Hold up.. what should you do while reading Gurbani?

Today, I’d like to take a moment to pause and reflect on an important topic: Pausing.

Hold up.. what should you do while reading Gurbani?

Vaheguroo Ji Ka Khalsa Vaheguroo Ji Ki Fateh

Today, I’d like to take a moment to pause and reflect on an important topic: Pausing.

In Gurbani, we don’t have any commas. However, that doesn’t mean that every line is just read continuously. On the contrary, there are inherent pauses in each line and we ourselves have to know when to pause while reading. Correct bisraams (pauses) help to convey the right meaning, while an incorrect bisraam can completely change the meaning of the tuk(line). Most of the time the pause is intuitive and we can naturally tell where it is as we read. Other times we have to make a conscious effort to figure it out and understand. This is important because a slight difference in bisraam can convey a message completely opposite to a line’s actual meaning.

For the sake of getting this point across – Here are some examples where incorrect placement/pronunciation of a comma can completely change the intended meaning.

English example:

  • “Woman, without her, man is worthless.”
  • “Woman, without her man, is worthless.”

Two entirely different meanings conveyed just by changing the comma placement (Bisraam)!

Punjabi example:

  • ਰੋਕੋ ਨਾ, ਜਾਣ ਦਿਓ।  “Roko na, Jaan deo” – Don’t stop them, let them go.
  • ਰੋਕੋ, ਨਾ ਜਾਣ ਦਿਓ. “Roko, na Jaan deo” – Stop them, don’t let them go.

Example from Gurbani (commas added for illustration):

ਗੁਰੁ ਅਰਜੁਨੁ, ਘਰਿ ਗੁਰ ਰਾਮਦਾਸ, ਭਗਤ ਉਤਰਿ ਆਯਉ ||੧|| ( ਅੰਗ ੧੪੦੭)

In the House of Guru Raam Daas, the devotee of the Lord, Guru Arjun was born. ||1||
If we put the bisraam after ghar and say “Gur Arjun Ghar, Gur Raam Daas..” it would mean that Guru Raam Daas ji was born into the house of Guru Arjun Dev Ji, which doesn’t make any sense!

So how do we know where the bisraam is? Usually our doubts can be cleared by stopping and doing vichar on the meanings of the lines or reading some steeks/meanings. Sometimes it is not clear or there are conflicting translations. We can rely on research and translations of previous Gursikhs and the context of the shabad to try our best to understand where the pause is. Typically there we can tell if the meaning is contrary to Gurmat and therefore not likely. We may not always be correct, because our understanding is limited and Gurbani is above and beyond our intellect. However, we should still make our best effort.

This is especially important for Keertanis – they should create and adjust their tunes based on the Shabad, rather than fit the Shabad to the tune. Unfortunately most of us do the latter, often without realizing it. Even if it doesn’t make a huge difference to the meaning, it is still important because we are supposed to be using music as a tool to bring out the mood and meaning of a particular pangti (line). Some times we sing a line for the first time on stage, without knowing the correct pauses and just separate it according to the tune or taal. Ideally we should have read and understood the shabad before singing it. Fortunately, knowledgeable Gursikhs will often correct us so that we can sing it properly.

The following is a list of some common bisraam mistakes that people usually make because they aren’t often discussed or are easily overlooked. Some of these I have observed during kirtan or paath, while others I have learnt from my father or other Gursikhs. I have added spaces in the lines to signify where a pause “should” be.

ਗਾਵੈ ਕੋ      ਜੀਅ ਲੈ ਫਿਰਿ ਦੇਹ || (ਅੰਗ ੧)

Some sing that He takes life away, and then again restores it.

If we put the bisraam after jeea, or the third word in every line of this pauri, as is commonly done, we would say “some sing of life, takes then gives.” Clearly “take” goes with “life”, so they should be together as one phrase. It should be “Gaavai Ko, Jee Lai Phir De”. Most of the lines in this pauri have the bisraam after “Ko”. (ex: Gavai Ko, Gun Vadiaayeea Char. Gaavai Ko, Vidhia Vikham Veechar)

ਚਰਨ ਸਤਿ      ਸਤਿ ਪਰਸਨਹਾਰ || (ਅੰਗ ੨੮੫)

His Lotus Feet are True, and True are those who touch Them.

Many people read these together as one word, like “Charan SatSat Parsanhar”. But one sat is for charan, the other is for parsanhar. The pause in between makes that clear. This is the same for all of the other lines in this padhaa of Sukhmani Sahib.

ਹਰਿ      ਜੀਉ ਗੁਫਾ ਅੰਦਰਿ ਰਖਿ ਕੈ    ਵਾਜਾ ਪਵਣੁ ਵਜਾਇਆ || (ਅੰਗ ੯੨੨)

The Lord placed the soul to the cave of the body, and blew the breath of life into the musical instrument of the body.

