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Talking Stick

Man and Superman: The Talking Stick Colloquium # 74





I am a sacrifice, a hundred times over, to the Guru
Who illumined my mind, without delay.
The light of a hundred moons,
And the radiance of a thousand suns,
Cannot dispel darkness without the Guru.
Says Nanak, being heedless of the Guru
And following our whims,
We are like a scattered seed,
Abandoned, with a hundred masters to please.
Reduced to ashes.

Guru Nanak, GGS:462


The header for this week’s narrative is borrowed from George Bernard Shaw’s four-act play, Man and Superman, written in 1903 as an elaboration and refinement of the popular Don Juan theme that runs through European thought.

I have used it as a title in part because it is catchy, but also because it speaks to the theme of Guru Nanak’s opening salok from Asa ki Vaar, albeit with a twist.

It would be interesting, I thought, to note the similarities and differences.

The idea that runs through this salok is one of self-transcendence, of exceeding oneself, made possible only through the transformative presence of the Guru. Else, we will miss the point and not live as we are designed to, becoming, instead, neurotic and self-centered.

The impulse to exceed oneself is a singularly human trait. The evolution of the species, from a single cell organism to a self-conscious animal with the promise of infinite potential testifies to this constant struggle of going beyond our limitations. Science and technology are but outward manifestations of our innate need to be more than we are.

In the West, poets, philosophers and writers have, like Guru Nanak, captured this human yearning as well: from Prometheus to Don Juan, to Nietzsche’s Superman (Ubermensch), to Maslow’s self actualization, they all reflect our desire to self-transcend.

Robert Browning, the poet, captures this human yearning beautifully: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp - or what’s a heaven for.”


1  The passage opens with a call to being a sacrifice to the Guru. What is the nature of this sacrifice? The dictionary meaning of the word sacrifice implies a giving up in return for something. What are we being asked to give up? What do we get in return for this sacrifice?

2  The passage speaks of the transformative power of the Guru that makes a devta (enlightened being) out of a maanas (ordinary mortal). Without the transforming catalyst (Guru), our potential (seed) is scattered by the winds of time and the fire of unchecked passions reduces us to ashes. In other words, in our lives without the Guru, we are like an untapped potential, or a seed that did not flower. An opportunity missed. We are not working as designed. What is the blueprint/ design that we are supposed to live by?

3  It is interesting to note that Shaw, Nietzsche, and Maslow speak of a new Man in terms of defying obsolete moral codes and being anchored in a unique moral code. Man, says Nietzsche, is an obstacle which “ought to be overcome,” not by “superior strength or mental capacity,” but through a unique “moral code.” Does this ring a bell with Guru Nanak’s pointer to Dharam?


January 30, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Devinder Singh (India), January 30, 2012, 10:00 AM.

Sacrifice means an inner offering to the Guru and the real spiritual sacrifice is a very joyful thing.

2: H.S. Vachoa (U.S.A.), January 30, 2012, 11:51 AM.

I don't know if your comparison between Neitzsche and Guru Nanak here is appropriate. Maybe you can tell us more about it. Nietzsche spoke against the Judeo-Christian moral codes that define man by juxtaposing good with evil; with good seen as other-worldiness, piety, meekness, submission and evil seen as worldly, wealth, etc. Neitzsche proposed "death of God" and abandonment of good versus evil over "will to power" and embracing power over weakness to allow the emergence of Superman in Man who is enslaved under the slave-morality of religion. How is it fit in here?

3: Devinder Singh (India), January 30, 2012, 8:28 PM.

Nietzsche worships power. "Will to power" is his ringing creed - survival of the fittest. The weak must be crushed so that the superman can stand on top of the heap. That is not Guru Nanak's superman. His superman is compassionate with the power and will to gather the downtrodden to himself.

4: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), January 30, 2012, 11:13 PM.

Translating 'devta' as 'superman' is, I believe, incorrect. The literal meaning of the word is "one who gives" are the "giver", that is, one who gives without making any distinction between place/person or region. Like the sun, fire and air are all refeered to as devtas in Hinduism. So the message is that the Guru can turn any person in an instant into a devta.

5: Ravinder Singh  (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), February 01, 2012, 7:57 AM.

Vachoa ji, Devinder Singh ji and Prakash Singh ji: your comments are appreciated. I chose the title, not because I was trying to equate or translate Superman as devta, but to explore similarities in the two concepts, if any. The common thread that I saw through all of this was the human need for transcendence - expansion past ones limitations, manifested in technology as airplanes, telephones and computers. That is how I understand Guru Nanak's message as well - to become a devta from a maanas is, in a manner of speaking, exceeding oneself. Likewise with Superman. The mode may be quite different. We should continue this thread. More later.

6: Nirmal Singh Nilvi (Texas, U.S.A.), February 01, 2012, 10:07 PM.

The writer's tug of war with thought-overload, trying to connect square pegs with round holes, has been rightfully questioned and reflected in the feed-back. But let us ignore these elements and embrace the central theme (not the heading) of "stretching beyond limits", offering so much to reflect and share. Guru Nanak himself is a unique and befitting model. His vast journeys visiting faraway religious dens, confronting odds, fearlessness, courage; all are proof of surpassing one's limits. Superman is a myth and has no relevance to the discussion. But humans have Creator-given capacity to surpass limits, because limits are self-imposed. We don't need superman-like mythical strength to cross limits. Simple and small acts like returning one more call, drafting another memo, a small detour, extra hello, etc; over time, add up to substantial difference in performance. The outcome of such extra efforts is relevant to all endeavors - work, relationships, socials, service. Under His scheme and willingness to stretch, men have the potential to become devtas;, inner awakening is as critical as sunlight, while seeds without proper scattering and nurture can turn into dust and become worthless.

7: Ravinder Singh  (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), February 02, 2012, 4:06 AM.

Thank you, Nilvi ji, for centering the discussion. Perhaps I threw it off kilter by introducing Nietzsche, Shaw and the notion of Superman. But on closer reflection you might find that such an insertion isn't that far fetched. Nietzsche's attacks on Judeo-Christian morality were not that dissimilar from Nanak's criticism of the Hindu moral code - both found contemporary morality enfeebling and shackling. Nietzsche saw man as a "transition" and a "bridge and not a goal." Much like maanas to devta. But there certainly are fundamental differences.

8: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), February 02, 2012, 8:42 AM.

Sikhi has for its aim the spiritual transformation of a person. It enables one to rediscover one's true self and to get reunited with the Source of one's being, as that is the only condition for a life of perfect peace and happiness. Its goal is to transform a person to a God-conscious person. Our Gurus gave us the tools to achieve that.

9: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 04, 2012, 8:54 AM.

Gurbani consists of divine hymns that connect the Sikh with One God. A true Sikh believes in it as 'gyan guru' and reveres it with profound respect and love. Guru Ramdas said: "The Word of the True Guru's bani is the embodiment of Truth; through gurbani, one becomes perfect." He further said: "Truthful Sikhs sit by the True Guru's side and serve Him. The false ones search, but find no place of rest. Those who are not pleased with the words of the True Guru - they are cursed and wander around, condemned by God." [GGS:304-]. 'Devta' is a much higher state of mind than a 'super man' or any other. There are over 5,867 shabads in Guru Granth for comparison within; all you need is insight into it. There is no comparison of Guru or gurbani outside of it.

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