The first thing we need to do is to look at the pre-1468 beliefs pertaining to Ancestors. The Sanskrit word for it is Piter. Gurbani uses the same word when referring to this concept.
The claim in the pre-1468 beliefs is that our Piter reside in a location called Piter Lok. And that it is our duty to provide for their needs in Piter Lok.
The ritual that is related to ancestors is called Shraadh. The objective of Shraadh is to pay homage to one’s deceased ancestors and make offerings to them. The expectation is that the departed ancestors or Piter will protect the family and ensure their well being.
There are two Shradhs – one for male ancestors and the other for female. Then there is a communal Shraadh – where homage is paid to all ancestors of the community together.
The family performing the Shraadh invites clergy. These clergies are then fed and offerings made to them in the name of the ancestors. The clergy perform a fire ritual appeasing the gods who are said to transmit the food and offerings to the ancestors.
Food is also offered to the departed souls. The offerings are made to three generations of Pitars only. During the ritual of Shraadh, rice balls are fed to animals and birds – dogs and crows in particular.
Within the Sikh community, our clergy has propagated the principle of paying homage to our departed ancestors – parents and grandparents – in the form of Barsis.
Offerings of beddings, food and other items of daily use such as utensils are made either to our granthis or the gurdwara. The expectation is that the benefit of the deed will pass on to our departed ancestors or Piter.
A majority of our granthis, ragis and kirtanias – have defended such a ritual or practice by claiming that Gurbani supports it. They are often heard singing or quoting verses from Gurbani that use the term Piter to justify their claims.
There is no denying that Gurbani uses the word Piter within the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS).
Let’s examine these verses to see if Gurbani is advocating the rituals relating to our Piters or Ancestor; or if the messages of Gurbani are something else all together.
ਰਾਗ ਗਉੜੀ ਬੈਰਾਗਣਿ ਕਬੀਰ ਜੀ ॥ ਜੀਵਤ ਪਿਤਰ ਨ ਮਾਨੈ ਕੋਊ ਮੂਏਂ ਸਿਰਾਧ ਕਰਾਹੀ ॥ ਪਿਤਰ ਭੀ ਬਪੁਰੇ ਕਹੁ ਕਿਉ ਪਾਵਹਿ ਕਊਆ ਕੂਕਰ ਖਾਹੀ॥
Rag Gauri Bairagan Kabeer Ji. Jeevat Pitar Na Maney Kou, Muey Shradh Krahee. Pitar Bhe Bapuray Kaho Kion Pavey, Kaoa Kookar Khaee.
The meaning of the verse is “The ancestors were not recognized when they were alive. Once dead, we want to send them all sorts of goods through the ritual of Shraad. What an irony.”
And making offerings of food upon their demise in Ancestor worship only benefits the dogs and crows. And that nothing reaches anywhere other than that.
The message is clear. These set of verses is a critique of the ritual pertaining to Piter. Kabir is saying – Ancestors must be respected and treated well when they are alive. Not after their demise.
Then in the Rahao or Title verse of the same shabd, Bhagat Kabir has this verse.
VERSE 2: Bhagat Kabir (SGGS, 332)
ਮੋ ਕਉ ਕੁਸਲੁ ਬਤਾਵਹੁ ਕੋਈ ॥ ਕੁਸਲੁ ਕੁਸਲੁ ਕਰਤੇ ਜਗੁ ਬਿਨਸੈ ਕੁਸਲੁ ਭੀ ਕੈਸੇ ਹੋਈ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
Mo Ko Kusal Btavho Koyi. Kusal Kusal Kartay Jug Binsey. Kusal Bhi Kaisay Hoyi. Rahao.
Kabir is saying: Someone tell me what well-being comes of this ritual. The whole world of ancestor worship claims the ancestor or Piter will ensure our well-being and happiness but how could one get such from a ritual?
The message is clear again. Nothing can come our way from this ritual because deceased ancestors are not in a position to offer us anything.
ਸਲੋਕੁ ਮਃ 1 ॥ ਜੇ ਮੋਹਾਕਾ ਘਰੁ ਮੁਹੈ ਘਰੁ ਮੁਹਿ ਪਿਤਰੀ ਦੇਇ ॥ ਅਗੈ ਵਸਤੁ ਸਿਞਾਣੀਐ ਪਿਤਰੀ ਚੋਰ ਕਰੇਇ ॥ ਵਢੀਅਹਿ ਹਥ ਦਲਾਲ ਕੇ ਮੁਸਫੀ ਏਹ ਕਰੇਇ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਅਗੈ ਸੋ ਮਿਲੈ ਜਿ ਖਟੇ ਘਾਲੇ ਦੇਇ ॥ 1 ॥
Solak M1. Jay Mohaka Ghar Muhey Ghar Muhe Pitri Dey. Ageiy Vast Sinyaneay Pitri(n) Chor Krey. Vadheah Hath Dlal Kay Musfi Eh Krey. Nanak Ageiy So Miley Jay Khattey Ghaley Dey.
