CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE OF GURU GRANTH SAHIB
Copyright © Dr. N Muthu Mohan
CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE OF GURU GRANTH SAHIB
The Contemporary World:
The present paper intents to bring out the points of relevance of Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Scripture to the contemporary world society. The points that are focused by us as relevant, as it could be expected, are intimately related with our understanding of contemporary society. A few decades back, it was felt that the modern age with its historical promises of freedom, progress and enlightenment had come to meet its internal crisis. The European man started sensing a feeling of disappointment. Philosophers of Existentialism identified the problem as science, technology and industrialization acting at the hands of dominance and power, and consequently eroding the fundamental human values in the society and threatening the very human existence on earth. After a long period of adequate probing of the problem, the same philosophers proposed moral regeneration as the necessary condition to meet the situation. Along with the proposed moral revival, many philosophers campaigned for a spiritual renaissance and a return of religions to mend the damaged state of affairs in the present society. To quote Vaclav Havel, the Czechoslavakian scholar “the alternative is a future rehabilitation of the human subject, an existential revolution, and a renaissance or revival of human responsibilities, of a relation between man and something mysterious which is more than man, some metaphysical assurance.”(Richard Kearney ed. 1995:70). The anticipation of moral regeneration in the global level has not yet come true although towards the end of the last millennium indeed there is a return of religions.
The Return of Religions and Search for Utopias:
The return of religions in recent times has assumed a violent form, and to be more exact, a political form. Although the religions have come back to increase their involvement in the civil affairs, they have not yet adequately articulated their spiritual or ethical potentialities. It seems that religions are operating as agents of the same old modernist politics, only to mobilize the majoritarian identity and to dominate the total space of the public sphere. The inter-religious and inter-communal relations at the global level have suddenly become complicated, tense and insecure. The revival of interest in religions is, at times, articulated in the worst form of discourse that goes with the coinage of phrases such as clash of civilizations (Huntington).
It is also significant to indicate that the new predictions on future are related with the loss of faith in the enlightenment values of the west and collapse of socialism in the former Soviet Union. This means that the present phase of history intensifies the search for new alternatives. May be, it is also a call for utopias, a call for our creativity to work out new modes of human existence. Once the modern ideals with their linear-progressive models have got de-legitimized, the post-modern condition suggests to look for non-modernist and pre-modernist options. Those models that were marginalized towards the periphery, particularly that hail from the not-so-modern anthropological world are gaining prominence in the present context. The pre-modern and the non-modern are to be understood as powerful persuasions for working out the post-modern alternatives. With this understanding of contemporary life, we enter to speak of Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture of the Sikhs.
Guru Granth Sahib and the Sense of Crisis:
The appearance of Guru Granth Sahib or the Sikh religiosity as such could be understood as a fresh call for the revival of spirituality in the context of 15-17 century India. The said historical period did have its moments of crisis in very significant aspects similar to the present day conditions. Indian subcontinent indeed underwent radical changes in terms of urbanization, commercialization and socially upward mobilization during the Muslim rule in the medieval centuries. The traditional Hindu society with its values of either asceticism or Varna Dhama (Caste System Of The Hindus ) yielded before the Islamic political and economic advance. The emerging structures of society contributed to the creativity of the masses on the one hand, as well as to the development of destructive individualism on the other hand. The traditional religion of Hinduism became incapable to meet the situation and it conveniently withdrew into its own orthodox shell. The entry of Sikh religiosity at such an historical juncture is a real encounter with the newly emerging situation with all its complexities.
The historical setting of Guru Granth Sahib demanded an intensive reworking of the themes of sacred and secular, and their interrelations. In Guru Granth Sahib one finds the documentation of the crisis both in the religious and temporal realms.
- Avarice is the king,
- Evil-doing is his minister,
- Falsehood is his revenue collector,
- Lust is the counselor always consulted,
- The subjects are purblind and thoughtless wretches,
- Who foolishly obey these evil rulers. (GGS: 468-469)
- The Quadi speaks falsehood and eats filth;
- The Brahmin, guilty of much cruelty,
- Makes a show of ritual bathing;
- The Yogi blind and misguided,
- Knows not the true practice;
- All three are at one in bringing harm to the people. (GGS: 662)
Redefining the Sacred and the Profane:
It is at this juncture, the Sikh Gurus addressed to reenter into defining the interrelations between the religious and temporal. Guru Granth Sahib arrives at a new philosophical position that is later named as Meeri-Piri. Literally, the term Meeri-Piri means the unity of spiritual and temporal. However, the term needs some clarification and is yet to indicate the type of unity it proposes. This is important because the principle of unity of religious and temporal in modern times has varied implications like religious mobilization of people for political purpose “since authority is best achieved under the guidance of religious belief” (Peter H.Merkl and Ninian Smart, ed. 1985:65). The philosophy of Meeri-Piri does not aim to advocate the encounter of religion and politics for achieving added legitimacy to the political dominance or authority. The aim of Guru Granth Sahib is not at all political authority or domination. Indeed it is against political dominance and authority.
