Kids Corner


The Socially Active Renunciate
The Talking Stick Colloquium XV, Stanzas 28 - 31, Apr 12-18







Stanza 27 generated some lively dialogue around "Vismaad," which was loosely termed as an elemental human emotion, triggered by the awe and wonder of finding ourselves in an enchanting and mysterious universe. Guru Nanak expresses this mystical feeling in stanza 27 with sublime and rare beauty - seeing the presence of the Creator's mysterious and hidden hand behind all Creation, expressing itself in a divine harmony of melodious sounds.

"Vismaad" is the wellspring of all quests: this is abundantly clear in stanza 27 where Guru Nanak depicts the elements, the ascetic, the sage, the scholar and even the elements. I would add that science and technology have replaced old fashioned magic and alchemy as the preferred mode of human quest. The means are different but the ends are the same. 

A question raised was that "If vismaad is such an elemental and desired emotion, why aren't more people seeking the experience? And, can't we bottle and sell vismaad?"

If we seek the answer in gurbani, it is quite clear that grace is at work here.

We paused and pondered Guru Nanak's use of music and sound as a metaphor to describe Creation in stanza 27. This was a significant point because, among other things, it explains the emphasis in Sikh tradition on music and singing as a means of "dhyan" or attentive listening that ultimately leads us beyond our delusions.

THE MESSAGE - Stanzas 28 -31

We will view stanzas 28-31 as a single continuum because they address a common theme: ethics, morality, devotion, and elitism vs. popular consciousness - in other words, the foundations of an ideal life-style that forms the social blueprint of an ideal society.

These stanzas are addressed to the Nath Yogis in general, but particularly to the so called "Ai Panth," one of twelve Hindu sects of Yogis.

It would be difficult to dwell at length on the Siddhas here but it is important to understand that Guru Nanak, during the course of his travels, had frequent and lively discussions with them. Clearly, their philosophy and outlook was influential enough (and perhaps attractive enough) to draw the Guru into extended contact and conversations with them. 

The life style (also 'jugat' or method) of the yogis of the Ai Panth whom Guru Nanak is addressing, was characterized by detachment from the world, asceticism and individualism.

They went about begging for alms door to door with a begging bowl ('pat') and a bag slung over their shoulder ('jholi'), large earrings ('munda') in split ears, their bodies smeared with ashes ('bhibut'), wearing a loose patched coat ('khintha') and a staff in one hand ('danda').

Guru Nanak reiterates the inner qualities or virtues that we discussed in relation to dharam and exhorts the yogis to practice control over the mind (as opposed to punishing the body).

The inner qualities that we can detect in these stanzas are: contentment ('santokh'), modesty ('saram'), orientation ('dhian'), chastity and self discipline ('khintha kālu kuārī kāiā'), discernment ('partit'), a catholic and universal outlook ('aī panthī sagal jamāṯī'), service ('man jīṯai jag jīṯ'), knowledge ('bẖugaṯ giān') and compassion ('ḏaiā bẖandāraṇ')

By stressing these inner virtues and qualities over external pieties, Guru Nanak is making a fundamental departure (though not explicitly stated in these 4 stanzas but recorded in the Sidh Gosht) from the established Hindu social pattern and value system.

Take the notion of dharma, for instance. Dharma was based on the notion of a hierarchical social pattern legitimized by a caste system and governed by the law of karma. In such a universe, dharma was fixed and confined to the execution of an individual's caste functions - duty for duty's sake. Any departure was viewed as an attempt to de-stabilize an established order and was viewed with abhorrence and met with dire consequences; it required intervention, not generally to the liking of the lower castes.

Guru Nanak's deep social concern for an egalitarian society is very evident: over and again, he has poignantly described the plight of the masses under unjust and immoral rulers as well as charlatans and brahmins. In addressing the yogis, Guru Nanak criticizes them for escaping to the mountains by creating an escapist and selfish life style.

By making contentment (santokh) as the principle of dharma, Guru Nanak breaks down established hierarchical patterns: no longer is an individual trapped in a caste-based fixed role; instead, moral action becomes the equalizer and sets an egalitarian and democratic tone in society.


The heading for this week's dialogue, "The Socially Active Renunciate," is borrowed from the title of a book of the same name. It was, I thought, an apt way to describe the dynamic tension of a way of life that is worldly but not of the world.

How does one walk this tightrope?

What would the life style of a socially active renunciate look like?

Again and again, Guru Nanak stresses contentment (santokh) - this quality appears to be foundational in Guru Nanak's concept of dharam - as the underpinning of a gurmukh life-style as well as the basis for a just and fair society. We have seen in a previous discussion how he calls contentment the rope that binds us together; in Asa ki Vaar he calls contentment the chariot and dharma the charioteer. 

