GURU NANAK (1469 – 1539), Literature
Guru Nanak (1469-1539) represents the highest point of Punjabi literature, it has reached so far. Not because he is the first preceptor of the; religion of the Sikhs who are to this day staunch champions of Punjabi literature, the excellence in its own right, though it is available to us as an influential part of the canon of the Guru Granth, the holy scripture of the Sikhs. Guru Nanak was born on 16 April 1469 that is the second of Baisakh, 1526 of the Vikrami era, in a village in those days called Talwandi Rai Boi, later called in the province of Lahore. Since the days of the ascendancy of the Sikhs, it has been known as Nankana Sahib which is now a major town in the district of Sheikhupura in Pakistan.
His father known as Kallian Rai alias Kalu was in the service of Rai Bular, the zamindar of the place. From his sobriquet of Mehta, it may be surmised that he was keeper of land-records for he has often been described as a patwari. As would be natural in the circumstances of such a petty official, the son, Nanak, received elementary instruction from both the village Brahmin and the village Qazi which is often described as worthless according to legend. But if we are to judge from the learning evidences in Guru Nanak\’s poetry, it may have been quite substantial.
Nanak is also described as engaging himself in tending cattle as a young boy in the early part of his life. He was married in his early youth to the daughter of a Chona Khatri of Batala, from which one is tempted to believe that the real home of Nanak\’s father may have been some place in this area. This assumption is strengthened by the fact that his brother-in-law Jai Ram, husband of his elder sister Nanaki, is described as an official at Sultanpur, the seat of the administrator of the Jalandhar Doab in those days. Daulat Khan, the administrator, is probably the same person named among those who invited Babar, the Mughal ruler of Kabul, to invade India, then under the incompetent Sultan of Delhi, Ibrahim Lodhi.
Jai Ram is known to have managed for Nanak an appointment as a store-keeper, though above the age of thirty at that time and father of two sons, Nanak could not put his heart into his job. Instead he is believed to have received a mission from God to strive to save his people from spiritual degradation, an inevitable consequence of their sad political and social plight. He gave up his job and became a man of God. Even his name \’Nanak\’ may have been originally an epithet given by the people as the possessor of divine knowledge and a popular variation upon the Buddhist term, Gnanakaya or its simpler form Gnanak. The next thirty years or so Nanak spent as a wandering fakir renouncing the life of a householder.
It is only towards the end of his life that Nanak, now widely known as Guru, settled at Kartarpur on the bank of the Ravi which is now a lone Indian habitation in the midst of Muslim villages belonging to Pakistan. There he passed away in 1539 at the age of about seventy, having established his own distinctive creed which came later to be known as Sikh Dharma. As is the rule in the Guru Granth, Guru Nanak\’s compositions are set forth in the different Ragas, in each of which there is a further five-fold division. First, there are the common padas (stanzas); then the Ashtapadis (eight-stanza compositions).
In the third place come the longer hymns under different names, mostly folk-song forms, like chhant, birhara, pahare, so the and savayya. These are followed by longer vanis or compositions. Last of all come the vars. Then there are some sections outside the Raga-di-vision,the Japu at the commencement, the Sahiskriti slokas, and the miscellaneous slokas at the end. These divisions correspond roughly to the temper of the composition. Padas etc. are by and large, lyrical, vars are philosophical observations, combining social criticism, and the longer compositions are mainly philosophical. In this class fall the Japu, the Sidh Ghoshti and Onkar. Guru Nanak\’s vars are in Ragas Magh, Asa and Malhar. Guru Nanak\’s poetry could also be classified from the aspects of language; Apabhramsha, Hindvi and Punjabi.
These compositions offer an instructive study in the development of language in that period. Guru Nanak\’s compositions have a very definite metrical structure, but he indulges in so many variations that superficial students are often tempted to remark that they follow no clear pattern whether in Apabhramsha, Hindvi or Punjabi. The expression is classical, chaste and well thought-out. And yet an impression of spontaneity is given. It is possible that when these compositions were collected and incorporated in the Guru Grantha, a well-established system of transcription was observed and a classical style imposed. It may be observed that in none of the three variations mentioned above is there any consistent purity of linguistic forms.
