Applying the Canvas

In this final of 12-part series on Sikhi Concepts, Karminder Singh explains how pre-existing spiritual concepts are re-defined within Gurbani. Part 12 focuses on how these concepts are to be understood and applied to get an accurate understanding of the messages of Gurbani.

By Karminder Singh | Sikhi Concepts | Part 12 of 12 |

Gurbani clearly and definitively uses all of the pre-existing concepts of the Old Canvas within its composition. They are used in two basic ways, in which they provide two meanings, two basic understandings, and two primary contexts.

One is when the concept is mentioned as The Original Pre-1469 Concept. As an example, we will find mukt which means salvation mentioned in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) as a pre-1469 concept, with pre-1469 meanings.

The other usage is when the SAME concept is mentioned as The REDEFINED Gurbani Concept. REDEFINED Sikhi and Gurmat concept.

The language and terminology of the concept is the same. There is no change in the term itself. A qualifier or an adjective is sometimes added to the term. For instance, the adding of jivan to make it jivan mukt. But Mukt is retained.

To simplify things, we can take the example of the concept of happiness. So I may compose a sentence that reads: Happiness to most people is having lots of friends, plenty of money, big houses and fancy cars. Then I compose a second sentence that reads: But happiness to me is having peace of mind. Because happiness that is dependent on material is superficial.

In both the above instances – the concept is the same: Happiness. The language and terminology for the concept is the same. But its usage is in two different contexts. In the first instance, it’s used in the original sense – as to how it means to most people. Namely in terms of material wealth.

In the second instance – it is being REDEFINED in accordance to my understanding. It is being REDEFINED to state what Happiness means to me. In a way then, I am offering a critique in the first instance. I am critiquing happiness that is sought in material things. That is NOT the kind of happiness that I want to seek. That is a CRITIQUE of the concept of Happiness that is defined in the material sense.

In the second instance – I am ADVOCATING. I am saying this is the kind of happiness I WANT.

Why is the same terminology, the same word – happiness – being used in both these CONTRADICTORY situations? Because the concept ALREADY exists in the minds of everyone. Everyone IDENTIFIES with it easily and readily. We must speak in the language that people understand – even when we want to convey new knowledge or new ideas.

So people in the world of religion in 1469 – the era of Guru Nanak’s birth – understood the concepts such as DEATH, AFTER LIFE, 8.4 million, Reincarnation, Heaven and Hell, Salvation or Mukti, Dhrm Raj, Dargah, Chitargupt, Ancestors, etc. The understanding of the people was as prescribed within the 4,000-year-old canvas. Their understanding was provided by the clergy who obtained it from the variety of texts that expounded on the old canvas.

What our Gurus and Bhagats are saying is that the existing or pre-existing understanding of the religious world is NOT our understanding and NOT our experience. For instance, the Gurbani composers point out that the religious world is obsessed with DEATH – its fear, its uncertainty, what will happen after death, judgement in the afterlife, how to get to heaven and that.  It’s all about physical death. The entire focus is on physical death and what happens after.

Our Gurus and Bhagats are saying that’s not the DEATH that concerns us. That kind of death – physical death – is for everyone – and we have accepted that. There isn’t much to say about it in the real and meaningful sense, other than saying it’s part of life and living.

Our Gurus and Bhagats are saying – the death that IS of concern to us, that we seek to avoid, that we want to keep at bay, that we want to prevent – is spiritual death. So this is DEATH Redefined in Gurbani.

The language and the terminology the SAME. The word is still DEATH – or marn, maut, etc in Punjabi. Why because that’s the term, that’s the concept that ALREADY exists in the minds of everyone. Everyone IDENTIFIES with it easily and readily. Our Gurus and Bhagats are speaking in the language that people understand – even when their PRIMARY OBJECTIVE is to convey NEW knowledge, NEW ideas, NEW understanding.

This is what I mean by REDEFINING.

The same rule applies to EACH and EVERY other pre-existing concept and belief. The terms are the SAME. But the meanings are to be understood within two starkly contrasting contexts. TWO very different meanings.

