Legendary Pioneers in Sikh Studies
– PANDIT TARA SINGH NAROTAM: LIFE & Works –
The Nirmala sect among the Sikhs has a very special place in the interpretation of Sikh doctrines and Gurbani. In the this sect, there have been high caliber scholars and Naam Rasiye (spiritually enlightened) saints, who have made a great contribution in introducing, propagating and disseminating the meanings and deeply philosophical concepts enshrined in the divine Bani of Guru Granth Sahib ji. It has been a characteristic of the prominent luminaries of this sect that they have been diligently reading the Vedic scriptures and Indian theology as well to reach the deepest contemplation of Gurbani, but place the principles and philosophy of Gurbani above all other philosophies.
Pandit Tara Singh Narotam (1822-1891) has been one of the most talented scholars of the Nirmala sect, who has made significant contribution to Sikhism and Gurmat literature. His contribution in bringing the Gurbani interpretation of the Nirmala sect to the forefront is unique. The scope of his knowledge was very wide. He talked about Sikh doctrines and philosophy, wrote commentaries on Gurbani and explained the Sikh customs. He enriched the Sikh literature with an excellent Shabad Kosh (dictionary) and also wrote about Sikh shrines.
He was born in 1822 AD (1879 Bikrami Sammat) in the village of Kalma near Qadian town in district Gurdaspur. This village is at a distance of 3 km from Qadian railway station. No information is available about his family and father’s occupation, but based on some accounts, Nirmala historians have written that his father was involved in agriculture. His parents were interested in Gurmat principles, due to which he also became interested in Gurmat. He learned Gurmukhi script from his parents and started reading Gurmat literature. Apart from farming, he used to take time out for attending Sikh congregations and Gurmat ceremonies. At the age of 15, he started reading Gurbani with meanings.
One day, he heard that in the village of Kurala there was going to be a daily religious congregation and there was also katha (religious discourse) of Sri Guru Granth Sahib regularly. He was about twenty years old, when he made up his mind to go there. He left home as an excuse to go to the farm. He crossed the Beas River from Bhetan port and reached Kurala village on the banks of river Girvari in Hoshiarpur district. Sant Gulab Singh ji had built his ashram (hermitage) there. About one and a half hundred Nirmala saints lived there. There he devoted himself to the service of Sant Gulab Singh ji. Observing his sense of service, Sant Gulab Singh ji made him his disciple and included him in the Nirmala sect.
Sant ji advised him to get education. He first went to Amritsar and there he studied scriptures on Gurmat principles. After that, he went to Kashi to pursue higher studies in Sanskrit. Immediately after receiving his Sanskrit education, he moved to the village of Nadia in the Shantipur region of Bengal state. There he made a serious study of the Vedas and the texts of Advaita-Vedanta.
In 1861 AD he came to Haridwar on the occasion of Ardh-Kumbh as a renowned Nirmala scholar. There he met saints and learned writers, and during the interlocution, Narotam’s scholarship came to the fore. Maharaja Narinder Singh of Patiala came to know about his talent and erudition through Sikh writers and saints. Maharaja had great respect for scholars and Gurmat preachers. He respectfully invited Narotam ji to come to Patiala to do research on Gurmat literature and other literary works. At the same time, he assured to provide necessary assistance for the publication of his writings. He accepted the Maharaja’s invitation and made up his mind to come to Patiala. His stay was arranged by the Maharaja at Dharam Dhuja and he was given official supplies. In this way, basic facilities were provided to him. He devoted himself wholeheartedly to the literary research and creation.
In 1875 AD, along with Sri Mahant (head of a monastery) Ram Singh Kuberia of Nirmala sect, Tara Singh Narotam was appointed as Deputy Sri Mahant. Thus, he had to focus on his literary activities as well as the administrative responsibilities of Nirmal Akhara (monastery). However, he did not allow any stagnation in his literary creative activities. Even during those assignments, he devoted his time to reading and writing.
