Inspirational Reading of Guru Granth Sahib

The term ‘Paath’ is used to distinguish this reading, which is akin to ‘recitation’

Abstract (79K)

THE READING OF THE GURU GRANTH is not like a reading of any book or even a scripture. Traditionally the term ‘Paath’ is used to distinguish this reading, which is somewhat akin to another term ‘recitation’. The latter term still does not describe the real process of paath, but for lack of a more suitable alternate in English language we will continue to use the term Guru Granth reading to describe the spiritual Sikh practice of the Guru Granth recitation. Actually, the reading is more of a personal experience with the Guru in the form of Gurubani verses.

Guru Granth reading requires an appropriate motivation and a proper skill to be Guru-oriented. Both of these are be yond a mechanical reading, or doing ritualist paath. To receive any benefit one has to know why to read and how to read. The Guru censures those as ego-oriented who read without knowing the skill of reading:

“pVih mnmuK pru ibiD nhI jwnw ]” (SGGS: 1032)1
i.e. the ego-oriented people recite the scriptures, but they do not have the proper skill to do so.

Paath As Communion with Guru: Traditionally, every Sikh or seeker is urged to personally engage in formal reading of the Guru Granth at least once a day as a pre-breakfast routine. It is so documented by Sikh theologian, Bhai Gurdas, and so formalized in the Sikh Code of Conduct that was accepted by the Sikhs’ premier organization, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee. Bhai Gurdas said:

gruisK Blk yaTu kir AimqR vly ysr unwHvdMw ]
guru kY bcn aucwir kY Drmswl dI suriq krMdw ]
(Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 40 , Pauri 11)3
“Bhai Gurdas reported that the Sikhs of the Guru woke up early in the morning, took bath and read the verses of the Guru before proceeding towards the house of congregation”.

Similarly, it is suggested in the Sikh Code of Conduct that

hr iek isK AMimRq vyly pRSwid Ckx qoN pihlW sRI gurU gRMQ swihb jI dw hukm lvy [
jy ies vyly aukwrI ho jwvy qW idn ivc iksy n iksy vyly pwT kry jW suxy [

“Every Sikh should read a passage from Sri Guru Granth Sahib daily before breakfast. Should this be missed on any day, the sacred reading or listening to a passage from the Granth may be done any other time of the day”.

There should be hardly any one who is serious about Gurmat, or the Guru’s path, and find this routine difficult to follow. Everybody goes to bed at night and everybody gets up in the morning. So, everybody can spare a few extra minutes for the Guru Granth reading in the morning and, then, possibly at night, from the twenty-four hours we are given every day. For more serious seekers, there will always be another interval sometime during the day to seek the Guru’s vision through reciting from the Guru Granth. Once we begin on this path, gradually, the reading periods begin to become a regular feature of our existence, and, if we are fortunate, we are silently contemplating on the Guru’s verses at any or every hour of the day. This way we learn to open consciousness, if it is but for a moment, and find ourselves in a state of receptivity to the Guru’s vision. This state is considered worthy of praise:

kurbwxI iqnW gurisKW gurbwxI inq gwie suxMdy] (Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 12, Pauri 2)3
“Bhai Gurdas says that he is sacrifice to those seekers who engage in singing and listening to the Guru’s verses at all the time”.

According to Bhai Gurdas, besides the Sikhs, the recitation of the Guru Granth was also employed to propagate the Guru’s views to all others in the world:

kir pwT gRMQ jgq sB qirau ] (Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 41, Pauri 21)3
“The whole world may undertake the sacred reading of the Guru Granth to sail through the sea of temptations in the human existence”.

Formally, the Gurbani reading is done privately as well as in an environment of a congregation, or any other public or private place especially furnished for this purpose. We will limit ourselves to discussion of a situation in which an individual seeker wishes to engage in one to one conversations with the Guru Granth Sahib.

Not a Ritual: Ritual of reading is considered fruitless in the Sikh tradition. Rather, the Guru Granth reading is a discourse with consciousness (surati) where concentration of mind and intellect are used in the spiritual understanding. Through this reading, the theology and its life applications are understood in the light of the Guru’s teaching. This is illustrated in the following description of ritualistic or scholastic reading by Bhai Gurdas.

bdy pwT kir bhRmwidk n jwn yh Y] (Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 21, Pauri 21[3])
“By mere reading of the scriptures, scholars have not been able to comprehend the Divine.”

Further, Bhai Gurdas says:

byd pwT piV piV pMfq prboDY jgu [ sky n smoD mn iqRsnw n hwrI hY [
pUrn bRhm gurdyv syv swDsMg [ sbd suriq ilv bRhm bIcwrI hY [
(Bhai Gurdas, Kabit 457)2
“By repeated reading of the scripture scholars win others, but they neither can bring their mind to any control nor can they satisfy their greed. Only through serving the Guru (following the Guru’s teachings) in the company of holy men, one may bring the Word of the Guru in the consciousness and contemplate on the Timeless.”

