Aesthetics Of Guru Granth Sahib


Jun 1, 2004
Defying a straightforward prosaic, logical mode, the expression of the understanding of the '1 Oankar' in the Guru Granth Sahib has been substantiated by the invincible force of poetry. I was inclined to adopt for the title Philip Wheelwright's term 'metapoetics': "an ontology not so much of concepts as of poetic sensitivity".1 But somehow, I feel 'meta' takes away the closeness, the sensuousness which 'aesthetics' retains. The conception of the ideal Ideal, ever Inconclusive, Intangible, Transcendent, Formless, Mysterious '1' is made possible by this very aesthetics. The wonderful theme in its union with beautiful poetry makes the Guru Granth Sahib not only a great religious book but simultaneously a great work of art, too. This present essay aims at perceiving and relishing its artistic expression under the ensuing headings:

(i) Language

(ii) Imagery

(iii) Rhythm


Like its ever-flowing, never-terminating content - the '1', the language of the Guru Granth Sahib is fluid and expansive. No geographical or provincial barriers limit it. Moreover, there is a rather long time lapse between writings. Consequently, literary critics have had a hard time labelling the language of the Guru Granth Sahib. For instance, of Guru Nanak's language itself, three conflicting views are held: some adjudge it as Hindi, others as Punjabi and a third group as the language of a transitional period. Professor Ram Chandra Shukla and Dr. P.D. Barthwal belong to the first group, Dr. Mohan Singh and Professor Puran Singh to the second, and, Dr. Trumpp to the third. Since the impetus behind Guru Nanak's language was to speak simply, use language to convey thoughts to the multitude rather than be restricted by a language and discourse with a learned few, the reader does find a mixture of Hindi, Braj, Arabic and Persian.

Nevertheless, Guru Nanak's language is essentially Punjabi. This generalization I think can be made for the entire Guru Granth Sahib because Guru Nanak's successors sought to echo his style, his manner of communication. Thus even though there is a admixture of Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian and with different dialects which each contributor from a different period and locale brought, the overall language of Guru Granth Sahib is Punjabi. Its script is Gurmukhi. Gurmukhi characters were developed and standardized by Guru Nanak and Guru Angad.

But from a more scopic perspective what is the language of Guru Granth Sahib? According to Santayana, "the stuff of language is words" and the words of Guru Granth Sahib are poetic. George Santayana says:

Poetry breaks up the trite conceptions designated by current words into sensuous qualities......2

(i) Philosophic

In "A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge", Berkeley's object was to - in Santayana's language:

"break up the trite conceptions designated by current words into their sensuous qualities."

Therefore Berkeley's theory of language was in fact a detheorizing of it; he even went to the extreme of suggesting that we totally do without language. But that's not our concern. What is important is that Berkeley saw the road to truth blocked:

We have raised a dust and complain we cannot see.3

By 'dust' he referred to the products of language - all the uncouth paradoxes, difficulties, absurdities, obscurities....which multiply and grow as "humankind advances in the realm of philosophic speculation." And language indeed is the wheel upon which the philosophic speculations rotate. He criticized all the "schoolmen, those great masters of abstractions"4 (Plato, Aristotle, Locke et al.) for abstracting the particular; in other words, transforming the sensuous into "trite conceptions".

An illustration of this philosophizing could be the understanding of the 'rose' in Platonic current. As Socrates playing the role of the mid-wife in "Theateus" explains, "rose' is not something seen or smelt but is the absolute, immutable, infallible, eternal essence which is cognitively seen or felt. The 'isness' of the rose is all that counts; the particular, physical hues and colours and varities are subsumed and lost to the "trite conceptions".

Such philosophic speculation of words has been rejected directly by Berkeley and indirectly by the authors of the Guru Granth Sahib. Contrarily, the 'poetic' words maintain their concreteness, their vitality. For example, in the Guru Granth Sahib we very often read the word "dhan". However, each time it has its own use, because sometimes it can be understood as a naive bride and at others as an erotic beauty or a respected mother or a woman having given up spiritual quest, and so on. Not once is 'dhan'tritely conceived or abstracted under a philosophic designation. Wittgenstein, in the "Blue and Brown Books", comes to mind:

You don't ask for the meaning, you ask for the use of the word

And, of course, we are familiar with the innumerable words - shifting, at times even opposing (opposition latent in dhan as well) - 'used' to grasp the '1': Through the poetic use, the words of the Guru Granth Sahib are constantly speaking - freshly:

"Sahib mera nit navan""

"My Lord is always fresh (navan)," says the Guru. Freshness sought is via freshness of words projected. The congruence between the content and form of the Guru Granth Sahib is fantastic.

