Kids Corner


How To Save The World




I could just as well have titled this essay as "The Perils of Translation."

Once a month a few of us - Sikh friends - gather to parse some compositions from Gurbani. On pages 1360-61 the Guru Granth offers one headed "Gatha" by Guru Arjan.

If I label it pretty dense, believe me, I am understating the issue. Naturally, we depend on the existing and available translations.

One verse started with: "Bayd puraan sastar bichaaran/ ekankar naam urdharan/ kuleh samooh sagal udharan."

On the sources that we consulted, this verse was translated thus:

"People contemplate the Veds, Purans and Shaastars; But he who enshrines in his or heart the Naam, the Name of the One and Only Creator of the Universe, will save everyone."

That started a conversation: what exactly do we mean by the word "kuleh." There was general agreement that it meant "everyone," as opposed to "kul" that might likely stand for family, clan, tribe or caste.

Many lines in Guru Granth seem to suggest that through a God-connected mind, everyone in one's family or clan can be liberated. I could offer you a myriad references in gurbani that, at first blush, seem to say that a self-realized person, a saint, a man of God, will not only liberate himself but will also liberate others of his family, clan or wider circle.

Of the many possible citations, I submit only two to demonstrate that such an interpretation in meaning is not surprising or off the track, even though I consider it erroneous:

"They redeem their generations, and they themselves obtain liberation" -Kul uḏẖārėh āpṇā mokẖ paḏvī āpe pāhi [GGS: 592].

Or look at this line: "I myself am liberated, and my companions swim across; my family and ancestors are also saved"  - Ä€p mukaṯ sangÄ« ṯare kul kutamb uḏẖāre [GGS:814].

Can it really be so?

And then I am enraptured by the Christian message that proclaims from rooftops: "Christ died for our sins" or "Jesus died for us so that we can have eternal life."

I listen and again I wonder: Can this be so?

Can someone else pay my debts in this life? Can someone else die for my sins? Can someone else atone for the evil that's in my heart or my actions?

For me personally, it would be a wonderful world if someone else could pay and atone for my acts of omission and commission - my mistakes. My failings are so many and it would be liberating to have a free pass.

But it does stand the whole idea of individual responsibility and righteous living on its head.

I would opine that a literal translation of these worlds in gurbani would destroy civilization as we would like it to be - even civilization as we know it. The whole system of morality, fair play and ethics would collapse and have no place in society then.

But a way to cancel my debts and numerous missteps in life remains an enticing idea. At a personal level I sure wish that it was possible. How easy then it would be to save the world. The only need would be to hire good but needy people to recite prayers endlessly in the name and for the benefit of the donor.

But from a societal perspective it would be a terrible model - a real unmitigated disaster.

Certainly it might cost more for a Donald Trump or a mafia don to get his slate cleaned than for someone like most of us, but then our pockets are likely not that deep or capacious either. In such a working system I suppose one could try and calibrate one's quota of sins, committed or contemplated, to a slice of one's assets that are budgeted for cleaning up our messes - much as we regulate our purchases to the outer limits of our credit cards.

Just think with me: If this rendition were to be literally true, surely Ram Rai, the son of Guru Har Rai, would have needed to do nothing to be saved from his sins; nor would the sons of Guru Nanak. Certainly the virtues of the Gurus would be enough to more than balance out and void the misbehavior of their sons.

If Guru Nanak was advocating that benefits of virtues could be transferred to others or attained by proxy, he would not have declaimed "aapay beej aapay he khaaho" [GGS:4] - in other words, 'as you sow so shall you reap.'

He also said that "by one's own actions one is nearer or farther from God that is within us all" - karmi aapo aapni ke nerhae ke door [GGS:8] - (this line is also credited to Guru Angad). This, too, would then become a meaningless exhortation.

So, such a literal meaning is not what the Gurus likely had in mind.

The poetry of gurbani needs to be interpreted in the context of the times, culture and language when it was elaborated. The allegories and metaphors reign supreme; without them we would surely lose both our direction and destination.

