AN INCOMPARABLE LITURGY:
SACRED NIT-NEM AMONG THE WORLD RELIGIONS
NOEL Q. KING
The study of the world religions comparatively, that is, side by side, is a young subject.1 Under such names as Comparative Religion, Religionsgeschichte, Religious Studies, etc., claiming to be as vertebrate as Theology, as carapaced with jargon and technology as a Social Science, it has often failed to possess its own soul. Born among the euphoria of the “discovery” by Europeans of the religious bases of the world cultures it fell easily into Europe’s pitfalls. These ranged onwards from the idea that objectivity demanded that the scholar should ultimately not believe believers but tacitly consider them deceived or deceivers, onwards to the tacit assumption that anything which passes human rationality cannot exist. They included the European cultural arrogance of the modem day as well as pernicious accidents of European cultural history such as the warfare of science and religion and philosophy’s desire to scour pots among enemies rather than pursue truth in the company of friends. In the pioneer days some of its most brilliant exponents were Christian missionaries who should have known better than to glorify their own faith by denigrating others. Yet in the end they were the brothers of the imperialists just as the Norman bishops who dismantled the Anglo-Saxon church were the brothers of the barons. The wonder is how often their faith led them to sincere admiration and crypto-conversion. This happened quite often, especially as the fever of imperialism burnt itself out. Therefore we women and men of many faiths and none at all, Western, Eastern, and rootless, come with respect and reverence to study together in a comparative context a unique gem of world religion, a mountain of light. It belongs to the Sikhs who graciously permit and indeed invite those who enter by the proper way and in a decent state of body and mind to join them. No one is asked to leave outside her or his critical powers or propensity to discuss.
The daily prayer of the Sikhs is usually taken to include at least Japuji, Japu Sahib, Sudha Swayyei, Rehras Sahib, Ardas and Sohila. I would be the last to exclude Anand Sahib. It is fairly common, especially amongst older people, to use Sukhmani in addition. In Gurdwara and more public and congregational use, Asa-di-var is also used, but our present focus is on personal and domestic use.2
The first setting-side-by-side (Auseinandetzung, as the Germans state it) of our brief comparison is with the outcome of recent study of prayer among the primordial religions such as those at the basis of African, New Guinean, or Native American Traditional Religions.3 A great deal of work has been done by students of Language, Linguistics, Philosophy, Anthropology, and Psychology. Much jargon language has been generated but at the same time it has become absolutely clear that the human is a prayerful animal.4 And, let it be whispered, prayer seems to have some effect, if only on the pray-er. In this matter Sikh prayer with its roots in the old Punjab undoubtedly has primordial and primal affinities. The whole resonance of the shabad, so prominent in this liturgy immediately takes the worshipper back to the primeval moment when humans first entered the land of the five rivers.5
A second juxtaposition of Sikh prayer can be with the daily prayer of the Muslims.6 From the first Mahala onwards we know how familiar the framers of Sikh Prayer have been with both the Islamic set of prayers and Sufi practice.7 A detailed comparison brings out many similarities of intention and effect but an overall difference.
Even more so in looking at the legion of Hindu practices, it is valuable to note the fundamental differences while recognizing common ground.8 Similarly in the world of remnant Buddhism in the days and journeys of the ten gurus which has not yet been fully evaluated in the context of its relationship to Sikhism. Possibly some of the factors which produced the warrior-monk and businessman-under-discipline in Japan were held in common and appeared independently. The full meeting of Sikhism and Buddhism will be interesting to watch and its next stages seem likely to take place in North America.
Of course the best school in which to study Sikh prayer is regular practice and attendance at it. Much can also be learned in conversation. As a scholar one longs for a systematic survey which could tell us how many and how deeply Sikhs in, say, the Punjab, the United Kingdom., Canada and California really know, use and practice Nit-Nem. One longs to collect narrations of how it has served people’s needs in different circumstances.9
However our present focus for discussion must be on the “Western,” “modern,” “scientific” world that Sikhism has so dramatically entered. Here Judaism and Christianity seem to be undergoing the same purgation and refinding of selfhood which Sikhism went through from the 1840s to 1940s. For twenty years my large classes in California consisting mainly of people of Christian, Jewish, or agnostic background have betrayed little knowledge of daily prayer. They are willing enough to learn but no one has taught them. In this situation we look at Nit-Nem and meditate upon its future. The original language cannot be abandoned. The wholesale dropping of Latin and the invention of modem Hebrew can teach us much.