(ii) Logical/Scientific

Equating logical with the scientific language, Philip Wheelwright writes that it aims at getting rid of ambiguity as far as possible. Due to the establishment of semantic precision, logical language is closed by stipulation being a "deliberate steno language."5 That by rigidly adhering to the law of identity logical language leaves no space for inconclusiveness is correct. On the other hand, 'poetic' language of Guru Granth Sahib remains unconsummated. Nothing is lawfully identified with something else. Engulfed in an aura of mystery, the words of the Guru Granth Sahib are always open: '1' could be the Gardener; '1' could be the Garden. Paradoxically though it may seem, in the openess of the words is their capacity to conceal. Not Hegel's dialectic, but the Heideggerian strife between 'world' and 'earth' - world being open, aerial, spacious, flamboyant and earth being a grounding, closed, concealing, directing, cautious6 - pertains to the Guru's words.

W hat I mean is that the language of the Guru Granth Sahib is not considered to be a logical/scientific finality. A synthesis in the Hegelian sense is never obtained. The words of the Guru Granth Sahib conceal and unfold perenially. Doesen't the '1' manifest the entire Guru Granth Sahib and yet hide an incredible amount, too? No wonder, ontological or moral or teleological proofs based on the scientific/logical language find no place in the Guru Granth Sahib.

(iii) Prosaic

That the language of the Guru Granth Sahib is not prosaic is easy to see an hear and feel. Rather than be suavely displayed - as in the case of good prose, the words of the Guru Granth Sahib come with their own speedy, startling metre and cadence. One might say they are 'poetically' energetic. This energy is derived mainly from their rhythm and from their turbulent alliteration, assonance and consonance.

To conclude, poetic is neither philosophic language not logical/scientific nor prosaic; it is a language simple and plain, from our everyday plane with a tremendous momentum and vitality. Yet, through the negations that were just mentioned, we musn't assume that the poetic mode is polar to the philosophic, logical and prosaic. My point is that poetic language takes in all these three together, and simultaneously, goes beyond them. An illustration of the poetic language of the Guru Granth Sahib:

"mori runjhun laia bhaine savanu aia,
tere mundh katare jevada tini lobhi lobh lubhaia.
tere darsan vitahu khanniani vanna,
tere nam vitahu kurbano.

is tu ta mai manu kia hai tudhu binu keha mera mano.
chura bhanu nalangh siu mundhe sanu bahi sanu baha,
ete ves karendie mundhe sahu rato avaraha.
na maniaru na churia na se vanguriaha,
jo sah kanthi na laggia jalanu se bahariaha.
sabhi sahia sahu ravani gaia hau dadhi kai dari java,
ammali hau khari suchajji tai sah eki na bhava.
mathi gundai pattia bhariai mang sandhure,
aggai gai na mannia marau visuri visure.
mai rovandi sabhu jagu runna runnare vanahu pahkheru,
ikk na runna mere tan ka birha jini hau pirahu vichhori.
supnai aia gaia mai jalu bharia roi,
ai na sakka tujh kani piare bhaji na sakka koi,
ao sabhagi nidariai matu sahu dekha soi..."(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, 557-8)

Translating Guru Nanak's passage from Vadhans:

Pea{censored}s are warbling sweetly, O sister mine
Monsoon is here:
Your intoxicating eyes - stranglers of many a heart -
Have enticingly enticed him.
May I be cut into shreds for a glimpse of Thee,
Unto Thy naam am I sacrifice.

If Thou art on my side, I abide with pride.
Unrecognized do I remain without Thee.
Break the bangles against the bed,
along with the arm, along with the post.
So bedecked you are, but
Thy husband's love is not thine.
Neither the bangle-seller nor the bangles do you possess.
Burnt be the arms that embrace not the Lord.
All my friends have gone to meet Him
Scorched by the fire of separation, where do I go?
How am I good or virtuous when to my Lord I am not acceptable?
I got my hair parted, put vermillion in the parting.
But unreceived,
I remain
In pain.
I weep; the entire world weeps with me;
Even the birds and animals of the jungles weep,
But the invoker of my separation has shed not a tear.
You came when I was in sleep,
But then you left,
And I wept with eyes flooded with water.
Now I can neither reach you, nor send for you.
O fortunate sleep,
- Come
may I have a glimpse of him again.

Here, to keep up with Plato and the philosophic tradition, words are what they are. Take first the word "mor" as an example. It's a pea{censored}, a bird of beauty. Yet in the syntax of this poetry, the word acquires a wider dimension. "Mori runjhun laia" (I'm at loss to translate runjhun - 'beckoning' is the closest I could get which I admit lacks the vibrant music of the original). Their ("mori" plural of mor) beckoning bespeaks of a phenomenon reverberating at various levels: one, biological - pea{censored}s call in "sawan", the month of rain (July-August) following the dry and scorching "asarh" (mid-June to mid-July) and thus reveals a thirst for water; two, sexual - it's a lovely time, refreshing showers mingle with the parched earth and the pea{censored} wants to mate; three, spiritual - the sound and the sight of the pea{censored}s beckoning fills the poet with an intense longing for his Divine Lover.

In the same way, containing a logical/scientific current, the passage also surpasses it. Although no word is confined to mean another, a logical/scientific progression - a perception of the external world - inner self - transcendent - is apparent. Being open-ended, there is no spot where it becomes stationed as 'steno'. And this goes for prose, too. The language of the passage is such that it succinctly, interestingly delivers a message and in this sense prosaic. That the Ultimate Lover can be received through love and not through an artificial route of 'parting-hair' or 'putting vermillion' is what I grasp the message to be. However, this may vary for another reader: 'some thing' that can't happen in prose; 'the thing' in poetry!

