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The Game of Love
The Talking Stick Colloquium # 55




A friend recently posted a Facebook message complaining about the heartbreak and pain of unrequited love.

My response was that love did not require any reciprocation, that pining for a response sounded like a business transaction.

It drew a howl of protest. “Easier said than done,” was the rejoinder.

Are we talking about the same 'love', I wondered?

I had been reading Guru Nanak’s dialectic on the Game of Love, beautifully rendered in salok vaaran to(n) vadeek, and it struck me that my reply to my friend’s posting was certainly influenced by this beautiful four-liner:

jao ṯao prem kẖelaṇ kā cẖāo

sir ḏẖar ṯalī gullī merī āo

iṯ mārag pair ḏẖarījai

sir ḏījai kāṇ na kījai. ||20|| [GGS:1412]

If 'tis the game of love you desire
With your head on your palm, come hither.
But hark! Once you take this path,
Verily, you will lose thy self ...
There is no retreat.

This week, let us examine the different connotations of the word 'love' in general, and the specific meaning in Guru Nanak’s composition.

What first catches our attention about this four-liner is that it is in the form of a dialogue - a dialectical point and counterpoint between the Creator and its creation - suggesting that all engagement with gurbani is a dialogue between the individual and Akal Purakh, accomplished through the medium of the Guru.

The subject is Love, or rather, the Game of Love.

For Guru Nanak, God is Love (prem purakh) and Creation itself is an act of love that continues to inhere in the material world as God’s immanence.

dāṯā karṯā āp ṯūʼn ṯus ḏevėh karahi pasāo
You are the Giver and the Creator.
Your Infinite Love created this vast expanse  [GGS:463]

Science is only now beginning to affirm what mystics have known all along: that as children of Creation, we are here to love and to be loved, to hold and to be held. Guru Nanak goes a step further to assert that it is the central purpose of our lives.

To be sure, love takes on many different shades and expressions in our lives. From the love of a parent for child, spousal love, romantic love and physical love - all these are but reflections and illustrations of divine love and offer us a myriad of ways to forge a loving link with the divine.

The pain of unrequited or “despised love” that my friend referred to in his post is really a symptom of a deeper cultural problem. Our skewed emphasis on romantic and dyadic (two-way or reciprocal) love causes what the philosopher Sam Keen calls a warped “field of vision” that “produces a severe erotic astigmatism that distorts everything we see."

For Guru Nanak, the cause of the astigmatism is “haumai,” which is why he requires the placement of one’s head in one’s palm - symbolic of the willingness to surrender one's all. That takes a lifetime of practice and training ... and grace ... to learn and understand fully, and calls for the ultimate sacrifice, not something we fall “in” and “out” of.


-   Guru Gobind Singh’s “jin prem keeyo tin hi prabh paayo” - "Only those who have loved will find God!" - reinforces Guru Nanak’s message that love is the way to God, that only those who know love, know God.

-   Which 'love' are they talking about?

-   What does the use of the word “khelan” (play, game) imply?

-   There is a clear distinction between the love that Guru Nanak speaks of and the forms of love we are accustomed in our daily lives - the difference between eros and agape or ishq-i-majazi (love, worldly)  and ishq-i-haqiqi (love,divine). Or is there?


August 1, 2011


Conversation about this article

1: Devinder Singh (India), August 01, 2011, 12:43 PM.

Certainly one has the right to love, and true love carries in itself its joy, but unhappily, human beings are egotistic and immediately mix with their love the desire to be loved in return, and this desire is contrary to spiritual truth and the cause of passions and sufferings. At first, one loves only when one is loved. Next, one loves spontaneously, but one wants to be loved in return. Then one loves even if one is not loved, but one still wants one's love to be accepted. And finally, one loves purely and simply, without any other need or joy than that of loving.

2: Morrissey (Manchester, United Kingdom), August 01, 2011, 1:28 PM.

In my teenaged angst, I would scratch her name on my arm with a fountain pen ... meaning "I really love you."

3: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), August 01, 2011, 2:17 PM.

