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Subalterns' Voices in Sri Guru Granth Sahib

Sardar Pritam Singh

“Can the Subaltern Speak?” is the title of a book (by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) which is considered as one of the highly influential theoretical works in the field of post- colonial studies. The related question is “Are they heard?” Some are of the opinion that the subalterns do not and cannot speak and that they have to be represented by somebody else. Others think that it is not a question of the subalterns not speaking but a problem of their not being heard.

While going through some of the reviews of this book, I recalled the fact that we, the Sikhs, towards the end of our daily Ardas, address the Lord, Waheguru- “O Thou, the honour of the humble, the strength of the weak, aid unto those who have none to rely on” – the subalterns, the Dalits, the schedule castes, and in general the downtrodden groups in terms of caste, class, age, gender or office. These expressions for Waheguru in our Ardas are derived from the Hymns in Shri Guru Granth Sahib – the visible manifestation of the Lord, the Word of the Lord and an all embracing Scripture- that includes the hymns (having doctrinal identity with Gurus' Bani) by a numbers of Bhaktas and mystic saints hailing from the lower categories – weavers, cobblers, barbers, butchers, calico-printers, etc. It is, therefore, logical to expect that Gurbani as “Dhur ki Bani”, The Word of the Lord – is bound not only to speak for the traditionally lower-placed but must also empower them to speak for themselves and also be heard.

The primary object here is to highlight the fact that Shri Guru Granth Sahib provides replies in affirmative to both the questions raised in the book referred to above. The Sikh Gurus not only identified themselves with the lower-placed ones and spoke for them, they also provided them a spiritual pulpit in Shri Guru Granth Sahib from which to speak out with confidence and courage and be heard not locally but universally as well.

The approaches adopted by the Sikh Gurus for this purpose were:

