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Guru Arjan Dev Ji's Ramkali Hymn

Jun 1, 2004
by Dr. Pashaura Singh

One of the main issues that has drawn scholarly attention in Kartarpur-Banno
debate is related to a hymn by Guru Arjan in Ramakali mode. A single couplet
stands recorded in the version of the Adi Granth after chhant 4, before Guru
composition on the six seasons (ruti) of the Indian calendar. 1n order to
address the incomplete nature of this hymn, W.H. Mcleod argues that there should
apparently be a complete hymn in section assigned to the longer chhant
compositions. The organization of hymns in this section indicates that the
couplet must be either the first two lines of a chhant, or a shalok introducing
a chhanD The academic issue raised by McLeod drew a great many polemic
responses from Sikh scholars, which generated more heat than light on the
Kartarpur-Banno debate.

It is important to note that only two lines of this hymn are to note that two
lines of this hymn are to be found in the manuscripts of both the Kartarpur and
the Lahore traditions. Even in the Kanpur manuscript (1642), which claimed to
be the first copy of the Adi bir prepared by Bhai Banno (and hence popularly
known as Banno bir), the additional twenty two lines of the hymn were added
later in a smaller hand.

One can argue that the scribe had originally written a single couplet since the
remainder of the hymn was not available at that time. When additional portion
became available, he completed the hymn in Banno version of the Adi Granth. This
explanation may be supported by the scribal practice of writing the opening
verse first completing the text later. But this simple explanation does not
solve the textual puzzle. I shall argue that the completion of this hymn was
intentionally done at a time when the volume was converted into the Banno text.

In order to understand the problem of the Banno recension, we must examine Guru
Arjan's Ramakali hymn in its original context. In folio 703/1 of the
Kartarpur'manuscript the two lines read as follows:

Raga Ramakali Mahala 5

ran jhunjjhanara gau sakhi hari ek dhiavahu// satgur tum sev sakhi mani
chindiara phalu pavahu/ /

Ramakali Mahala 5

Sing the trilling tunes in the [dance]-field, my sister-friends, by meditating
on the one lord. By serving the true Guru, my sister-friends, accomplish your
heart's desires.

The opening words, ran jhunjjhanara (trilling tunes [sung in the dance]-field),
indicate a wedding scene at which Punjabi girls were accustomed to gather
together in a circle to sing wedding songs. Guru Arjan may have uttered these
aphoristic sayings on the happy occasion of a marriage, intending that these be
developed into a complete hymn later. As the opportunity for its completion
never came, only two lines, followed by a blank space, stand recorded in the
Kartarpur manuscript. Because there is no mention of this hymn in the index of
this volume, and because the entry of the couplet (though made by the same
scribe) was done with a different pen, we may conclude that the couplet was
introduced some time after the compilation of the Adi Granth in 1604 and before
Guru Arjan's death in 1606. This is also confirmed by the fact that this couplet
(or complete hymn) is not to be found in an earlier Sikh scriptural tradition,
popularly known as MS 1245 preserved at the Guru Nanak Dev University library.

The complete hymn, along with the additional lines, is to be found in the Banno
version of the Adi Granth. It reads as follows:

The lord says Nanak, the journey [of life] has borne fruit through contemplation
of the person of the true Guru. (1) By collecting the nectar like food the whole
family was called [into the Guru's presence)- Let immortal divine Name be
distributed (vandiahu) to all so that every one is completely satisfied. The
true Guru made the distribution [of the divine name] to everyone while sitting
[on the throne] and all were blessed with the gift of love. Everyone received a
share (vand) according to his destiny, and no one went empty-handed [from the
house of the Guru]. The whole Sikh sangat gathered together [in the Guru's
presence] and each person was absorbed in great joy. Says Nanak, 'By seeking the
lord's protection I have attained all comforts: (2) All the rites (riti) Were
performed by meditating deeply on the lord. The tonsure ceremony (bhaddanu unet)
was conducted

