(This painting is by Rupy C. Tut. Her artwork can be purchased at https://www.artbyrupy.com/. No copyright infringement intended.)
A bonus Sikhi Book Club meeting was held to mark our first year anniversary. At this meeting the book, ‘The Birds and Guru Granth Sahib’ by Dr Sukhbir Singh Kapoor and Mrs Mohinder Kaur Kapoor was discussed. The book can be found here.
- Analysis of the title, concept and production of the book
- Reflection of animal characteristics and their relevance to us today
- The importance of cultural context in interpretation of metaphors
- The importance of harmony with nature
- Historical place of birds within Sikhi
In depth analysis
The discussion kicked off with members highlighting the book’s unusual aspects. The book is not a novel or commentary but attempts to discuss the characteristics of the birds listed within Gurbani. The book goes through each bird in turn, providing biological information about the bird’s habitat and behaviour, along with references from Gurbani. The author gives a glimpse into the cultural view of particular birds and their mythological characteristics. The book is authored by Dr Sukhbir Singh Kapoor who has a passion for his subject and has written many other books as well. The authors make note that there is a lack of investment within Sikh Education and that this is a great limitation within the Panth today. It was noted within this book club’s discussion that a title such as ‘The Birds of Sri Guru Granth Sahib’ may have been a more fitting title rather than ‘The Birds and Guru Granth Sahib’. Also noted through the discussion were some birds mentioned within Gurbani which are not included in this book. Despite this the book was interesting as many Sikh-orientated books refer directly to spirituality, whereas this book bridged the (often wrongly) perceived gap between science and Gurbani.
Members reflected that the book was essentially of metaphors relating to birds, and that a lot of research must have been required to produce a book like this in the first place. The authors made note of characteristics of birds highlighted within Gurbani e.g. a heron being very cunning and hypocritical. It is certainly true that some birds are portrayed within Gurbani as having mainly certain negative or positive characteristics, which is obviously not the case. For example herons are not intrinsically bad birds. However it was recognised that many of the metaphors within Gurbani make reference to the common perceptions that people had during the time of different animals. These perceptions are culturally dependent. For example, today we may view cuckoos as being devious for the way they deposit their eggs into other birds’ nests but this didn’t appear to be the perception of the past. This highlighted the importance of taking cultural context into consideration when reading Gurbani.
It is interesting that people’s perceptions of birds can change over time and with education. For example, traditionally the swan is seen as beautiful and intelligent, devouring pearls from the riverbeds, and conversely crows are seen as ugly. Nowadays, it is understood that crows are actually much more intelligent than many other birds, and we now know that swans do not eat pearls. But as these were the prevalent beliefs of the time, and so were used to convey a message which readers could relate to. Nowadays we still have strong beliefs which are tied to emotion, but many of these beliefs involve the supernatural rather than natural phenomenon. Similarly symbols are used to create fear or propaganda in a way to influence people’s beliefs and perceptions. Such are the modern ways of influencing how we think.
It raised the question about the members as to whether the current generations of Sikhs are missing out on an understanding of these metaphors. For example, it is very rare in the UK to see certain birds which are mentioned within Gurbani. Sikhs often live in urban areas where they have limited contact with wildlife. This was not the case for the people living at the time when Gurbani was written. They would have been able to relate to the metaphors of birds and animals, whereas today we need to study the context of the metaphors before truly understanding Gurbani’s message. For example, Ganika is mentioned in Gurbani as having been liberated by the parrot teaching her how to recite the name of God. But nowhere in Gurbani is the story actually recounted. Therefore the people reading Gurbani need to have some understanding of that prevalent story of the time, before reading and understanding the message.
The members discussed the fact that reading about the birds mentioned within this book was enlightening as often we read Gurbani and hear the birds being discussed but actually don’t have an understanding of what these birds look like or how they behave. Some members believed the birds were mythical but actually the myths are steeped in truth. We discussed the terminology used e.g. the difference between a falcon, hawk and eagle. Guru Gobind Singh kept a falcon which is usually translated as a Baaj. Within this book the term Baaj is used to refer to a hawk. The Baaj was seen as a sign of royalty. It could not be kept within a cage as it would break any cage which held it. It was therefore supreme and could not be shackled.
The members concluded that we are potentially harming our connection with Gurbani by not being as attuned to nature as we once were. It would have been very common to come into contact with nature and indeed live within it in the past. This is much rarer now. Potentially we are losing something very valuable through our modern lifestyle and should keep an effort to maintain some connection and harmony with nature.