Kaljug mein Kirtan Pardhana: How Kirtan Helps in Applying the Message of SGGS
Dr. Inderjit Kaur
We often think of kaljug (an era of vices) as a distant notion that is not of our making. In this presentation I reflect on some of the ways that Gurbani points to our human actions that sustain kaljug – across centuries, cultures, and continents, and then discuss how kirtan helps us overcome the vices.
Video of Presentation
Body of Paper
“Kaljug mein Kirtan Pardhana” :
How Gurbani Kirtan Helps in Applying the Message of Sri Guru Granth Sahib
Dr. Inderjit N. Kaur
We often think of kaljug (an era of vices) as a distant notion that is not of our making. However gurbani tells us in numerous sabad that we are immersed in lifestyles that sustain kaljug, lifestyles caught in a web of greed (lobh) and arrogance (ahankar) to such an extent that we are in denial about them; we live in delusion (bharam). In this paper I discuss how gurbani kirtan (the musical rendering of gurbani) can help us overcome the social ills we perpetuate, often without awareness.
I will make my point with the help of a well-known sakhi (life story) about Guru Nanak, and a sabad by Guru Ramdas, as well as its musical rendition by the most renowned ragi of the last several decades, Bhai Harjinder Singh Srinagar Wale and his brother Bhai Maninder Singh. A thread running through these three that I will focus on will be the gurbani concepts of har-ras (divine sensations) and an-ras (other sensations).
Our guru sahiban not only sang and wrote down gurbani, but also put its message into action in their daily lives to counter kaljug. The painting below is a picturization of a sakhi which describes one of the many ways Guru Nanak confronted actions and lifestyles that sustain kaljug.
In this sakhi, Guru Nanak rejects the invitation of Malik Bhago, a person who is rich in material wealth but poor in ethical values, and accepts the hospitality of Bhai Lalo, a person who is poor in wealth but rich in moral virtues. Through this action, Guru Nanak is leading us on how to conduct our everyday social lives. He is setting an example that we should choose those we associate with on the basis of their ethical values rather than the value of their wealth and power. Indeed, that is the very concept of sadh sangat – the company of the ethical. In this sakhi Guru Nanak is also setting an example of courage, of exposing wrong-doing and standing up against it. He squeezes the food prepared at the homes of both men to expose Malik Bhago’s vices through the blood that oozes from his food, and Bhai Lalo’s virtues through the milk that flows from his. The sakhi uses the metaphor of ras, literally juice and essence.
By comparing the pure ras in the food of the humble and honest Bhai Lalo with the impure ras in the arrogant and dishonest Malik Bhago’s food, Guru Nanak is also teaching us that what we ingest matters. In many sabads in Guru Granth Sahib, we are asked to drink, eat, taste and savor har-ras and amrit-ras – the experience of the divine. These have ethical connotations too. Har is a word for the divine that refers to the divine moral virtue of removing suffering. Amrit is that which does not die, which is everlasting, that is truth and truthfulness. Ras here is then an experiential sensation of divine virtues. By incorporating these divine sensations into one’s body, one render’s it capable of divine actions, such as empathy and compassion for the less fortunate, and courage to speak truth to power, that Guru Nanak is showing in the above sakhi.
An-ras on the other hand is described in gurbani as the experience of other ras, of excessive consumption and worldly pleasures, as for example in the following shabad.
ਗਉੜੀ ਬੈਰਾਗਣਿ ਮਹਲਾ ੪ ॥
Gauṛī bairāgaṇ mėhlā 4.
Gauree Bairaagan, Fourth Mehl.
ਮੇਰੇ ਰਾਮ ਇਹ ਨੀਚ ਕਰਮ ਹਰਿ ਮੇਰੇ ॥
Mere rām eh nīcẖ karam har mere.
My waheguru, these are my unethical actions.
ਗੁਣਵੰਤਾ ਹਰਿ ਹਰਿ ਦਇਆਲੁ ਕਰਿ ਕਿਰਪਾ ਬਖਸਿ ਅਵਗਣ ਸਭਿ ਮੇਰੇ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
Guṇvanṯā har har ḏaiyāl kar kirpā bakẖas avgaṇ sabẖ mere. rahāo.