He inspired many scholars and disciples; the most famous of whom was the renowned historian Giani Gian Singh. Giani Gian Singh, inspired by Narotam, completed the entire Sikh history in five parts; which is now available in print. Apart from this, Giani ji has written about two dozen other research books like Sri Guru Panth Prakash, Twarikh Amritsar etc. Due to these books, Nirmala literature has left an indelible mark on our literature.
During 1883 AD to 1891, Pandit Tara Singh Narotam was over sixty years of his age. So due to the excess of literary and preaching work, he became ill. However, he did not allow any disruption in the work of his literary creation. ‘Gur Girarath Kosh’ of Gurbani (in two parts) is his last creation, during the creation of which he had to work so hard that he became weak. Finally when the composition of this Granth was completed, he passed away suddenly at Patiala in 1891 AD. He was cremated with royal honors. Shops, public institutions and offices across the city remained closed as a sign of mourning. The respect shown by the government and the general public shows that he was indeed a highly respected person and popular with the people.
Narotam’s whole life was very simple and straightforward. He was physically a hale and hearty person. His personality was very impressive. He was always discussing one or another topic of Gurbani or Gurmat. His nature was humble and calm. He was always busy in his work. He spent very little time in talking. He used to sit in a secluded place and write his literary works. He was very punctual. If any of the provisions provided by the government did not arrive on time, he would later refuse to take it. From an administrative point of view, he greatly improved the arrangement of Nirmal Akhara during his administrativeperiod. Narotam was a multi-faceted personality and a man of serious study and intellect.
Understanding Gurbani and Gurmat from his childhood, living according to its philosophy and propagating it became the aim of his life. His entire life was devoted to Gurmat. To understand the background of Gurbani and the Indian spiritual tradition, he acquired a thorough knowledge of Vedas, Shastras, Puranas, Upanishads, Simrities etc. According to his ideology and Gurmat philosophy, Brahma or God - The universal soul and Jiv - the individual human soul are integral to each other. Both of them are to be conceived to be as monotheistic. He believed that Gurmat, besides embodying the tenets of gyana (knowledge) and karma taken from Sankara and Ramanuja, has a preponderance of Bhakti (devotion) which also emerges out of Gyana (knowledge). He believed that Guru Nanak was an incarnation of Vishnu and that Guru Nanak conformed to the path of Vedas and did not deviate from that path anywhere except in idol-worship which he rejected firmly. He held that the Waheguru is another name of Vishnu only and it could not refer to the nirguna (transcendent aspect of reality) concept of God. Mukti (salvation) in his view is a bodiless state. According to him, bani included in the Guru Granth Sahib were a revelation like that of the Vedas. His expression was highly Sanskritized in the manner of Nirmala sect saints. He was deeply learned in the Vedic, Shastric and Puranic lore and quoted from it profusely.
According to Mahan Kosh (by Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha), the details of the compositions of Pandit Tara Singh ji are as under:-
