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Priceless Divine Diamonds: An abbreviated diary of Sant Baba Isher Singh Rara Sahib Wale

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There have been many who have said that reading is too onerous and that long books are a barrier to attending the Sikhi Book Club. To honour these individuals and to pay homage to divine wisdom contained within the briefest of articles, today we discussed a 16 page excerpt of Sant Baba Isher Singh Ji’s diary. This article can be found here.

This article contains 10 chapters from Sant Ji’s diary and gives the reader a glimpse of the mindset and elevated status he had. The members of the book club discussed the prominent position of the soul/Atma that was discussed by Sant Ji. In contrast there was hardly any mention of the mind, or the journey of the mind in identifying and realizing the true Self. Some of us struggled with this lack of path – clearly Sant Ji’s writings reflect a highly evolved way of thinking which may be hard for us to understand as lowly individuals. One wonders whether the diary was intended to be read, or whether it was simply his daily reflections, recorded for himself.

Sant Ji discusses that the body is a mere shell, destructible in nature. Its purpose is solely to transport the soul through life and provide an opportunity for us to become enlightened. The destructible body is infused with indestructible light. Emphasis is placed on making the most of youthful age, and on recognising the opportunities we are given. Sant Ji also describes many ‘categories’ of concepts, e.g. types of worship, characteristics of sins, different methods of meditation. Some of the members felt that the direct translations of the concepts in this particular article did not do justice to the original script. There is no doubt that many words in Punjabi which have no direct meaning in English, and so this is inherently a limitation in an English-focused Sikhi Book Club. However there is much to be gained from articles like this which contain both Punjabi and English words, to improve familiarity with such concepts.

The full version of Sant Ji’s diary is something we hope to read in future Sikhi Book Club meetings. What do you think of this article? We would love to hear from you! Comment below or email us at sikhibookclub@gmail.com.

 

 

‘The Singing Guru: Legends and Adventures of Guru Nanak’ by Kamla K Kapur

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This month the Sikhi Book Club discussed the book ‘The Singing Guru: Legends and Adventures of Guru Nanak’ by Kamla K Kapur. Copies of the book were kindly donated by a member of the book club. It can be purchased here.

The discussion began with a summary of the author’s background, which highlighted difficult times in her life which had contributed to her writing this book. Some members were sceptical regarding the content of a book from an author who has explored other traditions (such as Sufism and Hindu mythology) but it became clear as the book was read that these fears were quashed. The title of the book indicated that there was going to be a focus on the singing aspect of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, and whilst there was narrative on the history of Bhai Mardana’s rabab some members felt that there was lot more musical-related history which could have been incorporated. However others found that the title drew readers in, and the book’s aim was to tell the story rather than to focus on the high significance of music in the Sikh tradition. One member commented on the difference in focus between Western and Eastern books (broadly speaking). Historical books written by Western academics often focus on chronological history and fact, whereas books such as this one ebb and flow with the message at the centre.

The members then went on to discuss the unique way in which the story was told from the perspective of Bhai Mardana Ji in the form of a goat, describing his life with the Guru to the other men/goats who had similarly been trapped by their desires. Bhai Mardana Ji was felt to be a metaphor by the Sikh who has highs and low, and conflicting relationship with the Guru. In this way he was a highly relatable figure for readers. Some people might have found the goat-perspective strange, but for non-Sikhs potentially this is a powerful medium for telling the story – and the author was clear that this book is a mixture of artistic license and history. Some people felt that Bhai Mardana has been ‘reduced’ in a way, and portrayed as someone with too many flaws when history tells us that he was one of the closest and most significant Sikhs of time. But members found that once they accepted the author’s premise, there was much to be gained by reading on and absorbing the wider messages of the book. Others got over this by imagining that the book was being written from their perspective rather than by Bhai Mardana’s. The book is essentially a philosophical or spiritual book, rather than a book cemented in history.