What then to make of "kuleh or "kul"?" How to interpret this usage in the poetry of Guru Granth Sahib? How then to celebrate and acclaim the individual who has seen the light?

Keep in mind that Sikhi is not a business, an estate or a fat bank account that can be willed to a son or daughter; it can be earned but not gifted. In fact no religion is, nor is any model of ethical conduct.

Sikhi is a path that has to be cultivated by the individual via daily practice of the teachings, along with contemplation and recitation of gurbani.

But there is more to Sikhi than the individual path. A parallel emphasis is on the congregation of like-minded seekers.

Truly, the company one keeps is critical. It is for this reason that the savant Bhai Gurdas said, "Kahoo ki sangat mil jeevan mukt hoe/ kahoo ki sangat mil jampur jaat hae." In other words, some company can liberate one; other company will consign one to hell.

And, in the words of Kabir, "One becomes the company one keeps"  - Jo jaisÄ« sangaṯ milai so ṯaiso fal kẖā▫e - [GGS:1369].

It is through community, communion and congregation - social capital - that societies and nations are built. Keep "social capital" in mind. This is the critical and operative idea here.

So who do you hang out with is the question. This is exactly what the Guru Granth is talking about. I offer you one more citation from the many that gurbani offers:

"Those who serve the True Guru, O Beloved, their companions are saved as well" - Jinĥī saṯgur sevi▫ā pi▫āre ṯinÄ¥ ke sāth ṯaray -  [GGS:636].

Most people know this intuitively. That is why most parents across the world - no matter the culture, religion or geography - want their kids to cultivate good company that offers enviable role models.

We all value role models and iconic figures that we can identify with in our journey through life. If we latch on to a good one, it can be life-saving. In fact we learn more from peers and role models than from books, classrooms and endless lectures. The benefits are life-long and immeasurable.

I believe it is this that Guru Granth is talking about when it speaks of kul - clan and family - that can be saved by an enlightened soul. It is a clan not defined by blood lines but by ideas and ideology that define a lifestyle.

In the final analysis, Sikhi promises us a people forged not from common blood but from common purpose. That's why Sikhs are meant to shun distinctions of caste, class, tribe nationality and gender, etc., and seek the company of similarly centered people on the same path - sangat or congregation..

This takes me to what I heard Condoleezza Rice say in the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia: "We are a nation forged not from common blood but from common purpose."

Of course, she was speaking about the nation that is America, but the idea is equally applicable to Sikhi - the nation that the Gurus founded.

This tells me that no one else can meditate or pray on our behalf to transfer any of the benefits to us. Individual responsibility is not so easily swept aside or traded. Lincoln reputedly said, "I am less concerned about who my grandfather was and more about what his grandson is up to."

No one else can pay our debts, earn us reward points in a heaven or clean up our messes in this life except us. A priest cannot, nor can a Brahmin or a Gyani/Granthi. No holy water can wash away sins - neither our own, nor of someone else; no ritual bathing can cleanse the mind.

These are bold and rebellious claims but I assure you citations from the Guru Granth in their support exist aplenty.

Sikhi is a "Do-It-Yourself" system. Saving the world is a powerful idea and a goal worth living and dying for. But saving the self is the only starting point for saving the world.

It is a personal responsibility that cannot be outsourced.

March 17, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Brijinder Singh (New York, U.S.A.), March 17, 2011, 7:07 AM.

"I myself am liberated, and my companions swim across ..." - I interpret this to mean that those who have been enlightened by the Guru, in turn enlighten others. The others will naturally be family and friends, first and foremost. The reference to ancestors, I believe, is for dramatic effect. It is as if you have redeemed yourself in the eyes of your ancestors by introducing your family to the path of freedom.

2: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), March 17, 2011, 9:27 AM.

It is true that Sikhi is a "Do-It-Yourself" system. At the same time, when you pray for others from the bottom of your heart, it is always fruitful. During this process, your concentration is real, as if you are absorbed with God, for the person you are praying for. Here, you are asking nothing for you, but still there is a pleasure in it.

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), March 17, 2011, 4:47 PM.

