The Perennial Value of Bhakti Literature
– A Case Study of the Adi Granth –
M S Ahluwalia
The modern age is, in some ways, the breeding ground for alienation and anxiety. On the one hand, the elite society exploits science and technology for its own comfort and convenience, and on the other hand, the unlettered masses in Asia, Africa and South America struggle for bare existence and vainly hope for supernatural intervention to end their woes.
Arguably, globalization cannot change the basic struggle for existence, instinct and aspirations. It may only make people more impatient with status quo. It is here that the gospel of Guru Granth Sahib becomes relevant.
The holy Sikh scripture is inspiring, yet rooted in scientific thought and practical wisdom of self-reliance. It asserts the primacy of moral and spiritual principles and does not inhibit the use of rational investigation. The word of God in Gurbani is the fount of all those values, which enhance and give positive direction to life on this earth. If followed faithfully, the idea of universal peace, justice, brotherhood freedom and happiness shall never elude mankind. Herein lies the perennial value of Guru Granth Sahib.
Guru Granth Sahib comprises the hymns of Guru Nanak and his five successors, the medieval Hindu Bhagats, Muslim Sufi poets and other God-oriented persons associated with the Sikh Gurus. All these writings are collectively known as Gurbani. In its literal sense, it means ‘speech’, ‘words’ or ‘utterances’ of the Gurus, which have come down to them in a state of spiritual revelation of God. Therefore, Gurbani is not merely a product of speculation, but the very ‘word’ of God.
The history of Sikh scriptural tradition dates back to the times of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh religion. To express his spiritual experience, Guru Nanak has evolved a curious blend of music and poetry which has an enchanting effect on the listeners. We are informed that during his missionary tours to various lands, Guru Nanak carried with him a book, which is believed to be nothing else but a collection of his hymns, including the writings of medieval Bhagats that he had collected over the years. Lastly, when he settled at Kartarpur (now in Pakistan on the right bank of river Ravi) he directed Bhai Lehna, his spiritual heir to compile his hymns into a codex which he bestowed on him on his succession to Guruship.
Sri Guru Granth Sahib is the name by which the holy book of the Sikhs is commonly known. It is voluminous (1430 pages in the standard form, with the statutory approval of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, Amritsar) anthology prepared by the fifth Guru, Guru Arjun Dev (1563-1606) containing sacred verses by Sikh Gurus and some contemporary saints and men of devotion.
The Living Guru
Over the years, the holy book has received the honours due to the living Gurus. No Sikh assembly can, properly speaking, be so named unless the holy book is present in it. The contributors to Guru Granth Sahib came from variety of class and creed background. There were among them the Hindus as well also Muslims, the so-called low-castes as also high castes. Its final text had been transcribed by 1st August, 1604.
In the Sikh system, as is well known, the word Guru is used for the ten prophet-preceptors, Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, and for none other. Now Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred book that was apotheosized by the last Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, before he passed away in 1708, fulfils the office of the Guru. In all Sikh literature after Guru Gobind Singh, the Holy Book is uniformly referred to as Guru Granth.
It is for the Sikhs the perennial authority, spiritual as well as historical. The Sikh followers have and will continue to observe their faith more fully, more vividly through the holy Granth. It remained central to all what subsequently happened in the Sikh life. It was and shall remain source of their verbal tradition and shape their intellectual and cultural environment. It would continue to mould the Sikh concept of life. It is from Guru Granth Sahib that the Community’s ideas, institutions and rituals derive their meaning.
The Bani of Guru Granth Sahib is poetry of pure devotion. It prescribes no social code, yet it is the basis of Sikh practice as well as of Sikh devotion. It is the living source of authority, the ultimate guide to spiritual and moral path, pointed by the Gurus.
Every prayer, singly or in groups, is followed by Ardas, which is followed by the recitation of these verses:
“Agya bhai Akal ki tabhi chalayo Panth,
Sob Sikhan ko hukam hai Guru maneo Granth,
Guru granthji maneo pragat Guran ki dehi,
Jo Prabhu ko milibo chahai khoj shabad main leh”.
(By the command of the Timeless Creator was the Panth promulgated; All Sikhs are hereby charged to own the Granth as their Guru. Know the Guru Granth to be the person visible of the Gurus. They who would seek to meet the Lord, in the word as manifested in the Book shall they discover Him.)
