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Talking Stick

The Sikh Daily Liturgy
The Talking Stick Colloquium # 75





Every Friday for the past three years or so, a few of us get together for what has come to be known as Gurbani Vichaar.

The sessions began in the local gurdwara and were focused on the nitnem banis - the Sikh daily liturgy -  but over time, the locale has shifted away from the gurdwara to private homes.

Interestingly enough, a pattern has also emerged - all without much conscious thought or effort. We now begin with a reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, usually 10 pages at each sitting. Everyone present reads aloud, in unison.

This is followed by 10-15 minutes of doing jaap or simran, audibly sounding the word 'Waheguru' until it naturally recedes into mental repetition. Thereafter a discussion ensues, usually around a passage that was previously read.

A question that pops up with predictable regularity centers on the prescription of the daily nitnem.

The nitnem regimen requires a Sikh to awake at amrit vela - the ambrosial hour, pre-dawn, commonly believed to around 4 am -  to take a bath (ishnaan), then settling down to do simran, followed by reciting a specified number of banis. The discipline also includes banis to be read later in the evening and at night as well.

The question invariably circles around the need for an externally imposed requirement.

What good is it to merely recite gurbani without understanding what is being read?

Why rise so early, especially when we all have busy, hectic schedules?

Besides, isn’t it all the Guru’s grace?

Shouldn’t we focus on reflection, dialogue and understanding instead?

The idea that nitnem is mechanical and repetitive and therefore without value is one that needs to be resisted. Repetition is a necessary element for the development of any skill or discipline - from learning to hit a tennis ball to acquiring language skills. It is much like learning the alphabet or the multiplication tables, and requires daily practice - although the spiritual formation that must follow takes time.

Not unlike the ability to piece together the alphabet symbols into words, and words into meaningful sentences. Or the facility of being able to calculate figures in a moment in one's head, instead of having to do an elaborate mathematical calculation, or having to resort to a computerized device.

I get the distinct sense that these questions (like all questions) are cultural. Given our bottom line orientation, time is money and this activity does not appear to offer a healthy 'return on investment' ("ROI") - if at all. We are also a culture of instant gratification and our spiritual quests have become a search for the silver bullet - the technique, the trick or the holy man (or woman) that will bring instant transformation.

But spiritual growth is like physical growth - it does not happen overnight.

Nitnem, in addition to being a mental and spiritual exercise, is a matter of consecrating our days - and nights. By interrupting the mundane rhythm of our daily lives, it teaches us to create a sanctuary, a sacred inner space by defying the tyranny of ordinary time. Most of us jump out of bed only to become slaves of the clock, racing through our routines, transformed into Type automatons, high on caffeine.

Nitnem weaves the sacred into the fabric of daily life and serves as a reminder that we live on dual planes simultaneously - the sacred and the profane, the secular and the spiritual.

These moments make the extraordinary possible. Nitnem offers the doorway to enable us to enter the sacred space of the timeless One - Akal - where the soul dwells and its cultivation takes place.

But we cannot rush the process. The inner self responds on its own time, its own cycle.

We have to learn to wait.

Today, I wish to invite your thoughts on this subject.


February 6, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), February 06, 2012, 8:57 AM.

To repeat something you like or love is done by most of humanity every day. But to repeat beautiful poetry with a universal message of Oneness can only make 'ordinary' people more caring and responsible.

2: Basant Kaur  (Chandigarh, Punjab), February 06, 2012, 10:11 AM.

I have been going to the gym, as well as doing yoga exercises, for years. Never have I, or ever heard anyone else, ask the instructor to first explain how each position or aasan or exercise "really works", or how the inner workings of the body go into operation in order to create a result ... We simply do it! Fully knowing that if we do it continually, good results will invariably flow. We are also fully aware that initially there is a bit, or a lot, of drudgery, but then, gradually, slowly but surely, it turns into pleasure. The same holds for nitnem. I have found that those who want to know the whys and the hows and the wherefores BEFORE and WITHOUT doing anything, are merely looking for excuses to not do anything. They are lazy and intellectually dishonest. Simply, as far as I can see, they're losers to begin with and will remain so all their lives.

