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Guru Granth: Major Currents In The Sikh Scripture by I.J. Singh

Discussion in 'Sikh Sikhi Sikhism' started by Tejwant Singh, Oct 26, 2004.

  1. Tejwant Singh

    Tejwant Singh United States
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    By I.J. Singh --

    Translating from one language to another is a daunting task. Language and culture are inseparably intertwined and the precise nuances of language often escape us because they remain tied to cultural ethos and traditions.

    Clearly, many Sikhs would find my use of the term "scripture" inaccurate in describing the corpus of sacred writings that is the Guru Granth, for to the Sikhs it is more than just a collation of scriptural writing. Over the centuries, a certain visible mythologizing and idolization of Guru Granth has occurred. To most Sikhs the Guru Granth is a living presence and not a book that can be stashed in a bookshelf or in the drawer of a nightstand at a hotel.

    Such concerns aside, the term scripture ordinarily and fairly universally refers to written texts that have acquired a revered and holy status in the traditions of a people. Historically, some religious scriptures were oral, either in toto or in part. And the oral tradition became a written record years, even centuries after they were first elaborated. Such is the case with the Islamic scriptures (Koran), many of the Judaic and Christian scriptural writings, as well as Hindu holy texts, such as the Vedas.

    In contrast the sacred scriptural writings of Sikhs were written and collated by the founder-Gurus themselves, and the cannon sealed in or around 1708 by the tenth master Guru Gobind Singh. The authenticity of the Sikh scriptural writings is thus firmly established and there is very little, relatively minor disagreement about any of its contents. In many religions the scriptures also contain mythical and semi-historic narratives; this is clearly seen in many Hindu texts and also in the Old Testament. In Sikh scriptures examples from Hindu or Islamic mythology and lexicon are often used to illustrate or debate a point but they never become incorporated into Sikh doctrine. Music has its own magic that transcends reason and, with minor exception, the majority of the Sikh scripture is composed in the ragas of classical Indian musical tradition.

    Let us look at the writings within the Guru Granth that make it our scripture. A scripture becomes a covenant between God and the faith community. It is this that makes the scripture a living experience. Doctrine and theology make a scripture universal and not merely culture or ethno-specific. And that is how Sikhs look at the Guru Granth as the eternal living Guru.

    Sikhism presents a unique and heightened concept of the "Word" and from this concept has developed a unique tradition and a new worldview. Guru Granth speaks not only of the written and spoken word but also of the unspoken word - anhad - in Sikh parlance, inadequately translated as the sound current, to which only the inner self resonates in a condition in which the human mind becomes a part of divine connectivity.

    The Gurus lived during colorful and dangerous times. Two of the ten Gurus were martyred. Sikhs fought many battles in the period from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh in a time that spanned two centuries. Yet, none of these dramatic events that shaped the evolution of the Sikh community rate a mention in the Guru Granth. Only rarely does the Guru Granth refer to any specific historical times or events, and that too in very skimpy mention. I think this neglect was deliberate. The philosophy in the Guru Granth is universal and timeless. Historical detail could have been instructive but would have also rendered the scripture not free of the bounds of time.

    Ancient Indian (preSikh) thought envisioned the Word as the ultimate reality. In the Christian view also in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God. I suppose in the Christian view the Word was manifest as flesh in the person of Jesus. This would make adoration of Jesus the focus of Christian worship. The institution of Christianity then would also become manifest in the person of Christ. In Hinduism the Word is only in the Vedas, in a specific language (Sanskrit), in a particular people and a particular land. This would confine Hinduism to somewhat of an ethnocentric existence. Sikhism escapes such limitations and thus becomes timeless and universal.

    Scriptural texts are embodied in a language of words. But Guru Granth starts with an alphanumeric code (Ik Oankar) - a concept that is repeated within the text several hundred times. In this Ik (One) is the first primal number while Oankar (Doer, Active Principle, Creator) is a word. The juxtaposition of the two creates a seminal metaphysical concept.

    The opening lines of Guru Granth proclaim:

    There is one God
    Truth is its Name
    Creator of all
    Fearing none, Enemy of none
    Timeless
    Not begotten, manifest from his own being
    Made known by the grace of the Guru.

    These opening lines occur in the text hundreds of times either in full or only as the first two lines or the first and last lines. I could argue that in these lines is captured the complete essence of the Sikh way of life, all else is commentary.

    If, as I said, this theme is reinforced several hundred times within the scriptural text, it must be that the idea here is central to Sikhism and the religion cannot be comprehended without it.

    This speaks of a universal God, the creator who has no form and thus no gender, no caste or lineage and exists as truth. The Guru Granth speaks repeatedly of one God, not a Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish or a Sikh God. A partisan god is a lesser god, not worthy of worship.

    The concept of original sin thus has no place in Sikh teaching. Human life becomes then, not a fall from grace, but a unique opportunity to discover the divinity within each of us. This voyage to discover the infinity that is in each of us and within our lives becomes the purpose of life. This means the pursuit of a truthful life that recognizes the divinity in each of us by service to community and creation. What is recommended is a life that sees God in all of God's creation and thus sees no enemy.

    In many a hymn in the Guru Granth, God is described as both father and mother, hence gender neutral. According to the Sikh scriptural teachings the use of "He" or "Him" for God is inaccurate and reflects the limitations of language and its usage.

