Songs of the Gurus

Long back, when my brother used to live in Bangalore, one Sunday morning I visited him; at the same time, a Sardar came to his place to collect money for building a Gurudwara in Yeshwanthpur; when my brother gave him some nominal amount (Rs. 20 or so), the Sardar was not very happy; he argued as to why Gurudwaras are Hindu temples too and why we should give him more; he finally managed to get Rs. 100/- from my brother and gave us both a bear hug for showing our solidarity with his cause and left. For a long time, I was under the impression that his calling Gurudwara a Hindu temple was just a tactic to collect money from the Hindus who were the majority in those parts. However, after reading Khushwant Singh’s Songs of the Gurus: from Nanak to Gobind Sigh (Illustrations by Arpana Caur), a book of translations from Adi Granth, I realise how true that comment was.

Apparently, the word Sikh itself comes from the Sanksrit Shishya or Pali Sikka; further, at the very beginning, in his introduction, Khushwant Singh tells us that the Sikh religion is

a synthesis of Hinduism and Islam.

There are not only words like Rama, Krishna, Govinda, Hari, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu and Allah in the poems, but also a strong stressing on the need to go beyond these labels; many a song also reminded me of the poems of Andal and Manikka Vasagar (God as the Husband and the Bhaktha/Bhakthai as the wife motif), Tamil Siddars, Akka Mahadevi and Basaveswara (the oneness of humanity, the uselessness of rituals and the futility of looking for enlightenment outside); finally, there is a very strong current of Hindu-Muslim unity, which, I think, is more relevant in these trying times; here are a couple of samples:

  • Some worship stones and on their heads bear them,
    Some the phallus strung in necklace wear its emblem.
    Some behold their god in the south, some to the west bow their head.
    Some worship images, other busy praying to the dead.
    The world is thus bound in false ritual
    And God’s secret is still unread.
  • One man by shaving his head
    Hopes to become holy monk,
    Another sets up as a yogi
    Or some other kind of ascetic.
    Some call themselves Hindus
    Others call themselves Mussalmans …
    And yet man is of one race all over the world;
    God as Creator, and God as Good
    God in His Bounty and God in His Mercy
    Is all One God. Even in our errors
    We must not separate God from God!
    Worship the One God,
    For all men the One Divine Teacher.
    All men have the same Form.
    All men have the same Soul.

Not knowing the original, I am not able to comment on the quality of translation; but the line

… Even in our errors
We must not separate God from God!

is poetic in any language and strengthens Khushwant Singh’s claim in the introduction that the Gurus whose poems are part of the Adi Granth are poets of great sensitivity.

There are also other interesting information that one can glean from these poems; here is a listing of the four sins, for example:

Drunk wine, thieved, fornicated and killed;

and, here is a listing of six good acts:

Learn and impart learning to others,
Sacrifice and make others give in sacrifice
Give alms and accept charity;

I find that this is the most curious list in that not only primacy is given to learning and teaching, but also accepting charity along with giving alms is considered as a good act (whereas an ancient Tamil poem takes a very different point of view:

ஈ என இரத்தல் இழிந்தன்று
ஈயேன் என்னல் அதனினும் இழிந்தன்று
கொள் எனக் கொடுத்தல் உயர்ந்தன்று
கொள்ளேன் என்னல் அதனினும் உயர்ந்தன்று

It is inferior to ask “Give me”; it is still inferior to say “I will not give”
It is superior to say “Take it”; it is still superior to say “I will not take”).

A nice book; it makes me want to read Khushwant Singh’s other much acclaimed two-volume book A history of the Sikhs and to look for CDs of the renderings of these songs — set to music along the traditional lines; unfortunately, though Khushwant Singh informs us that

The entire work is set to measures of classical Indian music. The hymns are not arranged by author or subject matter but divided into thirty-one ragas win which they are meant to be sung.

he does not recommend or inform of any specific, authentic rendering.

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2 Responses to “Songs of the Gurus

  1. A Dhaliwal Says:

    The books and other publications of Khushwant Singh has certainly accredited him a seasoned writer, but, in writing Sikhism or Adi Granth ‘a syncretic religion or the Holy Scripture’ is nothing short of complete arrogance and ignorance on his part.
    A critical reading and discrete analysis of Aad Guru Granth Sahib illustrates to any learned person the philosophical differences among Sikhism and other religious beleifs.
    The Shabad quoted by the author of this article is not from Aad Guru Granth Sahib, but from the Dasam Granth.
    The Bani of Dasam Granth is being misinterpreted by various non-Sikh entities to create Sikhism a syncretic religion. IT IS NOT.
    AD

  2. S.Kaur Says:

    Actually these ” songs” are not songs but shabads. Khushwant Singh only covers the tip of the iceberg.

    The Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji(SGGSJ) is the Sikhs Living Guru. Most people refer to it as a holy book. No other scripture in the world is given this much respect ; if you observe the devotion that is given by the Sikhs worldwide to the SGGSJ.

    Walk into any hotel room and find the Bible in a drawer. One puts a Quran on a bookshelf. One cannot do that with the SGGSJ. You only have to experience the early morning journey of the SGGSJ from the Akal Takhat to the The Golden Temple to understand why it is called the “Living Guru” and thus it should not be referred to as a holy book.

    It is a treasure chest to be explored- all 1430 pages of it. English translations are available for free on SikhNet.

    I enjoyed reading Khuswant Singh’s book but there are inaccuracies in there. I cannot recall off-hand now what they are because I read the book a few months ago but will be happy to discuss these with you if you are interested.

    Arpana Caur’s artwork in the book is so inspiring and peaceful yet simple. This is a favourite book of mine.

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