The Scriptures of Mankind: An Introduction by Charles Samuel Braden
Dr. Braden was Professor of History and Literature of Religions at Northwestern University (1952). Published by The MacMillan Company, New York, copyright 1952 by Charles S. Braden. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 8: The Sacred Literature of the Sikhs
Sikhism is an offshoot of Hinduism. Regarded by many scholars as only a reformed Hindu sect, it is considered by its own followers as a separate faith. The British Indian census has recognized it as such and each decade numbered the Sikhs apart from the Hindus. The most recent census revealed a total of 5,691,447 followers of the faith. A comparative study of population growth and the growth of the Sikh movement over the last four decades indicates a steady growth, substantially exceeding the percentage increase of the total population.
The scriptures of the Sikhs are almost wholly unknown to the western world. Though there are now a goodly number of anthologies containing selections from most of the sacred books of the world, so far only one that has come to the attention of the writer contains anything from the Granth, the Sikh Bible, and that only a very limited selection. Why should this be so? One answer is that, while considered by themselves a separate religion, they are not so regarded by many scholars, and as a mere part of Hinduism, their writings are overshadowed by the much more important writings of that mother faith. Perhaps the real reason is that the literature itself is of a character which is lacking, at least, in popular interest. Another factor in the situation may be that it has not been translated frequently, and that the literary quality of the translations does not commend it to the anthologists.
As a matter of fact the entire work has never been translated into the English language. After having spent seven years in working on his translation of the four principals Rags1 or sections of it, Ernest Trumpp, the translator, wrote:
The Sikh Granth is a very big volume, but. . . incoherent and shallow in the extreme, and couched at the same time in dark and perplexing language, in order to cover these defects. It is for us Occidentals a most painful and almost stupefying task, to read only a single Rag, and I doubt if any ordinary reader will have the patience to proceed to the second Rag, after he shall have perused the first. It would therefore be a mere waste of paper to add also the minor Rags which only repeat, in endless variations, what has already been said in the great Rags over and over again, without adding the least to our knowledge.2
On the other hand, Max Arthur Macauliffe, who was for many years a judge in India, resigned at the request of representative Sikh societies, and undertook the translation of the book. This he felt impelled to do because he felt that Trumpp’s translation was "highly inaccurate and unidiomatic, and furthermore gave mortal offense to the Sikhs by the odium theologicum introduced into it. Whenever he saw an opportunity of defaming the Gurus, the sacred book and the religion of the Sikhs, he eagerly availed himself of it."3 He hoped by his own work to make some reparation to the Sikhs for the insults which Trumpp offered to their Gurus4 and their religion. He wrote an extensive life of each of the Gurus, and translated most, though not all, of the Rags. The unfortunate feature of his book is that the translated portions are given without exact designation of just whence they are taken, so that they cannot be easily compared with any other translation. Trumpp does this. Nevertheless, the Macauliffe translation is much the more readable. Since he secured the approval of the best Sikh scholars before publication, it may be safely assumed that the translation is more nearly accurate than that of Trumpp.
Perhaps the editors of the anthologies read only Trumpp’s preface and became discouraged about finding suitable material for their collections. But really, it is not so hopeless. If, indeed, the collection is long and repetitious it is not without its high spots as well as low. Indeed, there are some passages of genuine poetic worth, expressive of very deep religious aspirations and devotion, some of which will be included in this chapter. But first a few facts about the movement and the type of religious faith which gave rise to the book.
It is true that the Sikh movement was a reform movement in Hinduism. There have been many such in the past, and there will continue to be new ones. The distinctive feature of this particular movement is that it represents the result of the impact of the Moslem faith on Hinduism. When religions meet and live side by side there is always a give and take, each influencing the other in some respects, despite efforts usually made to avoid just that. This is what is called a process of syncretism. Usually it is unconscious but sometimes quite deliberate. Often, however, syncretism takes the form of a new synthesis of some elements from each, to form a new faith which is in some respects similar to but different from either of the contributing faiths. The Sikh movement is such a synthesis of Hindu and Moslem elements.
