Crossing Over the Literal to the Real Messages of Gurbani

Crossing Over the Literal to the Real Messages of Gurbani

Karminder Singh, PhD.

The Spirituality of Gurbani does not have a language intrinsic and inherent to it. The objective and focus of the messages of Gurbani are to bring about a realization of the Creator within the human conscience. The language of our daily usage does not have the required vocabulary for this core Gurmat concept, for its process, outcome and objective.

Bhagat Kabir has captured this reality in one of his verses in a Bani in Gauree Rag titled Bavan Akhri (52 alphabets).

ਬਾਵਨ ਅਛਰ ਲੋਕ ਤ੍ਰੈ ਸਭੁ ਕਛੁ ਇਨ ਹੀ ਮਾਹਿ ॥ ਏ ਅਖਰ ਖਿਰਿ ਜਾਹਿਗੇ ਓਇ ਅਖਰ ਇਨ ਮਹਿ ਨਾਹਿ ॥ ੧ ॥ Bavan Achur Lok Trey Sabh Kich En Hee Mahe. Ey Akhar Khir Jahengey Oey A Khar En Mein Nahe. SGGS 340

Bhagat ji’s spiritual acumen is laser sharp in that he uses the word ਅਖਰ (Akhar) in two different meanings in the second verse above. One meaning is derived when used as one complete word ਅਖਰ (Akhar) and here it means alphabet or character as the DNA of our temporal language. Another form of similar usage is ਅਛਰ Achur (in the first verse above) which carries the same meaning as ਅਖਰ (Akhar).

In the other meaning it is considered as consisting of two words ਅ + ਖਰ (A + Khar). The root word thus becomes ਖਰ (Khar) and the ਅ (A) becomes a prefix. This root word is used as the third word of the second verse as ਖਿਰਿ ਜਾਹਿਗੇ Khir Jahengey). Since the meaning of ਖਰ (Khar) is “destructible”, the meaning of ਅ + ਖਰ (A+ khar) therefore is the “indestructible, permanent, eternal” – in reference to the Creator.

The word ਅਖਰ (Akhar) then would have two different pronunciations in its two usages in the second verse above even if spelt the same way. In the instance that it means alphabet and character it would be pronounced continuously as one word. In the second instance it would be pronounced with a pause between the prefix and the root word. The meaning of the above verse is therefore:

The Entirety (Sabh Kich) of Knowledge of Our Past, Present and Future (Lok Trey) Is Encapsulated in the 52 Alphabets (Achur). Yet These Alphabets (Akhar) Get Exhausted (Khir Jaengey) in Matters of the Eternal (A+khar) And Permanent (Spirituality) Pertaining to the Creator Because they are both not Within Them.

Kabir’s message is thus the point of this editorial, the concern of which writing is the challenge in understanding Gurbani.

Needless to say the writers of Gurbani have had no choice but to use the language of the temporal world to get their spiritual messages across. And we too have no choice but to understand, interpret and explain the spirituality of Gurbani in the same defective (spiritually) temporal language. In our everyday language then, the default mode for interpreting the messages of Gurbani is literal.

The spiritual journey that is based on Gurbani thus becomes as unique as it is intricate. In simple terms the journey of discovery of the messages of Gurbani is one that has to be travelled from the ਅਖਰ (Akhar) into the ਅ +ਖਰ (A+Khar). It’s a journey that has to be crossed over from the literal into the domain of spiritual messages. It’s a journey that necessitates an intellectual discovery that involves a huge leap – an intellectual one, albeit – from the banks of the literal, to the other side where the deeply rich and intended spiritual messages lie.

This is a task that is arduous and challenging. But it should necessarily be deeply fulfilling, satisfying and rewarding because the joy of knowing the intended messages is immense and beyond comparison for the believing Sikh.

This then is our Simran. Our Jup. Our Tup. This is our Meditation, our Sadhna, our Contemplation. This is our Nitnem. This is our Aradhna, our Prayer. This is our Paath. This is our Pooja – worship of the Shabd. All spiritually defined and not literally interpreted, of course.

