Historic Contribution of Sri Guru Granth Sahib: Philosophical Aspects

Posted on November 25, 2014 by nmuthumohan

Copyright © Dr. N Muthu Mohan


Historic Contribution of Sri Guru Granth Sahib: Philosophical Aspects Dr. N. Muthu Mohan


The present paper explores the philosophical meanings of a few core terms in Sri Guru Granth Sahib namely Sat, Nam, Guru, Shabad Bani and Sangat. It is clarified at the outset that the terms are not exactly “concepts” as they are vogue in western philosophy but they cover a spectrum of meanings and occupy even the realm of practice. The selected terms cannot be characterized as transcendental nor can be attributed to the temporal or empirical realm. In other words, they organically combine the semantic spaces of both metaphysical and physical, miri and piri, without any barrier in between. Each and every term chosen is analyzed in detail to bring out their specific meanings within the frame of Guru Granth Sahib. The thrust of the discussions is to show that the philosophical terms of Guru Granth Sahib occupy an integral space covering the metaphysical and physical domains organically, without giving ontological priority to any one realm, as well as without posing them one against the other in binary form.


Sat is one of the oldest terms in the history of Indian philosophy. The term appears in the Vedas to represent the reality perceivable around. Further, it develops to mean the “natural cycle or order” or “Rta” that repeats without much change. This second connotation comes to stay in Indian philosophy to mean “changeless order” or “permanent reality” assuming even the meaning of “eternal reality”. It is note worthy to indicate that the meaning moves from its natural, physical and perceivable level to the so-called metaphysical level. Soon the term started to have a pair in its disposal namely Asat to represent the non-orderly and changing reality. The pair of Sat and Asat became one of the earliest philosophical binaries soon to become Sat, the real and Maya, the unreal or illusory. When the concept of Brahman became popular in Upanishads, it became identified with the term Sat to stand against Maya, the illusory. In the post-Upanishad Vedantic interpretations, Sat became one of the Svarupa definitions of Brahman along with Chit and Anand. This is the story in brief of the concept of Sat from the Vedas to Vedanta. And now we find that the concept is prominently used by Guru Nanak Dev. And the question stands before us, what is the distinct meaning of Sat in Guru Granth Sahib?

Sat is a highly prestigious and contentful term in Guru Granth Sahib that occurs to open the Mul Manter of the Sikh Scripture. It occurs at the beginning of every new hymn of the Gurus, at the beginning of every chapter of the holy book. The term invariably comes associated with such core terms of Guru Granth Sahib namely Sat Nam, Sat Guru, Sat Sangat etc that shows the immanent significance of the term. The first hymn of Japuji Sahib that formulates the basic problem of Sikh thought lucidly puts the question How to be a Sachiar? Or How to be True? and how to get (rid of) released from the falsehoods of life? Here, we request the reader to stop for a minute. In the first hymn of Japuji Sahib, when Guru Nanak formulates the problem of Sachiar and falsehood, the pair concepts do not mean exactly the metaphysical pair of Sat and Asat. Here, Truth and Falsehood come to address the contemporary problems of everyday life, that the life has become corrupted and has lost its value and the honest and true people are humiliated and insulted by the world that goes behind the falsehood.

We do not desire to argue here that the term Sat does not possess its metaphysical meaning at all. What do we want to say here is that for Guru Nanak is not much particular to attribute the metaphysical meaning to the term Sat here. On the other hand, the term Sat in the hymn of Japuji Sahib encompasses both the metaphysical and temporal domains of existence, without giving priority to any one realm and without counter-posing the two in binary form. The same can be attributed to the innumerous usages of the term Sat in Guru Granth Sahib where the Guru is not at all particular to be metaphysical. In other words, although the term Sat was 2000 years old to carry the long burden of Vedantic metaphysics along with it, the Guru is not strict to its metaphysical end. The Guru liberally makes the term into Sach, Sachcha, Sachiar, into spoken Punjabi. The crossing of the boundaries of the classical language and freely traveling with the common men and women shows the organic unity of metaphysical and physical realms in the understanding of the Guru. The Guru makes the so-called metaphysical term to serve the everyday needs of contemporary life. The Guru attributes a spectrum of meanings to the term stretching it from its traditional metaphysical to reach the temporal ends.


Here we are inclined to inform the readers that the Guru- Sikh relations at the centre is the unique moment of Sikhism and the term Guru is very much specific to Sikhism. It is an entirely new attempt from the part of the Guru to visualize a different type of religion. We attempt to assert that Sikhism is not a priestly religion, it is not a puranic religion, it is not a prophetic religion and it is a Guru-Sikh religion. If Brahmanic Hindu religion is typical of a priestly religion, medieval Saivism, Vaishnavism etc are representatives of puranic religion, and Islam is a prophetic religion, then, Sikhism is different from all of them that it is a Guru-Sikh religion. Sikhism, in its name and fame, philosophy and ideology, institutions and practices, is a Guru-Sikh religion. One may remind us that the terms Guru and Sishya are found traditionally in the Indian culture, we agree to it, however we assert that not any previously existing Indian religion made the relation of Guru and Sikh so foundational and exceptional to its structure as Sikhism.

The Brahmanic culture preferred the term Acharya than Guru in its functioning and the famous commentators of the basic texts of Vedanta such as Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva etc were named as Acharyas. Further, Brahmanism degraded the institution of Gurus into a caste practice, made it into Gurukula system with a caste suffix “kula”. Kanchi Kamakoti Chandrasekarendra Swamikal, former head of the Smarta Brahmin Mutt of Kanchipuram asserts that the term Acharya is used for those who are by birth Brahmins and those who have gone through learning the Vedic knowledge in a systematic way. On the other hand, the term Guru may be attributed to any who despite of his birth in any caste, claims that he had attained the divine message. The Swamikal makes the difference between Acharya and Guru ultimately on the basis of birth. The bhakti traditions made their Gods into Avtars and the followers into bhaktas whereas Sikhism has opted for Gurus and Sikhs. Thus we can differentiate Sikhism from the Vedantic religion and the Bhakti religions.

