Of revelation and revolution: SGGS as an “early modern” scripture?
Sn. Sangeeta Kaur Luthra
The question whether Sikhism is closer to Hinduism or Islam has been a issue of scholarship on Sikhism and the SGGS for 100+ years. But rather than debate whether the Sikh conception of Waheguru is Vedic or Semitic, I explore the ‘early modern’ characteristics of the SGGS. In particular, I consider why the Gurus created a multicultural compilation that distilled collective wisdom of different cultural and philosophical communities over a 200 year period? By including so many voices did they seek to transcend the ego of any one voice? Were they asking their devotees to submit to a revelation or to pursue truth, or both? In other words does the SGGS use skepticism, in scientific sense, to instill in the reader habits of thinking with regard to self, society, and the world? Are these characteristics important for understanding SGGS as a ‘modern’ scripture? I ask this to explore whether Sikhs can view the SGGS as a gift to the world – one to be cherished by Sikhs and also shared.
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Of revelation and revolution: Thinking about Sri Guru Granth Sahib as an ‘early modern’ scripture.
Sikhi Sikhya Gur Veechar
Nadri Karam Laghaye Paar
(SGGS, p 465, Raag Asa Guru Nanak Devji)
Study and reflect on the Guru’s teaching,
With the Grace one crosses the ocean of the world.
When I began to reflect on the topic of this year’s Sri Guru Granth Sahib conference, “The timeless, universal message of SGGS – across centuries, cultures, religions and continents,” the word that kept coming to my mind was, “modern.” Growing up on the East Coast of the United States, my parents, uncles and aunties all had Babaji di Bir in their homes. I had attended many Sikh Youth camps and learned the basics of Gurbani including Ardaas, Anand Sahib, Japji Sahib and Rehras Sahib paaths. I had learned enough Gurmukhi to haltingly take the Vaak if my parents were not at home for the evening Sukhasan, but my understanding of Gurbani was and still is limited and has been primarily dependent on translations and explanations by my family and community.
It was during those times, listening to recitations of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), that I often heard my parents and other adults describe the Baani of the Gurus as both profound and “modern.” In particular, my mamiji’s (maternal uncle’s wife) explanations exemplified this view. She often described the SGGS as a ‘profound reflection on the nature of the universe, on “human psychology,” and a guide for living.’ Her words piqued my interest in Sikhism, and made me think about the SGGS as a unique scripture as it combines faith with reflection and analysis. By comparing Gurbani to modern psychology Mamiji was pointing out the analytical and exploratory aspects of the SGGS.
This essay explores why it is appropriate to describe SGGS as a modern scripture and by extension to describe Sikhism as a modern religion. In this paper, I present a personal view of a few elements of SGGS that seem in line with progressive and empowering modern values. I believe that the representation of Sikhism as a modern faith and community has become more common and especially among Sikhs in the diaspora (Grewal, 2010). I am also finding this to be an important theme in my ongoing research on Sikh American institution building. However, I recognize that the term “modern” is a loaded term. For some it invokes a progressive march towards enlightenment, democracy, and economic prosperity, while for others it implies an erasure of all that was good in “traditional” pre-modern societies, and in particular with regard to culture, community, and family. Clearly both of these points of view are valid given the long and complex history of modernism as a philosophy and socioeconomic system.
For more than 150 years, among scholars of Sikhism, the question of whether Sikhism is closer to medieval Hinduism or to Islam, or whether the Sikh conception of Waheguru (God) is Vedic or Semitic, has dominated the discussion of Sikhism and of the Shri Guru Granth Sahib. Recently, some scholars are exploring Sikhism and its development in broader social and historical contexts. In particular an essay by Guriqbal Singh Sahota, entitled, “Guru Nanak and Rational Civil Theology” makes the case for understanding Guru Nanak’s own life and early Sikh texts within the context of the early modern period in India (2011). Going beyond the obvious chronology, Sahota explores Guru Nanak’s life and vision as shaped by a logic he describes as “rational, civil theology.” Reading the essay made me realize how obvious yet overlooked this element of the Gurus’ lives and work is, and how aptly it captures the multifaceted nature of the Sikh Gurus’ revelation and revolution.
According to Sahota, Guru Nanak was alarmed by the social upheaval, alienation, and inequities generated by the rise of an increasingly ego-centered, monetized and mercantilist system in a region that was transitioning from feudal forms of social organization and production. The hallmarks of mercantilism were a monetized and ‘rational’ (i.e. uniform) economic and political system. Sahota notes that in early Sikh scripture, Guru Nanak often uses and reflects on words like “’interest’, ‘profit’, ‘stock’, ‘coin’ and ‘ego’” to describe a generalized moral decay and corruption in this social milieu. These terms reflected his personal and social experience as a member of the merchant or Khatri caste/class (2011, p. 132). Guru Nanak laments that the new social and economic order, was driven by “egoistic self-interest” over the social good (Sahota 2011, p. 132). In the discussion below Sahota explores the concept of Divinity as “hukam,” or a “providential wisdom” (2011, p. 132).