One is when the Gurus and Bhagats wish to critique the existing understanding. In this case the Gurbani writers MENTION the concept or belief as it existed then and they CRITIQUE it.

The other is when the composers of Gurbani want to present a REDEFINED meaning and understanding of the same concept. The   pre-1469 concept is mentioned, but with a REDEFINED meaning.

So in SUMMARY then, one context is when the writers of Gurbani want to REJECT the concept as it existed then. The other is when the composers of Gurbani want to ADVOCATE the REDEFINED concept.

The question is HOW will we know in WHICH of the TWO contexts it is being used. Because the WORD, the TERM, the name of the concept is STILL the SAME.

For example, the word NARUK SURAG – heaven and hell. How do we know when Naruk Surag is being used in the pre-1469 context, and when it’s being used in the REDEFINED Gurbani context?

This is where we will need to UNDERSTAND the message of the VERSE it’s being used it.

IF the message of the Verse is a CRITIQUE, a CONDEMNATION, a REJECTION of Naruk Surag – like Naruk Surag Tay May Raheyo. Meaning: I DISCARD Naruk Surag. Or Santan Dou Raday – Meaning: Realized beings reject both Naruk and Surag – then we know that the Naruk Surag in these two verses is the pre-existing concept of heaven and hell in the afterlife. Why? Because it is being rejected.

ਕਬੀਰ ਸੁਰਗ ਨਰਕ ਤੇ ਮੈ ਰਹਿਓ ਸਤਿਗੁਰ ਕੇ ਪਰਸਾਦਿ ॥

Naruk Surag Tay May Raheyo (SGGS, 1370)

ਕਵਨੁ ਨਰਕੁ ਕਿਆ ਸੁਰਗੁ ਬਿਚਾਰਾ ਸੰਤਨ ਦੋਊ ਰਾਦੇ ॥

Kavan Naruk Kia Surag Bichara Santan Dou Raday (SGGS, 696)

Take another case. JUM DOOT – the soldiers of Death. When Guru Amardas ji says ਪੰਚ ਦੂਤ ਤੁਧੁ ਵਸਿ ਕੀਤੇ ਕਾਲੁ ਕੰਟਕੁ ਮਾਰਿਆ ॥ What we have here is an ADVOCACY to do something to the DOOT – do something to the soldiers of death – to CONTROL them, to RESTRAIN THEM –  ਵਸਿ ਕੀਤੇ ॥ VAS KEETAY. As a result of which DEATH is ELIMINATED – ਕਾਲੁ ਕੰਟਕੁ ਮਾਰਿਆ.

It would be the height of ignorance to say Guru Amardas ji is saying there are FIVE JUM DOOTS of the afterlife type – ਪੰਚ ਦੂਤ.  And then say that Guru Amardas ji is saying we can and should CONTROL or RESTRAIN the so called five soldiers of death in the afterlife so that we can avoid physical death.

So to say JUM DOOT here is applied in the context of the pre-1469 meanings – soldiers of death in the afterlife – would be both ridiculous and wrong interpretation.

Why? In this verse, Guru Amardas ji is NOT critiquing the DOOT, but ADVOCATING something in relation to the DOOT. Hence, we know that the meanings of DOOT that apply here are the REDEFINED Gurbani meanings. The DOOT refer to our VICES. And KAAL refers not to physical death but SPIRITUAL DEATH.

ਪੰਚ ਦੂਤ ਤੁਧੁ ਵਸਿ ਕੀਤੇ ਕਾਲੁ ਕੰਟਕੁ ਮਾਰਿਆ ॥

Panch Doot Tudh Vas Keetay Kaal Kantuk Mariya. (SGGS, 917)

Meaning: O Mind, RESTRAIN, PUT A LEASH, CONTROL the soldiers of spiritual death – the FIVE VICES; and you will avoid spiritual death.

The argument that Gurbani accepts any, every and ALL of the pre-1469 concepts SIMPLY because they are MENTIONED in Gurbani does not hold water. To hold such a position is to display our ignorance about Gurbani.

We will always need to discover the context of the usage of that concept. That is our task – as Sikhs of Gurbani. As students of the SGGS.

