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How To Hear God’s Multiple Voices?
The Silence Of Obedience And Expectation -
Part I

BALBINDER SINGH BHOGAL, Hofstra University

 

 

 





If the subject is God’s multiple voices, then it is natural to assume an interreligious dialogue. To some extent I want to explore what makes Interreligious dialogue religious?

Is it merely people from one religion talking to people from another religion? Or is there a specifically religious way to interact with others? Are we merely talking about religion, as though it were an object whose contours we can define? Or are we attempting to talk to each other in a religious way that makes our dialogue mutually transformative? Are we merely talking about religion or are we practicing religion in our dialogue?

My assumption to start with is that there can and should be a religious dimension to dialogue, that it should move beyond talking about something to talking directly to someone.
 
I will focus on the Sikh tradition and its scripture. This is not to promote Sikhism as the tradition with all the answers, but rather to utilize this tradition and its scripture because they both already have an interreligious dialogue in play, and the way other traditions and religions are treated therein, offers us a new way to rethink interreligious dialogue.

That is to say, within the Sikh tradition there is an example of how to hear God’s multiple voices is given. In particular, the Sikh tradition and scripture introduces the possibility to shift the framework of debate from a focus on theology, doctrine, belief, indeed “religion” (the rather impersonal talking about something universal and abstract), to another framework that reflects a personally engaged praxis with the other in the living contexts of the everyday (the consequence of talking directly to someone).

Within the Sikh tradition there is a remarkable resistance to talking about something and an almost wholesale focus on talking to someone. This “orientation” is absolutely crucial to understand, and its significance has too often been overlooked.

James Carse, a retired professor of English at Columbia University, New York, writes,

In declaring our beliefs we talk about something,
in crying out for help we speak to someone.
(1985: 82)

Carse’s insight provides an illuminating entry point into the Guru Granth Sahib, for its style, typical of the bhakti / bhagti genre, is the cry of help to someone, and not a declaration of beliefs about something. It is often assumed that to have an interreligious dialogue, one has to have something to talk about, rather than engage in an ethics of speaking directly to someone.

Thus the Guru Granth’s intimately personal cry to a lost lover and His embrace is transformed into an abstract philosophy about some theology - whether named monotheism, monism, pantheism matters little if it misses the point of the ‘desperate’ cry for help.

The Japji which opens the Guru Granth Sahib is the closest Guru Nanak came to talking about the Way [walking the truth] – yet even there it constantly returns to the trope of the indescribable. That is to say, the Gurus fully understood that whichever about is pursued in whichever genre, it is always shot through with the unsayable: Page 3 of the Japji states,

No matter how much anyone tries to explain and describe them, the actions of the Creator cannot be counted.

Indeed, in the same verse, Guru Nanak asks:

Who knows how to write this account [of the Creator’s creation]?
Just imagine what a huge scroll it would take!


And then immediately shifts from the indirect about to the talking to someone directly, i.e., God:

What power! What fascinating beauty!
And what gifts! Who can know their extent?
You created the vast expanse of the Universe with One Word!
Hundreds of thousands of rivers began to flow.
How can Your Creative Potency be described?
I cannot even once be a sacrifice to You.
Whatever pleases You is the only good done,
You, Eternal and Formless One
! ||16||

Notice how the tone changes when we ourselves talk about something compared to when we talk directly to someone. Imagine talking to a philosopher and then to your lover. Out of a passionate love Guru Nanak speaks directly to God and to the lost soul in all of us, by mimicking that very lost soul himself.

In what follows I want to discuss three conceptual pairs that spring from this difference of talking about some thing or to someone. All of these are taken from the 1985 work of James Carse’s “The Silence of God: Meditations on Prayer” (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers).

These are: desiring or begging, the silence of obedience or the silence of expectation, and theatrical or dramatic speech.

First Pair: Desire or Begging?

When it comes to the ‘religious’, supposing it to be a universal category, we are beset with a bewildering diversity. I want to highlight a particular problem that rarely gets asked and that is: Why does the One Universal God never speak univocally nor universally? – assuming, of course, we can talk about something or someone as the “One Universal God” given the existence of Buddhism and Taoism.