How do you, the reader, think of contentment in the context of individual behavior and social interaction?

Do we run the risk of becoming passive fatalists with "too much" contentment?

Where and how do we draw the line between needs and wants? How do we know when our demands and desires have become neurotic?

Thoughts on how Guru Nanak's revolution in laying the foundation of a new society would be welcome.


Munḏa sanṯokẖ saram paṯ jẖolī ḏẖiān kī karahi bibẖūṯ

Earrings of contentment wear, the fruits of honest labor share,

The ashes of meditation smear,

Kẖinthā kāl kuārī kāiā jugaṯ dandā parṯīṯ

With awareness of death as your weave, remain chaste and clean

Make discernment the staff on which to lean             

Āī panthī sagal jamāṯī man jīṯai jag jīṯ

The way of equality then practice;

Master the mind and conquer the world

Āḏes ṯisai āḏes

Hail to You and salutations more

Āḏ anīl anāḏ anāhaṯ jug jug eko ves.

Primal, Immaculate, without beginning and end,

You endure without change through the ages. //28//


Bẖugaṯ giān ḏaiā bẖandāraṇ gẖat gẖat vājėh nāḏ

With knowledge your sustenance maintain,

From the storehouse of compassion obtain,

Hear the Divine melody, every heart sings in refrain.

Āp nāth nāthī sabẖ jā kī riḏẖ siḏẖ avrā sāḏ

You are the Master, Your Will alone reigns

Occult powers serve only to estrange.

Sanjog vijog ḏue kār cẖalāvėh lekẖe āvahi bẖāg

Union and separation is Your play, we receive as is written.

Āḏes ṯisai āḏes

Āḏ anīl anāḏ anāhaṯ jug jug eko ves.

Primal, Immaculate, without beginning and end,

You endure without change through the ages. //29//


Ėkā māī jugaṯ viāī ṯin cẖele parvāṇ

Of cosmic union Maya has conceived,

Three sons (principles) celebrated and by all received,

Ik sansārī ik bẖandārī ik lāe ḏībāṇ

Creation, Death and Sustenance their domain

Jiv ṯis bẖāvai ṯivai cẖalāvai jiv hovai furmāṇ

The world at Your behest they maintain, your bidding is their aim.

Oh vekẖai onā naḏar na āvai bahuṯā ehu vidāṇ

Watching Your Creation, hidden You remain, wondrous is Your game.

Āḏes ṯisai āḏes

Āḏ anīl anāḏ anāhaṯ jug jug eko ves.

Primal, Immaculate, without beginning and end,

You endure without change through the ages. //30//


Āsaṇ loe loe bẖandār

Seated in Your Creation; Your treasures are without depletion,

Jo kicẖẖ pāiā so ekā vār

Our share placed once and forever.

Kar kar vekẖai sirjaṇhār

You watch over Your Creation.

Nānak sacẖe kī sācẖī kār

Says Nanak, true is the handiwork of the True.

Āḏes ṯisai āḏes

Āḏ anīl anāḏ anāhaṯ jug jug eko ves.

Primal, Immaculate, without beginning and end,

You endure without change through the ages. //31//

Conversation about this article

1: Veronica Sidhu (Scotch Plains, U.S.A.), April 12, 2010, 12:05 PM.

We walk this tightrope "very simply" (pun intended!) by not judging our own experiences as "good" or "bad". We leave pain or pleasure for vismaad, "wonder". We are in the moment feeling connected to our Source, the source of all contentment. Our lives may look very different from the outside, depending on the message we are receiving, the "job" we are given in that moment. But the inner life is the same.

2: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), April 13, 2010, 9:54 AM.

Thank you, Veronica, for your insightful comment - "very simply" says it all. In calling out contentment, I did not mean to neglect or ignore the other virtues that Guru Nanak mentions as the basis for being a true siddh (or gurmukh). 'Contentment' caught my attention because it raises interesting questions in my mind: what is contentment in this context and in the context of being the foundation of dharam? Does it mean curtailment of desire, and if so, to what degree? Does it mean respecting boundaries, i.e., not coveting? What about living in constant awareness of death ('khintha kaal')? Some would argue that such a preoccupation is unhealthy. Thoughts?

3: Jasvinder (Hamilton, New Zealand), April 14, 2010, 3:31 AM.