1. The ideological break with the centuries old tradition of rigorous practice of Varnasramadharma. This involved debunking, negating, refuting most of the concepts, beliefs and extremely rigid, superstitious, inegalitarian and regressive social and religious practices of the ancient tradition but investing it with new meanings in seaset of a progressive society.
2. Enunciation of a praxis-oriented and most liberal ideology in Gurbani with a view to inspire subalterns to have self esteem, confidence and courage to speak out as equal to those belonging to the higher castes on the basis of having the common Universal Fatherhood of the Lord – Waheguru. The unique feature of the Gurbani is its simplified conception of a religious order “from a world that was mysterious, transcendental and beyond human reach to the one, that was real, in flesh and blood, within human reach, where man had a direct access to God, provided he chose to live the life of a gurmukh (God-oriented), instead of a manmukh (self-oriented).” The gurmukhs from lower castes could attain God realization while manmukhs coming even from the Brahman family line waste this chance of God realization in this life.
3. Alignment with the lower classes through their actions (the Sakhi of Bhai Lalo, the poor carpenter and Malik Bhago, the exploiter landlord) and theological pronouncement such as:
Nanak seeks the company of the lowest of the low class, the very lowest of the low. Why should he try to compete with the great?
In that place where the lowly are cared for – there, the Blessings of Your Glance of Grace rain down
4. Granting of recognition in many of their own hymns the spiritual attainments of these Bhaktas as in the following hymn by Guru Ramdas ji:
Ravi Daas, the leather-worker, praised the Lord, and sang the Kirtan of His Praises each and every instant.
Although he was of low social status, he was exalted and elevated, and people of all four castes came and bowed at his feet.
Naam Dayv loved the Lord; the people called him a fabric dyer
5. Special institutional arrangements like sangat, langar and pangat were made effective for creating and promoting an egalitarian society leading ultimately to the creation of Khalsa –a model for an egalitarian society, with four of the “Punj Piaraas” – Five beloved ones, the first to take initiation from Guru Gobind Singh ji – majority of them coming from the then prevalent lower castes. The Gurus thus blended the four varnas into one.
6. Incorporation in Shri Guru Granth Sahib of those hymns of Bhaktas of subaltern category that had doctrinal identity with Gurus' hymns and, further, reflected their self-image, self-esteem, spiritual attainments, confidence and courage in narrating their experiences of injustice suffered at the hands of the upper castes. This by itself effectively signified the strong egalitarian spirit firmly embedded in Shri Guru Granth Sahib who, as Guru, represents the divine word in worldly life. The Sikh way of life as prescribed by Gurbani, including hymns of the Bhaktas, derives its strength “from the practice of egalitarianism, humility and an honest devotion to God.”
The constraint of space permits us from a detailed analysis of hymns of the Bhaktas to illustrate their manner of speaking to and of being heard by the humanity at large through Sri Guru Granth Sahib’s verbal propagation and kirtan recital on the global electronic media and through other means.
i. A forceful clarion call for the protection of subalterns by Kabeer ji:
The battle-drum beats in the sky of the mind; aim is taken, and the wound is inflicted.
The spiritual warriors enter the field of battle; now is the time to fight!
He alone is known as a spiritual hero, who fights in defense of the poor
ii. Kabeer ji challenged the supremacy of Brahmin’s caste:
How is it that you are a Brahmin, and I am of a low social status?4
iii. Namdev ji describes his anguish and humiliation suffered by him when he was asked to leave the temple due to his low caste:
Laughing and playing, I came to Your Temple, O Lord.
While Naam Dayv was worshipping,
he was grabbed and driven out.
I am of a low social class, O Lord;
why was I born into a family of fabric dyers?
I picked up my blanket and went back,
to sit behind the temple.
As Naam Dayv uttered the Glorious Praises of the Lord,
the temple turned around to face the Lord’s humble devotee.
– Guru Granth Sahib, p 1164
iv. Total lack of inferiority complex or self-pity in Bhakta’s Bani:
Kabeer, everyone laughs at my social class.
I am a sacrifice to this social class, in which I chant and meditate on the Creator
– Guru Granth Sahib, p1364
Kabeer, what can my lowly status as a weaver do to me? The Lord dwells in my heart.
Kabeer, the Lord hugs me close in His Embrace; I have forsaken all my entanglements
– Guru Granth Sahib, p1368
v. Declaration of spiritual attainments by Bhaktas despite their low caste:
It is my occupation to prepare and cut leather; each day, I carry the carcasses out of the city.
Now, the important Brahmins of the city bow down before me; Ravi Daas, Your slave, seeks the Sanctuary of Your Name
– Guru Granth Sahib, p 1293
vi. Mutual recognition of the spiritual attainments of subaltern Bhaktas: Kabeer ji on spiritual attainment of Namdev and Jaidev:
Shiva is awake, serving at the Lord’s Feet.
Naam Dayv and Jai Dayv are awake in this Dark Age of Kali Yuga
– Guru Granth Sahib, p 1194
vii. Mutual Dialogue between Namdev ji and Trilochan ji:
Trilochan says, O Naam Dayv, Maya has enticed you, my friend.
Why are you printing designs on these sheets, and not focusing your consciousness on the Lord?
10 – Guru Granth Sahib, p 1106
Naam Dayv answers, O Trilochan, chant the Lord’s Name with your mouth.
With your hands and feet, do all your work, but let your consciousness remain with the Immaculate Lord
– Guru Granth Sahib, p 1375
In the end, I cannot resist the temptation to mention an incident in 1920s when Shri Guru Granth Sahib, granted divine sanction to the equal rights of the “untouchables” converts whom the traditionalist refused to let them distribute Prasad in the Golden Temple despite the insistence of the Singh Sabha reformers. It was agreed to take the “Vak-Hukum” from Shri Guru Granth Sahib as “Vak-Hukum” is considered as “God’s commandment always speaking with power and truth to the situation at hand.”
The passage of the “Vak” that turned up read:
He Himself forgives the worthless, O Siblings of Destiny; He commits them to the service of the True Guru.
Service to the True Guru is sublime, O Siblings of Destiny; through it, one’s consciousness is attached to the Lord’s Name.
The Dear Lord forgives, and unites with Himself.