But Hinduism is a very complex faith, and Islam too has its differing varieties of outlook, organization, and practice. If one were to try to say which of the variant Hindu strands were combined with varying Moslem strands, he would be most nearly correct, in the author’s opinion, in saying that Sikhism represents a flowing together of the bhakti Hindu faith of Ramanuja and Ramanda, and Islamic mysticism represented by Sufism.
Bhakti Hinduism is devotional Hinduism which finds salvation, not through works, as in the Vedas, not through knowledge, as in philosophic Hinduism, but in faith, love, loyalty or devotion to a personal divinity. A classic illustration of this was noted in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna is the object of devotion. Ramanuja was the great medieval exponent of this type of faith, as over against the famous philosopher and teacher, Shankara, whose commentary on the Vedanta-Sutras set forth the bases of the Vedanta. Ramananda, who lived in the fourteenth century, was a disciple of Ramanuja. He travelled widely in India preaching the faith of his Master, and became the founder of a sect emphasizing the way of devotion to Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, as the way of salvation. His movement opened the way to all men of whatever caste as indicated in the famous saying: "Let no one ask a man’s caste or with whom he eats. If a man shows love to Hari (God), he is Hari’s own."
The poet Kabir was a disciple of Ramananda, and founder of a still existing sect, the Kabirpanth. He in turn greatly influenced Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith. Thus there is a clear line of connection between Sikhism and devotional Hinduism. But Kabir was probably of Moslem origin. As a matter of fact each faith claims him as its own. The Moslem influence is clear in the poetry of the Granth and in the organizational form the movement took. If not, like Islam, completely monotheistic in its conception of God -- it looks definitely in that direction. Sat Nam, or True Name, the most frequently used divine name, seems clearly to be the Supreme Being. Late Sikh thought frankly admitted the worship of other beings, for example, the tenth Guru certainly was a devotee also of Durga.
But since Sikhism is a syncretism, it is not unnatural that the concept of God should be near monotheistic, but with overtones of Hindu pantheism. Professor Archer says of Nanak that he was not a pantheist or a polytheist, nor yet quite a monotheist,5 which makes one wonder where to classify him. Perhaps the difficulty may be resolved by noting that he is sometimes one, sometimes another. This is not at all strange. One finds in many persons an alternation of attitudes toward God. Christian Science is a good example. On one page one may think himself in an atmosphere of pantheism -- on another God is described or approached in warmly personal fashion. Certainly God is called by many names in the Granth, now Hari, now Ram, now Brahma, or again Allah. One gets the impression, however, that these are but variant names of the. one Supreme.
In the first of the thirty-eight Psalms of Nanak that stand at the beginning of the Granth, as a kind of introduction to the whole, Nanak sings thus of God:
Thinking comprehendeth him not, although there be thoughts
As a matter of fact the important thing to Nanak and to his followers is not the correct comprehension of the nature of the ultimate but their attitude of obedience and devotion to God. In another Psalm, he sings:
Forms have come out of his order, but his order goes
For salvation lies in devotion to the True Name:
The Lord is true, plainly known, his loving kindness infinite;
The non-idolatrous worship of God is likewise a truly Mohammedan principle -- Hindu worship was generally not only polytheistic but idolatrous. Idolatry is ridiculed in the Granth, for example by Kabir:
Kabir says: a stone is made the Lord, the
And later Sikhism developed much of the militant spirit of Islam, seeking at one time the political domination of India. It became an effective theocracy just as Islam had been.
The entire Granth is a very substantial body of poetry, consisting mainly of the writings of Guru Nanak and his first four successors, to which were added poems of a dozen or more, one-time famous saints, or bhagats, including Ramananda, Kabir and the well-known Maratha poet, Namdev.
The general plan of the book is as follows:
There is first the Japji, or as Archer calls it, the Book of Psalms of Guru Nanak, thirty-eight in number, a total of about four hundred lines, forming a kind of introduction to the whole collection. Following this come three collections of extracts from later portions of the book, designed for devotional use by Sikhs, particularly for evening prayer and before retiring for the night. The greater part of the remainder of the book is made up of collections of hymns to be sung to thirty-one different Rags or musical measures, each of which bears a specific name. They vary greatly in length but are themselves collections of verse from various poets.