3: Bobby (North Carolina, U.S.A.), February 06, 2012, 10:29 AM.

Of course it begins with simple repetition ... for the child or the novice. But no one has ever suggested that, once you are old enough or are well on your way, you are not to spend time in understanding what you are reciting. Vichaar - study and contemplation - followed by application of what you learn, to your daily life, is the goal. No one suggests it should be otherwise. But one has to start at the beginning. The congenitally dishonest naysayers want it to be the other way around - results first, and then, maybe, they'll do the routine!

4: Jaimal Singh (Jaipur, Rajasthan, India), February 06, 2012, 1:34 PM.

In addition to the obvious ones and the ones already pointed out, there are three other important benefits stemming from the nitnem regimen: a) It promotes literacy. You can't do nitnem easily without learning to read. b) It is a daily exposure to Punjabi and Gurmukhi, two crucial keys to Sikh scripture. 3) It does away with the need for even a semblance of a priesthood, something which in other faiths continues to maintain a stranglehold monopoly on religious ritual, ceremony and practice. Doing nitnem regularly completely obviates the need for any Sikh to have anything to do with a priest-like broker between man and God ... Each of these three points are central to the practice of Sikhi. Proof: most of those who have never done nitnem are dependent on others to do paatth, or ardaas, or to acquire even the most basic understanding of any concept of being a Sikh.

5: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 06, 2012, 3:49 PM.

What better proof would one need other than in "Furrow Thy Mind". That wonderful and inspiring piece is still extant on the current home page. "bholay bhaa-ay milay raghuraa-i-aa" [GGS:324.15] and made him into a real 'swarn" (pure gold). Let him speak for us, hopefully on this path: ' "When I first turned my attention inwards," Swaran Singh started, "I could see no land - or plough, for that matter. What was I to do, I thought? But I persisted and stayed attentive. Soon, a vast sky opened inside. I imagined it to be land and began to till it with attention (dhyan). As I did, I could smell the dampness of furrowed land. Then I sowed the seed by repeating, 'Waheguru! Waheguru!' The water of contentment was a little difficult to understand, so I watered it with my tears instead. The tears that fell from my eyes began to clean this inner sky until it began to shine and blaze forth in a myriad of colors. What can I say, my life just turned. I couldn't understand what was going on, so here I am, to ask you about what is going on?" My grandfather put his arms around Swaran Singh in a bear hug and said, "O gurmukh! Your effort has met with the Guru's approval. Today I am witness to a tap mushkia - a true, fragrant worshiper!" ' ... Is there anything more to say?

6: R. Singh (Canada), February 06, 2012, 7:37 PM.

Basant Kaur ji: In the end we are responsible for ourselves and our actions. No one can justify imposing a regimen or sitting on judgement on another, for not conforming. Whatever one's preference - yoga or jogging, it is accepted that exercise is good. If done without understanding, a wrong aasan can actually hurt an individual. With knowledge of muscle groups, it is a better way of exercising any day. Gurbani encourages questioning and discussion (vichaar). Can we have vichaar without questioning conventional wisdom?

7: Bachitar Singh  (California, U.S.A.), February 06, 2012, 8:19 PM.

