Of mantras and malas in Sikh prayer

Mantras in Sikhism are fundamentally different from the secret mantras used in other religions in that they are not taught in secret sessions.

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The bead – Photo: Vector Xue / Pixabay
By Rishpal Singh Sidhu | OPINION |

This article explores the origins, use, and rationale of mantras and malas (prayer beads) in Sikhism. Gurmat as distinct from Gurmantra (gur-mat, mat, from Sanskrit mati, etymologically meaning tenets/beliefs/principles of our Gurus, is a term synonymous with mainstream Sikhism and the Sikh way of life) does not condone or endorse the use of malas in Sikh prayer although some Sikh sects claim counting mantras using malas. These sects often depict images of Guru Nanak with the mala in his hand. Many artists depictions of Guru Nanak show him wearing a mala around his neck, holding it in his hand, and even around his dastar. Photography was not invented until 1826 or 1827 and the first photographic technologies were produced around the 1830s and 1840s, well over a century after the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708. The Sikh Gurus did not permit paintings of themselves in their lifetimes as this is contrary to the philosophy of the Sikh faith.1

Originating from Sanskrit, the word mantra literally means instrument of thought (Proto-Indo-Aryan “mantram”, Proto-Indo-Iranian “mantram”, Proto-Indo-European “men-tro-m” from men “to think”). It has also been described  as a sacred message or text, charm, spell, counsel, a scared utterance, a numinous sound, a syllable, word or phoneme, or group of words, and is believed by its practitioners to have religious, magical, or spiritual powers. The notion of mantra can be traced both, to pre-Vedic and non-Aryan traditions and to earlier primitive cults of magic, animism, and totenism. These mantras were usually chosen from scriptural texts and used as a means of appeasing the Gods. “Similarly, certain mystic words from the Scriptures were chosen to be meditated upon to win relevance or liberation. Om is the highest mantra in the Hindu system.” 2 The erstwhile charismatic Indian guru Sri Sathya Baba  is believed to have said that “a pure thought from a pure heart is better than a mantra”, implying that pure intentions and genuine kindness mean more.

Mantra is not Nam. Rather, it is a way to reach the Nam. Different religions  and  sects have different mantras. Nam (also spelt Naam, from Sanskrit nāman)  literally means Holy Name and has multiple meanings including Supreme Reality/all-pervading Spirit sustaining the universe. It signifies Gurbani, the compositions of our Gurus, and also stands for the glory and praise of God.Beck(1995, p.114) observed that the Sikhs “stress meditation on the Word (Naam) or sound current in the form of prayer and song.”Coward (1988, p.133) concurs in noting that “for the Sikh, as for the Hindu, participation in the divine word has power to transform and unify one’s consciousness.”5

Mantras in Sikhism are fundamentally different from the secret mantras used in other religions in that they are not taught in secret sessions. Rather, they are openly pronounced and used by Sikhs, either individually or in open assemblies with other Sikhs. A mantar or mantra is also shabad (word or hymn) from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) to concentrate the mind on God. Through constant and consistent repetition of the mantra and listening to one’s own voice, the mind wanders less frequently with extraneous thoughts and is able to rise above material things to ‘tune in’ with the voice of God.

“In Sikhism, the gurmantra is neither variable  nor confidential. It is not whispered into the ear of the disciple, but openly pronounced. The word Vahiguru has been the gurmantra for the Sikhs from the very beginning. Vahiguru is the name by which the Supreme Being is known in the Sikh tradition.”Notwithstanding its variant spellings of Waheguru, Vaheguru, Vahiguru and Vahguru, it is the main mantra, gurmantra or gurmantar in Sikhism. Its meaning is derived from an amalgamation of two words, namely Vah from Persian, meaning exclamation of wonder and admiration for the Divine, and Guru from Sanskrit, meaning spiritual parent or preceptor. Taken together, the word Vahiguru expresses wonder of the Divine and almighty God  and the Creator in Sikhism. The Mool Mantar, the first composition of Guru Nanak is the second most widely known Sikh mantra. Modern scholars affirm that the name Vahiguru is owed originally to the Gurus, most likely to the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak himself.7  Other scholars believe that the Waheguru mantra was given by God to the order of the Khalsa to reform the recreant into the purified. Guru Gobind Singh used Vahiguru in his supplication Ik Onkar Sri  Vahiguru ji ki Fateh as well as the traditional Ik Onkar Satigur Prasadi at the beginning of some of his compositions, and also in the Sikh salutation Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa Vahiguru ji  ki Fateh.

