Pictorial portrayal of Sikh Gurus
Readers’ views are invited about the issue discussed in this article. Their views should be sent in the form of letters to the Editor in about 150/200 words to be published in the next issue of Abstracts of Sikh Studies. Alternatively, brief articles on this issue not exceeding than 600 words may also be sent. – Editor
One question has flummoxed me for quite some time. At times it fades into the inner recesses of the mindscape, at other times it re-emerges causing mental tension, bordering on anguish. The question re-appeared one fine morning, on November 08, 2022, as the day marked the 553rd birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of the Sikh religion.
This time the question hurt me hard. That anguish was like a seizure. Here is what happened: On picking up the morning newspaper and turning it round, I was face-to-face with a full page advertisement of ‘Gurpurb greetings’ with a photograph of Guru Nanak. On the inside pages, one came across many more government-sponsored and business-promoting advertisements, adorned with not only Guru’s photograph but also quotes from Gurbani and pictures of Gurdwaras. The newspaper with Guru’s photograph had been on the un-swept driveway for quite some time. Sigh!
Is it another form of sacrilege?
One may say: It is not unusual to see all these - Gurus’ photographs, paintings, sketches or quotes from Gurbani or pictures of Gurdwaras - in print. One also comes across wall-or-table calendars with similar images in homes (mine is no exception), work places and museums. Gurbani quotes as also most visible symbol: Khanda- kirpan-circle or even Ik Onkar is often printed on cards - marriage or death. One may say: This is usual. Should it be?
Now the question is, how far these depictions are ‘authentic’, ‘true’ or ‘false’ – a photograph, a painting or a sketch. Every Guru’s impression varies from one image to the other, depending upon the imagination and visualization of the artist concerned. These at best are an individual’s perception of what our Gurus, in human form, may have looked like. With the passage of time, paper printouts have paved the way for Gurus’ idols in wood, plastic or metal.
Are we following in the foot-steps of our other co-religionists and believers, who ‘worship’ deities by placing flowers in front or garlanding or burning incense in front of religious ‘objects’? This is also not unusual, one may say. What is unusual is that some Sikhs could also be doing the same, and they do, contrary to the prescribed or ordained directives, as per the Sikh religious ethos or Rehat Maryada (code of conduct). One would like to be enlightened and educated on the practice of ‘idol worship’.
In fact, depiction of historical scenes (of battles of Just War or bricking alive of Guru Gobind Singh’s two Sahibzadas’ or imaging baptizing of Panj Pyaras -the five beloved ones - by Guru Gobind Singh, portraits of Sikh warriors or execution of Sikh martyrs or of Gurus’ family members) or recreating imagined mythological depiction of yore, whose narrative has traveled down the corridors of time, through sketches and paintings is usual, say a norm. However, is depiction of the ten Gurus in ‘human’ form justified? This question comes to mind because Guru or God - the invisible, invincible power - is said to be ‘formless’. The two terms, God and Guru, are interchangeable. If that is so, should existing photos, pictures, sketches -easily available, in circulation, on sale - of the ten Gurus’ in ‘human form’ be permitted , more so, should one ‘worship’ or ‘bow’ before these?
(Admittedly, internet, though a useful entity, is, however, a tricky tool to seek answers, information and ‘knowledge’. One often hears that not all that one sees on the internet may be ‘true’ or ‘authentic’. The answers or the information sought that appears on the screen could be ‘fake’ or ‘vague’ or coloured -‘misleading’ or ‘mischievous’, thereby. It is, therefore, important to use one’s common sense, judgment rather than blindly believing what one sees or reads. One has to be circumspect. Yet, we revert to internet quite often, as did this writer.)
On the internet, on ‘Gurus, images and statues’ provided the following narrative:
Guru Ji himself declares and affirms upon the issue through Gurbani as:
ਗੁਰ ਕੀ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਮਨ ਮਹਿ ਧਿਆਨੁ ॥
ਗੁਰ ਕੈ ਸਬਦਿ ਮੰਤ੍ਰੁ ਮਨੁ ਮਾਨ ॥ ਗੁਰ ਕੇ ਚਰਨ ਰਿਦੈ ਲੈ ਧਾਰਉ ॥
ਗੁਰੁ ਪਾਰਬ੍ਰਹਮੁ ਸਦਾ ਨਮਸਕਾਰਉ ॥
Meditate on the image of the Guru within your mind; let your mind accept the Word of the Guru’s Shabad (Gurbani teachings) and His Mantra (advice & guidance). Enshrine the Guru’s feet within your heart. Bow in humility, forever, before the Guru - the Supreme Lord God.”