There are practical difficulties too. If we depend too much on a professional expert, she or he may indeed know the subject profoundly but know nothing of the thought-worlds in which our children live. So much must devolve on father and mother, they must find time to practice and to teach, especially their lives themselves must be a lesson.
In this short paper I have given a brief and bald summary of what is for me a long term and never ending delight and study.10 Dr. Jasbir Singh Mann of California once prescribed for me as I grew older a daily recitation of Blessed Sukhmani. One needs many years just to begin to grasp the magnitude of the treasure of Sikh Prayer but even a little time given to it brings immediate rewards. In a world resounding with ecofeminism and cosmic vision we may joyfully acclaim the salok at the end of Japuji which begins with those glorious words:
pavan guru pani pita
“Air the Guru, water the father, earth great mother, Day and night, two men and women nurses with whom the cosmos plays...”
1 The articles of Eric Sharpe in edited Mircea Eliade: The Encyclopedia of religion, New York: MacMiIIan and Free Press, 1988 on Comparative Religion and on Dialogue of Religion give a factual introduction and extensive bibliography
2 On the content of Nit-Nem and its availability to study by any who desires to benefit by its bounty, see the relevant articles in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Sikhism, to be published at Patiala by Professor Harbans Singh. There are also numerous locally printed Gurmukhi texts of Nit-Nem. Their text should be checked with the authoritiative printed texts of the Adi Granth. Translations with notes by Sikh authors include Jogendra Singh: Sikh Ceremonies, Bombay1941, Chandigarh, 1968, Harbans Singh Doabia: Sacred Nitnem, Amritsar, revised editions, 1976 and later, text, transliteration, translation and notes and Gurbachan Singh Talib, Nitnem, daily prayer texts of the Sikhs, New Delhi, 1983
3 Sam D. Gill’s article of “Prayer” in edited Mircea EIiade’s Encyclopedia of Religion is stronger on Native American, African and Jewish, Christian, Muslim traditions than it is on South or East Asia. Like this Encyclopedia (apart from a few articles) as a whole it seems oblivious to Sikhism
4 Jargon weeds bloom abundantly in this meadow. They range from “Performative utterance” to “second-order language facts (meta-language).” Antti Alhonsaari’s Prayer: an Analysis of Theological Terminology, Helsinki: Kirjapaino Tarmo, 1973, is a highly technical thin-lipped account which somehow also reflects warmth, respect and personal experience
5 It is important to note that in this article I am not dealing with the important point that every part of the Holy Adi Granth Sahib (and hence most of Nit-Nem) has its appropriate musical raga. This enhances its beauty even as a setting in gold enhances diamonds. To write about it requires the learning of someone like Dr. Gobind Singh Mansukhani whom we rejoice to see at this conference
6 Islam is well-served by the Orientalist encyclopedists under such words as namaz, du a, salat. Sardar Narinder Singh of Ottawa reminded me of the great importance of Sufism in this context, so at the least one should follow up dhikr (zikr, compare Hebrew root zkr and New Testament anamnesis.)
7 From the still-living Punjab oral tradition in the days when Muslims and Sikhs lived together come memories of chuckles from members of both religions when the story was told of the Guru discomforting the Mullah who carried out all the motions of prayer while fixated on whether his new-born foal would fall down the well
8 About Hindu practices of prayer one can only say ‘Which practice of the very many?” Shall we think of the Vedic hymn of Wandering Thoughts in Prayer, of the woman interceding for her sick child before an icon of Lady Kali, of the follower of Patanjali’s Yoga-sutra in deep prayerful contemplation? Again for bibliography the reader may follow up relevant articles in Eliade or in one of the Encyclopedias of Hinduism
9 . It is hoped that the various Sikh Associations in Britain and North America will take up collecting the individual histories of their members who are the pioneer generation to settle in the west. In these histories it is hoped the writers will be asked to give details of their use of Nit-Nem and its service to them
10 . It is hoped that the various Sikh Associations in Britain and North America will take up collecting the individual histories of their members who are the pioneer generation to settle in the west. In these histories it is hoped the writers will be asked to give details of their use of Nit-Nem and its service to them.
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