Different Aspects of Gurbani – The Initial Phase
Dr. Harbhajan Singh Bhatia
Developed literary thought has taught us that one object of study, when viewed from different angles, can lead to different results in different contexts. Under the surface of the visible structure of the text, there is so much that is invisible, untried and silent and which assumes a different form depending on the forces at work in the mind of the reader. Sometimes, instead of being present in the layers of the text, it is in the mental make up of the reader which he pushes into the text on the pretext of his study. Because of these factors, different interpretations of the text come to the fore during course of time. The fact that man is continuously passing through the process of development and every day he is making a great headway in the field of knowledge and science can also not be lost sight of. Because of these achievements his point of view changes and he goes on progressing. It is the demand of this developed scientific outlook that we should view our heritage in a scientific and logical manner and highlight its historical importance and relevance to the present times.
Gurbani is a faith-centred work. Such faith-centred writings are held in high esteem and reverence rather than studied objectively. Their structure is on a set pattern and the purview of its interpretation is mostly limited. An object of study for the purpose of expressing the spirit of the faith, instead of philosophic assertions, wherein human experience is made the base, its structure is moulded into a broad symbolism. The writing of Gurbani is of the other type. This is a work wherein the faith and the poets are mingled with each other, and below its surface, many traditions appear to have been synthesized. Besides, in this structure, the Gurus, moving within the religious circle, have conducted a serious dialogue with contemporary and prior religious traditions and social, cultural, political and moral values. While the writing of Bani is spread over nearly five centuries, the tradition of its study and conscious history is not even one century old. In this one century many discourses with regard to Gurbani took place. The scope of such a discourse is spread over from faith-based devotion and its interpretation to symbolic study and analysis and its valuation. In between, making Gurbani the object of study, purely communal type explanations have also been presented. In medieval spiritual sphere, those who studied it, presented in the way commonly understood. On the basis of grammar, an interpretation of Gurbani has been made and attempts have been made to remove many doubts. On the pretext of its interpretation in the social context a demand of modern conduct has also been made on it and, changing the reference of context, its historical aspect has been highlighted. Besides, its study has been presented from the point of view of poetics, and the religious nature of its poetics has also been attempted to be brought out. Making this as the object of study, through this, the Gurus have tried to highlight contemporary history, society, culture and political thinking. While the need today is to interpret this heritage from the point of view of its relevance and acceptability, recognition of the meaningfulness of the studies so far made is also there. By establishing a dual relationship between the object of study and the various ways of study, we can, in future, proceed further to present authentic results. The present attempt is dedicated to the previous studies made initially and its critical analysis.
It was stated in the beginning of the opening paragraph that the tradition of conscious study of Gurbani is not more than a century old. Before this, the tradition of experience-based study and an on-going dialogue had been prevalent. The direction of this dialogue moving from form to formlessness offers the formless substitute, and from formlessness to form, it tends to change indeterminate meaning to the determinate. According to this ongoing exercise, the entire Japuji is the interpretation of the Mool Mantra. It is also said that the essence of the entire Gurbani is present in Guru Nanakbani and the rest is its interpretation only. In other words, the other Gurus have written Gurbani in accordance with the essence of Guru Nanakbani or the traditions established by it. Dr. Gurcharan Singh, in his book ‘Gurbani Sabhyachar’, has gone to the extent of saying: “In the medieval age, the first attempt at interpreting Gurbani was made by Gurbani itself. The base of the entire Bani is Guru Nanakbani. The other Gurus have followed Guru Nanak’s footsteps. The other Gurus imbibed Guru Nanak’s teachings or the message contained therein and interpreted the message at a creative level. Thus the Bani of other Gurus is the study of Guru Nanakbani.”
If the study of Gurbani is recognized as this model (of study), every work is a criticism of sorts because in this underlie some silent norms which are used at a creative level consciously or unconsciously. Besides norms, at the level of presentation of reality, the writer, after saying something of his own in just a line, recreates the entire work by different means again and again. It would not be proper to link this process working within the creation with the conscious historiography. In fact Bhai Gurdas’s Vaars simply interpret Gurbani. The writing of Bhai Gurdas, in the course of the study of Gurbani itself becomes a work of creative writing. There is no gap which is generally there in a work and its study. Therefore more than a study, it is a new type of work, which linked with Gurbani in a complementary relationship, can be considered alike. In the same way, in Janamsakhis (Biographies of the Gurus), with the help of the episodes, events and prose-writing, a parallel writing to Gurbani has been carried out. After studying the systems, which emerged out of these prose writings, the names/patterns can certainly be identified but to call them only a study would not be appropriate. It is true that calling it deep research merely on the basis of the study of selected work would not be justified. In the context of traditional study of Gurbani, Dr. Gurcharan Singh has not only regarded Puratan Janam Sakhi, Bhai Gurdas, Sodhi Meharban and Bhai Mani Singh, creative works, but also the insight into the knowledge so far obtained. He has linked new criticism and literary studies with these writings. In view of this, no study seems to be coming within the parameters of history in a scientific way.
