I recently read a number of English translated excerpts from ‘Sri Nanak Parkash’, the original work of which was written in Panjabi by Kavi Santokh Singh during the 19th century. The primary source for this voluminous book was the hagiography of Guru Nanak by the supposed Bhai Bala. In the past I have often read the English translation for many other historic Sikh writings too, including Gurbani itself.
However, this latest read has led me to question those English translations, which I now believe are swamped under an inevitable quagmire of Abrahamic jargon. They also contain a myriad of misleading references to Hindu mythology. Not only is this evident in the translated work of Sikh poets, scholars and historians but this interpretative phenomenon has also fathomed itself within the Guru’s word, due to the many English translations of Gurbani available on the internet; all accessible via applications on smartphones. I wonder if we are at risk of creating a generation of Sikh who solely rely on these warped English translations that subsequently result in the Sikh losing sight of the Guru’s core message. The over reliance on such translations is also giving rise to a naïve and ignorant portrayal of Gur-itihaas and a distorted understanding of Gur-sedant.
The erroneous translations not only threaten the distinct philosophy of Guru Nanak, which is fundamental to Sikh sovereignty, but they inevitably lose authenticity as words are literally lost in translation. One such inference is the incorrect reference to the term “avtaar”. The word “avtaar” ordinarily means birth, however in Hindu mythology it is used to describe the descent of a “heavenly deity”. The Guru specifically states that many Beings referred to in Hindu scriptures were in fact once kings in different periods of time but due to the work of their followers, the kings were raised to the status of “avtaars” (in the Brahminical “heavenly diety” sense). Speaking in Raag Aasaa the Guru states that the exploits of the kings ruling in various ages were sung as the feats of avtaars (ਜੁਗਹ ਜੁਗਹ ਕੇ ਰਾਜੇ ਕੀਏ ਗਾਵਹਿ ਕਰਿ ਅਵਤਾਰੀ). In the previous two lines of this pangti the Guru explains how the Brahmin was given four Vedas to read and understand, however unable to understand the experience of ਹੁਕਮੁ (perpetual command/law of nature), the helpless Brahmin was condemned to wander aimlessly, thus creating demi-gods of worldly kings.
We must be careful not to describe Guru as an “avtaar” in the classic Brahminical context. The translation of Bhatta de Svaiya is of particular concern. There are 11 Bhatts that have been included in Guru Granth Sahib. Many English translations have wrongly suggested that Bhatt Kalh (also referred to as Bhatt Kalhashar) has referred to Guru Nanak as an “avtaar” in the orthodox Brahminical sense. Firstly, let us provide some general context to the Bhatta de Svaiya of which there are 123 starting from Ang 1389 and concluding at Ang 1409.
The word ‘bhatt’ is derived from the Sanskrit word “bhrit” used to describe mercenaries who fought for their masters and were full of praise for their greatness. Mahan Kosh too describes the word “bhatt” to mean those people who sing the praise of great personalities. Historically originating from Rajasthan around the 9th century the Bhatts have been recorded to have had two main duties, namely expression of praise and expression of bravery. They attained the highest religious and Vedic education available to the people of their time. When the glory of Guru Nanak reached the Bhatts they immediately sang spontaneous praises of the Gurus, thus their verses were included in the Granth, a sign of the Guru’s sovereign authority and his intent to reinvent religion and faith as it was then understood. Let us consider one of the Svaiye of Bhatt Kalh. This common English translation is taken from Ang 1389 (found on most Gurbani search engines today):
“Kapila, and the other Yogis sing of Guru Nanak. He is the Avataar, the incarnation of the Infinite Lord. Parasraam the son of Jamdagan, whose axe and powers were taken away by Raghuvira, sing of Him. Udho, Akrur and Bidar sing the Glorious Praises of Guru Nanak, who knows the Lord, the Soul of All. KAL the poet sings the Sublime Praises of Guru Nanak, who enjoys mastery of Raja Yoga”.
