Sep 132015

Japji Stanza 38: A Manual For Sikh Mysticism

Sn. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh


Guru Nanak’s revelation of the Infinite is the foundation of the Sikh Religion. In Rag Majh, the Guru makes autobiographical comments, and in Japji he delineates a passage across five spheres (khands) – dharam, gyan, saram, karam, and sach. Scholars and exegetes take these five as the heart of the Sikh mystical experience. To get a fuller picture, I analyzed them, applying William James’ standard four characteristics of mysticism: ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, and passivity (in my book on the Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent, Cambridge, 1993). At this point, I want to focus on the culminating stanza 38 of the Japji, which I feel has been neglected in the study of mysticism. The Guru was a profound thinker who artistically conveys some vital sonic, semantic, and existential ideals in this short passage. My basic question then, how does stanza 38 serve as a practical guide for the Sikh mystical experience?

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Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh

Crawford Professor of Religious Studies, Colby College, USA 

Japji 38 illustrates Guru Nanak’s extraordinary literary sophistication. In this short stanza the five-fold mystical journey along the moral, epistemological, aesthetic, vigorous, and spiritual capacities is morphed into a training manual. Stanzas 34-37 of Japji delineate an ever-widening voyage through the five spheres of dharam (morality), gyan (knowledge), saram (aesthetics), karam (action), culminating in sach (truth). Scholars from both within and outside of the Sikh tradition regard these five as the quintessential illustration of the Sikh mystical journey.[1] In order to get a fuller picture of Sikh mysticism, I too analyzed these by applying William James’ standard four characteristics—ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, and passivity.[2] The five spheres enunciated by Guru Nanak have a metaphysical quality, but the penultimate stanza of the Japji (#38) reproduces them as a guideline that can be followed. I feel this passage has been neglected in the study of Sikh mysticism. Indeed it offers an intriguing allegory the Guru immediately resorts to upon admitting his verbal hardship. Guru Nanak employs metaphors that resonate within the Sikh philosophical framework, and simultaneously at a personal level. The goldsmith working away in the smithy stages a mystic performance, and opens up vast new possibilities. Here sonic, semantic, and existential aspects of Sikh mysticism come to the surface:

ਜਤੁ ਪਾਹਾਰਾ ਧੀਰਜੁ ਸੁਨਿਆਰੁ ॥

ਅਹਰਣਿ ਮਤਿ ਵੇਦੁ ਹਥੀਆਰੁ ॥

ਭਉ ਖਲਾ ਅਗਨਿ ਤਪ ਤਾਉ ॥

ਭਾਂਡਾ ਭਾਉ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਤਿਤੁ ਢਾਲਿ ॥

ਘੜੀਐ ਸਬਦੁ ਸਚੀ ਟਕਸਾਲ ॥

ਜਿਨ ਕਉ ਨਦਰਿ ਕਰਮੁ ਤਿਨ ਕਾਰ ॥

ਨਾਨਕ ਨਦਰੀ ਨਦਰਿ ਨਿਹਾਲ ॥੩੮॥


Make discipline your smithy, and patience the goldsmith

Make wisdom your anvil, and knowledge your hammer

With awe as your bellows blaze the fire within

In the vat of love pour the ambrosia

So the word is forged in the true mint.

This fulfillment of action comes to those blessed with the gaze

Says Nanak free are they who are gazed upon.


(Japji, stanza 38) The limitless continents, constellations, and universes of the realm of truth (Sach Khand) land us up in a smithy, driving us into our deepest self. While the metallic resonance of the Guru’s iron simile (nanak kathna karara sar) continues to ring, the imagery shifts from the expansive multiverse of stanza 37 to a rather “confined” space. The familiar and ordinary workshop with its anvil and hammer, bellows and fire, is a heart that beats sonically and forges the divine word on the crucible of love.

Guru Nanak’s mystical locus evokes a secular landscape. Clearly the smithy is not a religious site, it is not a spot out in nature, it is not up in the mountains or in the forests, it not far from home and society. If anything the jeweler’s workshop transports us to a narrow lane in the hustle and bustle of a bazar, putting us in close proximity with fellow beings. Furthermore, Guru Nanak’s choice of the goldsmith as the paradigmatic mystic defies the elitism of an upper class Brahmin or that of Plato’s philosopher-king. We also do not hear Guru Nanak addressing anybody particular. His extended analogies (like that of the smithy) in Sikh scripture are typically used to urge religious leaders from different traditions—Pandit, Mullah, Yogi— to be authentic practitioners in their respective tradition. The absence of a specific interlocutor conveys mysticism’s universal application. The agent working away in a smithy transcends gender, class, and religious boundaries, and opens up the mystical experience for everyone. Worldly orientation is the premise of Sikh mysticism.