Virtuous, Remover of suffering, Compassionate, bless me with your grace, forgive my vices. Pause.
ਕੰਚਨ ਨਾਰੀ ਮਹਿ ਜੀਉ ਲੁਭਤੁ ਹੈ ਮੋਹੁ ਮੀਠਾ ਮਾਇਆ ॥
Kancẖan nārī mėh jīo lubẖaṯ hai moh mīṯẖā māiyā.
With my being/inclination immersed in the greed for wealth, sexual pursuits, worldly pleasures,
ਘਰ ਮੰਦਰ ਘੋੜੇ ਖੁਸੀ ਮਨੁ ਅਨ ਰਸਿ ਲਾਇਆ ॥
Gẖar manḏar gẖoṛe kẖusī man an-ras lāiā.
And my happiness linked to conspicuous consumption, I am absorbed in an-ras.
ਹਰਿ ਪ੍ਰਭੁ ਚਿਤਿ ਨ ਆਵਈ ਕਿਉ ਛੂਟਾ ਮੇਰੇ ਹਰਿ ਰਾਇਆ ॥੧॥
Har parabẖ cẖiṯ na āvī kio cẖẖūtā mere har rāiā. 1
I do not remember divine virtues and, not surprisingly, have lost my divine.
As this sabad emphasizes, an-ras leads one away from divine virtues and ethical action. Conspicuous consumption is particularly seen in gurbani as unethical action, because it leads to arrogance, and to further greed. Arrogance deprives one of the ability to see and treat all human beings as equal and deserving of the same human dignity. Greed compromises one’s ethical principles. And both these escape the awareness of the person subject to them, making her/him a contributor to the preservation of kaljug.
To draw people away from the charms that the wealthy and powerful can offer, Guru Nanak travelled far and wide singing his songs that spoke of the divine and divine virtues, of ethics and social justice. Indeed the theme of this sakhi, and of daily ethical action, can be found in many sabad of our guru sahiban, such as:
ਊਠਤ ਬੈਠਤ ਹਰਿ ਹਰਿ ਧਿਆਈਐ ਅਨਦਿਨੁ ਸੁਕ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਕਰੀਐ ॥
Ūṯẖaṯ baiṯẖaṯ har har ḏẖiāīai anḏin sukariṯ karīai.
As you go about, contemplate the divine; day in and out, enact good actions.
Guru Granth Sahib: 621
Our guru sahibs not only used the medium of music to communicate their message, they explicitly proclaimed musical rendition as the most effective means of accessing the divine and divine virtues – “Kaljug mein kirtan pardhana.” Why? Why is the musical rendering of gurbani the most efficacious means in an era of vices?
The answer lies in music’s ability to affect us. Music moves us; it creates action tendencies. Some aspects of music that are particularly effective in affecting us are intonation, phrasing, repetition and variation, and voice quality.
Music creates ras in us. This can be har-ras or an-ras depending on the text (lyrics), context, associations, memories and histories. Music, including rāg music, can generate an-ras and lead us away from the divine. For example, music in product advertisements leads to unnecessary and conspicuous consumption, which further leads to arrogance and greed, trapping one in a loop of vices outside one’s awareness.
When music is paired with gurbani, it can generate har-ras. It can move us to enact divine virtues, to ethical actions. Listening to gurbani kirtan, especially with sadh sangat amplifies the message of gurbāni, the ras from gurbani.
In the following short music analysis I discuss how phrasing, and repetition and variation are beautifully executed by Bhai Harjinder Singh and Bhai Maninder Singh in their rendition of the sabad discussed above, ਮੇਰੇ ਰਾਮ ਇਹ ਨੀਚ ਕਰਮ ਹਰਿ ਮੇਰੇ ॥ (Mere rām eh nīcẖ karam har mere.). This rendition can be heard on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-O6Lkr55_Y.
