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A Study of Guru Granth Sahib
– Doctrine, Social Content, History, Structure and Status –

A Review by Dr Hardev Singh

Author: J S Grewal
Publisher: Singh Brothers, Amritsar
Pages: 272, Price Rs. 395/-;
First Edition: March 2009

Dr J S Grewal is a doyen among the Indian historians and certainly the tallest figure among Sikh historians today. He has more than two dozen publications to his credit on diverse themes but I consider three of them outstanding and the relevant to the Sikh religion and its Gurus, namely, Guru Nanak in History, From Guru Nanak to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the present volume, A study of Guru Granth Sahib, under review. One may easily conclude that the author has reached its pinnacle of glory in his latest book on Guru Granth Sahib written in commemoration of the Tercentenary celebrations of the vesting of Guruship in the Granth Sahib in 1708.

The book under review consists of 7 Chapters. An interesting feature of the book is eighteen page glossary covering almost all the terms used in the bani of Sikh Gurus. Glossary is followed by a comprehensive introduction to the volume. The author refers to the seven traditions of interpreting Gurbani as given in the book by Taran Singh, “Gurbani dian Viakhia Parnalian.” The author is fully conversant with the influence of Singh Sabha Movement which provided great impetus for the study of the Guru Granth Sahib.

Chapter I, “Social Awareness” deals with the concern of Sikh Gurus with contemporary social order, polity, the Brahminical /Islamic /Ascetical traditions, reflecting their social awareness. This awareness springs essentially from their conception of God and the concept of liberation-in-life (jivan mukti). Guru Nanak is highly critical of prevalent social order of the day. Some social practices advocated and mediated by Brahmins in self-interest are not commendable in the eyes of Guru Nanak. The author has given a detailed account of these rituals based on the bani of Guru Nanak and his successors. “The social order is inegalitarian. Guru Nanak takes notice of the ideal of the four varnas and talks of the Brahmins, the Khattri, the Vaishya and the Shudra. There are outcastes like the Chuhras, Chandals and Dhanaks. Guru Nanak shows no appreciation for the distinctions of caste because there is no consideration for caste in God’s court. Guru Nanak identifies himself with the lowest of the low.”

The author gives a vivid description of the metaphors and similes used by the Sikh Gurus to bring home their message of social awareness. Metaphors and similes are drawn from conjugal life, e.g., duhagan, suhagan, suchajji, and kuchajji. Guru Ramdas uses metaphors and similes of trade and agriculture, and the same is true of Guru Arjun. Asa di Var of Guru Nanak is a beautiful commentary on the social degradation of Indian society during the times of Guru Nanak. The verse known as Babur-vani contains among other things a political comment. Guru Nanak is critical of the rulers and the ruling classes, as well as the clergy which promotes the interests of the ruling class. The author has established the distinct path of the Sikh Gurus in comparison with Brahminical / Islamic/ Ascetical traditions. On page 67, the author emphatically states: “Guru Nanak and his successors have no appreciation for any of the contemporary systems of religious beliefs and practices. Guru Arjun does not identify himself with Hindus or Muslims. The contemporary social order had lost its legitimacy; it was in need of utter regeneration through a new spiritual and moral message. Guru Nanak and his successors provided the basis for regeneration and its result was the emergence of a new social order in the form of the Sikh Panth.”

Chapter II, ‘Conception of God’ is a core topic for discussion in the Sikh religion. The author says: “The conception of God put forth in the Japuji and Asa di Var is reinforced and amplified in the rest of Guru Nanak’s compositions.” The qualities of God described in the Moolmantar (preamble) are amplified by other Sikh Gurus in their bani. The concepts of Guru, Shabad-Bani and Nam are beautifully explained by the author. The equivalence between all these terms is well established (page 97): “Thus Shabad and bani become synonymous and tend to become synonymous with Nam. Reflection on Shabad-bani is a way of meditation on the Name.” The concluding para on page 98 further defines Nam: “Thus, as a whole, the Name is equated with God’s name and with Shabad-bani, it is also equated with the transcendent God and the whole creation. Guru Arjun’s nam-dharn refers to the whole system promulgated by Guru Nanak and his successors.”