Guru Nanak’s problem was that the Quadis (Or Quazies), Brahmins and Yogis allowed themselves to be manipulated by the political forces. In contrary to this Guru Granth Sahib appears with the new message of invoking the consciousness of morality, justice, love and truth in the social and political life.
The Sikh scripture rejects the ideal of asceticism in its ancient (Brahmanic and Shramanic) and medieval (Siddha and Sufi) forms on the one hand and repudiates the ritualism of Hindu and Islamic religions (Brahmanic and devotional) on the other hand. In relation to the temporal plane, Guru Ganth Sahib discards the evaluation of earthly life as maya [ lust, Anger, Greed, Nepotism and Ego ] and as well refuses to accept the temporal life uncritically. This means that the Sikh Gurus go for a fundamental reworking of the ontological problems of existence.
In Guru Granth Sahib, one finds the de-centering of at least three very rigid ontological focal points traditionally held. They are the transcendental reality, the self and the world. No one is taken for granted in Sikhism. The transcendental is made open to the temporality. The self is eliminated from the haumain. The temporal reality needs the permeation of spirituality and critical reworking in terms of justice. Thus the ontological realm has been made into dialectical and flexible. Things are to be evaluated and negotiated here. The given-ness is eliminated.
To be more exact, it is not purely ontological but, as Emmanuel Levinas would say, the unity of ethical and ontological. “The ethical relationship with the other is just as primary and original as ontology- if not more so. Ethics is not derived from an ontology of nature; it is its opposite, a meontology which affirms a meaning beyond Being, a primary mode of non-being (me-on)” (Richard Kearney ed. 1995:190). The unity of spiritual and temporal, the middle way, indeed leads the Sikh position into a realm originally ethical, a non-conceptual realm of practical living with truthfulness, inward purity and love. Consequently, the ontology of Guru Granth Sahib is not an ontology of Being but it is an ontology of becoming relations.
Interestingly, many of the principles forwarded by Guru Granth Sahib such as Meeri-Piri, elimination of haumain, love, truthful living, service, justice etc are relational in character. The spiritual is related with temporal, God is related with the world, the humans are related with humans, an ego-less person is open to the entire world, service relates every one with the other, truth is related with living, love and justice are values of societal relations, and what else. Guru Granth Sahib as the embodiment of the philosophy of Meeri-Piri is the return of the ethical values, justice and love. Whenever humanity reaches the crisis of ontologies, it addresses to the more flexible non-conceptual realms of truthful living.
Ethics as a Social Transformative Force:
The ethical note that emerges from the philosophical position of Guru Granth Sahib leaves its essential mark in Sikh devotionalism. The mythological, the ritual and the priestly are replaced in Guru Granth Sahib by the ethical and moral. Guru Granth Sahib contains a unique synthetic message of devotionalism and ethics that was unknown in Indian history. Through its passionate devotionalism Guru Granth Sahib tries to make the ethical consciousness into a popular social force. Guru Granth Sahib is a passion for ethics and justice. It is this synthesis of ethics and devotionalism that lands Sikhism in recurrently demanding inward purity and truthfulness from the devotees or the followers. There is a very conscious and cognizant attempt in Granth Sahib to transform the ritualistic devotionalism into ethical devotionalism. It is indeed a revolutionary transformation with enduring humanistic and societal implications.
- “If the mind is unclean how can it be purified
by worshipping stones, visiting places of pilgrimage,
living in jungles, wandering around as an ascetic?”(GGS-686)
- “Make mercy your mosque, Faith your prayer-mat,
and righteousness your Quran.
- Make humility your circumcision, uprightness your fasting,
And so you will be a true Muslim.
- Make goodwork your Kaaba, truth your Pir,
And compassion your creed and your prayer” (GGS-140)
- “Make the merciful Lord your salgram, your object of worship, O Pandit and good deeds your garland of Tulsi.
- Why waste your life in irrigating sterile land?
- Why plaster a mud wall When it will surely fall?” (GGS-1171).