As an example, let’s take a look at the pre-1469 concept of TEERATH. A teerath is a place of pilgrimage. There are 68 such places within the pre-1469 belief system. These 68 places are considered “purified geographic locations” because holy people have purified them though their spiritual acts over long periods of time.

And the belief is that making a pilgrimage to these places, and undertaking baths and other rituals therein brings about INNER CLEANSING that in turn allows the devotee to go to heaven in the afterlife and meet God.

A teerath is thus a place to go to for inner cleansing, for inner purification.

Now, this is NOT a GURMAT Belief. But the word TEERATH appears numerous times in Gurbani. It can be found is a whole multitude of verses within the SGGS.

As mentioned above, it appears – just like every other pre 1469 concept – in two primary contexts.

The first is to NEGATE the notion of teeraths in Sikhi. When someone wants to critique, negate or reject an idea or a philosophy it needs to be mentioned.

But the mere act of mentioning cannot be taken to mean acceptance or even advocacy as a Gurbani principle.

Take this verse of Kabir on page 474 of the SGGS.

ਅੰਤਰਿ ਮੈਲੁ ਜੇ ਤੀਰਥ ਨਾਵੈ ਤਿਸੁ ਬੈਕੁੰਠ ਨ ਜਾਨਾਂ ॥

Antur Mael Jay Teerath Nahvey Tis Baikunth Na Jana. (SGGS, 474)

Meaning: The bathing at places of pilgrimage does not remove inner impurities and does not take one to heaven.

This is a critique of teeraths. Note that the word TEERATH NAVEIY is being used by Kabir, but the context is to CRITIQUE, not advocate.

Take this verse on page 39 of the SGGS.

ਮਲੁ ਹਉਮੈ ਧੋਤੀ ਕਿਵੈ ਨ ਉਤਰੈ ਜੇ ਸਉ ਤੀਰਥ ਨਾਇ ॥

Mul Haumai Dhotee Kivey na Utrey Jay Sau Teerath Nayeh. (SGGS, 39)

Meaning the impurities of human ego cannot be eliminated even if one washes oneself in one hundred places of pilgrimage.

Again this is a critique of the belief pertaining to teeraths.

Here is yet another verse on page 61 of the SGGS.

ਤੀਰਥ ਨਾਤਾ ਕਿਆ ਕਰੇ ਮਨ ਮਹਿ ਮੈਲੁ ਗੁਮਾਨੁ ॥

Teerath Nahta Kya Krey Mun Keh Mael Guman. (SGGS, 61)

Meaning: Of what use is bathing at teeraths if the mind is filled with the impurities of ego.

Even though the word TEERATH is used in all three verse – it is not in any way an affirmation that the concept of teerath is accepted within Gurbani. But the Canvas of Guru Nanak has REDEFINED the concept of TEERATH. Gurbani has REDEFINED the concept of TEERATH.

This verse of Guru Nanak on page 4 of the SGGS introduces the REDEFINED meaning of TEERATH in Gurbani, Gurmat and Sikhi.

ਸੁਣਿਆ ਮੰਨਿਆ ਮਨਿ ਕੀਤਾ ਭਾਉ ॥ ਅੰਤਰਗਤਿ ਤੀਰਥਿ ਮਲਿ ਨਾਉ ॥

Suneya Maniya Mun Keeta Bhao. Anturgat Teerath Mul Naho. (SGGS, 4)

Meaning: The, the ACCEPTANCE  and the INCULCATION  and the BECOMING  within one’s mind  of Divine Love  is the inner teerath.

This is the inner teerath of Gurbani.

How do we know that the REDEFINED meaning applies in this verse? From the context. And the context is that Guru Nanak is advocating the going and bathing at the Teerath ਤੀਰਥਿ ਮਲਿ ਨਾਉ. But the concept is REDEFINED as ਅੰਤਰਗਤਿ ਤੀਰਥਿ Anturgat Teerath meaning an INNER TEERATH, meaning an INNER Cleansing, meaning an INNER PURIFICATION.

Take this verse of Guru Nānak on page 687 of the SGGS.

ਧਨਾਸਰੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੧ ॥ ਤੀਰਥਿ ਨਾਵਣ ਜਾਉ ਤੀਰਥੁ ਨਾਮੁ ਹੈ ॥ ਤੀਰਥੁ ਸਬਦ ਬੀਚਾਰੁ ਅੰਤਰਿ ਗਿਆਨੁ ਹੈ ॥

DHNASRI Mehla 1. Teerath Navhan Jao Teerath Naam Hai. Teerath Shabd Bichar Antur Gyan Hai. (SGGS, 687)

Meaning: O Mind, Go Cleanse Yourself (of Vices) in the Teerath that is Divine Virtues. This Teerath is One of Discourse of the Shabd That Brings About Inner Enlightenment.

Again, the context tells us that the meaning of the word TEERATH here is the REDEFINED meaning. Why? Because Guru Nanak is NOT critiquing, but ADVOCATING.

Guru Nanak is saying- Go cleanse yourself in this teerath ਤੀਰਥਿ ਨਾਵਣ ਜਾਉ Teerath Nahvan Jao – the teerath of Divine Virtues ਤੀਰਥੁ ਨਾਮੁ ਹੈ Teerath Naam Hai. Obviously the cleansing that Guru Nanak is talking about is the inner cleansing of our vices.

Here is another verse of Guru Nanak on the subject of teeraths on page 990 of the SGGS.

ਮਾਰੂ ਮਹਲਾ ੧ ॥ ਪਤਿਤ ਪੁਨੀਤ ਅਸੰਖ ਹੋਹਿ ਹਰਿ ਚਰਨੀ ਮਨੁ ਲਾਗ ॥ ਅਠਸਠਿ ਤੀਰਥ ਨਾਮੁ ਪ੍ਰਭ ਨਾਨਕ ਜਿਸੁ ਮਸਤਕਿ ਭਾਗ ॥ ੧ ॥

Maru Mehla 1. Patit Pimeet Asankh Hohe Har Charni Mun Laag. Athsath Teerath Naam Prabh Nanak Jis Mastuk Bhag. (SGGS, 990)

Meaning: My 68 teerath concept is DIVINE VIRTUES  through which I obtain the blessings of the Divine.

The word Athsath means 68.  The number 68 refers to the 68 places of pilgrimage ਅਠਸਠਿ ਤੀਰਥ. It is A clear reference to the pre-1469 concept of 68 places of pilgrimage.  But Guru Nanak is Redefining it.

Here is yet another verse of Guru Nanak on the issue of REDEFINING the concept of teerath.

ਆਸਾ ਮਹਲਾ ੧ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਗੁਰ ਸਮਾਨਿ ਤੀਰਥੁ ਨਹੀ ਕੋਈ ਸਾਚੇ ਗੁਰ ਗੋਪਾਲਾ ॥

Nanak Gur Smaan Teerath Nahi Koye Sachey Gur Gopala. (SGGS, 467)

Meaning: Nanak, there is no teerath other than my Guru, (Because) It is my Guru who connects me to my Creator within.

Our task, as Sikhs wishing to understanding the messages that are intended by our Gurus and Bhagats – is to know the context of the usage of the particular concept.

Context is critical. We need to understand that Gurbani is poetic so CONTEXT is CRITICAL. When pre-existing concepts are used in Gurbani- the context comes from the FOUNDATIONAL principles of Gurbani and Gurmat.

If this context is ignored – then four things will happen. One, Gurbani will appear contradictory all over the place; Two, we will never get to the intended messages. Three, we will revert to the 4,000 old canvas, and, Four we can then ask: “What is the purpose of Gurbani then? Why couldn’t our Gurus tell us to just go read the existing texts?”

Too many of us Sikhs have, for too long, been taken for a ride by our clergy – our granthis, ragis, kirtanias, parcharaks – who are invested in keeping us mired in the literal meanings of Gurbani and to keep us away from the truths of Gurbani.

