The essential corpus of the Sikh Scripture — AdiGranth – was compiledin 1604, and in 1708 installed as the Guru Granth. What is it and what is it not? How did it speak to Sikhs then and how does it today? These questions determine the relevance of its message to our lives today.
Guru Granth is not a historical narrative though a few historical events find reference in it. Human frailty is examined at length but it is not a sin quotient of humanity’s errant ways – acts committed or contemplated and how to atone for them.
Making a life and making a living are two very different but interconnected matters. Guru Granth focuses on how to make a life.
Our world has changed over 300 years since its installation, yet Guru Granth must speak to me today as it did to countless Sikhs centuries ago; it must help navigate life in today’s multicultural, multiethnic and multifaith global village as it did in the realities of Punjab then.
And then Guru Granth becomes unique, timeless and universal
This paper will briefly explore such matters.
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Body of Paper
GURU GRANTH: How Does It Speak To Me Today?
The essential corpus of the Sikh Scripture — AdiGranth – was compiledin 1604, and in 1708 installed as the Guru Granth. What is it and what is it not? How did it speak to Sikhs then and how does it today? On these questions rests the relevance of its message to our lives today.
Guru Granth is not a historical narrative though a few historical events find brief and passing mention in it. Human frailty is examined at length but it is not a sin quotient of humanity’s errant ways – acts committed or contemplated and how to atone for them.
Making a life and making a living are two very different but interconnected matters. Guru Granth focuses on how to make a life. The principles of a good and productive life are the essence of the Guru Granth.
Our world has changed over the 300 years since its installation, yet Guru Granth must speak to us today as it did to countless Sikhs centuries ago; it must help navigate life in today’s multicultural, multiethnic and multifaith global village as it did in the realities of Punjab then.
And then Guru Granth becomes unique, timeless and universal
This paper briefly explores such matters.
Structure & Functions of Religion
There are as many theories on the origin and purpose of religion as there are writers who expound them.
I come to you today from the “functional” model of organizations to explore simply, even simplistically, how religions take root why they continue to thrive. Their existence is best understood with reference to human societal needs.
Individually humans are neither sufficiently swift nor strong to manage the existential dangers that lurk everywhere; a new-born is too fragile to independently survive for long. No man is an island entire of itself reminds John Donne; every man is a part of the main.
Hence the need for social institutions! Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), a preeminent social scientist defined “sacred” as the defining characteristic of religion, but not necessarily as faith in the supernatural but more as a reflection of societal needs. What is sacred or profane then emerges from the shared history and heritage of a people.
Religions become and remain the glue that binds families, clans, societies, communities, even nations.
Durkheim posits that group and communal dynamics – religious assemblies and congregations – create the essential “effervescence” or spirit of the community. Human survival relies on group cohesion. And religions reinforce collective interests over individual priorities that clash. When self-interest is balanced by collective expectations it becomes sense of right and wrong – a people’s morality and a framework of ethics.
Faith communities show a complex of belief with unquestioned faith at the center along with an ethical framework to modulate expectations and behavior. Thus they regulate individual human behavior as also communal practices within the community. A self-sufficient collective then makes possible collaborative interaction inside or outside of that community.
Exactly this is the benefit of congregation (sangat in Sikh parlance) – collective wisdom that transcends that of an individual and is more powerful than individual effort, no matter how well motivated. Says Guru Granth, in sangat God is to be discovered (“Mil satsangat khoj disayee vich sangat har prabh vasae jio” p. 94). Sangat also provides a way of spanning the intergenerational divide that haunts us forever – “pita poot rull keeni sanjh” p. 1141. .
But what to do when there is deadly disagreement amongst the sangat and God seems not so easily visible or accessible? Says the Guru Granth (p. 1185) “Hoye iktr milo meray bhai dubidha door karo liv layee; har naamey ki hovo joree. Gurmukh baiso safaa bicchayee.” In other words, Sikhs are asked to come together in an ambience where the Guru’s presence prevails; in such assembly discuss explore all doubts, and then go forth clear in heart and mind.
