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

art work

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.

‘Discourses on the beyond’ Part 1 by Sant Waryam Singh Ji

the beyond

In February the book club discussed the book ‘Discourses on the beyond’ Part 1 by Sant Waryam Singh Ji. The book begins with a summary of Sant Ji’s life, providing some context to the publication of the Atam Marg magazine which he founded. This book was part of an English section of the magazine. The book is divided into five sections, covering different aspects of spirituality:

– The discourses of Sant Ishar Singh Ji of Rara Sahib

– The path of the saints

– The ladder of religion

– Guru Gobind Singh Ji

– Guru Granth Sahib Ji

Some members of the Sikhi Book Club felt that the book lacked structure, whereas others felt that the way it had been written was advantageous, because it was written in an easy-to-read manner which was more flexible for the reader. Whilst there was no doubt that this book included some technical terms, for the most part the readers found that these were explained as the book went along.

All the members felt that this book was a hidden gem full of spiritual wisdom. It was well written and straightforward to read, if deep at times. The start of the book describes a question and answer session with Sant Ishar Singh Ji, and the answers are the ones which Sant Waryam Singh Ji has documented. Questions such as “What are the main barriers on the path of truth?” Each answer was extensive and was related to Gurbani, providing the reader with an overview of the topic from the Guru’s perspective. Some of the answers to the questions asked by the sangat were linked with Vedant dharam e.g. reference was made to Arjun & Krishna’s conversation in the Gita as a way of explaining the difference between the mind, intellect and ego and how these are distinct from Atma.

Sant Waryam Singh Ji’s descriptions were blunt and to the point at times. He describes the different spiritual states we are all in which be a bit of a wake up call to the reader. The importance of Sadhsangat is described and the attributes of Maya are discussed. References are made to other texts such as Sri Suraj Prakash. Sant Ji provides advice on the roles of good deeds, actions and the balance of external worship with inner wisdom. The book does contain some careful critique of the psychology of Sikhs of all shapes and sizes, and can be a difficult pill to swallow but it fulfils its purpose which is to wake the reader from spiritual slumber.

One of the topics in the book was how to recognise a saint, and the book touched on the fact that the world contains many saints who outwardly don’t appear to be saints. These are saints in cognito. The key message here was to treat everyone like they are a saint, and then the saints will come to you. The book club members had a discussion as to how this advice might be adopted on a practical level and how this works when there are negative influencers who use the status of saints in order to compromise the integrity of the Panth.

One of the most important aspects of this book is when Sant Ji outlines the steps that should be taken to do good. This includes the act of self-reflection every day, taking stock of what good has been achieved each day and what seva has been done of others. Unfortunately nowadays we don’t naturally self-reflect and this habit is at the core of leading a spiritually fulfilling existence. Similarly Sant Ji discusses the intentions and the mindset behind straightforward daily tasks such as bathing, eating, living. These things can become a source of contention for Sikhs who argue about differences in Rehat, but ultimately whilst these are important, we shouldn’t become obsessed by them.

In summary this book was well worth reading, and contains some significant pearls of wisdom which were highly valued by the members of the book club. Hopefully in future we will read some of the other books in this series.

‘Sikh Leadership: Established Ideals and Diasporic Reality’ by Harinder Singh and Simran Jeet Singh


This month the Sikhi Book Club discussed the article ‘Sikh Leadership: Established Ideals and Diasporic Reality’ by Harinder Singh and Simran Jeet Singh published via Trinity University in association with the Sikh Research Institute. The article can be found here.

The members began by sharing their initial thoughts on the article, with some saying that they felt it was a very important and thought-provoking topic, whilst others felt that the article lacked sufficient depth and solutions. There was discussion on how we portray our Gurus in a public sphere such as this journal or in the media. The authors described the Gurus as ‘Guru-Prophets’ which some members didn’t like, as they felt it did not do justice to the significance of the Gurus and was an attempt to use non-Sikh language to characterise the Gurus. However others felt this was a relatively minor issue. The members reflected that leaders often arise out of the frustrations of the public or sangat, and that in many modern day examples leaders are born from social injustice.