While Mircea Eliade had to write page after page to elucidate the sacred and the profane,7 Guru Nanak accomplishes it, poetically, in a few lines. Paradoxically poetic language is a combination of philosophical, logical/scientific and prosaic, surmounting them all, almost protestantly.

Martin Heidegger: "Language itself is poetry in the essential sense."8


Words from Punjabi, Hindi, Arabic, Persian plus various vernaculars merge into one another presenting a kaleidoscope of images. Image after image suffuses the Guru Granth Sahib. According to Heidegger:

"the nature of image is to let something be seen."

Copies and imitations - which Plato acknowledged all art to be - form a contrast to images because copies and imitations are already mere variations on the genuine image which, as a sight or spectacle, lets the invisible be seen and so imagines the invisible as something foreign to it. Instead, images, poetic images as in the Guru Granth Sahib, are imaginings in a distinctive sense:

"not mere fancies and illusions, they are imaginings that are visible inclusions of the alien in the sight of the familiar."9They seem to have an elastic force which impels the imagination to an infinite loftiness, providing, at the same time, strong foundations beneath. The images of the Guru Granth Sahib come from many specific contexts: natural scenery, economics, politics, domestic life...What I want to do in this section is simply to see these extremely concrete images triumphing in their splendid expression of the Unseen. And for a spontaneous and full recognition of the images of the Guru Granth Sahib it might be useful to follow the fourfold axis of their usage as:

(i) Metaphors

(ii) Similes

(iii) Emblematic Parallelism

(iv) Symbol

(i) Metaphors

"hari charan kaval makrand lobhit
mano andino mohi ahi piasa" (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, p.13)

My Lord for Thine lotus feet,
I am a bumble-bee, always, always thirsty.

is a metaphorical exclamation. The test for essential metaphor is not any rule of grammatical form (i.e. 'as' or 'like', etc.) but rather the quality of semantic 'transformation'. Metaphor in the Punjabi-Hindi lexicon is "rupak" - the beautifier; 'ier' indicating some kind of transmutation. In both eastern and western thought its lining is motion (phosa-motion). When the Guru writes of himself as "bumble-bee always, always thirsty", his intense longing, a deep psychological phenomenon, metamorphoses through the 'cool heat of the imagination'10 into projecting a wanting so beautiful, so beautifully.

That the metamorphosis is not the distortion of the actual experience, but contrarily, a vivification and enlivining of the Guru's thirst are clear. His sublime lust which no words can express is indeed expressed through the sight of a greedy, thirsty bumble-bee sucking the lotus. The metaphor generates an energy which moves one faculty into another - senses (sight: bumble-bee over the lotus, taste: succulence of the lotus) - emotions (desire) - imagination (perceiving the affinity) - never diminishing, only expanding them.

This (bumble-bee) was a metaphor which has been echoed by Guru Nanak's successors as well. Besides Nature, the Guru Granth Sahib contains metaphors based on farmer's, banker's, smiths, merchant's and yogi's lives. Since the thrust throughout is upon simple metaphors, i.e. those within the common man's reach, they have been rooted in familiar experiences. As a result, the entire life of rural Punjab is revealed. Two instances follow:

"ihu tanu dhari biju karma karo
salil apau saringpani:
manu kirsapu hari ridai jamai lai,
ihu pavasi padu nirbani." (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, p.23)

Make body the field, good actions the seed, And water the truth. Let the mind be the cultivator; love for Hari the irrigator. Thus will you attain the state of nirvana.

Here we have an agragian scenario metamorphosed into an ethical/moral code with spiritual overtones. Elsewhere, in the same vein, "hoe" has been transformed into humility; 'contentment' into fence. Turning to a smithy:

"jatu pahara dhiraju suniaru,
ahrani mati vedu hathiaru,
bhau khalla agni tap tau,
bhanda bhau amritu titu dhali,
ghariai sabadu sachchi taksal." (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, p.8)

Make continence your furnace, fortitude your goldsmith,
Let reason be the anvil, knowledge the hammer.
Let fear of the Lord be the bellows
Then kindle the fire of labour,
And in the crucible of love melt ambrosia.
There in the true smithy sabad shall be forged.

Most tight, most expansive are the metaphors. Incidently in both metaphors a movement - growth; in the nurturing land and production: in the smithy - is existent. Forging of "sabad" in the Guru Granth smithy resonate with Joyce's Young Artist:

"...and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

Religion and art have a common denominator.

(ii) Similes

There is a wide usage of similes in the Guru Granth Sahib. One that I find outstanding is the arti:

"gagan mai thalu ravi chandu
dipak bane,
tarika mandal janak moti.
dhupu malanlo pavanu chavaro kare,
sagal banrai phulant joti.
kaisi arti hoi;
bhavkhandna teri art;
anahata sabad vajant bheri..." (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, p.13)

The skies are the platter; sun and moon, lamps, stars the pearls.
The breeze is the incense;
entire verdure, a bouquet of flowers.
What an arti!
Master, Sunderer of the circuit of life and death,
Thine splendid arti!
Primal music is playing motionlessly...