Any kind of love, true love, that is, and not the Hollywood/ Bollywood concoctions - whether it is worldly or spiritual - is highly valued in Sikhism. Parental, spousal, platonic, physical, etc. - no kind of love - is discounted or subverted in Sikhi. It can't be. That is why God is referred to as Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, Friend, Master, Benefactor, Teacher, Doctor ... and Lover. Human love is in fact equated with Divine love in that one prepares you for the other, one illustrates the other, one mirrors the other. Those who wish to learn what the ideal marriage between two spouses is, need only look at the Sikhi concept of love for God, and extrapolate from it. [Hence the verses of the Laavan(n), the Sikh hymns of marriage.] Similarly, those who wish to learn about Divine love need only look at the ideal marriage of two human beings and apply the same principles to the relationship between Man and God. And anybody who thinks physical love is in any way less than any other kind, need only look at the variety of passages in the Guru Granth Sahib in which, for example, the human bride expresses her pining for her Divine lover in the most sensuous and physical terms. Sikhi is unique in the history of human spirituality in the balance it achieves between the temporal and spiritual worlds. It never falls into the trap of swinging to either end of the pendulum.

4: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), August 02, 2011, 2:17 AM.

The term 'prem' is different from 'love'. Love can be a visible activity, prem is always a hidden force. It refers to extreme attraction, but free from any self-consideration, a strong desire to become one with someone else. That is why 'prem' has been referred to as a game. And this game is played as and when required without any questions, if's or but's. Prem is pure, while love gets complicated by many competing elements.

5: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 02, 2011, 10:32 AM.

T Sher Singh ji's comment as usual stands out in clarity. The Laavaa(n) Paatth takes us, step by step, through the four stages of development of love. The story goes - Someone came to Sufi Jami and asked him for the honour of being his 'mureed' (disciple). Jami said: "Have you ever loved anyone in your life?" "No," replied the candidate. Jami said, "Then go and love someone, and then come to see me." Same thing, our own Sufi sant, Bhai Vir Singh ji, had to say in his book "Gurmukh Sikhya". Quote: "Anyone who remains celibate could be a jogi or a recluse. But, he cannot be a 'rasiya' - a fulfilled individual imbued with godly love." Anyone who has not tasted the normal worldly love cannot transcend into divine love easily. (This is not to be taken as a license to start on a project!) It is for this reason that great teachers and masters have often had difficulty in awakening the love of God in the average man. Parents give their child a doll so that the child may know how to dress it, how to be kind to it, how to look after it, how to love and admire it, thus awakening the child's maternal instincts. To awaken divine love, a similar training is required. Bhai Gurdas has immortalized lovers like Laila-Majnu and Sassi-Punnu, and their eventual transcendence to godly love that could be sung in gurdwaras too.

6: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), August 04, 2011, 8:25 AM.

Divine Love is learned by negotiating through the agency of human love in all its dimensions. It is noteworthy that the symbolism used (in the Guru Granth) to describe divine love is drawn from human love (bride/ beloved) and sexual ecstasy. Even in western tradition, Dante's search for the ideal Beatrice (in this case, Paradise) starts with her in the beauty of her eyes (physical person). The key is not to get stuck at the physical because it can become addictive lust (kaam) or the emotional (lest it becomes moh).

7: RavinderSingh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), August 04, 2011, 9:53 AM.

The word "khelan" has not drawn any attention from readers. Khelan implies that Love is a game. What kind of game? Does it have rules, like the games we play? Does it matter how we play the game (offense/ defense)? Would love to hear.

8: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), August 04, 2011, 11:09 AM.

I think 'khelan' is used here in the same spirit as Shakespeare uses the 'stage' imagery in the words: "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players ..." Of course, the two metaphors are distinctly different - one revolves around 'game - play', the other around 'stage - play'. But I think the application and implications are the same: that the world is transitory, that it is to be treated with respect and attended to in detail, but yet, not taken too, too seriously. The same goes with love. By this, I don't mean that it is to be frivolous or taken lightly. What I mean is that it is to be taken in balance and proportion, its pursuit is not to possess us and consume us. Instead, it is to enrich, enhance and elevate us and all that is around us.

9: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 04, 2011, 3:23 PM.

"Khael khael akhael khaelan ant:t ko phir aek" (Jaap Sahib) - "When after playing the play of Creation, He ends it, everything goes back into Him, and again He becomes One."