Indeed this “one universal God” speaks through a particular person, or thing, at a particular time, within a particular language, located in a particular place and culture. If we are to hold on to the notion of the universal one here, we would have to work into that notion some relation to the obvious plurality – ek (one) is always anek (many):

But the Teacher of teachers is the One, who appears in so many forms. ||1|| (GSS: 12-17, Aasa, M 1)


He Himself is One, although He appears in so many forms. (GSS: 238-18, Gauri, M5)


He Himself is the One, and He Himself is the Many. (GSS: 108-12, Majha, M 5)


He Himself is Formless, and also Formed; the One Lord is without attributes, and also with attributes. / Describe the One Lord as One, and Only One; O Nanak, He is the One and the Many. ||1|| (GSS: 250-12, Gauri, M5)


That is to say, one would have to accept that the One always speaks with many voices. Or, am I wrong?

Perhaps there is one true revelation, and God has only spoken once, to one people. If so, how are we to decide amongst the Torah, New Testament, Quran, etc, let alone amongst the respective communities that have all given birth outstanding figures? Or, perhaps there have been multiple revelations and it is a matter of degrees: all we have to do is decide which one is truer than the others.

But surely Jews would nominate the Torah, Christians the New Testament and so on. To hear God’s multiple voices requires a little more of us than these backward and tired avenues of exclusive self-centredness.

The Sikh Scripture and tradition provides an opportunity to think otherwise. For Sikhs plurality is a fundamental principle, given that the Guru Granth Sahib itself is accepting of this plurality by including within its own writing the “revelations” given to others, that is non-Sikhs, Namdev, Ravidas, Kabir, Sheikh Farid, to name a few.

The point here is that one must view the One God through the many. One cannot view this One God through any one singular narrative on its own. This is a radical and revolutionary insight. If we are seriously in love with, and yearn to know, the One Universal Being, then that very love behooves us to go beyond our own tradition, does it not? Because relying on our own tradition, will only grant at best a partial truth – after all we are not talking about a finite object, but the infinite nature of existence.

Is this not a critique of those scriptures that claim exclusive ownership of the truth? This is not, however, to lay the claim and the blame for exclusive notions of Truth at the feet of Jews, Christians and Muslims alone. But rather to acknowledge within these traditions the structural shifts that characterized their expansion from speaking to someone to speaking for and over people about something such as the “good news” or the “miracle of the recitation”.

This is highly significant and relevant to today’s time and context, especially in contrast to the Judeo- Christian- Islamic monotheistic traditions – from which the terms “religion”, “monotheism” and “morality”, etc. derive.

Perhaps the unavoidable plurality and inherent inter-textuality implied by this new trajectory of thinking, was always the case, such that in the history of the growth of various monotheisms a move can be discerned that shifts away from the heterogeneous towards the homogenous.

I would like to reframe that move in terms of the shift from speaking to someone directly to speaking about something indirectly. Compare for example Jesus’ conversations with his disciples and Paul’s later theology. Or, Muhammad’s communication or recitations with Gibriil as compared with the later theologies developed by various philosophers and their traditions of interpretation.

In other words there seems to be an unavoidable shift from the complexity, diversity and ungeneralizability of talking to someone from specific contexts, to the relative simplicity of talking about an agreed upon system of belief or doctrine, regardless of persons and contexts.

The revelations that form the Guru Granth Sahib occurred over five centuries, and so come from diverse sources: 6 Sikh Gurus form Guru-bani, 15 Sants form Bhagat-bani, yet the voice of the ordinary person is also included: in the verses of 12 eulogists or court poets, as well as 4 devotee-minstrels of the Guru’s family, including three hymns by Guru Nanak’s Muslim friend and musician, Mardana.

These 37 individuals come from vastly different backgrounds and castes. The Guru Granth Sahib includes the voice of a weaver, a barber, a cobbler, a farmer, a prince, a calico-painter, numerous fakirs, vaishyas, and siddhas. As such the Guru Granth Sahib bridges the Abrahamic traditions via the Muslim Sufi voice as well as the multiple Indic voices (be they Brahmanic, Vaishnavite, Buddhist or Tantric).

It is hard to ignore that Sikh Scripture is profoundly heterogeneous. This uniqueness pertains to the insight that the Guru’s voice contains the voice of the other as its own.

This reflects the risk, opportunity and wonder of living with others, since the voice of the other is always plural, unpredictable, and quite often otherwise.

Whilst the Guru Granth Sahib evidences a new plurality of voices in resonance and harmony, Sikh history also houses this newness in practice. For example Guru Nanak traveled for more than two decades meeting people from vastly different contexts, languages, traditions and practices. His wisdom thus does not speak of textual, doctrinal learning, but lived engagements, and years of direct communication with the other: person to person.