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 864
ਗੁਰ ਕੇ ਚਰਣ ਰਿਦੈ ਉਰਿ ਧਾਰਿ ॥
ਅਗਨਿ ਸਾਗਰੁ ਜਪਿ ਉਤਰਹਿ ਪਾਰਿ ॥
“Enshrine the Guru’s Feet in your heart. Meditate on Him and cross over the ocean of fire”
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 192
And hence with these words and passages Sikhism apparently justifies that Sikhism won’t allow making or worshipping of any sort of photos, pictures, statues, scenes of the ten Nanaks. To a man each of the Dasam Nanaks never allowed any artist or engraver of the time, to engrave, paint or sculpt their physical or human roop (form).
The advent of photography had not been invented until many years after their time on earth. Any of the paintings, or drawings in homes and Sikh establishments around Waheguru’s world, are images brought forth from the minds of artists who are naturally ignorant of the real physical appearances of any Sikh Guru and the formless One that men around the world have rendered form too. Of course those minds are minds that are part of God, created by God. Guru has no form he is formless so remove all pictures.
This is one view.
Therefore, one wonders, how or when did the practice of depiction of photos, pictures, paintings and sketches or idols start? There must have been artists during the period of the Gurus, as were chroniclers, writers and poets. The written word - Gurbani - as in Guru Granth Sahib and Sakhis, pertaining to the period of the Gurus, is a testimony to the existence of contribution of the writers and poets of that time. And, we refer to Guru’s Bani as ‘Dhur ki bani’ recited and dictated by the Gurus. Were artists barred from sketching or sketching Gurus’ appearances, as per the internet?
One wonders, assuming the artists were permitted to sketch Gurus’ portraits, did they or did they not do so? If they did so, are those centuries- old depictions available somewhere? If so, where, in whose possession, in what form? Are those authenticated by ‘experts’? This and related questions arise because of wide-spread display of Gurus’ images.
However, in historic Gurdwaras are preserved and displayed several of Gurus’ relics and artefacts. There is also a book, Sikh Heritage: Ethos and Relics byBhayee Sikandar Singh and Roopinder Singh. It has been published by Roopa Publications, 2012. On the book, the internet says: Sikhs are fortunate to have many well-preserved relics that belonged to the Gurus. Their significance is timeless. Yet, many remain unaware of this vast treasure. Sikh Heritage: Ethos and Relics elucidates the essence of Sikhism, and entwined with it, the history and lore of the people of Punjab…..
Through photographs and descriptions of many hitherto unseen relics of Sikh heritage bestowed upon the disciples, the authors place each artifact in its historical context….. Every relic, every article is a living symbol of the Sikh ethos. Included are priceless artefacts in the custody of the descendants of Bhai Rup Chand….
The Maharajas of Patiala and Nabha still have significant collections which find a special place in this profusely illustrated volume that welcomes the reader with unsurpassed clarity and sensitivity to the world of Sikh heritage, an endearing blend of art, enthusiasm and knowledge. The authors have used their thorough understanding of Sikh ethos to give us a profound feeling for all that has been left behind by the Sikh Gurus.
This reference to Gurus’ relics and artefacts becomes imperative in the context of circulation, availability and display of pictures, paintings, sketches of the Gurus. The relics and artefacts are different from portrayal of the Gurus.
In fact, a controversy had risen on the authenticity of even these items -Gurus’ relics and artefacts - when the Punjab Government had sponsored ‘Darshan Yatra’ of these, across the state in May 20, 2015. It was left to the Sikh scholars and historians of the Centre on Studies in Sri Guru Granth Sahib at Guru Nanak Dev University, to scotch the controversy.
These scholars’ comment was that authentication of a majority of the relics of the Sikh Gurus on display had been done on the basis of ‘historical evidence’. Asserting that documentation of relics of the Sikh Gurus is the only way to avoid such controversy, the centre’s head, Prof Balwant Singh Dhillon, said: “Unfortunately, the Sikh heritage in the form of relics has so far not found attention at the hands of scholars. No documentation of Sikh relics, especially their movement in history, present custodians, details about their size and material has been done so far. Some of the relics of the Sikh gurus have been lost forever and some others have decayed and are beyond repair.