The book was full of examples of Bhai Mardana falling away from the Guru, and then being lifted by Guru Nanak Dev Ji. It felt like his true enlightenment only came at the end of the book, with many fluctuations in between. Perhaps Bhai Mardana was made to appear malleable in order to make him relatable to the reader. The members discussed that the Guru can save you in an instant, but equally in others the wisdom is given in stages through life. We discussed which chapters resonated the most with the members and different people shared their views. The chapter regarding Bhai Mardana Ji dying in the fish was pondered over. Some felt this chapter didn’t add anything and weren’t sure what this ‘death’ was meant to signify as it didn’t necessarily signal his enlightenment.

The chapter about Bhai Mardana Ji’s impending death as a goat was particularly significant and enjoyed for its wisdom by the members. When it came to him being slaughtered, Bhai Mardana experiences many feelings which the readers related to. Guru Nanak Dev Ji didn’t directly save Bhai Mardana and the other goats in an obvious way, but instead provided the goats with a method to save themselves. The imagery of a rotating room mirrored the mind’s lack of stillness, and despite the instruction of the Guru, many still fell.

The book club talked about the definition of a Sikh in the context of Bhai Mardana Ji. Was he a Sikh, a rababi, or a Muslim? The book club members mentioned the shabad attributed to Bhai Mardana which comes in Gurbani in Raag Bihaagra, therefore indicating that he had attained a much higher level than even just being a Sikh and is rather akin to, or one with, the Guru. Our modern definitions of Sikh may be distorted by lines placed centuries after the first Sikhs walked the earth. It is interesting that even for such an elevated soul, after being away from his family for 25 years his return to family life was not smooth according to this book. The portrayal of his son being annoyed at him and similar scenario in Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s house showed the sacrifices required of such individuals to spread the message of Oneness. Perhaps this shows the flaw of painting the lives of such Sikhs as being straightforward, in reality life was probably just as complicated as it is now.

The members found the description of Kartarpur interesting and vivid. It was described as a model city and gurdwara, showing the sangat learning from each other through open and honest discussions, and the Guru interacting with and living among the people rather than simply preaching. The picture painted of Kartarpur is very distant from the reality of many Gurdwaras today, where very little sincere discussion takes place among the sangat.

Whilst some aspects of this book didn’t quite sit right with the members, most agreed that it was a book worth reading and discussing for its underlying message and applicability to us as individuals. The use of comedy and perspective was refreshing and we haven’t covered many books in the book club thus far which have this slant. This book highlights some of the pitfalls of using history to create fiction, and shows the importance of knowing your audience. The end of the book was praised by all, with the introduction of Baba Budha Ji and Guru Angad Dev Ji. We understand that a second book has been written in this series, which gives readers the option of continuing this journey with Kamla Kapur.

‘The Thirty-Five Letters: Paintis Akhari’ by Dr Kamalroop Singh

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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.

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.

‘Sri Charitropakhyan – An analysis of the writings of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji’ by Prabhjot Singh

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This month the Sikhi book club members discussed the article ‘Sri Charitropakhyan’ by Prabhjot Singh. This article is available as a pdf here.

This article is essentially a summary and overview of Sri Charitropakhyan which is contained within Sri Dasam Granth Sahib. It was written some years ago during a period of time when there was significant controversy over this Bani. It was clear to all the members that this article was not written to present both points of view, but was essentially written to provide evidence and enhance understanding that this Bani is in line with the rest of the teachings within Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji and Dasam Bani. It was noted that the article had originally been posted on an online forum, and subsequently had been put together in PDF format for ease of reading. Some members felt that the ‘introductory’ paragraphs by the author should have been removed so that the focus was on the content of the article itself.

The article was divided into four logical sections, covering different aspects of Sri Charitropakhyan. The first of these was an analysis of Chandi Charitar (the first Charitar). There was a helpful overview on the reasons why this Bani was written, and a summary of the content. The author highlighted that each story within this text has a moral message, and essentially acts as a guide for how Sikhs should live their lives and deal with negative, dangerous or unsavoury situations. Guru Gobind Singh Ji does an awesome analysis on societal pain, criminal mentality and the problems which arise from intense lust. These issues have been highly relevant throughout time, and are potently relevant in today’s society (both within the Sikh Panth and in the world in general). Prabhjot Singh talked about the reasons why Devis and Devte are mentioned in Gurbani, and discussed the concept of Chandi as describing the source of creation (Akaal Purakh) which the members found was a good starting point for the rest of the analysis.

