The provocation for writing this article comes from some experiences that I have had in our living in the US over the last two decades or so. When we came here Sikhs were not many – not that we are many now, but certainly our numbers have gone up and Sikhs have been moving from metropolitan areas into interior parts. It is therefore a common experience to find Sikhs in relatively small numbers in various parts of this huge country. All of them wherever they may be are motivated to establish a Gurdwara within relatively easy reach so that they can go there for worship, connect with the community and keep their kids in touch with Sikhi and Sikh heritage including language and culture.
In this process the initial problems faced by the community are many – the population densities are small; distances are daunting; resources available are extremely limited; cash resources are even less; there is hardly any intra-community communication or net-working; and there are not many who would undertake to bring the community together and do the massive leg work needed to launch and bring the project to fruition.
To maintain the Gurdwara Sikhs have to learn to do a lot of things by themselves. They may not be able to get or afford a Granthi or Ragis and have to find help from the sangat itself. They start with kirtan and langar and as their resources and management skills improve other services like katha, akhand path, simran, Sunday school teaching gurmukhi lipi, kirtan, sakhis and remembering some banis are progressively added. However they soon discover that there is a need to organize and encourage community involvement in sports; arts, cultural activities; inter faith activities; media relations; social activism like human rights, women’s rights, equality and justice; seeking political support; promoting involvement in political activism, volunteerism like helping with soup kitchens, food drives, environmental and eco justice issues and other issues problems like Sikh depiction in text books and educational curricula their stereotyping and popular image related and other similar problems. These are not directly part of the religious service performed in the Gurdwaras but for all these activities a platform to communicate within is needed. If they want to have a cultural event they have not only to generate interest to orgaise it but possibly find performers from within.
If in this setting the Gurdwara faces pressure from some dogmatic activists who argue that Gurdwaras per tradition [maryada] must limit their activities to worship services as experienced by them in their life in India the community finds itself in a bind. At times it transpires that the dogmatists would not let any community related issues to be even announced in the Gurdwara; let alone the subject being deliberated upon or help being extended in facilitating its execution. The community then finds itself in a bind with little motivation or means to organise itself anew to handle such other needs.
The main problem that the community wrestles with is to stay in touch and keep the kids connected both to their faith tradition and cultural heritage. This often becomes a source of discord with the tradidionalists decrying all cultural activities and taking the position that pursuit of music, song and dance are prohibited in Gurmat. We will try and explore this question a bit from Gurbani perspective to understand what the Gurus are saying.
MUSIC & SONG
As we are well aware Guru Granth Sahib is almost entirely set to music. It is also known that the Gurus were great musicologists. There is also a widespread recognition that music was the mode preferred by all the bhagatas in the bhakti tradition. However the way spritual music has been blended into Sikh worship is unique. From the way the rural folks gravitated in large numbers to hear the spiritual message of the Gurus one can only infer that the musical mode of its delivery did appeal to the people as much as catholicity of their teachings.
The Sikh tradition of kirtan began and had its initial development under the enlightened leadership of the Sikh Gurus. Guru Nanak would remain absorbed in meditation for hours and while he chanted God’s praises, Mardana played on rebeck. He was following God’s command, said he. Guru Angad had Mardana’s sons as the minstrels as his ministry in Khadur became the second center of kirtan. Guru Amardas set up a center for kirtan at Goindwal where the morning and evening service was performed by Pandha and Boola. Guru Ramdas was very well versed in music. The city of Amritsar founded by him grew into the most important center of kirtan. He also introduced the variant –partal – in which the antras of the raga are sung to different taals. Guru Arjan introduced the tradition of kirtan sessions/sittings called chokis at Amritsar. Satta and Balwand were the court musicians. Thus professional musicians were the mainstay of kirtan service.
Tradition has it that at one time Satta and Balwand refused to perform kirtan in the hope of extracting some more monetary gain. Guru Arjan did not aquiscese and instead asked the members of congregation to learn to do kirtan. This encouraged the practice of devotional singing by laypersons using folk tunes. Even though Satta and Balwand later relented, the tradition of the laypersons performing kirtan continued alongside the professional singers. Guru Hargobind popularized the singing of vars in tunes prescribed in the Granth – bringing the practice closer to secular singing then prevalent for heroic ballads. Dhadhi jathas used to sing vars in bir-ras in the court of Guru Gobind Singh. He introduced the khayal style of singing in kirtan. Thus various genres of music ranging from dhrupad to secular were in practice in Guru’s times, gurbani encouraged Sikhs to sing Akal Purakh’s praises and the sangat often joined in the kirtan singing.
