Naam Simran – Concept and Practice
Inder Mohan Singh
Naam is at the heart of Sikhi – “Nanak ke ghar keval Naam” – (The house of Nanak is filled with just Naam). The purpose of life, according to Gurbani, is union with God through Naam Simran.
Naam is a very broad and deep, mystical concept. We will look at both the meaning and practice of Naam Simran.
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Naam Simran – Concept and Practice
Inder Mohan Singh
Naam Simran is at the very heart of the spiritual message of Sikhi. Gurbani tells us “Nanak ke ghar keval Naam.” In the house of Nanak, or Sikhi, there is only Naam – that is really what being a Sikh is all about.
Sikhi has been described as Naam Marag – the path of Naam. In traditional Inidan philosophy, there are three paths to achieving union with the Divine – Karam marag, Gyan marag and Bhakti marag. Sikhi is Naam Marag, which includes aspects of all three, although it is closest to Bhakti marag.
The Guru tells us that the whole purpose of life is to seek union with God which is achieved through Naam Simran.
Bhaee parapat manukh dehuria Gobind milan ki eho teree baria
Awar kaaj tere kitay no kaam, mil saadh sangat bhaj keval naam. [SGGS p. 12[
( This human body has been given to you. This is your chance to meet the Lord of the Universe. Nothing else is of any use. Join the Saadh Sangat)and meditate on the Jewel of the Naam.)
Nothing else is as important as Naam Simran. Gurbani has many passages asserting how useless life is without Naam.
Mar na jaee jina bisrat raam, naam bina jeevan kaun kaam [SGGS p. 188]
( Those who forget the Lord might just as well die.
Without the Naam, of what use are their lives?)
Naam bina nahi jeevia jai [SGGS p. 366]
(Without Naam, it is not really living – you are spiritually dead.)
So what is Naam?
The literal meaning of Naam, of course, is Name. You use a name as a kind of handle to refer to someone or something. This has been described as “Akhri naam” the literal word that identifies someone or something. But this word or name brings to mind some attributes or qualities, or the concept you have regarding what it points to – this can be called the “sookhsham naam” or conceptual naam or its deeper meaning. For example, when you say “table” this akhri naam or word makes us think of something with four legs and a flat top on which you can put stuff, the essence or concept of what a table is. Similarly the word Waheguru invokes the concept and attributes of the Diivne that are described throughout Gurbani.
Two other forms of Naam that we will talk about can be called “Vyapak Naam” – the all pervading Divine Presence of Naam, and “Anubhavi Naam” or “Naam anubhav” which is what you experience when you practice Naam Simran and get in tune with the Divine.
With respect to the Akhri Naam, there are sseveral other terms in Gurbani that ae broadly related to Naam – Simran which means remembrance; jap or japna which refers to repeating or chanting the Name; Dhian or dhiawanaa which is more about concentration or meditation. The word “shabad” is also used frequently in a very similar sense to Naam. The word “mantar” or “Gurmantar” is also used in Gurbani
In other religions too, we find “Name” and “Word” come up often for similar concepts. Both of these words are used frequently in Hinduism, particularly in Vedanta, in a very similar way. In Christianity and Judaic faiths, Name and Word come up also. For example, one of the ten commandments tells us not to use the Name of God in vain. So the name of God is something very special to them. “Word” is used a lot too. For example the bible says “In the beginnig was the Word and the Word was God”
Naam is a word with broad, deep, and often mystical meanings. As used in Gurbani, in additon to the literal meaning of Naam as name or akhri naam, there are at least three deeper levels of meaning to the word Naam.
The first is as an aspect of the Divne Himself – a mystical all-pervading Divine Presence or force or vibration – which we can call the “Viaapak Naam”
Second, it used to describe a state of being in tune with or one with Naam, or the experience of being in this state of God consciousness or God awareness. When someone practices Naam Simran, the experience is also Naam, or “Anubhavi Naam”
Finally, it refers to the process or techniques for actualy achieving this state of God Counciousness, the practice of Naam Simran or Naam Japnaa.
At the deepest level, as discussed above, Naam refers to the essence of Waheguru, an aspect of the Divine.