It was made clear within this article that this Bani was not written to defame women, but was instead written to describe the complexity and potential indescribable value of women in society. Guru Gobind Singh Ji has written a compelling criticism of a male dominated society which superficially gives women equal rights, whilst consistently undermining women and keeping them at a distance from true power. He discusses the complexity of a woman’s characteristics, describing examples of how women are driven to immorality as a result of excessive male desires. Conversely Guru Sahib also describes the wisdom of women in preventing men from becoming power-obsessed, and shows the potential strength of character that women have which ultimately is a positive force for good in a male dominated society. This is highlighted through the story of ‘Baala’ who rises out of the ashes of battle as a force for purity and wisdom.

The members found it particularly useful reading Prabhjot Singh’s summary of the story of King Charitar. Seven key points were summarised here which highlighted the main messages that any Sikh can take from this story. The members discussed that often, when Dasam Bani is being discussed, it is discussed by people who haven’t actually read any of it. As Sikhs today we are eager to have soundbites but we don’t want to do the reading and in depth analysis of whole pieces of literature written by our Gurus. In today’s society tabloid newspapers and TV shows are actually a product of the very things Guru Gobind Singh Ji has written about. If we could read Sri Charitropakhyan to enhance our own learning and adopt its messages as a tool to improve our way of living, this will make a huge difference (rather than simply reading it and discussing it for the sake of having arguments).

Guru Gobind Singh Ji clearly wrote this play as a shrewd analysis of the human condition. Too often religions lay down black and white rules of what should and shouldn’t be done. Here, the Guru describes many different aspects of men and women, both good and bad, reflecting the potential we all have for various emotions and desires. Ultimately the Bani implies that Sikhs blessed with a true understanding have the rationale and wisdom to make decent decisions, and act according to this intellect. Guru Sahib isn’t telling us in uncertain terms to do this or that, but rather is highlighting (through the art of story telling) that if you choose to go down a path where lust controls your thoughts, this potentially what can happen, giving several examples. Guru Sahib is also placing emphasis on the fact that Sikhs will undoubtedly face such dilemmas and should know how to deal with them. He provides guidance on how to be Ghar Gristhi (and interestingly this wisdom comes from character of a Brahmin’s in one of the Charitars). It is clear in that particular Charitar that Guru Gobind Singh Ji is refuting the traditions of the Brahmins.

In the last Charitar, the scenes are emotive and awe-inspiring. Guru Gobind Singh Ji brings all the concepts discussed previously together into an epic narrative. The members discussed how two lines of this are included within Rehraas Sahib, and discussed the importance of Sikhs knowing where this comes from and what these lines refer to in order to gain the most benefit from the wisdom that is in Sri Charitropakhyan. Then follows Chaupai Sahib which essentially asks for the strength to righteously enact the wisdom contained in the guidance that has preceded it. It is sad that many Sikhs would be in complete denial if they realised that part of Rehras Sahib was actually derived from Sri Charitropakhyan.

In conclusion, the members reflected that this article was well worth reading. Whilst the Punjabi translations were a bit difficult to read and the editing of the article could have been improved, the content fulfilled its purpose in providing an overview and analysis of the messages behind Sri Charitropakhyan. Guru Gobind Singh Ji has provided an in depth treatise on daily ethics which is highly relevant and invaluable to help us lead better lives. Fundamentally it demonstrates the Guru’s far-reaching analysis on the power and complexity of women, and the positive contribution they can make to society, whilst holding men to account for many of the problems the world faces today. Hopefully as time goes on, more Sikhs will be able to take benefit and wisdom from this piece of Bani. This article is a good place for that journey to begin.

‘The Letters of Bhai Udham Singh’ by J.S. Grewal and H. K. Puri

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In remembrance of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in May 2019 the Sikhi Book Club discussed ‘The Letters of Bhai Udham Singh’. This book aimed to publicize some significant facts about Udham Singh’s life and foster appreciation for his personality. The book used oral evidence from those who knew him, as well as archived material and a personal collection of documents from Shiv Singh Johal who was a close personal friend of Bhai Udham Singh when he was in the UK.

