My Guru & I

A personal story by Pashura Singh.

July 28, 2008 - This year we are celebrating the 300th anniversary of the investiture of the Sikh scripture as the living embodiment of the Guru.

It is an occasion that offers us an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with the most revered Guru Granth Sahib.

Like any other child born in a Sikh family, my first exposure to Sikhi came from my mother. She sowed the seed of gurbani ("Guru's Utterances") within me in my early childhood.

I was about seven years of age when she instructed me to learn one stanza (pauri) of the Japji Sahib by heart within a day or two. After learning that stanza I would recite it to her from memory to receive a reward of one paisa (Indian penny) for each stanza I subsequently recited.

It took about two months to memorize the complete Japji Sahib and my mother gave me a rupee and a quarter to celebrate the acquisition of my richest possession.

Since then, Japji Sahib has remained embedded in my memory.

Following the same process, I learned the other banis of nitnem ("daily routine"). I was simply following the example of my mother who had learned these sacred compositions, including Guru Arjan's Sukhmani Sahib, by heart by the age of thirteen.

She used to compare the memorization of gurbani by heart with the acquisition and possession of money (gurbani kanth paisa ganth), in that it is readily available for use in every act of reflection, moral deliberation, as well as in times of personal crises. Her living relationship with gurbani touched my heart, mind and soul in the most intimate ways in my formative years.

Occasionally, I saw my mother reciting Sukhmani Sahib even during her sleep.

I was in the seventh grade at Guru Hargobind Khalsa Higher Secondary School, Gurusar Sudhar, when my father died from surgical complications at the Dayanand Hospital, Ludhiana, on 14 April 1962.

At the conclusion of the Sahaj Paath ("Reading of the Guru Granth Sahib") in his memory, Granthi Inder Singh encouraged me to come to the gurdwara every evening. He began tutoring me alongwith other boys from my village in the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib through the traditional mode of santhia ("Lessons") of Gurbani.

We used to gather in a circle at the gurdwara to recite five to ten pages of a two-volume set of the Sikh scripture in each sitting after Granthiji explained to us the correct enunciation of the passages of gurbani. We were required to repeat those pages eight times before the next sitting on the following day.

We would absorb and rehearse those lessons until Granthiji was completely satisfied. This process went on for more than six months to complete the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib.

I participated in my first Akhand Path ("Unbroken Reading") to celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak in November of 1962. It was a joyous occasion when I graduated as an Akhand Pathi.

Granthi Inder Singh was a most learned man, with a remarkable command of languages, including Persian and Sanskrit. His understanding of the deeper aspects of gurbani had a magnetic effect on my learning process. Previously a teacher at a local school, he left his job to become a Granthi at our village gurdwara.

I also learned to perform kirtan at that time. The following year, I stood first in the middle standard examination and won a scholarship.
I ascribe my academic success that year to my relationship with the Guru Granth Sahib.

My teachers at school, Master Jaswant Singh, Master Gurbax Singh, Master Gursevak Singh, Master Joginder Singh, and Principal Bhagwant Singh, took a keen interest in my education and always encouraged me to excel in my studies. These individuals were my role models as dedicated Sikhs who taught Sikh history and gurbani all the while teaching me Mathematics, English and other subjects.

Our school day always began with a morning assembly prayer at the historical gurdwara commemorating Guru Hargobind's stay at our village. It consisted of kirtan, Ardaas and Vaak ("Order of the day") from the Guru Granth Sahib, followed by instructions by the Principal. The environment at the school was so conducive that it strengthened my love for devotional singing of gurbani.

Most of my school teachers were active associates of Bhai Randhir Singh. They used to perform rehan sabaai kirtan ("all night devotional singing") with him when he was alive. After him, they frequently organized kirtan programs in the neighbouring villages and cities, and I eagerly participated in them.

Our School jatha ("Group") was well known in the surrounding areas for performing Sikh weddings (Anand Karaj), kirtan programs and gurparab celebrations on a voluntary basis.

After completing a B.Sc. degree at the G.H.G. Khalsa College, Gurusar Sudhar, I joined the Government College, Ludhiana, to do an MA in Mathematics.

Something here changed the course of my life.

On 10 January 1971, my mother instructed me to start a reading of the Guru Granth Sahib, to complete within a week. I was asked not to go to College during that week. I would read the Guru Granth Sahib and my mother would listen with perfect concentration. In the evening, my mother would tell me about her life experiences and would advise me to focus my attention on the study of the Guru Granth Sahib.