In Asa-di-Vaar, Guru Nanak Ji tells us
Aapi ne aap saajio aapeenay rachio Nao
Dui kudrat saajeeay kar aasan ditho chao [SGGS p. 463]
Waheguru created Himself, then He established the creative power or spirit of Naam and through that Naam He create all of kudrat or creation. So Waheguru starts in the Nirgun or absolute state, and then He creates all of kudrat or creation. But before that, somewhere in between, there is Naam.
So Naam is an aspect of God Himself, a Divine force or Presence that is the underlying foundation of all of creation.
You can think of the laws of nature as also being a manifestation of this Naam which is the foundation of everything in the universe.
A couple of other words in Gurbani that are used for the same concept are Jot (or Divine Light) and Hukam.
This all pervading spirit of Naam, the Vyapak Naam, is the underpinning or foundation of everything in the universe:
Naam ke dhare saglay jant
Naam ke dhare khand brahmand [SGGS p. 384]
It is difficult to get our arms about this concept of Naam and define it in a concrete way because according ot Gurbani, Naam, like Waheguru Himself, is agam, agochar – incomprehensible, unfathomaable and indescribable. You cannot really analyze it, you can only experience it.
Naam as an Experience or State (Anubhavi Naam)
Naam is also used to describe a state or experience – what we may call anubhavi naam– the expreience of being in tune with the Vyapak Naam or all pervading spirit of Naam.
This is a mystical experience or state that is referred to by several words in Gurbani including Chautha pad, or the fourth state – beyond the three gunas or modes in which we normally operate, so it is a state of trancendence. Other terms in Gurbani that refer to this state include Turia awastha, Sehaj awastha and Dasam dwar.
This anubhavi naam is a mystical eperience that is beyond description in words. It is described as goongay the mithai – like a mute person tasing something really delicious but he is incapable of expressing it in words, he can only smile in delight.
The Gurus describe this Naam experience in many different ways, but they have to use metaphor and allegory; they can give us some glimpses but they cannot describe it in its entirety because it is an akath katha – a story that cannot be expressed in words.
This experience is described in various colorful ways in many beautiful shabads not only by the Gurus, but also by all the bhagats. Some shabads describe it using images from Yogic terminology, some in terms of brilliant light, while others refer to Divine music – anhad shabad. Individuals who reach this stage experience it in several different ways.
A key part of the Naam experience is anand – bliss, joy or ecstasy, also described as ras – like drinking something delicious and fulfllling.
When we speak of this Naam experience, it is like being in a constant spiritual high. Gurbani often uses the terminology of driniking and being intoxicated.
Baba man matwaro naam ras peevai
Sehaj anand rach rahia [SGGS p. 360]
(O Baba, my mind is intoxicated with the Naam, drinking in its Nectar. It remains absorbed in the Lord’s Love.)
There are many such shabads using the imagery of drinking liquor or wine. Drinking alcohal is not something that is recommended, of course, instead we are encouraged to get intoxicated on Naam.
These experiences are not unique to Sikhi. In every religious tradition, there have been some who have followed a path of Divine medititation or reflection and have described similar mystical experiences. Naam is in fact at the core of most faiths, but they get destracted from it by religious dogma and ritual. Some segment of these faiths have gone after the mystical path of spiritual experience. Within Islam you have the Sufis, the Christians have had their Christian mystics in some of the monastries, and so on.
All the bhagats in the SGGS, not just the Gurus, talk about Naam Simran and this mystical Naam experience, even using the word Naam. The bhagats came from differenct religious backgrounds, so we can see that Naam Simran was already being practiced by some within all of these faith traditions.
The Unitive experience
A key aspect of this mystical Naam state is the unitive experiene, a strong sense of Oneness, that all of creation is one, all are connected and part of the One.
Brahama deesai brahama suneeai ek ek vakhaaniay
Aatam pasaara karan haraa prabh bina nahi jaaneeay [SGGS p. 846]
(I see God, hear God, and speak of the One and only God.
The Divine spirit is seen in the expanse of creation. Without God, I see no other at all.)