In the so-called Punjabi, Hindvi prepositions, conjunctions and sometimes even verbs may be found. Similarly, the Apabhramsha and the Hindvi compositions are rather freely intere spersed with Punjabi expressions. This is evidently a phenomenon of the evolution of literary style as well as of the spoken language in that period. The content of Guru Nanak\’s poetry is of course religious in purpose and accordingly lacks variety of themes. But that is perhaps the limitation of all devotional poetry. Still in the hands of a genius like Nanak, this devotion can become individual and personal as in any secular lyrical poetry, for even the divine can be realised, if at all, in an intensely personal idiom only.
Thus at many places Guru Nanak seems to address not a general formless and all- pervading divinity but the human beloved, husband or young wife. Religious poetry in India from the oldest times has been noted for its eroticism, very much like our painting and sculpture. The Bhakti tradition in the Middle Ages of which the Sikh tradition is in some ways a continuation, has consciously toned down the erotic. A strong moral censorship is seen at work so that erotic feelings are disciplined into conjugal warmth. But in the greater part of Guru Nanak\’s verse, lyricism is found combined with philosophy, as is indeed the general character of major poetry.
Guru Nanak\’s philosophy is a remarkable mixture ofUpanishadic idealism and empirical realism. Sometimes, like most religious thinkers. Guru Nanak turns mystic, too. But if there is a mysticism in Guru Nanak, it is of an unconventional variety. For he does not ever claim to have realised the divine in any ultra rational way. The Divine is a mystery to him and he strives to pierce it with the help of his intellect, till he seems to have reached its borders. There he finds himself baffled and falls back on the Divine in the human. Ultimately, it turns out to be his own universal sympathy and all-pervading feeling of goodwill towards humanity which he realises as his God.
Guru Nanak\’s Japu is regarded as the most important work of the Sikh religious doctrine. It is a long poem of thirty-eight stanzas of unequal length and composed in a style that is lyrical, and esoteric in turn. An attempt has been made in it to break through the limits of the prevalent modes of thought both Hindu and Islamic. This attempt is successful as far as it goes, that is, in refuting all the older hypotheses and beliefs regarding the Ultimate Reality. Beyond this it is the reader\’s intuition that can help him imbibe the message. According to one school of thought among Sikh scholars, the Japu is a description of the Sadhana or effort that man has to make in order to realise the Ultimate Reality.
But in actual practice it has come to be a rather mystical incantation for the common reader and extremely erudite document for the scholar. The Siddha Goshti is a polemic against the religious and ascetic practices of the Siddhas, the followers of the famous Gorakh Nath. In his third long poem, Omkar, there is a similar debate with the Brahmins. In both these long poems great emphasis is laid on meditation, what Guru Nanak calls \’Nam Simran\’\’. Next in importance to the Japu in Sikh litany is Guru Nanak\’s var in Rag Asa. It is a composition of twenty-four core stanzas which present its mataphysical and cosmogonic thesis.
Around it are clustered sixty couplets and longer hymns of which eleven are composed by Guru Angad, Guru Nanak\’s immediate successor in the line of the Gurus. These verses have a distinctly critical, social intent. No doubt, they also reinforce the metaphysical meaning in the core stanzas. But at places they suddenly become charged with a rather revolutionary social content. Some of them have a shattering political tone: Sin is the king and greed the minister and falsehood the revenue collector. Lust is the assistant who is consulted when counsel is taken.
The people devoid of knowledge are blind, dead bodies filled with ash. Criticising the Common run of Brahmin priests. Guru Nanak says: The Gurus dance and disciples beat drums, They move their feet and sway their heads. Dust rises and falls into their hair. The people looking at them laugh and go back to their homes, All this is a show for self-preservation, For which they throw themselves on the ground. Guru Nanak is essentially an iconoclast and he breaks icons in all temples. For instance he condemns the caste system, idol worship and various other forms of the Brahmanical religion.
