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Language & Literacy:
Basics - The Writings of Bhai Ardaman Singh of Bagrian





One sometimes wonders and admires the way Guru Nanak disseminated knowledge and spread the message, the teachings, he brought from the Supreme Master, while travelling almost throughout the civilized world in the beginning of the sixteenth century.

He travelled from China to the Mediterranean, and from central Asia to Ceylon and Malaya. He had no interpreter with him during these travels to convey the message. No prophet or avtar is known to have travelled so far and wide.

It could only have been a divine spark in him that guided him to convey the message he carried to all these different peoples, to different countries, and nations.

In the bani he recorded, we find that the Satguru repudiated any claim of sanctity of any particular language as Sanskrit has for the Hindus, and Arabic for the Muslims.

He used the language of the masses, making free and generous use of Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Hindi, and Punjabi, and appealed direct to the heart and intellect in simple words and phrases.

Thus bypassing any intermediary priest class, he saved the common people from exploitation and subjugation by the priesthood, both Hindu and Muslim, and created a contact direct with the masses.

The Sikh approach being through intellect, argument, and knowledge, literacy was an essential first step on this “Way to Anandpur.” Without this, one has to subordinate one’s self to another for understanding the right interpretation of the shabad.

Thus, the danger of creating a sort of priest class becomes imminent.

We find that the teaching and propagation of Punjabi in Gurmukhi script was started on a regular and organised basis, from as early a time as that of the second Nanak, Guru Angad. During the third Satguru’s time, the learning of Punjabi had vastly spread amongst the Sikhs.

The Gurbani was first written down on paper during his time.

Finally, the fifth Satguru compiled and completed the Holy Granth.

The contribution of the tenth Satguru is as significant as that of his predecessors in this respect. He had as many as fifty-two poets under his patronage and in his service at Paonta and Anandpur.

Some of these men of letters he deputed to go to Banares and other centres of learning to acquire all kinds of knowledge and master the shastras and scriptures of other religions and schools of thought. He then got all the shastras, classics and old mythological books translated from Sanskrit and other obsolete languages into the everyday language and made them available to the masses.

It is regrettable that this cartloads of literature was mostly lost during the evacuation of Anandpur when crossing the flooded Sarsa. Only some was left, a portion of which was collected along with some other portions and copies here and there with the Sikhs, by Bhai Mani Singh, and incorporated later on in a volume called the Dasam Granth.

Eventually, the tenth Satguru was able to announce in 1690 that no one had remained unlettered and illiterate amongst the Sikhs. Every Sikh, young and old, had become literate. This claim was upheld when in 1699, the Satguru administered amrit and created the order of the Khalsa.

There were no prayer books then as there were no printing presses. There was no volume even of the Adi Granth then in the Satguru’s court or anywhere except the one original volume with the Sodhis at Kartarpur. But all the Sikhs who were at that time initiated, remembered by heart at least the five banis that are daily recited, as is evident from the fact that they formed further units of Punj Pyaras and continued to administer amrit.

The Sikhs initiated on that occasion are estimated to be between 70,000 and 80,000.

For a detailed bio on the author, and a review of the book from which this essay is extracted, please CLICK here.

[Courtesy: “Thoughts of Bhai Ardaman Singh”, compiled by Bhai Ashok Singh. Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, Punjab. Edited for]

May 21, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), May 21, 2013, 9:50 PM.

The issue of language in Sikhism is something which has intrigued me for quite some time. I have a question - perhaps someone can answer. I was told that the Guru Granth Sahib contains a few passages that are written in Sanskrit? Is this true?

2: Surinder Singh Chawla (India), May 22, 2013, 5:39 AM.

Yes. There are verses in sanskrit by Guru Arjan.

3: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), May 22, 2013, 7:13 AM.

The Gurus wrote in the language of the people, which meant switching to local languages and dialects as they traveled -- which they did extensively. Their compositions reflect the rich variety, as do the verses they selected from the writings of the Bhagats for inclusion in the Guru Granth. The vocabulary, grammar and language you'll find in the Guru Granth includes: Marathi, Gujrati, Avadhi, Eastern Punjabi, Lehndi, Dakhni, Western Hindi, Eastern Hindi, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Braj Bhasha, Sant Bhasha, Apabhramsa. Many of these usages overlap each other.

4: Manjeet Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 25, 2013, 4:26 AM.

In reference to #1 and 2, the sloks are known as 'Sahaskriti Sloks', not 'Sanskrit' sloks. Sahaskriti is quite different from Sanskrit. Sanskrit is an extremely complex and difficult language for the layman. The Gurus have used 'Sahaskriti' instead. Sahaskriti is an admixture of Sanskrit, Prakrit and Hindi. It was an altogether new language. Thus we have Guru Nanak at page 876 saying 'koi parta sahasakrita ...' These sloks are found on pages 1353-1360. Four sloks by Guru Nanak stress the need for sincere remembrance of the Holy Name and the futility of empty rituals. Guru Arjan's 67 sloks follow next. These are terse and cryptic in style and emphasize humility, naam, holy company, the transitory nature of maya and the need for grace. Gaatha [1360-61], and some sloks of 'Jaitsri ki Vaar' are also expressed in Sahaskriti.

5: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 25, 2013, 6:50 AM.

#4 - Manjeet Singh jio: Thanks for your erudite comment. Guru Granth Sahib is an encylopaedia of languages that indeed broke the stone wall of Sanskrit into easily understood 'Sahaskriti'.

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Basics - The Writings of Bhai Ardaman Singh of Bagrian"

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