A child whining "Why do I have to learn tables?" is not the equivalent of questioning conventional wisdom. A Master's or Ph.D. student studying Mathematics or Metaphysics and asking "Does two-and-two really add up to four?" is indeed questioning conventional wisdom, and a worthy endeavour too. Basant Kaur ji (# 2 above) was not passing judgement on anyone who is questioning conventional wisdom. Nor did she, in my understanding, suggest that anyone should conform with anything, least of all with respect to nitnem. All she was saying - and I agree with her completely - is that it is foolishness for anyone to expect to understand the Binomial Theorem while poised to start out with learning the 2 x 2 tables, and then refusing to memorize the tables by declaring that the Binomial Theorem makes no sense at all. What Basant ji, and Bobby too (# 3), are saying is: if you are not interested in educating yourself, that's fine; skip school, if you wish; but don't malign the entire education system in supporting your decision! So, don't do nitnem ... millions don't. But don't expect to understand its value without even taking the first step. And ... don't blame your own decision on some imagined shortcoming in the practice of nitnem. I would be more open to the rejection of nitnem AFTER one has practiced it for a while and THEN concluded it is of no benefit to him. In fact, my own goal is to reach a stage one day when I no longer need to do nitnem - hopefully, I'll move to a point where it is no longer useful!

8: Mehar Kaur (Kitchener, Ontario, Canada), February 06, 2012, 8:33 PM.

Nitnem is wrapped around the concept of discipline, albeit a spiritual one. The difficulties and challenges around this type of discipline are no different than those of any other. Such as the discipline required to do physical exercise everyday. Everybody can benefit from it. Very few do. The rest find excuses galore - and they come in every imaginable size, shape and colour. It's no different with nitnem. Do it if you want to. Don't do it if you don't want to. Sure, the Rehat Maryada recommends it. But the local gurdwara doesn't send Dara Singh after you with a hockey stick to punish you if you don't. There is no 'Rehat Police' lurking around the corner, trust me. Relax: there are no worldly consequences if you don't do nitnem. Does that help? Now you can sleep in tomorrow!

9: Kanwarjeet Singh (Franklin Park, New Jersey, U.S.A.), February 07, 2012, 12:43 AM.

Nitnem does not purify you or put you on the correct path. It is the understanding and the implementation of what is learned in nitnem that sets us on the right path. As a teenager I saw what happened to Sikhs in India in the 80s and 90s. I was angered - wanted to do things to those responsible for 1984 that would shock most of you people. Simple recitation and understanding of the Mool Mantar taught me that Waheguru is full of love and not hatred. I have a long way to go but I attribute it to my turning to bani for guidance. Bald reliance on repetition, without vichaar, leads to fanaticism - read the other article on violence in biblical texts currently on the homepage! The flip side is true too! The discipline of repetition is needed for focus - which then leads to understanding. The entire system of Nature is set on repetition - seasons come and go, birth and death, etc. Repetition also conditions the mind and makes it more accepting of the message.

10: Preetma Kaur (Patiala, Punjab), February 07, 2012, 7:44 AM.

I don't think the critics of nitnem think things out first - they just appear to want to justify their own laziness. I mean, just think about it! You seem to want to do nitnem only AFTER you understand it fully, otherwise not. But then, how are you going to get to understand it? "Nitnem" is not the bani ... it is the process of getting to know the bani, so that you can THEN apply it to your life. I am but 23 years old, and no scholar, no sant, no claim to any wisdom or great understanding. Yet I understand this simple concept ... I just can't figure out why anyone can't figure it out on his own. Unless, of course, he/she doesn't want to!

11: Harjit Singh (Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.), February 07, 2012, 9:44 AM.

Well written article and excellent points raised ... to understand what we read and its importance.

12: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), February 07, 2012, 10:12 AM.

There is so much wisdom above. What is the purpose of daily practice (of anything)? We can see that such a question is silly. What is the purpose of reading without understanding? This question is better. But suppose the baby says, "Why should I crawl if I cannot walk?" Then he would never walk. Gurbani is first memorized and understood. Then it is repeated everyday. My grandmother used to say, "paisa ganth bani kanth", meaning: We have only the money that we possess; we have only the gurbani that we have memorized. Reciting gurbani is akin to talking to our Guru.

13: Yuktanand Singh (MI, U.S.A.), February 07, 2012, 10:15 AM.