The smithy (pahara) is specified as self-discipline (jatu). Our attention is immediately drawn to the body, the corporeal and sensory aspects of the self. Human faculties need to be developed so they get to feel the reality. Guru Nanak does not negate or reject the body, as was the case of holy men seeking the divine in his milieu. To conquer the body was the starting point of many of his Hindu, Muslim, Jain, and Buddhist contemporaries. Therefore any discipline involving ascetic practices, breath control, pilgrimages to holy sites, purification rites, rituals, or fasting has no place in his praxis. Several preceding stanzas of the Japji categorically reject external measures for they merely enfeeble the body. Actually we find Guru Nanak’s ideal beautifully articulated in the journal of David Henry Thoreau:

Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.[3] The body (kaia) as the temple (mandir) of the divine (hari) is prefigured in Sikh scripture (kaia hari mandir, GGS: 1059). Guru Nanak’s goldsmith[4] is an artist, creatively fashioning the self. By making herself aesthetically attractive in a style purely her own, she is but spiritualizing her sensuous faculties. Guru Nanak does not prescribe any ceremonial injunctions. Balance and equipoise practiced in the natural rhythm of daily routine would be the way to build up her “own flesh and blood and bones.” Both Guru Nanak and the American Transcendentalist share a melioristic goal to transform the self, so there is full reciprocity between the inner and the outer self. In the prelude of the Japji, the ontological reality is named truth (sat nam), and for truth to manifest itself in a person, all mean and false impediments must be chiseled away. The “nobleness” of truthful life radiates in the features, facial expressions, and bodily bearing of the sculpted self: “truth is in the heart, truth is on the lips, truth is in the eyes, truth is the physique …” (GGS: 283).

The corporeal is conjoined with the mental, for the goldsmith (suniar) is patience (dhiraj) proclaims Guru Nanak. When Herman Hesse’s young Siddhartha embarked on his spiritual journey, one of the virtues he pronounced was his patience, “I can think. I can wait.” The goldsmith’s attitude of dhiraj also recalls sabr, embodied by the Prophets Job and Jacob, and cherished as an important milestone on the Sufi Path.[5] In Sufism it is a correlative of gratitude (sukr), and comes after the stages of repentance, abstinence, renunciation, remembrance, and poverty. In Sikh mysticism though, it is a correlative of self-discipline (jatu), and appears as the foremost “station.”

Guru Nanak’s goldsmith strikingly represents patience as an active and positive cognitive state developed through the cultivation of the body. Some translators render dhiraj as “resignation,”[6] which misses out on the active and deliberate engagement with temporality, the starting point for Guru Nanak’s jeweler. His is a mental space devoid of the feelings of hostility, anger, resentment or anxiety, for all restlessness has been arrested. The “five birds” do not take off. Guru Nanak’s technique of slow careful attention has much in common with the “somaesthetic discipline of heightened body awareness” fostered by Richard Shusterman, a modern American pragmatist philosopher.[7] The goldsmith using her familiar “five teleceptors” in the workshop takes her time to make her jewel. Her whole self is actively and practically engaged.

The opening verse of stanza 38 corresponds with Dharam Khand, the first sphere of the mystic journey. Although the term dharam retains its Sanskrit meaning (what holds together), the Japji does not prescribe the customary four-fold division of traditional Indian society into Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras, nor does it institute a division of the stages of life into that of brahmacarin, grahastha, vanaprastha, and sanyasin (varna-ashrama-dharma). In contrast to the fourfold societal hierarchy and its corresponding privileges, duties, and responsibilities, Guru Nanak stresses the performance of moral duties shared by everyone equally:

rati ruti thiti var

pavan pani agni patal

tisu vici dharati thapi rakhi dharamsal Amidst nights, seasons, solar and lunar days

Amidst air, water, fire and netherworld

The earth is placed, the place for righteous action.

