Sikhi - Color Magic - Eminence Of Colors In Gurbani | SIKH PHILOSOPHY NETWORK
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Sikhi Color Magic - Eminence Of Colors In Gurbani


Sep 24, 2004
Bulls have very limited vision; they are dichromatic, if not color blind. An enraged bull likely responds to the provocative movement of the rag, rather than its red color. Would a green rag do just as well? Most likely.

For humans, though, there is a language to color that is potent, powerful and hugely complex.

A world of color surrounds and defines us. We are sensitized to color very early. Even babies react to colors and show preference for certain shades and hues. As little children we quickly learn that some colors enhance our looks and affect our moods. Our technologically sophisticated ultramodern society promises us color-therapists who can provide us individual counseling on what colors will serve us best in the daily grind of our lives.

Colors carry messages that are often culture-specific. Even though unsupported by hard science, perhaps at a subconscious level, folk-lore tells us that color has a profound effect on both our physical and mental well being.

All over the world, the red, white and blue, in combination, speak immediately and powerfully of the United States of America.

White means peace, like the dove of the same color. Even armies at war understand not to shoot at the enemy that comes carrying a white flag. White, where all colors of the spectrum come together, is indicative of purity in the West. In Western weddings the color white for a bride stands for pristine purity, like the driven snow. But, at the same time, don't forget to watch out for the white lie.

To many people, blue represents peace and tranquility, stability, loyalty and other enviable traits as the so-called blue-blooded will assert.

Black - the absence of light and color - lives for us in dreaded references to Black Monday, Black Market or Black Magic and expressions like "Don't let a black cat cross your path." It is the color of mourning across the seas in many cultures. The color black also has some unexpected connotations. The Bible tells us that Ham had seen his father Noah's nakedness and was cursed for this sin. In the Middle Ages, Biblical scholars interpreted this curse of Ham (also known as the curse of his son Canaan) to justify racism and the enslavement of Africans. Skin color as a reason for prejudice exists in many societies even today: look at modern American existence or just scan the ads for marriage partners in the ethnic Indian press, for example.

Green, for centuries the color of Islam, is now the universal indicator of our ecological sensitivity. One may also turn green with envy.

In many Asian cultures, the several hues of yellow signify spirituality, but here in the West it speaks more often of treason and cowardice as in being 'yellow-bellied'.

Many think of purple as the color of royalty, nobility, ceremony, even arrogance, though I'd always think of it as the color of New York University where I spent a lifetime.

Pretty universally a red light asks you to stop whatever it is that you are up to, while green is the signal to forge on ahead.

The red in its many shades and hues speaks of celebrations in Indian society. Red grabs the most attention. The most exciting color, it can evoke a fight-or-flight response, raise blood pressure and make the heart beat faster. So, it would not be the color of choice for psychiatric wards, prisons, hospitals, or people chanting world peace. Red is the color for lovers and, in India, of brides and weddings. Remember the symbolic red rose that transcends geography and other lesser concerns in signifying love.

In my long teaching career, students often wondered if an upcoming exam would be a killer. And I would, half in jest, tell them to watch the color of my turban at exam time. If it is white, all is copacetic and they can relax; if black, it is a day to do or die. I enjoyed the joke but not many were equally amused.

The ancient Egyptians and Native Americans ascribed healing powers to color. For readers who wish to pursue such a line, I recommend the book, The Power of Color by Morton Walker. My opinion: this is largely folk-lore and pop psychology; perhaps color is a placebo and for that it may not be any less powerful or meaningful.

I remember that in the aftermath of 1984 and its troubling days, I had many occasions to take part in panel discussions in and around New York on those tumultuous times that just about fragmented India. Many of these meetings and discussions were hosted or arranged either overtly or covertly by Indian governmental personnel or those acting in its behalf. I knew that and yet I attended them in the vain hope that it was one way to directly vent and convey our Sikh viewpoint and frustration. Even though the organizers often found my opinions unpalatable, they continued to invite me because my views, as they said, were "moderately expressed."

At that time I owned one kesri (a shade somewhat between yellow and saffron) turban that I would don once a year at the Sikh Parade in New York City. One day, a meeting was scheduled on "Sikh Separatism" at the Indian Consulate in the late afternoon directly following the Sikh Parade.

