Kids Corner

Columnists

The World of Words

by I.J. SINGH

 

 

 

Sometimes, ordinary words acquire extraordinary meanings.

In earlier essays I have explored how specific words in the Guru Granth challenge us, and how their meanings are subject to context, time, culture and usage.

I got in this mode of thinking because I have run into many devout Sikhs who, like many Christians, look at their respective spiritual writings as literally etched in stone. Even a hint that the same word may have a less literal application and a more metaphoric sense in a particular usage raises hackles. In parsing words the context is all important; and for suggesting this I
have, sometimes, run into unexpected flak.

In response I have often pointed to two words to make my point: “Raam” and “Thaakur” (often spelled "Ram" and "Thakur") come to us from Hindu tradition and lexicon. They have also been widely used in the Guru Granth.

And I have encountered not only many Hindus but also a fair number of Sikhs who argue, based on the preponderance of these two and other words in gurbani that Hinduism and Sikhism are nearly identical belief systems. And that, they insist, makes Sikhi, at best, only a refined commentary on Hinduism.

My counter argument to them that the context is all important in deciphering the intended application of a particular word usually falls on deaf ears.

Many refuse to recognize that in the Guru Granth “raam” is often used as a name for God, but at times it is a reference to the historical Ram, the man who lost his wife, Sita, to Raavan, waged a war to recover her, demanded that she submit to a trial by fire, and then, at the unsubstantiated rumor about her possible moral lapse when she was with Raavan, abandoned her and banished fer from home.

Guru Granth respects the Raam of the divine name, and summarily dismisses the historical Raam as being of little consequence.

Similarly, the word thaakur, also from Hindu tradition, means many things to many people.

When used for 'Master', it can refer to an all powerful God. But its literal meaning may also point to an earthly master, a tsar perhaps, just the boss where you might work, or in common Hindu usage, more often a stone idol.

Guru Granth respects the Thaakur that is God and dismisses the stone idol with nary a nod.

I find the exercise of parsing words for their meaning fascinating and ask you today to join me in another such exploration in the Guru Granth.

As is my wont I was lazily trolling through the Guru Granth one day and came across a line that I had read many times before, but now it hit me like a shot right between the eyes.

Kabir [GGS:1103] says: “maya kaaran bidya bechhuh janam abirthaa jayee.”

Days later, I chanced on a similar idea from Guru Nanak [GGS:1245]:  “dhrig tina ka jeeviya jin likh likh vechhay naao/ khetee ji ki ujrray khalvarray kia thao.”

Both citations speak of a life wasted if spent trading in divine knowledge for money.

I can’t escape the fact that all my adult life that’s exactly what I have done. Teaching, and being paid for it, is how I put food on the table. True that it was nothing philosophically abstruse that I was trading but mostly something as prosaic as human anatomy and it might be good to keep in mind that Guru Granth is referring to the selling of knowledge of Man and God - their nature and the relationship that defines them, and the religious systems of the world, including Sikhism, that explore such human-divine connections.

Knowledge, though of strikingly different varieties, is what academicians and theologians trade.

Why split hairs on such matters? Because Guru Nanak further on in the same hymn that I cited above, does not deride the intellect but continues to add, “akli sahib sayviyae akli paaye mman/ akli parrh ke bhujiyae akli keejae daan/ Nanak aakhae rahu ehu hore galaa(n) saitaan”, meaning - through intellect one serves God, in wisdom one earns honor; says Nanak, this alone is the true path, all else is false.

And then I think of the line that urges us to earn our daily bread honestly and share its proceeds with a worthy cause or with those whose need is greater “ghaal khaaye kitch hathhon deh/ Nanak raah pehchhanay saye.” [GGS:1245].

So then, isn’t my research and writing in anatomical sciences honest labor or ghaal and, hence, quite alright to pursue, even to sell and make a living? And that’s what I have done for close to half a century.

The world surely expects me to do exactly that. And am I not selling knowledge, in the words of Kabir and Guru Nanak, even though my commodity is of a very different sort? In some ways, all knowledge speaks of truth and that’s forever divine. Clearly, teachers from the dawn of time have sold whatever little they knew to needy learners and from it reaped a financial harvest - often puny, other times royal.

But in the past few years I have also been writing aplenty on and about religion, particular my own. Some of these books even sell, and sometimes I might even pocket a minuscule royalty. But my writing on Sikhi is not meant to put food on the table, nor does it. This writing remains directed to my own education and edification, tracking my own progress along the path, and for
my readers’ pleasure, if they so choose.

Am I running afoul of the dictum in the Guru Granth? Should I even put a monetary value on my writing at all?

Let me start by putting forth a snippet of common wisdom that transcends culture, time and geography.

Experience tells me that a freebie given to a library or some such organization will likely be read by many. A freebie given to an individual, particularly one who knows the author, will be accepted with a smile and sometimes a thank you, but more often wasted.

