The power of Rahao or Pause: A ripple effect from micro to macro

When the Guru chose to place pauses or rahaos throughout every Shabad of the entire 1,430 pages of the Guru Granth Sahib, we know this has much more significance than a literary device. As well as signalling the central theme of the Shabad, the rahao is also related to practice with deep philosophical significance. - Gurnam SIngh


By Gurnam Singh | Opinion | 

In our frenetic 24/7 lives, pausing seems like a luxury or a waste of precious time and money. How often do we hear people say that they are too busy to take time out or to reflect on their lives? In truth, across millennia and cultures, major worldviews, both religious and secular, have recognized the importance of pausing. Indeed, with a cursory look at nature, one can identify the critical importance of pausing for the survival of the natural ecosystems.

On the micro level, pausing allows us to reconnect with ourselves. The Buddhist parable of the runaway horse aptly illustrates this. We often exist in a state of perpetual motion, driven by anxieties and ingrained patterns. Pausing, as meditation teacher Tara Brach suggests, is the conscious act of stepping off this runaway horse. Through techniques like meditation and mindful breathing, we quite the mind and create space for introspection. This allows us to observe our thoughts and emotions with curiosity, rather than being controlled by them. By breaking the cycle of reactivity, we cultivate inner peace and make space for conscious choices, fostering a sense of control and well-being.

The benefits of pausing extend beyond the individual, impacting those around us and society more generally. When individuals are more self-aware and centred, their capacity for empathy and understanding towards others increases. This fosters stronger, more compassionate communities. Imagine a workplace where employees take mindful pauses throughout the day. These moments of reflection would likely lead to improved communication, reduced conflict, and a more collaborative environment. Similarly, in families, incorporating pauses for reflection could create a space for open communication and stronger bonds.

On the macro level, the power of pausing has the potential to ripple outwards, contributing to global peace. A world populated by individuals who are present, self-aware, and empathetic is a world inherently less prone to conflict. When we understand ourselves better, we are more likely to understand the perspectives of others, fostering tolerance and reducing the “us vs. them” mentality that fuels wars. This is not utopian idealism; studies have shown that mindfulness practices can reduce prejudice and promote social cooperation.

If we turn to nature, we can identify several key mechanisms where pausing plays a crucial role in the intricate functioning and sustainability of ecosystems. For instance, most living organisms, both animal and plant, exhibit periods of dormancy or reduced activity during certain seasons. Certain processes slowdown in response to environmental cues, and in these natural pauses ecosystems can conserve resources, adapt to changing conditions, and maintain balance. Hibernation is a form of pausing where animals, especially reptiles and insects, enter periods of dormancy or torpor. This pause in activity allows them to conserve energy during harsh conditions like winter or periods of scarce food. Even simple creatures take pauses. A bird might pause on a branch, scanning for food or potential threats before deciding its next move. This allows them to gather information and make informed choices.

Pauses occur in predator-prey dynamics. Predators may pause before hunting, assessing their surroundings and selecting optimal targets. Prey animals may freeze or pause their activities when detecting predators, employing strategies such as camouflage or mimicry. These pauses influence population dynamics, predator-prey relationships, and the overall structure of ecosystems. Predators, for example, often pause before striking. This allows them to assess the situation, gauge the prey’s awareness, and plan their attack.

One of nature’s seemingly miraculous properties is its capacity to regenerate, especially following disturbances caused by natural disasters or human activities. Following such disturbances, ecosystems undergo a period of recovery and regeneration, during which certain processes may slow down or halt temporarily. These pauses allow ecosystems to heal, rebuild, and restore their functionality over time. The power of pausing is not a new discovery; it is as old as humanity and arguably is a quality that has enabled the human species to flourish. One can imagine the pre-modern hunter-gatherers would have deployed a strategy of pausing or stillness to trap their prey or to protect themselves from dangerous animals.


