The Sukhmani is probably the greatest composition of Guru Arjan. It is said that he wrote it in response to request from a devotee who was suffering form physical pain and mental anguish; it restored him to calm and health. The word 'Sukhmani' means the psalm of equipoise or jewel of bliss. it is reported that Wazir Khaq, the Governor of Lahore, whose real name was Hakim Alleem-ud-din Ansari, was suffering form a chronic stomach disease. He came to Amritsar for treatment and also visited the Harmandar Sahib. As Baba Buddha pressed his stomach, his condition became normal. When he met Guru Arjan, the latter told him to listen to a recitation of the Sukhmani Sahib daily, to gain inner peace. Wazir Khan then engaged a Sikh to recite this to him every day. By and by, he memorised the text and became a healthy and happy man.
The Sukhmani Sahib has structural unity. It has 24 staves (Salokas), one of which begins each canto. There are 24 cantos, each containing 8 stanzas. Each stanza has ten lines, that is five couplets. There is also the unity of theme: the perfection of man mentally. morally and spiritually. The stave of each canto gives the gist of the stanzas that follow.
Let us now examine the thought and contents of each canto briefly.
The first canto sums up the benefits of contemplation and meditation. It tells that all physical pain and sorrow may vanish through the sincere remembrance of God's Holy Name and that man becomes physically healthy and morally strong. Such people find the inner strength to devote themselves to the public good and develop the endurance to overcome all worldly obstacles.
The second canto tells us that practising holiness reduces man's propensity to sin. It also provides an escape from the hardships of life. He comes to inner peace and spiritual joy.
In the third canto, the Guru states that any study of holy texts, the performance of austerities and various religious practices as giving away much in charity, cannot compare with the benefits obtainable by reading or listening to the Sacred Word. Meditation and nobility of conduct can provide a passport to the Divine Court.
Canto four stresses the need for good behavior, Man is a thinking animal and should think ahead to consequences of his actions. Learning and cleverness can not hide a filthy mind. Keep away form stealing and slander. Give up greed in all its forms and remember that all worldly things come to an end.
In canto five, we learn to thank God for all his various gifts and treasures which He gives us. Man should compare himself to the less fortunate.
Canto six examples God's gifts to man: a healthy body, delicacies to eat, silks and jewels to wear and pleasant music to hear. Should we not thank the Lord for all His gifts by singing of His glory?
Canto seven dwells on the attributes of the saints: their self control, their love and compassion, their solicitude for the welfare of other people. Joining their company brings hope and peace, they never turn any one away empty-handed. Similarly an appreciation of the God-oriented man-the Brahm-giani-is found in canto eight. He is kind, patient, humble and care-free. He offers help and support to all without any inhibition. He is the refuge of the forsaken and the lost whom he accepts and treats like the members of his family.
In canto nine, Guru Arjan defines the various types of holy persons like the Pandit, Vaishnav, Bhagwati and touch-me-not, of these the best is the Jivanmuki, the liberated one who has acquired immortality while still alive.
Canto ten deals with the various types of people and substances, both good and bad. How the conceited men blindly follow their basic nature, while the seekers and seers who win God's grace, attain the goal of thIs life. Man's powers are limited; the more he knows, the less he knows.
In canto eleven the Guru tells us that the meek and the humble win God's love, while the haughty and the vain find no peace or joy. Man's desires are limitless as his cravings are beyond appeasement. It is only when his time comes that he may join the company of the holy and then he gets a glimpse of his light, within. Such a man knows True happiness for such a vision is powerfully blessed.
Canto twelve dwells on the lot of the boastful and the arrogant.Self-indulgent money-grabbers waste away their lives in eating and sleeping. If an egoist performs good deeds, he all too often only inflates his conceit. Pride and mental peace never go together.
Canto thirteen tells us of the need to associate with saintly people and of avoiding their slander. A slanderer is spiritually insolvent and a corruptor of all. However, if the saint blesses him, he will get peace of mind and benediction.
Canto fourteen points out that mortals, by their very nature, are fickle and way-ward; so no reliance can be placed on them. On the other hand, the holy ones are extremely helpful and convey to their disciples a true understanding of life and its goal.
Canto fifteen tells us that just as darkness is dispelled by light, and a track in the wilderness is illuminated by a flash of lightning, so the Guru's instruction opens up our inner consciousness and reveals the hidden mysteries of spiritual life. This enables the seeker to throw away the garbage of worldliness and gather specially good merchandise which will bring both profit and honor.
In canto sixteen, the Guru refers to God as the Director, Playwright and Actor in His own plays, who assumes any role at any time and at any place. He also assigns parts in His play for individuals to act out.
In canto seventeen, the Guru emphasizes the qualities of a true servant of God, namely obedience and humility. A good master is pleased with a person who obeys him and is loyal to him. So a good and sincere disciple will be able to win the grace of God.
Canto eighteen stresses the characteristics of a Seeker of Truth. He must give up his ego and surrender his mind to the Guru. The Guru will then enrich his mind with compassion and spirituality. The Guru will remove his tensions and sorrows and give him wisdom and joy.
In canto nineteen, Guru Arjan warns of the distractions of life. Why one spends all of one's life amassing wealth, which will ultimately be of no use? Or worldly knowledge and possessions which will be left-here on death. People should think of the things that will be helpful to them in the hereafter.
Canto twenty deals with the need of efforts for spiritual progress. Meditation is a progressive step on the road to Divinity. A love of virtue, goodness and a remembrance of the qualities that we associate with God, will make one noble and blissful.
In canto twenty-one, the Guru tells of the pre-creation state. Before creation, there was a great void. Then God by His own will manifested Himself in His own creation. So the Universe came into existence, where different peoples play out their various roles.
In canto twenty-two, there is a short list of God's attributes.He is the fountain of generosity and goodness. He selects people according to what he wants from them. He gives special protection to some but those who turn away from Him come to harm and grief.
Canto twenty-three tells us of the omnipotence of God. He created the fabric of the universe; He controls the stellar bodies. Mankind will be forever unable to understand their complexities, as he gropes for clues to their unravelment. True Seekers stand lost in wonder at God's power and excellence.
In canto twenty four, the benefits of the Sukhmani are expounded. The true devotee will be rewarded with health, culture, wisdom, peace and enlightenment through the sincere recitation and understanding of this Psalm of Peace. He will be crowned with glory both in this world and in God's Court
The Sukhmani is a gem of spiritual wisdom. Many philosophers and eminent writers have expressed their great admiration for it and Prof.Puran Singh was much influenced by it. He wrote: I had no sleep for many nights. I thought I was going mad. Such was my condition. The clouds came, the cold wind from the north came. I laughed. My eyes closed. I took up the hymn of Sukhmani and began reading it. I went on, it gave its own lilt to my soul. It lent a sweetness to my voice. My face that had been overcast by the dark stain of the sin of untunement began to glow. The stains disappeared. I felt light and gay like a bird, as I realised the singing of the Sukhmani was a great cure for human falling out. That insane mind into which business worries had driven me also comes to nations; they lose their tempers and go to war, killing millions. Before they lose their temper, were they to bathe in this lyrical river of Guru Arjan Dcv, the world could be set right. . The whole psalm flows in an ambrosial stream of hope and light from the bosom of the Guru. The glory of the day-break symbolises the great illumination that like a holy numbus, pervades this hymn.
Excerpts taken from: A Book of Sikh Studies: Dr. Gobind Singh Mansukhani 1989