Sabh gobind hai sabh gobind hai Gobind bin nahi koi
Soot ek man sat sahans jaise ot prot prabh soee [SGGS p. 485]
(God is everything, God is everything. Without God, there is nothing at all.
As one thread holds hundreds and thousands of beads, He is woven into His creation).
All of creation is like a maalaa or a necklace or rosary, and everything can be thought of as the different beads strung on a string. That string that connects and supports everything is Naam. The beads include all the people that we see. So one of the goals of the Sikh spiritual path is to see the Naam in everybody and to treat every one accordingly. This is a key driver of the ethics of Sikhi.
Na ko bairi nahi baigana, sagal sang ham ko ban aee
sabh me rav rahia prabh eko pekh pekh Naanak bigsaee [SGGS 1299]
(No one is an enemy or a stranger, I get along with every one
The One God is pervading in all. Gazing upon Him, beholding Him, Nanak blossoms forth in happiness)
Naam Simran – the Practice
Now we get to the practice of Naam Simran.
Some people think of it as Naam Japna – the repetition or chanting of “Waheguru” or other mantra or name of God. There is much discussion around whether Wheguru is the Guru mantra? Some chant the whole of the mool mantar, others chant Ekonkar satnaam waheguru. Many people or groups have different styles of chanting it as well
Then there is meditiation or focussed contemplation. Again, there are many different ways of doing this, with some advocating specific postures of sitting, different breathing techniques, focussing your attention on a specific spot such as the middle of the forehead, belly button, and so on. None of these are wrong, whatever helps to get in the right contemplative state is fine.
What really matters is one’s attitude, frame of mind, dedication and focus.
Some people say Simran is really sifat salaah – praisisng God and singing His praises instead of just repeating his Name or chanting Waheguru. Others say instead of His Name, think of His attributes. In fact Jaap sahib does just that – it takes you through one quality of God after another, addressing hundreds of Divine attributes.
Naam Simran in Sikhi is an integrated, holistic process of getting in Tune with the Vyapak Naam, the Divine Spirit, which can include all of these components. Gurbani, kirtan and nitnem are important parts of the process as well.
Gurbani reminds us constantly of God, praises Him and show us many different ways to relate to Him. Kirtan adds music, which can move us at a deep level, and which provides a whole other dimension of tuning in. In the early stages, these are the most effective ways of developing our concept of God and relating to Him. For someone who has had no exposure to Gurbani, who wants to be a Sikh, if you say just sit and repeat “Waheguru, Waheguru” and tune in to the Divine, it isn’t likely to be very effective. The word Waheguru is not going to mean very much to him. It is through the Guru’s word, in the form of nitnem, paath and kirtan, that we develp the concept of Waheguru and start relating to His Name. It is Gurbani, in its many forms, that helps us to add the deeper meaning to the Word or the Akhri Naam.
All of these: paath, kirtan, nitnem, are forms of Naam Simran that can take us along the path of tuning into the Divine. However, the ultimate part of the process which is really important for the Naam experience is the actual Naam Simran, which consists of dedicated meditation and contemplation, sitting down and focussing just on Naam. Gurbani itself tells us repeatedly to Naam Japo, to do Naam Simran. So we have to take this next step, otherwise we are reciting Gubani, but not actually doing what the Guru is telling us to do.
When you first start meditating on Naam, it can be really challenging to stay focussed. Concentrating on a single word like Waheguru goes against the mind’s tendency to run around chasing one thought after another. Naam Japna can feel difficult and even boring. It has been described as “sil alooni chatna” or like licking a tasteless stone. At the earlier stages, kirtan and paath can be much more enjoyable. But you have to keep at it and after a while, Naam Simran becomes more and more enjoyable, and full of “ras”
Raam ras pia re ram ras pia re [SGGS p. 387]
Then you actually look forward to your daily time for meditation. If you don’t do it, you feel you are missing something.
The practice of Naam Simran consists of regular, dedicated meditation on some word which is His Name, and “Waheguru” is the favored word. Now Waheguru itself does not appear in Gurbani, except in the Bani of the bhats where it is used in praise of Guru Ramdas. The words “wah wah” or Awesome do appear in many places. There is also this line from Bhai Gurdas where he says “Wahguru Gurmantar hai”. Gurbani uses names like Har, Raam, Gobind, Allah and many others:
Har har naam japo man mere
Raam Raam bol Raam Raam
Saas saas simro Gobind
Many who are not Sikhs, including the bhagats, have used many of these names other than Waheguru, and they have all been doing Naam Simran.