The use of musical instruments in kirtan started with the rebeck playing of Mardana. During the time of later Gurus use of other instruments got introduced. These include instruments like rabab, sarinda, taoos, dilruba, mridang, tabla, dhadi, sarangi used by the rababis and dhadis. The laity used instruments like dholak, chimta, khartal etc.
In sodar, the Guru describes the court of the Lord. His vision is of a place where music abounds – innumerable instrumentalists, infinite variety of notes and symphonies with the entire universe singing God’s praises. Innumerable the notes, infinite the players, countless lending their voice, all singing His praises. Music has a special place in the Divine court.
The Gurus did not express preference for any raga – “The raga that awakens one’s mind to God is the best.” Gurus preached the great merits of kirtan – it removes impurity from mind, helps gain freedom from cycle of transmigration,  brings comfort to mind and body. Gurus commended kirtan as the highest expression of one’s devotion.
Those who sing and listen to kirtan their evil propensities are curbed, they receive what they desire, and misfortunes do not befall them.  Congregational singing removes inhibitions, strengthens bonds of fellowship, and helps concentration and ecstatic state of mind. Kirtan in the company of the virtuous earns the highest merit. Heaven is where His praises are sung.
There are a couple of caveats however that we have to understand. The purpose of kirtan is that it should connect one with the divine. The Guru says that ‘among all the musical measures that alone is sublime by which the Lord comes to abide within. The melodies in which the Guru’s word is sung are all true and their worth cannot be told but the Lord is beyond melodies and airs and His will cannot be realized through these contrivances alone.’  Likewise Kabir says that ‘do not think it is just a song – it is meditation on God akin to the instructions given to the dying man at Benares. Ultimately highest status is obtained only by the person who sings or listens to the divine Name with conscious awareness.’
Thus singing and music is seen to pervade the universe and our lives. It is not decried as unholy or forbidden but Sikhs are cautioned that only that singing is kirtan that helps in connecting with the divine. Outside of that there is room for singing and music in our mundane pursuits.
Dancing unlike singing is not seen as a mode of worship in Gurbani though some verses seem to suggest that it were not a total taboo. Let us see what the Gurus have said in their own words.
Guru Nanak has characterized dancing and prancing around as an expression of human urgings. Witness: ‘O Nanak countless and endless are those that go round and round – the oil-press, spinning wheel, grinding stones, potter’s wheel, countless whirlwinds in the desert, spinning tops, churning sticks, threshers, breathless tumblings of the birds and men moving round and round like on spindles. Bound in bondage by His will they spin around; dancing to the tune called by their karma. Those subsumed in dance and laughter will not fly to heavens or become Siddhas but shall depart crying. People dance and play on the urgings of their minds. O Nanak, love divine wells up only in hearts that feel His awe.’
Significantly Guru Nanak has employed metaphors from life as experienced, mundane and natural phenomenon [whirlwinds in the desert, breathless tumblings of the birds], to explicate going round and round but has singled out human urgings for pleasure as not contributing towards spiritual fulfillment. Guru Amardas reinforces the same thought by saying that ‘dancing and jumping is no way of devotional worship. Merging in the shabd is needed for any devotional worship to be accepted.’
Guru Arjan clubs dancing with several other modes of worship like wearing ankle bells; keeping fasts, taking vows, wearing rosaries or putting ceremonial ritual marks on their foreheads that people use but says that as a meek devotee, he only meditates on Har, Har, Har. The suggestion clearly is that meditational devotional worship is more acceptable. Kabir conveys the same thought in a different manner by placing a qualifier on dancing. He says that ‘the real dancing [in prayer] is danced with your conscious being beating to the rhythm for only true devotion and not pretension is pleasing to Him. So let the drum beat resonate within you and if you are such a dancer He will protect your being.’ In other words if the beat of the drum inspires inner resonance it is prayer otherwise it is only play.
