Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

Karminder Singh Dhillon, Phd (Boston)

Note: This article appeared as the Editorial of The Sikh Bulletin, USA, Jan –March 2019 Issue. The complete issue is available at Webmaster.


In the five and half centuries of Sikh spirituality, Sikhs have never been as disconnected from the spiritual messages contained in Gurbani as they are in the 21st Century. The root cause of such spiritual decline is clear: Sikhs have steadily distanced themselves from the understanding of the spiritual messages contained within the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS).

Such distancing from the messages of Gurbani is despite the deep physical connections that Sikhs have nurtured with the physical embodiment (saroop) that is the SGGS – in forms including but not limited to making precious offerings; according splendour to its installation; donning it under palkis made of gold; parading it around in ostentatious displays called nagar kirtan; multiple continuous readings in the style of Akhand and Sehej Paths; and other physical forms of reverence in the name of religious ritual and dogma.

But Sikhs have remained disengaged from the messages contained within.

One could say that Sikhs have connected externally but detached from the interior. We have linked with the periphery but fragmented from the core. We have worshipped the container while refusing to have anything to do with its soul nourishing content. We have stood on the platform for long periods of our life, but refused to board the train therein.

We have prospered as a religion, but shrivelled spiritually. It is almost as if we have consciously traded one for the other in reciprocal proportions. The more we connect to the container, the more irrelevant its contents are becoming.

So intense is the disconnect that rare is the Sikh who has the ability to decipher the spiritual messages for himself by self-reading of Gurbani of the SGGS. The vast majority of us can no longer make sense of the vocabulary, concepts and notions contained within Gurbani. The poetic structure, idiomatic language, the juxtaposing method and the unique reinterpretation of pre-1468 spiritual concepts into new meanings are all lost on us.

The small minority of Sikhs who feel the need to understand the messages contained within Gurbani have no choice but to rely on teekas (translations). But the translations of the SGGS have – by and large – with few exceptions – contributed more towards misunderstanding the messages of Gurbani than in helping us decipher them.

Such is primarily on account of our teekas making no more than literal translations; the application of Snatan (Othrodox Indian philosophy) paradigms; and the infiltration (purposive or otherwise) of Vedic slants within the many inaugural translations. Modern day English translations have, with few exceptions, perpetuated this flaw by failing to rectify this foundational defect.

The first translation of the SGGS was undertaken in 1883 by a group of Benares educated Nirmalas. The outcome was the Fareedkoti Teeka – known after the rulers of Faridkot state who financed the venture. For all intents and purposes, the Fareedakoti Teeka succeeded in making the SGGS appear as the fifth Vedas. It did so by a variety of ways but primarily by ignoring the revolutionary reinterpretation of pre-1468 spiritual concepts by the writers of Bani; effectively reverting unique Sikhi concepts back into Vedic, Puranic and Brahmanical ones.

It did so by disregarding the juxtaposing of Vedic myths within the compositions of the SGGS. The Fareedkoti Teeka thus effectively converted the Vedic myths into Gurbani reality. It further did so by giving literal meanings to the spiritual idioms deployed abundantly by the writers of Gurbani while critiquing the clergy of existing spiritualties; effectively erasing the critique while giving credence to the clergies’ ways instead.

Gyani Gurmukh Singh of the Singh Sabha Movement – a reform initiative aimed at cleansing Sikhi of Udasi, Nirmala and Vedic influences – stood in opposition to the Fareedkoti Teeka. But he was excommunicated by the Akaal Takhat clergy who had – together with a majority of the clergy – been un-moved by or un-aware of the infusion of Vedic stuff into Sikhi.

For all future attempts in translating the SGGS (including into non-Punjabi languages), the Fareedkoti Teeka has regrettably stood in as the standard reference.

The result has been that the Sikh world today stands as one that is lost in translation. Lost to the point of having travelled the road back to 1468. Lost to the point of having reached a destination that the spirituality of the SGGS wanted us to avoid. Lost to the point of having walked away – further and further away – from the spirituality of the SGGS.

I have endeavoured to illustrate my observations above by attempting to provide an authentic Gurbani based understanding of one shabd Aant Kaal ਅੰਤਿ ਕਾਲਿ – – composed by Bhagat Tirlochan ji and contained in Rag Gurji on page 526 of the SGGS. While attempting to do so I have tried to provide the contrasting English translation of Sant Singh Khalsa MD that originates from the Punjabi Fareedkoti Teeka as well as the Sampardayee Teeka of Sant Kirpal Singh.

Readers can see how, on the one hand – by ignoring the revolutionary reinterpretation of pre-1468 spiritual concepts by the writers of bani – the Fareedkoti based translations succeed in reverting unique Sikhi concepts back into Vedic, Puranic and Brahmanical ones.

And on the other, how using what I call the Gurbani Framework – the use of Gurbani to understand Gurbani – allows us to understand the Shabd authentically.

The difference is stark. For some readers it may be difficult to accept that both translations are of the one and single Shabd. For some, our cognitive dissonance may kick in, forcing us to continue accepting as truths, rejected spiritual assertions that have been repeated often enough to appear as Sikhi truths. For others, the Gurbani Framework based translation may be liberating. The choice is of course ours and ours alone.

Readers are welcome to comment.

Karminder Singh, Co-Editor.