“A majority of the relics that are on display in the yatra have been authenticated by the centre. Authentication has been done on the basis of historical documents and evidences that are available in authentic books on the Sikh religion and history”. (Taken from internet –Hindustan Times.)
This controversy had erupted then, when a Congressman shared a video sent to him from the USA that had doubted the authenticity of the relics. The sender, Syed Nayeem Haider, had claimed to be the eighth generation descendent of Peer Budhu Shah, who is said to have been handed over the relics by Guru Gobind Singh. He said those were in the possession of the family, as per a report in the Times of India at that time. The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee was quick to dispel any doubts about the authentication and dubbed such ‘elements’ as ‘anti-Sikh’.
The writer is putting across to the learned readers of Abstracts of Sikh Studies a series of questions to which answers are sought, as also to get a correct understanding on the issues –Gurus’ pictorial display and Gurus’ relics and artefacts.
Another aspect of these and related questions that crowd my mind is: When discarded - newspapers, magazines, books, calendars, cards or sold off as waste paper; used for wrapping, or simply swept along with other ‘kachra’ and dumped into dustbin, does it not amount to sacrilege? Are these not sacred? If scattered torn pages of ‘Gutka’ or Guru Granth Sahib are found in public places, it is sacrilege. Such horrifying incidents invite anger and wrath of the community. This is but quite natural. Why does one shy away when similar treatment is meted out to Gurus’ portrayals or Gurbani quotes or pictures of Gurdwaras appearing in print?
What has SGPC to say on this disturbing issue and what does Rehat Maryada say? Has Akal Takht taken cognizance of this aspect? One school of thought is that it may be difficult if not impossible to stop the practice of display of Gurus’ pictures, given their wide spread availability and display, globally. The Sikh clergy need to introspect and give SGPC a directive on this sensitive issue, that irks me and, perhaps, or may be, many more.
On another internet site, Sikh Answers, one comes across this topic - Are the pictures of the Gurus real? If not, then why do we hang them up? One goes like this: Sikhism rejects any form of idol worship including worship of pictures of the Gurus. Artists' renditions depicting Sikh history are for inspirational and educational purposes only and should not be regarded as objects of worship themselves. However, these pictures for educational or inspirational purposes should be not hung in the main hall of the Gurdwara where Guru Granth Sahib Ji is present. Instead they should be hung in a separate hall or museum.
Depicting the Sikh Gurus in pictures can become problematic. It’s a double edged sword because paintings illustrating Sikh history and Saakhis can excite and rouse the spirit of Sikhi within those people who perhaps otherwise would never pick up a book on the Sikh faith. However, it would be Manmat (contrary to the Guru’s teachings) for people to hang flower garlands or burn incense in vicinity of pictures or illustrations. Sadly that is the general direction many people have taken with Sobha Singh’s work because he focused almost exclusively on the faces of the Gurus. So any paintings or drawings that are made should focus on projecting Saakhis and history of the Sikh nation. There has to be a balance in putting the necessary aesthetics to create a strong painting but not so much that it becomes an idol in itself.
Another take on this issue available on the internet reads:
ਬਾਣੀ ਗੁਰੂ ਗੁਰੂ ਹੈ ਬਾਣੀ ਵਿਿਚ ਬਾਣੀ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਸਾਰੇ ॥
ਬਾਣੀ ਕਹੈ ਸੇਵਕੁ ਜਨੁ ਮਾਨੈ ਪਰਤਖਿ ਗੁਰੂ ਨਿਸਤਾਰੇ ॥5॥
Gurbani is the embodiment of the Guru and the Guru is the embodiment of Gurbani. In the whole of Gurbani is contained the Nectar. If the attendant acts up to what Gurbani enjoins, the Guru in person (verily) saves him.
– Guru Granth Sahib, p. 982
The Sacred Hymns revealed through the Gurus, Bhagats, and other Divine Saints, were compiled and installed as ‘Shabad Guru’ (The Word Guru) in Sri Harmandar Sahib (commonly known as the “Golden Temple”), Amritsar. No pictures or idols of the Guru (none were there), were allowed to be placed in the buildings or depicted on its walls. For making the environment aesthetic and soothing to the mind, flowers, geometrical figures and other artwork was engraved on the walls of the Golden Temple. Pictures and paintings of the Gurus are conspicuous by their absence.
