Kids Corner


Of Snakes & Sandalwood







I have written before about Haripur (West Punjab, now in Pakistan) where I was born and completed my high schooling. The town was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to honor his General and Governor for the region, Hari Singh Nalwa.

We, the Sikh students of the local High School, formed The Sikh Students’ Federation in or about 1943. Actually, we were challenged by Ayub Khan, then a student in our Khalsa School, who later became President of Pakistan, to organize and be activists lest we lose everything in the process of India becoming independent. 

Related to this period is the memory of my mother’s repeated warnings of snakes in the orchard.

The orchard that we owned was located behind our school and provided a convenient place to hold meetings of the Students’ Federation. During any recess we would sit at ease on the grass under a tree to conduct our business.

My mother used to tell us that snakes were always around where there was a fragrance or odour. Our orchard of loquat trees produced plenty of fragrance. Snakes possess musk glands near their cloaca which can emit a smelly fluid which they use to communicate with other snakes. Thus they are attracted to trees which emit fragrance or smells of any kind.

Recollection of all of the above was triggered this week by a Hukam from Guru Granth Sahib in a verse on page 1373. It uses a metaphor of the orchard and its fragrance that attracts lovers of delicious fruits, but at the same time it offers attraction for snakes.

This metaphor is meant to elucidate an important lesson on Sikh values and behaviour.

From the page I have just cited, you may note that I do not necessarily take a hukam from the pages in the middle of the Guru Granth.

The verse goes as follows:

Sayeth Kabir, the true saint does not forsake his values and righteous conduct even when confronted by a legion of evil-doers. Just as sandalwood does not give up its freshening fragrance when surrounded by snakes.

The meaning becomes even more clear when one delves into what Guru Sahib actually means by referring to orchards, fruits, fragrance and snakes.

Here is Guru Sahib’s guidance.

Dharam is a flower. Wisdom imparted by the Guru converts the flower into a fruit through metamorphosis of the mind in the orchard and in the world around us. The orchard of fruits emit’s the fragrance of our values, making every one to be fragrant on account of their good deeds. [GGS:1325]

When I read these lines, I see Guru’s wisdom contained in the depth of the metaphors. Guru Granth uses this metaphor of fragrance often. For example, it further describes good deeds as sprouting saplings and their branches in the orchard … that is, our beautiful world.

One who continually acts in goodness and immaculate purity, sprouts green branches in great abundance [GGS: 1325]

Elsewhere, Guru Sahib hails the fragrance of sandalwood trees.

The fragrance of sandalwood is so uplifting; it spreads out far and wide in the world [GGS:1260]

As Marian Bendeth said, “Fragrance speaks the loudest on a subliminal level.”

In his wisdom, Sheikh Sa’adi wrote: Fragrance is capable of selling itself along with the source that emits fragrance. Because it has an inherent allure. It requires no trader, sales force or media to popularize it.

At the doctrinal level, Guru describes fragrance as an essential in the deeds that are collectively known in Gurmat as the doctrine of Ishnaan. The Ishnaan doctrine is part of the Gurmat troika of ‘Naam Daan Ishnaan‘.

Guru Nanak explains his doctrine of Ishnaan thus: 

Disseminate your irresistible fragrance after cleansing your mind and body with the waters of Goodness, followed by the scented oil of Truth. [GGS:16]

Leading a healthy and active life, good eating habits, listening to shabad kirtan, keeping the company of truth seekers, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, are some examples of the acts of Goodness.

Coming back to the snake around the sandalwood, any Sikh inculcating the fragrance of good deeds will time and again encounter snakes of many varieties.

I can talk at length about snakes our nation has encountered at every period of our history but I will leave that to our historians. Instead, here I list the example of snakes that come our way when we wish to make any headway towards our spiritual and cultural pursuits.

There are three major categories of such ‘snakes’ described in the Guru Granth.

First is the Maya that encircles our deeds around the world as a snake.

Maya is a serpent clinging to the world [GGS:510].

Maya here is defined as the materialism that is deceptive and illusory and that lures human souls away from the Divine reality. Under its influence the Creator is forgotten, worldly attachments take root and duality becomes the object of interest. [This definition is derived from GGS:921.]

The second example is the snake of evil-mindedness.

Humanity is tied up and is being consumed by the serpent of evil-mindedness [GGS:939].

The third threat is from the snake of superstitions and false ritualism that have imprisoned the civil society everywhere since the very advent of religion. The superstitions and rituals prescribed by false clergy and scriptures are good examples of this.

Bhagat Kabir has given an example of a Hindu scripture, Simritee, derived out of Vedas just like the Sharia is from the Quran.

The book of Simritee is the daughter of the Vedas, O Siblings of Destiny. Simritee has brought a chain and a rope.  She has imprisoned people within their own conurbation. She has tightened the noose of emotional attachment and shot the arrow of death. [Pause]. With a scalpel, her ropes cannot be cut off, she cannot be broken. Thus, she has become a serpent who is continuously nibbling on the human race [GGS:329].

In conclusion, Sikhs are urged to inculcate high values the fragrance of which may permeate all surroundings in the civil society. They are warned of the serpents of evil that may also be attracted to the fragrance of their value system.

However, whereas the followers of Guru’s wisdom and the practitioners of goodness emit fragrance like sandalwood, they must also resist the invading serpents. These serpents will always be there to distract and extinguish the potency of the good that we do.

August 26, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), August 27, 2015, 2:16 AM.

With a single metaphor Bhai Harbans Lal ji makes an insightful connection with his younger years and the treasure house of wisdom in the Guru Granth Sahib. It is enriching and inspiring.

2: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), August 28, 2015, 3:22 AM.

Going through the message, Bhai Sahib is conveying that to be a true Sikh, one must observe the following three traits: 1) Kirat: labour. No work is to be considered ignoble. Labor is as noble as holding a pen. Every form of work needs to be done in the spirit of worship. 2) Kul: Descent - High caste or low lineage as practiced in Hinduism does not determine any meaningful status in life. For Sikhs, all humanity is one family. No invidious distinctions are to be made between one person and another. 3) Karam and Dharam: Empty rituals and communal outlook - Sikhs do not perform rituals or empty ceremonies or embrace any communal outlook. They believe in catholicity and universality of outlook in life.

3: Jasbir Singh Sethi (Houston, Texas, USA), August 28, 2015, 2:54 PM.

This beautiful essay points out how badly Sikhs are derailed from their Guru's shown and intended path. Sikhism only stresses on Quality, but we got derailed -- like others -- and have started going after numbers. Basically, it is quantity vs quality. We have to put ourselves back on track by stressing quality. Guru Gobind Singh has resolved this dilemma too by giving us a multiplier of 'sava lakh'. If we go after quality, the quantity becomes irrelevant. Congratulations, Bhai Sahib ji.

4: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), September 01, 2015, 11:33 AM.

Our Guru's defined approach to Sikhism is love, tolerance and universal brotherhood. Barring these absolute essentials, Sikhism has to remain in perpetual process of renewal. Truth must express itself through different eras. After all, a religion has to provide suitable answers to a person who faces problems and challenges in life.

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