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The Foundation of Sikh Exegesis

Prof Balwant Singh

The sacred writings preserved in the Sikh Scripture are known as gurbani. As proclaimed by Guru Nanak and his successors, bani is not merely a product of speculation or imagination but the highest kind of revelation received directly from the Divine. 1 Ever since its first codification in 1604, this Sikh Scripture has been looked upon as the most authentic repository of the divine `Word'. It enjoys an unparalleled place of prominence in the Sikh way of life. Guru Granth Sahib is not merely a scripture but an eternal Guru which has guided the Sikh Panth to reinterpret itself at different stages of its history.

The history of Sikh Scripture can easily be traced back to the times of Guru Nanak whose experience of the Numinous forms its very core as well as its basis. An examination of Guru Nanak's hymns makes it abundantly clear that he considered himself a divine minstrel whose chief avocation was to sing the glorious attributes of God. 2 He made the divine `Will' known through the medium of bani which left an indelible imprint on the subsequent growth of Sikh scriptural tradition. It provided a powerful stimulus to his successors who not only took keen interest in preserving its originality, but also added their own spiritual hymns to the received text. Though a number of saints have contributed to the Sikh Scripture, yet the whole literature enshrined in it, is religious in nature. It sets it apart from other poetical compositions.

The Sikh Scripture derives its authority from the self-illuminating eternal Truth. Every hymn of it focuses on the Ultimate Reality, which is Sui-generis , Transcendental and Immanent as well. The Sikh Scripture attempts to make God known through His names, attributes and acts of grace. In fact, the whole bani underlines the divine mission of Guru Nanak, and communicates knowledge about God. One way of knowing God is the way of love which develops into an intimate feeling of His sacred presence all around in this world. It is an extra-ordinary experience that belongs to the spiritual realm. It can be experienced directly at personal level, but cannot be communicated as such from one person to another. The validity of this truth or knowledge depends upon the intimacy and intensity of experience of the recipient. In the Primitive religions, this type of experience is expressed in the ecstatic utterances of the shamans . However, in the Sikh scripture, yearning for union with God and pangs of separation from Him have been expressed through the analogy of a matrimonial relationship. The nature of this unique, highly personal and transforming experience has been explained through the mystic terms such as anand , vismad , sahaj, atamras , turiya pad , anhad nad , etc. It is beyond the ken of empirical observations and rational verification. The words and language cannot convey its full import. Therefore, metaphors, symbols and similes are employed to explain it. Sometimes the full sense and correct meanings of the metaphors and mystical terms are beyond the comprehension of people where the exegetical nuances play a crucial role.

The subject of exegesis, i.e., explanation of the written text has always been of central importance to all the religious traditions of the world. The development, exposition and vitality of any religion can be understood from the attempts at its exegesis. Christianity has developed the field of hermeneutics, exegesis and systematic theology as specialized subjects to interpret its texts. Similarly in the Indian tradition, teeka (commentary), bhashay (exegesis) and parmarth (spiritual meaning) have been very popular subjects in the religious literature. An examination of the history of Sikh exegesis reveals that its origin, earlier approaches, methods and purpose were quite different.

The divine knowledge contained in the bani is eternal. It is relevant for all times and for all peoples. The spiritual experience expressed in it belongs to the category of prophetic experience. Neither it can be transmitted from one person to another, nor it can be expressed in its totality. That is why the nature of its language is always quite different from that of the secular or ordinary language of daily usage. To express this experience in the form of words and language is the first step towards its explanation. In this way, the bani of Guru Nanak is the first attempt which explains his spiritual encounter with God. Thus, the self-explanation of Sikhism in the form of bani that began with Guru Nanak and corroborated by his successors unfolds the process of Sikh exegesis at work. The need to preserve the religious experience of Guru Nanak and his successors in its original form resulted in the formation of the Sikh canon. The bani of the Sikh Gurus served the purpose of a canon, and played a major role to decide about the fundamental teachings of Sikhism. With the formation of canon, attempts to explain its percepts began. Resultantly, various traditions of Sikh exegesis came into existence which were known for their peculiar ways, means, methods and motives. It is worth noting that any exegetical school may incorporate the prevalent means, methods and techniques, yet it cannot ignore the authenticity of the canon.