So that day I showed up at the Consulate wearing my kesri turban, something I had never done before. A senior Deputy Counsel took me aside to alert me that the kesri turban was not welcome because the color spoke of Sikh separatism. Believe me, this hadn't even crossed my mind; I was just wearing the historic color of the Sikhs and coming directly from the Parade. I had to tell him rather bluntly that he was out of line. Since I did not pass judgments on the color of his shirt or tie, he had absolutely no business passing strictures against my turban or its color, and that neither the turban nor its color was, per se, a political statement, unless so intended.

Needless to say, neither of us was amused. But from that time on I made it a point to wear a kesri turban, and never any other color, any and every time that I was to attend a meeting sponsored by Indian officials. It may not have done much for communication or building bridges but it sure restored my personal sense of dignity in a hurry.

History tells us that the kesri color comes to Sikhs from Guru Gobind Singh and now it is the color of the Nishaan Sahib - the Sikh flag that flies outside every gurdwara across the world. (The word Nishaan literally means a marker.) History suggests that Guru Gobind Singh may have introduced this shade to Sikhs at the festival of Hola that he initiated as a counterweight to the Hindu cultural day of Holi when children and adults paint themselves and spray each other with all possible varieties of colors available.

Sikhs, particularly those who have been initiated into the Khalsa discipline, have a special affinity for kesri, deep blue and black.

Kesri, as I mentioned earlier is the color of the Sikh flag; indigo blue is believed to be the hue of Guru Gobind Singh's steed, it is also the defining color of Nihangs, the traditional Sikh warriors; and black, that defines the Sikh commitment to a higher cause.

Kapur Singh in his classic book, Parasarparasna, is perhaps the only writer on Sikhi to have taken note of colors and their place in Sikh history as well as their putative meaning. He opines that the orange-yellow clothes in Hindu society were worn either by the condemned criminal on his way to execution, by the ascetic who had walked away from life or the Hindu Rajput warrior when facing a battle without hope, and that this - his last battle -- need not be fought honorably or honestly. Orange-yellow garb was thus donned by Krsna (Krishna) and Balram in the Mahabharata, the epic battle that spawned the Bhagvad Gita.

Kapur Singh sees Infinity reflected in the deep blue that Guru Gobind Singh's warriors wore into battle; hence, this color also rejects the implied philosophic justification of deceit as a tactic in a just war that Bhagvad Gita may have advocated.

As an aside, I find it immensely fascinating that, reflective of our communal and social structure, we have many very precise titles to differentiate our closest kin - for example the myriad uncles or aunts are not all lumped under their one generic title; specific and precise one-word titles are essential to differentiate one from the other in the complex hierarchy of a joint familial system - such as one uncle from another or one aunt from many.

Yet, Indic languages seem to lack the vocabulary to tell apart salmon pink from coral pink. The English language, reflective of our Western cultures, offers exactly the reverse of this. It can distinguish hues and shades of colors to the nth degree but needs a cumbersome sentence to tell one close relative from another. Parenthetically, I add that the human eye can identify nearly 300 shades of red and almost an infinite number of possibilities of pink.

Since red portends passion, many a times gurbani uses metaphoric references to shades of red for the single-mindedness of spiritual passion, pursuit, dedication and devotion. Many, many times Guru Granth provides us metaphors from dyeing - to steep the self in awareness of God - and then it selects red as the shade of reference.

Says the Guru Granth: "Sūhā rang ḏin thoṛe hovai is jāḏe bilam na lā▫iḏā (The crimson color is transient; all too soon, it fades away) - [GGS:1066].

Gurbani often speaks of dyes and dyeing that look great when done and then soon after the colors bleed and fade. It means that the process failed. The dye did not hold; either the dye or the process was defective, or the cloth. (Faith is not true if it fades or disappears at its first trial or wash.) And then Gurbani recommends the art of dyeing the mind in awareness of the Creator such that it becomes an irremovable, permanent fixture and defining feature of the good life.

I offer you two citations from the Guru Granth: Jaisā rang kasumbẖ kā ṯaisā ih sansār; Mere ram▫ī▫e rang majīṯẖ kā kaho Raviḏās cẖamār (Love of this world is like the pale, temporary color of the safflower; the color of my Lord's Love, however, is permanent, like the dye of the madder plant. So says Ravi Daas, the tanner) - [GGS:346].

Jā ka▫o har rang lāgo is jug mėh so kahī▫aṯ hai sūrā (He alone is a warrior in this life, who is deeply imbued - dyed - in the love of God) - [GGS: 647].

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