First of all, the axis of our study is Maula Bux Kushta, in whose two works, ‘Chashma-e-hayat’ (1912) and ‘Punjab de Hero’ (1932) a study of Gurbani has been conducted. Kushta’s study is based on the available information of the lives of the Gurus or as per the belief then. He has the Banikars (writers of Bani) in view more than the Bani. He cites Bani only as an example. In ‘Punjab de Hero’, some instances are quoted from the first topic about Baba Farid:
His hymns are included in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. They are read with great devotion and love. His salokas are full of Vairag (Non-attachment) and are mostly on the tongue of the people. (2)
After this comment, eleven of the salokas have been cited and the note concluded. He has applied the same methodology in the case of the Gurus, like Guru Nanak, Guru Angad, Guru Amardas, Guru Ramdas and Guru Arjan Dev while discussing them. ‘His hymns are included in Sri Guru Granth Sahib’ or ‘See for reference….’ After presenting the details about the writers of Gurbani as were popular or accepted as true, and then making a reference to the ‘style’, has been his method of study.
What Maula Baksh Kushta has written about the lives of the Gurus based on the Janam Sakhis is a brief account given in his own words. Accepting what is stated in Janam Sakhis at the surface level as the final truth, he not only repeats it but tries to establish it also. In doing so he does not reach the intrinsic form or the spirit of writing in poetry, but certainly provides a prop for beliefs based on ignorance. Instead of accepting available facts in light of knowledge he wraps them up in a mist of belief as part of the consciousness of his contemporary society, as also an integral part of his own mental make up. Having been accepted at the surface level, these details do not highlight the true form of Gurbani at all. Rather they provide an imaginary model which becomes an obstacle in the way of a presentation of real meaning. All in all, these facts do not provide reality or originality but only repeat the Sakhis (parables) without adding or subtracting anything. This can be accepted as his historical limitation also. One can say that this is not a study but pure salutation.
After Maula Baksh Kushta, comes the name of Bawa Budh Singh. In the preface of Hanschog (1913), he has claimed that he has interpreted poets in general and Punjabi poets in particular general. The second part of this book, Satjugi Darbar is a dramatic spectacle in which Guru Nanak is made a President and the other writers of Bani are shown as sitting in the darbar as saints, bhagats and faqirs. In this part, Bawa Budh Singh has drawn imaginary pictures of the Gurus. He draws these pictures based on common belief as also the episodes in Janamsakhis.
Bawa Budh Singh’s journey of study begins with the common belief of the people about the writers of Bani, then their names, castes, places of residence, father’s name, dates of birth, marriage, some episodes connected with particular Banikars and other noted tales based on common sense, and then the narration ends. His aim is only to strengthen the belief in the minds of the contemporary world. In support of his views, he makes use of Gurbani and exhibits his religious bent of mind. To further his end of strengthening public opinion and belief, he tries to side with those who desire to end the situational conflicts. To give information about the lives of Baba Farid and Gurus, he makes use of the beliefs of the people, episodes ingrained in their minds, myths, Janamsakhis, Teekas (translations) and Goshats (Discourse) and accepts all this as the final truth. In fact he is one with the medieval tradition of the interpretation of Gurbani. Therefore, instead of analyzing the available information, he sticks to the beliefs of the people and wonderful stories. For example, based on the stories of Guru Nanak’s personal life, he takes up the tales of Janju (sacred thread), shade of the tree, grazing cattle, provision store, Guruji’s stay with Bhai Lalo, calling of the Vaid (physician) and ascent towards the Sachkhand, etc. He takes the myths present in the people’s mind to connect them with the interpretation of Gurbani. He thickens the mist with regard to the tales and views in the public mind in this regard and presents his deep sense of devotion to the faith.
Bhai Vir Singh’s way of study of Gurbani can be known from his books, Santhya of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Nanak Chamatkar (First part), Guru Nanak Chamatkar (second part), etc. His conduct of study is quite vast compared to that of Kushta and Budh Singh and is different from the point of view of the state of nature. There is no scope for any doubt that Bhai Vir Singh’s writings have been influenced by the Singh Sabha movement and through his writings and studies, he has also attempted to propagate the aims and objects of the Singh Sabha Movement. He has shown his commitment to improve the image of the Sikh community. Therefore, he highlights the purpose of the Sikh faith by comparing it with Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths. From this disposition of his is born the tendency to praise one side and denigrate the other. As a result of this, his religious spirituality remained restricted to a particular religious community. Consequently, in his religious explanation we find glimpses of communal explanation. Here is an example to what extent Bhai Vir Singh’s interpretations can shrink to a communal shade:
Guru Nanak is the true Vaid (physician) and is so great that he has to liberate the whole world. This is what Gurbani says and every Sikh believes.
