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Guru Granth Sahib : Its Exegesis and Forms

Ms Inderjeet Kaur*

In Sikhism, the word Guru is used only for the ten prophet-preceptors, Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, and for none else. Now this designation of Guru is fulfilled by the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sacred Book, which was apotheosized as the next Guru by the last living Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, before he passed away in 1708. After this, no living person, howsoever holy or revered, can have the title or status of a Sikh Guru. In this way, Guru Gobind Singh added one permanent and final feature to the evolution of the Sikh faith when he installed Guru Granth Sahib as the Guru till eternity.1

History and Purpose of Exegesis
It is often said that the interpretation of a scripture begins soon after its compilation. The same is true in the context of Guru Granth Sahib also. For the true interpretation of Guru Granth Sahib and Sikhism, the Sikh Gurus themselves have explained how to understand and interpret the bani or its belief system. As it is evident from the Sikh history that the most important school of interpretation originated in the lifetime of the Gurus themselves. The first effort to interpret the Gurbani besides the Gurus was made by Bhai Gurdas. It is said that when Guru Granth Sahib was installed in the Harimander Sahib, the practice of exposition of Gurbani was started. Since then, the tradition of interpretation continued in one form or the other.

Guru Nanak, in his hymns, has clearly laid down the roadmap to arrive at the goal. The goal of life is to realize the Will of God. The Will of God can be realized by becoming tuned to His Will. The approach emphasized here is as much practical as academic. This is the unique feature of the Sikh Gurus, which cannot be ignored for the perception and interpretation of Gurbani. Consequently, in Sikhism, the unity of the spiritual experience of the Gurus, their ideology and their deeds, has to be accepted in order to grasp their true meaning.
Religion, in the words of Rudolf Otto, is based on the experience of the Numinous. The same is enshrined in the Scriptures. Since the experience of the Numinous is primarily non-rational or supra-rational, the nature of the scriptural language is mostly symbolic, metaphorical and allegorical. In order to make the mystical experience intellegible and accessible to the common man, a convincing explanation, the interpretation of the scripture is needed. The purpose of the exegesis is not only to interpret the religious experience but also to relate this eternal message to every new historical situation. Exegesis thus aims at providing a comprehensive study of the scripture from the philosophical, literary, theological, philological and comparative perspectives.2

A significant purpose of exegesis is to understand the religious personality of the writer as manifested in every single word, to look from the details to the whole, and from the standpoint of the whole to set the details in their true light. To understand the ideas or mind of its author is another major purpose of exegesis because without the understanding of the author’s mind, it is impossible to make a thing comprehensive to the present reader. It is easy to repeat verbally what one has heard, but difficult to reproduce it in its true sense; and unless every detail is brought out by a good paraphrase something will usually be lost. The task of conveying the thought in another language presents special difficulties. The translation must neither be slavishly literal nor yet merely a free rendering of the sense, but it must be in keeping as much with the genius of the original text as with that of the foreign language. The fixing of the true text is the important task or responsibility of an exegete.

‘The central task of the exegesis is completed by answering three questions: 1. What is the theological (allegorical) meaning? 2. What is its moral (topological) meaning? 3. What is its eschatological (anagogic) meaning?’3 The mystical meaning of a scripture cannot be discovered by following the literal interpretation. So to remain only on the literal level is to keep oneself one in darkness, or to keep oneself away from the anagogic meaning which is purposely the real meaning, the allegorical sense is said to be lying behind the literal sense; the topological sense is that kind of interpretation whereby a reader finds a moral lesson in the words, and in the anagogical sense the meaning is raised from earthly subjects to heavenly.4

Meaning and Need for Exegesis
Exegesis is the consonance of Words and Consciousness. The exegesis is related with the philosophy, ideology, history, society, culture etc. Due to its vastness of field, it becomes difficult to give the correct and universal definition of Exegesis. According to Oxford Dictionary, the word Exegesis means, “An exposition, especially of a Scripture; a gloss, is an explanatory note or discourse.”5 Its literal meaning is a critical explanation or interpretation of Scripture6 and a literary commentary which is that branch of theology which deals with the interpretation and exposition of the Scriptures. The word has been derived from the Greek word ‘exegeesthai’, (to explain ex-out, hegeesthai, to guide) which literally means to explain or to guide.7 In its original sense, ‘it is a form of explanation, exposition, a critical analysis, and interpretation of the scripture and to bring to the surface the hidden meanings of the message otherwise unknown of the terms contained in the scriptures. We also find some other terms which are synonyms of exegesis, e.g., interpretation, exposition and explanation. Hermeneutics is a comprehensive term which includes the meaning of all these terms in its scope.’8 According to Richard E Palmer, Hermeneutics is developed into an independent discipline for formulating universally valid rules of interpreting scripture since the 16th century. He further defines Hermeneutics that it is not a science of explanation but rather of understanding.9

