Lost & Found in Translation: Convenor: AMRIT KAUR
The Talking Stick Colloquium # 88
I learn most about the meaning of gurbani when I try to translate verses into my own language, using my personal inventory of vocabulary, couched in the idiom that I’m familiar with.
It is not easy because I’m no scholar and have had no formal training in the study of gurbani. Which doesn’t in any way take away from the pleasure of it all. In fact it adds to it because each challenge requiring me to seek and unearth, when met, is indescribably sweet.
I rely heavily on a whole cupboard of translations, each different, most very helpful; even those that I disagree with, because they map for me the pitfalls and enable me to map my way around them. Some are my favourites even though they still vary considerably from each other.
Ultimately, I settle for my own version, and then find that it too changes through time.
Let me give you an example … a verse that I come back to at periodic intervals, each time to find more. It’s the opening words of the Japji and the Guru Granth, the very preamble to the mool mantar - the Credal Statement!
I am truly fascinated by the way various people have translated these few, seminal words. And in the manner in which the true and correct meaning of the words has continued to emerge, as fresh renditions keep on turning up at our door.
Reproduced below are three versions. I have broken each into nine lines in order to facilitate comparison.
The first is, of course, the original - Guru Nanak’s own magical words.
Next, I have reproduced Khushwant Singh’s version. I like it very much. It is simple and easy to understand. Somewhat lyrical too.
There is One God.
He is the supreme truth.
He, the Creator,
Is without fear
and without hate.
He, the Omnipresent, Pervades the universe.
He is not born,
Nor does He die to be born again.
By His grace shalt thou worship Him.
Finally, my favourite - a translation by Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh. Please note how she has deftly avoided the trap of adding gender where none is used in the original. For too long, we were told that the limitations of the English language required us to add gender, and, of course, it was always male. Which, unfortunately shapes our subconscious tendency to think of Waheguru in the Judeo-Christian manner as, a) a person, and b) a male. Nikky masterfully avoids the traps.
There is One Being
Truth by Name
Timeless in form
The grace of the Guru
I would love to hear from you … especially if you have other terms which express the meaning of the same words to you more cogently. Please share.
Conversation about this article
1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), July 24, 2012, 4:32 AM.
The 'Mool Mantar' was created by Guru Nanak as an antidote for superstition. It is of fundamental importance to note that Guru Nanak carefully does not use any 'gendering' in the bani.
2: K.S.D. (India), July 24, 2012, 5:49 AM.
I like the translation by Max Arthur Macauliffe: There is but one God whose name is True, the Creator, devoid of fear and enmity, immortal, unborn, self-existent, great, and bountiful.
3: Prakash Singh Bagga (Indore, MP, India), July 24, 2012, 7:12 AM.
My own perception about the pronunciation and meaning of the very first symbol is different. My reading tells me it is Ik Ekankaar, and not Ik Oankar.
4: R. Singh (Canada), July 24, 2012, 7:35 AM.
The One-Infinite - The Truth, The Creator, No enemies, No fear, Immortal, Unborn (self-born?), Self-existent. Revealed through The Guru. The last part about The 'Guru' or Guru's bounty leads to the bani expanding upon what the term 'Guru' implies, as it is the key concept that cannot be summed up in one or two words. Guru, one that straddles the dichotomy of time and timelessness, interfaces between the divine and the manifest, and is accessible to the focused (awakened?) mind. Yes, it definitely is an ongoing process!
5: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), July 24, 2012, 7:48 AM.
I understand it as 1 God who is all pervading, the truth - his name is true, the creator, without fear, inimical to none, beyond time, not in the cycle of births and deaths, self existent, the enlightener - by His grace.
6: R. Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), July 24, 2012, 11:31 AM.
Mool Mantar or the Root Mantra (Essence of God Mantra): One (GOD) only, Reality is God's name, since God is the ultimate Reality, (SAT is sanskrit for REALITY, SACH is truth), karta purakh - creator of all, nirbhao, nirvair, without fear, without hate, akaal moorat, undying entity, ajooni, without birth, saibhang, self-sustaining, Gur = Guru (God is the GURU), parsad = bountiful. The mool mantar is what God is.
7: Karan Singh (United Kingdom), July 24, 2012, 2:09 PM.
I personally prefer the akhree arth and antreev arths done by Baba Gurbachan Singh Bhindranwale. I've just been left totally amazed at the depth in them!
8: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), July 24, 2012, 7:19 PM.
I understand the term Gurparsad to mean 'through Him' or 'by His grace'. This is because gurbani tells me that everything is inside. Outside is all illusion. This also acts as instruction that I should not run after sants, babas and personal gurus. This makes it clear that the "Guru" being referred to is only one: the ONE.
9: R. Singh (Canada), July 25, 2012, 5:53 AM.