by repeating the divine knowledge of the Guru. Repeating the Guru's knowledge
provided all comforts, and thus the boy was sent to school. The child received a
perfect education by obeying the lord in his heart. All were feasted
(Uevanavaru) lavishly at the time of the name-giving cerermOny [of the child],
and no one went away empty-handed. Nanak the humble servant of God, pleads: 'My
lord is [my] friend at death (3). The saintly people who gathered together [in
the Guru's presence] sum that the boy should now be betrothed (mangeva). By good
fortune, those of rectitude and wisdom were found as parents of the bride. Let
the gift of amrit (divine name) be distributed among all. The mystical state of
union with the immortal name was attained when the Guru established the divine
knowledge (in the man) and removed all kinds of suffering. The auspicious
moment, which was written [by destiny] from the very beginning.. (and the
marriage was affirmed by the parents of the bride. The lord arranged the
marriage-party in such a way that all kinds of sages, devotees and godly men
participated in it. Says Nanak, the task of [marriage] was accomplished and the
unstruck music sounded forth. (4)

Evidently, the hymn describes the rituals in the life-cycle of individual in
Punjabi society in the seventeenth century which included the birth of a male
child, the name-giving ceremony, the puberty rite, the first admission in a
school, the betrothal rite and the marriage ceremony. A further symbolic meaning
gets attached to these rituals since they are used as occasions for the
distribution of the gift of amrit (the divine name) among the devotees of the

The real issue, however, is related to the authorship of the Banno hymn. Did
Guru Arjan compose the Ramakali hymn? If he did do so, who else could have been
responsible for completing hymn, and why? To find answers to these questions, we
must examine the poetic style of this hymn and other linguistic features with
reference to other works of Guru Arjan. This method of enquiry reveals the
following significant points.

The fourth line in the first stanza (sat guru sachai bheji dia char jivan vaddu
pu_nnia, the true Guru has sent the long-lived child to enjoy great fortune)
alludes to the opening lines of Guru Arjan's hymn in Asa raga, which he composed
to celebrate the birth of his only child, Hargobind, the sixth Guru: The true
Guru has sent the child. The long lived child has been born by destiny (sat guru
sachai dia bheji// chir jivan upajia sanjogi). This allusion has been largely
responsible for the assumption that the Banno hymn concerns the life-cycle
rituals relating to Guru Hargobind's early life. For instance, G.B. Singh's
manuscript note on the copy of a Banno recension in the India Office Library
reads: The hymn (chhant) about the early life of the sixth Guru is given
complete[ly] (24 lines); and not only Jhe first two lines. It is important to
note, however, that apart from this indirect association, there is no explicit
reference to the sixth Guru in the text itself. Rather, the author of the Banno
hymn employs the metaphor of a unique son (anup balak) as a poetic convention to
describe the life-cycle rituals of Punjabi society in general.

Secondly, there are certain linguistic expressions in the hymn which cannot be
the work of Guru Arjan. For instance, for him to have used the phrase satgur
bahi kai vand kini (the true Guru made the distribution while sitting) for
himself is totally alien to the humble nature of Guru Arjan.132 He never
directly refers to himself as the true Guru in his compositions. The hymn was
definitely composed by a scribe who was highly motivated by the idea of
completing the incomplete text in the name of the Guru. A recent example of a
somewhat similar sort may be seen in Jodh Singh's addition of his own
interpretation to his description of the Kartarpur bir to solve the textual
problem of this hymn. His note on the description of folio 703/1 reads as

Raga Ra.makali Mahala 5 Salok

ran jhunjjhanara gau sakhi hari ekdhiavahu// satgur turn sev salmi: chindiara
phalu pavahu//l//133

The word salok in the title and the numeral 1 at the end of the couplet do not
occur in the original text of the Kartarpur volume. This is an example of making
an incomplete text look like a complete text. Further, there are other examples
in the Adi Granth where gurus employ single-line aphoristic sayings instead of
shaloks. These single lines may be seen in the section assigned to Gurus'
shaloks, surplus to the vars.

