Gurbani Selections 1 and Gurbani Selections 2
Translated by Shiv Singh Dhatt
Publisher: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2011. 274 and 370 pages.
ISBN: 978-81-8256-990-4 and ISBN-978-81-8256-988-1.
Gurbani Selections 1and Gurbani Selections 2 are the first two volumes in a planned series of translations of selected hymns from the Adi Granth into modern English. These first two books include eight of the most popular writings from the Adi Granth.
The Adi Granth, the scripture of the Sikhs, is voluminous. It contains hymns by six of the ten Gurus in the line of Guru Nanak along with writings of thirty other mystics and saints from diverse backgrounds. This new series has the goal of making this otherwise daunting scripture more accessible. Each book in the series will contain a selection of hymns along with helpful explanatory notes, enabling the reader to approach this sublime and powerful exposition of pure spirituality by easy stages.
The series also renders the text more accessible to people who can understand the Punjabi language but cannot read its original Gurmukhi script. Each book includes, along with the original text of each hymn in Gurmukhi script and its English translation, a phonetic transliteration of the original using the Latin alphabet.
Gurbani Selections 1 includes four compositions, all by Guru Nanak Dev: Jap Ji, Asa ki Var, Sidh Gost and Barah Maha. The translation of each composition is preceded by a brief introduction, which is extremely helpful to the reader who is unfamiliar with the text’s literary traditions and historical context. For example, the introduction to Asa ki Var explains: “A var is a popular genre of Punjabi poetry that generally depicts the exploits of a folk hero and showers praise on him. Guru Nanak composed this var in the musical measure asa in praise of God, Guru and Nam.”
Asa ki Var begins with the praises of the Guru “who takes no more than a moment to transform humans into gods.” The Guru is the one who leads the disciple from the darkness of ignorance into the light of spiritual knowledge and understanding. Without the Guru, all is darkness:
Were a hundred moons to rise
together with a thousand suns,
it would be, with all that light,
utter darkness without the Guru.
Sidh Gost is written in the form of a dialogue between Guru Nanak and a group of yogis known as sidhas. When the yogis ask Guru Nanak about the path he followed, he says:
Through the Guru’s teaching I have realized
that one’s refuge lies only in the eternal Lord.
One who understands and realizes one’s self by the Guru’s grace
becomes the Truth and merges in the Truth.
When they ask him how to cross the perilous ocean of existence, Guru Nanak explains the essence of his teachings:
As the lotus growing in the water
and the duck swimming in the stream
remain untouched by water,
one crosses the ocean of existence, O Nanak,
by repeating God’s Nam
and attuning one’s consciousness to Shabd.
Gurbani Selections 1 and 2 each contain a Barah Maha, one by Guru Nanak and the other by Guru Arjun Dev. This form of Indian folk poetry is framed around the twelve months of the year, with the changing patterns of nature reflected in the yearnings and fluctuating emotions of the human heart. While by tradition this type of poetry usually deals with a young bride separated from her husband, both Guru Nanak and Guru Arjan Dev use this poetic form eloquently to depict the yearnings of the soul separated from the Lord.
The other writings in Gurbani Selections 2 are Anand by Guru Amar Das, Sukhmani by Guru Arjun Dev and Slok Mahla 9 by Guru Tegh Bahadur. The literal meaning of anand is bliss or peace, and the composition by that name boldly proclaims that real bliss comes only from meeting a true Guru who can lead one to the Divine.
Bliss supreme abounds, O mother,
now that I have found my true Guru.
With no effort on my part I have found the true Guru,
and songs of jubilation resound in my heart.
Bands of celestial musicians have come down
with gems of music to sing God’s Word.
Only those who have absorbed it in their minds
truly sing God’s Word.
Bliss supreme abounds, says Nanak,
now that I have found my true Guru.
Sukhmani, the longest of the writings in these two volumes, covers the gamut of the teachings of the saints: the importance of spiritual discipline, attainment of salvation while living, the Lord’s will, philosophy of karma, ego, the supreme importance of devotion and many other topics. Each section of this extended composition begins with a couplet which introduces the subject of the section, followed by eight stanzas which expand upon that subject. These stanzas often use a repeated phrase, which drives the point home:
Simran of God is the highest form of devotion –
all those who meditate on God are liberated.
Simran of God quenches all thirst;
through meditation on God one knows all things.
Simran of God eliminates the fear of death;
through meditation on God hopes are fulfilled.
Simran of God removes impurities of the mind
and imbues the heart with the ambrosial Nam.
God abides on the tongue of saints.
Nanak deems himself the slave of his slaves.
In Slok Mahla 9, Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru, focuses on the impermanence of life, the selfish nature of relationships in this world, and the need to look beyond this shadow-show to what is real and lasting.
I looked upon the world as my own,
but found that no one here belongs to another.
Devotion to the Lord alone endures, O Nanak;
treasure it in your heart!
The compositions in Gurbani Selections 2 illustrate the practice followed by the Gurus in the line of Guru Nanak of identifying themselves simply by the term Mahla and a number signifying their position in the order of succession. Mahla is probably derived from the Arabic term mehlool, meaning ‘absorbed’ or ‘dissolved’. Thus, when the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, identifies himself as Mahla 9, he indicates that he is the ninth one ‘absorbed’ in Guru Nanak within. It was also the common practice of the Gurus to give the name ‘Nanak’ as a pen name in the concluding lines of the verse, rather than their own name. As the translator points out:
Thus, by eliminating any self-reference in their writings, they presented themselves merely as vehicles of the spirit of Nanak to convey his eternal message to seekers after Truth. No discourse on humility and self-effacement could be more eloquent.
Sacrificing their all to their own Guru, who guided them to ultimate realization, the Gurus sang only of the glory of the Supreme Being. As Guru Amar Das wrote:
Come, dear saints, let us discourse
on the indescribable One.
Let us discuss the glory of that indescribable Lord
and the way to the portal where he is found.
We find the Lord when we surrender
body, mind and wealth to the Guru and yield to his will.
Yield to the Guru’s will and sing of the true Word.
Listen, O saints, says Nanak: let us describe
the glory of the indescribable Lord.
Radha Soami Satsang Beas has recently published a full-volume work on the Jap Ji, with extensive commentary on the teachings embedded in this hymn. The publisher intends to bring out similar full-volume elaborations of other compositions published in Gurbani Selections.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.