1. Tika Mokh Panth (Sant Gulab Singh) Sammat 1922 Bikrami (1865 AD)
2. Shabad Surtar Kosh Sammat 1923 Bikrami (1866 AD)
3. Gurmat Niranaya Sagar Granth Sammat 1934 Bikrami (1877 AD)
4. Akal Murit Pradarshan Sammat 1935 Bikram (1878 AD)
5. Gur Vansh Tar Darpan Sammat 1935 Bikrami (1878 AD)
6. Gur Bhavarath Deepika Tika (Japuji, Rahiras etc.)
Sammat 1936 Bikrami (1879 AD)
7. Tika Bhagat Bani ka Sammat 1939 Bikrami (1882 AD)
8. Sri Gur Tirath Sangrih Sammat 1940 Bikrami (1883 AD)
9. Sri Raag Da Tika Sammat 1942 Bikrami (1885 AD)
10. Gur Girarath Kosh Sammat 1946 Bikrami (1889 AD)
Gur Girarath Kosh is in two parts and was published after his death. The first part was published in 1894 AD (Sammat 1951 Bikrami) and the second part in 1898 AD (Sammat 1955 Bikrami ).Some of the Narotam’s above compositions are no longer available, such as Surtar Kosh and Gur Vansh Tar Darpan. Apart from the above list of Mahan Kosh, there are also three other short works of Narotam, which are as follows:-
1. Prikhia Prakaran
2. Waheguru Shabadarth
3. Kaladi Shabadarth
These three works were composed in 1878 AD (Sammat 1935 Bikrami). Most of the contents of these works are scattered in his other major works. The total number of pages he has written is over 4000. From their study, his works can be divided into four categories which are theological and doctrinal, exegetical, lexicographical.
The first category is the doctrinal and interactive interpretation of Gurmat. In this category, he has tried to explain under the book ‘Gurmat Niranaya Sagar’, the moral tenets of Sikh society. The four sections of this Granth are divided into 31 ‘Urmiyas’ (chapters).Explaining its importance, the author has tried to point out that before reading the commentary of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, it is necessary to study this Granth, because it clarifies the philosophical aspects and maryada(code of socio-religious conduct) of Gurmat. It answers many other important questions regarding the sectarian beliefs and doctrines of Sikh ideology and Gurmat. The three most discussed topics in the book are devotion, Guru Nanak’s Guru and incarnation. After this, other topics are also discussed in a secondary way. It establishes a Gurmat maryada against Hindu rituals. In this work, the views of the Nirmala sect on Gurmat are revealed in the light of the views of Narotam under the Vedantic and Puranic influences. Narotam’s short compositions like ‘Waheguru Shabadarth’, ‘Kaladi Shabadarth’, ‘Prikhia Prakaran’ and ‘Akal Murit Pradarshan’ are also included in this book.
The second category is the commentaries on Gurbani. Narotam is regarded as one of the prominent and early thinkers of Sikh Panth due to his distinctive commentary. He is of the opinion that the commentary (Tika) should be such that it conveys the meaning of the author correctly. Although the tradition of Gurbani commentary started from Bhai Gurdas and Sodhi Miharban, but the status that Narotam has touched is unique. He has interpreted the Banis/Shabads in his commentaries from a monotheistic point of view in a very scholarly manner. The main commentary is on ‘Sri Raag’. His plan was to prepare the commentary on the entire Sri Guru Granth Sahib, but this did not materialize. Sant Kartar Singh, in his preface to Sri Gur Tirath Sangrih, mentions Narotam’s commentary on the ‘Bani of Gauri Raag’. However Narotam’s erudition is known from the commentary on Sri Raag. This commentary presents a mature version of Narotam’s art of commentary. He has adopted all the methods of commentary like Shanka Samadhan (removal of doubts), Uthanka (preface) etc. In the beginning, Narotam has written a detailed introduction. After writing about the characteristics of commentary literature and the descriptive definition of commentary, it also deals with the beliefs related to worship, devotion, Guru’s glory, explication of Vishnu-Saroop, denial of idol-worship, glory of Naam etc. In addition to Gurbani commentary, he has also analyzed Sikh doctrines at several places.
‘Bhagat Bani da Tika’ is the second most important work in this category. It contains a commentary on the Bani of the Bhagats (devotees) included in the Guru Granth Sahib. It is divided into two parts. The first part is up to the Gujri Raag and the second part from this Raag to the end. Both of these parts cover over 900 pages. In this commentary, Narotam has made a noteworthy point that the Bhagat Bani recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib is not in its original form. Rather, Guru Arjan Dev ji has edited it in accordance with the sentiments of the Bhagats (devotees).
The third commentary is ‘Gur Bhavarath Deepika Tika’. This commentary includes Japuji, Rahiras, Sohila and Shabad Hazare. Theintroductions of Japuji and Shabad Hazare Banis are given in the beginning of commentaries, but the commentaries of the other two Banis have started directly without giving any introduction. Apart from stating the importance of Bani in it, the commentator has explained in detail the Mool Mantar (the basic statement of creed)) of Japuji. The greatness of Sri Guru Granth Sahib is placed higher than those of the Vedas. But the Mool Mantar of Japuji is considered to be uttered by Vishnu according to Narotam. This is a misconception and reveals the Vedic/ Pauranic mental orientation of Tara Singh Narotam.