Interestingly, in the SGGS “the term Vahiguru does not figure in the compositions  of the Gurus, though it occurs therein, both as Vahiguru and Vahguru in the hymns of Bhatt Gayand, the bard contemporary  with Guru Arjan, and also in the Varaan of Bhai Gurdas.8 According to Bhai Gurdas, the word Vaahiguroo is the gurmantra or the mantra given by the Guru, and it eliminates ego.

ਵਾਹਿਗੁਰੂ ਗੁਰਮੰਤ੍ਰ ਹੈ ਜਪਿ ਹਉਮੈ ਖੋਈ।

Vaahiguroo Guramantr Hai Japi Haumai Khoee |

His Guru-manta is Vahiguru, whose recitation erases egotism.

ਵਾਰਾਂ ਭਾਈ ਗੁਰਦਾਸ : ਵਾਰ ੧੩ ਪਉੜੀ ਪੰ.

The gurmantar to be practiced is referred to as Naam, the Divine Name, and constant remembrance of Naam brings manifold benefits. The SGGS is replete with references on the importance and benefits of remembering, reciting, chanting, and remaining focused on Naam. The gurmantar acts as a remedy for all ills.

The Sanskrit word ‘japa’ is derived from the root ‘jap’, meaning to utter in a low voice, repeat internally, mutter. The mechanical recitation of sacred sounds in Hinduism is known as japa. It also means the meditative repetition of a mantra or divine name. It is a practice commonly found in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. Naam Japna (meditation or contemplation on the Naam)  is one of three cardinal principles of Sikhism. The mantra or name is often spoken lightly enough for the practitioner to hear it, or it may be spoken within the practitioner’s mind. It can also be chanted in congregational prayer.

Prayer beads, also known as rosaries or malas, are believed to have originated around the 8th century in India. The word ‘bead’ originates from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘bidden’ and ‘bede’, which mean ‘to prayer’ and ‘prayer’. The word Japamala or mala (Sanskrit: mālā, meaning ‘garland’) is a string of prayer beads commonly used in a number of religious practices to help recite prayers and to meditate. “The practice of counting beads during prayer or petition is well known to Westerners primarily through the Roman Catholic Church, which recognizes the bestowal of the rosary from the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Dominic in 12th century  Spain.” 9

“There is a certain amount of  ambivalence among Sikhs regarding the use of mala…and often malas are reputed to have protective powers, an idea which Sikhism does not accept….Many Sikhs would assert, with Guru Amar Das, ‘right deeds are the only effective mala, tells its beads with sincerity, for it keeps your soul company eternally’ (SGGS, Ang. 1134. It is also called a simarani).” 10

The Nanakpanthi Sikhs are a sect of Sikhism and are followers of the teachings of Guru Nanak. Many Sindhi Hindus in both, India, and Pakistan, consider themselves as Nanakpanthis, with practices and beliefs that overlap with Sahajdhari and Udasi Sikhs. The beliefs of  this “community transcends the boundaries of Sikhism and Hinduism, and was also a reference to the early Sikh community.”11 The Nanakpanthis meditate using mala. The Namdhari Sikhs is another sect of Sikhs that place equal importance on both, the SGGS and the Dasam Granth. They are distinguished by their homespun white turbans wrapped around their heads (sidhi pagri). “They are called Kuka which means “crier, shouter”, for their ecstatic religious practices during devotional singing. They also meditate using the rosary.”12  Kalsi (2005) notes their use of a wooden rosary (mala) during nam-simran (meditating on God’s name) sessions.13  It is believed that a certain Baba Nand Singh Ji of Nanaksar Kaleran Wale (1870 -1943) advised his disciples to “complete 180 malas (rosary mala of 108 beads) of Mool Mantra (from Ekonkar to Nanak Hosi Bhi Such) in a month; do six malas daily. Complete 80 Malas daily of Gur Mantar ‘Waheguru’; 20 Malas of Waheguru if the Nam is recited four times on each bead.”14 Mainstream Sikhism does not recognize followers of the 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization)  Sikh Dharma International as being true Sikhs owing to their focus and allegiance on the teachings of  the late Siri Singh Sahib Yogi Bhajan. This group allegedly  use  tantric necklaces made of a variety of 416  gemstone beads, and recite an Ardas over each necklace to have God, Guru and Siri Singh Sahib Ji bestow further blessings.15

