|Tuesday 20 November, 2001
Sikh words of wisdom
In the month that many followers traditionally celebrate the birthday of the founder of the Sikh faith and poet Guru Nanak, Patterns of Faith investigates the power, passion and wisdom found in the poetry and hymns of the Sikh Gurus.
Eastern spirituality is a million-dollar business in Europe and the USA.
Tickets for the Dalai Lama’s teaching sessions at venues like London’s huge Royal Albert Hall sell out faster than a Rolling Stones gig; the Islamic mystic, Rumi, the author of A Hundred Tales Of Wisdom and many other books, climbed all the way to the top of the poetry bestseller lists in the USA.
Meanwhile books like The Tao of Pooh have opened up Chinese religious philosophy to a delighted audience of millions, and Indian classics like the Karma Sutra are perennial favourites among publishers and readers alike.
But if, from a Western perspective, there is one Cinderella among Eastern religions, one undiscovered gem waiting to be polished and admired by people outside the South Asian religious culture, it is the Sikh faith – in particular, the poetry of the Sikh Gurus.
In poems which rival the most beautiful in the Islamic and Christian mystical traditions, the Gurus express human longing for union with the ultimate reality – in many cases through sublime love poetry.
‘Often they speak from the point of view of a woman, a bride awaiting her divine groom,’ says Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Colby College in Maine, USA.
|Sikh poem || |
My mind and body yearn,
but my Lover is far away in foreign lands.
The Beloved does not come home,
I am sighing to death,
and the lightning strikes fear in me.
I lie alone on the bed, tormented;
mother, the pain is like death to me.
Without the Divine One, how can there be sleep or hunger?
What clothing can soothe the skin?
Nanak says, the bride is truly wed
when she is embraced by her Beloved.
She has produced some of the most beautiful English translations of the Sikh Gurus’ work, most notably in The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus.
In speaking from the female perspective, says Kaur-Singh, this poem is quite revolutionary:
‘In giving these yearnings a female voice which speaks for all humanity, Sikh scripture opens out the definition of "man".’
Thus it supports the Sikh view that a separation between male and female denies the wholeness of human nature, making gender equality one of the cornerstones of the Sikh faith.
The founder of the Sikh faith and poet, Guru Nanak, in accordance with the tradition of his time, signs his name in the last line but one.
An accountant by profession, he was overtaken by God’s call during a bath in a river in the Punjab – now Pakistan – just over 500 years ago. When he re-emerged, the first words he spoke stunned those around him: ‘There is neither Hindu nor Muslim.’
Far from making any value judgement about India’s main religions at the time, he was saying that a fundamental, common truth underlies all faiths – that God was beyond outward religious distinctions.
But he had no intention of asking people to abandon their respective faiths. What mattered, he argued, was for everyone to be a truly devout follower of his or her own religion, without meaningless ritual, with their minds, hearts and souls completely focused on God.
Guru Nanak spent the rest of his life teaching, and most of his spiritual insights were set out in verse and hymns which his Muslim companion, Mardana, set to music.
Mardana and Guru Nanak travelled as far as Sri Lanka, Baghdad and Mecca to discuss religion with Muslims and Hindus. Some argue that he never intended to found a new faith, but what he began quickly assumed a distinctive identity.
|'Today more than 18 million people worldwide follow the Sikh faith.' |
Guru Granth Sahib
Guru Nanak’s birthday, celebrated each year around November in accordance with the Sikh calendar, is traditionally marked with a full, uninterrupted reading of the Sikh holy book, known as the Guru Granth Sahib.
This can easily take two days or more, and groups of the faithful will stay awake throughout the night, taking turns to recite passages from the revered book. So what is so special about the Sikh scriptures?
‘This book contains no historical narratives, no biographical details and no obligatory rituals,’ explains Kaur-Singh. ‘It is quite simply a collection of spiritually exalted poetry, written by the ten living Sikh Gurus and by Hindu and Muslim saints.’
Since the tenth and last human Sikh Guru died in 1708, the Guru Granth Sahib has been treated by Sikhs as their own personal guru – hence the name. It takes pride of place in every gurdwara (Sikh temple), and is treated with great reverence.
For Sikh believers it forms the sole icon and the source of their daily prayers; for lovers of spiritual poetry, from any other faith or none, it is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered.
A discovery, which may be imminent, thanks to the work of people like Kaur-Singh. ‘I was nurtured on the original poetry,’ she says, recalling her childhood in Punjab.
‘Every morning I heard the Japji (the Sikh ‘creed’ composed by Guru Nanak) melodiously recited by my mother. Every evening I heard the evening prayers from my father, who held me in his arms and strolled on the terrace in our home. All these moments were full of awe.'
|'I may not have understood the meaning of the verses, but they became a part of my being and continued to resonate somewhere deep inside.’ |
Translating those verses into English, using all the modern tools of computers and dictionaries, became a challenge in its own right, she says.
‘At home in the Punjab, the very language of the Sikh verse is given the greatest respect. In our house, even newspapers written in the same script as the holy book were not allowed to be put on the ground. Any volume containing the sacred poetry is deeply honoured.’
‘Now miles away in Ireland, where I did most of the work, should I cover my head as I picked up the texts? Should I be listening to popular music while I worked?’
|The human condition || |
Earning thousands, we chase millions,
In pursuit of wealth, we are never content.
Countless hollow delights beguile us,
But discontented, we die in pain.
Without contentment, we are never fulfilled,
Like vapid dreams, our goals and efforts are in vain.
Thus her work became a tightrope walk between the sacred and the academic worlds, but the resulting poetry of love and devotion is compelling in its beauty, and the spirituality it conveys easily transcends Punjabi religious culture.
Guru Nanak’s analysis of the human condition is as immediately relevant today as it was 500 years ago.
The answer, as Guru Nanak reminds his followers in endless poetic variety, lies in keeping their focus on the one, formless, ever-present God.
| The ten human gurus
|1. Guru Nanak, 1469-1539
2. Guru Angad, born 1504, Guru 1539-1552
3. Guru Amar Das, born 1479, Guru 1552-1574
4. Guru Ram Das, born 1534, Guru 1574-1581
5. Guru Arjan, born 1563, Guru 1581-1606
6. Guru Hargobind, born 1595, Guru 1606-1644
7. Guru Har Rai, born 1630, Guru 1644-1661
8. Guru Har Krishan, born 1656, Guru 1661-1664
9. Guru Teg Bahadur, born 1621, Guru 1664-1675
10. Guru Gobind Singh, born 1666, Guru 1675-1708