The limits of ritualised recitation of scriptures

The only way to comprehend the profound wisdom and knowledge contained in the Guru Granth Sahib is to engage in dialogue with the Guru, says Gurnam Singh

Guru Granth Sahib amidst the Sikh Regiment in Iraq during World War 1 – Photo: Imperial War Museum

By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

Between 29th August and the 1 Sept in 1604, from completion to its installment inside Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, we saw the formal coronation of the Adi Guru Granth as the authoritative scripture of the Sikh Dharam (‘righteous path’ or ‘way of life’). Sikhs rightly celebrate this occasion with much pomp, ceremony, reverence and through continuous 48 hour readings of the scriptures in the form of ‘Akhand Paths’. However, it’s worth reflecting on the following words of caution about ritual reading of scripture by the editor of the newly installed Granth, Guru Arjan Ji, on p631.

“ਪਾਠੁ ਪੜਿਓ ਅਰੁ ਬੇਦੁ ਬੀਚਾਰਿਓ ਨਿਵਲਿ ਭੁਅੰਗਮ ਸਾਧੇ ॥
They read scriptures, and contemplate the Vedas; they practice the inner cleansing techniques of Yoga, and control of the breath.

ਪੰਚ ਜਨਾ ਸਿਉ ਸੰਗੁ ਨ ਛੁਟਕਿਓ ਅਧਿਕ ਅਹੰਬੁਧਿ ਬਾਧੇ ॥੧॥
But they cannot escape from the company of the five passions; they are increasingly bound to egotism. ||1||

ਪਿਆਰੇ ਇਨ ਬਿਧਿ ਮਿਲਣੁ ਨ ਜਾਈ ਮੈ ਕੀਏ ਕਰਮ ਅਨੇਕਾ ॥
O Beloved, this is not the way to meet become one with the Divine entity; I know because I have carried out (tested) these rituals many times.

ਹਾਰਿ ਪਰਿਓ ਸੁਆਮੀ ਕੈ ਦੁਆਰੈ ਦੀਜੈ ਬੁਧਿ ਬਿਬੇਕਾ ॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
I have collapsed, exhausted, at the Door of the divine being; begging that I may be granted the gift of discerning intellect. ||Pause||

Though Guru Sahib is clearly referencing Brahmanical ritualistic practices, there is an important general message about the limits of empty ritual practices irrespective of the faith. But, tragically and ironically, many Sikhs across the world have reduced Sikhi to the ritual recitation of prayers in the form of Akhand Paths, dressing up of Guru Granth Sahib in colourful embroidered rummalas (wrappings) and parading the Guru in spectacular ‘Nagar Kirtans’ (literally meaning singing of Gurbani on the move from place to place).

Whilst such pomp, ceremony and ritual may make people feel a sense of joy and escapism, which is fine, I am unsure, without a deep dive into the scripture, it will have much impact on our lives and the real challenges we face both individually and collectively. But it can be a starting point to draw peoples attention, but, like a big wedding occasion, what really matters is what happens in the weeks, months and years after the celebrations!

Sadly, as Sikhs have accumulated material wealth, a whole business sector based on religious rituals has developed, and this is not just about Sikhs but other ‘faith’ groups as well. Despite the rise of secularism, ‘religion’ remains a big business with a powerful influence on the masses. And the economic model of Sikh institutions, from Gurdwaras, Jathebandhis to numerous media outlets and charities has become heavily invested in Akhand paths and the festivals that surround these.

The tragedy of the commercialisation of faith, and ritualistic praying in particular, is that, whilst it may generate temporary joy and happiness for some, perhaps many, it does very little else! Indeed, it can become a deterrent to the ‘proper’ reading, understanding and application of the message of the Guru Granth Sahib. Where the Guru rejected a priestly class and invoked us to establish a direct link to the divine through reading and reflecting on Gurbani and through ardas (a self-reflective internal dialogue with the divine) for ourselves, we have outsourced this to a priestly class.

In truth, the only way to comprehend the profound wisdom and knowledge contained in the Guru Granth Sahib – about such matters as divinity, life, nature, ecology, mental and physical health, ethics, equity, social justice, ethics, time, space, being, existence and much more – is to engage in dialogue with the Guru. And that means to develop the capacity of ‘budh’ and ‘bibeik’, which literally mean discerning intellect and wisdom.

According to Gurmat, true budh and bibeik can only be achieved by controlling/overcoming the influence of the ego, which requires developing the capacity for critical self-reflection and mindfulness. And, according to the Guru, this can only be achieved by focussing on ‘naam’ or ‘tuning’ into the frequency of the ultimate all pervasive force of nature, which we call ‘akaal purakh’ or the ‘formless, timeless entity!’

So I say, yes, let’s celebrate the momentous achievement of Guru Arjan in compiling the Adi Guru Granth Sahib ji, especially so given the huge time, geographical span, and social and linguistic range of the various sources and contributors, which, along with his own voluminous compositions, include the writings of the first 4 Gurus, the court poets and the Bhagats (Suffi Saints).

But after the celebrations let’s start trying to understand the profound message and teachings, and this means slow, contextual and reflective reading. The fact that the scriptures are written in poetic form, the reading should be done with both reason and devotion. Most critically is means reading in a way to enable the journey from literal understanding of the words (akree arth) to actual meaning (bhav arth) or if you like from ‘text’ to ‘context’. Only then can one get a sense of the true essence or meaning of the shabad (poetic composition).

In the final shabad of the Guru Granth Sahib ji, in Mundaavnee, p1429, Guru Arjan Ji provides very specific instructions as to how one should relate to the Granth in order to realise the wisdom it offers.

ਮੁੰਦਾਵਣੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੫ ॥
Mundaavanee, Fifth Mehla:

ਥਾਲ ਵਿਚਿ ਤਿੰਨਿ ਵਸਤੂ ਪਈਓ ਸਤੁ ਸੰਤੋਖੁ ਵੀਚਾਰੋ ॥
Upon this Plate, three things have been placed: Truth, Contentment and Contemplation.

ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤ ਨਾਮੁ ਠਾਕੁਰ ਕਾ ਪਇਓ ਜਿਸ ਕਾ ਸਭਸੁ ਅਧਾਰੋ ॥
The Ambrosial Nectar of the Naam, the Name of the infinite noble creator (thakur), has been placed upon it as well; it is the Support of all.

ਜੇ ਕੋ ਖਾਵੈ ਜੇ ਕੋ ਭੁੰਚੈ ਤਿਸ ਕਾ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ ॥
One who eats it and enjoys it shall be saved.

ਏਹ ਵਸਤੁ ਤਜੀ ਨਹ ਜਾਈ ਨਿਤ ਨਿਤ ਰਖੁ ਉਰਿ ਧਾਰੋ ॥
This thing can never be forsaken; keep this always and forever in your mind.

ਤਮ ਸੰਸਾਰੁ ਚਰਨ ਲਗਿ ਤਰੀਐ ਸਭੁ ਨਾਨਕ ਬ੍ਰਹਮ ਪਸਾਰੋ ॥੧॥
The dark world-ocean of ignorance is crossed over, by realising the true essence of the divine universal entity that pervades the whole of existence. ||1||

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.


Explainer: Guru Granth printing error and how Akal Takht handled it (Asia Samachar, 7 May 2022)

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