Some Sikh worshippers are known to use the mala for chanting a mantra such as Waheguru as a form of meditation, while others use it when reciting shabads from the SGGS. Mantra japa is a practice of repetitively uttering the same mantra for a number of times and using the finger to count each bead in the mala in repeating the chosen mantra. The main purpose of the beads is to help recite the mantras as one meditates. Various rationales have been put forward by the users of these malas, including the fact that it is a form of mental exercise that helps the mind to focus, stops it from wandering, brings stillness to thoughts, keeps track of time, and is also an indirect measurement of time. With every mala bead that is touched, one repeats the mantra until all 108 beads are done, very much like a Catholic rosary. This is believed to channel intentions, goals, and aspirations. Some users of the mantra have posited that it helps to focus on the vibration, meaning, and sound of what is being recited while counting the beads in the mala. Still other users have claimed to feeling the energy and power of the mala beads worn on their bodies. These malas are sometimes used as part of the users’ attire and worn around the wrists, and sometimes also worn around turbans. In truth, the depiction of images of some of our Sikh gurus in the marketplace are products of an artist’s imagination and have contributed  to the mistaken belief that our Sikh Gurus did indeed use such malas, and, more importantly, that it is an acceptable practice.

The material used in the malas is sometimes associated with a particular deity. Tulsi beads are sacred to the Hindu God Vishnu. The mala used by some Sikh worshippers is often made of wool and has 108 knots.  Smaller malas of 29 knots are also used.16  The Hindus and Muslims tend to count the beads on their malas while uttering the name of God, be it Ram, Hari, or Allah. In Sikhism, there is no need  to  count the number of times God’s name is remembered. God’s name and presence is remembered within one’s heart at all times. The traditional malas of some Sikhs sects are made of iron beads (lohe ke mala). The Nanakpanthis tend to use sphatik (white crystal stone/quartz) beads, whereas the Kuka Sikhs tend to use oon ki mala, black and white beads made of wool.17

The significance of the number of 108 beads in a mala is open to interpretation, and there has been much spiritual and scientific relevance given to this number. There are 54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet with each having a masculine and feminine, Shiva and Shakti.  There is also a “guru bead”, around which the other 108 beads turn like the planets around the sun. This number also connects the sun, moon, and earth. The average distance of the sun, and the moon to earth is 108 times their respective diameters. It has also been suggested that there are 108 paths to God. In yoga, the number 108 refers to spiritual completion, and is also considered a sacred number in Hinduism, Buddhism, and yogic tradition. Hindu deities have 108 names, and it has been said that the human soul or Atma goes through 108 stages in the journey of life and reincarnation.  Sikhism decries such beliefs, but accepts that all living beings have a soul and, rather, teaches that the goal is to escape from the cycle of death and rebirth, and that this freedom from rebirth only comes from God’s grace and not through devotional meditation, mantra, or prayer.

Denouement

Waheguru is the main mantra, gurmantra or gurmantar in Sikhism, and it is an expression of the wonder of the Divine and almighty God, and the Creator in Sikhism. The Mool Mantar is the second most widely known Sikh mantra. Guru Gobind Singh used Waheguru in his supplication Ik Onkar Sri  Vahiguru ji ki Fateh as well as the traditional Ik Onkar Satigur Prasadi at the beginning of some of his compositions, and also in the Sikh salutation Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa Vahiguru ji Fateh.

Although the term Waheguru does not appear in the compositions  of the Gurus in the SGGS, according to Bhai Gurdas Varaan XIII.2 the word Waheguru is the gurmantra or the mantra given by the Guru, and it eliminates ego. The use of the mala in reciting the mantras in Sikhism is probably an inherited practice historically aligned with various Indic religions and culture. There is clear evidence that mainstream Sikhism does not support or endorse such practice.