Ordinary mode of worship which constitutes going to the temple, decorating a platter of offerings with "dipak" (little lights made of cotton dipped in an earthern bowl) and encircling it around a sacred image while chanting, is implicitly being denounced. What is sought is a worship ("arti") like the cosmos - wherein skies form the platter ("thal"), sun and moon, lamps ("dipak"), numerous stars, the pearls ("moti")...In the background plays the primal music motionlessly, silently - "anhada sabad!".

Through the simile of the everyday, in a sense 'real' arti, has been portrayed. If seen from the angle of cosmos; the cosmos is celebrating; worshipping the Ultimate Creator. The images are so rich, so delicate, so light and beautiful! Along with the visual, aural permeate. The Guru himself is wonderstruck by their magnificence. But the images don't smother the theme. With its diaphanous texture, the simile seems to have acted as the catalyst fusing imagery into theme or vice versa, succeeding triumphantly.

Another example:

"Nanak guru na chetni mani apnai suchet,
chhutte til buar jiu sunne andari khet.
khetai andari chhuttia kahu Nanak sau nah,
phaliahi phuliahi bapure bhi tan vichi suah."(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, p.463)

Sayeth Nanak, those who are oblivious of the Guru,
And are in themselves immersed,
Are like weeds.
In fields they sprawl, ravished by all,
Outwardly bloom though they may, essentially sterile remain.

Back in the agrarian context, the above simile compares an egocentric, who is oblivious of matters spiritual, to weeds. Like ("jiu" - line two) the weeds he/she sprawls all over the fields, the world that is, without an ideal. Consequently, hundreds ("sau") of husbands ("nah") - not the One - ravish it. The metaphor of the hundreds of husbands' (and of the '1' Husband) has been interwoven into the main simile. Besides such novel ones, Guru Granth Sahib has lots of conventional similes. Ones that come to mind are the lotus, deer, fish, chatrik and milk. The lotus simile is in the Gita. Herein the individual is asked to perform actions in the world, but not to be attached to their consequences - like the lotus which is in the water but remains unwetted by it.

M an has been compared with deer who, possessing the musk within, runs in the jungles in search of it; musk-spark within man, jungles-world. Like the fish for water and the chatrik for rain and water for milk, man has an intrinsic urge for God.

Guru Nanak in Suhi:

"re man aisi hari siu priti kari
jaisi machhuli nir...
re man aisi hari siu priti kari
jaisi chatrik meh."(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, p.60)

O my soul, love the Lord,
like the fish loves the water...
O my soul, love the Lord,
like the chatrik loves the rain.

Guru Arjan in Var Jaitsri:

jiu machhuli binu paniai
kiu jivanu pavai.
bund vihuna chatriko
kiu kari triptavai."(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, V, p.708)

Like the fish without water
doesn't survive,
Like the chatrik without rain
doesn't satiate.

The same similes are being used. Similes do say an immeasurable amount in very tiny and interesting measures!

(iii)Emblematic Parallelism

To supplement the three kinds of parralisms - synonymous, antithetic and synthetic, discussed by Biship Lowth in "Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews", three more have been proposed. These are: emblematic, stairlike and introverted. Parallelism is a specific kind of repitition for it includes an adding on. According to Leonard Thompson,11 "Parallelism is a distinguishing trait of Biblical poetry." The Sikh Bible also has parallelisms emblematic and stairlike; it might have some others also which I probably didn't recognize. This consonance of the artistic form between two religious literatures is highly thought-provoking. While a view of the emblematic parallelism follows, the stairlike parallelism, because of its rhythmic stairs, could be discussed in the section entitled Rhythm.

In emblematic parallelism,

"one of the lines presents as a simile the thought in the other."12

We encounter simile again. However, it seems to me that emblematic parallelism is different because here one line stands as an emblem for the other; their juxtaposition is such that they maintain a gap. In fact, the term 'parallel' connotes a coming together but always keeping a distance - mathematically, parallel lines never meet!

"Mori runjhun laia bhaine savan aia" is a good example of emblematic parallelism. For, the calling of the pea{censored} is juxtaposed to the coming of 'savan'. Here the two lie parallel to each other - beckoning pea{censored}s being an emblem of the setting in of monsoon ("savan"). On the other hand, in a simile, an overlapping and interpenetration (not mere parallelism) occurs: arti in a temple and arti of the cosmos are inherently united. In emblematic parallelism, it feels as if something is emanating and its overall effect is lovely. Guru Nanak made ample use of this form.