Guru Nanak seems to be endorsing the same thought saying that ‘let your understanding and feeling of love be like the music of accordion and the beat of drum that one dances to – and let such rhythmic harmony create bliss and lasting happiness in your mind.’ Clearly feeling of harmony so experienced is brought about by the confluence of love divine and higher understanding, aided if so, by the musical beat. He goes on to say that ‘ attainment of such rhythmic harmony is akin to devotional worship, and the practice of penance. If you are so imbued, dance on, keeping the beat with your feet but know that the perfect beat is only praise of the Divine; other dancing just serves as a source of pleasure.’ This seems to suggest that when one is in a state of harmony and rhythm of prayer becomes compelling, keeping the beat with feet may be acceptable though not perfect response.
Guru Ram Das persuades us to ‘meditate on the name of the merciful Har, Har; with love, to forever sing His praises and in unison with true believers dance to the praises of Har, Har, Har.’ The Guru seems to be more expansive by suggestively placing meditation, singing and rhythmic movement in the same genre as the mode of loving devotion.
Guru Arjan uses the metaphor of inner struggle for dance and says that if man makes the effort to control the five passions, in this dance, his mind becomes pure, self is silenced and the Divine One comes to dwell within. Such a humble servant sings His praises and dances as the guitar, drums, cymbals, dancing bells and the unstruck sound current of the Shabad resound. Again singing and dancing seem to be placed in the same genre.
WHAT ARE THE GURUS SAYING?
Let us now try and understand the drift of moral guidance that the Gurus are giving us. Guru Nanak says ‘eating, drinking, laughing and sleeping, the mortal forgets that he cannot remain forever and must die one day. Forgetting his Lord and Master his life is cursed and wasted. Meditate o mortal, on the One Master and you shall go to your true home with honor.’ In a similar vein Guru Arjan reminds us that ‘eating, drinking, laughing and sleeping, life passes uselessly. Before being born we suffer the unbearable environment of the womb. Our pride, attachment and desires are not quenched through our life and in the end we are destroyed by death to wander in reincarnation. Meditate; vibrate on the Lord for all other actions are corrupt.
In fact spending life only in eating, drinking, playing, laughing and showing off is not commended at all. If one does not listen to praises of the Lord of supreme bliss his life is likened to making ostentatious displays on the dead and such life is characterized worse than that of beasts, birds or creeping creatures.
A shabad by Bhagat Namdev ellucidates this tension in a very interesting though at the same time a very unrelated manner. He says that ‘laughing and playing, I came to Your temple but while I was worshipping, I was grabbed and driven out because I am of a low social class. Why was I born into a family of fabric dyers, my Master? So I picked up my blanket, went out and sat behind the temple. Sitting there as Nama uttered Your praises, the temple turned around to face Your humble devotee.’
Even though the thrust of the verse is to draw attention to the prevalent discrimination to the entry into temples experienced by the lower castes the Bhagat says that laughing and playing he came to the temple. He was not ejected because he had come in that state of mind or his entry reflected that demeanor but because of his caste. However as he settled down to his prayer and was in communion with the divine the temple turned to face him. Surely this suggests a very strong pointer to the kind of possibility that the Guru’s way seems to promise.
As a holistic faith where no denials and austerities are commended and the devotees are expected to live normal lives, the Gurus have suggested placing their Sikhs in any strait jacket. They have asked them to strike a balanced path and the balance has to be achieved by us, individually and collectively in our own circumstances. The important thing is that we should try and cultivate loving devotion of God while living full and active lives. Sikhs who understand the Guru’s way will by his grace succeed in crafting such perfect balance that may help achieve liberation while laughing, playing, wearing fineries and savoring delicacies.
This should not suggest a license to live
as one pleases – singing, dancing, wearing fine dresses, playing, imbibing
delicacies and making merry. Nor does it suggest a regimen or a way of life
that precludes all these. It suggests searching for possibilities that help us
to bring a balance that meets both our spiritual and mundane quests. It
connects the two. It does not shut the door on either.
