This month’s book was ‘Nargas; Songs of a Sikh’ by Bhai Vir Singh. The book can be accessed here.
We read the English translation of this book which was done by Puran Singh, with a foreword by Ernest Rhys.
Bhai Vir Singh is commonly described as the sixth river of Punjab. This is the second book we have discussed by him, having previously done the novel Bijay Singh, but is the first poetry book that the book club has discussed. The members initially begun by discussing the background to the book. We felt this was very well translated by Professor Puran Singh, and ultimately was a reflection of Professor Puran Singh as well as Bhai Vir Singh. Members who did not regard themselves as fans of poetry were won over by this book, especially through the first poem which captured the attention of the readers and spoke to the heart (rather than the mind). The title of the book was ‘Nargas’ which refers to a narcissus flower, which reflectsthe nature of many of the poems that are centred around natural beauty, the nature of a limited lifespan. In the same way that people gather flowers in a bunch, so collected is this anthology of poems. This book is a hundred years old, and through reading one has direct access to the mind of Bhai Vir Singh which is a very great honour.
The members then went on to discuss the poems which had touched us the most.
Firstly we discussed the ‘Dewdrop on the Lotus Leaf’. This was felt to be an uplifting poem with beautiful imagery describing the perspective of a droplet which quivers on the edge of a leaf, reflecting the fragility of life and representing the journey of the Atma. The poem referred indirectly to the rain cycle, where by water droplets are drawn up to the skies, and dropped again from above. The suggestive imagery is highly powerful and draws the reader in. Many of the members reflected that they gained more from the poems the more they were read.
The poem ‘Moonlight’ was much less obvious in meaning. It described the relationship between the moon, moonlight and everything the moonlight touches but used an analogy of a loving relationship built on eternal love. It was noted in different versions of the English translation of this book, that there were some footnotes and references in Punjabi. The Punjabi words were noted to evoke a different feeling when uttered aloud compared with the English words for moonlight. Moonlight falls on all (good and bad) and although it touches everything it also remains detached from everything. It is a kinder light than the sun, but the sun ultimately pours light on the moon. Waheguru is the sun, the Guru is the moon and we are all basking in the reflection.
The poem ‘Nargas’ gives its name to the title of the book. Bhai Vir Singh reflects on spirituality through the lens of a flower and a plant. There is a focus on the light of the beloved and a rejection of the limited lifespan of a physical body. This poem was felt to evoke emotions of sadness within the reader. The writer emphasised that the Divine was not meant to be searched for, but was something to be experienced instead. Readers were reminded of the image of a yogi waiting for Darshan of the Guru.
The Birth of Ganga was discussed next. This poem described the relationship between the river Ganga, the mountains of its origin and the sea. Ganga’s idea of the sea was that it was peaceful and tranquil, but on arriving to the sea it realised that the sea was full of anger. Retrospectively it looked back and realised that its origin in the mountains was full of virtue and peace and it longed to rejoin with this. Possibly this is a reflection of our own spiritual journey and how we see people (and chase after them) but often get disappointed. Bhai Gurdas Ji describes a Sikh as flowing water, which feeds all and flows for all, just like the Ganga river. The poem also reflected the play that Maya has on individuals. It grabs us by the waist and we struggle, but eventually realise the truth is where we came from.
The poem about the flower-gatherer prompted discussion about the tradition of giving flowers and whether this was truly ethical or necessary. Certainly in Punjabi culture flower giving is very traditional and often done at celebrations where an attitude of ‘more is more’ often takes precedence over modesty.
The poem ‘Cuckoo & her little ones’ reflected on parenthood and the limitations of how much one can realistically do when raising children. To a certain extent how your children turn out is outwith your control. Similarly it could be about Maya and how a lucky few souls within this world feel a truer calling to their source-Divine, regardless of their made identity in the world. This poem felt sadder, especially when considered from the crow’s perspective. But at the same time the readers recognised that Maya has the power to delude us into feeling sorry for it!
The search of the Jumna was the second poem in the book to reference the flow of an important Indian river. However this poem was slightly different to that of the Ganges, as it was written about the relationship of the river to Guru Gobind Singh Ji. The river is initially joyous at the meeting with Guru, but once the Guru physically leaves the river’s waters the Jumna’s search begins. It doesn’t accept the knowledge of the Yogis that the Guru is everything including the river itself but continues searching, dedicating the flow of its waters to the Guru’s name. The feeling of Bairaag then takes over, and the river continuously thirsts for the feeling and vision of the Guru. The members wondered why the poem ended at this point. It is as if the journey reflects our own journeys – many of us will not truly understand or experience the Guru but continue searching through life.
Continuing along this theme, some of the other poems described Waheguru as non-speaking and non-smiling. Perhaps sometimes we experience God from a distance; we feel as if we are looking through a window but not fully connected I.e. in a state of duality. Other poems were more uplifting and described the experience of Anhad Shabad, unending blissful thought of Waheguru. The imagery used by Bhai Vir continued to be very powerful e.g. ‘My blind senses feel the marble of His towers so high.’ Normal prose is perhaps not enough to convey a feeling like this.
The last two poems that the members discussed were ‘I made my mind the beggar’s bowl’. This poem highlighted the significant phenomenon whereby one spends time and effort accumulating knowledge, only to have it turned upside down and emptied. There is a fine line between Vidhya and Avidhya. In the latter state, knowledge becomes a curse as it feeds one’s own ego rather than anything else. In this situation, the dirt of learning needs to be removed.
The last poem of the book is entitled ‘We are the ever-green branches of the orange tree’. The poem is written from the point of view of an orange tree in Amritsar which is being cut down. The members had different views of what Bhai Vir Singh was writing about here. Some felt that the orange tree understood the worth of being in Amritsar, but the wielders of the axe didn’t. Perhaps this poem was about the changes taking place in Amritsar at Bhai Vir Singh’s time. Others felt that the references to the branches being immortal implied something different, namely the persistent existence of the Khalsa. Many people in the world do not understand the need for the Khalsa and others repeatedly attempt to destroy it. Despite this it remains immortal and continues to regenerate.
The members concluded by reflecting on the poetry book as a whole. This book is meant to be read from those of differing perspectives. Each poem means something different to individuals. The book could be considered a good introduction to Sikhi for a newcomer, and provides an overall flavour of the emotions that the Panth has. It is also a good start for anyone unfamiliar with poetry. The members felt that it was beneficial to discuss the poems after reading them rather than simply reading them once, as this opened up avenues of other meanings. Altogether Nargas is highly recommended.