As described earlier, the Sikh Gurus had expressed their experience of the Numinous in the form of bani . According to them, gurbani represents the sabad, i.e., logos, which is present everywhere in this universe. Therefore, gurbani is the divine revelation, which came to manifest itself through the `Spirit of Nanak'. In other words, bani of Guru Nanak is the first attempt to reveal and explain the divine mission for which he has been commissioned by God. The exegetical process of the Sikh text can be traced back to the times of Guru Nanak. In this context, the testimony of Bhai Gurdas is very revealing. He says:

When Baba Nanak came to stay at Kartarpur
He discarded the ascetic robes.
He donned the family dress
And, sitting on the bedstead, started preaching
His mission He revealed his message
Through the medium of bani in order to enlighten his disciples. It was
Always followed by dialogue and discourse on the spiritual matters. 3

On the basis of above evidence, we can well imagine that alongwith the bani tradition of religious discourse to expound the percepts of bani, it owes its origin to Guru Nanak.

Guru Nanak's bani was the major catalyst which inspired his successors to compose new hymns. A close reading of their hymns reveals that at some places they have elaborated and commented upon the concepts that had been underlined by Guru Nanak. Prof Taran Singh has categorized it as the Sahaj parnali, i.e., tradition of spontaneous interpretation. He quotes some passages from the writings of later Sikh Gurus where they have provided interpretation of the works of their predecessors. 4 In this context the best example of expounding the meanings of scripture through the medium of scripture is offered by Guru Ram Das. For example:

jip mn inrBau ] siq siq sdw siq ] inrvYru Akwl mUriq ]
AwjUnI sMBau ] myry mn Anidnuo iDAwie inrMkwru inrwhwrI ] 5

And also:

siB iDAwvhu Awid sqy jugwid sqy prqiK sqy ]
sdw sdw sqy jnu nwnku dwsu dsonw ] 6

One cannot fail to note that above verses read like a commentary on the Mulmantra and the saloka immediately following it. The use of scripture to expound the text and to define the technical terms is the most valid and reliable method of exegesis. The Sikh Gurus have resorted to the above methodology at a number of places in the Sikh Scripture.

Sometimes, the bani of Guru Nanak is considered a commentary on his Japuji and, in similar fashion, the hymns of the later Gurus are taken as elaboration of the works of Guru Nanak. 7 Actually, neither the Sikh Gurus had done it consciously, nor their writings can be divested of their originality. If the bani of later Gurus helps us to understand the works of Guru Nanak, that does not mean that it is of supplementary character. In fact, the whole Sikh Scripture is the self-expression of the `Spirit of Nanak'. Therefore, the bani of succeeding Gurus is an integral part of the original experience. In case we are to consider gurbani as one of the traditions of exegesis, then we can say that the whole Sikh Scripture is an attempt to express and explain the experience of Numinous that the Sikh Gurus had got in the form of sabad . It is the first authentic and authoritative explanation of Sikhism. Neither the later tradition of exegesis can overrule it, nor they can ignore the parameters underlined in it. Any attempt on the contrary would dilute the originality of the experience of bani . The touch-stone for any exegesis would be gurbani , which is the original source of Sikhism.

In the field of Sikh exegesis, next in importance to gurbani come the works of Bhai Gurdas. He was a close associate of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth Sikh Gurus, and had seen the development of Sikhism from very close quarters. He had been amanuensis to Guru Arjun to help him compile and canonize the Sikh Scripture. In fact, he was the most qualified and learned Sikh of his times whose knowledge of gurbani and its theology was par-excellence. He is the author of 39 Vars and 556 Kabit Swayyas which hold the status of key to the understanding of Guru Granth Sahib. In Sikhan Di Bhagatmala, an eighteenth century Sikh source attributed to Bhai Mani Singh, there is an interesting anecdote attributed to Guru Arjun which describes that:

Bhai Harbans Tapa used to read the bani of Granth Ji in the early morning, and during the third quarter of the day he read the works of Bhai Gurdas. One day he enquired from the Guru whether the Sikhs should read the writings of Bhai Gurdas or not. The Guru replied that his rivals are ignorant and they have composed poetry out of jealousy only. They have not taken any guidance from the sabad . That type of poetry has been banned. The works of Bhai Gurdas are just like teeka (commentary) on the sabad . It helps to attain the spirit of Sikhism.