The Name of Waheguru is more importan, in my opinion, than the speceific word one may use. I personally use “Waheguru” when I do Naam simran, because that is the tradition that I have grown up with. I personally like Waheguru becasuse it evokes a sense of wonder and awesomeness of Waheguru.
As we said earlier, there are many opinions on the specifics of the mantar, the posture, breathing techniques, etc. What really matters is one’s attitude and frame of mind, and the dediction and focus with which we approach it.
What is really essential is to fill our hearts with love as we say Waheguru and to feel His love for us, to feel enveloped in love – for Waheguru is all love. That is what adds real meaning to simran – experiencing the love, experiencing the Divine Presence, and blissfully enjoying the ras.
Guru Ji tells us.
Jin prem kio tin hi prabh payo … Guru Gobind Singh
(Only those who love can achieve the Beloved.)
One of the biggest challenges in the practice of Naam Simran is to still the mind and keep it focussed. The mind is inherently very “chanchal” or restless and slippery. You try to keep it focussed but something triggers a thought, then one thought leads to another, and suddenly you realize you have lost it. You then have to gently bring it back on track.
One way to deal with this challeng is to use a favorite line or two from Gurbani and repeat it once or twice before gettng back to “Wahguru”. I usually choose a line about love like
So satgur pyara mer naal hai
Saajanra mera saajanraa, nikat khaloya mera saajanraa.
So as to experience the love as I get back to focussing on Waheguru. You can choose any Gurbani line that appeals to you.
Bliss and joy are a key part of the Naam Simran experience.
Tere ghar anand vadhaee tud ghar [SGGS p 965]
(God’s house or presence if full of bliss and celebration)
Anand bhaiaa meri mae Satguru mai paya [SGGS p. 917]
(I am in ecstasy, O my mother, for I have found my True Guru.)
This is what we must strive to feel as we do the Naam Simran.
Another important aspect of the Practice of Naam Simran is surrender, overcoming our haumai.
Haumai naave naal virodh hai doi na vasai ik thai [SGGS p. 560]
(Haumai and Naam are enemies; they cannot dwell in the same place.)
Now, Gurbani also tells us that Naam is the best way to overcome Haumai. So it is an iterative process.
When people talk about meditation, they often say you have to make your mind blank, and empty it of all thought. That does not really work. The mind cannot be made blank, and in any case a blank mind is useless. What you have to do is to still it instead and focus it. In fact you have to fill it, not empty it, but fill it instead with loving thoughts of Waheguru and the Divine presence. You do have to stop it from all other thoughtss, the usual chatter in which the mind likes to indulge.
When the surface of the water in a lake is disturbed by a pebble dropped in the water, or by the wind, you cannot see the bottom because of all the waves. But when the waves are stilled, you can clearly look through the water and see the rocks at the bottom, and the colorful fish swimming around. If someone were to throw a stone, suddenly you cannot see anything any more. The stone is the thought, and the beautiful colorful fish deep in the water is the experience of Waheguru and His presence. Only when your other thoughts are stilled can you experience the Divine presence deep within the self.
There is some debate on when we should do Naam Simran. The best time is early in the morning. But the Guru also says
Har simran ki sagli bela [SGGS p. 1150]
(Any time is good for doing Simran.)
We are told to do simran saas giraas – with every morsel of food and with every breath, that is at all times.
Rain dinas parbhaat toohai hee gavana. [SGGS p. 652]
(Night and day, morning and night, I sing to You)
But the best time to sit down and do dedicated Simran is at amrit vela or the ambrosial hour early in the morning.
Gur satgur ka jo sikh akhaae so bhalke uth har naam dhavai [SGGS p. 305]
(One who calls himself a Sikh of True Guru, shall rise in the early morning hours and meditate on the Lord’s Name.)