As usual, I.J. Singh's erudite piece is thought-provoking and also provides a befitting, concluding remark: "It is a personal responsibility that cannot be outsourced.". But, there is a thriving business that pandits, priests, rabbis, mullahas and granthis would exorcise your sins by supplying a whipping boy who could take the punishment for you ... for a price, of course. In the final analysis, it depends on Gurprasad: 'Laykhaa chhod alaykhai chootah hum nirgun layho ubaaree [GGS:713.17] - 'Please ignore my account; only then may I be saved. I am worthless - please save me.' Stop wasting money rudraksh malas, tabizes, talismans, etc. Just invoke Him prayerfully - 'Sad bakhsind sadaa miharvaanaa sabhnaa day-ay adhaaree' [GGS:713.17] - 'You are always forgiving, and always merciful; You give support to all.'

4: Harbans Lal (Arlington, Texas, U.S.A.), March 18, 2011, 10:22 AM.

I.J.Singh could have similarly used another title of his paper. It is not by association with your family that you can be defined either as a Sikh or as a patit, etc. Unless one becomes a Sikh, one is not a Sikh, irrespective of our clergy defining every one born of Sikh parents as a Sikh and every one not born of Sikh parents always defined as some one else. I.J. Singh has written about it forcefully before also.

5: Harinder Singh (San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A.), March 18, 2011, 4:43 PM.

My meager understanding is that in gurbani, "kul" is not biological lineage, rather of behavior and charateristics. I like the term 'gur-sibling' for it captures the letter and spirit of the aforesaid notion in the Sikh context.

6: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), March 18, 2011, 5:36 PM.

Exactly. The points that I tried to push were individual responsibility and the building of a congregation - communion and community. Historically, Sikhs have valued and talked about "gurbhai" - that is, a relationship of ideas, not of blood lines.

7: Jarnail Singh Dhillon  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), March 19, 2011, 1:11 AM.

There is no clergy in gurmat - never was and never should be. What we have are merely "caretakers" under the seva sambhaal concept - but over time we Sikhs have abdicated our personal responsibilities towards saving our souls to others paid to do so or those who we deem as "super holies" - so called brahmgyanis and sants who are purportedly able save souls merely by touching our heads or we by submitting before them. This sort of outsourcing of saving of souls has led to the largest prolifertaion of 'god-men' run deras in Punjab and around the world. These people recruit "saved souls" as their personal adherents although many hide behind the gurbani/ amrit concept - but in every sense of the word, they are NOT creating Sikhs or followers of the Guru Granth but swelling the ranks of their own deras. This can be seen clearly when these so-called "amrtidharis" claim I am so-and-so dera follower and I took amrit from that so-and-so sant. Ordinary persons who have taken on the garb of holier-than-thou are elevated to brahmgyani status when gurbani clearly lists the qualities of a brahmgyani so much far from attainable by a human being - only the Creator could be one. For a long time, gurbani - the Celestial Song of Bliss - has been treated as "Poetry of the Earth" when in fact it is the connecting agent/link between the "Celestial" and the "Earthbound". Gurbani attempts to make the earthbound fly high. Thus literal, word for word, simplified translations - by kathawachaks into spoken/ written Punjabi too have been base and not doing much justice to the real message the Gurus want us to have. I don't even want to mention the immense difficulties of attempting to translate this celestial poetry to other languages. Recently there has been a trend to use Google translators by many so-called translators on the one hand and, on the other hand, there is a lobby that attempts to take gurbani back to the early ages via promotion of the joined-word-script - lareedaar. This lareedaar lobbying essentially takes away the gurbani even from those who have learnt rudimentary Gurmukhi script and attempt to read and understand the divine message of the Guru Granth. This is a retrostep because it serves to perpetuate as clergy a set of professional readers/ brahmins called gyanis who can claim superiority via controlled knowledge as the Hindu brahmin/pandit has done to the Sanskrit language/Vedas and Purans which are out of reach of the ordinary Hindu because of the language barrier. The newly minted custodians of the Guru Granth Sahib want Sikhs to leave all the praying/ reading to them and want to assume the middleman role between the Sikh and his Guru even for the Punjabi-born Sikh, let alone the non-Punjabi who comes from a non-Gurmukhi learning background. The call of the day is to get a complete new version of the Guru Granth, first in Punjabi - along the lines of what Prof. Sahib Singh ji has done in Guru Granth Sahib Darpan and then into English, as this is a world wide language of the masses. Thereon we can proceed with caution to translate gurbani into other world languages.

