Asa di Vaar-The Sikh Prayers
Asa di Vaar
Asa-di-var—-means A ballad of hope; it is one of the basic sacred compositions for the Sikhs and is sung every morning in congregation in gurdwaras. The Var is an heroic ode which describes the brave deeds of a hero. It is generally sung to inspire armies going to battle or to inspire people with martial spirit. The Asa-di-var is normally sung in the Ass raga. It consists of 24 stanzas (Pauris) and 44 Staves (Salokas) and was originated by Guru Nanak later, Guru Angad added another 15 staves of his own. In congregation, the musicians sing this var along with Chhants (quatrains) of Guru Ramdas. The stanzas express the ideas in general, while the staves clarify them by example and detail. Social and religious issues are then related, to ordinary life.
The Asa-di-var does not tell a story, its theme is: How to become a spiritual person-a devta. In it, Guru Nanak also warns us against the rituals and tricks of priests and monks. The most important thing is how to build up one’s character and how to remove the obstacles that lay in the path of a disciple, the most important of which is the ego, selfishness or conceit. Even holy persons, who are outwardly very good and kind, often suffer from religious pride. Sometimes so-called religious people, commit heinous crimes through self-righteousness and bigotry. It should be remembered that Ego in its pure essence is self-awareness or identity which when regulated is an essential, for it is the basis of one’s character or moral nature. When regulated by right motivation and active service, it is positive and beneficial. But if uncontrolled through self pride of position or riches, it becomes selfish and mean. The effects of the Ego are particularly contemptible and disastrous when disguised by the apparent holiness or tradition, which exploits ordinary people’s ignorance and credulity. The practice of humility and love are the most effective qualities for keeping people away from sin, far better than all recitations and rituals of religion.
Initially, it is the fear of God’s wrath or displeasure which inspires the seeker to offer worship and prayer. Over the years this fear should become gradually replaced by love and self surrender, so that he loses his Impatience with those who are imperfect; he is in sympathy with them, for they are like strayed sheep. Only by self-discipline and serving other people, can one become worthy of divine grace. Associate with holy persons and learn from them, the secrets of spiritual wisdom.
The Asa-di-var also deals with concepts like Guru, Grace, Egoism, pollution (Sutak) and falsehood. The Guru’s personality and message transform the life of the disciple. Guru Nanak says:
By meeting the Guru, The Truth, is realised;
He banishes Ego from the mind of man;
He gives insight in to supreme Reality.
Only The Guru can grant the gift of The Holy Name. (AG,
The Guru sets a course of life for his disciple, that of plain living and high thinking. Following this, the seeker’s life-style begins to change:
The good ones, who are absorbed in The Truth, do service;
They do no evil;
They travel on the right path and do what is just;
They break worldly bonds. They eat and drink, little. (AG, 467)
There is also the concept of ‘Self.’ Our individual self is only a minuscule part of Universal Reality. It is only by understanding our own self-limits that we achieve the highest goals of our own existence.
Through ignorance, we engage ourselves in selfishness and enjoyment, this will frustrate our hopes of a higher life. Man starts this life coupled to the background of his previous life. His past and present mould his future. We have self-will with which we can modify our own conduct. It is only when we attune our own will to the Supreme Will, that we can become super-men.
Now to a summary of the Asa-di-var in serial order. After explaining the role of a spiritual teacher (Guru) Nanak goes to tell us that divine wisdom is acquired through intellect. The Guru offers us a vision of a God whose whole presence in made manifest in Nature. The world is not a dream, but an impermanent reality. If people really observe God’s creation, they will be filled with wonder. The entire Cosmos, follows Divine Ordinance or law; so should we. The Lord is not pleased by the theatrics of the so-called ncarnates, but only by acts of love and devotion.
The religious teacher instructs his disciples to distinguish good from bad, true from false. However, the assertion of individual ego, is the great obstacle to the process of moral law. So that our self-assertiveness should be replaced by self-surrender. By submission to His Divine Will, one may win the favour of the Lord.