For the clergy class to survive, we Sikhs need to remain stuck in literal assertions such as “Sikhi believes in Reincarnation, Gurbani accepts 8.4 million, Dhrm Raj exists in Sikhi, Jum Doot is accepted in Gurbani, etc. The clergy need us to believe in all these things and be engulfed in fear so that we keep going to them to ensure we escape all these ugly things in the so called afterlife. Even if the clergy themselves have no clue of their own state, their own status and their own fate.

The truth is that our clergy today is threatened by enlightenment as the clergy during Guru Nanak was. For our clergy to keep on prospering, the Sikẖ masses must be kept in darkness of the light of Gurbani.

Our Gurus declared:

ਗੁਰਬਾਣੀ ਇਸੁ ਜਗ ਮਹਿ ਚਾਨਣੁ ਕਰਮਿ ਵਸੈ ਮਨਿ ਆਏ ॥ 

Gurbani Esjug Meh Chanan Karm Vseiy Man Aiye (SGGS, 67)

Meaning: Gurbani is spiritual enlightenment which is Realized Within Through Deeds

Gurbani is enlightenment indeed. But no amount of bright light is of help for those who prefer to live with their eyes closed shut. The onus of letting in the light of Gurbani is ours. The deed or act of opening our eyes to this light is ours to perform. Karm means deed or action. It is something that we have to do – to let the enlightenment of Gurbani in. Just like we have to open a window to let the light in.

In essence then, what Gurbani has done is to Liberate us from the entire pre-1469 Canvas. This old canvas is the life line of our clergy. This 4,000 year old canvas is their ticket to CONTROL, their ticket to MANIPULATION and to their making a living.

To free ourselves from this 4,000 year old Canvas is to liberate ourselves from the debilitating and crippling entanglement, fear and anxiety of the clergy concocted concepts of the 4,000 year old canvas.

Rejecting the clergy was amongst the first things the Bhagats that sit within the SGGS did.

Bhagat Kabir has these two verses in the SGGS. The first is:

ਹਮਰਾ ਝਗਰਾ ਰਹਾ ਨ ਕੋਊ ॥ ਪੰਡਿਤ ਮੁਲਾਂ ਛਾਡੇ ਦੋਊ ॥ 1 ॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥ 

Hamra Jhugra Rha Na Kouu. Pandit Mulla Chadey Douu. Rahao. (SGGS, 1159)

Meaning the conflict within me has ended. I have discarded the clergy (from my spiritual journey).

The term Pandit Mullah is a collective phrase of the clergy that existed then. The Sikhs of today have to contend with our own clergy who are of the mindsets of Pandit and Mullahs – but dressed in Sikhi garb. In many ways our clergy are so much worse than the Pandit Mullah of Guru Nanak’s days. Our clergy are worse because they want to remain joined at the hip of the Old Canvas – even after Guru Nanak had shown them the light.

Kabir’s next verse is:

ਪੰਡਿਤ ਮੁਲਾਂ ਜੋ ਲਿਖਿ ਦੀਆ ॥ ਛਾਡਿ ਚਲੇ ਹਮ ਕਛੂ ਨ ਲੀਆ ॥

Pandit Mulla Jo Likh Deeya. Chaad Chaley Hum Kachoo Na Leeya. (SGGS, 1159)

Meaning: All that the clergy has put forth in the name of spirituality, I have discarded it all. I accept none of it while walking my journey of spirituality.


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

Part 12: Applying the Canvas


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 

* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.



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)


ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Southeast Asia and beyond. Facebook | WhatsApp +6017-335-1399 | Email: | Twitter | Instagram | Obituary announcements, click here |


  1. Well done, Dr Karminder Singh. You have very clearly laid out your thoughts, in a very logical manner. It takes courage to do what you’re doing. You’re going against the grain. I can see why some – as can be seen be seen by the likes of Sardar Rawel Singh – are riled up. They operate from prevailing Sikh thinking – where transmigration is a real deal.

    We have all been there, and thought along those lines. So it ain’t easy to now depart from that line of thinking. For some, it’s painful. For others, it’s excruciating. Relearning is never an easy process.

    Yet, there will be those who will never make the leap to this thinking. We must be patient with them. We must allow them the time and space to process their thoughts.

