My columns often emerge from conversations with friends; so does this today.
A reader, Gurjender Singh, responding to something I had written wondered about the banees that tradition tells us Guru Gobind Singh focused on at Vaisakhi 1699 at the initiation of the Khalsa. And then at a gathering of some young and not so young Sikhs, Ruchie Kaur, a bright young woman -- a doctoral candidate in education no less -- piped up: “Why does the Sikh Code of Conduct (Rehat Maryada) demand the daily grind of reading ad nauseum pages upon pages of gurbani?”
Why, she asked, such emphasis on nit-naym, the daily requirement of so much gurbani every morning and evening? What exactly does this meaningless repetition accomplish? How does it promote any understanding of what one is reading?
And finally: With so little time in the day isn’t this a waste?
Then she added salt to the wounds. “This is not just my question,” she said, “but one that many of us -- Sikh friends in school or at work -- often obsess about for it makes no sense.”
I readily confess that this has, at times, vexed us all. The riposte that all religions have similar requirements and recommendations is really no answer at all. It invites the retort “So what?”
To many the answer to the dilemma is simple: “We do nit-naym because our Guru asked us to.” The questions then come flying in our face: Which Guru, and when and where? And a raging battle ensues; the focus gets diffused and the purpose of the question entirely lost.
The first 13 pages of Guru Granth clearly lay out the hymns that comprise the minimal daily recitation. We know this because this portion is set apart from the rest of the corpus. Except for the major portion of Japji, the rest of the compositions are later repeated in the Guru Granth; they reappear, sometimes with minimal variation of a word or two, under the appropriate raga where they belong.
This puts the spotlight on the hymns on pages 1-13 and a natural inference is that they are to be specially read and experienced. This is what our tradition tells us and I can’t really imagine what other reason there would be for this special compendium of banees in the Guru Granth except as a core selection for a Sikh to focus on and integrate into his/her life. Given the history I would think that the selection comes from Guru Arjan who edited and compiled the Adi Granth himself in 1604, and which, with minor additions, became the Guru Granth a hundred years later in 1708.
Over time this small body of gurbani – the substance of the nitnaym -- has been embellished by the addition of some writings that tradition and scholarship attribute to Guru Gobind Singh. Historically, this was a Panthic decision made at the time that the Sikh Code of Conduct (Rehat Maryada) was formally codified in the last century from the unbroken traditions and antecedents of the Sikh people.
Obviously I have stated only my view; I haven’t really cited any evidence to support it beyond unbroken tradition. But this is likely how we have arrived at the composite collection of hymns of varying length that comprise the generally accepted banees that are to be read by a Sikh who follows the requirements of the faith. In practice, minor variations on the number and the selections exist even today.
Remember that the Rehat Maryada only codified existing traditions; it didn’t invent any de novo. How did the compositions that exist from page 1 to page 13 inclusive evolve into such a foundational role in a Sikh life; when exactly, how and by the mandate of which Guru, are not easy questions to delve into. The best I can do is to defer such concerns to another day. Perhaps the readers of this column will help me cogitate on matters that I am leaving unexplored at this time.
Today my focus is deliberately limited to the import of the nitnaym. Why do it – the meaning and the purpose. My initial stance on this is meant rile up readers. But indulge me a little longer. I hope to present a more useful rationale for the nitnaym.
It seems to me that most Sikhs can be classified into two categories: There are those that avow that continuous repetition of the name of God is the only true meditation and the goal of life, while rational analyses are just head games that find no place in God’s divine court. Thus salvation and liberation lie in the virtues of endless repetition of God’s name. They recommend “Naam dhyanaa” or Naam japnaa – as the primary virtue. Such believers cite endless lines of gurbani to buttress and promote this panacea for saving us from ourselves.
In support of this view we can cite the universal popularity of akhand paath – an unbroken, continuous reading of the entire Guru Granth over a 48 hour period, usually completed with minimal, if any, attention to meaning or context. I also add the popularity of practices like completing 51, 101 or some such number of recitations of the Sukhmani Sahib or repeating specific selections from the Guru Granth for 40 days or some such duration. A widespread practice I see is that of repeating the one word “Waheguru” in an uninterrupted stream for minutes or hours every day. These practices pass for simran in most cases and are likely useful exercises for focusing the mind.
The practitioners of this point out many exhortations – here I provide two that are oft-repeated: “Saṯgur jinī ḏẖi▫ā▫i▫ā se ṯaripaṯ agẖāhī, Guru Granth, p.88, Line 19 (Those who meditate on the True Guru are sated) and “Jinī ṯū ik man sacẖ ḏẖi▫ā▫i▫ā ṯin kā sabẖ ḏukẖ gavā▫i▫ā, Guru Granth, p. 301, Line 8 (Those who meditate on You, O True Lord, single-mindedly are freed from all suffering).
Then there are those (second category of Sikhs here) that repeatedly cite from Guru Granth to promote a dialogue with the Guru and an engagement with the message. These detractors label such repetitive pursuits as mindless parroting that diminish and demean gurbani. Physically taxing these habits surely are but are they instructive or transformative? In most cases, likely not! That’s my personal bias.
