Understanding Gurbani

The Gurbani according to the Gurus is a composite of divine messages received by them from Waheguru. The Gurbani is about sharing the timeless truths out of the treasures of God.

Everyone should be free to pursue his/her passion to relook into the meanings of the Gurbani. However, it would be more appropriate to look in to such areas which need clarification or further elaboration. After identifying such areas, if one comes up with a fresh outlook which makes a real difference in understanding the widely accepted interpretations is a desirable and a needed step to serve the Sikh Community and Humanity.

There are some issues that need resolutions and clarity:-

It is believed that the central idea of a Sabd revolves around the “Rahau” . If one opened the Rahau Tuk as per the philosophy of guru sahiban perhaps the understanding of the Gurbani may become simpler. But then there are sabds where there is no Rahau. In Japji and Sukhmani Sahib (widely read banis) there are no Rahaus. And there are Sabds with more than one “Rahau’.

“Naam” is another fundamental issue which needs clarification. Similarly Sant , Sadh, Guru , Bhagat , Gurdwara , Dharamsal , Man, Atma , Ninda , Ahankar , Amrit , Arti , Indrey, Sach, Satguru , Gurmantar etc like issues are very delicate topics to be dealt with carefully while elaborating.

In most Tuks where”Nanak” comes, according to most teekas it is not clear whether Nanak says for himself or for Sikhs or for both or is just narrating as a message from God? There is a lot of confusion, which needs to be resolved by using appropriate expressions.

Some think that whatever is under Nanak’s name is directed for us to understand the “Divinity”. Guru Nanak Ji himself knew and understood these messages very well since he was part of the “Divinity”. Moreover, the Gurus claim that they said in the Gurbani what they were ordained to say by the Akalpukh.

Another view is wherever Nanak word is mentioned in Gurbani, it is not mentioned for Nanak but the one who is prevailing all over. Like word Ram (who is ramia hoeya ram).

The use of words ‘Ram’, ‘Gopal’ and other Hindu gods/goddesses need a clear direction
and not with hidden meanings, with which we have lived for ages. It is appropriate to highlight where Gurus share spiritual experiences of sages of other religions rather than diluting or simply dismissing as brahmanical intrusions. If there is reference to spirituality of others (before the time of Gurus) that further reinforces the spiritual flights emerging from the Gurbani. References to other spiritual traditions are often ignored, e.g. references to Wujud (Sufism) and Sunnya (Tantric).

Some such expressions as ‘Ramdas sarovar’ and ‘Amritsar nave’ need to be spelled out clearly based on the overall spirit of the Gurbani.

Any attempt to bring clarity in interpreting the Gurbani will be a divine Sewa and this some say requires “Anubhav”. In other words correct interpretations belong to only ‘Anubhavis’, who have experimented with Gurbani in daily life. There are Sikhs around who are imbibed with Nadr and Mehr of Waheguru to undertake this task. Interpretation is not the job of one person it will be the collective efforts of all enlightened and dedicated souls.

The translation of the Guru Granth Sahib is just playing with the sentiments of millions of Sikhs and such documents become a history for future. It does not mean that a person if is capable of writing good English may sit on such a pious project. The following famous authors and some others are available on the issue of translation of GGS:-

1. Singh Sahib Sant Singh Khalsa 2.Sri Guru Granth Sahib by Dr Gopal Singh 3. Dr. Gurcharan Singh 4.Gurbachan Singh Talib 5. Gurbachan Singh Makin 6. Dr. Darshan Singh 7. Manmohan Singh 8. Kartar Singh Duggal 9. Pritam Singh Chahail 10. Dr. Sahib Singh 11. Dr.Tarlochan Singh 12. Dr.Bhai Jodh Singh 13. Professor Kohli etc.

The Sikhs do understand the importance of this task and agree that there is a need for translations and interpretations, which address the minds of intellectuals and younger generations. Damdami Taksal and Sikh Missionary Colleges have played a noticeable role in this respect.