ਗਾਵਹਿ ਕਪਿਲਾਦਿ ਆਦਿ ਜੋਗੇਸੁਰ ਅਪਰੰਪਰ ਅਵਤਾਰ ਵਰੋ ॥
ਗਾਵੈ ਜਮਦਗਨਿ ਪਰਸਰਾਮੇਸੁਰ ਕਰ ਕੁਠਾਰੁ ਰਘੁ ਤੇਜੁ ਹਰਿਓ ॥
ਉਧੌ ਅਕ੍ਰੂਰੁ ਬਿਦਰੁ ਗੁਣ ਗਾਵੈ ਸਰਬਾਤਮੁ ਜਿਨਿ ਜਾਣਿਓ ॥
ਕਬਿ ਕਲ ਸੁਜਸੁ ਗਾਵਉ ਗੁਰ ਨਾਨਕ ਰਾਜੁ ਜੋਗੁ ਜਿਨਿ ਮਾਣਿਓ ॥੪॥
When we read the Gurbani, in context, it becomes evident that Bhatt Kahl is not stating that “Guru Nanak is the avatar, the incarnation of the infinite lord”, as implied by most of today’s Gurbani search engines and applications. This is a weak and inaccurate English interpretation of Gurbani. When read in context to the rest of the Svaiyas it is clear that Bhatt Kahl is stating something very radical for its time. He states yogis such as Kapila (who was the founder of the Sankhya philosophy, prominent throughout the Bhagavata Purana and Bhagavad Gita) sing of and deem beings such as Jogesur (which according to Mahan Kosh is a reference to Krishna and Shiva) to be divine avtaars; just like Jamdagan and his son Parasraam (characters prominent in the Puranas) sang; just like Udho (from Mahabharat and the Bhagavata Purana), Akrur (famous commander of the Yadava army in the Bhagvata Purana) and Bidur (devotee of Krishna, mentioned in Mahabharat) praise those whom they deemed to be ਸਰਬਾਤਮੁ (the soul of all). In the last line of this particular stanza, Bhatt Kahl then concludes that he sings of Guru Nanak, the one who mastered ਰਾਜੁ ਜੋਗੁ (political science, not to be mistaken with “Raja Yoga” as erroneously described in English). This is the first pangti in which the Bhatt explicitly refers to Guru Nanak. It is no coincidence that Bhatt Kahl first talks about worldly kings and their “spiritual” inclinations, and then concludes that Guru Nanak perfected that union best, in the truest manifestation. In that last pangti, Bhatt Kahl dethrones the demi-gods that have been worshipped for 2000+ years, and places Guru Nanak higher than them all.
Take a look at the previous Svaiye and those that follow immediately after and one will notice a pattern in the style of the Bhatt’s writing. There is a constant reiteration that whilst others sing of self-acclaimed/self-appointed “divine avtaars”, the Bhatt sings the praises of Guru Nanak, who truly embodied all that is wonderful and magnificent in the universe.
It is so important to read and understand Gurbani in context, and not interpret one pangti via the limits of the English language. The English translations are so weak that they offer different meanings of the same word throughout the Svaiyas; on one hand they suggest that these characters from Hindu mythology are singing the praises of Guru Nanak, on the other they suggest they are singing praises of “His” virtues (presumably this “His” being a reference to the divine). There is a constant over-reliance on Abrahamic terminology which is highly detrimental to Sikh psyche because Gurbani is so vast that any attempt to translate it into English causes the core principles to be lost in translation.
