Dictionary of Mythological References in Guru Granth Sahib by Surinder Singh Kohli

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This month Sikhi Book Club discussed ‘Dictionary of Mythological References in Guru Granth Sahib.’ A pdf of this book can be found here.

The book club started off by getting people’s thoughts on covering a reference book! This isn’t usually the type of book we cover, but we have read a book previously by the same author. This book is entitled a dictionary, but the members discussed that it felt a bit more than this as it had a lot of commentary on the mythological concepts within Gurbani. Equally it was challenging to read in places, and was intended as a reference text rather than a book to be read cover to cover. However there are advantages to reading a book like this. It can sit on one’s shelf for a long time, and never be read. But reading it provides familiarity and means that you’re more likely to pick it up as a reference text in the future. You’re unlikely to refer to a book you’ve never even touched!

The members reflected on the fact that this book contained a wealth of information about the different legends and myths of Indian culture which are referred to in Gurbani. Many of these references have lost meaning to a modern generation of Sikhs, partly because these stories are not commonly heard or told now. It’s sad that many Sikhs, old and young, feel that it is not necessary to learn about the significance of these stories. One must assume that the Gurus have described these stories for a reason, and even Guru Gobind Singh Ji has written the Gobind Gita. There was some debate in the book club as to whether the inclusion of these stories in Gurbani means they are fundamentally factual (on the premise that everything in Gurbani is ultimate truth) or whether these stories are simply metaphorical with deeper spiritual meanings. Some felt that Gurbani does more than just reinterpreting the stories, but actually is describing various aspects of Parmatma through these stories.

All were in agreement that Sikhs should have a basic understanding of Indian mythology in order to get a richer experience out of Gurbani. Gurbani can be understood in many different ways. Some of these levels might be very basic or literal to begin with. As time goes on, further study might mean that deeper understanding is acquired. In the same way, school children have a basic understanding of mathematics at a young age, but this grows with further study. Knowing the context behind Indian mythology means that different aspects of Gurbani’s meanings can be discovered.

The members then went onto discuss why certain stories are more commonly quoted and known in the public Sikh domain compared with others. For example, the story of Ganika is commonly quoted, but the story of Durga is less commonly known. Perhaps it is a human tendency that Sikhs hold onto some myths more than others, depending on what we want to obtain from the stories; cherry-picking depending on our state of mind. It was interesting to read about the references to other traditions in Gurbani, such as Buddha, Azrail and Adam. There was commentary by the author on how reference of Buddha has been manipulated by some communities in India in an attempt to maintain superiority of one sect over another. Explanations were provided and discussed by the members of discrepancies in some mythological references, e.g. why there are sometimes considered to be 14 incarnations of Vishnu versus 10 incarnations as appears elsewhere.

All in all the members felt that, whilst this book was difficult to read at times from a cover-to-cover perspective, it provided valuable insights into the role that mythology can play in higher spiritual awareness. It also provides a good reference for modern day Sikhs who are not as familiar with Indian mythology, who may be struggling to comprehend some of the contextual narrative behind Gurbani shabads.

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