REVIEW by NIRMAL SINGH
Title: Select Sayings of Guru Gobind Singh – A Dictionary of the Thought of the Tenth Prophet-Preceptor of the Sikhs
Title in Punjabi: Dasmesh Bachnavali
Prepared by: Dr Harnam Singh Shan, Professor Emeritus, Punjab University, Chandigarh
Published by: The Director, Information & Public Relations, Punjab, 2008, pp. 474.
The book under review was published by the Punjab Government in 2008 on the tercentenary of the consecration and installation of Sri Granth Sahib as the eternal Guru of the Sikhs by Guru Gobind Singh prior to his passing in 1708 at Nanded. The book has a Foreword  by Parkash Singh Badal, Chief Minister of Punjab, a prefatory note  by the eminent scholar, Late Dr Noel Q King, Professor Emeritus, UC, Santa Cruz.
An Introduction, originally written in December, 1998 by the author recapitulates the Guru’s multi faceted persona, his vision of his own mission, the transformative measures introduced by him, the battles he was drawn into and glimpses of his thought as gleaned from his writings during the various phases of his life and ministry. This biographical note provides a backdrop to the broad context that the reader must grasp to comprehend the essence of the Guru’s thought in the selections that follow that follow. Dr Shan has also clarified that he had selected the texts used in the book from Sri Dasam Granth Sahib by Giani Mohinder Singh Rattan [Amritsar, 1967] and also consulted Shabdarath Dasam Granth Sahib by Bhai Randhir Singh [Patiala, 1973]. A note appended to the Introduction on 25 March, 2008 clarifies that the quoted texts have further been partly collated with the version by Dr Rattan Singh Jaggi and Dr Gursharan Kaur Jaggi [Gobind Sadan, New Delhi, 1999]. This information is helpful, given the fact that there is no standard version of the text of the Dasam Granth and potential researchers may well be cautioned about looking for a correlation with the versions available on the Internet or in print.
Each text has been given a theme heading in English. These 262 headings have been arranged alphabetically and the quoted texts appear in the book in that order. This does make reference and search for a particular topic easy. A line index at the end is useful to access quotes based on their first line in Punjabi or Devnagri.
The format of presentation gives the text in Punjabi followed by its Devnagri transliteration and then its English translation. In some cases the original text, if in Persian, has been given in addition. The translation is heavily annotated with explanations and references to various sources and should be helpful to those interested in further exploration of the subject. The choice of presenting the scriptural texts in Devnagri in addition to the original Gurmukhi is being increasingly used, both in print and on the Internet and should help to extend reading of the texts to those familiar with the Devnagri script.
The English translations in Dr Shan’s own words are supplemented by annotations to explain the contextual meaning. He well merits the comment by Dr King that ‘the English vocabulary he uses is apt, yet comprehensible, stored with deep study and learning, yet accessible to the ordinary reader’ [p. 16].
Nonetheless any translator in a work of this kind has to look beyond the literal meanings of words to glean the message contained in the texts. Witness the different interpretations of the word dharma at the three different places in the following quote [p. 22] ‘hum eh kaaj jagat mein aaye, dharma hait gurdev pathhaye, jahan tahan tum dharma bitharai, —–, dharma chalaavan sant ubhaaran, dusht sabhan ko mool udhaaran’ – retained as dharma while translating the first usage, righteousness in the second and true religion in the third.
The book is intended to be a dictionary of the thought of Guru Gobind Singh. The legacy of the Guru is vast and he also inspired radical transformation of Sikhs and Sikh institutions. A presentation of such a wide canvass is a daunting task and Dr Shan has put an array of themes together that provide a kaleidoscopic view of what the Guru said in writings attributed to him and by the writings of some others like Bhai Nand Lal, Sainapat, Sadhu Sewa Das, Rehtnama texts, Bhai Santokh Singh.
A quick search of the Guru’s thought about use of force yielded the most often cited verse 22 from the Zafarnama that the use of arms as a last resort is justified [p. 257] and several other quotes from diverse sources from which the following outline emerged:
- The Guru explained ‘Guru Tegh Bahadur has exposed the hypocrisy and falsehood of the Turks. It is now left for me to finish them’ – p. 276 from Parchian by Sadhu Sewa Das dated 1708
- The Guru said ‘we should not trust the enemy. Khalsa will revenge these hostilities. These treacherous men will not enjoy peace’ – p. 410, from Sau Sakhi by Sahib Singh
- The Guru spoke ‘political power and state rest on armaments and without political sovereignty the good way of life cannot securely prevail in society’ – p. 388 from Gurpartap Suraj Granth by Bhai Santokh Singh
- Khalsa is he who is always in saddle, constantly at war [within and without] – p. 390, from Tankhahnama by Bhai Nand Lal
- ‘I have rendered the tenth canto of the Bhagwat with no other object than to inspire ardor for holy war’- p. 450 from Krishnavatar
While most readers may accept the sayings attributed to the Guru by various sources, all may not accept that the Guru was motivated to ‘finish’ the Turks or encouraged the Khalsa to seek ‘revenge’. Guru Gobind Singh’s composition zafarnama, written at the height of anguish in his life full of struggle, is a beacon of enlightened thought on ethics in conflict situations that would touch the conscious of even the most belligerent. Its theology commends ethical conduct and compassion as the core leadership values if peace and justice is to prevail in a society. There is not even a remote suggestion of either revenge or ethnic cleansing of Turks as choices he was considering. The reader may bear this totality in mind while picking some of the quotes to support any view point.
There are verses that hauntingly bring to mind some similar quote from the Guru Granth Sahib. It must be my own frame of mind that led me to pick reading ‘Why worry & waver?’ Guru Gobind Singh says ‘kahai ko daulat hai, tumree sudh sundar sri padmaapat lai hai’ [p. 431] and restless my mind goes to ‘toon kahai dolai paraania tohai raakhai gaa sirjanhaar’. The Guru’s message of belief in one supreme divine power, always helping, supporting and protecting the meek comes out vividly from several of the quotes.
The choice of themes for a selection of this kind is a difficult task and Dr Shan has handled it with care and sensitivity. His selection of five verses on page 7 possibly provides an inkling of the vision of the Guru and the thoughts that inspired him in making his selections. In these verses the Guru says that he bows to the one supreme Primal Being who pervades all and who sent him charged with the mission of spreading righteousness; he says he is only repeating what Prabhu told him as he makes the call for all to recognize human race as one and prays for courage to never turn his back in espousing what is right.
The authorship of the Dasam Granth has been the subject of a very divisive debate within the Sikh community and at the moment some contemporaneous events have brought the internal differences into sharp focus. Dr Shan has meticulously avoided any comment on the subject and the resources that he has used. This certainly is a mature and prudent approach for a book that is intended to commemorate but leaves room for critics on either side of the debate to see the contents as one person’s construct.
The book would certainly be a useful resource to those interested in the thought of Guru Gobind Singh. The bibliographical information provided should encourage scholarship and we hope to see more works that reflect on some of these themes in greater depth.
I have greatly benefited by reading this collection and would recommend it to others.
Camp New Delhi,