The first rahao line is sung as two melodic lines. In the first melodic line, the initial sabad phrase, mere ram, is repeated thrice, starting from the tonic note, Sa. Spanning the octave to reach the upper Sa, the melody carries us up toward waheguru. The repetition of ‘mere ram’ intensifies the address and plea to waheguru. Listening and singing along, ram-ras begins to flow in the body, opening one to the rest of the message of the sabad. The second melodic line is used for the rest of the first sabad line, eh nich karam har mere. This sabad phrase is also repeated thrice, but the melodic line starts from the upper Sa and moves down, matching the introspective mood of the sabad text. Both melodic lines end on Ma, tying the two together. As the sabad progresses, a supporting ragi often repeats melodic variations of the phrases sung by the main ragis in call and response form, adding to the intensity of the address to waheguru.
The phrasing in the rest of the sabad is also masterful. Each phrase of each line of the sabad is sung with a well-fitting melodic phrase, the pauses in between aiding comprehension and emotional affect. The overall result is ras-bhinaa (ras-drenched) kirtan that moves the body and fills it with har-ras. This is the hallmark of Bhai Harjinder Singh’s compositions and kirtan singing, which has brought har-ras to millions of Sikhs.
Har-ras brings peace and relief from the injustices rampant in kaljug. It can also move one to action to counter kaljug, to have the courage to be truthful, humble, and selfless, instead of becoming collusive with and participant in dishonesty, arrogance and greed.
However, the effectiveness of har-ras in moving us to ethical action is counteracted by all the an-ras flowing in our bodies from our immersion in a consumption oriented lifestyle. Typically, we spend most of the time in activities that produce an-ras, and very little time in activities that produce har-ras. The music too which we choose or which plays in the background in our everyday environments intensifies an-ras. For example, the background music in shopping malls is designed to increase consumer spending. With the immersion in such environments and activities, the effect of the little bit of kirtan listening is overtaken very quickly by the shift to worldly pleasures, taking us away from har-ras and ethical action. The derivation of pleasure from consumption and egotism dulls our ability to be aware of the compromises we make to Sikh values in our daily choices.
Thus, Guru Nanak’s example from the above sakhi is very difficult for us to follow. Not only are we unable to speak truth to power, we yearn the company of the wealthy and powerful, often irrespective of their everyday ethical values (such as arrogance, greed, and duplicity), and therein lies a significant way that we on a daily basis play a role in sustaining kaljug, because we end up further empowering those with poor ethics.
However, Guru Nanak’s example is not impossible to follow, if we make it a conscious project. If we bring focus and mindfulness into our daily choices and actions, and inculcate the awareness of their consequences on ourselves, on others, and on the sustenance of kaljug, we can be strong agents of our guru sahiban’s vision of an egalitarian and just world where divine virtues prevail.
In fact, the more we practice the guru’s ways, the easier it becomes. And that is the gurbani concept of sahaj. Further, the more we practice ethical action, the more pleasurable it becomes. Our body wants more har-ras, and less an-ras.
Fortunately, guru sahiban gave us the gift of gurbani kirtan. It is a great resource for getting har-ras moving in our bodies, and for moving towards everyday choices and actions that, instead of being self-oriented and supportive of kaljug, are self-less and disruptive of kaljug.
To conclude, in this paper I started with Guru Nanak’s sakhi in which he teaches us through the metaphor of ras in food that our ethical inclinations and actions are linked to the ras that flows in our bodies. I went on to demonstrate, with the help of a sabad by Guru Ramdas, that gurbani tells us that our self-centered daily actions create an-ras in our bodies. Finally, I showed through music analysis of Bhai Harjinder Singh and Bhai Maninder Singh’s rendition of Guru Ramdas’s sabad, how kirtan – the musical rendering – amplifies the message of gurbani, and helps create har-ras in our bodies. This har-ras is essential to our ability to stay away from vices such as greed and arrogance that are some of our daily ills sustaining kaljug. But we have to give har-ras a chance!
About the Author
Dr. Inderjit Kaur is a scholar of Gurbani Kirtan, currently teaching at the music department at the University of California, Berkeley. She holds two PhDs, in musicology and in economics, both from UC Berkeley. She holds diplomas in North Indian Classical Music and in South Indian Classical Dance. Her research seeks to understand the history and contemporary practice of kirtan, and its role in Sikh life. Inderjit has published and presented widely for the academy as well as the community. She is currently working on a book that explores the meaningfulness of kirtan in the everyday lives of Sikhs. She would love to hear from you about your experiences with and views on kirtan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.