The general plan seems to be to include, first, a collection of verses by Guru Nanak, followed successively by verses composed by the other Gurus. The poetic meter varies, something like a dozen different meters being employed. Where within the same Rag, the Gurus use differing meters, all those of identical meter are grouped together, the work of each Guru appearing in the order in which the Gurus came chronologically. Thus for example Rag Sin Rag has a collection of sabds, a term which may include three differing meters,10 another of astpadas or Chants, and of Vars, which, because of limitation of space, and, perhaps also of popular interest, we cannot describe in detail. Under each of these there may be verses from some or all of the Gurus. These are then followed by verses from various bhagats or saints. Following the Rags is a section known as the Bhog, or conclusion, consisting mostly of miscellaneous sloks including some from the last two of the Gurus. There seems to be little or no logical connection between the verses from any of the varied sources, either within the collection of their own verse or with that collected from other Gurus or saints. Indeed, the whole thing seems to be a miscellaneous collection of poetry arranged in an artificial, rather than logical fashion. The translation of only the four Rags, by Trumpp, requires almost seven hundred pages. Together with Nanak’s Japji and the ritual sections the whole translated work of Trumpp requires seven hundred and eight large pages. And this omits twenty-seven other Rags of whose total bulk the writer has seen no estimate.
The original poems were written in a dozen or more different languages, or dialects, so that almost no one can read the entire book. Eventually the tenth Guru, or successor of Nanak, the religious and political head of the Sikhs, decreed that there should be no human successor as Guru, but that the Granth Sahib should thenceforth be Guru. And so it has been. Now at the beautiful, principal Sikh temple at Amritsar, a copy of the Granth is the central object of reverence, if not worship. Daily it is brought out from its overnight depository with considerable ceremony, properly adorned and vested, and placed on a dais where the faithful may see and pay homage to it. At evening time it is, with equal ceremony, locked away for the night in a specially prepared vault for safekeeping.11 It is not a little strange that a faith which rules out idolatry should have come, in the end, very near, if not quite, to making their sacred book an object of worship.
The Granth, it will have been noted, is not like most other sacred books in that it is exclusively in poetry. The Tao Te Ching, it is true, is wholly poetic, but it does not constitute the whole of Taoist sacred writ. Again, there is here no connected history or story of the beginning of the world, or the people, or any story of the founder, or of the beginnings of the faith. There is current to be sure, a life of Nanak, and some account of each of the Gurus, which abound in wonder stories, as do so many such accounts of other founders of religions. Trumpp happily includes translations of both in the introduction to the book. They are both interesting and instructive if not accurately historical. But these are not a part of the sacred scriptures.
The book is interesting as a scripture of a particular religion, in that it includes so much material from poets who were never associated with the movement, though some of them deeply influenced Nanak.
Namdev, earliest of the great Maratha poets, is noted for his devotional verse. He was a contemporary of Kabir, living toward the latter part of the fifteenth century AD. Several of his poems are translated in Psalms of the Maratha Saints by Nicol MacNicol.
As chiming anklets sweet ring
Thou on Thy shoulders carrying
In it one catches something of the spirit of the poet, and his warmly personal dependence upon God. The two poems of Namdev contained in the Granth are not the equal of some found elsewhere, or else the translation is not so well done. These lines are typical of his thought.
Day and night I utter the name of Ram.
Kabir, as already indicated, was a major influence upon Nanak, the founder. He was a weaver by trade, but a most prolific poet. One who wishes to appreciate Kabir would do well to read from Tagore’s beautiful translation of one hundred of his poems in One Hundred Poems of Kabir.14 Reading the Tagore version, over against the translation of Kabir’s poetry included in the Granth (by Trumpp), one is constrained to wonder whether there is not more of Tagore than Kabir in the former’s renderings. Tagore was, of course, one of the greatest writers of poetry in English -- winner of the Nobel Prize in 1913, though himself one of the most illustrious of India’s sons. Here is just a sample of one of his songs according to Tagore:
Why so impatient, my heart?