India at the Advent of Sikhi
Keep in mind the two religions extant 500 years ago when Sikhi arose in India were Hinduism and Islam – continually at loggerheads with each other. Muslims were the minority but politically dominant; Hindus were the majority but internally riven by caste where the high and low castes would never ever commune together. The right to read Hindu scriptures was denied to the low caste. In the pyramidal hierarchal structure of caste the Brahmin rated supreme; the cow’s status was higher than that of a woman.
Guru Granth & its Worldview
How then to reframe the inter-relationships of humans with each other, the Creator and the Creation? How to articulate today, centuries later, what Guru Granth is and what it is not?
There are a multitude of issues here; and each deserves a whole chapter, if not a book. Over the years I have published several independent essays on many of these topics. But today I am going to paint them with extremely broad brush strokes.
The first and foremost message that reverberates countless times in the Guru Granth is its opening alphanumeric Ik Oankar that Guru Nanak designed. In this he merged the Arabic numeral “one” denoting singularity with the Sanskrit word Oankar, to speak of a single Creator who is found in the Creation. If one can envision this singularity – its immanence and transcendence — then there is absolutely no room left for differences in caste, creed, color, gender, race or national origin.
And then as Guru Granth proclaims no one is an enemy or a stranger (Na ko baery nahi bigana, p. 1299). Attributes that are both social and divine — equality, liberty, fraternity and justice — that stand out as the corner stone of an egalitarian society, are inherent in this formulation.
I submit that the entire Sikh worldview inheres in this alphanumeric that Guru Nanak designed; all else is commentary.
The Lord first created light and from that came all life (“Awal Allah noor upaya kudrat ke sabh banday,” Guru Granth, p 1349). This leaves no familial, communal, national, racial, genetic or cultural singularity in God’s bounty.
Hence, there can be no exclusivity of doctrine or dogma that pigeon-holes people. Effectively we are all equally chosen people then, or none is.
This is when true interfaith connectivity with an equal place at the table of society is possible.
Why so Little History in Guru Granth
Durkheim views society as an “organismic analogy of the body, wherein all the parts work together to maintain the equilibrium of the whole, and religion is the glue that holds society together.” I would argue that this model fully echoes the vision within the Guru Granth.
Ergo, it is not surprising to see very little direct history in the Guru Granth even though the process of its compilation tookover 200 years. There are many languages represented in the Guru Granth, as also writings of six Founding-Gurus of the faith, several Saints and Bhagats that came from both Hindu and Muslim lineage; some were of low caste; in fact, many who would never ever break bread together much less be caught on the adjoining pages of the same holy book but that is exactly where Guru Granth places their writings.
Clearly, this makes Guru Granth a true interfaith compilation, in which exponents of both the Hindu Vedantic and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions found space.
The founders of the faith personally selected what went into the Guru Granth and supervised the compilation. There is thus only very minor disagreement on its authenticity. This in itself makes it historically unique amongst the many scriptures that define our pluralistic society today.
In the Guru Granth very few historical events find mention, like the advent of the Mughals into India who created an empire that lasted a good two centuries paralleling the beginning and growth of the Sikh faith. Historical detail would have limited the timelessness of the Guru Granth by trapping it in time and space within a fixed ethno-cultural context.
Behavioral & Ethical Issues in Guru Granth
Contrary to what may be found in other scriptures there is absolutely no mention of a sin quotient and no compendium of sins committed or contemplated. On the other hand, there is plenty on what constitutes ethical conduct. There is copious social history in the Guru Granth – very necessary if the purpose is to create an evolutionary change within the society.
For instance, if Muslims pray five times a day, there is crystal clear explanation in Guru Granth of what each prayer should mean to an observant Muslim: Let compassion be thy mosque, faith thy prayer mat, and honest living thy Koran (“Mehar masit sidak musla huq halaal Koran….” p140-141). To his followers who came from Hindu traditions Guru Nanak was just as frank. On the matter of wearing the Hindu sacred thread (janeau) he said: Out of the cotton of compassion, spin the thread of contentment; Tie the knot of continence, give it the twist of virtue (“Dya kapah santokh soot jat ganddhi sutt vat’ Guru Granth p 471).