As mentioned by someone in the last post that "appe pehchaane mann nirmal hoe', I think that is the key to have contentment. it comes with self realization, when we know who we are as pure consciousness and complete as there is nothing else to achieve. If we are contented in our inner consciousness, then this outside world is just a play, a drama, which we have come here to enjoy. Maybe that's why Guru Nanak has stressed the fact to enjoy it and be a karamyogi, rather than become a yogi and renounce everything. It is not hard, it is just a change in mind, a shift in one's attitude to life. Then, wherever you are, there is heaven ... be it a palace or a hut. Should we have desires or not? If we didn't have the desire to play this drama, then why do we come here ... the same age-old question, why are we here? So maybe, if we are fully contented, then it is the "munn jeetai" state.

4: Guravtar (Johnson City, TN, U.S.A.), April 14, 2010, 5:30 AM.

Contrary to the belief that the gurbani uttered by the Guru Sahiban is syncretic based on prevailing religious mythologies, Guru Nanak in stanza 28 of the Japji is referring to the qualifying symbols of Yogis, to advise his followers for contentment, earnest toil for one's living, contemplation and reminder of death, to maintain chastity and humility, etc. Basically, he is questioning the external regalia of the yogis and reminding his followers to attain peace of mind by logical and practical approach in life instead of relying on external observances. Conquering one's mind equals conquering worldly indulgences (Maya). In Sikhi, miraculous powers are highly disapproved, because searching such powers and possessing them takes one away from the realization of God's attributes, and sways the mind to false pride, ego, lust, anger and greed. Learning to be content with what comes one's way is an arduous task but is required for peace of mind. Only a few find contentment in every happening in life. To be a social renunciate while fulfilling obligations of family life is one of the required features of being a Sikh. Absolute renunciation does not exist; sooner or later, the traditional renunciates do get back into worldy life and live as parasites in the communities. The social renunciates approved by gurbani are very very rare. Bhagat Puran Singh of Pingalwada qualifies as one. To survive and sustain ourselves and our loved ones in the world as human beings, we have to desire for daily earnings and progress. Guru Sahib advises us to control the desires, not curtail them.

5: Yadwinder Singh (Pickerington, Ohio, U.S.A.), April 14, 2010, 8:21 AM.

I believe the message is bhogi not tyagi. Guru does not believe in tyag or varat - which means to renounce. Waheguru has made this beautiful planet for us to enjoy. Imagine that this world is a river and we are sitting on one side of the bank. We have to cross the river which is filled with the five evils, maya and worldy pleasures. We can learn the art of swimming from the Guru's shabad or the saadh sangat and learn how to practice dharam, santokh, sukirat and sanjam. This river we can cross only if we know how to swim. The tyagi would be the person sitting on one bank of the river and unable to learn the message.

6: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), April 14, 2010, 10:03 AM.

A few points raised last week that were not addressed need to be acknowledged. One was around not having paid attention to the challenges Guru Nanak may have faced and other details around his personal life, like where did he stay, sleep, clothes, etc. While these biographical details are interesting, they belong to the realm of the historian or biographer. It should be noted that Guru Nanak - and his successors - have left us with very little (if at all) in terms of personal history; I suspect the message was more important.

7: Pashaura Singh (Riverside, California, U.S.A.), April 14, 2010, 10:41 AM.

Guru Nanak preached the message of the socially active renunciate. He discouraged the renunciation of the world and insisted that liberation was to be found living within the world and yet being above it, in much the same way as the lotus flower blooms and remains beautiful and dry in the muddy water. He stressed the ideals of moderate living and disciplined worldliness as opposed to the ideals of asceticism and over-indulgence in the things of the world. During the period of Guru Nanak, the Nath yogis were a contending force in the religious milieu of Punjab and he had a number of debates with them - something quite evident from the use of Nath terminology in his hymns. It is no wonder that Guru Nanak addressed the yogis in their own terms, with their own symbols: "Make contentment and hard work your earrings, dignity your begging bowl and wallet, and meditation on the Lord your ashes. Let fear of death be your patched garment; be chaste like a virgin. Make faith in God your staff. Your great yogic sect ('ai panthi') should be universal brotherhood / sisterhood, and self-control the conquest of the world." Here shines Guru Nanak's own self-understanding of an ideal life based on ethical and moral principles. Evidently, the Nath yogis absorbed much of Guru Nanak's attention and the subsequent decline of their influence in the Punjab must be regarded as one of his most striking victories. His victory slogan reverberates in the Japji Sahib: "Instead of the yogi's cry ('ades'), let there be a joyous greeting, to You O Creator of all! From time's beginning, through all eternity, You are the Pure, the Eternal One." Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa// Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh - Happy Vaisakhi!