Yet, another write-up on the internet, it is said: One wonders how the false pictures of the Gurus and even their plastic, wooden and metallic idols appeared, not only in the houses of the Sikhs but also in many Gurdwaras.. ..It can easily be known from the historical records as to how fake pictures and then statues of the Gurus entered the Golden Temple and Sikh houses. What seems to be extremely difficult is how to remove them out of the Gurdwaras and the Sikh psyche.
Not only a few credulous Sikhs, some traditional preachers and even a few educated Sikhs have started believing in Gurus’ pictures. They think that keeping pictures of the Gurus in the house is the Gurmat method of showing respect to the Gurus and obeying their blessings. Some Sikhs have seen garlanding the Guru pictures and serving food to them for ‘Bhog’, a practice prohibited for the Sikhs. Not all Sikhs, of course, have reached the stage of worshipping the Gurus’ pictures/paintings as the Hindus worship their idols, but a large number of them are on their way to do that. Some scholars want these pictures (all are surely fake) to be destroyed whereas others suggest that only their worship be prohibited.
ਸ਼ਬਦ ਗੁਰੂ ਗੁਰ ਜਾਣੀਐ ਗੁਰਮੁਖ ਹੋਇ ਸੁਰਤਿ ਧੁਨ ਚੇਲਾ ॥
“One should accept the word of the Guru as the Guru, and by becoming Gurmukh one makes his consciousness the disciple of the Word.”
– Bhai Gurdaas, Vaar 7-20
Gurbani explains that the picture of the Guru is his ‘Word’, Gurbani, which a Sikh is to love:
ਗੁਰ ਕੀ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਮਨ ਮਹਿ ਧਿਆਨੁ ॥ ਗੁਰ ਕੈ ਸਬਦਿ ਮੰਤ੍ਰੁ ਮਨੁ ਮਾਨ ॥
ਗੁਰ ਕੇ ਚਰਨ ਰਿਦੈ ਲੈ ਧਾਰਉ ॥ ਗੁਰੁ ਪਾਰਬ੍ਰਹਮੁ ਸਦਾ ਨਮਸਕਾਰਉ ॥1॥
“Meditate on the image (i.e. enshrine the feet) of the Guru within your mind. Let your mind accept the Word of the Guru’s Shabad and His Mantra (as the highest and pure Mantras).
– Guru Granth Sahib, p. 864
The write-up goes on to give a brief background, history, of the imagery of Gurus’ pictures:
The Keshdhari Sikhs during the 18th century were forced to leave the villages and live in the forests, the non-Keshadhari disciples and sympathisers of Sikhism took care of the Sikh Gurdwaras and the historical places. These disciples did not board the ship of Sikh Faith; they only held it in their hands but kept their feet stuck in the Hindu Boat.
The Brahmanical influence, which was still holding their mind, obliged them to depict popular mythological scenes on the walls of the Gurdwaras as they were traditionally depicted on the walls of Hindu temples. When the pictures of the Hindu gods and their consorts appeared on the Gurdwara walls, the pictures of the Gurus had also to appear as a natural sequence. All pictures, of course, differed and were subject to the imagination of the painters. The pictures from the walls moved on the paper and were printed in large numbers to reach every Sikh house and every Gurdwara. Only a few vigilant managers did not permit any kind of pictures, howsoever ‘genuine’ or ‘superior’ they were claimed to be, to come even near the boundary of the Gurdwaras.
Once the pictures of the Gurus were accepted as ‘true’ and ‘good’ by the masses, how could anyone stop them from taking the form of idols and statues? Unfortunately, it appears that they are here to stay at least for the time being. During the 18th century, not only the non-Sikh but anti-Sikh rituals were practised in Gurdwaras without any objection because the Khalsa had moved to the forests. The sacred places were managed by the ‘Sanatan (Brahmanical) Sikhs’ or by those Mahants who still believed in Hindu rituals even after associating themselves with the Sikh faith. When the Sikhs lost their Raaj in Panjab in 1849, they had time to turn their thoughts towards their faith. They were surprised to find Sikhism already pushed out of the Gurdwaras by Brahmanical rituals. The worship of idols whether of the Hindu gods or of the Sikh Gurus is prohibited for the Sikhs. However, both were worshipped by the Sikhs in the precincts of the Golden Temple.
