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Guru Granth Sahib
– Form, Message and Impact –

Gurnek Singh*

Sikhism is the youngest religion of the world so far as its historical aspect is concerned. It originated with Guru Nanak Dev who was born in 1469 at Rai Bhoi Ki Talvandi now in Pakistan. He was the first Guru of the Sikhs who preached his doctrine throughout India and up to Sri Lanka, Tibet, Mecca, Medina and Baghdad, for which he was commissioned by Almighty Himself. Thus, he transmitted the message of God to the people of the world during his lifetime by taking up long itineraries. For this purpose, he spent his useful years in the service of mankind. He, during his Odysseys or travels, collected the compositions of other Indian saints whose bani’s temper was in concurrence with his principles. This collection of the hymns he always used to take on his person. Referring to it a famous Sikh savant and scholar Bhai Gurdas says that Muslims at Mecca ask Guru Nanak Dev that kindly let us know who is the superior between Hindus and Muslims. The great Guru Nanak replied that O my brother Hajji, both have to repent without good actions. For, there in the court of the God only good actions and pious living are credited, otherwise one has to repent.

Thus, in this way, from the Guru’s bani, which is primarily concerned with the spiritual as well as the social aspect of man, emanated the basic teachings of Sikhism which had been incorporated by the fifth Nanak, Guru Arjun Dev in Guru Granth Sahib. The fifth Guru, Guru Arjun Dev got collected the bani of the various Sufis and saints, and later on engaged in compiling Guru Granth Sahib. He selected a secluded and peaceful place on the bank of a sarovar called Ramsar, which was a shady and cool place. Bhai Gurdas was the first amanuensis of the Granth. Guru Arjun Dev very meticulously selected the material out of the available bani and got it incorporated in Guru Granth Sahib. After a persistent labour and vigorous mental discipline, it was completed in 1604 AD. He installed it in the newly built Harimandir Sahib, that stands in the middle of the sarovar at Amritsar. Such was the importance of Guru Granth Sahib which until then used to be revered as Pothi. We also find a reference to it in Guru Granth Sahib wherein it is stated that Pothi has taken the place of God.1 It was installed in Harimandir Sahib in the ambrosial hours and in the late evening, after the recitation and ceremonies were over, the Guru Granth Sahib was taken for night’s rest at Guru Ke Mehil, i.e., residence of the Guru. Guru Granth Sahib was placed to rest at a high cot, while Guru Arjun Dev himself used to sleep for the night on the ground in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib. In this way, Guru Arjun Dev wanted to convey to the Sikhs that it is the revealed message of God and should be revered as Guru.2 Baba Buddha was appointed the first granthi of Guru Granth Sahib. Thus, the Granth which was revered by the Guru himself explicitly indicates that it is of great import. There are some important postulates which make its presence unique in the history of world's sacred literature.

Firstly, it is the only sacred Granth of the world which has been compiled by the Guru himself under his direction and supervision. Guru Arjun Dev contributed himself massively and also incorporated other Gurus’ bani which was also available with him. In this sense, its authenticity is beyond doubt. In this regard, M.A. Macauliffe worked hard for a long time on Sikh thought and literature and produced his magnum opus, The Sikh Religion – its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors. He, confirming its authenticity and uniqueness, avers:

“The Sikh religion differs as regards the authenticity of its dogmas from most other great theological systems. Many of the great teachers the world has known have not left a line of their own composition, and we only know what they taught through tradition or second hand information. If Pythagoras wrote any of his tenets his writings have not descended to us. We know the teachings of Socrates only through the writings of Plato and Xenophon. Buddha has left no written memorials of his teaching, Kung fu-Tze, known to Europeans as Confucius, left no documents in which he detailed the principles of his moral and social system. The founder of Christianity did not reduce his doctrines to writings, and for them we are obliged to trust to the Gospels according to Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. The Arabian Prophet did not himself reduce to writing the chapters of the Quran. They were written or compiled by his adherents and followers. But the compositions of the Sikh Gurus are presented and we know at firsthand what they taught. They employed the vehicle of verse, which is generally unalterable by copyists, and we even become in time familiar with their different styles. No spurious compositions or extraneous dogmas can, therefore, be represented as theirs.”3

The above is the opinion of a person who is a non-Sikh. But he endeavored hard to acquire information about Sikhism, its doctrine and history. He avers further, that it can’t be changed. In Guru Granth Sahib, we find that the counting of hymns has been given by the Guru himself and at the end of each bani, their total number has also been given which is the explicit indication that its content and form cannot be changed. But Teja Singh and Ganda Singh wrote a contradictory statement saying that its final form was fixed for all times and also that re-editing was done at the same time. They wrote, “It must be admitted that the final form, which became for all time, was given to the Holy Granth at Damdama Sahib. This work of the re-editing consisted of completing the Nitnem (daily prayers) by the addition of four hymns under so-purkh, expunging certain unauthorised pieces which had crept in at the end in some copies, amending certain spellings, here and there, and so on. So here the contention and observation of Ganda Singh and Teja Singh is wrong for it is not an ordinary book. On the other hand, it is a revealed Scripture which is also the Guru. The fact is evidently explicit from the gurbani itself wherein it is written that the bani contained in the Scripture was the result of direct association with the Almighty.4 So, it is a revealed text and it has also been given the status of a Guru.5

