So Help Me O’ God, Yahweh, Allah, Vaheguru, Et Al……
Dr. I.J. Singh
How do our many religions address the Creator? Every faith tradition seems to endow the Creator with a specific name. How do Sikhs address Him/Her? The paper examines this query of a single moniker for the Creator.
Without much doubt the most commonly used word for the Creator in Sikh parlance is probably Vahiguru. But there remain possibly many regional and dialectic variations in its spelling, exact enunciation and usage. These are mostly minor and not particularly meaningful.
Some literature suggests that the word Vaheguru may have come to us from Hindu mythology, but the evidence is not convincing; furthermore, even if true it is without significance.
It is important to note the very sparse occurrence of this word in the Guru Granth Sahib. It has only been used by the Bhatt Gyand a total of 8 times, 6 times as Vahiguru, and twice as Vahguru. No other contributor to the Guru Granth Sahib has used it. Bhai Gurdas used it in his writings, but no Guru, Saint or Bhatt (except Gyand) who contributed to the Guru Granth Sahib did. It seems to be associated with one hukumnama of Guru Gobind Singh.
Sikhism offers a rich tapestry for the moniker of the Creator. This is not surprising since Sikhi found its voice in the very rich, varied and awesome nexus of Hindu and Islamic mythology and languages over 500 years ago.
How and why did the word “Vaheguru” come to acquire such a central place in Sikh prayer and worship? This question is explored in this paper and the paucity of reliable evidence noted.
Video of Presentation
Note: Dr. I. J. Singh was unable to attend in person. He attended the conference remotely; unfortunately only the audio link was functional.
Body of Paper
The outlandish title of this essay is a fair reflection of my state of mind on this matter. So bear with me awhile.
Today I bring to you an issue that periodically shatters our peace in the virtual world of Internet, sometimes even more brusquely in the real world in which we live.
Sikh teaching repeatedly directs us to constantly remember the Creator and that, in comparison, all other activities in life are futile (“Avar kaaj terey kitay na kaam; mil saadh sangat bhaj keval naam” Guru Granth p. 12). I am convinced that this directive is not to be literally translated to mean that we quit our jobs and meditate on the Creator 24/7. Instead it asks that the awareness of the Creator becomes the foundational and defining principle of life and its actions.
Most Sikhs seem pretty much agreed on these fundamentals.
What seems to divide us – often passionately — is what name to ascribe to the Creator. How to tag him in our worship? I suppose this is important; we can’t really address the Creator by a hearty “Hey You” or “Howdy.”
The Jews have Yahweh or haShem, Christians look to God and Jesus as the Father and his deified Son, Muslims worship Allah, while Hindus have myriad Gods with just as many definable and recognizable entities that collectively direct us to the Creator.
What about us — Sikhs?
We know when the passion and possession of an idea — the love of God for instance – becomes the flashing point of anger. In Malaysia a recently enacted law decreed that the name Allah may only be used by Muslims; its use by non-Muslims would be a crime. I remind you that the word Allah is found in the Guru Granth Sahib, p.1349. I don’t really know how methodically this law is or was enforced. It may be like many statutes in every society that remain on the books for generations but are rarely, if ever, invoked. After some vigorous back and forth with the government, Sikhs were apparently granted an exception to the rule.
The ever present danger of conflict arising from such fragmented identity of the Creator is self evident; human history bears ample and bloody testimony of it. Personally I have problems with embracing the idea of a God who is the micromanager of our puny lives. Believe me I am not attempting to deconstruct the Creator — so help me Yahweh, Ram, Allah, Vahiguru, God, et al!
How many names exist for the Creator? Like any 10 O’clock scholar, I hurried to Google and, just as quickly, gave up. The list is endless, the task daunting.
The Creator in Sikh Tradition
Let’s explore a little history and tradition.
Among Sikhs the verbal battleground on the Internet usually turns on the idea that the most commonly used moniker for the Creator is “Vaheguru.” Its origin and usage have a contentious history like most old world practices of any religion. It is not a word that is unambiguously and clearly coined by any of the ten Sikh Founder-Gurus. So, one may safely conclude that it was not in popular usage at the time of the Gurus.
I offer you an aside: In the Gurmukhi script in which the Guru Granth is usually, but not always scribed, there is only one phoneme for the sound of both “v” and “w;” the two are not distinguishable from each other. Punjabi itself is a perfectly phonetic language; English is not and comes to us with a chaotic history to its structure and rules. Gurmukhi remains our preferred script. Indic languages generally conflate the sounds of v and w.
Also, wide ranging regional differences in enunciation and recording exist when transcribing Gurmukhi and Punjabi into Roman script. So, is it Vaheguru, Vahiguru, Waheguru, or some other minor tongue twisting variant? This remains pretty much a matter of personal or regional preference and no rule governs such usage.
Vahiguru appears to be a combined form derived from “Vahu” and “Guru.” Hew McLeod took note of this and recently, in a well documented essay in The Sikh Review Dalvinder Singh Grewal, pointed out that Guru Amardas used the words “Vahu” (Guru Granth p. 515-516) and “Guru” repeatedly but separately and never in the combined form as “Vaheguru.”