Secular knowledge or scholarship does not prevent us from sinning. Ultimately we will be judged not by our learning or status, but by our conduct. Arguing, hair-splitting over sacred texts, the performance of rituals and traditional offerings or the wearing of symbols or other marks of holiness, are of no avail. What counts is self-control, purity and compassion. God knows our inner selves and cannot be cheated by any so-called holy practice. He reads our hearts and is not affected by only recitations of holy texts, markings on the fore-head with sandal-wood paste, cooking food within plastered squares, offering of choice dishes and libations of water, or by the barley-rolls and leafy platters, served to priests for the benefit of the dead. These things are done to win popular acclaim or to appease priests.
Guru Nanak exposed the maladies of his time. Both Hindu and Muslim have strayed from the path of their religious preceptors and practised greed, falsehood, extortion and tyranny. The Guru rejected the ‘Transfer-theory’ of Brahmins, that offerings given to them, were of benefit to the ancestors of the donors. God will ultimately punish them for deceiving and exploiting ordinary people. Guru Nanak also exposed any idea of pollution, being connected with the events of birth and death. These two are natural events being ordained by God. Real pollution is self incurred; it comes from greed, lust, lying and slander, all of which corrupt the mind. There is nothing wrong with food and drink. Impurity does not exist in matter, but in one’s ego, indifference to God and other people.
Guru Nanak also warned us against lust in sex. In his age, women were neglected and held in contempt by men. Both Hindus and Muslims, ill-treated their women. The Guru praised the role of woman in family life. Prof. Puran Singh wrote in this connection:
The Guru transcends sex through sex. Women, says the Guru, are
the centre of life here on earth and in heaven. Man is born of woman; he is wedded to women. How can woman be outside the spiritual court, she who gives birth to the geniuses of this world?
Talking slander, as is done of woman, is to slander one’s soul.
Women are equally responsible to God for their actions There is no reason why we should conduct ourselves so foolishly towards each other. If we are learned, we should not call any one low or inferior. Let there be no rudeness or discourtesy between one person and another. People who are over-bearing and haughty only harden their own hearts. All people are equal and human. It is not right for any one to pass judgment on or vilify others.
The True seeker of The Truth welcomes all that comes from God-both good or ill-as a blessing. He does not criticize Him or rail at Him. A love of God cannot live in the heart that loves only itself. Servants of God must content themselves by only obeying God’s will and ask for no reward or bonus. If they abide by His will, they will be content and filled with compassion of others. They will not feel disturbed, if others appear to be more fortunate. They constantly endeavor to put their wills in harmony with Divine Will.
Summing up the Asa-di-var’s message we can summarise it under three headings ethical, social and metaphysical. Under ethical teaching, we find the Guru’s emphasis is on over comings one’s ego by humility, truth, virtue, holy living and keeping the company of saints. Even though the Guru also puts a premium on discrimination-Bibek-Budhi–leaming to sort good from bad, he emphatically refutes any belief that austerities like fasting, bathing, ritual worship have spiritual merit. The social teaching of the Guru relates to the current trends of the age; caste pride and prejudice, bribery, greed, hypocrisy, the tyranny of kings and rulers and priestly class as all of which were accepted as a matter of course. The Guru pointed to the need of improving of the conditions of the poor and under-privileged. The metaphysical aspect of the Asa-di-var emphasizes Divine Ordinance (Hukum), God’s grace, the wonders of Nature and the pervading spirit of God in all His creation.
The style of the language of the Asa-di-var is crisp, and pithy. Some of the lines form proverbs which need to be treasured. A few are given below:
Suffering is a remedy, pleasure a disease (for in pleasure God is
Sweetness of speech and humility are the essence of virtues.
Ego is a deep-rooted disease, but in it lies its own cure as well.
Learned fools are those in love with scepticism and doubt.
Excerpts taken from: A Book of Sikh Studies: Dr. Gobind Singh Mansukhani 1989