We hear this message not only from Guru Ram Das ji as in this shabad, but every one of the Gurus gives us this same message about amrit vela in their banis. There are also references to simran at amrit vela in the banis of all the bhagats: Naamdev, Kabir, Ravidas as well as Fareed who comes from the Islamic side.
Early in the morning at amrit veal, most people are still asleep and all the daily activiies and the noise and distractions haven’t picked up. Also the body is fresh after a night’s sleep. So it is a the ideal time for Naam Simran, although any time is good.
We have to put in dedicated effort to progress on this path of Naam, but it is ultimately all in Waheguru’s hands, subject to His Grace.
Karam milai aakhan tera nao [SGGS p. 662]
(It is only by Your Grace that we chant your Naam)
We can only hold up the bowl and pray for the gift of Naam, and it is Waheguru who pours the Naam amrit into it in His Grace.
Naam Simran is like a door. We go through that door to meet Waheguru, but Waheguru also meets us through the same door. So it is a two way process.
In the words of Bhai Gurdaas,
Charan saran Gur ek painda jai chal
Satgur kot painda aagai hoe let hai (Bhai Gurdas)
(Take one step towards the Guru, and He will take a hundred steps forward to receive you.)
Saas saas simran
Gurbani tells us do simran all the time – saas saas, with every breadth. How can we do this as we go about our worldly activities. We have to pay attention to whatever we are engaged in. If you are working on an engineering problem, for example, you have to concentrate pretty intensely on it. What Guru Ji is telling us is to be a constant state of God conciousness or God awareness.
Haath pair kar kaam sabh
Cheet niranjan naaal [SGGS p. 1376]
(Go through all your activities, but keep God in your heart.)
As you practice Naam Simran, the Naam comes to reside in your heart at a level below the concious level, it becomes a part of who you are and all your actions are guided by this God awarenes. You would refrain from doing anything unethical, for example. Even when you are engaged in mental activities that require concentration, the connection with Waheguru will remain intact.
Rewards of Naam Simran
Let us touch very briefly on a few of the many rewards of Naam Simran. The main objective of Naam Simran is to get past the cycle of birth and death
and to achieve everlasting union with the Waheguru. However, Gurbani tells that you don’t have to wait for the afterlife to enjoy the rewards. The benefits start flowing right away and right here in our life.
Ih lok sukẖī▫e parlok suhele [SGGS p. 292]
(Be at peace in this world, and happy in the next)
Through Naam Simran, you get peace, stability and strength of character. You are able to maintain an even keel through the ups and downs of life. Whatever life throws at you, you can remain in Chardi Kalaa.
Naam has powerful healing properties. Gurbani tells us
Sarab rog ka aukhad naam [SGGS p. 274]
(Naam can provide a cure for all ailments of the body, mind and spirit).
Kar isnaan simar prabh apna man tan bhae aroga [SGGS p. 611]
(Take a bath in the sarovar of Naam amrit and your body and mind are healed].
Naam Simran is the “soap” that can cleanse us of our sins and weaknesses, make us better humans and more worthy of our ultimate destiny of merging with the Divine.
Bhareeay hath pair tan deh
Paani dhotai utras kheh
Bhareeay mat papa ke sang
oh dhopai naavai ke rang [SGGS p. 4]
( When the hands and the feet and the body are dirty,
water can wash away the dirt
– – –
But when the intellect is stained and polluted by sin,
it can only be cleansed by the Love of the Name.)
Let us close with the words from the end of the ardaas:
Naanak Naam chardi kalaa!
(Through the power of Naam, may we all grow spiritually and live in Chardi Kalaa)
About the Author
Dr. Inder M. Singh is the Chairman of Chardi Kalaa Foundation, and has served on the boards of several Sikh non profit organizations including SALDEF and Sikh Foundation.
He is the Chairmanof Lynx Software Technologies and was CEO until 2006. He founded Excelan, and served as its chairman, CEO and president.. He was a co-founder of Kalpana, one of Cisco’s early acquisitions. Dr. Singh has served on the boards of several high-tech companies.. He holds Ph.D. and M.Phil. degrees in computer science from Yale University, an MSEE from Polytechnic Institute of New York, and B. Tech (Hons) in Electronics from IIT, Kharagpur.