Space, time, truth and Sikh philosophy


By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

The below salok (verse), which appears on page 1 of Guru Granth Sahib at the beginning of the Jap Bani, invokes the idea that absolute truth exists outside of temporal constraints.

ਆਦਿ ਸਚੁ ਜੁਗਾਦਿ ਸਚੁ ॥
True before time. True throughout the unfolding of time.

ਹੈ ਭੀ ਸਚੁ ਨਾਨਕ ਹੋਸੀ ਭੀ ਸਚੁ ॥੧॥
True in the present. O Nanak, True in the future. ||1||

Though ‘religious’ people tend to link every utterance in gurbani to ‘God worship’, for me there is something much more profound that Guru Nanak is seeking to reveal about the nature of time, space and existence in this short verse.

The central concepts referred to specifically in the verse are ‘truth’ and ‘time’. On the surface these seem like pretty uncomplicated ideas; we all know about being truthful and not telling lies! And most of us have a clear sense of time as something that structures most of our lives, year to year, week to week, day to day and hour to hour. Here, time and truth can be understood as a set of organising structures, beliefs and behaviours, but what is the idea of timeless truth that Guru Nanak is asking us to contemplate here?

One interpretation could be that ‘truth’ is some entity that sits outside of space and time, as a kind of independent observer of the unfolding of the universe. This fits in well with a theistic conception of God as a all knowing, all powerful, all living conscious being that watches over the unfolding of his creation and chooses to intervene when he feels the need to do so.

Whilst not discounting the idea of such a super being, not least because it is almost impossible to disprove this possibility, coming from a scientific angle, I would like to offer an alternative interpretation. Could it be that here Guru Nanak is suggesting that universal truth, for it to be so, must transcend time and space? That is to say that because of our own limitations we perceive space and time as absolute and unconnected, the reality is quite the opposite.

Until the early part of the 20th Century there was a common belief amongst philosophers, theologians and scientists that time and space were fixed, absolute, and they were unconnected. However, in 1905 the famous German theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, came along and argued that space and time were not only intimately linked, but personal! Put another way, he theorised that each one of us experiences time at different rates, though because the temporal distortion’s are slight, we do or perhaps cannot perceive this to be so. His theory was later proven to be correct through various experiments using people travelling and atomic clocks.

What has become known as Einstein’s theory of special relativity, in very simple terms helps us to understand the correlation between speed of travel, time and space. Because time is relative, it behaves like personal property I.e. we all experience time from our subjective experience. It’s like reading a novel. Though, as readers of a novel we perceive there to be a linear progression in the story, from the beginning, middle and end, in truth, they are all in the same temporal space of the book. And so, though we perceive time in terms of past, present and future, in truth this is just an illusion.

For me this is precisely what Guru Nanak is trying to convey in the above salok, namely, that we perceive our lives to be travelling through time and space, but in truth the past, present and future, has already been written. The salok draws attention to the ultimate, transcendent, constant nature reality. It reveals to us the importance of this eternal truth.

In practical terms Guru Nanak, beautifully illustrated through this short verse, is teaching us to tune our minds in order to engage in deep reflection/contemplation about the beauty and nature our existence, of the absolute timeless truth if you like. We humans are trapped in time or ‘kaal)’, whereas ultimate reality is beyond time or timeless (akaal). When we are able to see the connection perhaps we can claim to have achieved our true mission as human beings.

So, as well as encouraging us to gain knowledge and think critically (budh, vichar), Guru Nanak is also helping us to accept that we may never be able to fathom the mystery of absolute truth. In this sense, we can regard this a method of learning to appreciate that our existence is but a fleeting moment, or if you like, a minor role in story of the universe. The most difficult thing perhaps for us to comprehend is that this story has already been published, the past, present and future are but manifestations of the universal unchanging truth.

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

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


Miracles and Godmen (Asia Samachar, 31 July 2020)

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