This review article has been inspired by Guru Nanak’s celebrated composition Japji Sahib, the prayer that most observant Sikhs start their day with. Japji Sahib is universally accepted as among the most profound religious texts and is considered as the theological foundation of Sikhism. The immediate cause for the urge to share my thoughts was the reading of a well founded translation and commentary on Japji by Maneshwar Singh Chahal, a retired IAS officer who has written a trilogy titled Jap ji, Asa di Var and Jaap Sahib, with the sub title ‘Way to God in Sikhism.’Japji Sahib is the first book in the trilogy.
Japji Sahib is a short composition, just under eight pages of the 1430 page Sikh scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib [SGGS]. This however was the composition that Guru Arjan placed first when he compiled the scripture – a choice undoubtedly guided by the central place that this prayer has in Sikh thought as well as Sikh religious life. Chahal speculates that Japji Sahib was written by Guru Nanak some time after his enlightenment, placed around 1507 C.E. It is well recognized that the prayer had become a part of Sikh liturgy, recited by the followers of the Guru when they congregated in early hours of the morning, including at the Dharamsal Guru Nanak had set up at Kartarpur in his later days.
Sikh scholars are of the opinion that the essence of Sikh theology is encapsulated in the opening verse in Japji – mool mantar, expanded in Japji and further elaborated in the SGGS. Chahal articulates this view and says that the message of Japji ‘can [then] be said to have been elaborated, re-stated and emphasized in the SGGS. The nub, the gist, exists in Japji sahib.’ [p.41]
The author has put in a lot of hard work in compiling this commentary. To facilitate a non Sikh reader become familiar with the Guru, his missionary, his life and times and Sikhs – his followers, he has devoted the initial couple of chapters in introducing the subject. In the Foreword he quotes Hew McLeod saying ‘The world is poorer for its ignorance of the Sikh scripture.’ This is indeed true and one would hope that this book will help bridge the gap. It is well written and the both the language employed and the idiom used flow easily and should hopefully not be daunting for a person not familiar with Sikhi or its praxis.
Another merit is that while the explication gives fairly cogent views, the interpretations given in some other commentaries have been cited and briefly discussed. He has avoided laborious research that usually also makes for labored reading and ends up in plethora of footnotes. His list of references and bibliography is limited but he seems to have faithfully studied variety of viewpoints expressed therein and used these effectively to analyze the original text and its message. These resources include various well known translations and exegesis on SGGS and Japji in Punjabi by Sikh scholars and commentaries on Japji in English by several Sikh and non Sikh writers.
There has been speculation about when during the life of Guru Nanak did he compose Japji. The author has briefly gone into it and cited various resources like Puratan Janam Sakhi that says it was the first composition by the Guru after his enlightenment. ‘Punjabi Bhasha Vigyan ate Gurmat Gyan’ by Mohan Singh, Osho and Sant Singh Maskin hold the same view. Kavi Santokh Singh in ‘Gurpartap Suraj Granth’ has surmised that Japji was written in parts over time and compiled into one composition at the request of Bhai Lehna when Guru Nanak had settled at Kartarpur. Bhai Mani Singh has said that Japji was composed by the Guru after his dialog with Sidhas, known as Sidh Ghoshti. While references to these sources have been made, the bibliographic information is very sketchy.
The format adopted by Chahal is that he first gives text of the pauri in gurmukhi, juxtaposed with its transliteration, followed by list of key words and their meanings in English. Then he gives a brief explanation of the verses and goes on to a line by line discussion in which he cites the explications by selected authors and then gives his preferred interpretation. The methodology obviously leads to some repetitiveness but otherwise is easy to follow. One suggestion would not be out of place – since the detailed discussion refers to pauri lines by their sequential numbers, it would have been better to number the lines for ease of reference.
Chahal argues that Japji ‘could not have been culled out from different places because the thematic structure is quite cohesive revolving as it does round the theme kiv sachiara hoie kiv kooray tuttey paal.’ [p. 45] Talking about the thematic structure of Japji, Chahal has given examples of eight structural categories by Sahib Singh, four by Iqbal Singh and multiple by Narain Singh and concludes that ‘the short point here is that the theme is coherent and any such attempt at grouping is not really of any great importance.’ [pp. 52-3] Point is well taken but one vainly looks for a summation of this coherent theme of the content of Japji. Needed, but it is not there and would have been a valuable contribution.