The article presented the ideal qualities of a Sikh leader, including self-sovereignty, servitude, creativity, compassion and divine inspiration. After going through these qualities we discussed whether or not the concept of equality for all was realistic, and what equality really means. Are all voices truly equal and should they be? In current political times, we have examples where the masses are given an ‘equal’ voice and this has led to turmoil because not everybody is truly qualified to make significant decisions. A leader usually remains above the general masses, but at the same time has to ensure equality for all in line with Sikh principles. The example of Guru Gobind Singh Ji rings true in demonstrating the true qualities of a leader, when he bowed to the Panj Pyare and Panth as being higher than his own throne, despite being the King of Kings. The members also discussed whether it was realistic to aim for the ideals of the Guru in terms of leadership. Ultimately the members agreed that if you were going to use anyone as a role model, it might as well be the Guru as who else’s footsteps should we aim to walk in?

The book club members also discussed the fact that there is a dichotomy in terms of leaderships within the Sikh Panth. On one hand, there are many people in the Panth who shy away from leadership despite being able. On the other hand, many other people become leaders without the qualifications to fulfil this role and vie for leadership for selfish or power-related reasons. One member made an interesting point regarding communities receiving leaders that they deserve. In other words, that leaders are born of the people they represent, and what we as individuals invest in a society ultimately impacts on the leaders that are produced.

The discussion moved on to development of leadership in Punjab. The article highlighted the three authentic schools of development (Taksal, Udasis and Nirmala Panth) and the members discussed the fact that traditional schools place emphasis on a structured and extensive educational model which is not universally adopted by Sikh individuals. In fact many Sikhs now invest time in material development to a a much greater extent than anything else (for example, having 12-13 years of schooling followed by a degree, followed by work) but we are reluctant to adopt this same level of personal development when it comes to spiritual education. The article highlighted youth camps as being one way that Sikh leaders are developed in the West, and the pros and cons of camps were discussed by the members. We discussed the fact that camps are symptoms of problems within the Panth in that Gurdwaras are not necessarily fulfilling their obligations in providing spiritual and temporal knowledge and engagement, so camps are held in an attempt to provide this for one or two days but without ongoing follow up for individuals or evaluation of their effect. Nonetheless they are important methods of introducing young Sikhs to other Sikhs.

One of the members raised the question as to whether Sikhs generally feel the need for leadership. The members discussed the need for local leaders, family leaders, as well as leaders of the Panth more broadly and what forms this could take. We reflected upon the principles of leadership as put forth by Guru Gobind Singh Ji and the fact that Sikhs are enouraged to be leaders in all aspects (material and spiritual). We talked about the organisations in the USA who have formed to represent Sikhs in the aftermath of 9/11 and have produced scholarships and pathways around Sikh leadership and how to build confidence amongst young Sikhs today.

The members concluded by sharing their final thoughts on the article. All were in agreement that the topic was relevant and important, but some expressed frustration that there wasn’t more depth in terms of analysis of previous leaders and discussion about potential strategies for shaping leaders of the future. Perhaps this was outside the scope of this article. The members agreed that the topic of leadership was felt to be a fitting one for the occasion of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s Gurpurab.

‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, translated by Thomas Cleary


For the last Sikhi Book Club of 2018, we discussed ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, translated by Thomas Cleary. The book can be found here.

The members began by reflecting that this is the oldest book we’ve done so far, and despite its short length, the book had many interesting applications to the modern world and spirituality. The ultimate message was about how to achieve your objectives in life without fighting. The direct translation was assisted by Thomas Cleary’s commentary on each paragraph. The principles underpinning the book were around a Taoist belief system. The book is essentially a treatise about war but is also about how to attain peace.

In terms of Sikhi, the members discussed that Sikhs should be engaged in warfare both on a spiritual and a temporal level. We have the concept of being ‘tyaar bar tyaar’ i.e. being in a state of constant situational awareness which ensures that one is ready to deal with anything. The book placed emphasis of knowing oneself before knowing (or directing) others. To truly know oneself, a Sikh has to look internally and connect with the Guru, as well as seeing the Guru in everyone around them.

