Sri GurSobha – An English Translation
A Review by Dr Harpreet Singh
Translated by: Kulwant Singh
Publisher: Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh
Pages: 432; Price: Rs. 550/-
This volume presents an English translation of Sainapati’s Sri Gur Sobha, an important text that was written in the court of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs. Three things stand out about Sri Gur Sobha that make it an exceptionally invaluable text. First, it is largely devoid of mythology and is grounded in a kind of historical writing that was seldom practiced in that period. Second, according to the Guru Ratanmal (1734), the Guru himself at times read and corrected Sri Gursobha,while it was being composed (sainâpati kavitâ kahe gurdarsan te pâr, kare bhalî va burî nit satigurû lae savâr – Sainapati would compose after a glimpse at the Guru's face; The Divine Guru would set right the omissions and commissions in the composed draft). Therefore, it is the first reliable source of Guru’s biography and can help us correct later revisionist accounts. Third, it is one of the few pre-modern texts that cogently capture the theology that led to the creation of the Khalsa. It helps us to see that Guru Gobind Singh elevated the entire Sikh sangat to become the Khalsa, which is now incorrectly assumed to be a “voluntary” order within the Sikhs. Sainapati insists that liberation is not possible without the partaking of khande ki pahul, the Sikh initiation ceremony instituted by Guru Gobind Singh. The sangat’s metamorphosis into the Guru Khalsa Panth — a political body that was ordained to seek political sovereignty — is a recurring theme throughout Sainapati’s remarkable poetic composition. As Professor Kulwant Singh comments in his introduction below, according to Sainapati, “It was the Guru Panth rather than the Guru which was to be the arbiter of things at crucial moments of history.” Indeed, Guru Gobind Singh completed the evolution of the institution of the sangat with his creation of the Khalsa. As a consequence, the joint authority of the Guru Granth and the Guru Panth replaced the institution of the personal Guru.
Sainapati presents a discursive tradition that departs radically from other contemporaneous writings like the Bachitar Natak (1696) that are often uncritically attributed to Guru Gobind Singh in Sikh scholarship. It is fascinating to see that Sainapati is aware of the Bachitar Natak and even uses it as a model, but departs from its theology and its liberal use of Hindu mythology. While the author of the Bachitar Natak finds it necessary to locate Guru Gobind Singh’s lineage within the Vaishnava divine king Râma’s Sun dynasty, Sainapati prefers to locate him within a distinct tradition that begins with Guru Nanak. If the author of the Bachitar Natak calls Guru Tegh Bahadur “hind dî châdar” (The protector of Hindustan), Sainapati universalizes the Guru’s sacrifice by referring to him as the“jagat di châdar” (The protector of the world, Chapter 2, 5.46). The political dimension of Sainapati’s text—one that seeks political ascendancy of the Khalsa — is also largely missing from the Bachitar Natak. In this period, there were many parallel discursive traditions—like the ones produced by a group called the Mîne — and they need to be mapped to better understand literary production in this period. Not every surviving work from this period could have been produced in the court of Guru Gobind Singh, as is often assumed.
Professor Kulwant Singh is to be congratulated for making an important contribution to Sikh Studies. Not only has he translated a very difficult work from Braj bhasha into English, but he has also given us a critical introduction to the text. He furnishes us with explanatory notes about terms found in South Asian mythology, along with other details, at the end of each chapter. The translation displays the author’s erudition and background in both the Punjabi and English literary studies. Not only is the English version highly readable, it is faithful to the original text and maintains the beauty of the translated version. The translator’s effort in maintaining the rhythm and melody of this poetic text by rendering it in free English verse is commendable. His work engages with important scholarship on the Gursobha by Anne Murphy, Ami P. Shah and J.S. Grewal. The present work adds a fresh perspective to the debates surrounding this once influential text and deserves to be read widely.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2015, All