Bhai Vir Singh’s methodology of studying Gurbani owes its form or content to his devotional and communal outlook. Besides, it is also noteworthy that Bhai Sahib, especially in the Chamatkars, has often tried to ensure that miracles connected with the Guru should be brought to a level of acceptability and he uses his knowledge of philosophy and science towards this end. At many places, he says that his explanation is based on Gurbani only but such assertions by him as ‘This is the true tale of the event connected with Guruji’, ‘this has actually happened’, ‘By saying “yours” it is clear, Guruji is exhorting a pandit’ and ‘He seems to be talking to us’, etc. This leaves no doubt about his dependence on Janam Sakhis. It is always Bhai Sahib’s endeavour that the concerned side should be identified in a determined manner. As a result of this, Guruji’s sayings, instead of being a commentary on the prevalent values of life, remain limited to a dialogue with a particular side or a particular happening/situation and reactions thereto. By doing so the vastness of Gurbani gets restricted to a particular segment. For example, he comments about Aarti: “It seems that after seeing the Aarti before an idol, Satguru has given them this sweet exhortation’. (4)
Bhai Vir Singh often tries to bring the miracles to a level of reality and acceptability and creates imaginary dialogues, events, unnatural environment, supernatural situations, etc.
Bhai Sahib’s worldview, instead of being concerned with the time and space (country and the particular times) as also the vast horizons, rests on the Adesh, Akal and the invisible (abstract), which seems to be limited by these factors. Consequently, scientific knowledge for him is that of the visible and spiritual knowledge is that of the invisible. Even the scientific knowledge of Bhai Sahib has its own limitations. For example, “Sometimes science says “There is no God” but Guru Nanak says: ‘Ye good one, keep within the limits of your learning. You are in quest of nature, He is above your knowledge of nature, He is the Creator. Satguru says about the creation and the Creator: Qudrat dissai, qudrat sunnai, qudrat bhao sukh saar….’ (He is seen and heard in nature….) (5) This point of view is always hidden in his study of Gurbani. This study of Bhai Sahib sometimes presents some signs of analysis but such signs are merely assertions. Such signs are found in Santhya Sri Guru Granth Sahib. In fact in the beginning of this work, Bhai Sahib claims that he liberated himself from previous notions and beliefs before taking up this study. In his assertions, the statements like ‘he has not been partial to a particular side or tried to stretch a point’ and ‘whatever way is shown by Gurbani has been followed to bring out the purpose of Gurbani’, the above view is very well confirmed.
In short, Bhai Vir Singh’s study is confined to a particular mould. Devotion and belief are clearly discernible in it. To highlight the communal meaning, this belief gets so deep oftentimes that the meanings of the object of study shrivels up. Bhai Sahib goes on trying to bring the tales of miracles to a level of acceptability in the process of explanations. Consequently, the interpretation of Gurbani passes through a new transformation. Bhai Sahib does not remove the mythical aspect of the tales of miracles at the surface level, but seems to be intent on trying to create a new myth.
In the history of the ways of studying Gurbani, Dr. Gopal Singh’s book Sri Guru Granth Sahib’s Literary Value has special importance. In the preface of the book, he calls it “The emotions of a soul wet with nectar”. His soul gets ecstatic at the vision of this tuneful expression. During the course of his study, he transforms the various excerpts in his poetic prose and consequently, he builds a new metaphysics parallel to this mysticism. The same type of use has been made by Dr. Mohan Singh Diwana in his book Jatinder Sahib Sarovar. He too creates a parallel level vis-à-vis Gurbani with his poetic, emotional and ecstatic bent of mind with the result that he does not reach the inner sights of the system underlying the writing of Bani.
It is very essential to bear in mind this point clearly that Dr. Dardi, at the time of his study, like Prof. Puran Simgh, passes through the realm of spiritualism but his vision, like Bhai Vir Singh, is not that of Sikh community, but idealistic and humanistic. His spirituality, like Prof. Puran Singh’s moves around humanity as a whole and common cultural values. Of course, even Dardi, like Bhai Vir Singh, sometimes tries to look for modern inventions and even aspects of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Gurbani and gives proof of his backward looking vision, but this tendency does not appear to be communal at any time. To recognize the art and aesthetics of Gurbani, he tends to work within the framework available in the traditional Indian poetics. For his expression of devotion and reverence for Gurbani, his mystic and ecstatic disposition remains with him all along. The method of study made use of in the context of the literary significance of Gurbani is a great achievement in the chapter “Guru Granth Sahib da Samajik Adarsh” (Social Ideal of Sri Guru Granth Sahib). In this chapter, keeping aside the mystic realm, spiritual hints, symbols and signs, he identifies the social, religious, political and cultural spectacles. Unravelling the different layers of the feudal society, though from the religious point of view, meaningful insights are there no doubt, through which can be brought to the fore the hidden aspects of contemporary history and culture.
After discussing the aspects of studies conducted initially, it can be said that in the initial phase, devotion and belief weighed heavily with those conducting the studies. Sometimes it is communal in character and sometimes it assumes a humanistic form. Some of them seem to be tending towards constructing a parallel diction to Bani. Some have even transformed the lines/hymns guided by their ecstatic bent of mind. Thus in the initial phase, to do away with the uncertainty of meanings and clearing the mist, Prof. Sahib Singh plays a great role (1939). In the next phase, studies have been conducted on the social, aesthetics and symbolic perspectives of Gurbani.