I know, for I have distributed loads of free copies of my books but could count on the fingers of one hand with room to spare the number who received a freebie and admitted to having read it.

A persuasive counter-argument could be that perhaps the writing was so bad that it didn’t deserve pursuing. But then one would have to read it before arriving at such judgment.

There are also others who have paid for and read the writing enough to come back with arguments and points for discussion. And such disagreements, often thoughtful, I see as compliments to my writing.

Religious writing from all traditions continues to sell all over the world, so Kabir or Guru Nanak could not have been talking about this kind of trade.

Step into some history. True that no clean and direct commercial exchange agreement ever existed between the Gurus and the disciples, but history also tells us that when devotees came to the Gurus they brought gifts and offerings and stayed to learn from the Gurus. The Gurus received donations from which they met all expenses, particularly of community related projects.
Would not these offerings then be akin to voluntary reimbursement in lieu of information and knowledge imparted to and received by the devotees?

So what exactly are Kabir and Guru Nanak talking about when they castigate those who sell knowledge?

Experts have always sold their skills in the marketplace, whether in the name of religion, philosophy, poetry, plumbing, science or surgery; this is consistent with ghaal khaaye that I cited earlier.

Doesn’t the expert on religious matters - a priest, pastor, rabbi, imam, brahmin, or gyani/granthi - put food on the table by being paid for his or her religious teaching? Isn’t this consistent with the meaning of ghaal or honest labor that is exalted in gurbani?

Surely, this couldn’t be what is being derided in the Guru Granth.

I think the Gurus’ point here is more indirect and yet not so difficult to fathom. Could it be that Guru Granth is here talking about the bargain in which the expert -- seller of his skills -- is not being entirely true to his trade?

It is like in the judicial system today when in litigation hired experts - perhaps dime-a-dozen - willingly tweak their testimony, knowledge and interpretation towards a desired end. When the nature of the testimony is for sale; when knowledge is hedged towards a desired goal, then indeed it deserves approbation. The operative but rejected idea here is “tweaking or hedging of
information and its interpretation.”

I would say that the finger here is being pointed at dishonest testimony or information being shaded or falsified deliberately in response to the demands of those who might have some control over our purses and our lives.

I illustrate my point on shading and hedging evidence by the example of Ram Rai, the son of a Guru. When Ram Rai deliberately changed a word of gurbani to avoid the possible wrath of the emperor, the Guru immediately banished him and refused to see him again.

Spokes-persons for political causes and candidates for office are routinely expected to bend their message to suit the causes that hire them. Then they become like salesmen who will sell anything; it is the commission that counts, they don’t have to personally believe in the product.

Sometimes teachers too dumb down their teaching to please the administration or students that are their masters in many ways.

I recall that years ago I was under pressure by the higher administration where I worked to modify the contents and organization of our academic program drastically and then to also add a statement that this truncated/ modified program offered the
same first-rate experience as it did before any changes were made. After much soul searching I responded that as a loyal employee I would design the best possible program to suit the administrative and budgetary constraints on it but I would not sign my name to a statement that the altered program was an equally rich academic experience for students or faculty.

The tug of war lasted some time but the administration decided to respect my principled demurral.

Such demands are not a new trend. Such pressures have always existed; experts have often shaded their opinions for kings, tsars and others of far lesser authority - minor minions -- to tell them what they want to hear.

In real life can one always resist such pressures? There are times when anyone will fold.

Listen to the talking heads on television these days. Heed the pandering that the political candidates do to win over special interests.

Also, I often wonder how Sikh advisors might have tweaked their opinions on the events of 1984. I am sure many did because people mostly tend to tell their bosses what they think the bosses want to hear.

I think this is the essence of what Kabir and Guru Nanak are telling us in the lines that I picked up today. They are not asking us to turn away from the intellect; in fact they urge us to use it.

The issue really is the selling of one’s integrity - one’s “soul” that is a person’s core. It is something for which good people will put their heads on the line rather than haggle over its value or price.

That’s why speaking truth to authority is a lesson that flows naturally from the lives of the Gurus and their writings. But more of that another time.

 

ijsingh@gmail.com

March 5, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), March 05, 2012, 8:22 AM.

Today, it looks like selling one's integrity or 'soul' is more common then putting one's head on the line. Tomorrow, on March 6, in Punjab, there will a wholesale sale of souls over elections. The price will be as low as a bottle of liquor.

2: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), March 05, 2012, 8:46 AM.

As mentioned in the above article, we should read gurbani, try to think it over and understand it and live our life according to it. In other words, we should use our intellect or vivek buddhi, or plain common sense, to understand it within the Hukam or divine will or gurmat and not according to our ego or manmat.

3: Bibek Singh (Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A.), March 05, 2012, 11:40 AM.