O my heart, how could you turn from
But even in the plodding translation of Trumpp one finds beautiful bits of verse expressive of profound religious devotion.
"O Madhava, (my) thirst for water does not cease!
(1). For gold he is not obtained.
Now that Ram is considered by me as my own,
(2). Brahma, though always speaking (of him), did not get his end.
Now that King Ram has become my helper:
(1). Dwelling in heaven should not be desired nor should dwelling
The excellences of the sweetheart should be sung,
From whom the highest treasure is obtained.
(3). Seeing prosperity, one should not be joyful, seeing misfortune, one should not weep.
Now and then Kabir gives evidence of a sense of humor as well as of understanding of the true nature of God and salvation. He has evidently observed people bathing in the holy Ganges or elsewhere, believing that thus salvation might be attained. But he cries:
"Adore Ram, the one God
Just what is the meaning of the following verse is not clear but surely it could have been meant humorously:
Hear one wonderful thing, O brother!
Altogether a surprising amount of Kabir’s verse appears in the Granth. If to what is actually of his own composition be added all that has the flavor of his religious ideas and attitudes, those who are quoted by Archer as asserting that the Kabir portions of the Granth Sahib make up in reality "two thirds of the Granth," may not be far wrong in their estimate.22
There are even bits by a Moslem, Shekh Farid -- a Sufi, and a contemporary of Nanak, who seems to have had rather a close association with him. In all there are one hundred and thirty verses, called Sloks. They are quite disconnected for the most part, and the reason for their inclusion does not seem clear. One reads:
"O Farid, if thou art clever in understanding, do not write an account of the evil deeds of others.
Another rather surprisingly reads:
"O Farid, who beat thee with their fists, do not beat them again!
Sikhs have not been known for turning the other cheek. Rather, many, though not all, have been much given to fighting. For a long time they have been regarded as the best soldier material in all of India. But, in all fairness, it must be said that they were not given to military activity in the earlier phase of the movement.
On the whole the good Shekh’s sloks give rather a gloomy view of life and its sufferings.
O Farid, he who is bound by death appears like one who
The assembling of all but a small portion of the Granth was done by the Fifth Guru, Arjun (1581-1606). According to legend, a group of disciples came to him one day saying that they were greatly benefited and inspired by the true songs of Nanak, but that other verses, falsely attributed to Nanak, were the occasion of the growth of pride and worldly wisdom in men s hearts. Could there not be some way of indicating which were the genuine words of Guru Nanak? Acting on the suggestion, Arjun set about collecting the authentic hymns of Nanak, as well as those of his successors, including his own, and to these added many hymns from the Indian Saints which were not in disagreement with the thought of Nanak. Thus was the Granth formed. To this were later added short selections from Teg Bahadur, the ninth Guru, and the Gobind Singh, the tenth and the last of the Gurus.
It is called the Adi or original Granth, and is accepted by all Sikhs of whatever sect. There is another, the Daswan Granth which contains a substantial number of hymns from Gobind Singh, last of the Gurus, and some of his father, Teg Bahadur. It is not accepted by all Sikhs, but it is especially honored by the Akali sect of Sikhism.
The line of living Gurus ended with Gobind Singh who ordered that, thenceforth, the Granth should be as a living Guru to them. Macauliffe asserted that eventually the Sikhs came to believe in the Gurus as but one, each succeeding one being but a new embodiment of the soul of the preceding Guru, and that now this has passed into the Granth.25 However, J. C. Archer declares categorically that the Sikhs do not believe that each succeeding Guru was the reincarnation of his predecessor.26
It is fitting that, at least, a brief bit from each of the Gurus be included though it is impossible to judge any one of them by a single brief song. We have already included several hymns by Nanak but here are two further brief selections.
The first is but one of many, expressive of his relationship to God, the center of his life and thought:
I have no friend like God
It is in God that his hope of salvation rests:
My soul is in fear; to whom shall I complain?
The second Guru, Angad, did not contribute much to the Granth, only a few sloks. One, expressive of the typical mystic thought of God, is this:
They who possess the greatness of Thy name, 0 God, are happy at heart.