It is also interesting to look through the lens of Sikh history when reading this book. There was some discussion around why the reign of the Sikhs ultimately failed and what lessons can be drawn from Sun Tzu. At the same time, some members felt that Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s method and philosophy of doing battle was on a different level to that presented in this book. For example, in Sikhi, death is not necessarily a defeat as if a Sikh is at One with Waheguru, there is no body to die. On a purely numbers-basis, Sikhs can be regarded as losers in historical terms. On the other hand in terms of quality and philosophy the Sikhs are great winners. As Sun Tzu says, what everyone knows is not called wisdom.

On a material and physical level, the book provides many pieces of useful advice on choosing your battles and assessing which ones can realistically be fought and won. It also highlights how to incorporate losses into the overall battle strategy, and how to use reward to motivate soldiers. There were parallels with some principles incorporated in Shaster Vidhya such as the importance of fluidity of movement, using different tactics to confuse and bewilder the enemy, and the use of momentum and force. Physicality and training within Sikhi is something which we commonly forget nowadays and the members collectively agreed this is something which needs a higher profile within Sikh circles.

The book ended with a chapter on the use of spies, which circled back to the original chapter discussing the importance of strategic planning. Sun Tzu placed emphasis on the importance of sharing only ‘need to know’ information i.e. sharing only essential information with soldiers in order to protect the integrity of strategic plans and also to avoid soldiers becoming disillusioned. Certainly this chapter provided many parallels with the modern day warfare, which is often now intelligence-based rather than based on physical confrontation. Ultimately all wars are wars of information now in one sense or another.

The members rounded off the discussion with a reflection on how valuable this book had been to read, given that the information within it was thousands of years old, and yet hardly utilised.

‘The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment’ by Eckhart Tolle


This month’s book was ‘The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment’ by Eckhart Tolle. The book can be found here. Eckhart Tolle is a German-born author who has written about spirituality and enlightenment. This book was discussed in the book club as part of our effort to read some books written by non-Sikh authors in order to broaden our perspectives.

The book began with a foreword which aimed to bust three common myths. Firstly that humanity has reached the pinnacle of learning already, secondly that humans are separate from each other, nature and the Cosmos, and thirdly that the physical world is all that there is. Arguments were presented to destroy these myths by way of introducing Eckhart’s ideas.

Following this Eckhart’s own experience was described. This was described from Eckhart’s perspective, and outlined a sudden spiritual awakening which occurred during a period of significant depression. Following this experience he spent some time detached from the material world in a state of bliss, before readjusting to living in society. The members discussed the suddenness of Eckhart’s spiritual awakening, and likened this to stories about Sikh saints who have attained enlightenment. It was interesting to note that even Eckhart had a Guru/teacher of sorts, albeit that this took the form of many different individuals from different traditions.

The members discussed the concept of enlightenment as per Eckhart i.e. that this is essentially freedom from the mind, and is not something to be achieved but already exists inside us. Sikhi also has the same concept of enlightenment/liberation during human life, and the fact that it can be achieved by anyone with the help of the Guru’s guidance.

One of the key concepts discussed was ‘time’ as a factor which contributes to negative thinking. Eckhart writes extensively about the importance of focusing the mind on the present moment, also called mindfulness. The members discussed the relationship of mindfulness to Sikhi. In some senses, mindfulness is intrinsically linked to Sikhi. For example, in Mool Mantar the words Akaal Moorat are mentioned, highlighting the timeless nature of Akaal Purakh (and the timeless nature of our own Atma). This is the part that Eckhart refers to as the ‘conscious self’. Gurbani repeatedly tells us about the importance of controlling the mind (becoming engrossed in Manmat), and ensuring that we are not a slave to our senses and emotions. Some of these themes are very similar to the content of this book, although Gurbani doesn’t reference mindfulness directly as we know it now in a Western sense.

There was debate about the relationship of mindfulness to Naam Simran, and whether these should be regarded as two separate things, or a spectrum of spiritual practice or part of the same thing. Some felt that Naam Simran provoked a very different feeling than mindfulness, and that purely living in the present moment is not what Gurbani talks about. Others felt that there was a definite role for mindfulness within Sikhi, even if on a very superficial level. All were in agreement that some of the recommendations from this book could be incorporated into every day life for Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike.