In "Barah Maha Tukhari", he writes:

"asaru bhala suraju gagani tapai,
dharti dukh sahai okhai agani bhakhai.
agani rasu sokhai mariai dhokhai bhi so kiratu na hare
rathu phirai chhaia dhan takai tidu lavai manjh bare.
avgan badhi chali dukhu agai sukhu tisu sachu samale
Nanak jis no ihu manu dia maranu jivanu prabh nale"(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, p.1108)

Welcome is the month of Asarh,
In the skies the blazing sun reigns.
The earth bears its pain,
The sap is scorched, creatures are seared.
Yet the sun in its glory remains.
The maiden seeks for shade,
As the sun chariot moves on.
Cricket cries in the woods.
She, who carries from here the bundle of blame,
Suffering awaits her.
Bliss for her who merit accumulates.
Sayeth Nanak, those who are so disposed.
The Lord is with them in life and in death.

On the same theme, that is the month of Asarh, Guru Arjan says:

"asaru tapandsa tisu lagai hari nahu na jinna pasi,
jagjivan purakhu tiagi kai manas sandi as.
duyai bhai viguchchiai gali paisu jam ki phas,
jeha bijai so lunai matthai jo likhiasu.
raini vihani pachhutani uthi challi gai niras.
jin kau sadhu bhetiai so dargah hoi khalasu.
kari kirpa prabh apani tere darsan hoi pias.
prabh tudh binu duja ko nahi Nanak ki ardasi.
asaru suhanida tisu lagai jisu mani hari charan nivas."(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, V, p.134)

The month of Asarh is scorching for those,
Those who from their beloved are parted.
Having forsaken the sublime Husband,
She is enthralled by the worldly one.
Having lost Him, she has entered the wheel of birth and death,
As one sows so does one reap, fulfilling the mark of destiny.

The night has passed by, disappointment remains.
But if the Guru is found, liberty'll be attained.
Impart Thine blessing to the thirsty one!
Sayeth Nanak, there is none other than Thee.
Asarh's beauty is revealed
To him who is attached to Thy feet!

Guru Arjan in his own manner (longer lines, typical Punjabi words such as "lunai") is stating what Guru Nanak uttered decades before. Both Gurus are making a parallel between the pain incurred in the month of Asarh and the pain incurred in separation from Prabh(Guru Nanak)/Hari (Guru Arjan). Nevertheless, the difference in their parallelism is conspicuous. In Guru Nanak's passage there is a detailed emblematic parallelism within the main parallelism itself, for, Asarh's heat is depicted through many an emblem: the blazing sun, scorched sap, seared creatures, crying insects. Guru Arjan moves right into the human dimension; his passage is devoid of Guru Nanak's wealth of 'parallel emblems'.

(iv) Symbols

The Guru Granth Sahib begins with the '1' (1 Oankar). And I am faced with an intractable dilemma: is the '1' literal or is it symbolic? It is most literal for the '1' emphatically states the existence ("kar") of the ONE God ("Oan"); yet, the '1' is a mathematical symbol standing for a larger meaning which cannot be given or not freely given in perceptual experience. Grounded in lietralism, it seems to me that the '1' goes beyond, ad infinitum; both literalism and symbolism find their quintessence in it. Confining myself to the latter, I take the liberty of replacing a Berkelian claim, viz.

"mathematics goes from infinitesimals of infinitesimals to nowhere"13

by "mathematical '1' goes from infinitesimals of infinitesimals to infinite of infinite!"

Although a mathematical symbol, the '1' is far from being exact or stipulated in any fashion. In fact the various symbols - Father, Mother, Brother, Friend, Judge, Lover, Bridegroom, Gardener, Garden, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva....are completed in the symbol of the numerical '1'. It is the most direct, embracing and unrestrictive symbol of the Metaphysical being existent in the Sikh faith.

In his article on the "Meaning and Justification of Symbols", Paul Tillich says that symbols are the language of religion and are the only way in which religion can express itself directly.14 Going beyond themselves,

"the symbols participate in the reality of that which they represent."

Signs as opposed to symbols, says Tillich, don't. The following numerals are used frequently in the Guru Granth Sahib,

(i) Two (dohin) - For God and matter

(ii) Three (tine) - For the three "loks" (worlds): akas (upper), patal (nether) and dharti (earth) or the three gunas: rajas, sattva and tamas.

(iii) Four (chare) - For the four elements of the four Vedas: Rik, Yajus), Atharva) and Sama. )

(iv) Five (panje)) - For the five senses or the five lower passions: kam) (lust), krodh) (anger), lobh) (greed), moh) (desire) and ahankar ) (egocentricity).

They represent entities without participating in them and are, in a way, 'steno'. We could therefore in the Tillichian term call them 'signs'. Symbols, as he points out in "Systematic Theology", enhance rather than diminish the reality and power of religious language.15This Tillichian - might one say Christian? - understanding of symbols is in congruence with the Sikh.

