crux of the problem. It is easy to establish traditions but very difficult to reverse them.
The ancient religious communities took such remedial steps as they deemed necessary, according to omens and auspicious moments, because they believed that God having empowered Shakti to organise Maya, did not have much role to play in men’s affairs and his destiny lay in his own efforts. Hence the upais galore, like bathing at specific sacred places and pilgrimages, belief in the miraculous power of a deity; in the Vedic yagnas, havens and rites, as solution to their moral or spiritual deficiencies; offerings in cash and kind to remove a stigma; human or animal sacrifices to appease the appropriate heavenly power, a god or goddess; to observe strenuous fasting and Hath Yogic exercises, as a means to acquire spiritual clout, motivating gods as well as demons, black magic, to reap benefits from whatever source, reading through the sacred texts in order to secure boons in-stead of the basic need of societal character- building of the individual. These became their rites and rituals, steadfastly and rigorously observed, to the extent of following omens and signs, totem and taboo in minutest detail of everyday, routine functions throughout life, favourable or negative, That is how traditions mould cultural traits in any community, from birth to death, from morning ablutions to retirement at night, from omens, positive and negative, from rising from the bed, to the dress and its colours for the day, whether putting forth the right foot or left foot, gazing at the planets and the direction of the wind, like sutak connected to birth and death, to cooking and eating, the omen of only approved castes to pass by, even up to the intensity of wailing on the death of a relative as prescribed in the holy scripts. These conventions became so binding and essential that a man could not take a single step or breathe freely, watching which nostril was active, in pursuance of the rigid and strict standards prevailing. The end product was development into exclusivity, self-served and highly individualistic traits. Here is a person occupied purely with his personal, individual spiritual and material wellbeing, nothing to do with the society, even the family in which he is placed.
This stranglehold of maya was loosened by the unequivocal declaration of Guru Nanak in his definition of God, the unitary nature of God, (Eko hei Bhai Eko hei, Mera Sahib Eko Hei), and the concept of indivisibility in Ek Onkar. This runs contrary to the established sacred religious belief in Indian philosophy. The ancient sages and rishis held the time honoured principle of God’s being impersonal Para-Brahma, the Nirgun and Nirankar, in a state of perpetual bliss and equipoise. In order to create, it was assumed that God caused inception of Shakti, the embryonic life-force in the form of Prakriti, in the role of Shakti as the joint creator of maya and its tri-guna moral fiber as the universal enchantress. Guru Nanak ignored this concept and called it God’s direct manifestation, as Qudrat. The entire process of procreation was held by Baba Nanak as the necessary discipline of Maya which was eulogized and blamed equally for the waywardness of the human race. It was seen as a game deployed by the Almighty in which He himself indulged and had only a disciplined and harmonious role for man as dependent on God’s will. On the other hand, the Sakta cult was rejected and condemned which instigated man into exploiting nature by life-long futile attempts in acquisition of occult powers, misled and encouraged him to defy the spiritual order and authority for his personal, selfish promotion. The role of individuality became subservient to the commonweal of the society, sarbat-da-bhalla, and a whole time commitment to the discipline which came to be known as the miri-piri principle. The solution, the end-result of ever chaddi kla suggested in the Sikh doctrine, as a tradition, lay in staying within the scope of Divine discipline and harmony. (Dubidha n paro, Hari bin hor n poojo marri-massan n jaee.) That man spent his life span in disentangling the web of the tri-guna maya and the intricacies of karma became so absorbing as to leave no time and space for rising above the mundane functionality of life. It was the worrisome subject of those seers who devised various spiritual and metaphysical formulae to steady the nerves of a harried and worried human being seeking deliverance from the tentacles of Maya.