The writers of Gurbani were aware of the nature of this task. They have provided adequate milestones and sign boards along our spiritual journeys to make sure we get to the intended destination of the envisioned messages.

At the most basic of levels, the Rahao is one of the primary signboards. It is not to be missed, but has been glossed over, in our inability to make the leap from the literal to the spiritual.

Translated literally, Rahao means “Pause.” But such a translation begs the question: Pause for what purpose? The attempted answer is “Pause to allow contemplation.” This in turn begs the question: Why do we need to pause to contemplate on just one verse within the shabd; why not the other verses? And what about shabds that do not have the Rahao (Pause) Verse? No need or contemplation there at all?

Long bannis such as Sidh Goshat have just one verse as Rahao, and 437 more without. All are equally intricate and complex requiring lots of contemplation and research to get to the real meanings. So why are we asked to “pause and contemplate” on just one?

We would thus need to go beyond the literal just to understand this one concept called Rahao.

At the very core each shabd in the SGGS has three contexts – first, it is a poetic rendition; second, it is composed in a particular rag and hence has a musical component; and third but most importantly there is a spiritual message for the reader within each shabd.

The non-literal meaning of the word Rahao would therefore have to have separate interpretations for each of these three contexts. It is the title verse for the poetic rendition on account of the fact that the location normally accorded for the title (right on top of any composition) is taken up by the name of rag and the author – for instance Bilawal Mehla 5. So the author of the shabd has no choice but to embedded the title verse within the body of the shabd. The word Rahao is therefore added to indicate that this particular verse is indeed the title verse.

Second, every shabd is poetic, which means it is meant to be sung in devotion. At the most basic level, the structure of an Indian musical composition (on which the Gurbani Kirtan is based) there is usually one asthai and multiple antras. The composition begins with the asthai and is followed by the first antra. It reverts to the asthai and on to the second antra. And back to asthai and third antra. And so on.

The implication is that the asthai is sang multiple times and each of the antras get only one mention each. So within the parameters of a musical composition the Rahao is the asthai verse. The reason why it is to be sung multiple times will become clear when the third meaning within the third context is made clear.

Third, every shabd also contains a spiritual message. As the title verse, the Rahao verse represents the core message around which the rest of the shabd or bani revolves. The Rahao verse is the gist message while the remaining verses are illustrations, examples, cases in point, supporting arguments, justifications, and rationalizations. Or they are explanations, validations, clarifications and corroborations. In other words, they revolve around the Rahao verse which acts as the anchor of the entire narrative of the shabd or banni.

Now it becomes clear why the Rahao verse is also the asthai when singing. This is to enable the verse with the gist meaning to be recited repeatedly so that the principal message gets ingrained in the singer, listener and learner. It allows the Rahao verse to become the take home verse and take home message, and allows the non-Rahao verses to assist in the ingraining of the core message.

It is argued that this is what happens when we cross over from the literal to the spiritual side of the river of spirituality that is Gurbani. Standing on the banks of the literal, the Rahao was visible merely as Pause. But when crossed over, the meaning of Rahao began to become clearer as it took contextual meanings that acts as a guide, signboard or milestone for getting to the real messages.

In shabds where there is no Rahao verse indicated, the above three principles, when applied tell us that the final or concluding verse of the shabd plays that role and function.

There are other signboards on the journey of discovering the messages of Gurbani.

Context is another one that must never be missed, but is, so often. Verses are not to be interpreted as standalone; but always connected to the previous and the next. Clergy, writers and researchers are fond of throwing in a single verse in an attempt to justify their chosen argument.

It has to be said that even if we took spirituality out of the equation of Gurbani, the poetry is such that one can make just about anything one desired from a single verse. Perhaps this is the reason why literal translations are actually preferred by those among us whose intent is not to inform or educate, but merely to prove our points – whatever they may be.

But we know that Gurbani is not written in single verse form. The building blocks of Gurbani are saloks, shabds, paurees, ashtpadees, chhantts, vaars, bannis – long and short that range from a selected number of verses being put together as paragraphs and then collectively into sections, and then constructed into bannis.