It is interesting in this regard to re-evaluate the traditional attitude of devotional religions to the theme of ethics. Reverting back to the context of the birth of Sikhism, it has to be mentioned that the ethical message of Saivism or Vaishnavism during the Indian medieval period was not very strong. In their anxiety to replace Jainism and Buddhism, the devotional traditions sidelined the ethical question too. But Guru Granth Sahib differs from the devotional thoughts in a very particular way that it interweaves the ethical commitment, the devotional spirit and the popular needs.
- “The path of true Yoga is found in dwelling in God
while yet living in the midst of the world’s temptations ” (GGS-730).
It is worth here to recollect the existential revolution for the post-modern era about which the Czeck scholar spoke at the beginning of the present paper.
The ethico-philosophical standpoint of Guru Granth Sahib has its social implications that explain the working of Granth Sahib through the past history as well as in the present world. Guru Granth Sahib is aimed at mobilizing and constructing a public sphere for actively transforming the existing conditions of life in favor of justice and humanism. In the Indian context Guru Granth Sahib critically looks into the caste order, for that sake any type of unilaterally privileged position in terms of status, wealth and power.
- “Perceive in all humans the light of God.
- Do not ask for caste.
- In the hereafter there is no caste” (GGS-349).
- “Caste and status are futile,
- For the one Lord watches over all
- If any one exalts himself the true measure
- His dignity will be revealed
- When his record is produced (in the Lord’s court)” (GGS-83).
- “God approves not the distinction of high and low,
- None has He made higher than others” (GGS-53).
The Gurus associate themselves with the affected and the victims. The Guru states “What am I going to do with the powerful? I am with the lowest of the low”.
- “The people wail in their agony of suffering;
- Didst thou feel no compassion for them
- Thou who art the Creator of all?
- If a powerful foe molest one equally powerful,
- Little would be there to complain.
- But if a ferocious tiger falls upon a herd of kine,
- Then must the Master be called to account”(GGS-360).
This is a libertarian voice. It is against any type of oppression. The philosophical de-centering of ontological rigidities assumes now a sociological de-centering of oppressive structures. It is a natural and necessary inner development. It is an inevitable unfolding of the initial stance. Historically the critical spirit of Guru Granth Sahib had been tested and perfected. Granth Sahib was critical of the Hindu caste system. It confronted the political over-handedness of the late-Moghul rulers. It was against the priestly class and sectarianism of religions. The Sikh land refused to be colonized till the middle of 19th century by the British. Once colonized, the Sikhs opened up the earliest resistant movements in the north western part of India. Towards the end of 19th century the Sikhs worked for liberating their religion from the feudal forces within and without. Sikhism is the first religion that understood and resisted the construction of Hindu grand narrative as a cultural and political tool of modern India. The Sikh struggles against the colonial masters make the most vibrant pages in the recent history of Indian subcontinent.
The Sikhs continued their fights for linguistic states and federal constitution, and in opposition to emergency and centrist politics of Delhi. Thus Sikhism has proved that it is always anti-establishment. This critical spirit is deeply embedded in Guru Granth Sahib.
Exploring the Interreligious Space:
The fluid ontology or the ontology of becoming of Guru Granth Sahib leaves its structural impact on the construction of cordial relations among the religious communities. Guru Granth Sahib is an embodiment of a new type of spirituality, a spirituality that was worked out amidst the utmost and intensive inter-religious encounters. It was a religious and societal dialogue that really occurred in history. It was a spirituality that was an outcome of those inter-religious and inter-communal dialogues. The contribution of Guru Granth Sahib to inter-religious relations is very fundamental.
The rich life and activities of Guru Nanak Dev could be seen as a living experience in inter-religious relations. Guru Nanak lived during the most intensive period inter-religious tensions in Indian history and Punjab was the battlefield of thickest meetings of Hinduism and Islam. The good and bad of such encounters, the exhaustive experiences in multi-religious living were undergone by the Punjabis, later the Sikhs. Kapur Singh, as reputed scholar of Sikh studies of yesteryears states, “Guru Nanak’s hymns and compositions, revealed pronouncements and spiritual statements are replete with literary allusions, sophisticated and subtle references to ancient writers and classics of both Hindus and Muslims and all his poetic revelations are characterized by a rich acquaintance with literary conventions and styles of his times and are permeated with deep learning and astonishing common sense” (Gurtej Singh (ed.). 1993:43).
The origin of Sikhism could be viewed as a grand response to the inter-religious reality of the region and Guru Granth Sahib contains a unique type of inter-religious spirituality.