Coming to the core content, when talking about mool mantra, the author says ‘the essence of the above description is quite close to Sankara’s Advaitism.’ [p. 48] This is a broad assertion. He does not elaborate how he came to that conclusion. Later he says that ‘Hindu thought from the Vedic times onwards has had an implicit component of surrender of the self as a means of salvation. Guru Nanak also adopted the concept, but then he went on to revolutionize the approach to religion as it then existed –.’ [p.61] Again on page 101, the author says ‘the Sikh way is of action and effort. It is a way which requires us to work hard and to honestly earn a good living. It then of course requires us to share it with those less fortunate, and to always hold Lord’s creatures in affection, to see Him in all His creation — Our efforts, our striving has to be whole hearted but it must never flow from ego — If we made our full effort and yet the Lord has chosen to grant us results below what we wanted, yet we must be fully content and be thankful to Him.’ Having said that he goes back to his sort of fall back yardstick and says ‘It will be noted how close that message is to what Lord Krishna told Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra’ followed by a page of eulogizing Bhagwad Gita.
The above examples and his fairly extensive explanations of various mythological terms used in Japji could convey the impression that interpretations of the author may tend to promote a Vedantic slant. Such a possibility can detract from looking at the real worth of this endeavor. It is expected that his explanations can be helpful to many who are interested in meanings of certain terms, their origin and emerging understanding based on their mythological contexts. In the overall I am inclined to the view that notwithstanding his penchant for offering detailed explanations of several mythological references, Chahal’s interpretations of Japji and Sikhi do not seem to be overly influenced by Vedanta.
In the pursuit of spiritual goals, Chahal dilates quite a bit on the saying by Guru Nanak: jeh hau jaanaan aakhaan naahee kehnaa kathan neh jaayee, meaning that ‘even if I knew [the extent of the divine], I could not say it for it indeed is not capable of being said.’ He points to two difficulties that the Guru mentions – firstly that we cannot comprehend totality of divine power and secondly that even if we could, we would have no way of sharing it. [p. 91] The Guru also says: hukam neh kaheyaa jaayee – words cannot describe divine will, wish and ordinance. Guru also says: vail neh paayaa pandtee je hovai ved puraan, vakht neh paayoe qadiaa jeh likhan lekh quran, thith vaar neh jogi jaanai ruth maah neh koyee, jo kartaa sristee ko saajai aapai jaanai soee – the date or time when creation was brought into being was not known to those who wrote Vedas or Puraanaas nor revealed in Quran or known to Jogis or anyone else – it is only known to the one who created this universe. Thus the Guru emphasizes that there are limits to what is known and can be known or described by us, given our capabilities. One can speculate that if thus far the bounds of ignorance in some areas have not shrunk, could it be that some knowledge may never be revealed to man?
Discussing the rich potential of un-awakened conscious, the author says that ‘the entire thrust of the Japji – is that mere observances of ritual and purificatory rites, or following the path of Yogic sadhnas or Jain austerities cannot help us attain the true knowledge. This can only be attained through a total acceptance of and surrender to his will. Once that state of mind is attained the rest does not matter. Regardless of what religion you follow or what rituals you choose to perform, you can succeed as long as your actions are infused totally by surrender and acceptance of Lord’s will.’ [p. 97] This is well said. Ritualism itself does not bring merit and is no substitute for living in keeping with divine will. Attainment of knowledge however has been viewed in various perspectives and some more reflections on this will follow.
A similar yet the opposite kind of situation is witnessed on page 105 when explaining the 8th pauri on suniye – listening. Here Chahal rejects the SGPC Shabdarth explanation that the first line of this pauri – suniye sidh pir sur nath – means ‘that by truly listening to the Guru’s message, the listener will get to understand just how much are the Sidhas , the Pirs and the Naths worth, and therefore how much weight should be given to their teaching when they talk of mysteries of the earth and heaven etc.’ He advances the reason is that Shabdarth explanation seems not to be in consonance with the thrust of the message of Japji so far i.e. singing God’s praises and meditating on his greatness. The next step should appropriately be listening to Guru’s message rather than drift into an evaluation of other paths. This does make sense.
Another interesting conundrum comes up on page 111 while discussing ‘suniye jog jugat thun bhed’ when the author praising the intuitive understanding of Rishis about the human body, says that ‘For the followers of the Guru however, all this is quite unnecessary and the benefits of acquisition of any such lore will instead come through the practice of true listening as explained by the Guru.’ This is rather confusing. The human body is seen as the temple of the divine – a great gift that even gods pine for. It is perishable and love of the flesh can be our undoing. Yet it is needed for us to demonstrably live in keeping with divine will. Thus the mysteries of flesh, desire, mind, intellect, ego et al are unraveled by gurbani to help us steer our path according to gurmat, not to bring home any benefits of ancient lore.