8: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), March 21, 2011, 8:37 AM.

It would be instructive to explore cautiously and carefully how the New Testament Bible was translated. (The translations exist in many of the world's languages, including Punjabi in Gurmukhi script.) The sources, the people, the differences of opinions that existed then and still do. Did the scholars have a track record, credentials, commitment and the background? And surely one can see that it was not accomplished in a day, a week or a month. Surely, even today, it is not universally approved and disagreements exist, yet, the process and the product - masterpieces of human effort - have a lot to tell us and guide us.

9: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), March 22, 2011, 5:05 AM.

Gurbani has divine power within, as ours is the only Granth personally written and compiled by our Gurus. They are divine words, through the mouth of our Gurus. Still, we love saakhis as they are easy to digest, whether they are true or imaginary. Translation in other languages is okay, but there are no proper or exact words in other languages. In Gurmukhi, the feeling of bani is deep with real essence and vibration. No comparison of 'Dhur ki Bani' with any other.

10: Gurnam Singh Gill (Michigan, U.S.A.), March 23, 2011, 7:35 PM.

The predicaments encountered in translation/ interpretation of gurbani by the author (I.J.Singh) need long term efforts by a group or groups of scholars; scholars who can think outside the box like he does. For this to happen, we should build a North American Sikh seminary. Such an institution could provide the setting for continuing scholarly endeavours and will be a boon for future generations of Sikhs.

11: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), March 26, 2011, 1:26 PM.

How I wish there was such a seminary. I would be the first to enroll as a student.

12: Gurmukh Singh (London, United Kingdom), April 05, 2011, 12:35 AM.

As usual, a thought-provoking item by "IJ", as he is fondly known in the family circle. He writes, "This tells me that no one else can meditate or pray on our behalf to transfer any of the benefits to us. Individual responsibility is not so easily swept aside or traded." I agree with the main thrust of his gurbani interpretation. However, over the decades, I have watched our elderly mother (about 96 years) doing continuous sadhaaran paatths of Guru Granth Sahib and daily ardaas for her globally dispersed (and in case of my brother, Dya Singh, even nomadic) family's well-being. This is not the place to elaborate but I do begin to have doubts about IJ's unqualified conclusion as above. The saintly presence of a deeply spiritual person does change the conduct of others around and lead them to their own salvation. Many families do have such 'guardian angels' watching over them like our revered mother! There are grey areas in such discussions which cannot always be articulated to arrive at black and white conclusions. (Lincoln's quote noted with reference to the continuing story of his own family.)

13: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), April 05, 2011, 5:32 AM.

S.Gurmukh Singh ji: I draw your attention to your own words above: "The saintly presence of a deeply spiritual person does change the conduct of others around and lead them to their own salvation." These are the crucial ideas here - of influencing others and commonality of ideas, not blood. That's why in my column I emphasize that the company you keep is important and that's why I connect that idea to the meaning of "kul."

14: Gurmukh Singh (London, United Kingdom), April 05, 2011, 10:58 PM.

Thanks, Dr IJ, but my pointer is towards the one-way flow of the benefit of ardaas by a deeply spiritual person for the well-being of another or for Sarbat da Bhalla. Without detracting from the main thrust of your interpretation, is it possible that there is more to the power of prayer than you are prepared to admit by concluding that, "... no one else can meditate or pray on our behalf to transfer any of the benefits to us." Our Guru prayed for all humanity, e.g. "Jagat jalanda rakh lai ..." Did the world benefit? Just airing our own personal questions and doubts about such spiritual and faith based grey areas; which are then, of course, fully exploited by unscrupulous derawaadis and those only too keen to mediate on our behalf!

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