The Bridegroom symbol, a ramification of the '1' illustrates it quite well. Says the Guru in measure Asa:

"kari kirpa apnai ghari aia ta mili sakhia kaju rachaia,
khelu dekhi mani anadu bhaia sahu viahan aia.
gavahu gavahu kamni bibek bicharu,
hamare ghari aia jagjivan bhataru,
guru duarai hamara viahu ji hoa jan sahu milia tan jania.
tihu loka mahi sabadu ravia hai apu gaia manu mania,
apna karaju api savare korani karaju na hoi.
ji tu karaju satu santokhu daia dharamu hai gurmukhi bujhai koi,
bhanati Nanaku sabhna ka piru eko soi,
jis no nadari kare sa sohagani hoi."(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, p.351)

When in beningnancy He came unto me,
Then my friends gleefully arranged the ceremony.
The heart was joyed to see this marvel.
The Bridegroom has come to wed His bride.
Sing, sing, O, friends,
Sing songs full of truth of life.
To my house has come the World Master,
Through the Guru I wedded Him,
Through Him I comprehended Him.
Through the three worlds His nam pervades.
As ego vanishes, the mind is stilled.
Fulfilleth He His own task,
None else is capable of accomplishing it.
The offspring of Divine intercession-
Truth, contentment, compassion, duty - are known to just a few.
Sayeth Nanak, He alone is the lord of all.
Only she upon whom He bestows His favour,
Becomes the beautiful bride.

The symbol of the Bridegroom coming to wed His bride () "sahu viahan aia")) is central to the Guru Granth Sahib. The 'wholly-other,'16 who completely eludes apprehension and comprehension is through the symbol of the Bridegroom instantly, 'participatingly', represented as the 'wholly-this'! The relation of the 'bridegroom' is entirely from our physical world, but as symbol it has the capacity to evoke numerous religious emotions: along with love, the sentiment for the Bridegroom, is the 'mysterium tremendum'17 - for the Punjabi bride doesn't meet her groom till her wedding night. Symbols are truly, as says Paul Tillich, the language of religion.

The theological as well as the psychological completion that he in his conception of God found in the combination of symbols 'Lord' (fascination-mystery-authority) and 'Father'18 (love-sentimentality) is accomplished in the Guru Granth Sahib symbol of the Bridegroom. That the atmosphere during the wedding is not wholly one of festivity, but also one of contemplation -( "bibek bichar") (let us sing songs of truth of life, line 5), throws light upon the thrust of Guru Granth Sahib - the merging of physics and metaphysics. Joyous singing ("gavahu gavahu") and thinking ( bibek bichar) go hand in hand. Furthermore, it is interesting to see how the Guru shifts so smoothly between symbolism and literalism. The offspring of the 'symbolic' marriage are 'literally': sat (truth), santokh (contentment), daya (compassion) and dharam (duty).

Symbols, like metaphors, similes and emblematic parallelisms, flash forth beautiful images. I should have mentioned that the symbolic Bridegroom is conjured up in highly aesthetic terms, for a reiteration of sundar (beautiful) occurs three times in His description. And of course the bride whom He marries is beautiful. In Rag Asa, Guru Nanak exclaims:

"mera piru raliala ram"

My Lord is the most beautiful inebriation! Besides enriching the senses, the palpable images of the Guru Granth Sahib enrich the mind, for without ever stating or explaining, they stir the imagination to find the connection between the palpable and the impalpable.


I wonder if Byron meant the rhythm of Italian when he said:

"I love the language, the soft ******* Latin which melts like kisses from a female mouth and sounds as if it should be writ on satin"19

Whatever the case may be, the flowing sensation produced by the mere sound, the repition of words, their semantic aura20 is what I understand rhythm to be. In addition, Rabindranath Tagore says:

"In perfect rhythm the art form becomes like the stars which in their seeming stillness are never still, like a motionless flame that is nothing but motion..."

And Eliot:

Only by form, the pattern
Can words or music reach
The stillness as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.

From the overlapping of Byron's 'melts' with my 'flowing' which then overlaps with Tagore's 'nothing but motion' and Eliot's 'move's perpetually', I infer the elan of rhythm to be flow or motion. To support my inference, I quote Elizabeth Drew:

"The Greek word from which rhythm is derived means flow and when we speak of the poetic rhythm we mean the whole movement communicated by the words of the poem."21 "

The 'flow' or the rhythm of the Guru Granth Sahib can be traced as:

(i) Simple Flowing

(ii) Stairlike Paralleling

(iii) Somersaulting

(i) By 'simply flowing' I am referring to the tempo of the Guru Granth poetry, to its rhythm so alive. The prosody in the Guru Granth Sahib isn't very strict or tradition bound. Metres have been used to suit the changing mood or scene or to evoke a complex harmony. Since what the Gurus uttered was (and is) to be sung by all in unison rather than be scrutinized by the scholors of prosody, they were (and it continues on) flexible about dropping a mantra (syllable) or picking up another. Metres have not been indicated. Generally, the "padas" employ shorter metres, "astpadis" slightly longer and "chhants" still longer. In Guru Nanak's

""jaisi mai ave khasam ki bani taisra kari gian ve Lalo""

As comes the Lord's Word,
That is how I deliver it, O Lalo!

'How' is the form in which Guru Nanak's poetry flowed out and as he maintains, it was from the Ultimate. The mode, then, of transmutation of feelings and thoughts coming from the Divine realm is not composition; instead, it is a natural flow. Nevertheless, it is quite fascinating to find many poetic devices such as alliteration, assonance, consonance and rhyme in the Guru Granth passages!