Chapter III deals with penultimate aim and objective of human life, concept of liberation. The author explains (page 101) the obstacles on the path of liberation, namely, maya, mamta and haumai. There is a wonderful commentary on the Sikh mode of bhagti, which is different from Vaishnava bhagti and bhagti of the Sants ( I presume author means sant-mat). The role of sadh-sangat as a vehicle for bhagti is stressed upon by the author. The concept of liberation-in-life (jivan mukat), rather than liberation after death, is what the Sikh Gurus preached and practiced. The author extensively quotes from the bani of Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Arjun and Guru Tegh Bahadur. “For Guru Tegh Bahadur, as for his predecessors, the goal of life is liberation-in-life. One does not have to renounce the world for the attainment of this goal.”

‘The Emerging Panth’ is Chapter IV of this book. The author refers to the divine sanction behind Guru Nanak’s dispensation (page 137): “Guru Nanak looked upon the new dispensation as distinct from the known religious traditions.” “For Guru Nanak, the way to liberation in Kaliyuga is the one advocated by him: appropriation of the Name, recognition of hukam, and living in accordance with the divine will.” According to the author, Guru Angad is an extension of Guru Nanak (both physically and spiritually) and promoter of emerging panth whose foundation was laid by Guru Nanak. On page 140, the author sums up: “ The Guru and Gurbani, together with the congregation, represent a new beginning in the socio-religious history of the world. The bani of Guru Angad becomes a profound interpretation of Guru Nanak’s dispensation.” The road map prepared by Guru Angad is followed by Guru Amar Das leaving no doubt that the dispensation of Guru Nanak was meant to transcend all the known religious traditions (p.143). The author tries to explain the concept of halemi raj of Guru Arjun (p.153) and in his concluding remark makes a terse comment on Sikh historians (p.156): “Historians of Sikh movement refer to the Sikh Panth as a ‘state within the state’ in the early seventeenth century. They look at the situation from outside. Seen from inside, it is halemi raj, not ‘a state within the state’ but a parallel dispensation not bound by any territorial boundaries.”

Chapter V, “The structure of the Guru Granth Sahib’ deals with the classification scheme adopted by Guru Arjun for compilation of the Adi Guru Granth in 1604. The author took up cudgels to differentiate between the Guru and the Bhagat (p.168): “The fundamental distinction between the Guru and the Bhagat defined the basic structure of the Adi Granth.” Quoting Gurinder Mann and Bhai Gurdas, the author states: “Only the most prominent sants like Kabir, Namdev, Ravidas, Dhanna and Sain were on an equal level with the Sikhs of the Guru.” It clearly establishes the superior status of Sikh Gurus vis a vis Bhagats whose compositions were included in Guru Granth Sahib. I wish the present situation in Punjab may be resolved following the hypothesis put forward by the learned author.

Chapter VI, “The Guru Eternal’ is the most important Chapter of this book. The author traces the historical origins of Guru Granth Sahib starting from its compilation as Adi Granth (Kartarpur Pothi) and its investiture as ‘Shabad Guru’ of the Sikh Panth by Guru Gobind Singh Jee in 1708. The author has established the relationship between Guru Granth and Guru Panth, both explicitly and implicitly on the basis of historical records. The author falsifies the claims of Namdharis in promoting the culture of living Gurus (p.195): “The Guru Granth Sahib alone is to be recognized as the visible body of the Gurus, says Baba Ram Singh in one of his letters.” The author makes a bold suggestion at the and of this chapter that Guru Granth Sahib is not only relevant but exceptionally relevant for interfaith dialogue.

Chapter VII, ‘Thus speaks the Guru’ includes translations of some selected banis of Guru Granth Sahib. However, I fail to understand why the author has adopted a piecemeal approach in translating Japuji, Anand and Sukhmani.

‘A study of Guru Granth Sahib’ by Professor J S Grewal is a unique contribution to the Sikh literature. In my view, this book will not only serve as a standard reference work but a ‘light house’ for budding Sikh scholars who want to understand the relevance of ‘The Guru Eternal’. I congratulate the author for delineating the message of Sikh Gurus without any distortion, Professor P S Kapoor for motivating the author to write this book and Singh Brothers for this wonderful publication of 21st century.


ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2009, All rights reserved.