There are so many terms in Sikh thought and practice that are associated with the terms Guru and Sikhs. The “worship place” of the Sikhs is named as Gurdwara. A person who got rid of his/her ego is named as Gurmukh. The message or knowledge of Guru is named as Gurmat in Sikhism. The Punjabi script itself is blessed with the name Gurmukhi. The Scripture of the Sikhs has been given the prestigious name Guru Granth Sahib and it is ranked as the Living Guru. So many of ideas and practice resolve round the term of Guru. The Sikh Gurus have made an experiment in history to construct a community with the Guru at the centre. It is interesting to trace the history of Community in the history of India. Buddhism constructed a community (sangha) without a God. Then came the Hindu brand of religions to work out a community with the idea of God or the Avtars at the centre, however, internallt hierarchised. The third stage is Sikhism that it has come to the construction of Community (Sangat, Khalsa) with Guru (and Guru Granth) at the centre. The third stage learns from the experience, it assimilates whatever positive and important in the first two stages, however cannot be reduced to the earlier two. May be, the Guru is very real, true and concrete, the Sikh Gurus have opted for this model. Life demands a then and there responsive and flexible model and Guru at the centre of the community is apt to it. Guru is not only at the centre of community but also is the source of knowledge production. Now let us raise a question, what is the status of Guru, Is He metaphysical or Temporal? One cannot fix the Guru purely within the transcendental realm or within the temporal realm. It is neither proper to say that the Guru is partly metaphysical and partly physical. The term Guru encompasses both the realms of transcendentality and temporality without in any way counter-posing one realm to the other.


Nam is another core concept of Sikhism which may not find any easy parallel in Guru Granth Sahib. We know that the concept is so important that often Sikhism is said to be Nam Marga, the path of Name. However, in the Upanishads, the Nam has been used in par with rupa (Nama Rupa), together indicating the empirical world of the material things. If we go by the logic of Upanishads and further the logic of Vedanta philosophy, the nominal reality is said to be lower in comparison to the metaphysical reality. The Name is lower according to Vedanta in consistence with its social philosophy too. But Guru Nanak daringly takes up the concept of Nam as one of the highest reality, for example, the True Name of God, the first manifestation of the divine reality. In a wider meaning, name as truth of a phenomenon or a thing means the essence of the phenomenon or the secret of the phenomenon or a thing. In Vaisesika philosophy we find a closer meaning of Nam as the Visesha of a padartha, name as the specific property of the padartha or the secret of the word or thing. As the Guru makes the concept of Sat serve the needs of current reality, here too he makes a known concept of phenomenal world to represent the divine reality. In both the cases, the Guru goes beyond the well established boundaries of Indian metaphysics and empiricism.

Shabad Bani

Shabad too is one another of the most reputed concepts of Vedic tradition and Vedanta philosophy. It is believed by the Vedic orthodoxy that the Vedic hymns and the truth of Vedanta were spread in the cosmic space in the form of Shabda. The primary form of Shabda is said to be Oum. In the Upanishads, Brahman is compared to Oum, the base and elongated sound of Oum. As Brahman is primary, undifferentiated and basis of all reality, Oum is said to be primary, undifferentiated and basis of all other sounds of the world. Oum is, similarly, compared to the Nirgun state of Brahman that in terms of stages of life is parallel to the ascetic form of life.

Now we pass over to the meaning of Shabad in Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru does not reject the significance of Shabad as Oum or as anahad Nath. One can find a good number of references in Guru Granth Sahib on Oum and anahad Nath as the primary Shabad. But Shabad Bani is not exactly Oum or anahad Nath. Shabad of Guru Granth Sahib is Shabad Bani or Shabad as musical hymns recited by the Gurus. Music has been taken as the mode to construct a community harmonizing the differing modulations controlling or annihilating the egoistic trend that appear in the individuals.


Again, Sangat is a term that represents the religious community of the Sikhs. As it has been partly discussed above, community is perceived in the form of music, a circle, agroup of people who are equal, who practice ethical values and live a life of seva or service. The Guru advises that a man or woman cultivate values in a community way of living. Community is proposed by the Guru as a source of spirituality and also as a source of purposeful praxis. It is the agency suggested by the Gurus for the social transformation. The Gurus transformed the simple village communities into reservoirs of dynamic action. In the context of the paper, Sangat too is a concept that encompasses the spiritual and earthly realms that are seen as a realm of continuance, realms well communicated and united. The Gurus paid primary importance to the Sangat. The tenth Guru celebrated and honored the Sangat (Khalsa) as his form and mode, and dedicated everything wonderful in him to the Sangat.


The present paper is founded on a simple argument that there is no dichotamy of transcendentality and temporality in the understanding of the Gurus. The Gurus comprehended the existence as a holistic existence. The Gurus knew that, in the history of Indian philosophy and religions, philosophical concepts were made into onesidedly metaphysical and much separated from the temporal conditions of human life. The metaphysics and physics were ordered in Indian culture in a hierarchical mode. The metaphysics often made to be indifferent to the ethical corruption of leaders of religions and secular life. The Guru’s philosophy is a philosophy of deconstructing the boundaries between metaphysical and temporal, and addressing the life comprehensively.

[Dr. N. Muthu Mohan, Professor, Centre on Studies in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. m_uthumohan@yahoo.co.in]

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