As noted earlier, only one author in the Guru Granth, the Bhatt Gyand, has used “Vahiguru” in the combined form (p. 1402-4). Not that it matters, but in this hymn in Gurmukhi script Gyand spells it so that on transliteration into Roman script it sounds like Vahiguru with an i and not as Vaheguru with an e.
Gyand spells it as Vahiguru six times and as Vahguru twice; the latter variant may reflect the needs of poesy and may not be significant in itself. Some scholars also assert that the word Vahiguru by Gyand was not intended for the name of the Creator but in praise of Guru Ramdas. Of course, in Guru Granth, many examples also exist of “Gur or Guru” to indicate the Creator.
Some literature also suggests that the popularity of the term Vahiguru in Sikhism stems from the writings of Kapur Singh but that seems improbable, hence incorrect. Kapur Singh was a man of the 20th century. The word Vaheguru existed earlier and was used by the legendary scholar Bhai Gurdas (in Vaars 24 & 40). A contemporary of the first six Gurus and scribe of the first recension of the Aadi Granth; his writings are revered in Sikh tradition.
What leaves us in difficulty is that Bhai Gurdas went a step further; he parsed the term Vahiguru and strongly opined that this name for the Creator owes its origin to the defining gods of the Hindu pantheon. He said:
Satijug Satigur Vasdev vavaa Visna naam japavae
Duapur(i) satigur Hari trisan haha Har Har naam japaaavae
Trete Satigur Raam jee raara naam japay sukh paavae
Kaljug Nanak Gur Govind gagga Govind naam alaavae
Chaaray jaagay chahu jugee panchhayan vitch jayay samavae
Chaaray achhar ik(u) kar(i) Vaheguru japu mant(r) japaapavae
Jahaa(n) te upjiyaa phir tahaa(n) samaavae (49,I)
……… Bhai Gurdas Vaar I, Pauri 49
In a rough and ready but brief translation this says that for the moniker Vaheguru, the letter V stands for the Hindu God Vishnu, H comes from Hari, G denotes Govind, and R is for Raam. The problem is that it ties Vaheguru to Hindu mythology in an embrace that is too close for comfort and undermines Sikh identity. But this tale of the complex origin of “Vaheguru” is not verifiable history. This poetic rendition, gives us no clue on when the term Vaheguru was designed or by whom.
My take on this matter is a bit different.
No writing of Bhai Gurdas is Canon; absolutely none is incorporated in the Guru Granth. A fantastic poet, he had a unique insight into Sikhi. Perhaps he was indulging his magical genius for poetry here, not necessarily connecting Sikhi to Hinduism. His poetry is catchy, enjoyable and instructive, even though we recognize that, at times, it may be inconsistent with Sikh principles, as we see them. Don’t forget that elsewhere in his writings he also celebrates the caste and clan of the Gurus. I offer one such example. Says Bhai Gurdas (Vaar I, Pauri 48): “Challi peeree Sodhian roop dikhavan vaaro vaari” where he seems to be celebrating the Sodhi caste of the Gurus.
Keep in mind that Sikhism and Hinduism (with Islam) have always occupied and operated in the same common socio-cultural, ethnographic and linguistic space with overlapping boundaries. In India, where Sikhism arose, Sikhs have always existed as a small powerful minority — a prominent drop in the sea of Hinduism and its practices. It is also undeniable that most of the early converts to Sikhi came from Hindu roots.
Remember that religions do not emerge de novo in a vacuum but find their niche within existing societies. In my view, Bhai Gurdas is celebrating this commonality in this poem and it should not surprise us. So we need to step beyond the literal translation to understand him.
That to me explains why there is such mixed usage; the interpretational confusion is not surprising. Hence, my respect for Bhai Gurdas is not lessened any; the larger body of his work is simply awesome.
History suggests that in at least one Hukumnama Guru Gobind Singh used the word Vaheguru; he is also said to have used it in his last greeting to the Sikhs. In the immediate post-Guru period, Mata Sahib Devan apparently used the appellation Vaheguru in her messages to Sikhs as well. Additionally, there are copious references in 18th and 19th century literature where the term Vaheguru is prominent.
I leave it to social historians and religious scholars quibble over exactly when, by whom and under what circumstances the term Vahiguru evolved, as I am unable to unravel this convoluted knot. My further take on this comes from an entirely different direction and perspective.
The Many Ways of Connecting to the Creator
Undeniably, the term Vahiguru, Vaheguru or Vahguru for the Creator is now very much an integral part of the Sikh lexicon. This does not necessarily imply that any Guru prescribed or mandated its use in Sikh worship or religious service. These are the all important questions here.
“Let me count the ways…” as Shakespeare said. Look at the Guru Granth; the question is: In how many different ways is the Creator referred to, and why?
Think with me a moment: If every people and their religions speak in a specific language, as they do, and cultural context, as they do, there are bound to be endless names and endless variations on them for an endless entity that is the Creator.