Most converts to Sikhi came from Hinduism so much of Sikh teaching is directed at the larger Hindu community and their religious and social customs like the many food taboos, the unquestioned place of the Brahmin at the pyramidal apex of the caste-driven society, the high place of the cow and the ironically low status of women and low caste Hindus. Even today, they foster much debate and discussion. Such matters are handled forthrightly in the Guru Granth; a few examples follow.
On the sanctity of caste: Be not proud of your caste (Jaat ka garab na karyo koyee p 1128); and Garabvas mae kul nahi jaat (p 324) — in the womb no one knows his caste…and then the same hymn goes on to ask: What makes you Brahmin and I Sudra; If blood runs in my veins, does milk flow in yours?
On women a few preliminary words first: In the Indian system, then prevalent, the right of a widow to remarry did not exist. She was expected to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Also add that the dowry system and female feticide were widespread. Women were forbidden to read Hindu scriptures; but they did exist as vestal virgins and dancing girls within the temples.
Guru Nanak rejects all this. I will not repeat his whole composition on women that we hear possibly every morning as part of Asa-di-Vaar. It goes:
Bhand Jamiyae bhand nimiyae bhand mangan viaho; bhando hovay dosti bhando chalay rahu…
Of a woman we are conceived; of a woman we are born.
To woman we are betrothed and married; a woman is friend and partner for life.
It is a woman who keeps the race going; another is sought when the life partner dies,
Through woman are established social ties.
From woman alone is born a woman; without woman there is no human birth.
Without woman, O’ Nanak, only the True one exists. (Guru Granth, p 473)
Guru Granth does not advocate any food taboos except those that harm the mind or the body. To eat and drink is natural and right (Khaana peena pavitter hai ditone rijak sambahay p. 472). In a series of couplets, Guru Granth (p 16-17) pointedly warns us to eschew the false pleasures of an ostentatious life style – the pursuit of anything that ruins the body or leads the mind astray; I offer one verse as an example – “Baba hoar khana khusi khwar; Jit khadey tunn peerihay munn mae chalay vikaar”.
The idea of God is not of a fearsome presence in our lives but of one like a parent, both mother and father. (“Too maat pita hum barak teray, Guru Granth p 268; Harji mata, harji pita, p 1101) Surely, it is a remarkably unusual and refreshingly modern idea of deliberately not assigning gender identity to the Creator.
Finally, Guru Granth (p. 922) posits a very human challenge: What footprints will you leave in the sands of time (Eh sareera merya is jug may aye ke kya tudh karam kamayya)?
Guru Granth repeatedly exhorts us to discover, develop and nurture the spark of divinity that exists in each of us (“Munn too jote saroop hae(n) apnaa mool pehchhan” p 441). A similar thought on page 492 – “So moorakh jo aap na pechhanayee, such na dharay pyar” – the fool is he who has not found himself.
It seems to me that the emphasis – in fact the whole purpose — of life is to develop a sense of self.
For this then Guru Granth asks us to live a life in “Hukum.” But what exactly is hukum? It does not mean to live as if God micromanages every moment of our lives. It is more in sync with an ancient Greek prayer that asks this boon: God, grant me the courage to change the things that I can, the serenity to accept what I cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference. (Of course, the most critical and difficult skill here is the third.)
Hukum says that there are many things that I can affect and just as many, if not more, that I cannot. The first part of the prayer then refers to free will that has been granted to us. To elegantly accept that many matters remain out of our hands is to walk in Hukum. Hukum, in fact, asks us to live each moment fully and productively.
And then to accept what is given to us as grace or nadar where our liberation lies amidst a life well and joyfully lived – “hasandian khelandian, pehnandian, khavindian vichay hovey mukt” (p 522). To succinctly convey the essence of charhdi kalaa in English I can lean on Norman Vincent Peale’s movement “The Power of Positive Thinking” that became dramatically popular in the last century or point to an earlier essay where I had connected charhdi kalaa to the American saying “If life gives you a lemon make lemonade.” Thus are these, in effect, life’s governing principles — nadar, hukum, sehaj and charhdi kalaa.
Science v. Religion & Related Issues
There is nothing in Guru Granth from which a conflict between science and religion can be implied or inferred. Science discovers the rules of nature and in how things work. Religion tells us what they mean. For instance science has discovered and can teach us how to harness nuclear technology and even build a nuclear weapon; we need religion and morality to tell us why we should build one and what use, if any, should we make of it.
