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Spiritual Fear:
Letter & Spirit - # 8





Today, let’s talk about the meaning of ‘fear’ in gurbani, because it is a term which often causes confusion and misinterpretation.

It’s not the common fears and phobias that can incapacitate us, that we are referring to here.

Fear is often described as something that is opposite of love. People say that we have nothing to fear except fear itself. Is fear something really that bad?

We tend to assume that all fear is the same, just as we often assume that all love is wholesome and healthy. Such a simplistic approach is the source of our confusion.

We equate learning of terminology and nomenclature with knowledge, but in fact true knowledge resides in study of our perception of words, particularly the abstract terms such as fear, love, God, sin, etc.

Gurbani tells us to be fearless but at other places it tells us to always have fear. This sounds contradictory. But certain fears are essential for survival. Gurbani teaches us to overcome irrational fears and to adopt the rational ones.

For example, when we see police on the expressway, we have no fear if we did nothing wrong. Rather, we feel secure in the presence of police. But it would be irrational to be not afraid if we were speeding or if we were driving with a suspended license, and we see a police car behind us.

Some people say that if we emulate God, who is fearless, we will be fearless also. This is irrational, since gurbani reminds us that our faults and errors are countless. How then, can we emulate God? Fearlessness does not reside in “emulating” God, nor does it reside in merely reciting and repeating a certain word as His name, but in genuine proximity to God.

As long as we are separate from God, some fears are absolutely necessary. For example, as long as we identify ourselves with our body and mind, we need to be afraid (aware) of our death. Gurbani says that even the most exalted beings, the siddhs, the buddhas, the demigods, masters of yoga, all are controlled by fear [GGS:464.15]. Only God is fearless.

To make matters worse, not only are we error-prone, gurbani says that we are powerless. Feeling powerless is also the worst form of fear and the most irrational fear.

It is true that, according to gurbani, we have no power. But all power is available to us if we apply our free will to show God - who is always here with us - that we honestly want to be mindful and be aware of His presence. Then, if it pleases God, He takes over our affairs. He then becomes our source of power. That is our true power.

But, this interpretation is good only for genuine seekers. Others can find various other useful ways to overcome their fears.

Some people interpret the fear advocated in gurbani as ‘fear of God’. But if God is always forgiving, then why do we have to be afraid of Him? A true seeker is not afraid of God, but is afraid of breaking the link with Him and thus, lives in constant simran and prayer. When held tightly, this link becomes stronger everyday.

Gurbani tells us to be afraid of any acts (sins) that may result in losing that grip and distancing us from God; for example, by enjoying His gifts but forgetting the giver of those gifts. Sins also attract diseases. In the early morning hours of amrit-vela, we need to be afraid of sleep, of sloth, of our blanket and our bed, and so on.

Absence of such healthy fears is irrational. This does not mean that we are to live spooked by everything that may take us away from God, but that we recognize their dangers and we take necessary steps to be fearless. Non-seekers perceive no such dangers.

The fear most cherished in gurbani is fear of His displeasure, as we mentioned last week, or loss of God’s love. Bhagat Farid says: I am not afraid of losing my youth as long as the love for my beloved in my heart is not lost. The wild birds may devour my entire flesh. This is fine as long as my eyes are left untouched so that I can see my beloved. This is the nature of ‘true fear’.

As long as we are not one with God, having true fear is a sane state of mind. Fear of losing His love is thus regarded as a precursor of true love. Without true love, the haumai is not eliminated and God does not allow our merger with Him. Thus, true fear and true love go hand-in-hand.

True power thus accompanies true fear. Gurbani says that true fear is the bellows that fan the fire, fire that melts us and burns the dross in us [GGS:8.8]. Guru Nanak says that if we are in God’s presence then, all we need to do is ask Him for this gift, and He gives it to us [GGS:2.3].

When we realize this, that we are in God’s presence, then not only are we free from all other fears, we are truly fearful of any distance from Him.

But, genuine realization of being in God’s presence entails certain restraint in our behaviour and a shift in our thinking. This includes rejecting the tyranny of our own mind, eventually letting the true love dissolve our sense of self.

Most seekers are afraid of this. They opt for easier alternatives, such as rituals, superstitions, religion, philosophy, yoga, etc.

Here is the shabad that we have discussed above.

"bhau muuch bhaaraa vuddaa tol"

True fear is solemn and deep, and it is extremely heavy.

The intellect is shallow and lightweight and it talks a lot.

So we place the fear upon our head, and we bear its weight.

Then, through His glance of grace, we grasp the Guru’s message. ||1||

Without fear no one crosses over the world-ocean.

Through fear and restraint, love is tempered and adorned. ||1||Pause||

The fire within our body is made fierce by this fear.

With this fear we then forge the ornament of shabad.

Without the fear everything we fashion is imperfect and callow.

Blind is that mold and blind are those hammer-strokes. ||2||

Desire for truth can arise from analysis and our encounters.

But thousands of intellectual maneuvers cannot produce the heat.

O Nanak, a manmukh’s speech is ineffective.

Just as the wind, his lifeless words are worthless and empty
. ||3||1|| [GGS:151.3]

Conversation about this article

1: Gur Singh (Chicago, Illinois, USA), August 29, 2012, 3:23 PM.

Fear is fear. And it is a basic animal trait. No sub-classification can thwart it as long you are in fear. Fighting everyday fears is necessary to live the life of a human being. Gurbani clearly defines two traits of god: Nirbhau and Nirvair - "without fear" and "without enmity". 'Nirbhau' comes before 'Nirvair' because fear gives rise to hatred. I don't see thing separate such as a "spiritual fear" in this basic truth of the animal kingdom.

2: Biren Kaur (Indiana, USA), August 29, 2012, 4:26 PM.

I strongly disagree with Gur Singh ji. The 'fear' referred to in the shabad in question is without doubt different from the fears of daily living. Gur Singh ji is taking the word in its most literal and mundane meaning. There is no precise word in English for the gurbani usage of the term ... certainly "fear" doesn't do it full justice. Hence, the appendage of "spiritual" becomes necessary. It has, I believe, an element of "awe" associated with it, as well as deference, respect, obedience, etc. It is the same spiritual 'fear' - if I may use the word, in the absence of anything that captures the total meaning - referred to in the laavan (wedding hymns) as being essential between loving spouses, both worldly and divine.

3: Harkishen Singh (United Kingdom), August 29, 2012, 4:49 PM.

I think what Gur Singh ji is referring to is, in daily parlance, "dar", not bhau. There's a fine line between the two.

4: Jasleen Kaur (USA), October 15, 2012, 9:32 AM.

"O mind, meeting with the True One, fear departs. Without the Fear of God, how can anyone become fearless? Become gurmukh, and immerse thyself in the Shabad" [GGS].

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Letter & Spirit - # 8"

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