Quiet Time - 6: T. SHER SINGH
The Ages Of Man & Woman
First comes love for mother’s breast milk
Second, awareness of mother and father
Third, of siblings
Fourth, arises love of play
Fifth, pursuit of food and drink
Sixth, lust that observes neither class nor status
Seventh, wealth amassed and home established
Eighth, body wracked by rage
Ninth, turning grey, breath becomes laboured
Tenth … burnt to ashes … [GGS:137.16]
We are all intrigued by lists, in many cases dependant on them for day-to-day ease and convenience, ranging from the ubiquitous shopping list to the dreaded black-list which the petty dictator nurses in his dark lair.
I remember my own fascination with lists early on, encouraged by two gifts my father brought back for me from a trip abroad, when I was 8 years old: an Olivetti portable typewriter and a copy of Pears’ Cyclopaedia. I would spend hours during my holidays typing out my own lists, cataloguing them and filing them, thus leaving me two indelible legacies -- the fastest two-finger typing speed north of the Rio Grande, and a life-long fascination with general knowledge trivia.
David Wallechinsky, the son of best-seller novelist Irving Wallace, zeroed in on the human predilection for lists and therein found a short-cut in carving out his own publishing career by famously putting together a series of Book of Lists, all bestsellers in their own right.
Sikh scripture has a wealth of lists. Many of the Gurus have authored their own versions of Bara Maah (The Twelve Months), for example, listing the attributes of the changing seasons and their nexus to spirituality.
Similarly, they have penned verses based on each letter of the Gurmukhi alphabet, sometimes even playing with alliteration and onomatopoeia to great effect.
But they weren’t playing word games or trying to entertain us. The idea was to couch their message in ways in which they could engage us - heart, mind and soul - and connect us to a higher purpose in life.
Above is Guru Nanak’s 'The Ages of Man and Woman', an oft-used vehicle to remind us that life is fleeting and forever racing towards its inevitable conclusion.
I am always taken by his gentle distillation of each phase, and yet with the honest rawness associated with the ripening of time and the maturing of the existential reality. The verse does its job well; it reminds me, as it is meant to do, to constantly re-assess my priorities.
Sure, the first few stages do not register when one comes across them earlier in life -- childhood, youth, prime. And then, gradually, one begins to recognize the personal symptoms and matches them with the corresponding stage, and then it begins to dawn how quickly time has indeed flown by.
And that it continues to do so.
On the very next page, as if to give you another perspective while he has your attention, Nanak presents us with another list, this time adding actual number of years to each stage, to bring home his point.
At ten years, one is a child
At twenty, blossoming into youth
At thirty, beauteous and handsome
At forty, full of life
At fifty, the step falters
At sixty, age creeps in
At seventy, intellect begins to diminish
At eighty, duties become laborious
At ninety, bed-ridden, one lies sapped … [GGS:138.2]
His method has worked with me … it is kind and caring, gentle and compassionate. No spectre of an angry god threatening fire and brimstone. No threats, no ultimatums.
Just a soft reminder (if I may borrow the motto from the Boy Scouts) to ‘Be Prepared’.
February 5, 2017
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 05, 2017, 4:06 PM.
Sher ji, I am absolutely thrilled to see you as a modern kathakaar. My own most treasured book was the affordable Pears Cyclopaedia and a portable typewriter was the first investment I made as soon as I could afford it. In my case I had touch-typing skills since the age of 11 or 12. The only difficulty I have now is to reach the topmost row of numerals. Glad you've re-rendered the two shabads in chaste English. "har ke katha kahania gur meet sunya" [GGS:725] - "The Guru my friend has told me stories and sermons of Waheguru."
2: Jatinder Sethi (Gurgaon, India), February 06, 2017, 1:05 AM.
Interesting how the life-span has evolved a bit through the centuries. People live longer in more stable societies, but the point made by Guru Nanak remains universal and perennially holds true. I'd also like to mention that I too was the proud owner of an Olivetti which I later sold in London in 1958 to pay for my rent and food till I got a job. I never learned how to type.
3: G J Singh (Arizona, USA), February 06, 2017, 1:34 PM.
Looks like I am still stuck in 'Fifth, pursuit of food and drink'. Cheers!
4: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 07, 2017, 3:01 AM.
Bhai Bhagirath, one of the first disciples of Guru Nanak, was once sent on an errand by Guru Sahib to Lahore to meet one Bhai Mansukh, a trader, to make some purchases for the trousseau for Bhai Mardana’s daughter’s wedding with instructions that he was to stay in Lahore just one night. Bhai Mansukh, on seeing the list, said that it was impossible to acquire all that in one day. But Bhagirath insisted that he had been allowed only one night to complete the shopping. Mansukh said that he had one piece of jewellery for someone else that he could immediately supply. Hearing about Guru Nanak, Mansukh said that he was drawn to Him and asked to accompany Bhagirath to Sultanpur to have his darshan. While walking, Mansukh had several questions to ask. “Why can’t we see Waheguru if he is all around us”? Bhagirath’s answer: “He is all seeing but not visible to ordinary eyes.” “Anything that is seen has to have an end and subject to birth and death. This is not the attribute of Waheguru,” replied Mansukh, who was thereafter so drawn to Guru Nanak, he became an ardent disciple. He was sent throughout South India and Sri Lanka as a teacher. It was under his influence King Shivnabh of Sangladeep became a Sikh of Guru Nanak.