I point to Guru Nanak's verse:

""choa chandanu apki charavau,
pat patanbar pahiri hadavau.
binu harinam kaha sukhu pavau,
kia pahirau kia odhi dikhavau,
binu jagadis kaha sukhu pavau (rahau)" (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, p.225) "

Scents and perfumes I may spray,
Satins and silks I may wear,
Without the Naam of Hari where shall happiness be?
Why be bedeckled? Why display what I wear?
Without Jagadis where shall happiness be?

Here the whole first line resonates with "ch" sound (choa, chandan, charavu). Santayana in "Poetry and Religion" cited a critic who said that the beauty of poetry consists entirely in the sound of "j" and "sh" and the resulting flow of the saliva in the mouth.22 And 'ch' is indeed close to 'sh'! In the second line "ps" alliterate: pat, patanbar, pahir. The passage is full of the assonance of "a": chandan, anki, charavau, pat, pahir, hadavau, Hari, Naam, kahu, pavau, pahirau, dikhavau, Jagdis, kaha, pavau, illustrate it. Consonance is apparent between "rs" in line two - patanbar and pahir and among "hs" (besides the terminating word in every line) in odh, sukh. The rhyming of "chandan-ank", "pat-patanbar" and "charavau-hadavau-pavau-dikhavau-pavau" has a lovely chime. Even "rahau" (literally 'a pause') which has been used by the Guru to indicate the central idea of the piece, rhymes with the rest! We can see that line 5 is a repitition of line 3, but why the one and only difference between the usage of Hari and Jagdis?

Another passage, this time by Guru Arjan, exemplifies this natural momentum cum poetic art of the Guru Granth Sahib. In measure Bilaval:

""ati pritam manmohana ghat sohana pran adhara ram sundar sobha lal gopal ki apar apara ram" (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, V, p.542) "

O, Beloved, mind-bedazzling, so good-lookinglife giving,
handsome, radiating, care-taking, compassionate,
unfathomable, immeasurable Thou art.

In my translation of it, Guru Arjan's verse might sound like a string of adjectives. But it isn't. Guru Arjan is struck by His magnificience and words without comas or fullstops flow out simultaneously. The energy with which they flow in their wonderful rhythm comes from the depth behind them which is a combination of spirituality (longing coming from and for the Ineffable) plus sensuousness (allured by His resplendence - sobha, sundar, both qualities of being handsome; ghat and sobha bespeak of His physical beauty) plus intellectual (Guru's mind is bedazzled - man mohana) plus emotional (missing, the Guru is being sentimental for his pritam, i.e. his lover) plus imagination (perceives the '1' to be unfathomable, infinite and immeasurable). An essayed composition it just doesn't seem to be.

Yet, as in Guru Nanak's passage, there is an immense assonance of "a": ati, pritam, man, mohan, ghat, sohana, pran, adhara, ram, sundar, sobha, lal, gopal, daial, apar, apara. There is an alliteration of "m" (man mohana), "s" (sundar sobha) and "a" (ati, apar, apara). Consonance between man mohana-ghat sohana and lal-gopal-daial has a debonair daintiness. And, pran adhara ram rhymes fine with apar apara ram. If a distinction were to be made between Guru Nanak's flow and Guru Arjan's flow of words, I would say Guru Nanak's alliterate much more. In some of his verses the initial sound of words resonates in stanza for which Asa ki Var provides good examples.

Such uncontrived poetic devices (I hesitatingly use the term) augment the natural 'flow' of the Guru Granth passages. The poetry of the Guru Granth Sahib is like a river - forceful, elemental, yet with a pattern, a pattern of its own. In a patternless pattern the Guru Granth words are simply flowing.

(ii) In "Introducing Biblical Literature", Leonard L. Thompson writes that

"in stairlike parallelism part of one line is repeated in the second but also developed further"23

'Stairlike' by itself presents us with an image of an ascending motion of things and is thus in vein with what we have been discussing: the flow of things. The difference is that instead of being a rhythmic repetition of merely vowels and consonants there is now (also) a repetition of a 'part of line' which in course of repetition is further developed. An example of stairlike parallelism in the Guru Granth Sahib:

"oankari brahma utpati.
oankaru kia jini chiti.
oankari sail jug bhae.
oankari bed nirmai.
oankari sabadi udhare.
oankari gurmukhi tare."(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, p.929-30)

In each of these lines "oankar" (Oankar forms approximately one third of each line) is repeated. But all along there is a constant development. The sequence begins with Oankar creating Brahma who then contemplating (chiti) upon Oankar receives high titles. After Brahma's creation, Oankar brings forth ountains (sail) and aeons (jug). This stairlike parallelism - depicting throughout Oankar's powers - continues on with His producing the Vedas (bed) and reaches its climax with Oankar liberating the one (gurmukh) who "Oankari sabadi udhare". Oankari sabadi udhare is remembering His Word, i.e., His power which as we see has so far been being 'further developed'. Therefore this motif of stairlike parallelism has succeeded in succinctly, emphatically and rhythmically making a statement: Oankar the Omnipotent, is the creator of all.