He ridicules the ritual and superstitions that had come to prevail in Hindu society in connection with birth, marriage, death and other events in life. He speaks cavalierly about Muslim formalism of prayer, fasting and burial, pilgrimages to shrines, Hindu and Muslim alike, he regards as futile and hypocritical. On the social scale, he declares himself to be on the side of the lowliest. He proclaims: Lowly among the lowliest, the lowliest of all, Nanak is with them, and does not envy the big. Similarly, he has many a kind word to say about women, victims of oppression, denigration as well as ravishment in the feudal society: By woman is one conceived, of women born,to women pledged and married.
When women is dead, another is sought, From women starts the household discipline. How can that be decried who gives birth to nobility? The Muslim also does not escape his censure. For instance, he demolishes the Muslim belief that on the day of judgment, the dead will rise from their graves to take their reward of pleasure or pain: The body of the Musalman is turned into earth Then kneaded by the potter, Who makes pots and bricks out of it, When burning in fire it cries Vehemently and helplessly as sparks and embers fall away from it.
Unlike religious men of different faiths, as a rule, Guru Nanak takes note of oppression and exploitation of his people by an invading army in poetry of intense pain and bitterness. Indeed, this is something unique in the religious consciousness of his age. He indicts the invasion and conquest of India by Babar in more than one composition: They conquered Khurasan and subdued Hindustan, The Creator does not blame Himself for it. When the people were being thus oppressed Did it not hurt you, 0 Lord? Thou art the self-same Creator of all; If the prurient lion falls upon the mighty It need not be resented, The herdsman must be blamed for it.
In another composition he refers to Babar\’s invasion in words such as these: He has come down from Kabul at the head of a procession of evil, And demands gifts by force Law and grace have both hidden themselves and falsehood reigns supreme. He is still more bitter and sore over the humiliation of his country\’s women and laments. Those with richly coiffered hair, and Sindhoor filled in the parting line, have had their heads shorn with scissors, And as they walk dust rises to choke their throats, Those who were the beauties of palaces are not permitted even to sit in the presence (of the oppressor.)
When newly married brides, escorted by their bridegrooms They were brought home in palanquins inlaid with ivory, Unctions poured over their heads and fans were swung, Standing they were showered with costly gifts, Sitting they received gifts equally expensive, Eating prawns and coconuts, they adorned nuptial beds, Today their pearl necklaces torn, there are ropes around their necks. He points out the futility of charms, spells and the like against this oppression: When news was received of Babar\’s attack Countless holy men read spells to check him, Mansions, mosques and temples were burnt, And their princely denizens thrown into wails and laments.
But no Mughal ever turned blind; nobody\’s charms availed. While in such contexts the imagery employed is poignantly evocative in his verse of moral tenor, Nanak draws images from the working like of a peasant or shopkeeper as it may be: Make good deeds your soil and the word your seed, and irrigate it with the water of truth Cultivate the crop of honesty, then you will know What is heaven and what is hell. While the longer compositions mentioned above are more or less erudite in tone and content, they are at places quite lyrical too.
In compositions of a social trend like Var Asa, the lyricism is more pronounced, paeans of praise and glory are sung to God and the Guru and when the content shifts to facts of social life, the lyricism becomes more pictorial. The pathos and irrationality of social life are brought out in a surprisingly sensuous and passionate tone. In the third category can be placed those compositions that portray the relations between God and man and between the Guru and his devotee in terms of human situations of which the most representative is the relation between man and wife, God being the husband.
The description takes on a beautifully and passionately human tone so that the divine situation is altogether submerged in the human situation: The peacock\’s cries resound in the air, 0 sister, It is the advent of the month of Savan. 0 young inebriate, your eyes, as coils entangle Those who long for love. You perform such varied toilettes, 0 inebriate! But your Lord is taken up with others. He came in my dream and went away and my eyes were filled with tears.
Come again, 0 sleep of good fortune, That I may see my beloved in dream. I cannot come to you, my love, nor can I send someone else with a message I will cut off my head to make a seat for you, and serve you headless. Why may not I die, give up my life when my love has become alien to me? Indeed Guru Nanak\’s genius ranges widely over a vast field of human relations as well as it keeps itself fixed to the divine as the pole star. Specimens of his verse Kaliyuga is a dagger, Kings are butchers, Dharma has taken wings and disappeared. In the black night of falsehood The moon of truth is nowhere to be seen.