There is a narrative in each paragraph, section and banni. Individual verses must therefore be taken as part of the entire narrative.

It may be worth mentioning the one simple pointer I have often shared with students of my Gurbani class: that if you don’t understand one verse, read the one preceding it. If it still eludes you, read the one following it. If the meaning still evades you, go back two, three, four or more verses. Go back to the shabd preceding or to the one following it if necessary. Because that is how the editor of the SGGS has arranged it all. And also because this is how context is built and deployed to provide for a holistic narrative that is Gurbani – para by para, section by section and bani by bani.

Another signboard worth paying attention to is that meanings of words and pre-existing concepts are re-defined specifically for Gurbani – often in a revolutionary way. And that these redefined and recalibrated meanings are always found within the 1429 pages – never outside. This redefining – as challenging and arduous as it is – is the one that truly helps us complete the crossing over from the literal to the spiritual and thus get enlightened in the real sense.

Guru Nanak mentions this arduous challenge in the closing salok of his seminal Jup bani as ਗਏ ਮਸਕਤਿ ਘਾਲਿ ॥ G-eiy Mushakat Ghaal. SGGS 7. Perhaps to drive home the point of the arduousness, he uses Arabic (mushkat) and Sanskrit (ghaal) terms that carry the same meaning side by side.

Bhagat Farid terms it as ਵਾਲਹੁ ਨਿਕੀ ਪੁਰਸਲਾਤ Valho Nikki Purslat. SGGS 1377. The literal translation of which is: the crossing of a bridge that is narrower that a strand of hair.

The crossing being editorialized here may not be this narrow. But it is no less challenging.

Bhagat Kabir describes it as ਇਕ ਅਵਘਟ ਘਾਟੀ ਰਾਮ ਕੀ ਤਿਹ ਚੜਿ ਰਹਿਓ ਕਬੀਰ ॥ Ek Avghat Ghatee Raam Kee Theh Charr Rahio Kabir. SGGS 1373 – the climbing of a steep cliff.

This is why the getting to the spiritual messages of Gurbani – or the crossing over from the literal of the shabd to the spiritual of it – should be our Simran. Our Jup. Our Tup. Our Meditation. Our Nitnem. This should be our Aradhna, our Prayer. This ought to be our Paath. This should be our Pooja – worship of the Shabd. It ought to be our Spiritual Journey traversed within the 1429 pages of the SGGS.

Left standing on the literal banks of the river of Gurbani – spirituality, Simran, Nam, Jup and Tup are no more than chanting of one word, mantra or shabd over long hours while sitting or standing in fixed positions. Pick up any English translation of Gurbani and this is how these words are translated.

Having crossed over on the other side however, we will realize that these concepts mean internalization, realization and inculcation of divine virtues (Nam) within our conscience.

From the literal banks of the river, Nitnem, Path, Aradhna, Pooja, and Spirituality mean no more than reciting fixed compositions, offering prayers, attending religious functions and treating the Granth of Gurbani as an article of worship in its physical form through ornamentations, decorations, gold canopies, air conditioned rooms and even food in some cases.

Having crossed over to the other side however, we will realize that our Nitnem ought to be the daily strive to get to the messages of the shabd, our worship the inculcation of divine virtues, and our spirituality the ultimate aim of BECOMING the messages and virtues.

I have endeavoured to illustrate my observations above by attempting to provide an authentic Gurbani based understanding of one shabd of Guru Teg Bahadur ji as contained on page 633 of the SGGS ji – ਇਹ ਜਗਿ ਮੀਤੁ ਨ ਦੇਖਿਓ ਕੋਈ Eh Jug Meet Na Dekheyo Koee.

Also provided – as a comparison – is a clearly literal translation of the same shabd as done by Sant Singh Khalsa MD in his English Translation of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

Webmaster’s Note: This article first appeared in The Sikh Bulletin Vol 3/2019. The SB can be accessed at