10: Yuktanand Singh, M.D. (MI, U.S.A.), August 04, 2011, 11:26 PM.

I think use of the word 'khelna' points to the fact that life is a game involving winners and losers. See, "jan naanak gurmukh jo nar khaylai so jin baajee ghar aa-i-aa`` [GGS:1185.15] meaning: 'One who plays the game as a gurmukh, goes home a winner'. As they say, "everything is fair in love and war." If it is a game of true love, then we must be prepared to give anything the He asks. He has already asked for our head. Thus we know that in this game only the Guru wins, we lose. By losing everything we have, we win everything the Guru has. See also, "hastee sir ji-o ankas hai ahran ji-o sir day-ay" [GGS:647.19] meaning: 'Just as an elephant submits to the elephant-hook, just as àn anvil offers itself to the hammer; in the same manner, one offers one's mind and body and asks only to remain in service. This is how a gurmukh loses oneself, but rules the entire universe in return.`

11: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), August 05, 2011, 8:28 AM.

Yuktanand Singh ji: A beautiful interpretation of the word 'khel' - most appropriate, as per gurbani. Wonderful.

12: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), August 05, 2011, 1:39 PM.

Thank you, Sher, Sangat Singh ji and Yuktanand Singh ji, for weighing in on the word "khelan." Lovely and insightful. Games indeed have outcomes and there are winners and losers, usually opponents. But this game, I think, is a win-win - a Sikh wins by losing, by giving up manmat. Thanks for the thoughts. How about the next word - 'chao'? Is there an English equivalent? What would it be? Would it indicate the way we play the game; after all, our stance in life reveals a lot about us as individuals.

13: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), August 05, 2011, 4:24 PM.

It would be difficult to assign an English equivalent because meaning of "chaao" in gurbani ranges from (a) pure delight - "sat suhaan sadaa mann chaao" [GGS:4], to (b) base euphoria - "hansaa dekh tanadi-aa bagga aa-i-aa chaao" [GGS:1384]. The "chaao" in this case must be akin to - "jaa kuaaree taa chaao", meaning - "When she was a virgin, she was full of desire" [GGS:1381]. But we need to be careful to not over-analyze love.

14: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), August 06, 2011, 2:41 AM.

The dictionary meanings of the word 'chaao': delight, joy, happiness, eagerness, enthusiasm, love. In this connection, Yukatanand Singh ji has given the correct context for the meaning of the word.

15: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), August 06, 2011, 10:31 AM.

Yuktanand Singh, ji ... I agree with you.

16: Yuktanand Singh, M.D. (MI, U.S.A.), August 06, 2011, 1:23 PM.

Sant Naranjan Singh ji used to say that, like an almond, the kernel of Sikhi is hidden inside the shell. The 'game of love' goes to the heart of Sikhi. So let us connect a few more dots under the topic of 'chaao'. Illustration of a young virgin, in gurbani, is intriguing. We know that an innocent adolescent would willingly die for love. Love is not a trade. We start as eager and innocent idealists but are quickly lost in dysfunctional, petty transactions. With our heart bruised and stained, we come to the Guru and ask for the same petty favors, for success in the job or cure of an illness, for knowledge, etc., in exchange for a song, a dollar's worth of sacred pudding, repetition of a certain bani, or a prayer.

17: Yuktanand Singh, M.D. (MI, U.S.A.), August 06, 2011, 1:26 PM.

Any transaction is better than none but Guru is not satisfied until we ask for the treasure that Guru holds for us, and until we do so with the same passion as when we are willing to die for love. "Listen to my cry, O girl with beautiful eyes, listen to this deep secret: first evaluate the goods, only then engage in a transaction ... bid only on something that will bring your love back to you. Reflect on this, O young girl! [GGS:1410.5-8]

18: Yuktanand Singh, M.D. (MI, U.S.A.), August 06, 2011, 1:28 PM.

What should we trade? "Satgur is the lover of Naam, if I meet him I would give my body and soul to him" [GGS:758.16]. Most of us visit the Guru as a spectator, not as a young adolescent lover, and thus we never really meet the Guru. The aim of Sikhi is fulfilled only when the Sikh is transformed, so that there is no difference between the Sikh and Guru ('ek jyot doi moorti'), when the lover merges with the object of love. This is the best kept secret and only hinted at in gurbani, because it is too sacred for display. We can talk about it but only rare individuals are able to play this game. Sikhi lives only in the heart of those rare Sikhs. The rest of us merely form the bulk ...