We moved on to talk about some of the practical methods of identifying our conscious selves and distinguishing this from our mind. This was a difficult concept for some to grasp and we spent time unpicking what this means. Does the mind go with us when we die? If not, then what does? If people lose their minds with illnesses such as Dementia, does this mean they aren’t people anymore? In the end the members agreed that the Atma or soul was separate from the mind. The members discussed that meditative techniques are a way of maintaining our inner health, much like exercise maintains our physical health. Meditation as Eckhart describes it can result in us being more successful in identifying harmful patterns of behaviour, and letting go of these before they take hold and disrupt our lives. This is essentially meditative cognitive behavioural therapy.

The book covered many more concepts which were not fully discussed in this month’s meeting due to lack of time. Overall the members were in agreement that this book provided valuable insights for anyone genuinely interested in improving their lives on a spiritual level, Sikh or non-Sikh.

‘Sikh History from Persian Sources’ edited by J.S Grewal and Irfan Habib

Dabistan - jesuits in Akhbar's court

In November 2018 the Sikhi Book Club discussed ‘Sikh History from Persian Sources’ edited by J.S Grewal and Irfan Habib. The book can be found here.

This is a highly interesting book which contains historical sources from spies, travellers and officials who were responsible for reporting on political and military events within India during the period of time when the Gurus walked the earth. The book contains a long introduction, followed by translations of the persian sources alongwith lengthy footnotes. The members felt that the introduction was difficult to read and possibly would have been better off at the end of the book or in segments after each historical source.

The book clubs members started the discussion by reflecting that this relatively unknown book had clearly required a significant amount of time and effort by the authors in researching and presenting an academic approach to Sikh history. The sources used are now scattered across the Asian continent and are not well known to the general Sikh community. Some of the texts referenced, such as the Dabistan, contain many variations and errors in translated texts. The original (and contemporary) manuscripts are rare and the authors are sometimes unknown. There is, however, a reliance on non-Sikh translators in the publication of this book. This may possibly influence the perspective of the content. However it was excellent that the authors provided full and detailed references for all the sources so that readers know exactly what they are reading.

The Persian sources were written out of need rather than to provide a historical account of events. For example, some officials corresponding with their mughal leaders providing updates on local events, rather than forseeing that their writings would be used to analyse history in future years to come. For this reason it was apparent that the authors are simply describing what they saw or experienced. It’s important to recognise this when debating the content of the writings, some of which may be seen as controversial to a modern Sikh audience. In the times of Guru Nanak to Guru Arjan Dev Ji, it is also possible that Sikhs were mentioned as a passing entity, rather than being seen a true threat to the empire. It was interesting to see that the writings highlighted both positive and negative aspects of Mughal rulers, both in terms of Sikhs working with them when justified and in terms of resistance where necessary. In later sources the language used to describe the Sikhs changes significantly, and Sikhs are perceived as more of a threat.

Some of the issues the members discussed from the Persian sources included:

– The use of Tilaks in Sikh history and current practice in Hazur Sahib

– The methods of torture used by the Mughals on Sikhs to prevent blood flowing unnecessarily as this was considered necessary to prevent haunting by the devil

– Guru Nanak’s views on practising austerities, meat and stories of his meditative practise

– The differing ‘types’ of Sikhs who existed (initiated, non-initiated etc)

– Historical references around the funeral practices at the time of Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s physical death

Noticeably in this book there was no mention of the Amrit ceremony in Anandpur Sahib. Commonly Sikhs are told that there is an eyewitness account of a spy at this time, now kept in Aligarh University. The members had differing views on this, with some highlighting that there own research had shown that this account does not exist.

One of the other important themes running through the book was the fact that the Gurus were well-regarded and known by Muslims and Hindus alike, to the extent that one of the sources suggest that there were some areas of India where people knew the Gurus names but not the names of the Mughal rulers.

Overall, ‘Sikh History from Persian Sources’ is a good starting point for anyone keen to know more about the Sikhs from a historical perspective. It is unfortunate today that authentic Sikh historical sources are few and far between, but this book provides some alternative sources for Sikhs who are interested in this topic.