Suniye laagai sehj dhyan expectedly brings up the question of what is the state of sehj? The author quotes Mahakosh defining it as ‘that with which we were born.’ Other meanings given are ‘with ease’ and ‘without effort’ or stage beyond the mundane where mind is effortlessly and constantly fixed on Akal Purkh or the state in which the soul came to this world, and was thus born with us. He explains ‘It is the innate state of mind of the newly born, which with time and effect of ‘Maya’ — is then gradually lost — It is when we are able to raise ourselves, our souls, above and beyond — and re-attain the original pristine condition that we can claim to have entered the ‘sehaj’ state.’ He has also given the Sikh Encyclopedia defining sehj as a state of mental spiritual equipoise without the least intrusion of ego; unshaken, natural, effortless serenity attained through spiritual discipline [p.115]. Pretty involved but that is the way it can be explained and effort to detail terms like sehj as used in Sikhi are appreciated. It helps introduce the reader to the subject and then it is for those interested to further search the meaning in depth and explore the ways to experience such a lofty state.
That life is a journey of the soul has been mentioned a few times e.g. ‘as the traveler of this world – the soul – acquires greater faith the knowledge of surroundings sharply improves’ [p. 118]. Later talking about naam, the author quotes Bhai Vir Singh that ‘the state of gradually acquiring the purity of soul and mind through constant recitation of naam and thus reaching the stage of truly listening and then firm faith — an essential difference between the Sikh way and some eastern ways which call for emptying the mind first and bringing ourselves to a zero sate where-after we can infuse the knowledge of God into the vacuum. The Sikh way importantly differs in that it calls not for renunciation or removing oneself from the world of men. Rather does it call for full and vigorous participation in life –.’ [p. 122] This has been well put indeed. It relates to some very profound questions about the human journey, its quest and the role of naam as the means for transformation of the human. Chahal explains all the bits [jio, munn, math, budhh, surt, haumai, avan jaanaa, swarg, nark, karam, dharma, moh chottaan khaaye] as these come up in the text, providing enough leads. The author however does not attempt a comprehensive view of naam as culled from Gurbani in his commentary.
The concept of creation that emerges from the Japji is that the creation came into being at the occurrence of one word from the creator. The totality of extent of creation is not fully known – it is innumerable range of worlds, populated by a variety of species and creator continues to sustain it, love it. The entire system works as per divine ordinance and all in the creation sing praises of the creator. The natural balance in the created world is result of the divine directive or assigned role – dharma – kept in place by pervasive divine compassion that keeps all forces to stay content with their set roles and abide by the controlling rules. The vision of creation in relation to the human quest in a divinely controlled setting is a work of profound imagination that transcends reason and brings a rare richness to the Japji. Pieces of this vision are spread within the pages of this commentary.
The Guru gives us a vision of progression of human quest in pauris 34 to 37. The author has analyzed the texts of these pauris in his characteristic style and detail. These pauris sum up the essence of spiritual ascent of man according to Gurmat and an understanding of what the Guru is saying is presented in the following paragraphs.
In the hierarchy of stages of spiritual progress Nanak considered dharam khand as the first step in man’s ascent on the spiritual path. In this paradigm the human actions –karam – are the critical determinants of how humans are judged. The karmic law basically envisages that all actions have causes and therefore in turn they entail consequences. The action is not only a physical act; even a thought, word or deed, known or unknown is a form of action. So is inaction because understandably it is the result of a deliberate choice made by the individual. On its own, any karam is neither good nor bad; it is deemed virtuous or sinful depending on the motivation behind each action. In this phase man, as placed in the diverse and complex setting of the creation, makes choices of actions influenced by his understanding of dharma and ability of his consciousness to choose between the right and wrong, good and bad. Those whose performance is acceptable and who are bestowed divine grace will be received with honor while others will continue through cycles of birth and death.
In this progression the next level is gyan khand. The awareness of man in this stage broadens to develop an understanding of the larger canvas of multiple persuasions, schools of thought, sages, seers, worlds beyond our own and the play of knowledge in the variety of personalities and precepts. In fact the man’s conscious is now sensitized enough to receive the enrapturing celestial melodies and sights. That gyan is not just a reflection of one’s education or learning is clear. The effectual essence of development to this stage is that the human comprehension, intellect and reason further help the man to stay the course of dharam. Knowledge, reason, wisdom and imagination now hold supreme. Understanding of dharam at elevated plane of knowledge and reason now are likely to lead the person to action choices that may be more acceptable in God’s court. Such real understanding of phenomenal world and induction to divine spirit comes only through the help, teaching and guidance of the Guru.