Unlike some other scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib is neither history nor mythology nor a collection of incantations. Its contents are spiritual, the vision cosmic and exhortations for the higher life. In this respect, it is a unique scripture among the source books of religion. In the Sikh temple, Granth Sahib is kept during the day, brought out in state, prayers offered in its presence, and at night time taken to a duly appointed place for ‘retreat’. It is thus treated as a sacred person, the Guru, rather than merely a book.
Thanksgiving for a joyous event or the prayers for the peace of a departed soul, must alike be offered in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib. No Sikh marriage can be sanctified except in its presence, with the bride and bride-groom circumambulating it reverently, while the nuptial hymns from its pages are being chanted. Such a practice is resorted to all over the Sikh world. All decisions taken in its presence are held sacred and binding on all.
A remarkable feature of Guru Granth is that apart from the writings of the Sikh Gurus, it also contains the writings of some religious teachers of Hinduism, Islam, etc. This is consistency with the religious traditions and universal love of India which respects all religions and believes in the universal brotherhood. “Indian spiritual tradition” according to Radhakrishnan, “is not content with mere toleration. There can be no goodwill of fellowship when we only tolerate each other. We must appreciate other faiths, recognise that they offer rich spiritual experiences and encourage sacrificial living and inspire their followers to a noble way of life.”
The Sikh Gurus who compiled the Adi Granth, had this noble quality of appreciation of whatever was available in other religious traditions. The saints belong to the whole world. They are universal men, who free our minds from bigotry and superstition, dogma and emphasise the implicities of religion and universal love.
At a time when men were not conscious of their failures, Guru Nanak appeared to renovate the spirit of religion and universal love. He, followed by other Sikh Gurus through their writings contained in the Granth Sahib, tried to build a nation of self respecting men and women, devoted to God and their leaders filled with a sense of equality, universal love and brotherhood for all. Guru Nanak’s own life and teachings were a symbol of harmony between the two great religions of India – Hinduism and Islam. A popular verse describes him as a guru for the Hindus and a pir for the Muslims.
“Guru Nanak Shah fakir, Hindu ka guru Mussalman ka pir”.
A look at the contributors of the Guru Granth will reveal that no geographical or provincial barriers limit it. Similarly, words from Punjabi, Hindi, Arabic, Sanskrit, Persian and various vernaculars merge into one another in the Adi Granth presenting a kaleidoscope of images which are within the common man’s grasp.
Universal Love: Every hymn inscribed in the 1,430 pages of the Guru Granth Sahib, bears the stamp of universal love, magnificence of God and brotherhood of man. In Guru Arjun’s Sukhmani, which is a classic composition of profound comfort for the soul-sick, it is stated: ‘Prabh ki jot sagal ghat sohe’ i.e. the Divine light illuminates all beings. Every day the followers of Guru Granth say a prayer for the entire humanity wherever they are:
‘Nanak nam chardhi kala, Terey bhane sarbat ka bhala’
i. e. “Sayeth Nanak, in Thy name and will, let good be the legacy of the whole mankind”.
The Guru Granth’s compilation marks an important movement in our religious and literary history. The writings of the different saints included in the Granth have shed lustre on the age by their religious fervour which excited a new awakening.
Guru Nanak, through his writings in Guru Granth Sahib, did away with the barriers of caste, and regarded all human beings as equal. ‘There was no Hindu, no Mussalman’ in his eyes. He had disciples among both the Hindus and the Muslims. Bala, a Hindu disciple, and Mardana, a Muslim one, followed and waited upon him throughout their lives. He brought about a revolution in the then existing society by his new message of divine love and universal brotherhood. He also aimed at political freedom, as he criticises the existing rulers: “This age is like a drawn sword, the kings are butchers”:
Goodness hath taken wings and flown.
In the dark night of falsehood,
I espy not the moon of Truth anywhere;
I grope after truth and am bewildered..l
Belief in one God
As to its religion, one important point is that Gum Granth Sahib and Sikhism do not acknowledge multiple deities, but accept only one, single God. One merit of this sort of religious system is that here the possibility of mutual intolerance among humans on grounds of religion is largely diminished, if not absolutely eradicated. Needless to say, this kind of religious attitude is desperately needed in the present-a-day world.
Be that as it may, it would be a mistake to look at Sikhism as enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib just a system of thinking. Sikhism upholds a specific style of living, a particular set of beliefs and convictions, to live by. A very important component of this life-style asks us to be strictly guided by the principle of equality. The principle of equality requires us to acknowledge that we all are equal, so that none of us is entitled to claim a moral position, which is valid exclusively for ourselves. We, in our moral claims, must be guided by the thought whether these claims fail to care and honour other, and if any such claim threatens the human dignity of others, we must abandon it.