Genuine concern:-

When the Sikhs were able to preserve the Guru Granth Sahib in original forms, why the SGPC is not able to present its real interpretation? If SGPC delivers the real interpretation, you think there would have been so much pakhand and so many Gurdwaras based on caste and more than 300 deras mushrooming in Punjab.

Some personal reflections on Gurbani by some Sikhs are:

“Our Gurus compiled Dhur ki Bani in the form of Sri Guru Granth Sahib ji God sent me in this world in a Sikh home. Our Gurus gave us Shabd Guru. We have to pass through this world, pass this exam of Life. We are given an open book to pass the exam. Yet, we keep the book closed, do not bother to read it or try interpreting it for ourselves. Our own interpretation changes as we grow, mature, go through the hard knocks of life, have families, children, go through illness, pain, anxiety, betrayal, death of loved ones etc. Guru Sabd is a manual given to us to live our life, not to just read it again and again, but apply the teachings to our life, only then we will understand it. I must have read the verse ” Hum Aadmi ha ik dami” so many times, but comprehended the meaning only when I saw my father take his last breath!”

“It is a common observation that those who read and contemplate on the GGS (say twice or thrice a year) from “Sanchis” and make some notes of various tuks, which some time may spread into 3-4 notebooks. On comparing these notes later they find that the level of understanding go on changing and enhancing as one proceeds in life by attaining more worldly knowledge and experience. At time when one needs to find a relevant Tuk, one can easily find from these notes. There are people who use such notes as “Nitnem” and the rest of Guru Granth Sahib as a supplement. With this habit one reads the Guru Granth Sahib more often that only reading the GGS routinely. The wisdom of Guru Granth sahib reveals over time with ongoing efforts and is self rewarding”.

“We all have a ‘translation’ of the guru granth sahib in our heads. When listening to Kirtan we have some understanding of what it means to us. Since all of us have an evolving understanding of Gurbani and all of us cannot help having whatever understanding of gurbani we have, translating only ends when Sikhs themselves come to an end”.

“I have continued to use the neuter, as it seems the most meaningful to me. I know that we give lip service to the genderless nature of the Eternal, but I find all this “he” and “him” and “his” to be distracting. I also believe that by consistently using the masculine, it is very easy to actually see Akaal Purakh as masculine. Language is powerful. I would be interested if anyone else has done such as experiment”.

So any attempt to bring clarity in interpreting the Gurbani will be a divine Sewa and this requires “Anubhav”. In other words correct interpretations belong to only ‘Anubhavis’. Where they have been so far since no single interpretation of Gurbani in its real perspective has been produced so far?

Translations are only as good as the person’s own understanding of Gurbani. As we continue to read the GGS, our personal interpretations keep changing according to our own life experiences. “Sahib mera neet Navaan” (M. 1). What we understood as children, youth, young adults, married with families, personal relationships, calamities, personal tragedies, betrayals, death in a family, old age etc. continues to change. The Sabad does not change rather our own understanding changes as we get closer to Sabd-Guru. Our love, our understanding, the peace we get from being in constant conversation with Sabd-Guru continues to elevate our spirit. The more we understand on our own, the more we want to be with Sabd- Guru. Yes, translations can be a good aid to understanding difficult words, however, it is an academic exercise. Translations are important, there are a lot of people who are not well versed in Gurmukhi, language, grammar etc. and need help. We have all used translations and continue to use them. Some confuse us more and we get derailed, our heart understands something else and we may be stuck with the understanding of the translator!

Yes, if someone wants to spend their time, and share their personal interpretations with the rest of the world and add another translation to help those who want to understand the SGGS who are we to discourage this endeavor!

However, there is no final translation. There is definitely a need for a simple one – a kids’ guru granth sahib akin to a children’s bible that young people can read.

Any attempt to make a REAL DIFFERENCE in proper understanding of Gurbani would be an attempt in the right direction rather than repeating what is already on the ground with insignificant change.

Kirpal Singh
Wellington, New Zealand


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