Meaning: If A Thief Raids a Home, and Makes an Offering of His Loot to His Deceased Ancestors. In the Ancestor world, or Piterlok, (as claimed by the clergy), The Donated Items Get Recognized; The Ancestors Are Thus Made Thieves Because They are in Possession of Looted Items. The Middleman Agent Clergy Will Have His Hands Chopped Off; This Is the Justice Meted Out to Thieves. Nanak What I Obtain as My Spiritual Outcome Is What I Earn and Accumulate with My Own Diligence.
Guru Nanak’s argument makes the following three things clear for the Sikh: First, any ritual relating to ancestors is worthless. There is nothing we can do for them and there is nothing they can do for us.
Second, the entire practice of sending things to ancestors is illogical and hence rejected.
And third, the role of the middleman clergy is an exercise of trickery. He makes a living out of the entire process – asking for things that he himself needs under the pretext of sending them to the ancestors of this devotees. To ensure his livelihood is secure, he propagates this concocted narrative of Piter.
The conclusion makes an additional contribution to our spirituality. By using words such as ਖਟੇ ਘਾਲੇ meaning – earning in diligence – Guru Nanak is advocating a spirituality of the Here and Now. Within such a context, the word ਅਗੈ Ageiy is re-defined from a non-existant clergy invented location in the clergy concocted after world – to our spiritual progress, goal and destination in the Here and Now.
It’s not too difficult to figure out that even if the word Piter appears in the verses in Gurbani, the message is NOT to suggest that it is an accepted practice or that it is part of Sikhi. The messages within these verses are a critique of the ritual for us Sikhs.
The messages are to tell us to stay clear from rituals. And to stay clear from clergy who advocate them for their own benefit.
But the messages of Gurbani have not stopped our clergy – our granthis, ragis, kirtanias, etc from arguing otherwise.
To support their stand, our clergy rely on a verse of Guru Arjun that contains the word Piter and is found on page 496 of the SGGS. The verse is as follows.
ਗੂਜਰੀ ਮਹਲਾ 5 ॥ ਜਿਸੁ ਸਿਮਰਤ ਸਭਿ ਕਿਲਵਿਖ ਨਾਸਹਿ ਪਿਤਰੀ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ ॥
Jis Simrat Sabh Kilvekh Nasey, Pitree Hoey Udharo.
The first part of the verse ਜਿਸੁ ਸਿਮਰਤ ਸਭਿ ਕਿਲਵਿਖ ਨਾਸਹਿ translates as “The Simran or Remembrance of Whom eliminates all spiritual obstacles.”
Our clergy translate ਪਿਤਰੀ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ as “and Ensures Your ancestors WILL BE saved.”
The claim by or clergy is that this verse is clear and unequivocal support for the concept of Ancestors or Piter in Gurbani. Our clergy tell us that what we do WILL have an effect on the well-being of our Ancestors. We need to do Simran ON THE BEHALF of our deceased Ancestors to save them.
The clergy’s message to us Sikhs is this: Guru Arjun is saying clearly – Do Simran, this simran will save you and WILL save your ancestors, too, ਪਿਤਰੀ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ.
Well, there are three things that are wrong with this translation of our clergy. The first is that it contradicts the basic principles of Gurbani, Gurmat and Sikhi.
This verse of Guru Nanak on page 474 of the SGGS lays out this basic principle.
ਆਪਣ ਹਥੀ ਆਪਣਾ ਆਪੇ ਹੀ ਕਾਜੁ ਸਵਾਰੀਐ ॥
Aapan Hathee Aapna Apey Hee Kaal Swareay.
Meaning: Spiritual outcomes are the result of our own actions done on our own by ourselves.
We are also familiar with this verse of Guru Nanak.
ਆਪੇ ਬੀਜਿ ਆਪੇ ਹੀ ਖਾਹੁ ॥
Meaning: The Self Reaps What the Self Sows
This verse of Guru Arjun on page 134 of the SGGS corroborates.
ਜੇਹਾ ਬੀਜੈ ਸੋ ਲੁਣੈ ਕਰਮਾ ਸੰਦੜਾ ਖੇਤੁ ॥
Jeha Beejay So Luney Karma Sandra Kheyt.
Meaning: Spirituality is a field where seeds of actions are sowed (planted) and outcomes (results) reaped.
Put together the principle of Gurmat that comes out is simple. Sikhi is a spirituality of the Self, for the self, by the self. There is no place for Spirituality on behalf of others in Sikhi. Spirituality on behalf of our ancestors therefore cannot be the meaning of ਪਿਤਰੀ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ.
Secondly, the word ਹੋਇ in the verse ਪਿਤਰੀ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ is in the past tense. So the clergy translation of ਪਿਤਰੀ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ as Your ancestors WILL BE saved is wrong because it has made a verse in the past tense appear to be in the future tense.
