Pashaura Singh, Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Riverside

“Scripture as Guru in the Sikh Tradition”

On Thursday, December 13, UC Riverside’s Pashaura Singh discussed Sikh scriptural practice to an overflowing audience at the last ISS Brown Bag Lunch of the term. According to Singh, a well-published scholar and veteran teacher, Sikhism, centered in the Indian state of Punjab, is a book-centered religion that has taken textual scriptures “farther than any other tradition.” It is a complex and fascinating tradition that has set up both texts and human figures as gurus or sites/figures of authority.

Prof. Singh spoke primarily about the Guru Granth Sahib, or the Adi Granth, the first volume of Sikh scripture that includes the works of the first five gurus and the ninth, plus material by four bards, eleven eulogists (Bhatts), and fifteen devotees (Bhagats). The tenth guru, Gobind Singh in the eighteenth century, declared the texts to be the final guru and ended the succession of personal gurus. Singh thus characterizes the Sikh canonization process as “top-down.” As the ultimate guru, the Adi Granth is understood to perform the ongoing work of community maintenance.

Henceforth, Sikhs have confessed faith in scripture itself as a guru. Wilfred Cantwell Smith translated the term Guru Granth Sahib as “honorable book guru,” and Wendy Doniger has suggested “mister book, the guru.” Neither rendering captures the fullness of meaning inherent in the term, because the Adi Granth has the same status and authority as any of the other gurus. But it is more authoritative and hegemonic than the second volume of Sikh scripture, which contains the works of Guru Gobind Singh and others.

Sikhs esteem highly the sacred sound of scriptural words. The vocalizing of Sikh scriptures is thought to have transformative power, however, only when enunciated exactly in the way of the gurus, which is achieved through devotional singing. The distinctively aesthetic, oral experience of Sikh scriptures includes recitation, devotional singing, and oral exegesis. Singing is regarded as the earthly resonance of the divine word, a response of sorts to the modern, technological world.

Prof. Singh focused especially on the phenomenon of Vak (“saying”): opening the scripture at random and reading aloud the first hymn on the top left of the page. The passage is taken as the guru’s word made applicable to the immediate situation. Sikh congregations end always with Vak as the lesson with which worshippers disperse. The Vak from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, is also dispensed daily over the internet. To outsiders, the fitness of a random passage can seem arbitrary, but Prof. Singh emphasized that Sikhs remove ego from the selection process, which allows the true Guru to speak. He also defended external criticism of recitation as mindless, rote practice: Sikhs, he argued, believe that the eternal guru is disclosed in the performance of memorized text.

The bani (general term for writings of the Gurus) is prominent in Sikh life-cycle observances, in which performance of the text is always central:

At baby naming ceremonies, the Guru Granth is randomly opened, and the letter beginning the left page becomes the first letter of the child’s name. The baby’s identity is then derived from the Guru’s word.

At weddings (anand karaj), the couple moves around the scripture, stopping in four places to repeat a particular reading. The ritual is action-oriented, reflects reverence and enthusiasm for life even in adversity, and emphasizes balance in life by avoiding extremes.

The Khalsa (“pure”) is an initiation ceremony that takes place whenever one is ready and disciplined; there is no particular age requirement. But as in the life cycle ceremonies scripture plays a prominent role. This ritual involves the stirring of sugar into water with a sword, and its significance is in part related to its symbolizing the renunciation of lust, anger, greed, attachment, and ego as a correlate to one’s commitment to honor the Adi Granth. Finally, the entire scripture is read during sealing and cremation ceremonies, starting up to a week in advance and ending at the funeral.

The Adi Granth as material object is also accorded great consideration and reverence. In a gurwara, or Sikh place of worship, the scripture is in various ways treated as royalty: it rests on a throne under a canopy and is fanned by readers (granthi), who also bow to it. Ritual purity is observed when engaging the text. After rising and bathing, meditation on the divine name is the beginning of the Sikh day. Likewise, five liturgical prayers learned in childhood are spoken by memory at the end of each day.

In very recent history, treatment of the Adi Granth as material culture has adapted to changing technological realities and political climates. Amritsar—the sacred Punjabi city in which the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple, is located—is the only place that publishes the Guru Granth Sahib: five thousand copies per year. The text travels in specially appointed luxury buses and aircraft. When Amritsar’s copy came to Canada in 2004, each volume had its own linen-covered seat and was transported in and out on cushions carried upon the heads of individuals observing ritual purity. In 2000, the Indian Supreme Court declared the Guru Granth Sahib a juristic person, and as a legal person it holds thousands of acres of real estate in Punjab.

The capacity to quote and recite Sikh scriptures is viewed as a spiritual resource that can facilitate liberation and address the crises of life. In fact, some of Singh’s most provocative anecdotes about the cultural role of Sikh scriptures involved wartime experiences--under British rule, officers were required to salute the Guru Granth Sahib because the occupiers understood the importance of solidifying Sikh soldiers’ loyalty. During the nineteenth-century wars with the British East India company, Sikh forces maintained a separate tent to house scriptures.

According to Prof. Singh, Sikh interpretive strategies fall into two general categories: on the one hand, there is the “dualistic” ideology of language that is rationalistic and is influenced by Western modernism. It posits a relationship between a referent and its meaning. The “non-dualistic” understanding of language, on the other hand, is context-sensitive, emphasizing reading, listening, and performance. The non-dualistic approach is a hermeneutic of praxis with no privilege given to semantic meaning. Emphasizing the point that “no text is scripture itself,” Prof. Singh reminded Brown Bag attendees of a central premise of the ISS’s work: communities transform texts into scriptures; there are no scriptures in themselves. Focus needs to be placed on the work communities make the texts that they make scriptures do for them. 

Questions for further discussion:

Does the recent development of the Sikh tradition (less than five hundred years) contribute at all to its pronounced biblio-centrism? For example, of what significance is the Golden Printing Press held by the SGPC, the organization that oversees Sikh places of worship? What role might British colonialism have had in that focus on text?

As Prof Singh explained, Sikh experience challenges the dichotomy between oral and written, between sound and text. In what ways do oral and written scriptural systems challenge each other? In what ways might they be symbiotic?

Is Sikhism unique in its overwhelming focus on sacred texts? What makes the Adi Granth’s position similar to or different from scriptures in other book-based systems, such as the Abrahamic traditions?

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