Thirdly, the most significant point is that Guru Arjan never employed such words
as vand (distribution) or vandiahu (distribute!) anywhere in his compositions in
the Adi Granth. These words did not form part of his usual lexicon. This fact
alone makes improbable his authorship of the additional material of the hymn.
Similarly, other words such as riti (rites), bhaddanu unetu (the tonsure rite),
jevanavaru (the ritual feast associated with the sacred thread ceremony),
namukaran (the name-giving ceremony) and mangeva ('the betrothal rite') only
appear in the Banno version the Adi Granth in this disputed hymn. Thus they were
intentionally employed to give legitimacy to brahminical rituals in Sikh
society, which were otherwise strongly repudiated by the Sikh Gurus,
particularly by Guru Arjan himself. On a number of occasions Guru Nanak
criticized the sacred thread (Uaneu), and other rituals associated with death
(like pind, patal, kina, and diva). Guru Arjan referred to the celebration of
Guru Hargobind's birth by the sangat in form of the singing of gurbani,
particularly the Ramakali Anandu of Guru Amar Das (gurbani sakhi anandu
gavai).138 Evidently this later tradition was the one in vogue among Sikhs at
that time.

Fourthly, it is the fifth Guru who, like Guru Nanak, criticizes both Hindu and
Muslim beliefs, practices and texts. In 0ne of his comments on Kabir's hymns, he
explicitly says: 'We are neither Hindus, nor Musalman". He further states that
he has settled the difference between Hindu and Muslim (as Kabir did), not by
working out some kind of synthesis of the two, nor by keeping the observances of
both, such as fasts, pilgrimage, prayers and worship, but by cultivating the
remembrance of Akal Purakh within the heart. Although there is no direct
reference to life-cycle rituals as such, it is implied in the general category
of Hindu practices. One can then raise the question as to how Guru Arjan could
have been the author of such a hymn, which sanctifies Hindu rituals, when he
himself was a strong critic of them. It is much more likely that the real the
author of the extra material in the Ramakali hymn was a person who was under a
strong brahminical influence. In this context Piar Singh has suggested that
either a bhat (bard) or a brahmin family priest) composed this hymn on the
occasion of the marriage to receive jajamani (gift or stipend) from his parents.
This hymn, he argues, became current under the signatures of Nanak and was then
incorporated into the Banno version of Adi Granth. Gurinder Mann, on the other
hand, unconvincingly uses the argument of signatures to prove Guru Arjan's
authorship of this hymn. Two signatures binvanti nanak (Nanak begs) and the janu
kahai nanak (Nanak the servant says) that appear in this hymn, also appear in
certain hymns of Guru Arjan. But this sole convention cannot be used to
attribute the hymn to the fifth Guru. It sems likely that anybody (a pandit or a
bhat) could have picked up such expressions and composed the hymn in the name of
Guru Arjan.

Fifthly, the poetic style of the hymn is flattering and plodding, unlike what we
encounter in the authentic bani of Guru Arjan. In the first two lines following
the original couplet, for instance, one can easily sense how the author is at
pains to create a tortured rhyme Uammia/punnia), and similar is the case with
the last two lines of the hymn (sura/tUra). The use of the clumsy phrase
charjivan in contrast to Guru Arjan's chir jivan is another indication that the
author of the additional part was not a good poet. More importantly it is
lacking in the structural unity that is usually achieved by Guru Arjan in his
hymns. The overall tone of reading in the original scarcely matches the rhythmic
beauty of Guru Arjan's poetic style.

Finally, the theory of the origin of the Banno recension (that I have discussed
in detail in my doctoral work) needs to be further qualified in view of the
above analysis. The issue of brahminical influence must be considered in the
union of Hindali, Udasi and Bhatra interests. This Banno interest group, it
seems, had a hidden agenda to arrest the process of crystallization of the Sikh
tradition. Whereas the elite group of the Panth had developed a strong sense of
distinctive identity, a large body of believers was still following brahminical
traditions. The Banno group had started to exert its influence within the Panth
inthe area of Khara Mangat in Gujrat district, while the main centre of Sikh
activities under Guru Hargobind had already shifted to Kiratpur. Even the
Amritsar area was under the control of Minas, Prithichand's descendants, and
their followers. This was a time when apocryphal literature was proliferating
under brahminical influence. This is evident from a manuscript containing the
text Sukhamani Sahansarnama written by Miharban's successor under the symbol of
mahalu 8 in 1646 (sambat 1703 manghar sudi 1). This composition is based on the
model of Guru Arjan's Sukhamani and praises the Vaishnava avatars and other
figures from Hindu mythology. It clearly indicates that the process of
Hinduization of Sikh tradition had already begun. It was during this period that
the Banno bir was copied from the original volume in 1642, although the
additional material was interpolated into it some time later. This was an
intentional tampering with the Adi Granth text, which was done to legitimize the
Hindu life-cycle rituals in the Sikh community by putting words into the mouth
of Guru Arjan.

