This month the Sikhi Book Club discussed ‘The Thirty-Five Letters: Paintis Akhari’ by Dr Kamalroop Singh. This article is available as a pdf from here.
This article presents a composition known as ‘Paintis Akhari’ with a commentary on its history, authenticity and a translation into English. Some believe that this composition was written by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, whilst others believe it was composed by a Sikh under the instruction of the Guru. Others doubt its authenticity altogether. Although there are compositions within Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji which draw on the 35 letters of Gurmukhi in a similar style, this particular composition does not appear in Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, but does appear in historical pothis and granths.
The majority of members had not heard of this relatively unknown composition before. After having read the article, and especially the content and meanings of the composition, most felt the questions about authorship were not necessarily a problem in the grand scheme of things. It was clear to the members that the composition contained great words of wisdom which could be used to improve our lives, regardless of its authenticity and place in history.
The members discussed that this article sheds light on possible compositions from our history which are not commonly acknowledged by the Panth. It raised the question as to how many other texts might exist which demonstrate pieces of our culture and history, but are shunned due to being labelled as outside of Gurbani. One member reflected that the majority of worldly knowledge used by Sikhs in school, university and work is all outside of Gurbani, yet Sikhs place a high emphasis on education and learning without worrying about whether it is Gurbani or not. Within the domain of Sikhi we have adopted a highly compartmentalised mindset, where Gurbani alone is regarded as valuable and everything else is discarded. It is often ironic that people espousing this view have not read or understand Gurbani either. The members reflected that there can be value in broadening horizons by encouraging open-minded reading without fear of judgement. Indeed traditional methods of Sikhi learning would actively encourage this.
The article highlighted the importance of the Paintis Akhari (35 letters of Gurmukhi). The article implied that the language of Gurmukhi has ancient roots, and discussed the possible origins of the letters and links with other ancient scriptures. The importance of Muharni was emphasised – this is the traditional method of reciting and gaining familiarity with each letter in Gurbani, and is still used to today in Santhia. The members reflected that previous elevated souls such as Baba Bishan Singh Ji used to say that all the knowledge of the world can be attained through the understanding and recitation of these 35 letters. Today organisations such as Taksal and Nihang Santhia emphasise that 70% of Santhia is through the complete mastery of Muharni.
Members found it striking that the article placed high emphasis on the sanctity of Gurbani. It was discussed that Gurbani has become a common language which is taken for granted by modern day Sikhs. The members were unaware that previously the Gurbani script was not routinely used in common-day language as Shakmukhi was used instead. Familiarity with languages in general is poor within our community. The members reflected that familiarity with Gurmukhi is minimal even amongst people in India. It is more common for people to know English and Hindi. Members reflected on the fact that, in some ways, Sikhs are devolving or becoming less advanced as time goes on, rather than continuing the scholarly and respectful approach to Gurbani that was advocated by our ancestors. Nowadays we reduce Gurbani to include it on greeting cards, taking quotes out of context in the vain assumption that this makes us holier in some way and guarantees the Guru’s blessings.
Interestingly the composition itself was fascinatingly non-dualistic in its description of Parmatma. The members could not find anything which contradicted our understanding of Gurbani. The translations were refreshingly non-dualistic which went a long way towards the members aligning their thoughts with previous discussions on similar concepts. Each line had a focus on Oneness, recognising Akaal Purakh as pervading and manifesting within every apparently paradoxical phenomenon in the world e.g. the thief and the saints, the grass and the animals. The members reflected on the theory of why some historians propose this composition was recited every day by Sikhs. Its meanings are a constant reminder of the deepest spiritual aspects of Sikhi, and the relatively concise nature of the composition means it is easy to read and understand. The members were not convinced by the theory that the Paintis Akhari was composed by someone learning how to write Gurmukhi, as its meaning seemed to go deeper than this would imply.
The members concluded the discussion by reflecting on the article and the Paintis Akhari composition. Most members felt that it was very worth reading and were not put off by the questions surrounding the authenticity of the composition. The background of the article’s author was noted. The members wondered whether further historical information or commentary would be provided in future regarding this composition, as the pdf article was quite succinct in nature but the composition’s meanings suggested that there was a lot more to be analysed and presented. Lastly, the members talked about the power of the book club in bringing people together. Each of us reads the book or article of the month, but every person has a slightly different viewpoint and it is only by discussing these thoughts together than the shared learning takes place and you realise what you missed when reading alone. It’s safe to say that anyone can create or attend a book club. However it appears only a few have the interest to do this. Those that do can reap enormous benefits.