Secondly, it is the only religious scripture in the world to which has been accorded the status of the Guru. No other religious text has been given such a status. Bible does not have the status of the Guru. Similarly, Quran also has not been given the status of the Guru. Undoubtedly, Vedas, it is said are auprusa, i.e., have not been created or composed by any human being. The Vedas also are not worshipped as the Guru. The Buddhist text Tripitka and Jaina texts have not been given the status of the Guru. It is only Guru Granth Sahib which has been given the status of Guru and worshipped and revered as the Guru. For, it contains the sacred Word which basically is the Guru of Guru Nanak and of the later Gurus upto the tenth master, Guru Gobind Singh. When Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikh faith, had a dialogue with the Siddhas, he, on being asked as to who is his Guru, the great Guru Nanak Dev answering this question said that his Guru was Sabad, i.e., Word.6 To emphasise further on this point, it is written in gurbani that the holy Guru is his word, the word the holy Guru. And this shall show the way to liberation.7 Bhai Gurdas, the great poet and savant, whose interpretation of the teachings of the Gurus is held to be the most authentic, affirms thus: The Guru’s word is the Guru’s visible form that explicitly expresses in the holy company.8 He, further elaborating and reiterating the concept of Sabad as Guru in Sikhism, avers in his Kabit that within the Guru is the word, in the word the holy preceptor, the Guru. The word brings realisation of the Unattributed and the Attributed Supreme Being and confers enlightenment and meditation.9 So when it is the injunction of the Guru that holy Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib is Guru, then it is imperative that none is authorised to change it even slightly. It is the repository of divine knowledge and this divine knowledge and instruction, when followed, leads the seeker to emancipation which is the goal of human life. This release or liberation from the phenomenal existence consequently results in the knowledge of the Divine which helps one to tread on the path of both secular as well as spiritual. That is why it is said that such a human being is liberated while living in this world, i.e., Jivan Mukt.10 Because it is the Guru that helps man to get liberation so none is allowed to tamper or change it or its contents in any form. Prof Talib, referring to this problem, says that Guru Granth Sahib is the holy text and is the Guru of the Sikhs, and that is why its ‘text must in no way be tampered with even in the minutest particular, which, when installed as the sacred book, must be written down without splitting letters to form separate words.11 Agreeing with these arguments of Prof Talib, emphasises Kapur Singh, “The language and the vocabulary of the Guru Granth, for good reasons, is not of a semantic positivist purely conceptual and prepositional. It is not rigorous denotative, Semantically aseptic, suitable for service and mathematics. It is not so, because it deals with modes of intellectual and sensuous reality founded not primarily on language but on other modes of communication, such as avocation of imagery, pre-intellectual and para intellectual emotive comprehension, the anaphore alliteration, tropology, anamnesis and onometopoeia. The language and vocabulory of the Guru Granth is, therefore, connotative, associative and subjective and the Guru-Granth deliberately, and by a design, uses language not “purely” but ambiguously and thus, mostly, it is not the words and their conventional meanings that are of basic significance in the Guru Granth, unless the text is intended to be theoretical and propositional, but the moss of meanings and associations and Evocative power which the words employed have gathered round them throughout their centuries of evolution and usage, by men who have experienced the non-verbal layers of reality. The poetic patina of the verbal vocabulory of the Guru Granth does not necessarily have equivalences or correspondence in the gross vocabulary of the English Language. This renders the translation of the Guru Granth more difficult than that encountered by Kumirjiva (4th-circa) while translating Mahayan texts into Chinese."12 Prof Talib also says in this regard, “The bani being poetry, its grammatical structure need not conform to analytical prose.” Further, it is relevant to talk about the exegesis or elaboration of Teekakari of Guru Granth Sahib. Prof Sahib Singh worked very hard and put many years of his life on this work. He prepared a grammar of the sacred text of Guru Granth Sahib and also prepared and completed the Teeka of whole of Guru Granth Sahib. But it is done on the basis of grammar, and on the root level it has been derived from Sanskrit, which is not justified for the simple reason that there are different languages included in Guru Granth Sahib. And how is it possible to have one grammar. Secondly, being revealed in its content, it is not justified to interpret it with the help of grammar only. The revealed Text is not always composed in accordance with grammatical rules. Thirdly, and most importantly, the literary form which has been used to transmit the message is poetry. And in poetry, the grammatical rules do not necessarily apply. In this regard, emphatically avers Dr. Darshan Singh in his English version of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, “Some scholars have tried to find certain grammatical identifiables for understanding gurbani, therefore, they have applied them on gurbani to study and interpret or explain it. In this adventure, the very beginning is wrong. One, that grammar is not a discipline for poetry, much less for divine or revealed poetry. It is certainly for prose, and Guru Granth Sahib is not a piece of prose. Second, the poets of Guru Granth Sahib were not prepared even to accept the yardstick of prosody, what to talk of grammar, an irrelevant discipline for the system of their creative process. Therefore, to study a line, a couplet or a stanza of gurbani with tools provided by grammar and to find out the lexicons used, and the meaning of words with the tools, is not feasible.”13