Stairlike parallelism has been often used in the Guru Granth Sahib to portray the oneness of the Ultimate.

Says Guru Nanak in Asa:

""tun ape rasana apa basana
avaru na duja kahau mai.
sahibu mera eko hai,
eko hai bhai eko hai."(Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, I, p.350) "

Translating just the last two lines:

My Lord is One
One is He, O friends, One is He.

The triple repetition of eko hai accentuates the oneness of the '1'. herein a part of the line has not only been repeated in the second (as Leonard Thompson's definition states) but also once again in the second line itself! We perceive a merging of delicate rhythm with a strong emphasis. Such stairlike parallelism spreads the aura of ineffable simplicity over the entire poetry of Guru Granth Sahib.

Somersaulting is the circular movement that I perceive in many of the passages. The image I have in mind is of words and/lines flowing and then making a rhythmic turn backwards. To differentiate 'somersaulting' from the former 'simply flowing' and 'stairlike paralleling' one could say that somersaulting is cyclic and the other two are linear. We could even go further to differentiate the 'simply flowing' wherein the movement is vertical - one of ascending, of a further developing. In somersaulting there is a flowing cum a re-flowing. That words or lines have the ability or somersault is simply thrilling. A passage from Bhagat Namdev forms an outstanding illustration:

""jal te tarang te hai jalu,
kahan suman kau duja.
apahi gavai apahi nachai api bajavai tura,
kahat Namdev tun mero thakuru janu ura tu pura" (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, p.1252) "

Let us focus upon the top line. It is easy to see that it begins with "jal" and ends with "jal". In the middle comes "tarang" which is repeated but the repetition, unlike a straight flowing ascending stairlike, is one that reverses. By the juxtaposition of jal te tarang (from the water/jal is the wave/tarang) to tarang te hai jalu (from the wave is the water) a somersault is made. From jal to tarang; jal tarang tarang te jal ! This visual representation through the rhythm of words is indeed remarkable.

In consonance with the somersaulting form are the somersaulting images. Apahi gavai apahi nachai api bajavai tura - Himself He sings, Himself He dances, Himself He plays the instrument - depicts the One rhythmically performing His various acts. One is reminded of Siva's dance. With his four hands, braided,and jewelled hair of which the lower locks are twirlling, Siva is all whirl and twirl.24

And underlying the somersaulting form and the somersaulting imagery is yet another: the somersaulting theme. The One is all - kahat Namdev tun mera thakuru janu ura tu pura. Thakur, a Hindi word for God, is pura-whole, perfect. Not only the singer, He is also the dance as well as the player of instruments. And altogether He sings, dances and plays! Like Siva's dance, the combined performance is a manifestation of a Cosmic Rhythm. The Governor of Cosmos seems to be somersaulting and His somersaulting circumferences everything, everyone. Hans von Bulow, the famous conductor said:

"In the begining was rhythm"

In Bhagat Namdev's words:

"jal te tarang te hai jal"

The very words convey the somersaulting images and themes.

What I recognize is that somersaulting is infact a 'simple flowing' which when reversing then 'stairlike' ascends and 'simply' flows back again. That the divisions of my section fail to divide and contrarily go to form a divisionless whole goes to say a great deal for the rhythm of the Guru Granth Sahib.


1 Philip Wheelwright, "Metaphor and Reality", (Indiana University Press, 1975)

2 George Santayana, "Poetry and Religion", (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1930)

3 George Berkeley, "A Treatise Concerning Principles Of Human Knowledge", p.6

4 Ibid., p.16

5 Wheelwright, op.cit., p.38

6 Martin Heidegger, "Poetry, Language, Thought", (Translated by Albert Hofstadter, New York: Harper and Roe, 1971)

7 Mircea Eliade, "Sacred and the profane", (A Harvest Book, 1957)

8 Heidegger, op.cit., p.74

9 Ibid., p.226

10 Ibid., p. 71

11 Leonard L. Thompson, "Introducing Biblical Literature: A More Fantastic Country", (Prentice-Hall, 1978)

12 Ibid., p.19

13 Robert W. Hall, "Studies In Religious Philosophy", (Vermont: American Book Company, 1969), article by Paul Tillich, "Meaning and Justification of Symbols", p.305-309

14 Ibid.

15 Paul Tillich, "Systematic Theology", Volume I (Chicago, 1951)

16 Rudolph Otto, "The Idea Of The Holy", (Galaxy Book, 1958)

17 Ibid., p.25

18 Tillich, op.cit., p.288

19 Byron has been quoted by Santayana in "Poetry and Religion", p.177

20 Something what Mallarme said for the "cabalistic" sensation in Thomas A. William, "Mallarme and the Language of Mysticism", (Georgia University, 1970)

21 Elizabeth Drew, "Discovering Poetry", (Norton and Company, 1933)

22 Santayana, op.cit., p.177

23 Leonard Thompson, op.cit., p.19

24 Anand Coomaraswamy, "Dance of Siva", (Noonday Press, 1957)

© Dr. Guninder Kaur


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