He walked his talk and listened to the responses. His vocabulary and views are a rich harvest of those engagements. Notably, Sikh scripture and tradition reflect a long series of personal engagements with the complexity of lived traditions. It seems to me that the lived event of engaging with the other is the foundation of Sikhi, not a doctrine.

And when that engagement becomes true, then there is no other (avar na dooja) since every other reflects God.

The Sikh One then is a plural One. A “singular” voice expressed through difference and multiplicity in harmonic resonance. Guru Nanak understood keenly that the voice of the Guru cannot be owned by any one group alone: the True Guru is profoundly human but also completely cross-cultural. the speaking of the Guru thus inevitably transgresses any and all boundaries (of caste, language, tradition).

And this insight sets the Sikh Gurus clearly apart from past Prophets and scriptures. Although, it must be said, that the voice of the female is missing – since all 37 of those included in the Guru Granth Sahib are men. Transgression of tradition, of patriarchy, of caste, of divisive notions of purity/impurity is, however, significant.

This is because law is the essential structure of the boundary. Yet the Sikh Gurus resisted forming a body of law, injunctions, creeds, commandments; instead their law or divine ordinance (hukam) cannot be written, and this is because Love (bhagti) was their focus, and love transgresses and dissolves any and every boundary. Love is not and can never become Law – that much is obvious to those that have entered any relationship intimately.

The fact that Mardana’s “ordinary” voice is not silenced by the power of Guru Nanak’s “extraordinary” voice, relates a key openness to the voice of every human being. Indeed, that his voice makes it into the voice of the Guru Granth Sahib, supports my argument that Sikh scripture concerns a mode of personal address that evokes a response; it is not about agreement but reciprocation.

In other words Guru Nanak’s explanatory silence is a deep and profound one that encourages an expectancy of another voice to come, and simultaneously celebrates the otherness of the voice always already present.

The Sikh voice of revelation does not obliterate Mardana’s, or the Bhatts, but expects reciprocation that most if not all other forms of revelation undermine, disallow, or consciously overwrite. The Guru Granth Sahib encourages a reciprocation of between and across voices through song, conversation, communication, and practical engagement.

This is to say that the Guru’s voice is always already speaking through each and every form – but we need to cultivate a selfless listening to hear it and voice it. This openness to the voice across traditions, peoples and languages – what I am summarizing as the ‘voice of the other’ as necessary to comprehending the truth of the one universal being – can be condensed in a simple statement: One could say that form is revelation.

This is because Guru Nanak sees God everywhere, jaha dekha taha diin diaalaa, every form sings of Him. However, Form as revelation cannot be contained, since Form as God is ever new, ever fresh: sahib mera nit nava sadaa sadaa dataar.

As a consequence just as God is unsayable so is His form as creation unnameable. Form therefore always contains the possibility of the “otherwise”. Guru Nanak could hear God’s multiple voices because he was open and attuned to this infinite form in the most practical way: he embarked upon four major journeys to meet the other in all its social, religious, and linguistic diversity and richness.

For him form and event are the key sources of true revelation: the Satiguru speaks hukam through the event of forms.

Given this insight of form and event as revelation of satiguru, Guru Nanak understood well how the ordinary could become the extraordinary, the “secular” could become the “sacred”. This is why Sikhs constantly conflate, juxtapose and interpenetrate opposed boundaries – between Hindu pantheism, Muslim monotheism and Buddhist emptiness, the saint, householder and the warrior-king, that is to say that the boundaries of religious, civil and state power are dissolved by a sophisticated and nondual overlapping (JPS Uberoi has also written on this).


To be continued tomorrow …

Dr Balbinder Singh Bhogal is the Sardarni Kuljit Kaur Bindra Chair in Sikh Studies, at Hofstra University, New York, USA.


[Courtesy: Academia. Edited for sikhchic.com]

July 17, 2017

Conversation about this article

1: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), July 28, 2017, 9:32 PM.

An important topic and well presented by scholar. We need to pay heed to this way of interpreting Sikh scripture even though this is not the only way. Evolution of exegeses from the Gurus’ time and to date is an interesting subject in itself. We must welcome our new scholars to present their thinking and offer a more contemporary exegesis style. I encourage Prof. Balbinder Singh to continue writing and sharing his views. The only problem is that our scholars today are shy of sharing their publications freely. Laymen would have not read this series if not published here, for example.

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The Silence Of Obedience And Expectation -
Part I"









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