By Rishpal Singh Sidhu | OPINION |
“A rose by any other name is a rose just the same”.
(Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene ii)
What’s in a name indeed? “The nature of a holy name can be described as either personal or attributive, and in many cultures it is often difficult to distinguish between the personal and the attributive names of God, the two divisions necessarily shading into each other”.1 Does the multitude of names by which we call God in our revered Sikh scripture the Guru Granth Sahib (GGS) have the same meanings? Besides many names, God in Sikhism has countless virtues and attributes, takes on innumerable forms, and yet is formless.
ਤੇਰੇ ਨਾਮ ਅਨੇਕਾ ਰੂਪ ਅਨੰਤਾ ਕਹਣੁ ਨ ਜਾਹੀ ਤੇਰੇ ਗੁਣ ਕੇਤੇ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥ (GGS, p.358)
The word Waheguru (ਵਾਹਿਗੁਰੂ) is commonly used in Sikhism to refer to God. Notwithstanding its variant spellings of Vaheguru, Vahiguru, and Vahguru, 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 Waheguru expresses wonder of the Divine and almighty God and the Creator in Sikhism. 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.2 It is the name by which the Supreme Being is known in the Sikh tradition and has also been the main mantra, gurmantra or gurmantar for the Sikhs from the very beginning.3 Interestingly, in the GGS “the term Vahiguru does not feature in the compositions of the Gurus, although 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.4 According to Bhai Gurdas, the word Vaahiguroo is the gurmantra or the mantra given by the Guru, and it eliminates ego.
The phrase Ik Onkar, also variously spelt as Ik Oankar or Ek Onkar, (ੴ or ਇੱਕ ਓਅੰਕਾਰ) simultaneously forms the opening words of the Mul Mantar and the Guru Granth Sahib. It is a compound of ik (“one” in Punjabi) and onkar, a central doctrine of the Sikh faith, and canonically understood in Sikhism to refer the “absolute monotheistic unity of God”.5 Sikh scholar Pashaura Singh asserts that Sikhs “rather view Oankar as pointing to the distinctively Sikh theological emphasis on the ineffable quality of God, who is described as ‘the Person beyond time, the Eternal One, or the One without form”.6 Sat Nam (ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ) is a compound main word that appears in the GGS immediately after the phrase Ik Onkar The two words Sat Nam comes from two Sanskrit words Sat which means truth/honest/right and Nam, which means name. Together, these two words loosely translate into “I am the truth,” or “My essence is truth, or True/everlasting God/Name.
The term Akaal Purakh (ਅਕਾਲ ਪੁਰਖ) is another name used to denote God in Sikhism. Kal refers to time and the addition of the prefix ‘a’ to kal enhances its meaning to eternal or timeless. The word Purakh is derived from Sanskrit Purusha to mean ‘cosmic being’, a complex concept dating back to the Vedas and Upanishads7 and the term Akal Purakh collectively refers to the timelessness or immortality of God as an eternal cosmic being in Sikhism. On its own , the word Akaal is intrinsic to Sikh philosophy and tradition and used by Guru Nanak in the Mool Mantar of the Japji Sahib, and also in its wider context, in the Guru Granth Sahib itself. Guru Guru Gobind Singh used this word in his poetic composition in the Dasam Granth titled Akal Ustat, meaning in praise (ustati) of the timeless one (akaal). Guru Ram Das also used the word Akaal in conjunction with moorat in Siri Raag chants, and also in conjunction with the word purakh in Gauri Purabi Karhale.
ਮਨ ਕਰਹਲਾ ਸਤਿਗੁਰੁ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਧਿਆਇ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥ (GGS, p.234)
Besides Bhagat Kabir’s use of the word akaal, other mentions of this word are also to be found in Guru Arjan’s bani in the GGS on pages 99, 609, 916, 1079, and 1082.
The word Nirankar (ਨਿਰੰਕਾਰ ) refers to one of the many attributes of God in Sikhism and means The Formless One. The word has its roots in Sanskrit nirākārā and is a compound of two words “Nir” meaning without and Akar (or Akaar), meaning shape or form and therefore formless. Other attributive names for God in Sikhism include Dātā or Dātār (the Giver), Kartā or Kartār (theDoer), Diāl, (the compassionate), and Kirpāl (thebenevolent).