Thirdly, we know that this is a verse of Guru Arjun ji. Since Gurbani is written in the first person, this verse therefore applies to Guru ji in the first person. If the clergy translation is accepted then we need to accept that the Guru is telling us “The Remembrance of Whom Ensures My ancestors WILL BE saved.”
So this is where the third problem comes in. Do the ancestors of Guru Arjun need saving? His father was Guru Ramdas. He passed on before Arjun became Guru, which means this verse is being composed after the passing of his father. So are we to believe that Guru Arjun the son had to do Simran so that his deceased father Guru Ramsas could be saved?
So putting these three points together the clergy translation of ਪਿਤਰੀ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ as ‘our simran ensures our ancestors WILL BE saved’ is not correct. This sort of translation goes against the basic principle of spirituality of the Self. Its grammar is wrong, and the translation is ridiculously wrong when applied to Guru Arjun in the first person.
So the correct translation of the verse is as follows: The remembrance of Whom eliminates all spiritual obstacles; just like it DID for our ancestors (Gurus and Sikhs before us).
ਪਿਤਰੀ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ means just like how the remembrance saved our ancestors in the here and now.
The next verse of this same couplet makes it clear:
VERSE 9: Guru Arjan (SGGS, 496)
ਸੋ ਹਰਿ ਹਰਿ ਤੁਮੑ ਸਦ ਹੀ ਜਾਪਹੁ ਜਾ ਕਾ ਅੰਤੁ ਨ ਪਾਰੋ ॥ 1 ॥
So Har Har Tum Sad Hi Japho Ja Ka Unt Na Paro.
Meaning: Realize that particular Unfathomable omnipresent Creator whose realization saved our ancestors and whose realization will save you and me.
It is clear therefore that in this shabad of Guru Arjun, the use of the phrase ਪਿਤਰੀ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ is not in any way an endorsement of the ritual of Shraadh. It is in no way an endorsement of the notion that our deceased ancestors are in need of our intervention. It is in no way an advocacy of the pre-1468 or pre-Guru Nanak era beliefs about praying to and for our deceased ancestors.
As said above, the word Piter, Pitra(n) and Pitri(n) appears within the SGGS. In ALL of these instances, all and any ritual relating or pertaining to deceased ancestors is critiqued by the composers of the verses.
The one and only message of Gurbani relating to our Ancestors is embedded within the verse of Bhagat Kabir.
VERSE 10: Bhagat Kabir (SGGS, 332)
ਰਾਗ ਗਉੜੀ ਬੈਰਾਗਣਿ ਕਬੀਰ ਜੀ ॥ ਜੀਵਤ ਪਿਤਰ ਨ ਮਾਨੈ ਕੋਊ ਮੂਏਂ ਸਿਰਾਧ ਕਰਾਹੀ ॥
Rag Gauri Bairagan Kabeer Ji. Jeevat Pittar Na Maney Kou Mueey Shradh Krahee. Pittar Bhe Bapuray Kaho Kion Pavey Kaooa Kookar Khaee.
Meaning: The ancestors were not recognized when they were alive. Once dead, we want to send them all sorts of goods through the ritual of Shraad. What an irony. What hypocrisy.
The message is to ELIMINATE the irony. The message is to REJECT the hypocrisy. And the way to do that is to respect, honor, love and venerate our elders in our lives.
In essence then, what Gurbani has done is to Liberate us from the entire pre 1468 Canvas. To free us from the debilitating and crippling entanglement, fear and anxiety of the clergy concocted concepts of the 4,000 year old canvas.
When you stop wanting to worship your ancestors after their death, you start respecting them when they are alive, you start to love them in the present, and you start to honor them in the Here and Now.
When you stop chasing the spirituality of life after death, you start living the spirituality of here and now, and you allow the spirituality of Hukm to live within you.
When you discard the Gurbani discarded narratives of the 4,000 years old canvas, you start living the truths of Gurbani.
When you STOP chasing the wrong things, you give the right things a chance to catch you.
SIKHI CONCEPTS VIDEO SERIES BY KARMINDER SINGH DHILLON
Part 1: Guru Nanak’s Canvas
Part 2: Death
Part 3: After Life
Part 4: 8.4 million (Chaurasi Lakh)
Part 5: Reincarnation
Part 6: Heaven and Hell
Part 7: Salvation in Afterlife (Mukti)
Part 8: Court of Judgement (Dargah)
Part 9: Dhrm Raj
Part 10: Jum Doot & Chitrgupt
Part 11: Ancestors
Sikh thinker, writer and parcharak Karminder Singh Dhillon, PhD (Boston), is a retired Malaysian civil servant. He is the joint-editor of The Sikh Bulletin and author of The Hijacking of Sikhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hijacking Sikhi (Asia Samachar, 19 Dec 2020)
Karminder talks about what shaped his thinking, and his latest books on Sikhi (Asia Samachar, 20 Nov 2020)
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