His Gurmat related dictionaries can be included in the third category. The most famous of these is ‘Gur Girarath Kosh’. ‘Gur Girarath Kosh’ is the dictionary of the terms, usages and phrases of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. This is his masterpiece. This Granth was published in two volumes by Maharaja Rajinder Singh of Patiala state in 1894 AD and 1898 AD respectively. The main purpose of compiling ‘Gur Girarath Kosh’ was not to compile a dictionary, but to enhance the reader's understanding of the Bani inscribed in the Guru Granth Sahib. A dictionary of words, sentences and phrases had to be prepared from it. That is why the vocabulary and phrases from the Gurbani itself have been selected in ‘Gur Girarath Kosh’ so that the readers of the Guru Granth Sahib can get guidance and help in understanding the Gurbani. It shows the lexicographer’s knowledge of lexicography and his comprehensive life experience. The practice of quoting verses of Gurbani to explain the meaning of these words in the dictionary has been developed by him. For the first time, he created a dictionary in the order of ‘size’ etc., which can be said to be the basic method of modern dictionaries. He has also presented his linguistic perspective in the preface to the dictionary and has increased its importance by giving etymological meanings of words. To make the dictionary more useful, Narotam has added many words from outside the Gurbani. The number of entries at the end of this Granth is 14502. Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha, The author of the ‘Mahan Kosh’ has acknowledged the assistance he received from Narotam’s ‘Gur Girarath Kosh’ in compiling his Mahankosh.
His miscellaneous works can be included in the fourth category. The most famous and important of these is the ‘Sri Gur Tirath Sangrih’ .In this book, Narotam has described the importance, benefits and fruits of service of Gurdhams (Sikh places of pilgrimage). Stating the geographical location of each shrine, the historical significance of each of them is described. The authentic information given about the shrines shows that, the author himself has worked very hard and diligently to gather this information by travelling and studying Sikh History. He crossed the rugged mountain paths for the first time and visited Hemkunt (Sahib) and highlighted its importance. After mentioning the Gurdwara Keshgarh Sahib in his book, Narotam has also made the Rahitnamas (Sikh code of conduct) a topic for discussion. He has given a list of Rahitnamas and commented on the contents in them. The manner in which Narotam discusses the tribes and castes of the time when referring to the marriages of the Gurus gives a great deal of knowledge about the social life of that time.
A short booklet called ‘Kaladi Shabadarth’ is included in the volume of Granth ‘Gurmat Niranaya Sagar’. This book has been written with the purpose of interpreting the form of shabad (word) ‘Kaal’ in the ‘Dasam Granth’ believed to be composed by Guru Gobind Singh ji. Eleven meanings have been given to the word Kaal and finally the meanings of Akal, Maha Kaal, Sarab Kaal, Maha Loh and Sarab Loh have been explained. The meaning of the word ‘Kaladi’ is given in the context of Maha Kaal and Maha kaal.
The etymology, meaning and application of the word ‘Waheguru’ in Gurbani is discussed in detail in a small book entitled ‘Waheguru Shabadarth/ Mantrarath’. After stating the importance of the word Waheguru in Gurmat, Narotam has given seventeen forms related to the etymology of this word. While interpreting this word, Narotam has acknowledged the Vedantic influence.
A small book of 22 pages named ‘Prikhia Prakaran’ is also included in the volume of Granth ‘Gurmat Niranaya Sagar’ The subject matter of this booklet is to establish an opinion as to the authenticity or non-authenticity of the some scriptural texts, whose Bani is in dispute or in doubt. Damdama Wali and Bhai Banno Wali Bir (Recension) are considered to be genuine by Narotam. In addition, each religious text related to Sikhism has been made the focal point of study. But Narotam has considered the ‘Pran Sangli’ to be the work of Guru Nanak Sahib ji. However, the scholars have denied that this work is the work of Guru Nanak Sahib ji.
