The Bhakti Movement, Guru Nanak - Part Two


Adi Grantha

Mar 25, 2012 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation of the Bhakti Movement's development in India.

In Part Two of his commentary on the progression of the Bhakti cult throughout North and South India, author M.S. Ahluwalia suggests that the Bhakti Movement served as a representative for the South India Aryan culture, moving northward during the medieval period. Into the midst of Dravidian animism, Bhakti proponents infused the cults of Vishnu and Shiva. Underpinned by a strong spiritual philosophy, the Vaisnava movement quickly fructified into a great religious force.

A few words may be added here regarding the Tamil and Sikh scriptural tradition. In the Indian context the Tripitakas of Buddhism and even the Jaina writings do not ascribe rigid status to their scriptures and these are to be understood as no more than the enlightened words of Lord Buddha and Bhagwan Mahavira. The Bhakti tradition also produced certain sacred texts, namely the eighteen Mahapuranas, which describe in detail the birth, life and mysteries of the Lord, His incarnations, avatars and associates. These writings became the object of veneration and worship thus giving birth to various types of popular cults.

The Adi Granth contains the Word (or the bani) of the Gurus. The Sikhs tradition cherishes it as the spoken word of the Gurus which are compiled in the form of melodious hymns. It is a receptacle of the wisdom of the Gurus gained through their divine and temporal experiences. It is thus the shabad of the Gurus. However, the Sikh conception of shabad is entirely different from the Vedic tradition. The Vedas are a apaurushya, i.e. absolute and beyond human. In the Sikh conception of sastra, they say it is the word of the Guru, which also means a continuation of the divine and human.

While the term shabad pramana in Vedic tradition stands to indicate the closure of the text, the term shabad gurbani in Sikh tradition opens up the scripture to more and more experimental reading by humans. This explains the reason why there were conscious attempts to prohibit the spread of Vedic scriptures by constructing cultural and even physical barriers among people by the Brahmins, both in South as well as in North India.

In the holistic vision of Brahma (the Ultimate Reality) in the Vedas is embodied in the sacred language, Sanskrit, the conception of aham Brahman. In the Sikh religion, however, the Word does not become incarnate in form. Rather, it is the Spirit that becomes determinate in the Word (shabad gurbani) through the Guru which emanates the revelation. Like the Vedic rishis, the Sikh Gurus in their verses again and again stress that they act only as a medium for transmission of the Word i.e. the Divine message:

    jaisi mai awe khasam ki bani, tesra kare gyan we lalo

    (O Lalo, I utter the Word as I receive it from the Lord)

In Tamil Bhakti traditions, hymns are called by the general name vaaymozhi, which literally means 'the speech uttered by mouth'. This term was used to indicate the devotional hymns composed by the Tamil Shaivite and Vaishnavite saints. They are not considered exclusively as the word of God, but as in the case of the Sikh Gurus, they are said to be inspired by the divine experiences of the Tamil saints. Although categorized as Shruti after Vedic tradition, the Tamils took pride in being Shruti oriented, and consequently named theirs as spoken or recited.

Due to the fact that they were sung by devotees, the Tamils do not think that they are in any way lower in religious status. Again, like the Sikh Guru's shabad, in the local Punjabi language, the Tamil devotional songs were also articulated in the Tamil language. Both are thus associated with the land and the language spoken there. Although containing a universal message, there is a human element involved in the divine experience as well as a moment of cultural specificity related with the land and language.

Both in the Tamil and the Sikh Bhakti literature, the institution of family gets special treatment. Thiruvaluvar, who has greatly influenced the Tamil religious thought, has devoted a special section to the state of householders in his celebrated work, Thirukural. He states that of all the aspirants to dharma, the householder who lives up to the standard is most estimable. Likewise, Guru Nanak had a positive outlook on life and family in contradiction to denunciation and renunciation of wordily life in earlier religious traditions. Thus, with the Guru, Sikhism became a religion of the householders, just as so many other branches of the Bhakti Movement welcomed and inspired grihastas.

Unlike some of the other Bhakti traditions, mysticism was not a striking feature of Guru Nanak's teachings. On the contrary, he presented a very simple form of creed which the common man could understand and follow without any difficulty. His concern for life in this world was so great that he was opposed to asceticism. He neither preached nor followed the path of renunciation in order to attain spiritual unity with God. He killed "by example and precept, that old idea that a householder's life was a barrier to spiritual progress." There is, however, a classic painting of Guru Nanak's thread ceremony, presumably meant to convey that he accepted a brahminical form of renunciation.

In Sikhism, the opposition to asceticism was given an explicitly social character by a series of measures adopted by the Guru, such as institution of dharamsalas (the earlier nomenclature of the gurdwaras meant for public worship). Likewise, langar (public kitchen ) and kirtan (collective singing of hymns) have all come down to the Sikhs since the days of Guru Nanak. The cohesive role played by these institutions has done much to hold the family and community together. This has undoubtedly helped to create a new image of a new faith and a new society based on family life, which indeed became one of the main planks of the mission of Sikhism and Sikh society. It is also a particularly obvious characteristic found in Western Sikh communities, where keeping family close becomes more important, on foreign soil.


Excerpts and paraphrased from The Bhakti Movement in Tamil Nadu and Punjab by M.S. Ahluwalia (1995)


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