For most of my life I had been reading this all together and thought “Har Jeeo” meant “Respected Lord”. It actually means that Vaheguru places the soul(jeeo) into this body cave. There is a bisraam after “har”, as in “hari (ne), jee guffa (de) andar rakh ke..”.

ਸੁਣਿ ਕੈ    ਜਮ ਕੇ ਦੂਤ    ਨਾਇ ਤੇਰੈ     ਛਡਿ ਜਾਹਿ ||  ਅੰਗ ੯੬੨

Hearing Your Name, the Messenger of Death runs away.

We often read this all together, or split it in the middle. However because Guru sahib put the words in an unconventional order (almost backwards), with the common pause style the meaning would be wrong. To me, when you say “naae terai chhad jaae” it sounds like it would mean “they left your Name”. But the meaning is “by listening to your name, the jamdoots (pause) leave you”. So in my opinion there should be a bisraam before chhad jaae – “Sun Kai (Jam Ke Doot) Nae Terai, Chhad Jaae”.

ਬਿਨੁ ਨਾਵੈ ਮਰਿ ਜਾਈਐ     ਮੇਰੇ ਠਾਕੁਰ   ਜਿਉ ਅਮਲੀ ਅਮਲਿ ਲੁਭਾਨਾ ||੨||  ਅੰਗ ੬੯੭

Without the Name, I would die; the Name of my Lord and Master is to me like the drug to the addict. ||2||

This is another one that always bothered me, because most tunes separate this as “Bin Naavai Mar Jaeeyai Mere Thakur”, Which almost sounds like “my thaakur dies without naam”. But it is not my thaakur who is dying, it’s me! So to make that clear I would have a short pause before mere thakur: “Bin Naavai Mar Jaeeyai, Mere Thakur, Jio Amli Amal Lubhana”.

ਸੰਤ ਕਾ ਦੋਖੀ   ਭੂਖਾ     ਨਹੀ ਰਾਜੈ || ਅੰਗ ੨੮੦

The slanderer of the Saint is hungry and is never satisfied.

If we put the bisraam after nahi, the whole meaning changes. “Sant Ka Dokhi Bhooka Nahi, Raaje” means the saint’s slanderer is not hungry, he is satisfied. If you put it after “bhooka”, it means he is hungry, not satisfied.

ਬਿਨੁ ਗੁਰ   ਮੁਕਤਿ ਨ      ਆਵੈ ਜਾਵੈ ॥ Panna 1040

Without the Guru, no one is liberated; coming and going in reincarnation continue.

Very similar to the previous example, if you put the bisraam in the middle, one might say “Bin Gur Mukat, Na Aavai Jaavai”. That would mean “without the guru we are liberated, we don’t come and go in reincarnation”. But according to gurmat we know that is not true. So it must be “Bin Gur, Mukat Naa (pause), Aavai Jaavai. “Without the guru, you are not liberated. You come and go..”

ਕਰਮਿ ਮਿਲੈ      ਨਾਹੀ ਠਾਕਿ ਰਹਾਈਆ ||੩||

They are received only by Your Grace. No one can block them or stop their flow. ||3||

One more very similar example. If the bisraam is after naahi, the meaning becomes “spiritual powers do not come through your grace, and they can be stopped. The correct pronunciation would be “Karam Milai, (pause) Naahi Thaak Rahaaeeya”.

ਨਾਨਕ      ਪਾਪ ਕਰੇ ਤਿਨ ਕਾਰਣਿ   ਜਾਸੀ ਜਮਪੁਰਿ ਬਾਧਾਤਾ ||੪||੨||੧੪|

O Nanak, she commits sins for their sake; she shall go, bound and gagged, to the City of Death. ||4||2||14||

I recently heard this line being sung as “Nanak Paap Kare, Tin Kaaran.. Jaasee Jampur Baadhata”. Which is basically saying “Nanak commits sins, for them..” But Nanak is not the one committing sins, the sinner who is being referred to was actually mentioned in the previous line. The actual bisraam is after Nanak – “Nanak (pause), Paap Kare Tin Kaaran..” In Gurbani, most pangtees that start with Nanak have a pause right after Nanak because it means “Nanak is saying”. By attaching the word Nanak to the phrase following it, we risk (unknowingly) disrespecting Guru Sahib!

I hope this was helpful to some of you. If you would like to learn more about Gurbani pronunciation and viakran, check out the video below by Giani Kulwinder Singh from UK. He talks about pausing as well as the poetic weight/balance and grammar used in Gurbani.

Please forgive me for any mistakes. If you have any additional points, comments, or examples, please post them in the comments below!

-Vikram Singh

 

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