    Clearly, it follows that to treat women as inferior would be contrary to Sikh teaching. It is a point that has also been clearly made in the Guru Granth. There would hardly be a Sikh who cannot cite the relevant lines of Guru Granth from memory, since they are a part of the daily morning prayers of a Sikh. Yet, it needs to be recognized that Sikhism has flourished and existed, from its origin over 500 years ago, as a very small drop in the very large ocean of Hindu and Islamic cultures. Historically, neither of these two dominant traditions - Hinduism and Islam - has recognized women as equal. Despite our very clear theology and doctrine of equality, we have however, historically failed to deliver to women an equal place on our society. Not that it is a justification for it, the failure is not of doctrine or scriptural teaching but of the cultural constraints in which we have practiced its teachings.

    Very clearly, God as an infinite presence that permeates all creation is not easy to grasp, and impossible to describe. The Gurus recognized this. This theme forms the backdrop of all the writing in Guru Granth. The Gurus created hundreds of ways to say in their hymns that God is beyond all human formulations. And that the infinite reality is such that our senses cannot perceive and that our intellect cannot fathom, but with which our souls can commune. Their thoughts are echoed myriad times in the Guru Granth.

    Guru Granth also clearly argues against any idol worship. In the Sikh view, therefore, any icons, idols or representations of God or any Guru are by definition misleading and false.

    So how is the awareness to be achieved, and how is the veil that hides it from us to be sundered? How are we to know the truth? This question is raised early in the Guru Granth - it is a part of the japji, the Sikh Morning Prayer. Abide and rejoice in God's Will says Nanak. What Guru Granth recommends then is a transformation of the spirit in which God's grace would pervade.

    Hukum and Nadar form integral parts of Sikh teaching and major parts of Sikh scripture. The concept of Hukum and its meaning are not easy to grasp. Hukum could be literally translated as command or edict and also as order as opposed to random disorder. In Sikhism when we talk of Hukum we embrace both meanings. When Guru Granth enjoins us to live in Hukum it asks us to accept and rejoice in God's will, for it is not without purpose, even though we may not understand it.

    Evil in this world reflects and stems from events that we cannot perhaps comprehend. It reflects that within a mysterious order that exists there is also free will that humans often misuse. We seldom have the ability to see beyond the immediate. Perhaps evil is a test of faith. Walk in the shadow of the Lord, commands Sikhism, and live a life in Hukum and grace.

    Let life become full of faith - grace and hukum - and free of attachment, avarice, lust, anger and ego. Guru Granth teaches that these five are the primary enemies that destroy us from within. Guru Granth enjoins the Sikh to engage in a daily dharamyudh or crusade to battle these five every day.

    Grace, to the Gurus, is the vital, positive force that actually works in our psychophysical being and transforms us. Hukum and Grace are acts of faith that evolve our lives into truthful and elegant existence. To be in a state of grace is to discover the divinity within. But grace is not a matter of entitlement; it is not earned. The moment one thinks of having deserved it, it promptly disappears. It enters only that state of mind, which sees God everywhere and walks through life with humility.

    Lest this be misunderstood, I need to point out that Guru Granth does not advocate the lifestyle of a pacifist. Voice must be raised against tyranny and injustice, and actions must be consistent with truth, justice and universal good. Sikhism came into existence at a time when two religious communities dominated the Indian landscape. Muslim society was the politically dominant one and had come to believe that all of India must be Islamized willingly or by force. Hindu society was fragmented by idol worship and a rigidly defined caste system that allowed no vertical mobility. The Gurus naturally raised their voices against both Hindu and Muslim practices. Therefore justice forms the corner stone of the values forcefully advocated in the Guru Granth.

    The teachings in Guru Granth are universal and eternal. Not only do the writings deliberately stay away from discrete events of history, they absolutely refrain from dispensing specific edicts on particular moral choices, such as abortion, reproductive rights or other bioethical issues. In Guru Granth the emphasis is not to micromanage our lives but to provide the spiritual basis for a moral and ethical framework around which purposeful lives can be fashioned. On our plates, life will serve us many dilemmas that will test us. Time and technology will bring us face to face with many new bioethical problems and issues of life and death. Our response will change with time and technology in a changing world. What we need is not cut and dried solutions as in a catechism or an easily swallowed pill but an ethical framework within which to navigate our way. Self-awareness, an examined life and a life of introspection are recommended: "Eh sareera merya iss jug meh ayekey kia tudh karam kamayaa."

    I need to add that Sikhs do not worship the Gurus who composed the writings in the Guru Granth, nor do they idolize the holy book, though they revere it. The Word is God. The only way that it becomes so is when the Sikh reads it and heeds what he/she reads. Guru Granth says:

    "The Word is the manifest spirit of the Guru; The Guru is immanent in the Word."

    Guru Granth is a living scripture open to contemporary interpretation. And this is what Guru Granth means to a Sikh.


    Note: The author, Dr. Inder Jit Singh, is a Professor of Anatomy at New York University. He is on the editorial advisory board of the periodical 'The Sikh Review,' Calcutta. He is also the author of three books 'Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias,' 'The Sikhs Way: A Pilgrims Progress' and 'Being And Becoming A Sikh.'

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