In the light of the textual analysis of the Ramakali hymn let us examine W.H.
McLeod's views on the Kartarpur-Banno debate . The following excerpts from his
article may prove useful in our analysis:

The nature of these points as recorded in the Banno version suggests an obvious
reason for their deletion from the Kartarpur manuscript. They incorporate
concepts which would be unacceptable in the light of later Khalsa ideals. This
particularly applies to a Ramakali hymn attrivuted to Guru Arjan which, in its
Banno form, refers to the shaving of child Hargobind's head....

If the additional portions supplied by Banno version correspond to deletions in
the Kartarpur manuscript there could conceivably be justification for concluding
that Banno represents an earlier recension than Kartapur ..

Let it not be supposed that at this stage I am arguing this case as one which I
am personally prepared to affirm. This I am certainly not prepared to do....

There is thus no suggestion that the Kartarpur claims are on the brink of
refutation. The point which I am endeavouring to make is simply that we need a
sustained campaign of textual analysis if we are to establish a sure and certain

Here Mcleod argues that the Khalsa ideals could have provided' motive for the
deletion (though upon close examination we now know that there is no actual
deletion) of the additional portions of the Ramakali hymn in the Kartarpur
manuscript. I have personally examined folio 703/1 of the Kartarpur manuscript
and can affirm that while there is a blank space of more than two folios after
the opening verse of the Ramakali hymn, there is no evidence of any erasure or
any other kind of deletion. If there were such a deletion, it would support the
claim that the Banno text may actually represent an earlier recension than the
Kartarpur text.

Thus McLeod's hypothesis is a clear case of retrospective interpretation which
cannot be convincingly applied to explain seventeenth-century Sikh situation.
The question of later deletion in this instance cannot be taken seriously since
there are a number of seventeenth-century manuscripts of the Adi Granth that do
not contain the extra material of the Banno version. Also, the assumption that
the hymn is somehow related to the puberty rites of Guru Hargobind cannot be
sustained. It should be emphasized here, however, that McLeod suspends his final
judgement on the Kartarpur-Banno issue and, instead, urges that there be a
sustained campaign of textual analysis to establish a sure and certain text.
Recently, however, McLeod has revised his position on the issue of Guru Arjan's
Ramakali hymn.

In concluding the argument of this section it may be stated that the Ramakali
hymn, as found in the Kartarpur manuscript, never consisted of more than two
aphoristic sayings, which may have been uttered by Guru Arjan on the occasion of
a marriage. These sayings, which stand recorded in the Kartarpur volume, were
perhaps intended to be developed into a complete hymn later. There is another
such instance provided by Var Basant in the Adi Granth, which, unlike other vars
of the Gurus, has only three stanzas.149 According to tradition, when Guru Arjan
had just completed three stanzas of this var, he was informed by a Sikh that
langar ('communal meal') was ready. He left the work unfinished and joined the
congregation for meals. This incomplete composition was recorded in the
Kartarpur manuscript much later. Unfortunately Guru Arjan was executed by the
Mughal authorities in 1606, before he could complete these compositions. It is
my contention that it was the Banno group that completed the Ramakali hymn in
their version of the Adi Granth in order to legitimize the brahminical
life-cycle rituals in the Sikh community. This is my answer to the,academic
question raised in the Kartarpur-Banno debate that has been going on for the
last two decades.
Jul 13, 2004
Looking at Guru Granth Sahib ji, Ramkali is written in Mahala 1, 3, 5. I am not sure, why Ramkali talk is limited to Guru Arjan Dev ji only.

Guru Sahib (page 876): The writings there do mention Nanak. I understand that Guru Arjan mentioned Nanak as a mark of respect during completion of some incomplete writings by guru Nanak.

But then Anand Sahib mentions Ramkali Mahala 3.

It would have been more appropriate if the discussion were based on comparing which pages on two beers are being talked about. Deos Anyone has idea, to which page of Guru Granth Sahib ji is being compared with Banno beer?


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