19: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), August 07, 2011, 2:01 AM.

Yuktanand Singh ji: There is a quote in gurbani to validate what you have said: "hain virlay naahee ghanay fail fakarh sansaar" - "The saints are few and far between; everything else in the world is just a pompous show." [GGS:1411.12].

20: Ravinder Singh  (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), August 07, 2011, 11:19 AM.

Thanks for the wonderful - and enlightening - discussion. I notice that "chao" in gurbani is overwhelmingly used for desire/ longing that comes from a sense of separation ("man bairaag bhaiya darsan dekhne ka chao"), and can be ignited by the sadh sangat ("upje chao sadh ke sangh') and, as S. Yukanand Singh ji points out, those who play this game are rare indeed ("prem ras chao/ virla kuo paveh sang"). There is one reference to "chao" that stands out in my mind and it is the oft-quoted line from Aasa-di-Vaar: " aape neh aap sajao ... kar aasan dhitoh chao." Here the meaning suggests a sense of gratification/ fulfillment. Thoughts? There is also the distinction between types of "chao" - not all are the same or equally desirable. For instance, "nachan kudan man ka chao," is a baser expression whereas "kabeer mohe marne ka chao," is its highest expression.

21: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), August 07, 2011, 1:03 PM.

If we can have discussions like this, I don't think we would require any 'institution' to learn and understand gurbani. Really, this has been very meaningful.

22: Yuktanand Singh  (MI, U.S.A.), August 07, 2011, 9:33 PM.

I do not want to be the only one writing answers. The "sat-chit-anand" of Vedanta has characterized God as being detached and indifferent. Guru Nanak added "chaao" because God takes delight in his creation and he is not indifferent towards us. Thus its meaning in "kar aasan ditthoh chaao" is similar to (and interchangeable with) the pure delight in "sat suhaan sadaa mann chaao". Also see, "santan dukh paa-ye te dukhee" [Benti Chaupai] meaning, when his servants are in pain, he is in pain and when they are happy, then he is also happy. Thus, it appears that chaao (delight) in relation to God means that God does not ignore his creation.

23: Yuktanand Singh  (MI, U.S.A.), August 07, 2011, 9:42 PM.

As we see, the meaning of chaao in gurbani ranges from simple eagerness to pure delight. The meaning that is important on our path is the genuine inner urge. Just as a physical union is not a true union if the necessary physiologic response did not occur with it, "She considers herself slim and talks about her husband but if her breasts did not get engorged then there is no union" [GGS:794.18] - (sorry, my translation does not always agree with others); in the same manner, a genuine inner urge should result in sustained change in our emotional state and our behavior. Only then can we hope to meet God. This is why we do simran.

24: Yuktanand Singh  (MI, U.S.A.), August 07, 2011, 9:46 PM.

Genuine chaao is a sign that meeting with God is certain, however distant this meeting may be. We read this in Anand Sahib - "The eagerness welling up in my heart tells me that my Lord is coming this way. O my bridal friends, let us celebrate and sing to create a suitable abode for him (in me)" [GGS:921.17-18]. How can we generate genuine chaao? We also read, "upjai chaao sadh kai sang" [GGS: 289.14] and, "Our perfect Lord knows our needs and he blesses us with the dust of a saadhu's feet" [GGS: 563.3]. Due to countless so-called sants mushrooming everywhere, many Sikhs find this part difficult to accept. But gurmat does not change with the society. We may wish that there was another way but gurbani says that there is not [GG:675.15-16].

25: Ishnan (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada), August 07, 2011, 10:36 PM.

Re: the last comment by Yuktanand Singh ji: the reference to "saadh", "sadhu", "sant", etc. in the Guru Granth Sahib need not cause any confusion for us, despite the proliferation of charlatans today. The terms were used for persons who had achieved the ultimate spiritual stage: the Gurus themselves, for example, easily fell within the definition of the terms, for example. Thus, they are used in the Guru Granth in the loftiest sense.

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The Talking Stick Colloquium # 55"

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