One may mention here that to “experience” the verses is different from a comprehension of the philosophy imbibed in the verses. This difference forms the real backbone of the seeker’s religious practices. In the seeker’s case, as opposed to a scholar or a philosopher, the experiences influence philosophical and religious theories.It is also true that, “philosophical beliefs” shape our religious modus operandi, provide specific expectations, and thus have a formative influence on the kinds of experience that are actually produced.

Reading as Spiritual testimony:

Through this practice, a stage of mental concentration must be reached when one is able to witness the Guru in the consciousness. This stage is beyond the realm of intellectual understanding. As Guru Says:

buiD pwiT n pweIAY bhu cqurweIAY Bwie imlY min Bwxy ] (SGGS: 436)
“One does not obtain the essence through intellectual recitation or immense shrewdness; the essence is obtained through faith and adoration”.

Before this stage is reached, one has to be intellectually convinced, earlier in the process, that there is a theoretical character of the experience as a step in the direction of evoking the Guru within oneself. Intellectual acceptance is necessary - and an inescapable prerequisite for this experience as is the faith in the person of the Guru. Then the testimony of the shabad parman leads to an affirmation of an otherwise un-affirmable relationship between one’s consciousness and the Word of the Guru.

This state may be termed as the ‘witness consciousness’. At this stage, one witnesses the Guru reflected in the consciousness in stages, like the reflection of moon in the lake water; first on a wave, then on ripples, and finally on a quiet and unruffled expanse of water. For example, Guru Ram Das says,

AMimRq bwxI gur kI mITI ] gurmuiK ivrlY iknY ciK fITI ]
AMqir prgwsu mhw rsu pIvY dir scY sbdu vjwvixAw ]
(SGGS:113)
“The life-giving word of the Guru is very sweet. Rarely some Guru-oriented seekers may witness and taste it. If they do, then the Divine Nectar would shine within their heart and they will drink the supreme essence. Then they are at the Gate of the Truth, which vibrates to them like a musical instrument”:

hir gux gwvY sdw idnu rwqI mY hir jsu khqy AMqu n lhIAw ]
gurmuiK mnUAw iekqu Gir AwvY imlau guopwl nIswnu bjeIAw ]
nYnI dyiK drsu mnu iqRpqY sRvx bwxI gur sbdu suxeIAw ]
suin suin Awqm dyv hY BIny ris ris rwm gopwl rveIAw ]
qRY gux mwieAw moih ivAwpy qurIAw gux hY gurmuiK lhIAw ]
eyk idRsit sB sm kir jwxY ndrI AwvY sBu bRhmu psreIAw ]
(SGGS: 833)
“I continuously sing the Glorious Praises of the Lord, day and night; singing the Lord’s Praises, I cannot find the limits. The mind of the Guruoriented returns to its own home; it meets the Lord of the Universe, to the beat of the celestial drum. I see the Divine with my eyes, then my mind is satisfied; with my ears. I listen to the Guru’s Bani, and the Word of His Sabad, By listening, my soul is softened, delighted by the realization of subtle essence, charting the Name of the Lord of the Universe. In the grip of the three qualities, they are engrossed in love and attachment to Maya; only as Guru - oriented do they find the absolute quality, absorption in bliss. With a single, impartial eye, look upon all alike, and witness God pervading all.”

This stage is essential to derive full benefit of the reading practice. It is to actually witness the truths of the Guru’s teachings within the consciousness. To repeat, what it means is that during the practice of the Gurbani reading when one achieves the mindfulness with the truths of spirituality, one is able to readily employ a deep introspection to experience the divinity. Then the darkness of ignorance disappears:

dIvw blY AMDyrw jwie ] byd pwT miq pwpw Kwie ]
augvY sUru n jwpY cMd ] jh igAwn pRgwsu AigAwn imtMqu ]
(SGGS:791)
“When the lamp is lit, the darkness is dispelled; through reading the scriptures, sinful intellect is destroyed. It is like when the sun rises, the moon is not visible. Wherever spiritual wisdom appears, ignorance is dispelled”.

Within the context of witnessing the verses of the sacred writings, you must be able to bring into mind a clear image of the sacred verses. Until one learns the real sense of the achievement of visualizing this imagery many methods must be employed to acquire the skill of promoting such achievement. Although it is difficult to describe something which is a prerogative of the practitioners only, it is sufficient to say that the skill comes from the company of the enlightened co-seekers or the enlightened clergy. The main difficulty in the way of achieving this state is mental obscurantism, lack of faith and motivation.

