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My Take On 'WaheGuru'







I am no writer. The last time I did some serious writing was an essay for my Senior Cambridge ISC English paper. I forget the actual subject that I had to write the essay on, but I do remember picking an unusual topic out of the several options given. After the exam, my English teacher did tell me that I had misinterpreted the subject matter/topic and that I would probably fail.

Thankfully, it was not to be so. The results came and I got a 1 (equivalent of an A).

The message I want to get across is that I have always thought out of the box, having viewpoints different from the norm, thus challenging some of the current status quo. If I do write more than this one article, I would like the readers to keep that in mind.

My take would be a bit different, hopefully keeping in line with Sikhi and its traditional values.

WaheGuru:  Waheguru (Punjabi: vāhigurū) is a term most often used in Sikhism to refer to God, the Supreme Being or the creator of all. It means "Wonderful Teacher" in the Punjabi language, but in this case is used to refer to God. Vāhi (a Middle Persian borrowing) means "wonderful" and guru is a Punjabi term denoting "teacher".

The definition of WaheGuru as taken from Wikipedia is universal and accepted by the Sikhs. The issue lies with how to actually spell the word In English so as to be able to pronounce the word WaheGuru correctly for the uninitiated.  We as Sikhs are already facing numerous difficulties getting our message across -- starting with the very pronunciation of ‘Sikh’ -- to the west that speaks English.

There is no ‘kh’ in the English language. There are no words in the English language that have both the letters together to form this sound. That begs to answer the question – what about words like ‘backhand’ and ‘workhour’. These essentially are two words that are co-joined together and have two distinct syllables and as such do not produce the sound ‘kh’.

Others words like Khaki and Sheikh that have become part of the English vocabulary have been borrowed from other languages and an English speaking person still has problems with pronouncing it correctly.

The problem does not lie with the person but the English language itself. Roman script for Gurmukhi just does not work. This is because Gurmukhi is a phonetic language having more consonant and vowels than the English language can convey and let’s not forget the tippi, bindi, matra, etc. to further accentuate the words in the Punjabi language. We are talking more specifically now about the Sihari (small) and Bihari (big) matra and of how does that affects the pronunciation.

Sihari has a short vowel sound symbolized by ‘i ‘and is pronounced as the ‘i ‘as in ‘is‘, or ‘it‘. Bihari has a long vowel sound symbolized by ‘ee’ and is pronounced as ‘ee’ as in ‘see‘, or ‘ie’ as in ‘cookie‘.

If we apply Sihari for Waheguru then it should be spelled as Wahiguru/Vahiguru . But that would result in being pronounced as Wa Hi Guru. The middle syllable ‘hi’ would then mostly be pronounced as in ‘hi’ or ‘high‘. 

Fortunately, it is not as simple as that. The Sihari when NOT used with the first alphabet of a Gurmukhi word is largely silent. Confirmation of this comes in words like SatGuru – which would then be spelled as SatiGuru if we were to apply the rule incorrectly. While, if we spell it as in ‘Wa He Guru’ the middle syllable, ‘He’ will  be pronounced as in ‘he’ (not too bad) or correctly as in hey. 

This conveys the right way to pronounce for those not familiar with the word. That is, if we think that WaheGuru is without the I (haumai - ego) in it.

The most compelling of reasons to spell it as WaheGuru/VaheGuru (V and W are interchangeable in this case) for the right pronunciation is that my Beji (grandma), who was born in the 1880s always pronounced it that way, plus countless other Sikhs in the know I met over the 60 years.

I go to Bangla Sahib regularly and I have yet to hear WaheGuru pronounced with an emphasis on ‘hi’. The uncorrupted hand-me-down version is always a good guide, as tradition (and historical information) shows through the generations that WaheGuru is the correct form.

It serves us, Sikhs, no purpose to have conflicting versions of the spelling for the Supreme Being. 

I know WaheGuru would care less how you wrote his name in Roman English for the correct pronunciation. I seriously doubt it too if it would make any difference how you pronounced it either (but that is a topic for another article). But, if I had my way and knowing the limitations of the English language I would have preferred it to be spelled as Wa Hey Grew!

The author spends his time between India and US (where his children live).

October 25, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 26, 2015, 7:25 PM.

Very interesting and thought provoking article because I already use the English alphabet to write out Gurmukhi as an English speaker would read it and pronounce it. For instance Guru Nanak is more accurately spelt as Guru Naanak and Guru Ram Das to Guru Raam Daas. And my name, Baldev Singh as Baldave Singh ...

2: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), October 26, 2015, 11:24 PM.

Our Gurus freely employed all names which came to be associated with God. So, to Sikhs it matters not which spellings in the English language are applicable to pronounce Waheguru. Guru Nanak said in Japji: "Jaitaa keetaa taitaa naao(n)". That is, "whatever He created is His Name". Basically, the word Waheguru among Sikhs, as a name for God, was devised for the purposes of meditation.

3: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 27, 2015, 6:58 AM.

It must be mentioned that pronunciation is critical too because in every language just one letter can change the entire word and its meaning. The same for our Gurmukhi script. Here in the Gurdwara in Huddersfield, UK, there are special classes to learn the correct pronunciation of gurbani. Perhaps every Punjabi school and gurdwara should have this available.

4: GJ Singh (India), October 27, 2015, 8:43 AM.

If your neighbor cannot pronounce your name or that of your religion, how do you expect him to connect with you. This is one of the biggest problems we, as Sikhs, face in North America. We have no brand recognition because of it. We spell everything in multiple ways, conveying our own confusion. On numerous occasions people at hotels throughout the world, more so in USA, have addressed me as 'Mr. Singe' and I have to correct them 'It's SING like in sing a song'. Another incident that comes to mind is that when I rented an apartment in USA, I made sure that the landlord knew that I was of the Sikh Faith. But when an issue came up, I found out that he still associated 'Sikh' with 'Sheikh' and thought that I was a Muslim with a turban and all. That misconception has to be eliminated.

5: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), October 27, 2015, 3:24 PM.

There is a book known as "Gurbaani da Shudh Uchaaran" produced and published by The Sikh Missionary College, Ludhiana, Punjab. This is a most helpful book for the correct recitation of gurbani. Gurbani grammar is also discussed in the book. Its grammar is different from regular Gurmukhi grammar. Knowledge of gurbani grammar is equally important for its correct recitation.

6: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 30, 2015, 7:57 PM.

Pronunciation differs with the area you are born in. Here are a couple of examples: Some of the 'paathis' pronounce 'Slok Mahalla Punjvaan' as 'Slok Mahalla Punjma'. 'Ghar' becomes 'Ghaar'. Saraiki, Pothowari and Multani Punjabi dialects are pronounced quite differently. Dr. Masood Tariq has done a wonderful job and honoured him by publishing his essay, “Mother Tongue: The many dialects of Punjabi”. Please check: Don’t overly worry: we have Guru Granth Sahib as an encyclopedia of languages. No matter how you call Him, Waheguru will always answer.

7: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), October 31, 2015, 11:18 AM.

There is a standard phrase in the Ardaas, asking forgiveness for the mispronunciation, if any, of gurbani. Regardless of this, effort should be made by reciters to correctly pronounce gurbani. Even within the realm of any given accent, there are a variety of pronunciations. Example: "Sajan sachha paatshaah ... " But some reciters mispronounce the endword 'shah' as 'shaho' because there is a line (aunkarh) under 'h'. Aunkar under 'h' means one and one only which is Waheguru (Shah).

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