Similarly a sixteen page short booklet called ‘Akal Murit Pradarshan’ is also included at the end of the volume of Granth ‘Gurmat Niranaya Sagar’. In this book, Narotam has explained the words ‘Kaal’ and ‘Akal’ in the context of the use of these words in Guru Gobind Singh’s composition ‘Akal Ustat’. The word ‘Kaal’ is associated with ‘Maha Kaal’ by calling it ‘Akal’.
Most of Narotam’s works have been written in hybrid Hindi-Punjabi prose. He also wrote poetry but very little. Narotam made Braji language the medium of his literature. Punjabi and Sadhukari languages are rarely found in his poetry. However, the use of Punjabi in prose is such that his prose can be included in Punjabi literature like the prose of old Punjabi literature.
A deep Vedantic influence is evident in every composition of Narotam. Introducing the Gurmat ideology, Narotam deviates from the original on the subject of the incarnation and regards Guru Nanak Sahib ji to be the incarnation of Vishnu. He also describes Vishnu as the Guru of Guru Nanak Sahib. The presiding deity of Gurmat is Guru Granth Sahib, but Narotam has kept the incarnate God in the forefront. Even the meanings of the word Waheguru given by him are not in accordance with the Gurmat. In fact Narotam was influenced by Vedantic study and his Guru Gulab Singh. The Nirmala sect believes in incarnate Guru and also believes in incarnation. So naturally Narotam follows this belief which violates the Gurmat belief and philosophy.
In fact, in his Commentaries, Narotam has made his interpretation of Gurbani much more complicated than the original. The original is easier to read, but his commentary is very difficult to read. It is even more difficult for readers to understand this commentary. That is why, Narotam’s commentary could not become popular.
In ‘Tika Bhagatan di Bani’, Narotam has written that the Bani of the Bhagats (devotees) has been composed by Guru Arjan Dev ji himself, not by the Bhagats, keeping in view the sentiments of the Bhagats. In ‘Tika Gur Bhav Deepika’, the Mool Mantar is said to have been uttered by Vishnu. These perceptions have diminished his image as a Gurmat scholar among the Sikhs. Many of Narotam’s beliefs cannot be agreed upon by the Gurmat scholars.
From the above discussion, it can be concluded that due to his belonging to the Nirmala sect, the works of Pandit Tara Singh Narotam reflect the Vedantic and Puranic influences. But still he has made a significant contribution in the interpretation of Gurmat literature and in the development of Punjabi prose in earlier times. He devoted his entire life to literary studies and literary creation. The great ‘Gur Girarath Kosh’ written by Narotam holds a special place in the Punjabi literature and language in terms of subject and language. A serious study of Gurmat and Indian religious culture is presented in ‘Gurmat Niranaya Sagar’ Granth. ‘Sri Gur Tirath Sangrih’ composition brings Narotam to the fore as a historian. Written in Gurmukhi script, loaded with the Braji language, his commentary literature has proved to be very useful for readers and writers for the interpretation of Gurmat philosophy and research on this philosophy.
Despite his Vedic and Puranic orientation, Narotam holds a special place among the Sikh scholars. He was one of the most learned scholars of his time. His works have significant relevance for Sikh scholars. He considered every aspect of Gurmat very seriously, though from a Vedic and Pauranic view point.
Just as it is perfectly appropriate to call the literary works of Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha, the essence of the ideology of the Singh Sabha movement, so it is no exaggeration to accept the works of Pandit Tara Singh Narotam as an explanatory and ideological interpretation of Sikhs Gurus and their versons from a Nirmala Sect view. In this category, his work is the pinnacle of his Nirmala ideology.
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11. Harbans Singh (Ed.-in-chief). The Encyclopedia of Sikhism, Punjabi University Patiala, 2006