Divinity was transposed from the skies to the earth, where its providential wisdom was deemed to unfold collectively, despite or against the grain of individualistic aims of the subjects making up this collective. The hukam that is invoked in the earliest of Sikh texts …suggests not only that this providential wisdom is collective… but also that grasping it will require the cultivation of reason and the promulgation of practices and institutions that accord with nature and the determinate movement of history ” (Sahota 2011, p. 132).
Sahota’s suggestion that “the cultivation of reason” is a critical element of Guru Nanak’s theology and his “civil” (i.e. social) vision supports the view that Sikhism is an early modern faith. A central premise of the modern era, driven by the rise of humanist philosophies, is the human ability to reason and learn. This premise eventually led to the scientific revolution and to modern political reforms including modern republicanism and representative forms of governance based on the idea of sovereignty belonging to ‘the people’ as opposed to a ruler, secular or divinely ordained. One of the key characteristics of Guru Nanak’s rational civil theology was his willingness to challenge the existing authoritarian structures and his commitment to an egalitarian society and world view (Kaur Singh, 2001, pp. 8-9). For example, in Japji Sahib, pauris 17 and 18, Guru Nanak, in a skeptic’s voice, exposes those who equate religiosity with blind ritualism, and who use religion as a means for maintaining hierarchies of social power (Kaur Singh, 2001, p. 57). The creation of institutions like sangat, langar, and the creation of the Khalsa by the tenth Guru are evidence of the political as well as theological modernism of Sikhism (Kaur Singh, 2001 pp. 9, 20). Like the early modern institutions of Europe that rejected the two-headed tyranny of the Church and the Monarch, the Sikh Gurus pushed for democratization and the sovereignty of each human in a world that had been dominated by caste-based hegemonies continuing ad infinitum.
When we look at Sikh texts and in particular the SGGS, we can find other affinities with modernism. According to Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, the use of poetic verse and song (raag), as opposed to myth and historical narrative, as the dominant medium for Sikh scripture is also of significance (Kaur Singh, 2001 pp. 22-23). The Guru’s use of poetry and song allows each individual to experience the divine at multiple levels – sensory, subliminal, personal, and intellectual. In the passage below, Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh describes the significance of the use of poetry and song (rag) by the Gurus:
Exalting the Ultimate Reality in beautiful poetry evokes a harmonic response from a Truth that is already inside. In Sikh worship, the Word embodied in the Guru Granth Sahib is not just read or heard, it must echo blissfully within oneself. That is why meditation and contemplation upon the Name is so important. Melodious recitations and chanting of the scriptural hymns which take place in gurdwaras and in homes, are means of entering into the deep recesses of our own selves. It is a direct and unmediated religious experience. There are no priests, no commentators, no hierarchies between reciters/singer and listeners, no social or gender obstacles between a person and the sublime verses (Kaur Singh 2001, p. 8).
Thus the fluidity of poetic verse and music enables a deeply liberating and egalitarian religious practice in which the agency of each individual is affirmed, but within “in a dialectic of the particular and the universal” (Kaur Singh 2001, p. 2). The unmediated-ness of Sikh worship is echoed in the modern sensibility in which humans are seen as endowed with the ability to explore and understand their realities and even the One Reality.
To read the SGGS is to experience and engage with the dense and multivalent communication associated with poetry and music that includes the skeptical style of a rhetorician. These modes of communication promote a liberating and egalitarian experience of faith, and in this sense seem to align with modern sensibilities of human agency, political and social freedom from the tyranny of an elite few, and more recently a respect for cultural diversity. Cultural diversity and an acceptance of all faiths is perhaps the most obvious and most widely recognized characteristic of the SGGS and Sikhism. It is also the one that again demonstrates the modern sensibility of the Gurus and their legacy and gift to the world: the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, a gift to be cherished by Sikhs but shared with all humanity.
Grewal, Inderpal. (2010). “Making Sikh Women Refugees in 1990’s U.S.A.” in Doris Jakobsh (Ed.), Sikhism and Women: History, Text, and Experience. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Kaur Singh, Nikky Guninder. (2001) The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
Sahota, Guriqbal Singh. (2011). “Guru Nanak and Rational Civic Theology.” Sikh Formations. Vol. 7, No. 2, August, pp. 131-143.
 Translation by the author in consultation with Jessi Kaur and Gurjot Singh (Dec. 11, 2015).
About the Author
Dr. Sangeeta Luthra is an anthropologist & educator. She has taught cultural anthropology, gender studies, and cultural studies. She researched women’s empowerment and development with a special focus on NGOs in urban northern India. Her research includes women’s development & empowerment, feminist theory, cultural politics of development, and most recently Sikh American institution building in a post 9/11 period. Her writings are featured in SikhChic.com, Punjabi Beat Magazine, and Sikhpoint.com. She is contributing writer and member of the editorial board of The Sikh Love Stories Project. Sangeeta is active locally and in South Asian cultural associations. Currently she is adjunct faculty in Anthropology at Santa Clara University. She lives in Los Altos, CA with her husband and two daughters.