  2. Great logic Dato Dr Bains sir. How could people from so far away (Benares) Hijack Sikhism? Benares to Amritsar is 1,300 km. How did the Hijackers travel such a long distance? Where were the brave Sikhs at that time? The Hijacking of Sikhi never happened.
    By similar logic, the occupation of India by Moguls and Mongols for 900 years didn’t happen. How could a bunch of horsemen and slaves come from tens of thousands of miles and occupy India? And where were the 300 million brave Indians at that time? The Mogul occupation of India too never happened.
    The colonization of India by the British is another thing that didn’t happen. How could a handful of employees of the East India Company backed by a few hundred British soldiers come from 25,000 kilometres away to conquer and occupy the whole of India for 200 years? Where were the 400 million brave Indians at that time? This is yet another thing that never happened.
    Right, Gurbani is very simple and should not be confused by making unnecessary analysis. Am wondering if your Gurbani understanding is a simple as your simple logic of “how could people from so far do anything.?”

  3. A well well-written article. It is so simple to understand because you allow your mind to see the discussion from a different angle. Nothing wrong, sensitive, or cheap publicity in this write-up. As he mentioned, as a student (Sikh), we MUST read and understand the gurbanee in its real context. Perhaps many can’t digest academic writing or perhaps we are so comfortable in our zones.

  4. S. Karminder Singh has rightly explained the Philosophy of Guru Nanak. He has rightly explained what Guru Nanak wanted to teach. Guru Nanak wanted that every one should be Sachiar that is a noble person so that a healthy and righteous society may be created. This could be done to liberate a person from useless fears and rituals. This is all what S. Karminder Singh explains.

  5. The highjaking of Sikhism is absolutely a book that has confused, rediculed and has created hatred to a particular sact. If it was so than where were the learnered people of Punjab? How could people from Uttar Pardesh so far away from the capital control of Punjab suddenly highjack Sikhism from the seat of Amritsar? What evidence or reference is been made to these facts? Gurbani is very simple. Do not confuse it by making unnecessary analysis? To get into the depth of Gurbani is to go within without criticising others and confusion the concept. I agree with Sr. Rawel the book shoukd be called Karminder Singh’s Concept…. You cannot own the name Sikhi clubbed to your ideology.

  6. Karminder Singh has posted a series of articles on what he calls “Sikhi Concepts”. He should have called them Karminder Singh’s concepts because they cause confusion about Sikhi and show his personal views. He quotes Gurbani but gives meanings which are at variance with the original, and meant only to show that he is presenting some thing radically different. His main thrust is that there is no hereafter. Gurbani uses the term ਦਰਗਹ Dargah, meaning Divine court, to make aware of the Divine natural justice system. He has never used this term. Gurbani emphasizes that spirituality basically applies to the soul, because the body actions are controlled by the soul. He talks of spirituality but has never mentioned the soul. He does not because if he did it would indicate relevance of the ‘hereafter’ and he thinks there is none. All this is causing confusion.

    In this post he has repeated his views of non-existence of the hereafter, Dharam Rai and Jamm. He had earlier mentioned absence of Chitr Gupt but not in this post. I have already given a short response to his earlier comments including a reference to this post and await its publication by Asia Samachar.

    The new issues he has raised are about ਨਰਕ Narak meaning hell, ਸੁਰਗ Surag meaning heaven, ਤੀਰਥ Teerath meaning holy place or place of pilgrimage, where the Hindus go for ceremonial baths, ਦੂਤ doot meaning messenger and ਕਾਲ ਕੰਟਕ Kaal Kanttak meaning the torturous agent of death. The literal meaning of ‘Doot’ is messenger or agent and is commonly used. It is used in Gurbani is used in two contexts. One is Panch doot which he has quoted. This refers to the five vices and he has said so. The other is Jam-doot or the messenger of Divine justice which is commonly translated as messenger of death and relevant for detention of the soul and used copiously in Gurbani. Karminder Singh has confused between the two.

    No one who has even a slight awareness of Gurbani believes in Narak, Surag or Teerath. Gurbani quotations given by him are given by everyone. So he has said nothing new. Yes some people do talk of these out of ignorance.