References

  1. Sidhu, R. S. Idolatry in Sikhism. The Sikh Bulletin, April-June 2019, p. 32
  2. Singh, H. Editor-in-Chief. The encyclopaedia of Sikhism. 2d ed. Vol. 2. Punjabi University, Patiala, 2001, p. 149.
  3. Dogra, R.C. & Dogra, U. The Sikh world: An encyclopaedic survey of Sikh religion and culture. New Delhi, UBS Publishers, 2003, p.304
  4. Beck, G.L. Sonic theology; Hinduism and sacred sound. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, 1995, p.114.
  5. Coward, H. Sacred word, and sacred text: Scripture in world religions. Mary Knoll, New York, Olbis Books, 1988, p. 133.
  6. Singh, H. Editor-in-Chief. The encyclopaedia of Sikhism. 2d ed. Vol. 2. Punjabi University, Patiala, 2001, p. 149.
  7. Singh, H. Editor-in-Chief. The encyclopaedia of Sikhism. Vol. 4. Punjabi University, Patiala, 1998, p. 398
  8. Ibid, p. 397
  9. Beck, G.L. Sonic theology; Hinduism and sacred sound. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, 1995, p.134.
  10. Cole, W. & Sambhi, P.S. A popular dictionary of Sikhism. Taylor & Francis e-library, 2005.
  11. Dhillon, B.S. The Doctrine of Guru-Panth: Origin and its characteristic features, Guru Nanak Dev University. (PDF). globalsikhstudies.net. Retrieved 2015-12-30.
  12. Haar, K & Kalsi, S.S. Sikhism. Infobase Publishing, 2009, pp. 10-11.

13.Kalsi, S.S. Sikhism. Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 2005, p.11.

  1. https://www.babanandsinghsahib.org/philosophy-and-maryada/dargahi-ticket.htm
  2. https://www.sikhdharma.org/the-story-of-tantric-necklaces/
  3. Cole, W. & Sambhi, P.S. A popular dictionary of Sikhism. Taylor & Francis e-library, 2005.
  4. Dogra, R.C. & Dogra, U. The Sikh world: An encyclopaedic survey of Sikh religion and culture. New Delhi, UBS Publishers, 2003, p.279.

Rishpal Singh Sidhu has been involved in library and information services management in Singapore, New Zealand, and Australia over the past four decades. He has a passion for research, writing, and teaching. He is the compiler and editor of the book, Singapore’s early Sikh pioneers: Origins, settlement, contributions and Institutions, published by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board in Singapore in 2017. He is presently based in Sydney, Australia.

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Mantra & freedom from suffering (Asia Samachar, 16 Aug 2017)

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Well researched though rather academic article. Not enough emphasis on our Guru’s efforts to steer us away from Hindu ideology and practices. Chanting and repeated words have no place in Sikhism.’ Simran ‘ ( not chanting ) but to immerse oneself in dwelling on God and ‘ Vichar ‘ to contemplate And understand are encouraged in Sikhism.

  2. This article describes the practices contained in Hindu texts. Gur Mantar in Gurbani means the guru’s instruction to be kept in mind to comply. For example

    ਦੁਖੁ ਕਲੇਸੁ ਨ ਭਉ ਬਿਆਪੈ ਗੁਰ ਮੰਤ੍ਰੁ ਹਿਰਦੈ ਹੋਇ ॥ ਕੋਟਿ ਜਤਨਾ ਕਰਿ ਰਹੇ ਗੁਰ ਬਿਨੁ ਤਰਿਓ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥੨॥ M: 5, p 51
    Ḏukẖ kales na bẖa▫o bi▫āpai gur manṯar hirḏai ho▫e Kot jaṯnā kar rahe gur bin ṯari▫o na ko▫e ||2||

    No (dukh-i) grief, (kaleys-u) strife or (bhai) fear (biaapai) afflicts when (mantr-u) directions of the guru are kept (hirdai) in mind – because then one does not transgress.
    People (kar-i rahey) try (kott-i = crore) countless (jatna) measures, but (na koey = not any) no one (tariaa = swims) gets across the world-ocean of temptations, i.e. the guru’s guidance to conform to Naam enables to overcome temptations. 2.

    There is no chanting in this.

    The word ‘Vahiguru’ stands for praise of the guru, the embodiment of the Almighty. “Vahiguru Gur mantr hai” means the guru has directed to praise the Almighty and with that praise one feels humble and “Jap haumai khoee” gives up ego and obeys God.

    Jap as muttering is not as per Gurmat. The first Baani in Sri Guru Granth Sahib is Jap-u. It asks to give up rituals and gives instructions to be followed.

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