On the final day, before completing my reading of the Guru Granth Sahib, she gave me a number of instructions, including a specific one that no one should be allowed to cry at her death. I just listened to her conversation without even considering that it would be her parting request.

On the morning of Sunday, 17 January 1971, I started devotional singing of Asa di Var and then completed the Bhog ceremony of the Guru Granth Sahib. After the congregational prayer, I took the Vaak (a verse picked at random) and read Guru Ram Das's hymn in Jaitsiri mode that ended with the line:

"At Dharamraja's portal, the records of the devotees are torn, says Nanak, and their reckoning is closed" (dharamrai dari kagadu phare jan nanaku lekha samajha).

At the time of giving karah prashad ("sanctified food made of flour, sugar and butter, and water, and prepared in a large iron dish") to my mother, I told her that her reckoning is closed. She smiled and bowed her head in gratitude. Then we all shared in the communal meal of langar. My mother enquired from me whether everyone had eaten.

My friends came to seek her blessings as they left, and I went outside to see them off.

The moment I left her, she called my sister-in-law and bade her final greeting ("Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa/ Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh") and passed away.

We started doing kirtan again and urged everyone not to cry at all, but instead to celebrate the gift of her life. This was the moment when I realized the power and authority of the divine Word (Vaak) taken from the Guru Granth Sahib.

My fatherly teacher, Master Jaswant Singh, took me to Patiala to meet with Professor Harbans Singh, the editor-in-chief of the celebrated Encyclopaedia of Sikhism. He was Masterji's student at Khalsa School Muktsar and held him in great regard.

Prof. Harbans Singh inspired me to join Guru Nanak Institute, Gurmat College, at Patiala in 1971 to pursue my interest in the area of Sikh Studies.

The two years spent at that premier institution constituted the most productive period of my intellectual life. I had the rare opportunity to listen to the views of such distinguished scholars as Dr. Taran Singh, Dr. Ganda Singh, Principal Satbir Singh, Professor Sahib Singh, Giani Lal Singh, Professor Piara Singh Padam, Professor Gurbachan Singh Talib, Dr. Avtar Singh, including some visiting Professors of Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian traditions.

They all provided different approaches to study the various dimensions of the Sikh scripture. At no point did I ever feel that my personal relationship with the Guru Granth Sahib was in jeopardy.  Rather, each new perspective added to my close relationship with my Guru.

At Gurmat College, we frequently listened to the discourses of Sant Gurmukh Singh of Patiala in rustic Punjabi. In one of his sermons, he made the distinction between two approaches of reading the Sikh scripture; one with just reading it as a sacred book (Guru Granth Sahib 'nu parrhna') and the other was reading 'from' the Guru (Guru Granth Sahib 'ton parrhna").

Accordingly, the first approach builds intellectual pride (haumai) while the second one makes one humble. He made the point that the real understanding of gurbani could take place only when we approached it with complete faith in it as the living embodiment of the Guru.

Let me conclude this piece with my ongoing relationship with my Guru.

Each day I record the Vaak of the Guru Granth Sahib in my journal and try to understand the meaning of life in its light. Often, it provides a divine clue to look at the trials and tribulations of life with equanimity.

After listening to the Vaak from the Darbar Sahib, I go for my morning walk and complete my daily routine of banis (nitnem) from memory. I have always felt that the divine Word (shabad) is an intimate companion in my heart, mind and soul.

This is the spiritual treasure that I inherited from my mother, and this is the inexhaustible wealth that I have already passed on to my children. I have frequently heard the voice of the Eternal Guru, speaking directly to me when I needed the guidance at moments of personal crises.

When I listen to my daughter performing kirtan in the original ragas of the Guru Granth Sahib, accompanied by her brother on tabla, I bow my head in gratitude. This way, I pay my tribute to my Beloved Guru for the countless blessings that I have received in my life.

Indeed, an active engagement with the divine Word amounts to a one-on-one conversation with the Guru. This spiritual dialogue is the only sure means to self-discovery.

I see the Guru Granth Sahib as the clearest mirror through which we see our 'true self', the core of our being.

Note: Dr. Pashura Singh Ji is Professor at University of California, Riverside, in its "Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Chair" in Sikh and Punjabi Language Studies.

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