I am lost in the search, I find no way out of the darkness. Afflicted with the ego, I wail in sorrow. Says Nanak, how do I attain deliverance? He was there in the beginning And before the beginning He is there today He will be there hereafter. He is the true Lord His Name is true. His language is endless love. They ask and ask and ask The giver always gives. What should I offer To behold His court? What prayer should I make Hearing which He should take kindly to me? In the ambrosial hour of the morning remember and adore Him Man! You should love God the way the lotus loves water.
It\’s knocked down by waves and yet it blossoms and continues to love. Born out of water, it dies without water. Man! How can you be saved without love? God lives within you and blesses you with the gift of devotion. Man! You should love God the way fish loves water; The more the water the happier she is in her heart and soul. She lives not a moment without water, God alone knows the agony of her heart. I saw Him in dream and he disappeared. I cry, my eyes swimming in tears. Lord! I cannot come to You.
Nor can I send anyone. Come fair sleep, may be I see my Master again! Says Nanak, what should I offer him Who comes and gives me tidings of my Lord? I offer him my beheaded head of seat And I serve him without my head. Why should not one die and lay down one\’s life If one\’s Lord is found estranged? My Lord God has come to my bed I am at peace now. With the Guru\’s grace I have found my love And I enjoy Him to my heart\’s content. The bride is fortunate Her head is held high in pride. Meeting the Lord is true union.
This is what Nanak longs for. The Japji is one of the finest compositions in the literature of the world. Had Guru Nanak not been the evolved soul that he was, he would even then have ranked amongst the greatest men of the world on account of his authorship of this work alone. Guru Nanak\’s times (1469-1539), though not far removed from us were quite different from ours. Every sage who set out to propagate his message in those days had to be a poet. Poetry has always been a powerful medium of communication.
Guru Nanak chose the language of his people. This language was unfortunately not adequately developed; but unlike any other poet in Punjabi, Guru Nanak travelled far and wide, every inch of the Punjab which helped him enrich the language with the vocabulary of the various dialects. In Guru Nanak\’s works, one hears echoes of all the varieties of the Punjabi language. In addition, he was extremely liberal in borrowing from Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic.
Guru Nanak indulged in long arguments with saints of his time in various parts of the country including the distant Himalayas but he never seems to have been handicapped by language. The bhaktas of the day appear to have evolved a lingua franca of their own. Their faith and their mission seem to have dectated a language which had a widely accepted vocabulary. According to Mehrban, one of his three early biographers, the Japji was uttered after Guru Nanak\’s communion with God when he disappeared in the river Bain at Sultanpur.
This appears at best to be a conjecture, as most of Mehrban\’s account of Guru Nanak\’s life evidently is. Mehrban made an attempt to reconstruct the story of Guru Nanak\’s life based upon his Bani. He naturally gave the Japji the premier place, uttered in God\’s own presence during Guru Nanak\’s first mystic experience. According to another source, a manuscript in the Punjab University Library at Lahore believed to have been written in mid-seventeenth century, the Japji was composed at Kartarpur after Lehna had joined Guru Nanak.
While there is little evidence of the period of its composition, considering the maturity and seep of thought and the consummate skill with which it is constructed, the Japji appears to have been written during the later part of Guru Nanak\’s time, most probably after he had settled down at Kartarpur. While Guru Nanak conformed to the traditional pattern with an invocation to God in the beginning and a summing-up in the form of an epilogue at the end, there is evidence of a great deal of ingenuity and poetic skill in the body of the composition.
Guru Nanak as a poet never cared for rigidly poetic forms. Like the moderns, he varied is metres and rhymes according to the flow of his thought and the content of his message. In the invocation, he describes God in vivid terms but with utmost economy of words. A clever craftsman. Guru Nanak nploys negative images also to make his picture precise. He affirms the unity of God most emphatically: There is one God. He is the supreme truth. He, the Creator, Is without fear and without hate. He, the omnipresent, Pervades the universe.