Thinking, speaking and writing are three marvelous gifts which man possesses. “A work of a literature is not an object we understand by conceptualizing or analyzing it; it is a voice we must hear and through ‘hearing’ (rather than seeing) understand.”10 There are several reasons which demand the powerful need of exegesis. ‘Firstly the composer of the scripture whatever he composes, does so in rapturous mood, being in complete union with Almighty. He dwells not only on the physical level but becomes the denizen of celestial regions. The mystic experience he achieves is conveyed through symbols which underneath carry the different meanings from that of those at the surface level. Thus the symbolic meanings are beyond the comprehension of a layman as well as a scholar to some extent. Secondly, like every living organ, language also develops with the change of time. It changes with the passage of time and some old words become obsolete and their meanings become vague. The new words come into use in place of the old ones as Piar Singh holds that change is the nature of language with time and space.’11 In the modern world, where the science and technologies are rapidly developing thereby effecting a change in the thinking and attitude of the people. In order to meet the new challenges, the interpretation of the scripture thus became necessary. ‘Thirdly, an exposition of the scripture is needed not only because of the symbolic language but also because of the nature of spiritual experience. Almost whole of the Scriptural lore is the result of the devotional and intuitional set of mind. The resultant problem of comprehension ensues. For the reasons enumerated above, scriptures need the exegesis. According to R E Mcnally their exposition and interpretation is of great import to set forth and explain their full thoughts.12 Another significant reason for the coming generations is to give authentic and relevant information about the philosophy, history, culture, etc., of their religion.

Forms of Exegesis
Since, every religion has its own exegetical tradition, so we find some exegetical literature in all the religions. The only purpose behind these commentaries as we have already mentioned, is to explain the esoteric meaning of a text to the present reader. In fact, exegesis is an effort to bring together both the subjective and objective dimensions of interpretations. The concepts like exegesis, exposition, explanation, interpretation, etc., are different in their nature and form but all are related to the interpretation or exegesis. Somehow all these become integral parts of the interpretation. It can also be said that these are the integral parts of interpretation.

In the same way, the exegetical literature has its own forms or types. Tikas, Viakhias, Bhashayas, Parmarthas, Padarthas, etc., are the various fonds of exegesis. In Sikhism, tika or exegesis is the common inclusive term used for exegetical works. Its etymological meaning is to explain or a commentary13 and it explains the meanings of a text in brief. ‘Viakhia or exposition is that form of exegetical literature in which the exegete endeavours to bring out the meaning in greater detail. In it, along with the word meaning, central idea and meaning of a sabad is derived in the context of total composition and personal comments and, where necessary, the cogent sources of other exegetical literature are given. It actually is the study of a given text in totality from the various aspects. The Bhashya is a form of Viakhia to some extent. Its main stress is on the obscurities involved in the writing. Like the Viakhia, the exegesis in Bhashya intends to add certain elements from the outer sources to explain and explicate the meanings more clearly. Paramarth literally means spiritual meaning. The meaning other than the literal one of a text. We find this mode employed in the Puranic literature form which it came into Sikh exegetical literature during the Udasi or Nirmala saints' endeavour of Sikh exegesis. The exegete explains and explores the essential inner content of the text sometimes for the purpose of clarification, sometimes to strike a rapport with his audience or readers. The writer intends to go deep into the layer of the meaning of the words and bring hidden meanings to the surface. Padarth literally (pad+arth) are the word meanings, i.e., the literal meaning in the form of synonyms.’14

The Truth of the Scripture as we all know is the eternal truth. It needs interpretation in order to relate the eternal truth to every historical situation. The twentieth century Sikh scholars are attempting to explain the eternal message of the Gurbani in the context of the first half of this century. These scholars, on the one hand, have been responding to and rebutting the Western challenge by interpreting the Sikh doctrines and practice in the light of Western modes of interpretation. They adopted their methodology but defended the unique features and status of the Sikh religion. On the other hand, they have been striving hard to maintain the distinct identity of the Sikh doctrine and practice of Sikhism in the face of Chauvinistic Hindu designs which sought to disapprove the claim of Sikh religion as distinctly revealed faith. The interpretation of this period is, therefore, a departure from the traditional interpretation. It is maintaining its continuity as it based on the eternal message of the Gurbani but it is also a departure as it has been using the new tools and modes of interpretation to respond to the prevailing challenges to the Sikh religion.15


1. Encyclopaedia ofSikhism, Vol. lV, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1998, p.239-252.
2. Dr Gurnek Singh, Guru Granth Sahib: Interpretations, Meaning and Nature, National Book Shop, .Delhi, 1998, p. 7.
3. New Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. V, Catholic University of America, Washington, 1967, p.708.
4. James D Wood, The Interpretation af the Bible, Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd, London, 1958, Glossary.
5. Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002, p.885.
6. New Webster’s Dictionary, Surjit Publication, Delhi, 1979, p.539.
7. Chamber’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, Allied Publishers, New Delhi, 1966, p.372,
8. Dr Gurnek Singh, op.cit., pp.17.
9. Dr Anand Spencer, Understanding Religion: Theories and Methodology, Vision & Venture, Patiala, p.157.
10. Richard E Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer, North Western University Press, Evanston, 1969, p.9.
11. Piar Singh, Tikakari: Sidhantak Vishleshan, Tikakari, Itihaskari Patarkari Kujh Dristikon, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1984, p.98. 12. New Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. V, p. 707.
13. Sir Monier William, Sanskrit English Dictionary, Motilal Banarasidas, Delhi, 1979, p.429-30.
14. Dr Gurnek Singh, op.cit., p. 23.
15. Dr Gurnek Singh, Ibid., p.26.


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