PRAISED BE THY NAME : Review Jaap Sahib

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The last book in Maneshwar Singh Chahal’s trilogy ‘Way to God in Sikhism’ is Jaap Sahib. It is an explication of Guru Gobind Singh’s seminal work on the names and attributes of the divine, known popularly as Jaap Sahib.[1] This composition is a part of nit nem, the prescribed daily ritual prayers for an observant Sikh.

Maneshwar Chahal has worked painstakingly to try and explain the meanings of the verses in the composition using his methodology of writing these in Gurmukhi with their transliteration and then giving the meanings of certain words and phrases followed by an explication of the verse. He has consulted various other exegeses and usually given his preferred understanding at the end of a broad review of the views expressed by other learned sources including Bhai Vir Singh, Prof. Sahib Singh, Giani Sant Singh Maskin and others.

This methodology has the merit in that it does help one to glean the sense of the verses as one progresses with the line to line reading of the composition. He has supplemented this in many places by quoting similar verses from the SGGS that help facilitate understanding of what the Guru is saying and reinforce his message and meaning.

Jaap Sahib was possibly composed by the Guru in his early years when he was living amidst the peaceful environment of Paonta Sahib – considered by most scholars as the most creative years of his life. The year of writing more often cited is around 1684 preceding the start of a series of conflicts beginning with the battle of Bhangani. The words and rhythm used in the sublime verses give a peep into the abundance of love divine subsuming the Guru’s mind.

The composition comprises of 199 stanzas that cite 950 names and attributes associated with the divine. Macauliffe has speculated that since Hindus had a work relating thousand names of Vishnu [Vishnu Sahasar Nam], Jaap Sahib gave the Sikhs a similar anthology. While there could be some background for Macauliffe being so advised by the string of Gyanis he was consulting with, I am not inclined to give it much weight for the reason that Jaap Sahib is a very comprehensive collation of divine attributes that brings tremendous richness to the Sikh theological literature. Work of this caliber cannot and should not be placed in the same genre as some other compositions in the Dasam Granth which ostensibly had a limited purpose of a re-presentation of some mythological works. One explanation that suggests itself is that Jaap Sahib is an anthology of naam that has acknowledged effect in inspiring creation of aesthetic ecstasy in the devotee. It could therefore also have been intended to impart greater depth and universality to the practice of naam marag, so much stressed in the SGGS.

The language used in Jaap Sahib is dominantly Bhojpuri with liberal mixture of Persian and Arabic. The metaphor often employs popular transmitted understandings that may have been rooted in obscure traditions and mythology. The explicatory notes by the author therefore are great help in trying to grasp the message the Guru is intending to convey. Significantly the epithets used, including around seventy-five Muslim names, suggest these being rooted in the wide milieu of words that the spoken language no doubt then had. The words describing the names and attributes bear connection to their respective theological or mythological stream, but absent explicatory notes, their understanding would likely be difficult for the lay readers.

To write an extensive book of prayer based on names and attributes of the divine in a manner that captures the attention of the devotees and they recite it regularly with love and devotion is a great tribute to the poetic and philosophical genius of Guru Gobind Singh. Jaap Sahib has a natural flow and a catching rhythm that elevates the devotee to a mix of calm and urgency – likely in tune with the altruistic state of mind of a sant sipahi – saint soldier.

The Guru has covered a vast range of divine attributes often juxtaposing the seemingly opposing attributes that may raise questions in the mind of the initiate. The overall effect of the composition however is that it helps us to recognize the impossibility of achieving total understanding of God and guides us to accept what we can grasp and develop loving adoration for Him.

The style and genre of Jaap Sahib is very different and distinct from the other compositions included in nit nem. The meters used in Jaap Sahib are termed Chhands. In all, ten types have been used – nine that have 4 lines [Padas or Charans] and one which has 6 lines. Some of the Chhands use pretty long lines e.g. the chhapai chhand with which the composition begins has longish lines – chakar chahan ar baran jaat ar paat nahin jeh – while ek achhri chhand uses one word per line – Ajai.Alai. Abhai. Abai. The rhythmic pattern would be evident from the last cited example.

If one were to delve deeply into the text taking into account the attributes that have been repeatedly rendered by the Guru in varying words and metaphors, one would perhaps find that Guru Gobind Singh has variously described the ‘destroyer’ attribute of the creator and the nurturing divine master. He destroys enemies. He destroys evil. He destroys the mighty. He destroys all. This destroyer aspect of the divine also underscores the entire thought in SGGS where the devotees are continuously reminded of the need to so lead their lives that they do not have to feel the pangs of regret at having lost their opportunity to connect with the divine while alive. Guru Gobind Singh while awakening us to the divine as ‘destroyer of evil’ additionally helps us to recognize that courage combined with prayerful living unleashes the potential of such an awesome force of inner might and resolve that weak and vulnerable among us can turn into irrepressible agents of deliverance from all forms of persecution, injustices, discrimination and institutionalized corruption. Thus while there is a thread of unflinching continuity of thought from the first to the tenth Guru, the Akal Purkh of Jaap Sahib seems to beckon men to recognize that He bestowed might unto humans not just for the strong to lord over the weak but for each one of us to endeavor to draw upon any strength we might possess, collectively or individually, to resist the evil influences without caving in.

At another plane Jaap Sahib provides the foundational concept of the vision of the divine dispensation where Khalsa is the catalytic agent of societal transformation the same way as the Gursikh was envisioned as the catalyst in halemi raj. Both are relevant as the times and the moment demand. The true devotee of the Guru is a man of peace, love and charity who has the nerve to choose to break rather than bend to evil. That is the drift of the message that Jaap Sahib conveys. Does the book say so? I am not sure. It does however provide guidance on meanings of words and lines. That by itself is quite a contribution for a relatively less explored subject.

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Nirmal Singh,

New Delhi,

8 Sep., 2012

[1] Jap Sahib, Maneshwar S Chahal, ISBN 978 81 7234 369 9, pp. 282, 2011, Prakash Books, New Delhi, Price Rs. 295.

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