Through practice, one learns that one’s own mind is in reality none other than the embodiment of the message. To cut through the ordinary and deceptive appearances stemming from ignorance, one practices a mental merger in the verse. One assumes the “divine role” of being a doer and the witness, and regards all visions as pure expressions of the Guru’s teachings. This includes imagining one’s own body in an idealized enlightened form, the embodiment of enlightened wisdom, or compassion. Before one is able to employ such extensive spiritual imagination, it is essential that one recognizes the conceptually contrived nature of one’s experience of reality. One will learn to experience this identification through one’s body, mind, and the environment. Bhagat Kabir expresses the witness experience as:

Apuny hir pRB kI hau golI ]
jb hm hir syqI mnu mwinAw kir dIno jgqu sBu gol AmolI ]
rhwau] krhu ibbyku sMq jn BweI Koij ihrdY dyiK FMFolI ]
hir hir rUp sBu joiq sbweI hir inkit vsY hir kolI ]
(SGGS: 168)
“I am the maid-servant of my Lord God. When my mind was convinced and submitted to the Lord, it brought everything in my control. Be wise and consider this well, O Saints, O Siblings of Destiny – search your own hearts, seek and find. The Beauty and the Light of the Lord is present in all. In all places, the Lord dwells nearby, close at hand.”

Discursive Reading: Many seekers of spirituality when begin to read the Guru Granth may often find themselves in a situation where they are incapable of resuming (or ever adopting) a critical outlook on some verses. Therefore, they feel incapable of obtaining understanding and making it available to others. This is often not a question of ignorance of Gurbani grammar, or otherwise its transliterate meaning. But, rather, it confronts an aspect of theology, which, if accepted, would unsettle the inherited thoughts of the reader. The scholarship is irrelevant here. One would learn, later on, the path of the Guru that the doubts that we entertain with respect to very unfamiliar theology are largely the outcome of prejudices shaped by our experiences with more familiar theology. Although one will be forced not to be objective here, one must realize that it is always due to our dogmatic biases on the relevance of religion, philosophy, and ethics to the mystical experiences. The Guru says:

pMifq pVih swdu n pwvih ] dUjY Bwie mwieAw mnu Brmwvih ]
mwieAw moih sB suiD gvweI kir Avgx pCoqwvixAw ]
(SGGS: 116)
“The Pandits, the religious scholars, read but they cannot taste the essence. They are attracted by the theology of duality and Maya, their minds are unfocused and wander in doubts. The attachment of Maya has displaced all their understanding; making mistakes, they live in regret.”

In such a case, these seekers may often continue to proceed with their reading to seek spirituality from the Guru by initially accepting the sabad parmaan contained in the verses uncritically. They should be aware that there is a strong tendency not to wait and make a big issue of what - transiently - does not conform to human reasoning. These tendencies push you to act on the most probable hypothesis in order to explain situations that we do not comprehend. We, inadvertently, trust that our animal intellect would prove us wise! The fact is that only a faith on our Guru will satisfy the heart in our quest for salvation or enlightenment. We should not let the faith weaken because faith is considered a wellspring of insight into the Divine mysteries. Guru Arjun states it this way:

bIs ibsvY gur kw mnu mwnY] so syvku prmysur kI giq jwnY] (SGGS: 287)
“One who obeys the Guru’s Teachings one hundred percent – that selfless servant comes to comprehend the nature of the Transcendent Lord.”

Too much doubt at the outset will hold us back and prevent us from entering the spiritual domain. It is the task of the Guru-oriented seeker to distinguish between valid instructions and put them into a practice. The mystical and spiritual knowledge can hardly be learned in any other way. The religious or philosophical superstructure, which is often added on the transcendent knowledge, sometime is not equally meaningful to a seeker. They are just religious and moral paraphernalia, which are more important only to a scholar or a fundamentalist, rather than to a seeker. On account of these, and other consideration, it is best to suspend doubt for the time being if we wish to continue learning from the Guru. At this stage one must be conscious of the fact that such an early stage will not last forever if we persevere in our search. At a later, and more advanced stage, we will be able to resort to analysis and critical evaluation, and not stray into the domain of sleepwalk without gaining any significant knowledge or understanding:

guru bwxI khY syvku jn mwnY prqiK gurU insqwry ] (SGGS: 982)
“When the humble servant accepts and acts according to the Word of the Guru, then the Guru emancipates him in person.”

Another phase of this training in discursive reading is designed to cast light on the unsatisfactory nature of any state of existence. Regardless of the nature of one’s existence, as long as it is conditioned by one’s mental afflictions, one remains vulnerable to all manner of pain and grief. By focusing on the pervasiveness of suffering on account of separation from the Creator, one’s disillusionment becomes complete, leaving only one priority: to attain nirvana, in which there is a total and irreversible freedom from all suffering:

gwvIAY suxIAY min rKIAY Bwau ] duKu prhir suKu Gir lY jwie ] (SGGS: 2)
“Recite and listen, with loving faith in your mind. Your afflictions shall be dispelled and peace shall come home.”