The most significant element of this Granth is that it contains the banis of other Sufis and saints other than the Gurus. The bani of Satta and Balwand, the Bhaktas such as Kabir, Namdev, Sheikh Farid, Surdas, Sain, Jaidev, Trilochan, Dhanna, Parmanand, Pipa and Beni was included in the Granth. Other than these Bhaktas, the bani of Bhatts was also included, who in number are seventeen. They eulogised the Joti (Divine spirit) enshrined in the Guru's body. It was not the encomium of the Guru body, but the praise of the Guru Joti which is now enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib. Bani of Bhikhan, Mardana, Ravi Das, Ramanand was included in this Granth. So basically the Bhatts’ composition was laudatory in nature. These persons were very well-versed in Indian religious lore and had for long been attached to the Guru’s household. But in the later phase of their spiritual life, they were well contented and exalted in the presence of the Guru and this intimacy of both physical as well as spiritual nature provided them the spiritual illumination and contentment which further inspired them to compose bani. It was undoubtedly not the laudation of a person, but the eulogisation of the Joti enshrined in the Physical body of the Guru, and that was the reason that their bani was incorporated in the Holy Granth. To authenticate this view, Prof Talib says, “They were well-versed in the Indian religious lore and possessed a deep and intimate knowledge of the great moral and spiritual force of the Guru’s teaching.”14 So, basically there was this spiritual force which forced and attracted them to be in the presence of the Guru. In this sense, it is a great thing that the classical and the Oriental Indian lore could not force them to remain in the traditional line. So, they took the departure and came to the Guru’s court.

It is the only Granth in the world which is written in accordance with the Ragas. The Ragas predominate throughout whole of Guru Granth. It is written in 31 Ragas except Japuji and Ragmala. The latter is considered to be the index of the Ragas. The total Ragas employed in Guru Granth Sahib are Sri Rag, Majh, Gauri, Asa, Gujari, Devgandhari, Bihagra, Vadhans, Sorath, Dhanasri, Jaitsari, Todi, Bhairavi, Tilang, Nat Narain, Maligaura, Suhi, Bilaval, Gaund,.Ramkali, Maru, Tukhari, Kedara, Bhairon, Basant, Sarang, Malhar, Kanra, Kalyan, Parbhati, and Jaijavanti. Vedas’ Mantra part is also recited but it is different from gurbani recitation. Similarly, Quranic verses are also recited but not like that of the gurbani and have not been composed in Ragas. So in this sense, it is a unique Scripture amongst the world religious scriptures.

The second prominent aspect is the message embodied in the Holy Granth which is basically enunciated in Mul Mantra. It is uncompromising monotheism. The Mul Mantra is written in the beginning of Japu, the first bani of Guru Granth Sahib, wherein the concept of one God has been propounded. The God according to this creedal formula is both Nirguna, i.e., unattributed and Sarguna, i.e., the attributed, which further indicates that this mundane manifested material expanse is emanated from the unattributed God which prior to this expanse was in an uninterrupted trance.15

The monotheism of Sikhism is not like that of the Judaism and Islam, with a personified yet transcendent God, Jehovah or Allah. So He is eternal, changeless Reality which is beyond Maya. He Being the Supreme Being is operating in the creation, preservation and dissolution of the universe through His Maya, Lila or Kudrat. He operates this world through His Hukam in the operational form. The term Hukam is of wide application, standing for the cosmic moral force or elan called Dharma for the operation of the law of retribution and the law of grace. When man performs good deeds in this world, he earns the grace of God or receives the favour of God, which leads him to attain emancipation. In this sense, he becomes free from the existential bondage and is liberated forever, being the part of God.