Our Gurus never acknowledged the overarching sanskritic connotations at face value. Sat-Sach is the Eternal, in and beyond time/ space compendium, whereas 'reality' is our preception. Sach straddles both. Our thinkers keep getting embroiled with terms and imposed limitations, thus inadvertently warping the new heights of gurbani and subjugating it to some past ideology. That is not to say everything needs to be jettisoned from the past, for it does provide a context and jumping board, but not to let it becomes a noose, in this era, when the sanskrit supremascists are out there to annihilate or mutate all thought to suit their ideological needs towards establishing hegemony, and Sikhism has been in their sights for a long time. I agree with Ravinder Singh from Mumbai in his understanding of what "Guru" stands for.
10: Yuktanand Singh (USA), July 25, 2012, 7:43 AM.
The translators face this dilemma: keep it true to the words or try to express the intent from the idiom of gurbani. Our grasp of intent varies and it evolves over time. An obstetrician's reason for uttering "mother" would not be the same as a child calling for his mother. Similarly, these words are interjections. They are not statements, because all attributes of Waheguru cannot be included within one preamble. Before we can grasp Guru Nanak's intent, we need to understand why he chose only these as the preamble of gurbani. Further study of gurbani gradually reveals the intent and true meaning of the preamble. Sorry, but this is the only way.
11: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), July 25, 2012, 7:27 PM.
The term Guru used in gurbani is fascinating. It has to be understood in the context in which it is used. It has been used for God, it is used for the one light that is present in our Gurus. It has been used for gurbani. It has been used for the person of the Guru who is God realized and one with God. It has been used for the virtues of God, it has been used for the one who is always with us. Guru Gobind Singh has put his seal on it. He has in one sentence defined the Guru in the Chaupai Sahib. For me, in whatever context I am reading gurbani, the mool Guru is the one as defined by Guru Gobind Singh.
12: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai), July 25, 2012, 8:11 PM.
I further want to add that Guru Gobind Singh uses the term 'tavparsad'. It helps us understand what 'GurParsad' means.
13: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), July 25, 2012, 9:36 PM.
The common presence of the One all pervading reality in all the descriptions of the Guru mentioned in gurbani tells us who is the Guru.
14: Harpreet Singh (California, USA), July 25, 2012, 9:52 PM.
I agree with Yuktanand ji. Translation of gurbani is very difficult because the challenge is, when do you stay literal and when do you go for the intent. E.g., Ik Oankar literally means "One sound current of Oankar" but it really refers to One God. In fact the udassi akhaarrey spend weeks and months elaborating on 'Ik Oankar'. Similiary, "ajauni" literally means "free from the rcycle of birth and death". So unborn is not really very accurate. As a footnote, difficulty in translation is not a linguistic limitation. It is more of a mental limitation. As our love for gurmat increases, our translations get better and better.
15: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), July 26, 2012, 1:00 AM.
We dilute the concept of Sikhi when we directly or in a subtle manner divide it into two, that is, God and the Guru. Sikhi originated from the One, is about the One and will always remain about the One.
16: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), July 26, 2012, 10:19 PM.
The principle meaning of the term Guru used in gurbani comes from the Japji Sahib. The bani starts from "aad sach, jugaad sach, hai bhi sach, Nanak hosi bhi sach." The author calls himself Nanak. He uses the term Guru to tell us, "The Guru has made the revelation, there is only one giver of all beings, I should not forget him". The Guru of the author Nanak is only one: the ONE.
17: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), July 26, 2012, 10:19 PM.
Contrary to the belief to date, the sacred words of faith in the Mool mantar are not a collection of adjectives describing God as an entity somewhere out there. Rather it is a cluster of adjectives describing the inner experience of divinity. There is an ocean of intelligence in this set of sacred words. Its meditation then becomes a sacred practice through which we become aware of the reality of the divine within each one of us. Thus, the nine words comprising the mool mantar are meant to be engaged in the daily practice of mindfulness in meditation to achieve the life goal of inner realization. The practice will lead any one to live a life at the level of the inner soul; at a level where we truly identify ourselves as divine-like, as creators and miracle-makers, and as limitless intelligence. As Guru Amar Das writes [GGS:755], "O my mind, you will become the one you serve and emulate, and your deeds will accordingly transform." Space is limited to translate every word. But let me translate the first two terms. Ik Oankaar consists of a numeral and a letter or, more correctly, two symbols combined into one. Ik means the indivisible One God as a virtual and eternal reality. Ik is followed by a symbol read as Oankaar, meaning Ik's manifestation in all the creations to include all worlds and all humanity, and all human beings with one soul residing within them. The soul here is defined as the manifested extension of the One reality. Satnaam means God within us is identified as the Truth. This gives us our real identity, "Satnaam" - the truth identity. By meditating on Satnaam we are liberated from our worldly identities. As Guru Granth says, "You speak those names that are given to you or serve to indicate the deeds or professions required of you. But Satnam identifies you with the Eternal Truth" [GGS:1083].