The grip of the Sakta traditions had affected even those who chose to convert to a more egalitarian approach of Islam. Many Muslims freely joined the orders of the Yogis and created a hotchpotch of Islamic brand of yogism, the custom of worshipping at the graves, of imam-zamini, talisman and taviz, charms, the futility of which, Guru Nanak mentioned in the Babarvani and other sabds. For the Muslims, there were selected Quranic rakuhs and ayats that were supposed to have magical powers to mitigate any and all worldly suffering by their utterance. In the reforming creed of Islam, however, the old customs and traditions of the Judaic religion were freely retained, like the month-long fasting, circumcision, animal sacrifice, the taboo of pork and the exigency of a prophet. The definition of God was retained ad verbatim and efficacy admitted of the biblical miracles as an essential equipage of a divine messenger of God. Evil minds were attributed to Devil in Hell as the end of all infidels, and the influence of God’s angels who recommended the fate for the faithful to go to Paradise on the Day of Judgment.
The challenge was enormous. To liberate the shackled minds, of fears and doubts of the unknown, in order to break the bonds of old traditions. To uplift folks from such morass and the tight hold of their conventions and customs, it was necessary to first demolish the chains of gagging beliefs, break the bonds based on fear and forebodings and then place before the masses a set of scientific and ethical values, discarding the prevailing old myths. Five hundred years of Sikhism are not long enough a period in history for the establishment of totality of Sikh traditions, in comparison to the several millennia of ancient religions. Much remains to be done. It is particularly so in the context of voluntary conversions to Sikhism from other streams, mainly Hinduism, without any coercion, so that the neo-Sikh retained some element of the previous superstitions and customs which lingered on. It is very different from conversions enforced by the Islamic waves so that the old traditions were banished instantly in a ‘sudden death’ and initiated with the Muslim traditions and customs.
The customs, rituals and traditions formed in the course of time are classified into three distinct categories:
Those based on religious texts and scriptures;
Those carrying approval of social behavior;
Those formed by historical process.
Guru Nanak ushered in a new definition of tradition. Instead of the ancient rituals, which flourished partly because of rich imagination based on magical and miraculous make-beliefs, he offered a new set of values to his followers, perfection of their moral aptitude to begin with, and essentiality adopting good and virtuous habits and profession of truth at all times. Truth itself underwent a change, as he defined God anew and set up the task of imbibing spiritual qualities of God in life. God became a role model, described vividly in the Guru Granth Sahib. Instead of the old awe of the majesty of God, man was encouraged to become god-like. In the formidable corpus of Gurus’ bani, enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib, the qualities and requirements of an ideal ‘gursikh’ are enumerated from page 1 to the last. The upai is no more the Vedic havans, approbation of gods and goddesses, cajoling for magical boons or incessant readings of the scriptures. Neither is it in creating a din of gongs and bells nor in the high pitched calls of the muazin to time-bound prayers, but in harnessing of mind more than the body, the metaphysical over the physical, to convert a self-centered oaf into a self-sacrificing noble soul, undaunted by unfounded fears of evil and holding enmity towards none. A person, who adopts perfection in life as his objective, in conformity with the qualities of God as defined by Guru Nanak. After more than five hundred years of the advent of the doctrine of Guru Nanak and the reformation introduced in the Sikh Panth by the successive nine Masters, it is a sad reading that the new moon, full moon, the planetary movement of stars, Sun and the plethora of lesser gods haunts and hounds the half-baked minds and doubtful fence-sitters, diluting monotheism of Sikhism to monolatry.
Such unction was desired to be replaced by positive and constructive traditions and customs, which a GurSikh has to imbibe, as enumerated in the Holy Guru Granth Sahib, like:
a. One true spirit pervading in the ten Gurus. The Granth represents and embodies the spirit of all ten Gurus and not only the contributing six Gurus. The hymns of Guru Tegh Bahadr are classified as that of the Ninth Guru and not the Sixth contributor.
b. Equal status of all sangat and severest condemnation of varna, caste barriers.
c. Annihilation of anger, greed, attachment, mundane desires and self importance.
d. Total belief in and pursuance of God as Karta, the Doer, as defined in the Sikh mul mantra.
e. Transformation from the selfish state of manmukh to selflessness.
f. Preference to social obligation, sewa, over personal welfare.
g. To maintain truthfulness in the worst circumstances.
h. To be humble, of sweet demeanor and kindness to all, hospitable to friends and foes.
i. Respect women and protect the weak.