The Guru Granth of the Sikhs speaks of the many Islamic names for an Infinite Creator: Allah, Rahim, Kareem, Khuda… and so on. Hindu names of God are even more plentiful: Hari, Ram, Gopal, Thakur, Bekuntth, Prabhu, Ishvar, Bhagvan, Vishnu, Shiva, and so on … a truly endless list. Sometimes the Gurus address the Creator as Sajjan, meaning a soul mate in contemporary Americanese. I can’t personally vouch for the numbers but apparently, in the entire Guru Granth, the name Hari for the Creator occurs 8324 times and Ram over 2000 times.
This emphatically does not mean that Sikhism is an offshoot of Hinduism as many Hindu scholars like to insist; that would be a horrendously erroneous idea, akin to labeling Christianity a sect of Judaism. What is important: The three faiths, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, shared the same socio-cultural linguistic, ethnic and geographic territory.
I also ask you to explore the Jaap Sahib, a composition attributed to Guru Gobind Singh that’s not included in the Guru Granth but is read every day by observant Sikhs. It seems to be a catalogue of the many names and endless attributes of the Creator. The many attributive names of the Creator in the Jaap Sahib alone come to an awesome 950. Not having counted them myself I cannot speak for the veracity of this overwhelming number. But having read the Jaap Sahib this number seems eminently credible.
To my mind, this is a confession of the fact that our finite language and limited human imagination can never fully grasp the reality of an Infinite Creator. At the same time, it remains a wonderful tribute to human imagination and proclivities.
Ergo, exactly how many names exist for the Infinite is absolutely immaterial.
Which Name of the Creator Should Sikhs Use?
The operative principle here is simple: Not that it is necessarily healthier, more respectful, or more acceptable to remember the Creator by a specific name but that it is essential to cultivate a relationship with the Infinite. What language, what name or what ritual we use to train our minds is just so much trivia.
On the other hand, such minutia may not always be so trivial a matter. Why? The human mind is fickle. A discipline, a habit of practice is essential to cultivating a life. Hence, the many religions, traditions and ways of worship!
It may not matter if the worshipper is alone; in his solitude he can use any name for the Creator. But what if, in a group of worshippers, the words of the congregants do not coincide?
It cannot be particularly peaceful or fruitful if in the same congregation one person prefers to sing or dance a joyful prayer, another wants to close his/her eyes to the world and merge in silence, while a third needs a celebratory bash. Or just imagine a religious service punctuated by a cacophony of different languages, terms and monikers for the Creator. Surely, this would not help; the congregation would be essentially dissembled.
Yet in human societies all these signal variations exist.
Yes, there is a place for each in God’s green acre, but not within the same congregation and not at the same time. There are times when we need to be on the same page and the same line.
The Sikh scripture – Guru Granth Sahib – is unique in that it showcases many names of God from the different religions of others. The widespread usage of so many names from both Hindu and Islamic traditions is an indication of the diverse, inclusive and rich culture of the greater Punjab at that time — over 500 years ago. If literature and traditions of other religions had been widely available at that time, I am sure they too, would have found inclusion and commentary. The word Vaheguru seems to have evolved from the Sikh community’s need for a common culture, lexicon and practice – indeed the norma loquendi of a people. Thus Sikhs seem to have sanctified the appellation “Vahiguru” more than any other. In summary I would say this: In connecting to the Infinite one may address the Creator by any name or none; this would be entirely consistent with the message of Guru Granth Sahib. But in communal practice (sangat, congregation) a common moniker would be necessary. The Sikh scripture – Guru Granth Sahib –opens with Ik Oankar, an alphanumeric designed by Guru Nanak, the Founder of the Sikh faith. Ik Oankar speaks of Singularity – one Creator of all creation. If one can comprehend this Oneness and Universality there is then no room left for differences in caste, creed, color, gender, religious label or national origin etc. From Ik Oankar (sometimes phonetically rendered as Ik Oangkaar or with other minor variations) to Vahiguru the journey points to a meaningful evolution that seems simple yet complex. This path towards a working terminology for the Creator from Ik Oankar to Vahiguru speaks of several centuries of a meaningful process that is breathtaking in its simplicity and at the same time rich in its impact on our lives.
Ergo, the evolution of the name “Vahiguru” and its universal usage in Sikhi!
One way to describe the Creator (Vaheguru) would be as the inner reality that our intellect cannot fathom, our senses cannot perceive but with which our inner self can commune. This intimate practice has to emerge from the language, culture and world view of a people. This is what connects us to our inner self.
Theoretically then, any moniker for that inner reality is just as good as any other name. It is not at all a matter of which name is right or wrong.
The idea is to find the Creator in the individual self; discover and nurture this universal connectivity. This then enables us to create a community and a sacred fellowship.
“si volet usus /quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi” (“if it be the will of custom, in the power of whose judgment is the law and the standard of language”)
About the Author
Dr. I.J.Singh, in 1960, came to the US on a Murry & Leonie Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He received his PhD in anatomical sciences from the University of Oregon Medical School and a DDS from Columbia University. He is a professor emeritus at New York University. He serves on the Editorial Advisory Boards of the Sikh Review and Nishaan. A prolific writer with many books to hios name, he also writes a regular internet column on Sikhi.