The shift in understanding occurs directly as a result of one’s sustained experience with apparently contradictory understanding of the sabad parmaan and the benefits of attaining enlightenment. Each of us gains by diverse ways of attending to things on account of the sort of a universe we believe to inhabit. With our emphasis on the vanity of mundane things, a sense of sin, or a fear of being inept, as beginners in seeking, we seem to be aiming at inducing the state of the “sick soul” eloquently discussed in William James’s (1902-1982), The Varieties of Religious Experience. Far from condemning the confused soul, James claims that this mind-state images over a wider scale of experience than that of those who avert their attention from confusion, or evil, and live simply in the light of good. The “healthy-minded” attitude of the latter, he says, is splendid as long as it will work; but it breaks down impotently as soon as frustration and melancholy arise. Moreover, the evil facts that the “healthyminded” individual refuses to acknowledge are a genuine part of reality, which, he suggests, may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

Paath is Conceptual Analysis:

There is a difference between a reading of the verses as a traditional meditation and a study of the verses to learn spiritual concepts. Today’s seeker would know the degree of difference that separates meditation from concept analysis, just as the religion differs from the scientific mentality. Sikh theologian, Bhai Gurdas describes the encounter between a Sikh and the Guru as:

sRIgur drs iDAwn sRIgur sbd igAwn [ ssqR snwh pMc dUq bis Awey hY [ (Bhai Gurdas, Kabit 135)2
“To focus on the Guru’s portrayal is to dwell on the comprehension of Guru’s sabad. This comprehension of the knowledge becomes a weapon to conquer the five evils.”

Further, Bhai Gurdas accepts only that person as worthy of the Guru’s religion that is Guru-oriented and who obeys the Guru’s will in accordance with the deep deliberation of the Guru’s verses:

gurmuK mwrg AwKIAY gurmiq ihqkwrI ]
hukm rjweI clxw gur Sbd vIcwrI]
(Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 9, Pauri 2)3
“The Way of Guru-oriented is defined as adoption to the wisdom of the Guru; also to live in the Will of the Lord and to contemplate upon the Word of the Guru”.

Formation of conceptual constructs must be an aim of reading of the verses from the Guru Granth. It corresponds roughly to the modern philosophical notion of conceptual construct. Such conceptual identification often, but not invariably, entails a reification of the spiritual entity, such that it is apprehended as existing independently of the conceptual designation of it to form a belief.

Although a conceptual analysis of belief is far too vast a topic to treat adequately in the present context, it may be worthwhile to note James’s perspective on this matter. In his essay entitled “Faith, and the Right to Believe”, William James4 identifies two kinds of intellectuals. Rational intellectuals “lay stress on deductive and ‘dialectic’ arguments, making large use of abstract concepts and pure logic.

Empiricist intellectuals “are more ‘scientific’, and think that the order must be sought in our sensible experiences which are found in hypotheses based exclusively thereon”. In this light, a seeker more inclined to mysticism would seem to bear the earmarks of an empiricist intellectual, while a more traditional seeker would appear to be a rational intellectual.

Both are accepted in the Sikh tradition. Intellectualism alone is inadequate when it thinks that one can gain knowledge best only by a mind becoming receptive passively. The faithful admirer seeks qualities of the objective of the faith with a sense of appreciation or even adoration. For a seeker, such a faith is especially focused on the qualities of enlightenment, and adoration is felt towards the Guru who embodies the enlightenment.

Further, the faith of yearning entails a conviction that it is possible to realize in oneself the Divine qualities that one admires, and with such faith one aspires to do so. As some one put it, “Uncritical grasping of dogmas is dupe, while extreme skepticism is simply a mental affliction”.

DrHarbansLal (25K)There is a middle way that is advocated for a reader of the Guru Granth. It is to place one’s faith and trust in the enlightenment of the Guru, and yet to continue to question one’s own understanding of the Guru’s teachings. Without faith, there would be no inspiration to enter the path to enlightenment, but without using one’s critical faculties it would be impossible to progress along that path. One must keep in mind that, while the enlightenment from the historical Guru took place in the past, one’s own enlightenment lies in the future.

Originally published in The Sikh Review July 2013 ~ reproduced with permission from the author, Dr. Harbans Lal.

Dr. Harbans Lal

Dr. (Bhai) Harbans Lal is a distinguished Pharmacologist and a recognized scholar of Sikhism. Professor Lal has been published in all the major Sikh journals. His present interests lie in promoting Sikh Studies in North America.

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