The Gurus celebrated the advent of the disciple with above qualities and these became the tradition of all gursikhs.
Sikhism neither confirms the Devil nor the Houries, the delight of Paradise, Swarg, Dev Lok, nor the horrors of Hell as distinct destinations. The sublime company of the saintly is an experience in heavenly bliss, and, the mean and vile assembly gives taste of all that is hellish and wicked. A person who cherishes the heavenly experience ever abhors a fall into the pit of the depraved, whereas the wicked people do not feel free to do their worst in the assembly of the pious. The Guru has given assurances to the Sikh to raise him from a despicable, villainous state to the angelic heights in his steadfastness to the Sikh doctrine and practice.
The very purpose and scope of tradition is, therefore, drastically changed from the blind faith and pointless worship of the mythical-magical, to the practicality of the Sikh traditions. Everywhere these traditions are considered synonymous with the Sikh character and behavior. It is ushering in an era of spiritual and moral regeneration with social commitment assuming importance over personal salvation and selfish motives at aggrandizement. The Guru Granth Sahib prescribes all these traditions as remedies to promote a person at any time and place under all conditions. Awareness of the new vistas and blessedness of the superior spiritual and moral expanse unfold as one progresses into the upper regions of Truth and piety.
There is the other aspect of traditions which takes shape in the course of historical events and social experiences, which have come down to us and which are equally cherished by the community, forming an essential part of their life and thus unavoidable. In order to appreciate this phenomenon, one has to refer to the five hundred year long history of the Sikh people. Our history is not as exhaustively complete as the modern educational standards would require. But this problem is not confined to the Sikhs alone. The ancient religions have suffered equally in this regard. There are always people who make history, but in those times, there was a dearth of people who would record faithfully, the events as is the common practice now. Guru Granth Sahib is unique in its maximum stress on the individual’s acceptance of God as the mentor and the ecstasy and harmony so essential to develop the personality of the Sikh with all virtues, shedding evils to realize a totally blissful state of the God-oriented. Historical references are but few, though significant in the tome of the scripture. This difficulty is solved by the traditions steadfastly built over time as has happened also in the case of other communities. Sikhism is basically a modern movement and our traditions are fresh and can be sufficiently explained, whereas other religions have no option but to accept and adhere to their set traditions. With their vast literature accumulated over the millennia, there developed a secondary source of knowledge, for instance, the Mahayana scrolls of Buddha’s philosophy and the numerous interpretations of his sermons, the mimansa sutras of the Vedas, the Islamic Hadith literature which had thousands of anecdotes concerning the Prophet which were in due course screened, edited and compiled as factual material. In Sikhism, such exhaustive studies of various aspects have yet to be undertaken, considering that it is only five hundred years in existence. Nevertheless, in spite of the gaps and holes, we can trace the sources of our historical practices, for instance, the report given by the Governor Zakria Khan to Nadir Shah about the traditions of the Khalsa and their living, sheds light on the firm beliefs and rituals of the Khalsa at that period in history. We developed many cherished traditions and customs over a period of time, based on societal and historical aspects. The historians, foreign and Indian have gloated on the predominance of outcastes and the weaker sections rallying and responding to the Guru’s call to embrace the Khalsa baptism and the caste-conscious sections, more or less, staying aloof. Yet, those early Sikhs of the Eighteenth Century left a glorious legacy of unparalleled high traditions, on which the Sikhs may rightly pride themselves.