Further, the basic teachings include the Naam. It is of utmost eminence in Sikh thought. It changes the total personality of man. It transforms metal into gold. It is spiritual transformation. It is the transformation which occurs at the consciousness level. The attainment of the Naam is possible only through Sabad (Word), which is the basis of the Sikh thought. On being asked by the Siddhas that who is your Guide or Guru, Guru Nanak replied without ambiguity that Sabad is his Guru. Sabad is the only guide and Sabad is the source of knowledge from which spiritual knowledge or the total perfection emanates.16 And the seeker attains total absorption or union with God which otherwise is not possible. This whole existential phenomenal expanse is because of Naam. Guru Arjun in Sukhmani avers thus, "All the creatures have been created by God Himself and all the regions known and unknown are His Creation."17 Thus Sabad is the source of Divine illumination which when practiced helps man to attain the pinnacle of spiritual glory. In this regard, says Guru Arjun Dev, “The holy preceptor’s word has lighted a lamp; from the mansion of the body is lifted darkness and a wonderful chamber opened.18 In this sense, the Sabad has esoteric significance, for the reason that it provides light and dispels darkness. Similarly, as opposed to Banprasta, the great Gurus emphasized the householders life, engaged in beneficent activity, keeping one’s mind absorbed in contemplation and devotion. This is a great contribution of the Gurus which lays stress on the synthesis between the spiritual and the secular which means the rejection of monastic or ascetic life. That is why the Gurus rejected or disapproved the brands of mandicants of India such as Yogis, Bairagis, Avaduts, Sanyasis, etc.

In the Siddha Ghosti, Guru Nanak rejects the Siddhas’ way of life which emphasises the esoteric psychosomatic practices of Hatha-Yoga and its mystique. On the contrary, the Guru pointed out the sovereignty of a life centred in moral and beneficial action as fruit of the spiritual life; without such activity, spiritual life is barren. Thus it is a revolutionary step which helped the Sikh community to change the course of Indian history.

The sixth Nanak, Guru Hargobind established the doctrine of Miri-Piri, i.e., temporal as well as spiritual. This combination of both the spiritual and the secular has been made for the first time in the Oriental religious thought as well as the Occidental thought. It is a unique contribution in the sense that the mundane concern has not been discarded or disapproved anywhere in Sikh thought. Guru Nanak Dev was the first Sikh Guru who raised a strong voice against the aggression of Babur and the injustice and cruelties perpetrated on the Indian people. Later the sixth Master, to counter and check the spread of Islam, established Akal Takht, symbolic of Sovereignty and political independence.

The Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh on March 30, 1699, created the order of the Khalsa to keep guard on the doctrine propounded by Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind and to encounter the Mughal force of devastation and destruction from which the Indian people were suffering. In this way, Guru Gobind Singh mitigated the pains of the people. Sikh thought created a classless society and it provided equal status to each and everyone, especially woman for the first time was given societal freedom. Guru Nanak raised a voice against the discrimination which was being meted out to them. He said vehemently that why to condemn women who gives birth to Kings.18 Thus, Sikh thought created a classless society, and emphasised equality of man and woman. It was a great revolutionary step taken at that time. It worked to maintain and establish the religious freedom of the people for which Guru Tegh Bahadur laid down his life. It combined both the spiritual as well as the temporal concerns of human life. These principles further helped to establish a community which checked the oncoming invaders to India, and in this way, saved both the religious and cultural 5000-years-old heritage of India. The Sikhs thus made further contribution in the political freedom of India. The Sikh thought established the doctrine of religious dialogue which helped Sikh community to spread throughout the world and, as a result, contributed to the economic growth and political environment.

Thus opined, its impact both on the national as well as international level was of tremendous eminence.



1. Guru Granth Sahib, Sarang MS, p. 1226. Pothi Parmeshwar ka than.
2. Ibid., Nat MA, p. 982 Bani Guru Guru hai Bani
3. M.A. Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion, Vol. I&II, p. LIII.
4. Guru Granth Sahib, Tilang M 1, p. 722, Jaisi main avai Khasam ki Bani tesra kari gian ve Lalo.
5. Ibid., Nat M 4, p. 982. Bani Guru Guru hai bani vich bani amrit sare
6. Ibid., Ramkali M 1, p. 943
7. Ibid., Kanra M 4, p. 1311, Satiguru bachan bachan hai Satiguru padbar mukti jamavaig.
8. Bhai Gurdas, Varan, Var 20, Pauri, Guru-murat Guru Sabad hai sadh sangat vich paragtiyaiya.
9. Bhai Gurdas, Kabit, Guru mahin Sabad hai Sabad mahin Satiguru nirguna sarguna gian dhiya so sujhwai ji.
10. Guru Granth Sahib, Gujari Var M. 5, P. 522, Hasandia khalandia viche howai mukat.
11. Prof Gurbachan Singh Talib, An Introduction to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p 203
12. Ibid., p 42
13. Ibid., p 15
14. Guru Granth Sahib, M1, P. Arbad narbad dhundukara M. 1, p 1035.
15. Ibid., M 5,
16. Ibid., p. 821
17. Ibid., p.821
18. Ibid.



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