‘Nargas: Songs of a Sikh’ by Bhai Vir Singh


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.

‘Mysticism of Guru Nanak’ by Dewan Singh


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.

‘Basking in the Divine Presence: A study of Jaap Sahib’ by Jaswant Singh Neki

Jaap Sahib

This month’s book was ‘Basking in the Divine Presence, a Study of Jaap Sahib’ by Jaswant Singh Neki. The book can be found here.

Jaswant Singh Neki worked in Amritsar as a qualified psychiatrist and subsequently became a professor of psychiatry. He has written many books on Sikhi, all of which are eloquently written with a profound level of english. His first book was published in the 1950s (this one was published in the 1980s). This book is about Jaap Sahib, which the author summarises as being revealed to Guru Gobind Singh Ji during meditation and is an echo of the cosmic drum. The baani was composed in Paonta Sahib. The book goes through the history and compilation of Jaap Sahib as well as the baani itself.

The members started the discussion by reflecting on the book overall. Despite being written in only 147 pages, the concepts explored by the author are deeply spiritual and the book is much more than a mere translation and commentary. Clearly the author was of a high spiritual level. The brief history of Guru Gobind Singh Ji was done very well; within a couple of pages, the key stages of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s life were accurately reflected. The author goes on to say that Jaap Sahib is something to be experienced as opposed to being simply read, highlighting the need to completely immerse oneself in the Baani.

This is a book that could be generically given to any spiritual seeker. Anyone (Sikh or non-Sikh) could read as it and gain significant insights into Sikh spiritual thought. As well as spiritual concepts, the author links the baani with modern scientific thought. The book is probably more accessible by being relatable to all (rather than the author writing it from a purely psychiatric point of view).

The title of the book is ‘Basking in the Divine Presence’. Rather than Guru Gobind Singh Ji simply reciting the names and qualities of God, the Guru has described his experience of Waheguru and the subsequent respectful worship/obeisance to Waheguru. A comparison is directly made to the 99 names of Allah and exploration of why Jaap Sahib is more than 199 names/qualities of God. But rather than Jaap Sahib being a prayer, the reader is encouraged to use Jaap Sahib to enhance their own spiritual experience. “On the wings of his magical words the Guru wafts the soul of his reader to the very hem of the Divine.”

The author used the Mool Mantar as a starting point to explore some of the deeper concepts within Sikh spirituality, almost encompassing the ‘wholeness’ of Waheguru. The members reflected that the energy within Jaap Sahib is slightly different than some of the other baanis we read. It is sweet but powerful at the same time, and the book helped the members pause and reflect upon this. The members discussed different ways of experiencing Jaap Sahib, including a practice adopted by some American Sikhs whereby the Sangat sing Jaap Sahib in musical form and physically bow at each point where the word Namo is uttered. Waheguru is also described as warrior, something which is fairly unique to Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s writings.

The author took various different aspects of the metaphysical and philosophical concepts within Jaap Sahib and expanded on these. Firstly, Jaap Sahib provides intimate interactions with the Ultimate Reality ‘Sarab Naam’. So here, the ultimate reality is ‘Sarab Naam’. Secondly, the author describes the reality of the cosmic person – Aad Purkh. Then the reality of the cosmic person as a deity (Lok Mata). There was then an exploration of Jaap Sahib’s use of space and time (Chatar chakar vartee, sarab kale) and perception (Ek Murat anek darsan) – everyone sees something different, like the elephant in a dark room. Lastly the Nirgun vs Sargun aspects are explored and rather than these two aspects being described as contradictions, they are all encompassing I.e. Waheguru is of no country or place, yet is in every place and country.

The author attempts to use these metaphysical concepts to explore the various singularities and qualities of Waheguru. So rather than purely exploring one quality of Waheguru as a possible deity, Jaap Sahib is taking multiple qualities and facets of Waheguru and creating a wider experience for the devotee to immerse themselves within. The title of the book is ‘Basking in the Presence of the Divine’ rather than ‘Basking in the Presence of God’. The Divine has a whole different connotation for us than the Abrahamic impression of a God. In Jaap Sahib, Guru Ji is encouraging us to go beyond what we think we know about ‘God’ and highlighting that there are no limitations on Akaal Purakh, there is no vengeful God as such, and that the Divine is all-encompassing. So although we may all experience elements of the truth, the truth might feel different to each of us depending on our own experiences. Guru Gobind Singh Ji lifts us out of that (Ek Murat Anek Darsan) and provides a full spiritual experience.

