Bala Janam Sakhi
Bala Janam Sakhi
BALA JANAM SAKHI, The Janam Sakhis of the Bala tradition owe both their name and their reputation to Bhai Bala, a SandhuJa^ from Guru Nanak’s village of Talvandi. According to the tradition’s own claims, Bala was a near contemporary of Guru Nanak who accompanied him during his period in Sultanpur and during the course of his extensive travels. If these claims are correct and if in fact the eponymous tradition records the authentic narrative of such a man, it must follow that the Bala Janam Sakhis provide an essentially trustworthy account of the early life of Guru Nanak. For more than a hundred years, from the late eighteenth until the early twentieth century, this claim was scarcely challenged. During the course of the present century it has been vigorously assaulted, without being wholly demolished. To this day popular portraits of the Guru, flanked by Mardana the minstrel and Bala the attendant, testify to a continuing acceptance of its claims.
The tradition’s claims to eyewitness authenticity are set forth at the beginning of all Bala Janam Sakhis. The earliest extant version opens as follows: In the year Sammat fifteen hundred and eightytwo, S.I 582 [AD 1525] on the fifth day of the bright half of the month ofVaisakh, Paira Mokha, a Khatri of Sultanpur, wrote this book. Guru Angad commanded that it be written. Paira recorded the dictation of Bala, a Sandhu latt who had come from Talvandi, the village of Rai Bhoi. He had come in search of Guru Angad. The recording of his narrative took two months and seventeen days to complete. All the facts and all the places visited by Guru Nanakji were faithfully and fluently described by Bhai Bala, with the result that Guru Angad was greatly pleased with him. Bhai Bala and Mardana, the Bard, accompanied Baba Nanak on his travels and Bhai Bala was with him during the period he spent at the commissariat (of Daulat Khan in Sultanpur). The text then relates the circumstances which brought Bala to Guru Nanak’s successor, Guru Angad, who was at that time residing in the village of Khadur. Guru Angad who previously knew nothing ofBala,was one day reflecting on the fact that he did not know the date of Guru Nanak’s birth. Bala, having only recently discovered the identity and abode of Guru Nanak’s successor, conveniently arrived in Khadur and agreed to bring the first Guru’s horoscope from Talvandi. When he returned after locating the vital document, Paira Mokha was deputed to transcribe it. The process of transcription immediately becomes one of dictation as the horoscope, having served its purpose, is forgotten and the writer takes up Bala’s narrative. There then follows the lengthy collection of anecdotes which constitutes the earliest version of the Bala Janam Sakhi tradition. Two conflicting theories have been advanced to explain the origin of the earliest of the extant Bala Janam Sakhis. Neither accepts outright the text’s own claim to represent an authentic narrative of the early life and travels of Guru Nanak. Such an interpretation is rendered insupportable by the inconsistencies and fantasies which it provides in abundance.
The first theory does, however, affirm a modified version of the Bala claim. Within the earliest text there are to be found references which are plainly traceable to the seventeenthcentury Hindali sect. These seek to denigrate Guru Nanak at the expense of Baba Hindal, father of the sect’s founder. Early in the nineteenth century, Bhai Santokh Singh suggested that these references were to be explained on the grounds that the original Janam Sakhi authentically dictated by Bhai Bala had been mischievously corrupted by Hindali interpolations. A version of this theory is still current. The profuse legendary material is, it affirms, the product of interpolation. Behind it there lies an original and essentially reliable Janam Sakhi which may be restored by stripping away the extraneous content. This theory is difficult to sustain in that a mere pruning, however drastic, cannot reduce any of the Bala texts to a consistent narrative.
The second theory takes account ofJanam Sakhi as a typical seventeenthcentury product, a composite work incorporating the results of a lengthy period of oral growth and transmission. Other extantJanam Sakhis demonstrate the same process. The Bala tradition differs in its wealth of fantasy and in its attempt to establish authenticity by the contrived introduction of an eyewitness narrator. Its actual composition may have been the work of the Hindalis; or a seventeenthcentury text may have been interpolated by them in the manner suggested by Santokh Singh. Hindal interest of some kind is plainly evident in all early manuscripts of the Bala tradition. This leaves unsolved the problem of Bala’s identity. It may be safely affirmed that no person of this name could have been the constant companion of Guru Nanak as none of the other early traditions refer to him. This omission is particularly noteworthy in the case of Bhai Gurdas. It would, however, be going too far to deny his existence entirely. Bala Sandhu may well have been a real person. Although the second of the theories outlined above reduces the Bala tradition to the level of other early Janam Sakhis it does nothing to minimize the importance of the tradition in later Sikh history. Bala primacy had been firmly established by the end of the eighteenth century and its hold upon nineteenthcentury affections is clearly demonstrated by the degree to which such writers as Santokh Singh, Sant Ren, and Bhai Bahilo rely on it.
When the introduction of printing produced a spectacular expansion of recorded Janam Sakhi materials, the growth was almost wholly monopolized by the Bala tradition. Many of the most trea sured of all Janam Sakhi anecdotes derive from Bala sources and, if today one asks for a Janam Sakhi in a bookshop, the volume which is produced will almost certainly be the twentiethcentury Bala version. Amongst the numerous extant manuscripts of this tradition, two principal recensions are to be found. Whereas the earlier terminates the narrative prior to Guru Nanak’s death, the latter has Guru Angad relate this episode for Bhai Bala’s benefit. In order to do so, the latter compiler has borrowed a death narrative from the Miharban tradition. The oldest of the extant Ba7a manuscripts is the earliest of all Janam Sakhi manuscripts of whatever tradition. It bears the date 1715 Bk/AD 1658 and is in a private collection in Delhi. Panjabi Hatthlikhtan di Suchi lists twentytwo Bala manuscripts in the Punjab. Three are located in London and individual items are to be found in various other places. Four editions have appeared since the printing press was first used for Janam Sakhis in 1871. An edition lithographed by Hafiz Qutab Din of Lahore in 1871 generally follows the earlier of the manuscript versions.
Thereafter, however, there is progressive and substantial augmenting of the text, culminating in the letterpress version which has been current for most of the twentieth century. A critical analysis of the linguistic characteristics ofBa/a and Puratan Janam Sakhis reveals that the language of the latter is older than that of the Bala Janam Sakhi. Auxiliary verb which is conspicuous by its absence in the Guru Granth Sahib and has very low frequency in Puratan, appears in Bala on the pattern of modern Punjabi. Many of the caseinflexions regularly used in the Puratan have disappeared in Bala. Caseinflexions were a characteristic of the old language, which have been gradually giving way to the postpositions. Again in the use of nasalization, the language of Puratan is akin to that of the Guru Granth Sahib. Many of the verbal and nominal forms which contain nasalized vowels in Bala (just as in modern Punjabi) are oral in the Guru Granth Sahib as well as in Puratan Janam Sakhi. The Puratan uses the older forms of the adverbs of time and place, whereas the Bala employs the modern forms of the same adverbs. In general idiom, too, the language of the Puratan Janam Sakhi is certainly older than the language of Bala Janam Sakhi.