(Re)Reading Gurbani, Personally and Collectively

In recent years, I have come to realise that Guru Nanak’s mission was not, as is often said, to “pick the best of all the traditions”, or to “offer a middle ground”, but to offer a clean break with the past...It is only in more recent times that, as I have embarked on (re)reading Gurbani, it has dawned upon me that Sikhi is a unique and original system of thought that addresses many realms of human experience, both physical (sargun) and metaphysical (nirgun). - GURNAM SINGH


By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

In Raag Nat Naraan (Guru Granth Sahib, p982), Guru Raam Das proclaims that ‘Bani is Guru and Guru is Bani, within Bani Amrit (sweet nectar) flows’.

Literally interpreted, these lines have no meaning whatsoever. And to truly appreciate what Guru Raam Das is expressing, one would need to reflect on the meaning of each word separately and the meaning that emerges when they are blended into the form of the Shahad. Who is the Guru that is referenced here? Is it the divine transcendental, formless being we call Paramatma/Akaal Parakh? Is it Guru Nanak? Or is it the divine that exists within us all?

Similarly, what is meant by ‘Amrit’ or ‘sweet nectar’? Is it a reference to a literal taste of sweetness in the mouth as some argue? Based on the meaning of ‘Amrit’ as ‘beyond death’/’immortal’, is the line seeking to express the intensity and depth of experience one can gain through understanding the bani?

Elsewhere Gurbani talks about Amrit residing in the body; what is that Amrit? Or Amrit as Naam, which itself can be interpreted in so many different ways, from the repetitive utterance of one of the various names associated with the divine (e.g. Waheguru, Waheguru, Waheguru….!), through to it being a hidden invisible force that holds the whole universe together. As Guru Arjan Ji Raag Gauri, Guru Grant Sahib p284 states, “Naam sustains all species, Namm sustains the planets and solar systems”.

And last, what is the ‘Bani’ that is being referred to here? Is it the sounds from within, or the specific utterances of the Gurus and Bhagats in the form of the Shabads? Or is it a reference to Akaal Purakh, or the divine universal formless/timeless entity, as in the case of the following lines from Guru Amard Das in Raag Gauri (Guru Granth Sahib, p515), “Praise, praise, Bani is the formless, self-existent entity.”

Even this brief attempt at understanding even one ‘tuck’ or line of Gurbani raises so many considerations, which just underlines the importance of not jumping prematurely to any one meaning. Gurbani is a bottomless ocean of wisdom and divinity that offers new insights, poses new challenges, and marks our new currents of thought everyone engages with it. Furthermore, since Gurbani is written in poetic form that is to be sung in specific raags or scales corresponding to a specific time of day and season, it cannot simply be read through the realm of rationality; emotion also plays a critical function in realising the message being conveyed. The purpose of Gurbani is to convey ‘Brahmgian‘, which is a concept that can be loosely translated as ‘divine wisdom’. Accordingly, Gurbani can be viewed like the torch that leads its readers on a dark path of existence. It offers the possibility of realisation of one true essence or purpose. But tragically, go to any Gurdwara and listen to any ‘kathavacak’ or preacher, and, more often than not, all one is presented with is a set of calcified and confusing rhetoric that appears to be designed to secure monetary returns than to genuinely open up new streams of consciousness for the listeners.

Since embracing Sikhi in my late teens, I thought I was following the Shabad Guru that is embodied in the teaching of the living Guru of the Sikhs, namely, Guru Granth Sahib. When I participated in the ‘Khande di Pahul’ ceremony, or Initiation into the Khalsa order, I gave vows to follow Guru Granth Sahib and no other; and for over 40 years I thought I had been pretty good at keeping my vows. But, it is only in recent times that I have begun to realise this is/was not the case, and that in all honesty, all I was doing was uncritically following/mimicking others rather than trying to cultivate an intimate relationship with and understanding of the Guru. I don’t completely blame myself as I had become dependent on the advice of so-called ‘elders’ on the one hand, and on the other, translations of the Guru Granth Sahib that to a large extent were influenced by older dominant belief systems, most notably, Vedanta, Hath Yoga, Sufism, and Islam more generally.

But in recent years, I have come to realise that Guru Nanak’s mission was not, as is often said, to “pick the best of all the traditions”, or to “offer a middle ground”, but to offer a clean break with the past.

Again, uncritically following some of the published literature, I had understood Guru Nanak as a reformer, when in fact he was a total revolutionary who rejects all previous religious dogmas. Guru Arjan in a long Shabad in Raag Bhairon (SGGS, p1136), through the words of Kabir, offers perhaps the clearest evidence for this assertion. Here I produce a summary of the essence. The Guru begins by categorically rejecting fasting associated with the Muslim festival of Ramadan. He then proclaims that he only serves the one, “ek Gosai“, who does not discriminate against Hindus, Muslims. This is followed by a rejection of pilgrimages and prayer rituals, be they to Muslim or Hindu deities or shrines. The Shabad then once again affirms the emphasis on ‘Nirankaar‘ or ‘formless entity’ and ends with Kabeer Ji categorically rejecting the label Hindu and Muslim. To fully comprehend Kabeer Ji’s thoughts, one would need to take into consideration his lived experience and much more, but the significant thing is that Guru Arjan has curated such a powerful and direct rejection of both major traditions.