One of the key elements of Sikh spirituality which was discussed in the book was the commonly perceived gap between Prakrit and Purakh and I.e. matter and spirit/universal soul. In the majority of Abrahamic traditions, these two elements of life are regarded as being distinct and not overlapping in any way. In the Sikh tradition Guru Gobind Singh Ji highlights that they both exist, but are also one and the same. The author goes on to highlight that creation and destruction are a cycle (and how Jaap Sahib describes this cycle within its verses). Eventually Guru Gobind Singh Ji says ‘Namo Kaal Kaaley’ as an indication that Waheguru is the destroyer of destruction itself, and is the one controlling both aspects of the world game.

The members reflected upon the evocative nature of Jaap Sahib – to the extent that the reader/listener can get some emotional response even without understanding the fullness of its meanings. The whole baani could be regarded as a battle with one’s own ego, as well as a reflection of Waheguru itself.

The author described and analysed the different chands within Jaap Sahib which briefly comprised the following. These chands can be considered one fluid warrior-like movement in battle, highlighting the incredible poetry which is contained within this Baani.

Chhapai Chand – salutation to Waheguru/ weapons

Bhujang Prayat Chhand – serpent like

Rasaval Chhand – half serpent like

Chachari Chhand – quick repetitive strike

Charpat Chhand – defence like – shield strike

Ruaal Chhand – relaxed, breather / rest

Madhubar Chhand – moral ideals

Bhagvati Channd – sharp sword like

Harbolmana Chhand – the prayer before a fatal blow

Ek Acchri Chhand – Quick fencing

In terms of the rhythmical structure of Jaap Sahib, the members discussed the differing beats used within the verses e.g. three and four beat structures. There are immediately recognisable rhythms in Jaap Sahib which are commonly associated with Bir Ras, warrior-nature or high energy and tempo. However in reality there are also more significant spiritual and devotional undertones throughout the baani. The grammar used within Gurbani and Dasam Bani does not follow any one recognised structure and content. Rather Guru Sahib integrated multiple forms of grammar from different languages and rhythms, as well as inventing their own grammar rules. This essentially means that parts of Jaap Sahib transcend religions and community barriers and can be recognised as having meaning with different people regardless of their background and language. The use of literary skills such as onomatopoeia was also discussed. For example the sound of the words ‘Sarbang Pranang’ reflect the meaning of the words themselves, and can be said to sound like a warrior fencing with a sword. Similarly word imagery is used extensively within Jaap Sahib.

Towards the end of the book, the author discusses the warrior spirit within Jaap Sahib. The members discussed whether the purpose of Jaap Sahib is to infuse warrior spirit, and whether it is for only the Khalsa or for everyone. The members discussed that prayer in many other faiths has been misused throughout history by religious zealouts and their various agendas. However the spirit within Jaap Sahib feels different, in that there is an element of spiritual worship as well as true understanding of the Oneness of Waheguru. This is much more than simply encouraging a purely physical warrior spirit. This resulted in a discussion amongst members about whether a true Khalsa warrior has to transcend their ego and anger completely, or whether an element of aggression or anger is needed to be an effective soldier. This debate is likely to continue in future book club discussions, but is, as one member reflected, very theoretical as none of the members are actual warriors with real experience.

The members concluded with their final thoughts on the book. It was mentioned that the author had singularly focused on Jaap Sahib (rather than falling into the trap of validating Dasam Bani by relating it to Gurbani within Guru Granth Sahib Ji). It was overall felt that this was a very rare book which covers the majority of concepts within Sikh spiritual wisdom and is therefore highly valuable.

The Declaration and Draft Constitution of Khalistan


This month the Sikhi Book Club discussed the Draft of the Constitution and Declaration of Khalistan which can be found here.