8: Nirmal Singh. Nilvi (Texas, U.S.A.), April 14, 2010, 9:00 PM.

Like an algebra class, the learning of the Japji text is over. In these stanzas, Guru Nanak is using many more examples to practice what we have learned so far, like a tutorial. We benefit from our knowledge only when we effectively use it through practice. For a good practitioner, use of knowledge in the four broader areas is important. Knowing yourself within and outside is the most critical. Next comes understanding one's fellow humans the same way we understand ourselves. Recognition of the environment and cultural influence is necessary. Unconditional surrender and acceptance of the Force of the universe is a must. And learning to cope with the challenges of life situations with His grace helps. Developing a mind set that has acquired a balancing act in meeting needs and fulfilling wishes/ desires is the key in leading a contended and satisfying life journey. In Japji, no limits are placed on anything we want/ decide to do. The focus is on knowledge, use of inner faculties, coordinated plan, identified needs, sincere action, good attitude, truthful intent, commitment, devotion and moderation. It is no different than the methods we learn in a seminar or a self-help book. Rather, much better. It is unfortunate that our approach to reading Japji starts with a mind that is overwhelmed with reverence and it never steps aside. Our expectation in purpose and approach is different. We search for something larger, magical, mystical, vismaadic or divine and it never departs from our consciousness. And in the process very few of us pick up the practical knowledge and wisdom hidden therein, ready for assimilation, use and benefit. Even during the interpretative process, our perception is mostly motivated towards the divine only. Unless I am mistaken it was somewhat evident in this study as well. Otherwise, if read, understood and thoughtfully applied with an open mind, the Japji, I believe, is a complete practical guide to help a person live a reasonably fulfilling and contented life regardless of her religious orientation or cultural background.

9: Jasvinder (Hamilton, New Zealand), April 14, 2010, 9:53 PM.

Where and how do we draw the line between needs and wants? How do we know when our demands and desires have become neurotic? Can someone answer this one, please. What if our needs are met, and we are contented as a result too, but still want to play the game and have desires to achieve even more than what we have or need, are we required/ asked to stop?

10: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas, U.S.A.), April 15, 2010, 4:58 AM.

Ravinder ji, regarding your point about the history of our Gurus' personal lives: we do speak a lot about this aspect. But the coverage of their active life is narrow. We primarily dwell on noble and sacrificial actions, reverential in nature. We have ignored several other aspects which can humanize the approach and the message of Sikhi more, as done by Christians, Buddhists or Muslims. In Sikhi, the emphasis, in reality is more on worship of the message than its practical utility, in my humble opinion. However, in writings and conversation, we take great pride in pointing out the practical beneficial aspects of the Sikh tenets. We need better self-analysis of this important aspect of our practice. Otherwise, why more and more educated Sikhs feel and write about the disconnect between the message and the practice of our faith. About Guru Nanak: we have written so much about his message using metaphors where necessary. It appears inconceivable for me to believe that no one ever imagined a few simple practical issues in his journeys we discussed last week. Somehow, we are not comfortable writing about human aspects of our Gurus other than a few in saakhis. I wish there is something more plausible to justify our approach thus far. Not to deviate from our focus; take for example Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh. Both were rigorously trained from childhood to take over the Guruship and it shows in their style. Other gurus mostly earned the Guruship. The point is relevant to the study. How to make the message of Sikhi as the focal point instead of rituals as we have done in reality. And there is vested fervor to retain the existing focus on the rituals. Otherwise, the utility of the message in the Japji will not serve the followers to the extent we wish/ desire and have highlighted in this brief study. Readers' opinions are highly desired on this issue.

11: Pashaura Singh (Riverside, California, U.S.A.), April 16, 2010, 6:16 AM.

The impetus behind ascetic withdrawal from society in India was directly related to the emphasis on the concept of 'unreality' of the world. If liberation is an escape from the worldly cycle, it makes sense that one would reach it through progressive abstention from worldly involvements. That is exactly what a person who renounces the world does when he (or occasionally she) deserts home and family to live in relatively isolated and austere circumstances, sleeping on the ground, restricting the diet, practicing control of the breath, and bringing the senses under control - in short, withdrawing from all that might bind one to the world, with the ultimate goal of escaping from rebirth itself. In contrast to this worldview, however, Guru Nanak stresses the value of responsible social engagement within the context of marriage and family. For him, the phenomenal world mirrors the eternal ('nanak sache ki saachi kar'), reflecting the functioning of the cosmic law (hukam) through the temporal or historical events: "In every realm of creation You dwell, each realm a portion of the storehouse divine. All that exists You created for ever, keeping watch over all that you bring into being. Eternally steadfast are You, declares Nanak, and Your works endure for evermore." Not surprisingly, in contrast to the emphasis on otherworldliness in contemporary Indian thought, Guru Nanak laid emphasis on a concrete and realist worldview, affirming the sense of the historicity of the phenomenal world and the social realities. It was his existential outlook towards the world that stressed the realization of meaningful life of 'here' and 'now'. It is in this context that Nirmal Singh ji's emphasis on the application and utility of Japji in actual life makes sense. Japji reflects Guru Nanak's lived experience. He does not accept any miracles of the yogis ('riddh siddh avara sadu') but lays emphasis on living creatively in this world. Once we realize the functioning of the divine Order ('hukam') in our lives, ordinary things of life become extraordinary. This is a new outlook towards living in the world.