 Agnihotri, H L & C R, Guru Nanak Dev: His Life & Bani, 1996,p.31
 khalaq ko adesh dhadi gavna– SGGS p.148
 vaje naad anek asankha kete vavanhaarey, kete raga pari siu kahian kete gavanhaare– ibid, p.8
 sabhna ragaan vich so bhala bhai jit vasya man aaye– SGGS, slok varan te vadhik
 gun gavat teri utras meil– ibid. p.289
 jo jan kare kirtan gopal tis ko poh ne sake jamkaal– ibid. p. 867
 har din rain kirtan gaave bohr neh joni paave– ibid. p.62
 sookh sehaj anand gun gaave man tan deh sukhali– ibid. p.620
 sabh te ooch bhagat ja ke sang, aath pehr gun gaaverang sarang– ibid. Sarang, M V
 jo jo kathey sunay har kirtan ta ki durmat nas – ibid. p.1300
 har kirtan sunai har kirtan gaave, tis jan dookh nikat neh aave – ibid. p.190
 Sikh Review, Calcutta, Sep 2000,p.26
 har kirat sadhsangat hai sir karman kae karma– SGGS- p.642
 tehain baikunth jeh kirtan tera
 sabhna ragan vich so bhala bhai jit vaseya man aaye —————– Slok M IV, p. 1423
 log janai eih geet hai eih to braham beechaar, jio kaasee upades hoe maanas martee baar, koee gaavai ko sunai har naamaa chit laae, kahu kabeer sansaa nehee ant param gat paae – Gauri Kabir, p. 335
 – koloo charkha chakee chak, thhal vaarolai bahut anant, laattoo maadhhaania anagaah, pankhee bhoudheeaa lain n saah, sooai chaar bhavaaeeahi jant, naanak bhoudhiaa ganat n anth.
bandhhan bandh bhavaaeae soe, paeiai kirat nachai sabh koe, nach nach hasehi chalehi sae roe, oudd n jaahee sidhh n hohi, nachan kudhan man ka chao, nanak jin man bho tinha man bhao – Asa M I p. 465
 – nachiai tapiai bhagat n hoe, sabad marai bagat paaey jan soe – Gauri M III, p. 158
 – kinhee ghooghar nirat karaaee, kinhoo varat naem maalaa paaee, kinhee tilak gopee chandhan laaeiaa, mohi deen har har har dhhiaya – Ramkali M V, p. 912
 – nachan soe jo man sio nachai, jooth n pateeai parchai saachai, eis man aagae poorai thaal, eis naachan kae man rakhavaal – Kabir Gond, p. 872
 vaajaa mat pakhaavaj bhao, hoe anandh sada man chao, eaehaa bhagat eaeho tap tao, eit rang naachau rakh rakh pao. poorae taal jaanai saalaa h, hor nachanaa khuseeaa man maah – Asa M I, p. 350
 har har naam dayal dhiaahaa, har kai rang sada gun gaahaa, har har har jas ghoomar paavahu mil satsang oumaahaa raam – Jaitsri M IV, p. 698
 udham karat hovai man nirmal nachai aap nivarai, panch janaa lai vasgat rakhai man meh ekankarae. tera jan nirat karae gun gavai, rabab pakhavaj thal ghungharoo anhad sabad vajavai – Asa M V, p. 381
 khana peena hasana souna visar gaya hai marna, khasam visaar khuaaree keenee dhhrig jeevan nehee rehna, praanee eko naam dhhiaavau, apanee path saetee ghar jaavau – Malaar M I, p. 1254
 har bhaj aan karam bikaar, maan moh n bujhat trisna kaal gras sansar, khaat peevat hasat sovat oudh bitee asaar, narak udhar bhramant jalto jameh keenee saar – Sarang M V, p. 1229
 khaat peet khelat hasat bisthar, kavan arath miratak seegaar, jo n suneh jas paramananda, pasu pankhee trigadh jon te mandaa – Gauri M V, p. 188
 hasat khelat terae dhohurae aaeiaa, bhagat karat naamaa pakar uthaya, heenrree jaat meree jaadhim raya, chheepae ke janam kaahe ko aaeiaa, lai kamlee chalio paltaae, dhaehurai paachhai baitha jaae, jio jio naamaa har gun ucharai, bhagat janaan ko dhaehura firai – Bhairon Naamdev, p. 1164
 nanak satgur bhaettiai pooree hovai jugat, hasandhia khelandhia painandhia khaavandhia vichae hovai mukat – Gujri M V, p. 522