SHABAD (Sanskrit sabda, of obscure etymology) is generally rendered as sound, voice or tone. Another series of meanings includes word, utterance, speech. In distinctive Sikli usage shabad means a hymn or sacred work from the Guru Granth Sahib. In the theological sense, it stands for the `Word` revealed by the Guru. In the Guru Granth Sahib it is spelt as sabad with its inflectional variations sabadu, sabadi and sabade.

Its equivalent substitutes used in the Sikh Scripture are dhun or dhuni (Sanskrit dhyani), nad, anahator anahad nad (Sanskrit nada or anahata nada), bachan, bam, kavao. Sabad is often linked with guru to form giirsabad or gur ka sabad (Guru`s word). Inasmuch as shabad is connected with both sound and voice, in English it may be rendered as `word sound.` In the Nyaya and Vaisesika systems, sabda as verbal testimony is acknowledged as a valid means of knowledge (sabdapramana).Grammarians such as Yaska, Panini and Katyayana take sabda or pada as a unit of language or speech (vak or vaka).

The word sabda first occurs in a philosophical sense in a late Upanisad, the Maitri Upanisad. This text states that Brahman is of two types, sabda brahman and asabda brahman, Brahman with sound and soundless Brahman, respectively. According to some schools, notably tantnc, the essence of sabda lies in its significative power (sakti): This power is defined as a relation between sabda and artha, between word sound and meaning. In Guru Nanak`s usage, and subsequently in that of his successor Gurus, shabad means the Word of divine revelation or any aspect of Akalpurakh`s revelation to mankind. The Word is `spoken` by the voice of Akalpurakh.

The `voice` is the divine Guru who may be one of the ten personal Gurus of the Sikh tradition, but may also be the utterance of the mystical Guru.This was particularly the case with Guru Nanak for there was no personal Guru who could speak the Word of Akalpurakh to him. The Gurus` voice their utterances as preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib is gurshabad or gurbani. It is noteworthy that the term shabad, which occurs independently in the Guru Granth Sahib 1271 times, is also linked 572 times with the term guru. It is the shabad is spoken, or we may say, the shabad speaks.

The complete mystery of shabad is not completely within the range of human understanding, for the shabad shares in the infinity of Akalpurakh, but it is sufficiently within reach to be readily accessible to all who desire it. In this sense the Gurus have called shabad a dipak (lamp) bringing enlightenment (jnana) gian for mankind to see the path (GG, 124, 664, 798). Elsewhere it is described as pure and purifying (GO, 32, 86,121). Shabad is the subtle knowledge essential for emancipation.Says Guru Ram Das : “tera sabadu agocharu gurmukhi paiai Nanak nami samai jiu Thy invisible knowledge by the Master`s guidance is obtained ; saith Nanak, this by absorption in the Name is attained” (GG, 448).

“What can one offer to him through whom sabda is received ? Offer him thy head, anulling egoism tisii kia dijaiji sabadu sunae…. ihu siru dijai apu gavae….” (GG, 424). “Quaff the Master`s teaching that is amrit or elixir; thus shall thy self be rendered pure gurka sabadu amrit rasu piu ta tera hoi nirmaljiu” (GG, 891). The Guru`s sabda is like an anchor for the wavering mind. Guru Arjan says in the Sukhmam; “As is the edifice propped up by the pillar, so is the Guru`s sabda support of the mindJ`iu mandarkau thamai thammanu, tiu gur ka sabadu manahi asthammanu” (GG, 282). In the Japu (GG, 8) in the line ghanai sabadu sachi taksai, i.e. forge Godconsciousness in such a holy mint, shabad is used in the sense of Godconsciousness (jnana).

A similar sense is yielded by an affirmation in Guru Amar Das` Anandu : “Andarahujin ka mohu tuta tin ka sabadu sachai savaria they whose attachment to the world ceases their spiritual vision is purified” (GG,917). One of the features of Sikh doctrine of  shabad is the emphasis placed on nam, i.e. repetition of the Name (nam} of God ; this name is shabad. The recitation (path) of the Guru Granth Sahib and of the texts from it is an essential part of Sikh practice. One of the nine forms of bhakti is listening (sravana) to shabad, nam, barn, i.e. words denoting God and His greatness. Words or sounds are the means of celebrating and singing the glories of God and this act is called kirtan.

Since worship of images is forbidden in his faith, a Sikh takes the help of words and sounds in his daily meditation (dhian, dhyana) on God.These words and sounds are literary and vocal symbols of the unmanifest sound (sabadu agocharu) which is of the nature oflight (jotisarup). Without this luminous Wordsound there is darkness in and out. The light of shabad is the principle of knowledge by means of which one knows the reality of God. He who succeeds in closing the nine doors (nau darvaje) in his body and in opening the tenth door (dasvari duar) by breaking the hard wall of ignorance, enters the luminous chamber which is His own real abode.

Here he listens to that mystic melody which is unstruck or deathless sound (anahada nad, anahata sabda). Knowledge or understanding of shabad is important, like the recitation of it. One merges in the Truth only when one comprehends the utterance (bam) and has experienced the sound (shabad). To this concept of shabad are added in Sikhism the necessity of a virtuous living and of the grace of blessing of God or Guru in enabling one to discover the shabad.

References :

1. Sabadarth Sri” Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1959
2. Gurdas, Bhai, Varan. Amritsar, 1962
3. Jodh Singh, Bhai, Gurmat Nirnai. Lahore, 1932
4. Pritam Singh, ed., Sikh Phalsaphe diRiip Rekha. Amritsar, 1975
5. Nirukt Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Patiala, 1972
6. McLeod, W.H., Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. Oxford, 1968
7. Slier Singh, Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944
8. Jodh Singh, The Religious Philosophy of Guru Nanak. Delhi, 1983