12: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas, U.S.A.), April 16, 2010, 6:29 AM.

Ravinder ji has raised three separate but related questions. The first question is: where and how do we draw the line between needs and wants? Let us address this one last because of its complexity and the detailed answer. The second question is: how do you know when our demands and desires have become neurotic? I believe this one is easier because many external signs develop which are easy to identify and monitor. Our mental outlook is the first. Running around like a chicken with a head cut off is another. Physical health becomes another predictor of what is going on. Observations and comments from others are warning signs. Third question: what if our needs are met but we like to play the game? There is nothing wrong with it. If you acquire much more than you need, Sikhi does not say it is wrong as long as our intent, purpose and approach is not hurtful to others and the process does not turn us into egoistic, arrogant monsters. Plus, all of us are not good gatherers. Those who are better accumulators become a source of helping others who are limited due to natural or accidental handicaps. Many good gatherers end up allocating excess resources to charitable causes. Even if they do not, the assets benefit somebody by design or fiat. We all wish to be in this category but only a few with talent, hard work and His grace are fortunate to end up in this universally coveted group. Now, back to the first question: we can only share an outline and a blue print because the process is individual specific. Construct a balance between wants vs. needs and then implement by identifying the two with your inner naturally and externally acquired awareness and knowledge. The other most common approach is to start with natural wants to meet basic needs. And as we gather resources, strike a balance by initiating a internal monitoring process of awareness to better identify the needs vs. wants and arrive at a comfortable level. To be on the safe side, accumulate more than our needs for emotional and rainy day safety net. Needs include basic life sustaining necessities, knowledge, analytical skills, will power and habits. Wants may be unlimited but many are eliminated due to lack of time and resources. In drawing a line between the two, the approach is to combine self knowledge with outside help and regular upgrading. It is a variable and approximate process requiring trial and elimination. Internal controls, regular monitoring and consistent awareness are some of the keys to the level of success. Patience and perseverance are virtues that reduce emotional stress inherent in the process. Learning from others to upgrade the process is helpful. Comparing the success of one vs. that of others should be avoided.

13: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), April 16, 2010, 8:33 AM.

It is very gratifying indeed to see that we have generated a lively discussion that is meaningful and insightful - while avoiding the familiar pitfalls of pontification or scoring points over others. I get quite a few positive comments privately and wish that more of you put your reluctance (to write) aside and join in. More later.

14: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), April 16, 2010, 1:01 PM.

Nirmal Singh ji: The Gurus are examplars for us, no doubt. My response to you was around particular details of their lives which are sparse. To your point, most of what comes down to us (via Bhai Gurdas and the Janam Sakhis) is hagiography and it is difficult to separate fact from fiction (or myth). My other point was that we are really taking the time to reflect on the message and would like to keep the context of the Japji central to the discussion. Having said that, the "thoughts to ponder" I posit in the weekly review are just suggestions to get a dialogue going. It is great that we are asking questions and stimulating this conversation.

15: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas, U.S.A.), April 17, 2010, 3:05 PM.

'The socially active renunciate' is our topic. Is it practically viable in real life without becoming a yogi (selfish act) who contributes little to this world, or Puran Singh (Pingalwara) who was on a humanitarian mission? Does Guru Nanak suggest anything close to being such a person, in the Japji? In my reading of the Japji, he has persisted against it. In his belief and approach, he propounds on us becoming good persons, starting with our thoughts, and all the way to purpose, motivation, action, duty, responsibility, attitude, behavior, achievements, etc. His emphasis is strictly on the unknown Force, which he says we must not forget, seek His grace and show the utmost gratitude ... because we are here only due to Him, along with the rest of creation around us.

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The Talking Stick Colloquium XV, Stanzas 28 - 31, Apr 12-18"

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