The note of predestination found in the last line is common in the Granth. It is a part of their Moslem heritage.
Superior to any of his verse found in the Granth is a poem that has been preserved in manuscript form.
O Thou who art perfect, light of the Soul, the Supreme
Since I began to love the joyous God, my mind hath
O my Beloved, Support of my soul, there has been none
From Amar Das, let two poems suffice, one on the evil of pride:
Nanak, the gate of salvation is very narrow; only the lowly can pass through.
By serving the true Guru happiness and the true Name of the Lord of excellences are obtained.
By the Guru’s instruction man knoweth himself, and God’s name is manifested to him.
He who is true acteth truly, and obtaineth greatness near the great One:
He praiseth and supplicateth God to whom belong body and soul.
They who praise the true Word, dwell in supreme happiness. Though man may have practised devotion, penance, and self-restraint, yet without the Name in his heart accursed is his life.
The Name is obtained by the Guru’s instruction; the perverse perish through worldly love.
Preserve me, O God, according to Thy will; Nanak is Thy slave.31
The Sikhs are true to Hinduism in their belief both in Karma and in rebirth. Guru Amar Das sings of it thus:
Through how many ages hath this soul wandered! it abideth not permanently but cometh and goeth.
When God pleaseth, He causeth it to wonder; He produceth this play of illusion.
If God be gracious, the Guru shall be found, the soul shall be fixed, and become absorbed in its Creator
Nanak, when man’s mind believeth through the mind of the Guru, he neither dieth nor is born again.32
A song from the fourth Guru, Ram Das, is reminiscent of some of the great penitential psalms.
If it is through the Guru that one attains to salvation, then what can be the fate of those who deny the Guru? Ram Das expresses it thus:
They who leave the Guru, who is present with them, shall find no entrance into God’s court.
Let any one go and meet those slanderers, and he will see their faces pale and spat upon.
They who are accursed of the Guru are accursed of the whole world, and shall ever be vagrants.
They who deny their Guru shell wander about groaning.
Their hunger shall never depart; they shall ever shriek from its pangs.
No one heareth what they say; they are ever dying of fear.
They cannot bear the true Guru’s greatness; they cannot find room in this world or the next.34
The fifth Guru, Arjun, who collected the Granth, was himself a prolific writer. He was a profound mystic -- a lover of God. He expresses his love in many ways:
Thou art, O God, an ocean of water; I am thy fish. . . .
For him God was everything,
After he had collected the Granth, charges were made that he had blasphemed against the religion of the Hindus and Moslems. Made a prisoner by the Emperor, he was ordered, on pain of death, to remove the supposedly objectionable passages from the Granth and to include praises of Mohammad and the Hindu gods. This he refused to do, saying, "The Granth Sahib hath been compiled to confer on men happiness and not misery in this world and the next. It is impossible to write it anew and make the omissions and insertions you require." He was submitted to the cruelest kind of torture, but remained unmoved. In the very midst of excruciating torture he is said to have exclaimed:
When very great troubles befall, and nobody
When the torture was momentarily discontinued and he was given a chance to recant, he is said to have cried: "O fools, I shall never fear this treatment of yours. It is all according to God’s will; wherefore the torture only affordeth me pleasure." He further repeated, in part, the following:
The egg of superstition hath burst; the mind is illumined;
He died June, 1606, and was succeeded by his son, Har Gobind
the sixth Guru. But the Granth was complete, save for brief bits from the ninth and the tenth Gurus.
The Sacred Literature of the Sikhs
Sources for Further Reading
THE ADI GRANTH
There is no complete translation, but the following contain substantial sections of the work:
The Holy Scriptures of the Sikhs, translated by Ernest Trumpp, London, 1877, contains only four of thirty-one Rags. It is said not to be a very good translation, and the general tone of the work not sympathetic to the faith. It contains a substantial amount of introductory material.