The members initially discussed the reasons behind the declaration of Khalistan, namely that this was prompted by the systematic discrimination against the Sikhs by the governing forces in India throughout the 1970s and 80s. The document itself described the initial reason as being ‘Raj Karega Khalsa’ and the authors interpreted this as meaning that the Khalsa will rule i.e. that Khalistan was predestined or commanded by the Guru, and that it was the Panth that was a mere vehicle in delivering this reality. Some members felt that the words Raj Karega Khalse had been misinterpreted for political purposes, and there was a discussion about whether the words referred to worldly or spiritual Raaj.

The declaration was decided during the Sarbat Khalsa meeting of 1986. Some members felt that the definitions about the Sarbat Khalsa meetings were lacking in the document. Others felt that it was generally well known that the Khalsa were invited twice a year to discuss Panthic issues and events. However the members agreed that there were some flaws in the Sarbat Khalsa process including the nomination of the Panj Pyare, but felt that this particular meeting was important due to it being the first one held since 1805.

The members discussed the defining features of a constitution I.e. that this is the guidelines of governance, a collection of rules and regulations which can be fluid but rarely dramatically change. One definition is that the constitution should form the basic law of a state or government, defining what the state and citizen can or can’t do. The declaration of Khalistan is at direct odds with the justification of independence made by other countries e.g. in America the constitution begins with ‘We the people..’ but in this document, the justification is almost spiritual as commanded by Guru Gobind Singh Ji. The Indian constitution itself is a long but relatively young document which in theory protects the rights of all minorities and abolishes the caste system, but in reality the Indian constitution has failed in achieving these goals. The recognition of the Akal Takht as being a central pillar of governance was a direct challenge to the political power which was in place at the time. The constitution of Khalistan is also brief, and has a number of (possibly idealistic) aims but uses a supreme authority as the guiding principles.

Although not the main focus of the book club’s meeting, there was some discussion as to whether the Khalistan movement was justified or not. Was it done for personal gain and power or was it truly righteous (founded on the principles of Dharam)? Do the people for Khalistan want it for greed or to protect the rights of the minority? It is likely that the majority in favour for Khalistant want it for the latter.

The members also felt that the document lacked many details and definitions e.g. what is a Panthic committee and who forms this, how are the Panj Pyare chosen etc. However it was also recognised that these definitions would not ordinarily be contained within a document such as a constitution. The members reflected that the motives behind Khalistan were ultimately aiming to bridge the gap between the modern Sikh state and the traditional form of governance. At the same time the document made it clear that the final say on decisions would lie with the Panj Pyare, but that everyone could have input into this decision. It was mentioned that this is similar to the Iranian principles of governance where learned scholars have power of a veto, and only people of a certain moral standard can be in government. The document specified that Khalistant would be open to all, but that only initiated Khalsa Sikhs could be in government. Non-religious organisations would be welcomed and could even continue missionary practice.

The details of the constitution and declaration were then examined. The question was raised as to how qualified the Panj Pyare would be in formulating foreign and economic policy for the nation. Several of the ideas set in the constitution appeared to mirror the values of Guru Hargobind Sahib I.e. free healthcare and medicine, free veterinary services. Co-operatives were also mentioned I.e. people making decisions together rather than there being a top down board type structure to decision making. The members considered that there was advanced thinking for the period of time including the emphasis placed on equality and openness. Economic monopolies would not be permitted but there would be some controls upon economy. At the same time there were some odd comments about joining and preserving the commonwealth which felt unusual to the members, who were unclear as to how this would provide benefit to an independent Sikh nation (especially given that the head of the commonwealth is the monarch of the UK). There was some discussion about the advantages of a soft border with checks and security involved (as opposed to the hard border which exists between India and Pakistan today).

Sadly most of the Khalsas who wrote this document were murdered by the Indian government. As we understand it there were no political parties involved in the development of the document. The discussion concluded that this document was a direct result of Sarbat Khalsa which resulted in the declaration and formation of the draft constitution. It did not appear to be purely politically driven but rather integrated religion. It didn’t define or limit it to Punjab state as such, and contained many far-reaching future ideals which were almost entirely in keeping with principles of the Sikh Dharam.