To me, 'danger' means 'boss' at work and 'wife' at home. At work, I use it to communicate (whisper) to my colleagues to stop chatting and glue themselves to their computer screens as our 'boss' is approaching. I use the same word to communicate (whisper) to my kids to switch off the iPad as mom is back home. So it depends a lot on the context, time, culture and usage. Talking about gurbani, a few ago the president of our local gurdwara declared that the word 'Raam' appears 2267 times in Guru Granth Sahib. And only 4 times does it refer to King Rama of Ayodhya, i.e., Sita's husband. So we cannot ignore the context and other parameters while reading gurbani. Else we may easily fall prey to the false notions such as that Sikhism is a branch of this or that. More than that, we may not understand the main thrust of the verse and reduce the reading of gurbani to a meaningless ritual.

4: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), March 05, 2012, 12:34 PM.

'Raam' and 'Thaakur' are, in Sikh parlance, two of the umpteen names used for God. These words have nothing to do with their more diminished connotations in Hinduism.

5: Simon (London, United Kingdom), March 06, 2012, 2:49 AM.

Any word that has been used in gurbani in reference to God is purely descriptive of a certain value or attribute that is applicable only in the context of it's usage. Most of the verses in "Jaap Sahib" point to the fact that one can only describe God by describing what God is not. To give God a definitive name would be to diminish him as a limited entity.

6: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), March 06, 2012, 4:21 PM.

To save the whole mankind, it is our duty to share the message with all. Guru Nanak, at GGS:661: "jab lugg dunee-aa rahee-ai naanak kichh sunee-ai kichh kahee-ai" - that is, "Nanak says, so long as we live, we must share our thoughts with each other". We should not ignore this advice which results in social, moral and spiritual elevation of mankind.

7: Pritam Singh Grewal (Canada), March 06, 2012, 8:11 PM.

In the eyes of the Guru a merely literate person who is greedy and conceited is a fool. "parrhya moorakh aakhiaye jis lub lobh ahankara" [GGS:140].

8: B. Singh (Canada), March 06, 2012, 8:13 PM.

From reading the verses of the respective passages (GGS:1103, 1245) I didn't really get the impression that they were critical of individuals receiving remuneration for teaching others. Instead, I got the impression that these passages were referring more to unscrupulous holy men who sell knowledge of the divine and how to achieve some sort of salvation and/or acquire God's favour. I felt that this was more a condemnation of those who claim they know the "secret" and will share it with others for 'x' amount of dollars. Not only are such people acting in a deceitful and opportunistic manner, but they are also being blindly arrogant. By claiming that they already know all of life's answers, they close off their minds and ensure their own continued ignorance.

9: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), March 06, 2012, 9:38 PM.

I have in front of me the first 1972 edition of 'Nirukath Sri Guru Granth Sahib' by Dr. Balbir Singh - a scion of an illustrious scholarly family. His eldest brother, Bhai Vir Singh, had edited the 'Guru Granth Kosh', a pioneering work by their maternal grandfather, Giani Hazara Singh, and had added many more new entries with meanings and origin of the words. This was published in 1927 and remains to this day an excellent and incomparable source of understanding of Guru Granth Sahib. Dr. Balbir Singh took that seminal work and went on to add to the dictionary a commentary with classical references from original sources with rare insight and wealth of linguistic and theological knowledge. The first volume of over 400 pages covering just Oorah and part of Aa-era. As an example, the word 'unmaan' has 13 entries and each one has the reference where it appears in the shabads. In addition, they have two pages of explanation. The second volume of 'Nirukat' covering only Aa-era was in press when he passed away on October 1, 1974. Dr. Balbir Singh was Prof. Emeritus in Punjabi University. The University recognized his monumental work on the 'Nirukath' project and linked it up with their Guru Granth Sahib Vibhag. Dr. Balbir Singh had donated his abode now named 'Dr. Balbir Singh Sahitya Kendra' at Panchbati, Dehradun to the Punjabi University. It came with a library of some 10,000 books, 13 hand-written manuscripts of Guru Granth Sahib and some 400 other manuscripts. To continue Dr. Balbir Singh's work, a formidable task indeed, a team of two Project Directors and senior research scholars have been assigned to the task Earlier, after the 'Pothi Sahib' was completed, some Sikhs approached Guru Arjan to now write a commentary for its proper understanding. Guru Arjan's reply was: "No, this is agadh bani - divine revelation. Let the Sikh scholars write commentaries from time to time, according to their understanding."

10: Harjit (Subang, Malaysia), March 07, 2012, 2:14 AM.

S. Sangat Singh ji is spot on ... Let Sikh scholars write commentaries from time to time. True! We don't need to go far ... look at the number of tikkas we have on Japji Sahib.

11: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada.), March 08, 2012, 7:47 AM.

Both passages [GGS: 1103, 1245] refer to using divine knowledge (mantar-tantar) as black magic and making money out of it by cheating innocent people.

12: Gurdip Kaur (U.S.A.), March 11, 2012, 12:14 PM.

" ... possible moral lapse when she was with Raavan, abandoned her and banished fer from home ..." Is there an error here?

Comment on "The World of Words"









To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.