With the hearing of this Vak, every one was satisfied that the Guru had accepted the converts. The dispute was resolved by this divine sanction.
The teachings of Gurbani, including the hymns of Bhaktas, have created a firm and conspicuous impact on the cotemporary ‘subaltern’ component of Punjabi society as:
i. The caste hierarchy structure does not conform to the Varna system;
ii. The brahminical ideology is quite weak;
iii. “Sikhism remains an important ideological force against the caste system;
iv. The egalitarian ideology has resulted into greater self-confidence and into entrepreneurial capabilities leading to significant occupational diversification amongst some of the sub castes, particularly in Doaba area in caste-free occupations like surgical industry in Jullundhar.

However, the prevailing socio-economic conditions of Subalterns, especially of the “Depressed Schedule Caste” do require very effective upliftment programs and projects to integrate them into the Sikh egalitarian society as equal partners on the lines envisaged by the Gurus.
Many more of the Sikh NGOs functioning on the basis of the model set up by the Kalgidhar Trust, Baru Sahib is the crying need of the hour. The factors which generate the conditions of anomie responsible for creation and expansions of sects within the Sikh society are the other areas needing urgent attention and redressal.


References & Bibliography

1. nIcw AMdir nIc jwiq nIcI hU Aiq nIcu ]
nwnku iqn kY sMig swiQ vifAw isau ikAw rIs ]
ijQY nIc smwlIAin iqQY ndir qyrI bKsIs ]4]3]
2. rivdwsu cmwru ausqiq kry hir kIriq inmK iek gwie ]
piqq jwiq auqmu BieAw cwir vrn pey pig Awie ]2]
nwmdyA pRIiq lgI hir syqI loku CIpw khY bulwie ]
Kyqu ju mWifE sUrmw Ab jUJn ko dwau ]1]
sUrw so pihcwnIAY ju lrY dIn ky hyq ]
4. qum kq bRwhmx hm kq sUd ] hm kq lohU qum kq dUD ]3]
5. hsq Kylq qyry dyhury AwieAw ] Bgiq krq nwmw pkir auTwieAw ]1]
hInVI jwiq myrI jwidm rwieAw ] CIpy ky jnim kwhy kau AwieAw ]1] rhwau ]
lY kmlI cilE pltwie ] dyhurY pwCY bYTw jwie ]2]
ijau ijau nwmw hir gux aucrY ] Bgq jnW kau dyhurw iPrY ]3]6]
6. kbIr myrI jwiq kau sBu ko hsnyhwru ] bilhwrI ies jwiq kau ijh jipE isrjnhwru ]
7. kbIr jwiq julwhw ikAw krY ihrdY bsy gupwl ]kbIr rmeIAw kMiT imlu cUkih srb jMjwl
8. myrI jwiq kut bWFlw For FovMqw inqih bwnwrsI Aws pwsw ]
Ab ibpR prDwn iqih krih fMfauiq qyry nwm srxwie rivdwsu dwsw ]3]1]
9. sMkru jwgY crn syv ] kil jwgy nwmw jYdyv ]2]
10. nwmw mwieAw moihAw khY iqlocnu mIq ] kwhy CIphu CwielY rwm n lwvhu cIqu ]212]
11. nwmw khY iqlocnw muK qy rwmu sMmwil]
12. inguixAw no Awpy bKis ley BweI siqgur kI syvw lwie ]siqgur kI syvw aUqm hY BweI rwm nwim icqu lwie ]1] hir jIau Awpy bKis imlwie ] guxhIx hm AprwDI BweI pUrY siqguir ley rlwie ] rhwau ]


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