Daily repetition, at the least, gives us an opportunity to take a break from personal noise and be in the Guru's presence, being mindful of gurbani. Daily practice helps memorization and it prepares us for the taste that comes later. When we are in love, a love song has a new meaning. Its tale becomes our own tale. Then we sing it from the heart. Being in the Guru's presence transforms us, but until that happens we cannot understand the real purpose of gurbani. Yes, some very successful people, even non-Sikhs, have simply repeated Japji every morning without much thought. This is just an added bonus!

14: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), February 07, 2012, 11:27 AM.

Nitnem is true prayer, constituting a conversation with God. At what point in time in life a Sikh is to adopt nitnem as a daily routine, it is up to the individual. However, parents have to inculcate in their children the concept of nitnem if they want their children to learn the spiritual path of Sikhi.

15: Prakash Singh.Bagga (India), February 07, 2012, 12:14 PM.

Nitnem, as my understanding goes, is a man-made and self-imposed discipline for giving an initial fillip for growth on a spiritual path. Reading, listening and singing are the best way and this can be done at any time, in any way, any where and without any fear.

16: R.P. Singh (Washington, D.C., U.S.A.), February 07, 2012, 2:31 PM.

Ravinder Singh ji: Your opening statements had me ready to charge ahead, with my views and opinions on the subject. However, your last few paragraphs were so beautifully stated ... I think I will just pause and reflect instead. Thank you.

17: Tejinder Pal Singh (Houston, Texas, U.S.A.), February 07, 2012, 4:59 PM.

In science, theories can be tested by empirical data. Similarly, look at the Sikhs who attained higher planes of spirituality, they all had a discipline of doing nitnem - e.g., Bhai Vir Singh, Dr. Balbir Singh, Bhai Randhir Singh, Sardar Raghubir Singh Bir ... You can follow your own way but you get to live only once, why not start with a well-tested and proven method of achieving higher-consciousness and minimize the risk?

18: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 08, 2012, 8:15 AM.

In a Japanese Zen monastery, a relatively young monk approached the presiding abbot with a query: "What is the purpose of life?" "Why do you wish to ask me?" responded the Abbot. "Because you are most venerable and knowledgeable, and this question has been troubling me for a long time." "Well, in that case, the answer is: There is no purpose of life!" To this answer, the young monk went to great lengths quoting the various scriptures and authorities about the purpose of life. The reverend abbot listened with a smile and when the young monk was done, said: "You came here not to seek the answer but to demonstrate your own scholarship as to how much you knew about it." Bhai Vir Singh's poem also comes to mind: "Carrying a begging bowl on my head/ I wandered in search of knowledge/ From door to door I begged for food/ Filling my bowl to the brim./ My stuffed bowl made me feel stuffy - A learned scholar me./ With my head held high/ I walked touching the skies./ One day I took this bowl and/ Placed it before a sage./ Saying, "False! False!" he flipped it over,/ And emptied all its contents./ He scrubbed off its mental stains/ And wiped the begging bowl clean./ See, how this bowl now shines: Like a lotus blooming brilliantly." May I commend Bhai Vir Singh's "Gurmukh Sikhya" - it provides many an answer. It is also available in part at the following site: It is also available in audio.

19: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), February 08, 2012, 8:56 AM.

Good article. I would like to request Ravinder Singh ji or any one else to throw some light on the following question. Though Guru Gobind Singh chose not to add his own writings to the Guru Granth Sahib, why are two of the five nitnem banis from his compositions?

20: R. Singh (Canada), February 08, 2012, 9:52 AM.

In today's world, there are people who work shifts, and their ideal 'amrit vela' might start at 6 pm. Others who are just wired differently, and might find other times when they are more alert. Is it not gurbani that reminds us that amrit sarovar is in the mind and amrit vela is whenever the Lord is remembered? Codes are necessary guidelines, not inflexible rules.

21: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 08, 2012, 12:23 PM.