(Japji stanza 34) Intrinsically then, the longitudes and latitudes of the smithy in the bustling bazaar are cosmic. Its nights (rati) and seasons (ruti) and dates (thiti) and days (var) are constituted by the lunar and solar cycles, and the harmonious movements created by the various planets. It is constructed out of the basic elements—air, water, fire, and earth—and all of their compounds. This cosmic backdrop places special possibilities and moral responsibilities. The goldsmith shares the cosmos with infinite species, and must act in ways that are not divisive or endangering. The landscape is neither anthropocentric nor hierarchical. The correlation between the two Japji stanzas (34 and 38) reinforces the fact that humans are made up of the same stuff as the rest of the universe; the physicality of each individual is integrated with the wider environment. The goldsmith designs her jewelry within the reality of the diverse chemical, biological, and material shapes and forms; his sensibilities are common to the various species of the multiverse. Each instant s/he gathers the billions and billions of years behind and the billions and billions yet to come.

Clearly Sikh mysticism is the experience of infinite ecstasy. The mystics stand out (ec+stasis) of their finite confinements, and revel freely in the presence of the infinite in all they feel, think, and do. Unlike the Bhagavad Gita simile of the tortoise withdrawing its limbs from all sides (2:58), the jeweler in the Japji would buoyantly leap to make innovative designs. Art like love does not confine itself to any race or religion or caste or pedigree. With the infinite as her bedrock, Guru Nanak’s mystic imagines, loves, works, and lives each moment without any manmade restrictions. Mystics are variously known in the Sikh sacred text as gurmukhs (facing the guru), jivanmukt (free in life), brahmgyani (enlightened), or sant (saint), and at death they merge with the One beyond space, time, causality, and gender. Their expansive attitude shatters repressive isms—racism, classism, sexism, and religious fanaticism.

Guru Nanak staged the goldsmith precisely as a model to be emulated. Step by step the audience is distinctly guided, so they imbibe the goldsmith’s sensibilities and practices, and awaken to the radiance of the jewel they hold in their very hands. Sikh scripture constantly reminds us that this life is precious like a diamond (heerai jaisa janam hai), but it goes for naught. Nanak’s camera vividly captures the apparatuses and workings in the smithy to disclose the preciousness of life. And his whole methodical manual is prepared poetically. The Japji stanza does not list rules to be followed wearily; rather, it offers affective lyrics that hit that visceral hub wherefrom readers, reciters, and hearers would naturally and spontaneously begin to see the formless One, and conduct their daily affairs in accordance. Sikh mysticism is socio-ontological. Grounded in the universal One, it reaches out horizontally towards family and the larger fabric of society. The spiritual climax for Guru Nanak is when truth is witnessed overflowing in each and every heart. In Sikhism mysticism is practical living, mysticism is cognitive realization, and they are essentially one and the same.

This paper was originally prepared for Professor Tim Knepper’s inspirational seminar on “Ineffability.” It was delivered at Drake University on April 10, 2014. A fuller version is forthcoming.

[1] Hew McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, pp. 221-6. Also, Sikh exegete Bhai Vir Singh artistically analyzes them through the spiritual experience of his protagonist Rani Raj Kaur in Rana Surat Singh (Amritsar: Khalsa Samachar, 1967).

[2] Nikky- Guninder Kaur Singh, “Rani Raj Kaur: The Mystical Journey” in The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 205-241.

[3] Afterword, “Why Did Henry David Thoreau Take the Bhagavad-Gita to Walden Pond” in Barbara Stoller Miller, The Bhagavad-Gita (Bantam), p. 160.

[4] Since Guru Nanak does not specify the gender of the goldsmith, I have taken the liberty of using both male and female pronouns through the course of this article.

[5] Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina), pp. 124-5.

[6] For instance, the earliest and most influential translator of the Japji, M. A. Macauliffe, in The Sikh Religion, vol. 1. (Oxford, 1909), p. 217.

[7] Richard Shusterman, Thinking Through the Body: Essays in Somaaestetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 20-21


About the Author

NickyPhotoDr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh is Crawford Professor of Religious Studies at Colby College. Dr. Singh is published extensively in Sikhism and lectures internationally. Her views have been aired on television and radio in America, Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, India, and Bangladesh. For her distinguished scholarship she received honors from the Punjabi University, the Sikh Association of Fresno, Sikh-Canadian Centennial Foundation, and the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation. She serves as a trustee for the American Institute for Indian Studies, and is on the editorial board of the History of Religions.

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