He is not born. Nor does He die to be bom again. By His grace shall you worship Him. Guru Nanak attached the greatest importance to truth: Truth above all Above truth, truthful conduct. God cannot be known by just thinking about Him. Nor can he be known by solemn silence, nor deep meditation. Fasting has its virtues but the thirst for truth cannot be quenched by it. God can\’t be reached by any other way. It is only the righteous path that leads man to God. This is how the Japji opens after the formal invocation.
The rest of the poem is an answer to a question posed by the poet in the first hymn: How then shall the truth be known? How the veil of false illusion be torn? Guru Nanak goes on to provide the answer. Despite the limitations of poetry, the dissertation is highly lucid and cogent. There are thirty-eight hymns in the Japji, exclusive of the invocation and the concluding sloka. The first seven hymns suggest than in order to narrow down the gap between God and man created by maya, one must submit to the will of God. And having fashioned the way of life as ordained by Him, one should sing His praises.
One becomes like him whom one emulates. But repeatedly Guru Nanak reminds us that without the grace of God, we cannot accept His will or even sing His praises. By His grace alone are some saved and others doomed to die without it. Actions determine how we are born but it is His grace which secures for us salvation. The next four hymns (8-11) are devoted to the virtue of listening to the Word of God. By listening to the Word, man becomes wise, saintly courageous and contented. By listening to the Word, man conquers fear of death, and his sins and sorrows disappear By listening to the Word, man leams truth, his mind is led to meditation and there is no need to go on pilgrimages.
Another set of four hymns (12-15) dwells on those who, having listened to His word, believe in God. Guru Nanak says that the bliss of the believer is indescribable. The believer gains knowledge of all the spheres. He understands the ways of God, attains salvation and also saves his kith and kin. In the following four hymns (16-19), Guru Nanak says that the believers become the leaders of men and are honoured in the eyes of God. But it is difficult to follow the mysteries of the divine; the more one goes into them, the deeper they tend to become. There are countless men who pray and adore God, and those who worship Him and undergo penance.
Similarly, there are countless fools and thieves and frauds. Man has no power to give praise to God. It is his wish that prevails. Some of the more important observations in the next eight hymns (20-27) are: As soiled garments are washed with soap, the soul dirtied with sin is cleaned with prayer. It is our actions and not words that make us sinners or saints. Pilgrimage, austerity, compassion and generousity are like a mustard seed compared with the virtues of one who listens to, believes in and cherishes the Word of God. Nobody knows when the world was created, neither the pandit, nor the qazi, nor the yogi, only He who made it can tell.
God alone can measure his greatness he who would know his height must be as tall as He. He is the king of kings who is granted grace and power to praise. It is difficult to say how priceless God is, those who know Him are mute with adoration. The next four hymns (28-31) are a salutation to the primal and pure God, who has no beginning and no end. He has q unique form which endures forever. The following three hymns (32-34) maintain that it is the grace of God that fulfils one. He had the pride of power, God is true and dispenses truth. The last four hymns (35-38) describes the various stages before man achieves union with God.
The first is the realm of just and truthful living and correct behaviour. The man attains the realm of knowledge, what reason is supreme. In the realm of action that follows, nothing but effort prevails. The highest is the realm of God, the truth which is gained only by His grace and blessing The summing-up asserts that not only the toils of those who worship God end, but the also set others free: Air, water, and earth, Of these are we made. Air like the Guru\’s Word gives breath life To the babe bom to the great mother earth, Sired by the waters The day and night our nurses be, That watch us in our infancy.
In their laps we play, The world is our playground, Our acts right and wrong at Thy court shall come to judgement: Some be seated near Thy seat, some ever kept distant. The toils have ended of those that have worshipped Thee, 0 Nanak, their faces are lit with joyful radiance- many other they have set free. (Translation: Khushwant Singh) The composition is most appropriatly titled Japji since it emphasises the repetition of the name of God. His adoration is the only remedy to bridge the gap created between man and the Divine force by falsehood. The prayer endears one to God.His love earns one bliss which is the supreme fulfilment.
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