In the realm of saram khand the all-pervasive attribute is beauty and harmony. By this stage the understanding, insight and intuition of the man are so developed that he is empathetically sensitized to start perceiving the ineffable wondrous beauty, harmony and balance in the creation. This is the level of consciousness of seers and angels who can relate to their contemporaneous settings in a state of harmony. When in this realm, the man’s heart is totally subsumed with love. He is not inimical to or overly attached to anybody or anything. He is in a state of inner calm, peace and harmony – thankful for God’s benevolence. Actions, thoughts and choices of persons at this level of awareness are rooted in their holistic understanding of dharam and thus would meet the criteria for favorable disposition in God’s court. They have ascended to the level of gurmukh, brahm gyani, khalsa, sant sipahi.
The elevation to karam khand brings to end the cycle of birth and death. One reaches this door of deliverance only by God’s grace – effort and spiritual evolution is needed but by itself is not enough. The key to be blessed with Grace is the person’s spiritual intensity – total involvement with naam. Abiding in this realm are the heroic [men] and gracious [women] whose [brave] hearts are totally and firmly imbued with divine love. Spiritual progression is seen as a struggle against evil propensities and success is viewed akin to a victory in battle. Quality of valiance is thus associated with the spiritually developed. Those in this stage have no fear and enjoy a constant state of bliss – anand, vismad. Such grace may descend on some even while alive; a state named jivan mukta. Such a person lives completely submerged in naam, content to abide by his hukam.
The abode of the formless creator is sach khand, dhur. Residing here He joyfully looks at His creation; takes care of it; makes it operate as He wills; orders the lives and actions of beings and is happy with what He sees and does. It is an indescribable firmament of countless worlds, regions, and forms. The entire creation is in His bounteous grace and He dispenses Divine justice from here. It is far or near depending upon where we are for God is indeed very close to us if only we have reached the stage where we can connect with His immanent presence. In fact says the Guru the dear Lord has fashioned the body as His temple and dear folks, the Lord continues to dwell there.
The question that keeps coming back again and again is about Sikh understanding of Sikhi – if it is something real or a fuzzy sense of the ideal. Chahal says ‘Such men, the Guru says, of true faith are in such a state of enlightenment that they immediately recognize the world of spirit and the various dogmas and isms all become meaningless to them — Their relationship is to the true religion – which shows them the oneness of all creation, the existence of the One power –. Such a true believer is enabled to transcend into the realm beyond the mundane and only such a believer can truly attain God-realization.’ [p.133] This is well said and this is also the way many of us think about Sikhi and then we feel scandalized if Nanak referred to Muslim as malechh or Gurus married within their caste group or Guru Gobind Singh initiated Khalsa with its distinct identity and Sikhi as a faith group became caught up in several codes of worship that the Gurus initiated.
The concept of universality we proclaim can often be misunderstood as being everything to everybody. Sikhi is not such an idealistic mish-mash. It is a way of life that does distinguish between right and wrong; just and unjust; personal versus public good; devotional prayer versus ritualism; action versus fatalistic withdrawal and so on. Therefore in Sikhi dogmas and isms do not disappear – they are replaced by universally applicable but much higher codes that may be simple but not easy. We must also be conscious that a highly evolved person with truly universal values may represent what a true Sikh should be like, but may not like to be called a Sikh – he may have never heard of Sikhism! I may add that the author later in the next chapter has talked of some of the things that I am saying but a connected perspective would have been better.
The fact is that Japji is not about the other paths being right or wrong – it lays the theological foundation of Sikhi which suggests a paradigm, a set of choices that can enable the man live his life as willed by God in the real world and attain union with the divine. The ostensible purpose of the book also is to explain the message of Japji to lay readers, more especially those not familiar with Sikhi. The book therefore should attempt to bring home to the reader how the seed of all that the Sikh belief system and praxis commends does in fact flow out of Japji and thus its profundity lies in encapsulating the vast and very comprehensive message of Sikhi – a path most eminently answering to the spiritual needs of the man in these difficult and conflicted times of kal-yug. Absent that, the work remains an extended translation with piecemeal examination of literal depth in its parts that does not facilitate comprehending a holistic view of its theological thrust.
Maneshwar Chahal has collated an extensive array of explanations, views and interpretations on the Japji. With some expert editing and some additional work, this book has the potential to become a worthy commentary in English on this deeply profound text by Guru Nanak.
1 April, 2012
 Japji Sahib, Way to God in Sikhism- Book I, Maneshwar S. Chahal, ISBN: 81-7234-154-7, Prakash Books India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, First Published 2006, reprint 2009, Pages 320, Price Rs. 295/=.