‘Mysticism of Guru Nanak’ by Dewan Singh

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This month’s book was ‘Mysticism of Guru Nanak’ by Dewan Singh. Dewan Singh notes that the book had input from many other eminent writers including S. S. Kohli who’s work has previously featured in the book club. The book can be found here.

The members initially reflected on the title of the book, which piqued interest for some. The concept of mysticism is intriguing and often a term that we think we understand but are woefully inadequate at explaining to others (as was evident in this month’s meeting). The members wondered whether the author had assumed a reasonably high level of knowledge about both mysticism and Sikhi on the part of the reader. Our conclusion was that mysticism is essentially exploring knowledge and spirituality through action and experience, as opposed to the practice of pure ritualism within doctrine and institutions; essentially it is an inner path. More broadly, we discussed whether the general Sikh population commonly recognises Sikhi as a mystic path. Feelings were mixed on this point, with some saying that the majority of Sikhs are not familiar with mysticism and others saying that they would frequently hear people describing Sikhi as a mystic faith.

There was no doubt that this book was technically written in places, and the author drew on many other sources (both from within Sikh spheres and externally). The book was referenced at the end of the each chapter. It was noted that some of these references were secondary or tertiary in nature e.g. this author referenced another who had quoted from yet another text. There was also an assumption by the author that the reader was familiar with other philosophies including that of Plato and other scholars. It appeared that the author’s aim was to show that many philosophies recognize an ultimate truth but he stopped short of saying that all are attempting to say the same thing. Instead he called attention to the unique aspects of Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s life and writings, highlighting the novel ways in which the Guru bridged the gap between many different spiritual concepts.

The members discussed whether understanding some of the concepts in the book was absolutely necessary e.g. Nirgun, Sargun, Godhead, Maya. It was felt that some of these concepts should be read by Sikhs to ensure our Dharam isn’t brought down to a superficial level by Abrahamic terminology. At the same time, there is no replacement for directly experiencing these concepts for oneself (through actions such as meditation and Naam). The book compared many of these concepts to those of other traditions. For example, the Khands were compared with the seven spiritual stages associated with the Sufis. Each concept was compared with multiple other traditions, which made the book slightly more challenging to read.

The members discussed the term Godhead and the panentheistic nature of the Sikh path. Some had heard of these terms before whereas others had not. The members used excerpts from the book to examine the concept that all the divinities in the Hindu pantheon are aspects of a unity, this is called the Godhead (and this is sometimes considered to be Krishna). The author described the Godhead at Parmatma but also seemed to imply that one has to go beyond this to attain true reality. We discussed the authors viewpoint that the Sikh dharam is panentheistic I.e. that the Divine is within creation and actively part of it in varying forms, but also able to exist separate from creation and not dependent upon it.

We went through each chapter in turn, picking out the points which had struck us the most. Maya was examined and likened to the smoke from a smoking gun (you see the smoke, but not the gun which produced it). Similarly when you have an awareness of the gun (the creator of the smoke) then Maya is unreal (one realises that the smoke is not the full reality). An interesting point made by the author was that creation must be real as it is creation of the Real True Lord. This was interesting as many Sikh people describe the world as a complete illusion akin to the concepts expressed in films such as the Matrix. The ultimate point in this chapter was the fact that true awareness by progression on the path of a mystic is the key to understanding the One reality.

The author also talked about Hukam as being mistranslated into the word ‘will’, a word which is more in fitting with the Islamic concept of God’s will. Hukam for the Sikh Dharam is more like the flow of a river, ever-flowing and ever-changing. The author described two levels of Hukam: a higher level which is essentially manifestation of the Divine flow, and a lower level which is on the part of the beholder who recognises the need for submissive acceptance to this flow and humble resignation. Hukam Yoga was also mentioned as a concept of reunion or self-realisation. (Reunion is probably the wrong word as it indicates the the individual and Parmatma were separated at some point, but in reality this is only a perceived separation on the part of the individual. Ultimately no separation has ever taken place.) This led into a discussion about how language can influence one’s mindset and bring about a situation where Sikhs feel that God is far away from them.

The chapter on nature mysticism on the surface appeared to be very straightforward – Guru Nanak Dev Ji praises nature highly and uses it’s imagery repeatedly within Gurbani. He was clearly at one with nature. The members discussed the power of nature in providing spiritual experiences to individuals. There was some interesting discussion on whether nature itself is providing the spiritual experience of bliss, or whether it is one’s mindset which perceives this as such. For example, many of the landscapes we see thesedays are often materially man-made or heavily influenced by humankind. However because we are unaware of this we feel that we are in ‘God’s creation’ and gain a sense of peace. In reality everything (including cities and urban areas is ultimately an expression of Parmatma) and it is our own minds which influence our perceptions and feelings.

The author was firm in this book that the Khands mentioned in Jap Ji Sahib are are spiritual planes as opposed to physical realms. Not for the first time, the book club discussed this at length. There is anecdotal evidence from several individuals in the Sikh Panth who are regarded as being very spiritually elevated, and this evidence indicates that physical realms are possibilities.

Finally the members discussed the author’s analysis of Naam, Grace and Guru. Naam was described as a state of mind as opposed to pure repetition alone. It is a process which affects your heart and transforms your personality rather than anything else. The often complexly described ideas of Grace and free will were concisely summed up by the author who highlighted that although Hukam is ever-flowing, one must do what one can given the opportunity, but ultimately we must depend on kirpa. The Guru themselves are more than a link to Parmatma, but akin to a portal which can influence self-realisation. Although many beliefs surrounding transmigration and spiritual enlightenment is shared by Sikhi and other traditions, the Guru provides direct access to fundamental spiritual knowledge and enlightenment.

Overall the members reflected that this book was well worth reading, and provided a slightly different lens from which to view Sikhi due to its focus on mysticism. Although the book was challenging in terms of its language and references to many other scholars, the fundamental concepts described were highly relevant to Sikh people. This book could be read by Sikh people with a general understanding of Sikh principles, but could also be read by external people who have an interest in philosophy and theology associated with other forms of mysticism.

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