I see that the words dhiyaaya or “dhiyaana” come from the same root word “dhyaan” which means to pay attention or to contemplate, not mindless parroting in an endless cycle. This becomes clear from the Norma loquendi of ordinary everyday conversation when we speak of dhyan dena or dhyan karna, meaning respectively to give thought or pays attention. And attention to any matter or anybody, as we all know, requires the mind.
Experiencing the divine does not come from mere prattling of the name; bluntly warns the Guru Granth “Ram naam sabh ko kahae, kahiyae Ram na hoye,” p 491.
I am largely supportive of this somewhat rational notional view but it still leaves the young lady’s demurral about nitnaym and the question of her generation about its endless or thoughtless repetition on the table – relatively unaddressed. Is there any merit then to the directive that a Sikh must recite the nitnaym every day?
Even though reasoning by examples can land us into a quagmire, nevertheless, a few examples from life might help us move along the analytical process. I warn you that analogies go only so far; pushing them beyond their limits is distracting, misleading, unproductive and risky.
How do we train a soldier? What exactly is the purpose of the proverbial and much derided boot camp? The constant repetition, tedious, boring and tiresome, does not wait for the convenience of the trainee or whether the trainee is awake and rested. It is to make the recruit jump off the bed even when half dead with fear, fatigue and hunger -- weapon at the ready with the mind reacting reflexively, intuitively and instinctively – without pausing even a moment for rational analysis. The idea is for the training to become integral to the trainee’s sense of self and the driving force of his life. Waiting for a reasonable analysis may well tilt the battle towards defeat and death.
Another analogy: A budding physician learns the fundamentals of health and disease in the comparative luxury of a classroom, but what transforms one into a functionally competent independent physician is the back-breaking residency. It is here when days and nights merge into each other that he/she learns to react instinctively at a moment’s notice to a patient’s critical needs. An emergency is not the time to explore the textbooks.
But you say, “I’d never a soldier be for I am not joining any man’s army; also don’t want to be a physician. I am an ordinary Sikh in an ordinary job that puts enough food on the table and meets my needs just fine.
So I add a third example that is universal and without which we would never have much of a life: How does a child become a functioning adult? How does he/she learn basic life-skills?
The child starts with the alphabet. Think of the time, repetition and the years it takes to get beyond C-A-T and so on to imbibe the fundamentals of how to string letters together to make words that make sense – then move on to the complexities of sentence structure and the many shades of meaning inherent in them, some that are hidden in the linguist and cultural context.
A similar boot camp awaits the child in mastering numbers and how to manipulate them. Without the life affirming skills of the three R’s a child would surely remain dysfunctional and be lost in contemporary society. A lot of disciplined practice, tons of repetition and memorization go into mastering the skills for manipulating numbers and playing meaningfully with words.
In the final analysis, the purpose of learning the 3-R’s is not to just cram and be able to regurgitate on demand, but to find a defining place for them in life.
The purpose of nitnaym, too, is not just to practice its repetition to ensure that it is embedded in memory as in the elementary meaning of naam japnaa – as important as that is -- but to make it an exercise in reflection (dhianaa) – or as in another common expression as naam kamana, literally meaning to earn naam which can only come from living it.
Living an idea requires some understanding and mastery of it. And mastering every new skill, from the most trivial to the most complex — from swimming to rocket science mandates the grind of repetitive practice. As skill increases, joy progressively replaces the grinding ennui.
The idea of the nitnaym is no different from the 3-R’s; the memorization of the basics is learned early, the nuances of its usage takes a lifetime to work out. The trouble is that many of us get stuck at the level of C-A-T – never moving beyond that; it would be somewhat like never acquiring the ability to count from one to twenty without recourse to one’s fingers and toes.
Keep your eye on the ball, it is only mindful attention that matters; all else is cant and a waste; Guru Granth (p. 594) reminds us, “Dithhay mukt na hovayee jichar sabd na karay vichar.” It also asks us to note (p. 261) that a single word enshrined within can transform us (“Ek akhar har mun basat, Nanak hote nihaal.”), and that the entire creation inheres in the Word ("Akhar meh tribhavan prabh dharay.")
What discipline and repetition do is to make it possible for a set of meanings and values to become integrated into one’s life and even shape it. This then becomes a game-changing formula.
Given the reasoning that I have laid out a natural question would be: Why should I continue to honor the conventional nitnaym? I would think for the same reason that we unquestioningly follow most of the social mores of the community that nurtures us; any departures we make are usually not significant or outrageous. Our compliance increasingly reinforces the social compact that exists between us, our community, and our history.
The best doctors and soldiers continue to repeatedly nurture their basic training even as they keep adding layers of new meaning and application to it.
At one level, therefore, I am less concerned about exactly what compositions one reads every day or which one(s) get missed some days and more anxious that the disciplinary process be maintained. This is not so different from the idea of exercising the body on a regular schedule; it is not that some days one may vary the regimen somewhat but the fact that a much needed routine is maintained.
In our core belief represented in the nitnaym, too, the discipline of the repetition is only a step, though totally essential. That, when coupled with analysis and a hefty dose of grace, makes the maven. And then it transforms the purpose and the meaning of life.
Religion is, after all, not meant to make a living but is a way to make a life here on Earth. As a good friend, Jaidev Singh Anand reminds us “Awareness of His existence is Naam; Perpetuating that awareness is Simran!”
And then nitnaym remains no longer the daily grind but becomes an essential tool in self awareness.