Guru Granth and its compiler-Gurus recognized that this changing world will surely deliver new technological, scientific and bioethical challenges on our plate every day. How we respond to them will be weighed according to our then current knowledge base that is continually changing and societal realities as they exist. Yet, our foundational principles remain unchanging and our responses will account for both imperatives. There is no reason or compulsion to reject what science tells us unless scientific evidence decisively so indicates.
One speaks of the process – that is science; the other speaks of its end – that is religion and morality. In a purpose driven life the two imperatives of “how and why” should never be sundered; they need to be remain seamlessly merged. Are they in conflict? Yes, but only if we fail to understand them.
The Ultimate Reality
The Ultimate Reality is defined as one that our senses cannot perceive and our intellect cannot fathom but with which our soul can commune. The human mind, no matter how vast or capable, remains finite and fallible. It cannot possibly take full measure of what is infinite and it is immaterial what name we give this entity that we term the Ultimate Reality, Vaheguru or God.
Keep in mind that Guru Granth uses many names to address the Creator, mostly notably from the Hindu lexicon, some from Islamic tradition. And if you peruse the Jaap Sahib (Guru Gobind Singh’s composition, not in Guru Granth) the list of attributive names is virtually endless. In my view the sole purpose here is to impress on the mind a simple fact: Our finite intellect and language cannot hold in itself what we know to be infinite in that it transcends our very human faculties.
The Founder Gurus practiced a decidedly remarkably unusual way to connect to that Universal Connectivity through divine music. Better than 90 percent of Guru Granth is cast in the intricate Raaga system of classical Indian musicology. The Gurus were extraordinarily talented musicians themselves. This tradition is still very much alive in Sikh practice around the world.
Making a life and making a living are two very different but interconnected matters. Putting food on the table is making a living and there are a myriad ways of doing so. Guru Granth focuses instead on how to make a life. Life is to be lived here and now not as an afterlife or on a different planet, place or time — “Vichh duniya sev kamayae ta dargae baesan paayae” p. 26.
Says the Guru Granth (p. 24): “Amal kar dharti beej sabdo kar such ki aab nit deh paani; hoi kirsaan eeman jamai lae bhist dojak moorhe aev jaani….” In other words, it says, “Oh fool! Know this as your heaven or hell. Your deeds are the soil; The Guru’s word is the seed; Divine truth is the water whose runnels make fertile the fields. The farmer who farms this field will reap the fruit.
And then Guru Granth tells us how a life acquires meaning and that the best way to find the self is when life is driven by a cause bigger than the self: Says the Guru Granth, p. 474: “Aap gavaye seva karay taa kitch paaye maan.”
Guru Granth – the Living Word and Guru – revered but not worshipped – referred to by the Gurus as “Sajjan,” (p. 1426) “Sajjan sacha paatshah….” the only rough and ready translation of sajjan that I can offer is “soul mate.” Remember that soul mates are rare, not dime a dozen and it takes a lifetime to cultivate one.
Our world has changed over the 300 years since the installation of Guru Granth. But remember this: Guru Granth speaks to us today as it did to countless Sikhs centuries ago; it helps navigate life in the choppy waters of today’s multicultural, multiethnic and multifaith global village as it did in the realities of Punjab then.
Thus Guru Granth becomes unique, timeless, universal, and a thinking person’s guide and Guru.
(I thank Ravinder Singh (Columbus, Ohio) for assistance in preparation of this manuscript.)
September 14, 2013
SINGH came to the United States in 1960 on a Murry & Leonie Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He received a PhD in anatomical sciences from the University of Oregon Medical School (now Oregon Health Sciences University), and a DDS from Columbia University. He is a professor emeritus of anatomical sciences at New York University.
He serves on the Editorial Advisory Boards of the Sikh Review (Calcutta) as well as Nishaan (New Delhi), and writes a regular internet column on Sikhi
I.J. Singh is a frequent speaker and writer on the Sikh experience in the diaspora and interfaith issues, .and has authored four collections of essays on his journey as a Sikh in North America.