The Guru: The Person & The Word
Dr I J Singh
Somethings We Know
History speaks of ten Gurus in human form who guided the Sikh faith and its development, starting with Guru Nanak in 1469 and culminating with Guru Gobind Singh in 1708.
And then at the end of his life Guru Gobind Singh decreed that the Word in the Guru Granth would henceforth be the spiritual Guru, while in matters temporal, authority would rest in the worldwide Sikh community acting together in awareness of and guided by their spiritual heritage.
In effect, Guru Gobind Singh divided the authority of the Guru into two integrated domains: spiritual and temporal. (Keep in mind the operative word here — “integrated.”)
Sikhs accept this as binding doctrine and we reiterate it at every congregational prayer. “Guru Granth ji manyo(n) pargatt guraa(n) ki deh” — Believe in the Granth — the embodiment of the Guru.
Admittedly, there are exceptions like the Namdharis and Radhaswamis who have had a series of living Gurus to guide them for over a century; there exist other minor sects as well that look to a living Guru. But those are few and largely but rightly viewed by most Sikhs as deviants from the Sikh panth.
One question that I frame today lies at the heart of what Guru Granth means to us today: despite the unbroken tradition that every one of the previous nine Gurus had followed, why did Guru Gobind Singh not nominate a Guru in human form to succeed himself?
I have heard respectable Sikh scholars and academicians assert – and most recently it was one who occupies an endowed chair of Sikh studies in North America — that it was because all four sons of the Guru had already been martyred; thus there was just no suitable successor left.
I find such reasoning facile but false and unconvincing, even though Guruship did stay within one family for several generations. At the end of his earthly life, Guru Nanak nominated a follower Bhai Lehna to succeed him as Guru Angad, bypassing his own two sons. Similarly, at the end of his life, Guru Angad nominated a follower, Amardas, to the office, not either of his own two sons.
In both examples, the sons of Guru Nanak and Guru Angad hungered for the office and were more than available. Willing and wanting of the office they were, but were deemed by the Guru not to be able. That was the issue, and that’s why they lost.
It seems to me that there was sufficient precedence for Guru Gobind Singh to have selected a disciple to the position of Guru. Certainly, at that time there was no dearth of excellent possibilities. Why then did he not go that route?
We can’t really second-guess the Guru. So we are not likely to be able to settle the question, but let’s explore it; the process can only help us think along some uncharted corridors of our rich history.
Let’s step outside the box to examine the matter.
The fact that the Word is paramount, not the human form of any Guru, becomes quite obvious from the reverence accorded to the Word (Shabd) by generations of Sikhs and Gurus themselves, ever since Guru Arjan first compiled the Adi Granth, which formed the major corpus of the Guru Granth.
Among many that are possible, I offer you only two brief citations from Guru Granth in support of my contention. “ ਪੋਥੀ ਪਰਮੇਸਰ ਕਾ ਥਾਨੁ ॥ ਸਾਧ ਸੰਗਿ ਗਾਵਹਿ ਗੁਣ ਗੋਬਿੰਦ ਪੂਰਨ ਬ੍ਰਹਮ ਗਿਆਨੁ ” (Page 1226), meaning that God is encountered as the Word in the Adi Granth, the precursor to the Guru Granth. Again, the Guru Granth says “ਬਾਣੀ ਗੁਰੂ ਗੁਰੂ ਹੈ ਬਾਣੀ ਵਿਚਿ ਬਾਣੀ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਸਾਰੇ,” (Page 982) ) — “The Word is the manifest spirit of the Guru; The Guru is immanent in the Word.” In fact, one only needs to step methodically through the Sidh Gosht (page 938-941), a dialogue between Guru Nanak and the Yogic scholars of the time, to marvel at Nanak’s emphasis on the Word as the only way to liberation.
The Gurus lived during colourful and dangerous times; two of them were martyred, as were the four sons of the tenth Guru. Often there were disagreements within the Gurus’ family and strong internecine rivalry, particularly when a successor Guru was to be anointed, yet there is only minimal, passing mention of any of this history, if at all, in the Guru Granth.
The Gurus received respect and reverence as the carriers and channels for the message. But their private lives remained private. In contrast, for instance, the institution of Christianity is a manifestation of the flesh of Christ; this is clearly reiterated at every Communion, at every Mass. Something akin to this would find no place in Sikhi.
The emphasis thus is not meant to be on the person of any Guru – from Nanak to Gobind Singh – but on the Word in the Guru Granth. Even though I say this, I must also concede that humans have very human needs, and so Sikhs worldwide seem to have created iconography and icons of worship out of the Gurus who were iconoclasts to the core.
Let us cast a very quick look at India and what it was like when the Gurus trod the earth. Indian society was internally divided by caste and subject to yearly invasions through the Khyber Pass and into Punjab. Many had used this gateway into India – from the Caucasians to Alexander the Great, the Mongols and Mughals – to stay, perish or return. The sea routes served trade but attracted invaders rather late in history when the French, English, Portuguese and Dutch ventured forth.