It is an accepted historical fact that Guru Gobind Singh abolished human guruship after him and ceremoniously installed Granth Sahib as the mentor and guide for all Sikhs in perpetuity, as the final source of Sikh philosophy and ethics. He bequeathed full responsibility to the Guru Khalsa to supervise the correct demeanor of the community. However, some strands of the community are confused and aver that they will adhere only to the texts contained in the Guru Granth Sahib and none else. It may seem an innocent doctrinal statement but is neither correct nor wholesome, if not mischievous. For instance, it is argued by such elements that Guru Gobind Singh changed the connotation of amrit by the baptismal ceremony, whereas it has spiritual implication and usage in the Guru Granth Sahib. Firstly, Guru Gobind Singh as the Guru had full authority to use the word ‘amrit’ in baptism of the Khalsa. Secondly, ‘amrit’ has been used for a variety of things in the Guru Granth Sahib, as nectar, sweetness, ecstasy and piety. Kabir calls salt as ‘amrit’ (page 1374). Thirdly, ‘amrit’ is that state of spiritual ecstasy, equipoise and rapture which oozes from total commitment and surrender, brought about by baptism as well as the bliss in perusal of the revealed Word. Moreover, by succession of Guru Nanak to Guru Angad, the continuity of Guru Nanak’s philosophy did not terminate, nor in successive Guru were the earlier Gurus ignored or eliminated. The core issue in Sikhism is the unity of all Gurus and the principle of continuity. As soon as this dogma is bisected, the entire fabric of the Sikh unitary principle is destroyed and lost. This principle of continuity has been stated in the corpus of Guru Granth Sahib and also reiterated unambiguously by the Tenth Master. However, those who raise such superfluous clichés do not hesitate to observe many rites and customs which penetrated into our system though they are not to be found in the text of the Holy Guru Granth Sahib. For instance,
a) The institution of Karah Prasad on conclusion of every Sikh assembly. It is not to be found in the Guru Granth Sahib.
b) Conducting of Akhand/Sampad readings of the Guru Granth Sahib.
c) The observance of the ritual of Antim Ardas. It was not observed for thousands of Sikh martyrs, for the Gurus as well as the Sahibzadas, but is a modern innovative rite without any relevant base.
d) Celebrating death anniversaries, , which resemble Hindu shradhs, disapproved by none else than Guru Nanak.(138 - AwieAw gieAw muieAw nwau] ipCY pqil sidhu kwv] Also refer 332- jIvq ipqr n mwnY koaU mUeyN isrwD krwhI ] ipqr BI bpury khu ikau pwvih kaUAw kUkr KwhI
e) Sanctity accorded to the Akal Takht raised by Guru Hargobind as well as other Takhts which were accepted by the community over time.
f) Adoption of the Sikh flag as part of the Sikh identity.
g) The sacred hymns of Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Nandlal freely referred to and sung in Sikh assemblies.
h) The gradual formulation and additions to the evening prayer, the Rehras, with Chopai P. 10 and parts of Anand Sahib and Mundavnin. The sacred verses which form the daily morning routine of devout Sikhs, including Guru Gobind Singh’s Jaap Sahib and Swaiye which are also an essential part of the Khalsa initiation and approved as such in the Rehat maryada by the Panth.
i) The Ardas P. 10, with which all ceremonies conclude.
j) Breaking the bread in company of the Sikh devotees even before audience with the Guru, Pehle pangat, phir sangat. It was a complete reversal of the Hindu sacred custom of pehle sangat, fasting, phir exclusive sacred chawka. In fact it was more in line of the open kitchen for all visitors at urs of the Muslim khanqahs.
The list of rites and observances may stretch further, but the above is sufficient to demonstrate that customs and traditions grow with historical and social evolution. It makes-up the character of the Sikh people and society.
We must be vigilant that the rites and customs hold fast to the basic stipulates of our Gurus’ directions and not infringe on our glorious principles and traditions built with great care and doggedly in the course of five hundred years of our strenuous striving to stay distinct from the blind imitation of others which are contrary to the Sikh philosophy and the basic tenets of our faith. While inter-faith dialogues are a healthy practice in which Sikhs have whole heartedly participated from the times of Guru Nanak, a caution is desired against dilution of our value system, which may arise under overwhelming pressure of other religious groups’ beliefs and practices, so ardently weeded out by our Masters, Nanak Guru Gobind Singh.