The Guru’s glory does not lie in the continued comparison to Hindu deities and demi-gods, rather it manifests in the Guru’s condemnation of such deities; unique to the Guru’s Shabad. The Guru tells us in Anand Sahib ਵੇਦਾ ਮਹਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਉਤਮੁ ਸੋ ਸੁਣਹਿ ਨਾਹੀ ਫਿਰਹਿ ਜਿਉ ਬੇਤਾਲਿਆ (in the Vedas, the ultimate objective is ਨਾਮੁ, but they cannot hear it, and they walk around like demons). Notice the Guru’s choice of using ਸੁਣਹਿ ਨਾਹੀ, it is very purposeful and very definitive. The glory of the Guru further manifests itself in his actions to challenge the status quo, uplift society, oppose tyranny and establish righteous rule. There can be no admiration for those who seek to compare or liken the Guru to other “divine beings” be they prophets of one faith or saints of another because to do so would place them on par with Guru Nanak and we know through his word and his actions that the Guru was far greater. He was truly revolutionary in ideology and in action, on a spiritual and political level. This is awe-inspiring and far more empowering than any anecdotal reference to the Guru being the Ram or Krishna of Kaljug. Sikhi stands out because the Guru challenged the very foundations of religion and politics within society and the Guru’s Sikh have followed the example of standing for truth no matter what the consequences.
Historically the Sikh Nation has not concerned itself with attracting followers for a strictly numerical advantage, nor has it fought a battle to simply win. The emphasis has always been on making a stand for the continuation of the movement, for the betterment of the Panth, even in the face of inevitable death. Our concerns should not be focused on telling the world about Sikhi if rather ironically that understanding of Sikhi is based on the English translations of some white colonial folk who defined Sikhi to be an “ism”. Guru Nanak’s ideology challenged everything and is not a religion as taught in RE or ashamedly regurgitated in the same vein across Gurdwaray today. A thorough understanding of the Guru’s dialect will reveal the Guru’s true mission, which in turn would ensure the Sikh of today are not misled by the enigma of English translations that are littered with fallacious references to Hindu mythology and wrongly converted to mirror the tenets of an Abrahamic reference to “god”.
The Guru is unique for many reasons, however perhaps the most exalting of them all is the notion of ਮਨ ਤੂੰ ਜੋਤਿ ਸਰੂਪੁ ਹੈ ਆਪਣਾ ਮੂਲੁ ਪਛਾਣੁ (O mind you are the embodiment of divinity, recognise your root origin). This idea challenges other doctrines which place an emphasis on searching for an external divine experience. The Guru showed the people of this world the true origin of divinity. It does not miraculously drop from a “heavenly abode”; it is not reserved for a certain man-made caste; it is not exclusively reserved for one race, gender, colour or creed. The light of true divinity resides within each and every being, it is innate and humans have wandered aimlessly for years thinking it is outside; in a sun; a stone; in a messiah; in the clouds; in another; so much searching some have even given up hope of looking and deny it’s very existence. The Guru’s spiritual message goes hand in glove with the emphasis on social and political involvement in Sikhi. Where others promote renunciation and exclusivity based on gender and social status for gains in spirituality, the Guru promotes societal involvement and inclusivity of all as a means of abetting spiritual emancipation.
The Guru spoke truth; such truth which challenged the social norm created by religious bigotry and corrupt governments, all of whom were guilty of misleading the people. What he spoke of on a spiritual, political and social level was a threat to the powers that controlled the masses. There are many Sikh who mistakenly believe religion and politics to be diametrically opposed to one another, however the Guru intertwined the two with the establishment of Miri-Piri. For this revolutionary act he and his movement has been targeted, imprisoned and assassinated, but still the movement continues because the Guru taught his Sikh to continue the righteous battle even if it took them to the brink of annihilation. The Khalsa Panth was bestowed with the task of establishing Khalsa Raj in 1699 and while others have endeavoured to capture political power for personal and hegemonic means, those who are in tune to the Guru’s Shabad, the Guru’s beloved, have always striven to acquire political power for the chardikala of the Panth. Over three centuries later, having fought many a battle and despite the onslaught of attacks to dilute and weaken Gurbani and Guru inspired actions, the movement lives and it yearns to breathe the air of freedom.