Over the centuries, the natives of India had become inured to being ruled either by the hierarchy of their own caste system or by invaders. Sikhi arose in the face of such a turmoil.
In creating Sikhi, the Gurus embarked on a critical experiment – one of nation building. What do a people need?
A meaningful and positive message to shape righteous living and a life of dignity with economic hope; an ethical framework and a way to fashion lives; a system of participatory self-governance that promises transparency and accountability where citizens have a stake in their lives, and an internally consistent model of conflict resolution, so that a sense of fairness and justice prevails.
So, the Sikh Gurus built institutions to address these fundamental needs of a just and progressive society. These nation-building efforts were not done overnight; the process took ten generations of Gurus and over two hundred years. And, during that time, ten Gurus from Nanak to Gobind Singh, personally directed and nurtured the development of many model Sikh communities by founding several townships that became the infrastructure of Punjab and of the larger Indian subcontinent.
How do we know that the experiment was successful? How does a gardener know that the sapling he planted sometime ago now no longer needs a supporting shaft or a scaffolding to hold it up? How does a parent know that the child is ready and the apron strings should be cut?
Two hundred years after Guru Nanak, the teachings had already been collated in what was to become the Guru Granth — the repository of our entire spiritual heritage. The sapling of a nation planted by Guru Nanak had been nurtured over two centuries by exemplary gardeners – the ten Gurus. Solid self-reliant communities had been built. Institutions necessary to a free people were in place.
Now Guru Gobind Singh set out to put the finishing touches on the experiment in 1699, when he initiated the first five Sikhs and then asked these five to initiate him in turn. This act, to me, speaks of his clear intention to pass on the mantle of temporal power to his Khalsa while Guru Granth retained all spiritual authority. This is exactly what he did nine years later in 1708.
By 1708, Sikhs and their community had reached a level of maturity; they were ready for self-governance. This is indeed a fantastic model. It places the onus squarely where it belongs – on us – and places our spiritual underpinnings in the Guru Granth, making it unquestionably timeless and universal.
There was thus no reason left for a Guru in human form to lead the Sikhs. Given out present state of disarray, some might take issue with my reasoning. They might wonder if Guru Gobind Singh really thought we were ready for self-governance. I leave the causes and the cure of our current malady and malaise to my readers, but do want to note that, by 1708, many of the necessary institutions — even the Akaal Takht – were functional and had been so for a good many years; the youngest institutions, nine years old then, were those of the Khalsa and the Punj Piyaray.
But then, you might want to argue, why does Guru Granth repeatedly remind us to look for enlightened souls (Sants) who can guide us? Why does it tell us to find mentors who can show us the way? Are the Gurus asking us to find living gurus to take the place of the ten from Guru Nanak to Gobind Singh?
In my view the Gurus were not foisting any new Holy men and Gurus on us, or Guru Gobind Singh would have named a human successor. But because of the plethora of self-appointed mentors and guides, this is a question that vexes us no end these days.
Let’s, for a moment, step out of this blind alley and come at it from a different viewpoint. I look back at our own education as professionals that many of us are. There was a time when our training had to be closely monitored and directed, and even controlled, but the objective and goal of the rigorous training was to eventually make us self-reliant and independent of someone holding our hand through life. That day came; some of us even became able and willing to train others.
Good professionals realize that, even after we become independent, the need for continuing education never ends. So we seek mentors and specialists who can further help to hone our professional skills and keep them sharp in an ever lasting process. Such teachers as we find do not redo the basics, they help us add to our repertoire and build on the fundamentals that we carry like a second skin.
In many professions, in fact, such ongoing continuing education is mandated by law; our license to practice our vocation depends on it. Since the word Sikh literally means a student, carrying the label says that the journey of a lifelong student is endless. It seems to me that the words Sikhism or Sikhi are shorthand for the “practice or path” of a Sikh lifestyle, much as we might speak of the practice of medicine, dentistry, or law.
I also offer an analogy of a marathon in which every one of the myriad runners is on the same path but, at any given moment, not at the same place on it.
And the runners do best when monitored by level-headed pacers and coaches (experts who have been there) that help by tracking progress, pace and direction. This then becomes the purpose in seeking the company of fellow travelers (sangat, congregation) and those enlightened souls with an inner wisdom who can inspire us further along the path.
This is why Guru Granth repeatedly and unambiguously asks us to seek the company (sangat) of such masters.
Unfortunately some of these self-styled masters become what we rightly label “sant- babas” of which many are charlatans out for the quick buck. (In turning teaching and learning into an entirely commercial enterprise we often lose the soul in the process.)
There are so many of these Rasputin-like seers and masters – almost dime a dozen — and they have infiltrated Sikh practice so intimately over the generations that existing Sikh families are few and rare that do not look up to some personage of deservedly known or dubious qualities as their guiding light well beyond the ten Gurus.
Run away from them as fast as you can when they ask you to focus on them, insist that you cannot relate to the Guru in Guru Granth except through them, or claim that they can show you the light.
But shun not the good ones in that crowd. Use them selectively but wisely as friends, guides and mentors.