In Guru Granth Sahib, the dialogue is the wholesome process of knowing. saying and understanding.2 For the accomplishment of this process, Guru Granth Sahib, while telling the people ‘Jab lagi dunia rahie Nanak kichhu suniai kchhu kahiai.3, further stresses that apart from having meaningful and factual dialogue, one should take care of the self-analysis first. In fact Gurbani is well aware of the fact that whose mind is all dark, they do not stand true to their words.
According to Gurbani the sambad or dialogue is the effort towards understanding the genuineness of the issues posed. In Sikhism the base of a worthy life is the doctrine that one should have partnership with the virtues of the people and should keep away from mischiefs of others – sanjh karijai gunan keri chhodi avagan chaliai.4 A Sikh gives no recognition to life lived in monasteries or jungles. It rather approves that life which prepares the individual to be of the world while not becoming worldly. Sikh life is the life of responsibility towards the surrounding and, therefore, its spirituality and spiritual dialogue have some distinction from other ways of life.
Sikh religion gives due importance to man as an individual but it does not allow the interests of the society to be sacrificed for the sake of one man, whosoever he may be. It approves humanitarianism but not humanism of the West which can flourish only in autocracy, apostasy and narrowness of heart and mind. The dialogue with others in view of conquering one and all absolutely does not fit in the thought frame of Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Nanak being fully conscious of the egoist personality likely to emerge from debating behaviour pattern of the society, says, that the researcher flourishes whereas the debater perishes – khoji upajai badi binasai hau bali bali gur kartara.5 Debate creates suicidal ego known as a chronic ailment (diragh roga) in Gurbani. Only seva or the ‘service’ can help get rid of this malady and the service alone can fill one’s heart with love. Guru Amar Das furthers the view of Guru Nanak by saying – badi binsahi sevak sevahi gur kai heti piari6 - the debater perishes and the humble-servant of the Guru serves with love and devotion. Namdev also holds that if somebody is desirous of enjoying the Ram-rasayan, he should never indulge in polemics - bad bibad kahu sio na kijai. rasana ram rasayan pijai.
One of the major causes of conflicts amongst the people of the world is intolerance for the opposite view. If, however, we adopt a complementary approach to understand different religions we may discover that seemingly irreconcilable points of view need not be contradictory. These, on deeper understanding, may be found to be mutually illuminating. The “Complementary Principle” inspires people practicing different norms and forms of life to respect others’ points of view even if those are opposite to theirs’.
Guru Granth Sahib and Environment
In Gurbani, nature has been called ‘Kudrat’. The other words used for nature are shrine, temple, home, workshop, playground, garden and divine manifestation of God. The term nature is generally applied to the ‘concept, structure and development of socio-temporal world’. It is the entirety of phenomenal existence. Man with his ever-increasing mastery of the laws of nature and ever expanding reach of technology, has increasingly transformed Nature into what has been called “noosphere”7 The Sikh Gurus were great lovers and devotees of nature. They repeatedly emphasized how the nature influences our body, mind and soul, and how it moulds our personality and how in natural environment the communion between God and man takes place easily.
The Sikh religion has been essentially rural based. The development of Sikh religion took place in rural Pakistani Punjab. One of the important concepts of Sikh religion is that man should live in harmony with himself, with society and with nature so as to achieve spirituality and happiness. Religion has two functions to perform; one to live peacefully yourself (with your inner-self) and, two, to live peacefully with your surroundings, including, of course, everything living and non-living.
‘Kudrat kawan kaha vichar’8
‘How can I describe (the Lord’s) creative potency?’
According to Sikh thought, Nature is not merely the handicraft of God, or even the signature of His Power, it is His very countenance – sacred, immaculate and splendid. The laws of nature are but agencies of His wisdom. He Himself takes on multiple shapes to create what we call nature:
“Anik roop khin mahi kudrat dharda.”9
(i.e., in a moment does He transform Himself into innumerable forms of Nature.)
Through the contemplation of Nature, by steps, man can ascend to God. One who is in love with Nature, cannot stay without loving its Creator. His power and His wisdom are manifest in Nature. Guru Arjun, the fifth Guru exclaims:
Tu achraj kudrat teri bisma10
(i.e., astonishing are You and Your created nature is wonderment.)
Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh faith never claimed to be scholar or a thinker. All he claimed was that he was a singer and a poet. To him, therefore, Nature was an aesthetic appearance. This is what he sang about the Nature:
“Kudrat disse kudrat sunie kudrat bhao sachsaar,
Kudrat patali, akasi kudrat sorb akar.
Kudrat Ved Puran kateba, kudrat sarb vichar,
Kudrat paon, pani baisantar kudrat dharti khak,
Sob teri kudrat tu kadar karta paki nahi pak,
Nanak hukme andar vekhe varte tako tak.”11
(i.e., Nature we see Nature we hear, Nature is our awe and wonder and joy. Nature the skies, Nature is self-esteem as in conceit. Air and water and fire and nature is the soil of earth…….. O, Creator Nature is hallowed by your holy Name)
This sublime song of Guru Nanak brings into relief four complimintary conceptualizations of nature:
i. Nature is an aesthetic experience, generating in us awe, wonder and joy.
ii. Man is not in confrontation with Nature, he is a part of it. Man’s inner nature, his thoughts, inclinations and even love, are as much a part of nature as the worlds and skies.
iii. Nature is fully alive, not inert material but living vigorously.
iv. Finally, Nature is not apart from God. It is His wonderful craft. That is why the Guru exclaims:
“Bisam bhae bismad dekh dekh kudrat teria”12
(i.e., I am wonderstruck beholding your created Nature.)
The experience of the variety of the beauty of Nature is always so overwhelming that whoever is familiar with it may find in the following lines of Guru Nanak, an echo in the feeling:
“Balhari kudrat vasia, Tera ant na jae likhia.”13
(i.e., I am a sacrifice unto Your name. Who can Its limit know?)
Even the subjectivity and spirituality of man are part of Nature. Nature not only surrounds him, it is also within him, functioning there. All the elements of Nature support and sustain man. There is verse in Guru Granth Sahib that occurs twice in “ the Holy book and every holy service of the Sikh congregation is supposed to be concluded with the recitation of it. It underlines the functions that nature plays in the physical sustenance and spiritual advancement of man. It begins as follows:
“Pawan guru pani pita, Mata dharat Mahat,
Diwas rat doi dai daya, khele sagal jagat”14
(i.e., Air is the Guru, water the father, earth the great mother, and day and night are the two female and male nurses, in whose lap the entire world plays.)
Thus, the universal idea and the humanizing touch that the Guru Granth Sahib has in its appeal and form, has an everlasting value in our human society. The uniqueness lies in the fact that when a Sikh honours and follows guidance from the Holy Granth, he offers his devotion as much as to Farid, a Muslim Saint, Jaidev, a Hindu Bhakta and at the same time to Guru Nanak and Guru Arjun, the compiler of Guru Granth Sahib. It is thus a commonwealth of the men of God.
To conclude, Sri Guru Granth Sahib is and shall henceforth remain, for all times to come, a lighthouse and a Guru for the Sikhs and other seekers of Truth. Sikhism undoubtedly stands for a catholic faith, which is meant for all, without any distinction of race or creed, and without any limits of time and space.
In these days of globalization, the lofty ideals of unity of God and brotherhood of mankind can secure the prerogative of equal rights for the entire human race and serve as the most effective basis for a new universal human civilization of love, peace and harmony. In the present-day context, the perennial value of the Adi Granlh lies in the fact that its teachings, if followed in true letter and spirit, can bring man closer to nature, closer to society and, above all, closer to his own self.
1. “Rag Majh ki Var”, Trans. by Dr. Trilochan Singh & Others: The Sacred Writings of the Sikhs. p. 82.
2. Smi Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1411.
3. Ibid, p. 661.
4. Ibid, p. 766.
5. Ibid.. p. 1255.
6. Ibid., p. 911.
7. ‘Noosphere’ is a term introduced by the nature philosopher Tielhard de Chardin, whose contention was that in the ordinary course of evolution of living things the biosphere is being supplanted by the noosphere. Cited in J. S. Neki, in The Sikh Review (Kolkata) vol. 52(3). p. 29.
8. Guru Granth Sahib, p. 3.
9. Ibid., p. 519.
10. Ibid., p. 563.
11. Ibid., p. 464.
12. Ibid., p. 521.
13. Ibid., p. 469.
14. Ibid., p. 8.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies,
2009, All rights reserved.