The above statement provides a peep into the acceptability and respect that Bhai Gurdas' works enjoyed in the Sikh circles. We observe that the oral exposition of gurbani in the form of dialogue and discourse that began with Guru Nanak at Kartarpur, was continued by the later Gurus also. The bani of Guru Ram Das testifies to the fact that the Sikhs used to visit the Guru to have a dialogue with him on the spiritual matters. 9 Bhai Gurdas also informs that after having filled the treasure of gurbani , Guru Arjun was always engrossed in propagating it through the medium of katha (discourse) and kirtan (divine music). 10 We are told that Bhai Gurdas was a great oral exponent of gurban i. 11 On the instructions of Guru Arjun, he started regular katha (oral exposition) which was held after the kirtan of Asa di Var in Darbar Sahib, Amritsar. 12

A careful perusal of the works of Bhai Gurdas confirms that his Vars are basically concerned with the mission of Guru Nanak which had fructified in the form of a new religion. He presents it in the context of contemporary milieu, and establishes that it has its own system of doctrines. He defines very carefully and logically all the concepts of Sikh theology, and pinpoints the basic features of Sikh way of life. His Kabit-Swayyas unfold the nature of Sikh mysticism. The first exposition of Japuji outside the Guru Granth Sahib is found in the works of Bhai Gurdas especially in Var 8 and 21. 13

Sometimes his works read like a commentary on the bani . For example, his exposition of the Mulmantra and the concluding saloka of the Japuji present a wonderful exposition in verse. 14 He depicts deep understanding of the Indian religious tradition and its mythology. Besides, he was a keen observer of the contemporary social, religious and cultural milieu. He employed this knowledge very perfectly in order to expound the cause of Sikhism. For example, in the first Var he puts a question mark on the relevance of Hinduism and Islam, and provides legitimacy to the origin of Sikhism. He is a great exponent of the Sikh culture, and does not miss any opportunity to depict its unique and independent identity. He makes liberal use of Indian mythology and philosophical systems in order to illustrate his view-point. He possesses uncommon poetic talent to describe the whole epic of Ramayana and Mahabharata in a single stanza only. 15 The purpose is not to propagate them, but to elaborate the percepts of gurbani . Not only he uses the parables from mythology, he has the ingenuity to employ the metaphors, symbols and similes taken from local surroundings and culture. Sometimes he refers to a series of metaphors to emphasize a point. One thing must be kept in mind that neither he uses logic like a Christian theologian, nor he attempts his exegesis in the form of a systematic theology. 16 Similarly, he does not behave like a teekakar to unfold the meanings of the words. His chief motive is to present the Sikh beliefs and the mission of the Sikh Gurus in the context of contemporary milieu and, for it, he has followed the technique of gurbani . That is why his works have acquired the status of an extended canon. He combines the qualities of a theologian and an exegete so well, that none can surpass him in his style and richness of expression. The methods and techniques employed by Bhai Gurdas are so powerful and convincing that all these qualities have made his exposition the most authoritative one. Whenever there has been a need for authentic exposition of Sikhism, the Panth has always taken recourse to take inspiration and guidance from Bhai Gurdas and his works.



1. For detail see Guru Granth Sahib, pp 150, 328, 628, 722, 1174, 1243
2. Guru Granth Sahib, p 150; also see pp 91, 1097, 1243
3. Varan Bhai Gurdas, 1:38
4. Taran Singh, Gurbani Dian Viakhia Parnalian , Panjabi University, Patiala, 1988, pp 25-34.
5. Guru Granth Sahib, p 1201.
6. Ibid., p 1315.
7. Taran Singh, op.cit., pp 23-24.
8. Sikhan Di Bhagatmala (ed. Bhai Vir Singh), Khalsa Samachar, Amritsar, 1966, p134.
9. Guru Granth Sahib , p 562.
10. Varan Bhai Gurda s, 24:19.
11. Darshan Singh, Bhai Gurdas _ Sikhi De Pahle Viakhiak a r , Panjabi University, Patiala, 1986, p 101-102.
12. Ibid., p 101.
13. Ibid., p 102.
14. Varan Bhai Gurda s, 3:15, 39:1, 28:19, 6:5.
15. Ibid., 23:8-9
16. Darshan Singh, op.cit ., p 106.


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