Just as our body gets hungry for food, so does our spirit hunger for the One. Shabad gurbani is the ambrosial food of the soul; only a true gurmukh realizes this fact and acts on it. It is just as important to feed the soul. Hence the nitnem.

22: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 08, 2012, 3:59 PM.

R.Singh ji (#20): In gurbani the true meaning of 'amrit' is gyan and not the time of the day. Morning time is preferred by some people, but it is not essential to nitnem. According to gurbani, our life span as humans is the 'amrit vela'!

23: Dolly (Boston, MA, U.S.A.), February 08, 2012, 4:49 PM.

Dear R. Singh ji: Complaining about getting up early in the morning is the worst excuse or justification for not doing nitnem. It is absolutely not necessary to get up at 4:00 am, or at any other specific hour. In fact, Sikhism is unique in saying that there is no auspicious hour of the day or night, or day of the week or the month, to do simran: any time and every hour is a good time. In fact, ideally, you don't need to put aside time, ever. You can choose to do it at work or play ... or not at all.

24: Kanwarjeet Singh Chadha (Franklin Park, New Jersey, U.S.A.), February 08, 2012, 10:18 PM.

R Singh ji - while I agree with you that it may not be possible for everyone to get up at 4 am, I do not necessarily agree that 'amrit vela' is not the amrit vela the Guru Sahibaan mentioned. Although it is perfectly fine to remember Waheguru at any time of the day, the 'amrit vela' has special meaning and purpose. If you ever get up at 4 am you will notice that it is right before day break, the environment is at it most peaceful (even with the sweet sounds of birds) and the air is at it's most crisp, unpolluted level (unless you stay in a major city, that is). In fact it is so peaceful that the mind is at it's freshest and most relaxed. It is akin to having just started your computer where all drivers have been loaded freshly and the cache is clear. This is a stage where the clean slate of the peaceful mind can be best trained to tune into the frequency of Waheguru. It is the most effective hour.

25: Ravnder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), February 09, 2012, 6:46 AM.

Thanks for the input. My sense is that all religions and cultures have sought ways to remind ourselves of the sacred presence that surrounds us and of the immense possibilities that are available to us. So it is that we have Buddhist chanting, Hindu mantras, Sufi dances, the five namaazes, etc. While the daily nitnem can offer real breakthrough moments, it can also degenerate into empty ritual. We run the risk of becoming prisoners to our routine. Another caution is not to think of nitnem as a transaction - a tit for tat. Nor should it be seen as another "self-improvement" project because it will not last. It should be an "offering" of love, without any strings attached. No conditions and no time limit. One cedes control to Waheguru.

26: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas, U.S.A.), February 12, 2012, 4:01 PM.

It is good to have a dialogue on nitnem in the context of Sikhi. However, grasping so many views with diverse angles is gurmat at its best. And the participation of men and women both on this forum makes it particularly noteworthy. In my understanding, the purpose of nitnem should be the key component in approach. Once we are clear on the purpose, every thing else becomes easy under the weight of our compulsion and the mission. We should also be sensitive and mindful of those who do nitnem simply out of obligation as Sikhs, because we have made nitnem as one of the devotional components of Sikh tradition. Nitnem may be repetitious, but it's known beneficial content makes the repetition worthwhile; and humans are known to enjoy and love repeating undertakings that are juiced up with benefits. Let us spread nitnem over wider territory and among more humans, with vigor.

27: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), February 13, 2012, 8:54 AM.

Nitnem can be considered a first step in establishing a connection with gurbani. With time, one moves ahead to connect with the whole of gurbani from the Guru Granth. This is how to reap the real fruits of nitnem.

28: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 13, 2012, 2:13 PM.

Gurmukh Sikhya in audio is available on the following site: Please double click now as the time is fleeting. It is Simran simplified.

29: Binder Singh (India), January 23, 2015, 2:08 AM.

A lot of knowledge is gained from gurbani ...

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The Sikh Daily Liturgy
The Talking Stick Colloquium # 75"

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