The concept of pausing finds resonance in the Sikh tradition through the “rahao” concept in Gurbani Shabad. In total, it appears 2,686 times in Guru Granth Sahib and has various literary functions. Literally, “rahao” translates to “pause” in Punjabi. But its significance goes beyond a simple break; the rahao line is considered to form the central theme of the Shabad. In this regard, it forms the crux of the Guru’s message or idea that necessitates deeper contemplation. The verses that precede the rahao in the Shabad often function to establish context, and the ones that follow elaborate on this core idea, providing examples and illustrations. Hence, in a very practical sense, the rahao instructs the reader or singer to take a moment. Reflect on the line before it, consider its meaning, and its connection to your life thus allowing the wisdom of the Shabad to become truly understood and internalized. While some interpretations suggest complete silence during rahao, the emphasis is more on internal reflection.

Pausing is not simply a break from life’s routines; It is a powerful tool that creates an opportunity to stop, reflect and contemplate the direction and purpose of life itself. But it is in this sense that pausing can be understood as a profoundly sacred act where one enters a state of timelessness; where one can forget about the past and future and focus all their attention on the present. And when we do this, just for a fleeting moment, in the stillness of time itself, we can feel fully alive. In this regard, pausing becomes a profound practice of engaged stillness and active engaged spirituality.

But unlike what the Yogis and aesthetics advocated, this does not require one to switch off from the world, but quite the opposite. The power of stillness as a form of meditation requires one to be in a state of elevated awareness.  In this state we transcend the noise and distractions of our everyday lives, allowing ourselves to become completely attuned to our surroundings, indeed to nature itself. In this state of stillness, our senses become sharper, our perceptions clearer, and our understanding deeper. In this state for a fleeting moment, we can disarm the ego and see, hear, and feel things that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. It is through stillness that we can begin to tap into a reservoir of inner wisdom and intuition, guiding us towards clarity and insight.

As Guru Amardas notes in Guru Granth Sahib p775,  gur pUry pUrI miq hY Aihinis nwmu iDAwie ] haumY myrw vf rogu hY ivchu Twik rhwie ]21] The Teachings of the Perfect Guru are perfect; so meditate on the Naam day and night. Egotism and self-conceit are terrible diseases; tranquillity and stillness come from within. ||21||

When the Guru chose to place pauses or rahaos throughout every Shabad of the entire 1,430 pages of the Guru Granth Sahib, we know this has much more significance than a literary device. As well as signalling the central theme of the Shabad, the rahao is also related to practice with deep philosophical significance. Embracing the practice of pausing is not merely a personal choice but a crucial societal imperative. The relentless pursuit of productivity and constant activity takes a toll on our health, relationships, and the environment. By integrating pauses into our lives and advocating for their importance, we can initiate transformative ripple effects for ourselves, others and ultimately the planet.

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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  1. Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa
    Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh
    Thank you so much for explaining this. I saw an explanation once and then, could not for the life of me, find it back, and spent a lot of time looking. It is not always possible to find Sikh knowledgeable enough here where I am, (USA) who also speak English well enough to explain things. And I agree with the above commenter on how so many paathi, and those reading Shabad, or saying Ardas, speed through it like they have some other place to be, and even see speed as a badge of merit. I was lucky enough to find some audio that reads Nitnem at a nice, normal speed, so one can savor it properly, as was intended. Or I read it myself.

  2. SSA Ji. well written. One rather sad observation – in the modern context the most widely “version” of Gurbani available today is in the KIRTAN version …and in this version the RAHAO word is almost NEVER mentioned by the Ragis. Whats worse is that the Majority of Ragis actually totally IGNORE the RAHAO line and cherry-pick the LINES that give a totally DIFFERENT angle to what the SHBD and its writer wants to convey. The Ragis essentially TWIST the shabd towards the direction the Guru never intended. 2. In the Second most widely available version – the Akhand Paath….the speed of the reader results in a runaway train with no stops and the Rahao gets lost too.

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