The members began by discussing Bhai Udham Singh’s life, which was narrated briefly in this book. He was born as Sher Singh around 1899 and lived part of his childhood life in an orphanage. Whilst staying for a period in America, he linked with the Ghararites before returning to India. He was a close admirer of Bhagat Singh whom he regarded as a teacher. After spending some time in jail he travelled around India before being arrested again. His character was evident in this book as being passionate regarding revolution and Indian independence, as well as being confident, charming and well versed in English. Many of the members had never heard any substantiated information about Bhai Udham Singh’s life and so this part of the book was highly informative.

We also discussed the summary of modern Indian and Punjabi history which this book contained. For anyone looking for a contemporary account of how the Arya Samaj, Singh Sabha and independence movements developed the first part of this book contains a detailed and highly useful summary of the chronology of events in this period.

Bhai Udham Singh killed one of the individuals responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in March 1940 in England. Subsequently the British authorities made a specific effort to prevent his actions from being reported in order to avoid his being hailed as a hero in the eyes of independence advocates in India. Bhai Udham Singh was incarcerated until his own murder. His ashes were eventually returned to India after much difficulty and these were received with a hero’s welcome. It wasn’t until 2018 that a statue of his was erected at the site of the massacre in Amritsar.

The latter part of the book contains Bhai Udham Singh’s own letters which have been scanned in and then transcribed for ease of reading. These letters are accompanied with commentary for the reader. There are many who regard Bhai Udham Singh as having renounced his faith or heritage during this time in prison. The reality however is that he showed his sense of humour through these letters, talking about the chaplain trying to convert him and referring to the Lord Chamberlain as Mrs Chamberlain. He protected his close friends by indicating that he didn’t know them well, and signs himself as Mohammed Singh Azad, despite everyone involved knowing full well his real identity. His requests for a Sikh chaplain were repeatedly denied. The book club members found these letters invaluable in providing a closer insight into Bhai Udham Singh’s thoughts and feelings at the time of his incarceration.

In summary this book contains a good summary of events in the lead up to India’s independence, and contains valuable information about Bhai Udham Singh’s life and writings. Any individual looking to learn more about this period in history would be advised to read this book.

‘Art work in Historic Sikh Shrines: need for documentation & conservation’ by Balvinder Singh

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In March the Sikhi Book Club discussed this article by Balvinder Singh from the Guru Ramdas School of Planning in Amritsar. It was originally presented in an international symposium in Greece in 2007. The article highlights the concepts of conservation and the need for adopting this approach for historical Sikh shrines. It also describes the unique art forms which are included in our historical Gurdwaras and the deterioration of the Panth’s approach to art since the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The paper traces the history of art forms and their techniques and suggests guidelines for their documentation and preservation.

The author structures this article in the usual way for an academic piece of work, with an introduction to the concepts and basic philosophy of the Sikh tradition. He then begins by summarising the components of a Gurdwara and the spiritual significance of aspects such as the langar kitchen. The author then moves on to the discuss the evolution of art in Punjab, predominantly under royal patronage. This aspect of Sikh history is not commonly known amongst modern day Sikhs and this article provides a useful insight into the cultural renaissance which took place in Punjab during the 19th century.

Balvinder Singh then describes some historical Sikh shrines in more depth, choosing to focus on Sri Harimandar Sahib, Baba Atal Rai, Darbar Sahib in Tarn Taran, Hazoor Sahib in Nanded and Dera Sahib in Lahore. The various art forms in each of these Gurdwaras are described, including Jaratkari (inlaid stone), Mohrakashi (frescos), gold embossing and Tukri (mirror work). The technical details of each art form are described for those who are interested, and pictures are present throughout to help the reader visualise the tehniques involved.

Finally the author discusses the present (often shabby) condition of several of these art forms. For example, the increasing pollution in Punjab has affected the colour of many of the marble works which are present in the Gurdwaras and these now require examination and restoration if they are to be preserved. Examples of good preservation techniques are also highlighted and accompanied by pictures. A number of potential guidelines are presented at the end of the article to act as suggestions which will help in the conservation of our rich architectural and spiritual heritage.

Whilst it is unclear what impact this article has had on the conservation of Sikh heritage in Punjab, it is clear that this is an excellent piece of work which summarises some of the key unique aspects of our art history.