No true pictures of the Gurus exist, though some have been claimed to be true pictures. One ‘true’ picture is totally different from the other ‘true’ picture. Most of them are modern paintings. Some old sketches / paintings are also available, but all are based on the imagination of the painters. No Guru permitted his painting to be made in his time, because it is against the philosophy of the Sikh faith as mentioned earlier.
We should not have Gurus’ pictures in our houses or Gurdwaras. Instead we should have Gurbani hymns written and hung for our guidance in our house. Bending/bowing before the pictures or garlanding them is prohibited even if they were true pictures. The Sikh philosophy tells that ‘words’ said by the Guru are the ‘Guru’ (now Guru Granth Sahib Ji). We bow not before a book, as some persons think, but to the ‘Brahm Giaan’ (Divine Knowledge) and Shabad-Jyot (Divine-Light of God within the revealed Word) therein.
Here is another internet take on the subject of -Photos of Gurus – aesthetic experience or distorting Sikhi?
On this, Dr Karminder Singh Dhillon, a profound scholar of comparative religious studies, a prolific writer and a Sikh thinker writes:
The argument is defective when it comes to a philosophy (Gurmat) that strives to draw a line between the message and the messenger. In Sikhi, the philosophy is paramount; the philosopher reduces himself to nothing. The message is supreme, the messenger desires a status of non-entity. The value and belief is everything; the messenger reduces his position to nothingness. This notion is found all over the philosophy of Gurbani and within the messages of the Shabad.
ਹਉ ਆਪਹੁ ਬੋਲਿ ਨ ਜਾਣਦਾ ਮੈ ਕਹਿਆ ਸਭੁ ਹੁਕਮਾਉ ਜੀਉ ॥
By myself 1 know not how to speak. I utter all, that is the command of my Lord.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 763.
ਮੈ ਨਾਹੀ ਕਛੁ ਹਉ ਨਹੀ ਕਿਛੁ ਆਹਿ ਨ ਮੋਰਾ ॥
I am nothing, I have nothing and nothing is mine.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 858
ਸਭਿ ਗੁਣ ਤੇਰੇ ਮੈ ਨਾਹੀ ਕੋਇ ॥
All virtues are Thine, (O Lord !) I have none.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 4
ਮੈ ਨਾਹੀ ਕਛੁ ਆਹਿ ਨ ਮੋਰਾ ॥
I am nothing and nothing is mine.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 337
ਤੂੰ ਕਰਤਾ ਕਰਣਾ ਮੈ ਨਾਹੀ ਜਾ ਹਉ ਕਰੀ ਨ ਹੋਈ ॥
Thou the Creator, no power to do anything have I. Nothing by my will comes to pass.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 469
ਜਬ ਹਮ ਹੋਤੇ ਤਬ ਤੂ ਨਾਹੀ ਅਬ ਤੂਹੀ ਮੈ ਨਾਹੀ ॥
When there was egoism in me, Thou wert not within me, then; now that Thou art there, there is no egoism.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 657
ਮੈ ਨਾਹੀ ਪ੍ਰਭ ਸਭੁ ਕਿਛੁ ਤੇਰਾ ॥
I am nothing, everything is Thine, O Lord.
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 827
From the above sampling of verses, one gets the clear message that Gurmat is a philosophy that strives hard to obliterate the status, position and standing of the messenger. Mein Nahin –I am not, I am nothing; the messenger is of no significance.
None of the writers of Gurbani left even the faintest of clues as to their full names, that of their parents, their spouses, their families, their place of birth etc. None of our Gurus indulged in having their portraits created. Surely amongst their followers, there would have existed many a good artist as there were poets, musicians and skilled persons in other arts to record details of their physical likeness. It is not that they could not. But that they were disallowed.
It is the tragedy of Sikhs that instead of linking with the messages, we have strived to link with the physical identity of the messengers – the identities they sought so hard to obliterate. They sought to obliterate their own personal human identities so that we could learn to do the same to ours and not indulge in the egoistic inflation of our own.
In our own desire for self-indulgence and self-grandiose, we have sought to transfer the same to our Gurus. In our own egoistical desire for portraits, pictures, paintings and drawings of our own selves, we have sought to create the same for our Gurus…..
Having said this, let me confess that feeling low and disturbed, not knowing, who to turn to for being apprised and educated on the issue dealt with, portrayal of Sikh Gurus, I look up to the readers of Abstracts of Sikh Studies to elucidate, educate and help me overcome hurt and anguish that left me disturbed on November 08, 2022.