God has also been mentioned by a multitude of Hindu and Muslim names in the GGS, expressing different aspects of the divine Name and Supreme Being, and the hymns (sayings) of the Sikh Gurus and the Bhagats (Bhaktas) are accorded the same reverence and spiritual fervor as of the Gurus. These names include Ram (pervading), Hari (shining), Ishwar, Parmeshwar (Supreme Lord), Prabhu, Jagdish, Murari, Damodar, Gopal, Gobind, Girdhari, Shyam, Narayan, Madho, Mohan, Keshar, Braham, Mukand, Gosain, Kahan, Krishna, Bithal, Goverdhan, Jaganath, Narhari, Allah (Arabic for God) , Khuda (Persian for God), Rahim (merciful), Karim (generous), Parwardigar, Rabb, Maula, and many other names and descriptions. Some names have been used more than others in the GGS. The word Hari appears 8,344 times in the GGS, Ram 2,533 times, Prabhu 1,371 times, Gopal 491 times, Gobind 475 times, Parmatma 324 times, Karta 228 times, Thakur 216 times, Daata 151 times, Parmeshwar 139 times, Murari 97 times, Narayan 89 times, Antarjami 61 times, Jagdish 60 times, Satnam 59 times, Mohan 54 times, Allah 46 times, Bhagwan 30 times, Nirankar 29 times, Krishna 22 times. Interestingly, the word Waheguru only appears 13 times, and the word Wah Guru 3 times.8 The word Rabb is Arabic in origin, and has been used to refer to God in Islam, and in the Quran, this word has been used to refer to Allah (God). It has also been used in Punjabi to refer to God as the sustainer, cherisher, master, and nourisher. ‘Hai Rabba/O Rabba’ has also sometimes been used in common parlance as an interjection/exclamation akin to ‘Oh my God’ in the English Language.
The multiplicity of the different names for God in the GGS begs the question of how this came about. “The attribution of a specific name to God stems from a specific spiritual experience of the prophet or the saint who coins that name. As all the names of God are attributive , it does not matter which one name is to be meditated upon”.9 More than 900 out of a total of 5,894 hymns in the GGS are the contributions of the bhaktas, Sufis, and bards. “While Bhikhan, Farid, and Kabir came from a Muslim background, all other contributors were from the large Hindu fold”.10 It is well known that Guru Nanak travelled widely in his five udasis undertaken over 24 years and visited various centres of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sufis, Yogis, and Sidhas and engaged in dialogue with these saints who came from all castes and classes.. Arising from Guru Nanak’s discussions with these holy men, there would undoubtedly have been some concordance of views in rejecting ritualism and formalism, and embracing unicity, and love and remembrance of God’s name.11 There are differing views amongst Sikh scholars as to exactly how and when the contributions of these bhagats came to be incorporated in the GGS, some either in their entirety and others possibly with amendments.12 This could well be one plausible explanation for the inclusion of the different names for God in the Sikh scripture.
Besides Bhagat Kabir, “Guru Nanak Sahib and Guru Arjan Sahib had also used many Hindu and Muslim names of God and a great many names of God coined by themselves. But for the Guru, all the attributive names of God cannot be written down even if the whole of the vegetable kingdom turned into pens, all the oceans into ink, and the whole of earth into paper. All the attributive names of God are but human attempts to describe Him according to human capacity.”13
In the final analysis, the inclusion of these different names of God exemplifies the universality of both, the Sikh religion and Sikh scripture. S. Radhakrishnan, the philosopher and second President of India astutely observed that the Sikh Gurus had the noble quality of appreciating “whatever was valuable in other religious traditions”.14 This view is echoed by Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell who remarked that “humanity should not be deprived of such divine message of the Guru Granth Sahib which is for the whole mankind to share”, a view aptly summed by another Nobel Laureate, Pearl S. Buck who in commenting on the English translation of the GGS said “they speak to a person of any religion or of none. They speak for the human heart and the searching mind.”15
1. Mbiti, John S. (1970). Concepts of God in Africa. S.P.C. K., London, p.217.
2. Singh, H. Editor-in-Chief (1998). The encyclopedia of Sikhism. vol. 4. Punjabi University, Patiala, p. 398.
3. Singh, H. Editor-in-Chief (2001). The encyclopedia of Sikhism. 2d ed. vol. 2. Punjabi University, Patiala, p. 149.
4. Singh, H. Editor-in-Chief (1998). The encyclopedia of Sikhism. vol. 4. Punjabi University, Patiala, p. 397.
6. Ibid, p.500
7. Potter, Karl H. (1963). Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, pp105-109.
9. Kaur, R. (1999). God in Sikhism. Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar, pp. 98-99.
10. Mann, G.S. (2001). The making of Sikh Scripture. Oxford University Press, p.102
12. Mann, G.S. (2001). The making of Sikh Scripture. Oxford University Press, p.103.
13. Kaur, R. (1999). God in Sikhism. Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar, p. 107.
14. Radhakrishnan, S. As cited in Grewal, J.S. (2009). A study of Guru Granth Sahib; Doctrine, social content, history, structure, and status .Singh Brothers, Amritsar, p.29.
15.From the Foreword to the English translation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib by Dr. Gopal Singh.1960.
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.
Mantra & freedom from suffering (Asia Samachar, 16 Aug 2017)
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