Of course, the middle-east region of the world has the experience of inter-religious encounters among Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, among them no one could be called as the response to the multi-religiosity of the region. But Sikhism and the scripture of the Sikhs directly address to the inter-religious thematic. The tradition says that the first revelation of the Guru is on the inter-religious theme, there is no Hindu and there is no Musalman.
It seems that Guru Nanak was well aware of the quarrels of the Hindus and Muslims for separate paths of their religions. He states:
- He who knows the two Paths to
Will alone find fulfilment (GGS – 142)
To conceive separate gods by various creeds, according to Guru Arjan Dev is equivalent to supersition:
- Saith Nank, when the Guru had removed supersition,
Allah and Parbrahm are same. (SGGS, p.826)
Breaking the traditional boundaries between the being and the other, the sacred and the profane opens up an entirely fresh territory of inter-religious spirituality:
- O Lord, Whom shall we call false and untrue,
- When there is no one else but Thee?
- Thou pervadest all, O God!
- Everyone dwells ever upon Thee,
- Yea, every one asks from Thee,
- And Thou blessest all.
- Everyone is under Thy sway,
- O God, there is no one outside of Thee.
- Everyone belongs to Thee
- O Lord, and every one merges in Thee.
- O my love, every one leans on Thee
- Everyone dwells upon Thee alone, O my Kine (GGS – 670)
- I have befriended everyone,
- Unto everyone I am a friend.
- The separation of my mind has been removed,
- And I am united now with my God.
The traditional as well as modern biographers of Guru Nanak inform us that the Guru composed many of his songs during his udasis (travels). The udasis (Travels) of the Guru were aimed to visit so many religious places and to encounter the innumerable geographic, demographic and cultural varieties of people of India and beyond India. The yatra (travel) is always a metaphor of going for encounters, going out of one’s own territory, stretching out the hands to the other, exploring unknown territories. Guru Nank went out and reached back. Guru Granth Sahib and the udasis of the Guru have remarkable similarities. They both designate the wide spectrum of world the Gurus had met with.
The entire range and sweep of experiences in Guru Granth Sahib as well as during udasis are astounding. The Guru went and met the common people of various regions, the yogis and Siddhas of Himalayan peaks, the Saints of the then popular culture, the Vaishnavite and Saivite Bhagats of various hues, even the Jains and Buddhists, the Sheikhs and Sufi saints of Islamic orders.
The Granth Sahib and the udasis evidence the rendezvous meetings of the Gurus with different ways of living of peoples, religious followings and cultural heritages. The linguistic and musical varieties and portrayal of life-situations found in Guru Granth Sahib testify and affirm this fact. There is no continuity between the language and style of Vedas or Puranas on the one hand and that of Guru Granth Sahib on the other hand. Granth Sahib is a scripture with a clear linguistic bias towards the languages of the common people. Guru Granth Sahib travels across the exclusive linguistic attitudes of Sanskrit and Arabian languages and prefers a synthetic folk idiom. Guru Granth Sahib did not opt to inherit the narrative style of the North Indian Bhakti Mahapuranas, but resembles very much the Tamil emotional musical form. The emotional expressive form singled out by the Gurus indicates intensity of the crisis situation of the context as well as the pattern of overcoming the situation.
The dialogism of the Sikh scripture is registered also in the exploration of inter-religious space among various religions of the time. Guru Granth Sahib is a unique text of inter-religious spirituality unknown in the history of world religions. It carries the compositions of not only the Sikh Gurus but also that of the Hindu and Islamic saints. Moreover, the Hindus and Muslims are advised to follow the best of their religious traditions truly and honestly without falling prey to ritualism and dogmatism. The inter-religious spirituality of the Granth Sahib finds expressed in giving priority to ethical concerns than to the sectarian interests of the particular religion.
Towards conclusion, we can state that the contemporary relevance of Guru Granth Sahib could be identified in working out and presenting an Ontology of Becoming that expresses itself explicitly in the priority of ethics and social concerns, as well as in formulating an inter-religious spirituality. A dynamic earthly life and a mysticism of openness spring out of the above said aspects of Guru Granth Sahib.
- Gurtej Singh (ed.). Sikhism: An Ecumenical Religion by Sardar Kapur Singh, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1993.
- Kearney, Richard, States of Mind – Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers on the European Mind, Manchester University Press, 1995.
- Merkl , Peter H. and Smart, Ninian (ed.), Religion and Politics in the Modern World, New York University Press, 1985.
- Talib, Gurcharan Singh (Tr.), Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Punjabi University, Patiala.
Back to previous page