It is only in more recent times that, as I have embarked on (re)reading Gurbani, it has dawned upon me that Sikhi is a unique and original system of thought that addresses many realms of human experience, both physical (sargun) and metaphysical (nirgun). The challenge as I understand it is now how can we realise the uniqueness of Gurbani, especially so in contexts where we constantly resiting the influence of the major dominant traditions? It does not mean that we should retreat into some enclave and stop studying other theological and philosophical traditions. Indeed, is only through understanding the great philosophical traditions of the world that one can begin to appreciate the uniqueness of Guru Nanak’s conception of practical metaphysics/spirituality, ethics, and politics. But this can only be a starting point and, at some point, we will need to deploy a Sikhi-centered methodology for reading Gurbani. But sadly today, we appear to have lost sight of the Sikhi perspective. A perspective that should be centered on Shabad Guru has succumbed to ritualism and ‘shaksi pooja‘ or worship of ‘self-proclaimed godmen. Whereas the Guru Granth Sahib explicitly instructs the Sikh to sing, read, understand, consume, live and embody Gurbani, we have outsourced this to a professional clergy evidenced by the almost exponential rise of Babas and Brahmgianis amongst the Sikh diaspora.

And so the first challenge for us is to confront the anti-Gurmat practices that are propagated by these Dera’s, most significantly the ritualist reading practices that have crept into the Panth. These constitute a combination of paying others to do this reading, long continuous recitation of selected bani’s for specific occasions, etc. It does mean reading Gurbani with ‘Sehj’ or equipoise and ‘budh/bibeik’ or ‘discerning intellect’. In this regard, I am very impressed with the methodology advanced by Sikh scholar Dr. Karminder Singh Dhillon who advocates an approach he terms “The Gurbani Framework.” This framework comprises of paying attention to the following ten elements.

1) Crossing over from the Literal to the Spiritual.
2) The Rahao Principle.
3) Context.
4) Inner Rationality.
5) Conceptual Consistency.
6) First Person Interpretation.
7) Spirituality of the Shabad.
8) Spirituality of Realising the Divine Within.
9) Spirituality of the Self.
10) Using Gurbani to define Gurbani concepts.

Each one of these principles needs much more explanation, and I would therefore refer you to the work of Dr. Dhillon which regularly appears in Asia Samachar. However, I think, in the context of the determination of some Sikhs to give almost equal importance to secondary texts, I think it is worth emphasising that, other than the Vars of Bhai Gurdas, the only way one can unlock the true meaning of Gurbani and the concepts within it, is through the Guru utterances. That is in effect a lock and key mechanism, where one section of Gurbani is deployed to unravel the meaning of the other sections and so on… A perfect example is the concept of ‘Raam Naam’ which is often misunderstood as a reference to the Ram of the Mahabharata. Though there are references to the mythical God Raam, here ‘Raam Naam’ is deployed as a reference to the universal entity that pervades (ramya) all of existence.

Recently, rather than lazily relying on translations offered by others, I have begun to apply these principles in my (re)reading of Gurbani and it is amazing how fresh new understandings emerge. Ultimately the relationship between Gurbani and the reader is a personal one. In terms of laying down social-political ethical rules for the society, personal reading, or dialogue with self is insufficient. Here one will need to engage in ‘samvaad‘ or collective reading in dialogue with others. Because Gurbani is timeless and because the world is in constant movement, then reading cannot be a one-off, but with time, new readings and ongoing reflection, and engagement with the guru will be required. But no doubt, there will be those who will view (re)reading as a threat, as a threat to tradition, as a perversion of revealed truths. But as the Sikhs who are committed to following in the footsteps of Guru Nanak, who, as Bhai Gurdas ji, created a paradigm shift, we should not be afraid to challenge and question.

Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk

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


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  1. As someone who is not part of the sikh community, I fear that my contribution to the intellectual aspects of this debate is quite limited. I only offer the following reflection: we foolish pedants can spend lifetimes discussing love, but we can only become true lovers by loving another.

    Amrita, the sacred nectar, is secreted by the human body (inside the throat). According to my understanding, it leads to prolonged lifespans and many other characteristics.

    Sat nam.

  2. We need to review our understanding of Gurbani as well as Sikh history. I’m part of the generation that faithfully accepted a hand-me-down version of Sikhi. And this version contained many flaws, both in its take on Gurmat and our Ithaas (history). I share some of the points raised by Gurnam Singh in this article.