Max Arthur Macauliffe. The Sikh Religion, its Gurus, sacred writing and authors. Six volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1909. Contains the greater part of the Granth in a translation approved by Sikh scholars. It is a highly sympathetic study of the religion in all its aspects. The translation in general is more readable than that of Trumpp. Unfortunately the translated material does not appear in the same order as in the original collection. All the poems of Nanak, e.g., are assembled together in one place -- and so in the case of the other Gurus. The hymns are quite lacking in notations as to the particular sections of the Granth from which they were drawn.
John C. Archer, The Sihhs, Princeton University Press, 1946, has only the translation of the Japuji, or Psalms of Nanak, and a few scattered verses. A good study of the religion of the Sikhs.
Among the anthologies, there is only a very limited selection in S. E. Frost, Sacred Writings of the World’s Great Religions, pp. 356-365.
1. Rag really means a musical measure, but all those hymns to be sung to a given measure are gathered together in one section.
2. Ernest Trumpp, The Adi Granth, London, 1877, preface, p.vii.
3. The Sikh Religion, Vol. 1, p.vii.
4. In India generally the term guru means teacher. The student learned the Vedas from his guru. It means also spiritual guide. In the Sikh faith it has special reference to the founder, Nanak, and his nine successors as heads of the movement. But it not infrequently in the Granth refers to God.
5. John C. Archer, The Sikhs, Princeton University Press, 1946, p. 116.
6. From The Japuji, A Book of Psalms of Guru Nanak Nirankari, J. C. Archer, The Sikhs, p. 120.
8. Op. cit., p. 121
9. Trumpp, The Adi Granth, p. 678.
10.Trumpp, p. 21
11. This ceremony first reported by Monier-Williams, Brahmanism and Hinduism, page 177, and given wide circulation through repetition in various popular books on the History of Religions, has been questioned by J. C. Archer, who states that during a lengthy stay among Sikhs he never observed it. (Personal letter, 2-14-51.) Dr. Archer does, however, in an article in The Review of Religion, January 1949, pp. 118, 119, describe the ceremony with which the reputed original copy or first edition of the book was shown to him together with some friends at a special darshan. It was taken from a safe, placed upon an altar while the gyani, or reader, in charge of it, uttered certain prescribed prayers. The successive seven wrappings were then removed and the book finally exposed. Afterward it was carefully re-wrapped and put away. Such exhibitions generally occur each night when the moon is full. This was, however, not at Amritsar, but at Kartarpur in the Hall of Mirrors on an upper floor of the palace fort built by Guru Arjun. This ball serves as a place of worship. In the Golden Temple at Amritsar, says Archer, a canopy on the altar hangs above the two copies of the book and royal peacock feathers are waved over it, both indicative of the royalty assigned to it. He says also that some signs of bibliolatry toward the Granth are to be found among the people (p. 122).
12.Associated Press, Calcutta, 1919, p. 43. This and several others are included in the delightful anthology of Indian verse, much of it a devotional nature, Temple Bells, edited by M.A. Appasamy, Association Press, Calcutta, 1930.
13. Trumpp, op. cit., p. 666.
14. Macmillan and Co., London, 1923.
15. Op. cit., p.66.
16. Trumpp, Adi Granth, Ragu Gauri, The Sayings of the Devotees, p. 458.
17. Adi Granth, p. 464.
18. Ibid., p. 470.
19. Adi Granth, p. 478.
20. Trumpp, p. 664.
21. Ibid., p. 660
22. The Sikhs, p. 53.
23. Trumpp, Op. cit., p. 686. His spelling frequently differs from that of other authorities, e.g., Shekh is spelled Shaikh by others.
24. Ibid., pp. 691-692
25. Macauliffe, XVI, Vol. I.
26. Personal letter, 2-14-51.
27. Op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 362.
28. Macauliffe, Vol. I, p. 336.
29. Op. cit., Vol. II, p. 57.
30. Macauliffe, Vol. II, p. 201, passim.
31. Op. cit., Vol. II, 164-165.
32. Op. cit., Vol. II, p. 207.
33. Op. cit., Vol. II, p. 294.
34. Macauliffe,Vol. II, p. 305.
35. Ibid., Vol. III, p. 114.
36. Ibid., Vol. III, p. 118.
37. Macauliffe, op. cit., p. 95.
38. Ibid., p. 93.