Extract from the archives: The lyric Guru Nanak


We have two main sources to know about Guru Nanak Dev. The first, his poetic compositions, and the second, incidents and stories recorded about him in the janam-sakhis. Both conjure up an image of him as a spiritual guide who is both a mystical poet and a singer. Her companion Mardana scratched the rabab and Guru Nanak would sing a poetic composition based on certain raga. Those ragaWord-based utterances would be Baba Nanak’s way of expressing his mystical experiences, commenting on the socio-political and religious affairs of his time, or educating a sinner. In his baani, Baba Nanak is defined as a ‘shayar’.

My breath, my flesh and my soul belong to you,
You are so dear to me
So says Nanak, the poet,

you are the true support of life. Composed in 19 ragas, his baani is inscribed in the Guru Granth Sahib. He has countless reflections of his poetic genius and the wide range of his thought. Undoubtedly, Akal Purakh, or the timeless being, is the greatest theme of his writing, but we also see that his own space-time is expressed abundantly in his poetry. This is mainly because he does not view all of creation as illusory or Maya. Instead, he sees it as a true expression of the Supreme Creator.

True are your kingdoms, your multiverse, True is your splendor and your various forms. True are your virtues and your abilities, And your creation true, O true divine lord. This world is the abode of the true being, in which the truth resides.

But on the other hand, he says: False / worthless is the ruler, insignificant his subjects and this whole world is not worth a piece, Worthless is the decorated stage, worthless the one who inhabits it.

Here, Guru Nanak means that the realms, the universe and the entire creation of the timeless being are true, but when the living detach themselves from the eternal truth to live according to false ideals and without caring for the voice of the divine within , they drift away into lies and inauthentic things. The wide range of Guru Nanak’s baani spans the creator, creation and humanity. It encompasses the song of the koel on the mango tree with the ubiquitous unstruck vibration, the cosmic naad, reverberating in the universe.

The verses of ‘Japji Sahib’ remarkably describe the different stages of the spiritual life. Guru Nanak Bara maha expresses the magic of the changing seasons of the 12 months and their interaction with life. Renowned writer, the late Khushwant Singh, who translated the Bara maha in English, had said: “When it comes to describing nature, expressing specific concerns of time and place, giving words to thoughts and emotions or giving speeches on morality, no poet does not come close to the achievements of Guru Nanak Devji. Guru Nanak gives poetic expression to his philosophical and spiritual dialogues with the siddhas.

His baani has a remarkable fusion of local ritual and universality. The best example is his composition of the ‘Aarti’, in which he makes a temple ritual a metaphor for the universe.

The universe is your plateau,
The sun and the moon are the lamps of fire (
diyas in the aarti thaali),

The stars of the galaxy are the pearls,
The perfume in the air is the incense of the temple,

The wind your fan,
And all the forests and vegetation
your flowers,
! What a wonderful
aarti it’s!
! destroyer of fear, how wonderful
aarti yours is!

The description gives the ritual of aarti an ubiquitous, universal and cosmic form and shows the symbiotic relationship between nature and creation as one of deep affection.

Rabindranath Tagore translated this composition into Bengali. Asked to compose a hymn for the whole world, Tagore said it had already been done a long time ago by Guru Nanak. He said the ‘Aarti‘was a great song of the unity of mankind with the Creator and with creation.

Guru Nanak sang about the inhumane conditions that permeate humanity. This is particularly reflected in his four compositions during the invasions of Babur. Manzur Ejaz, a scholar from western Punjab, says that distinct from any narrative of a classical chronicler or poet, in which you are inundated with references to Ibrahim Lodi or Babur, the caparisoned elephants or the charging cavalry, or the victors and to the losers, Baba Nanak tells us about the unspeakable difficulties and sufferings of the masses:

After conquering Khorasan, (Babur) terrified Hindustan, the Creator did not blame himself, but sent the Mughal as a messenger of death. There were so many massacres that people shouted. Have you not felt compassion, Lord?

His empathy, spirituality and philosophy are rooted in these four chabad of “Baburvani”, which contains a great churning and a dialogue with the Karta Purakh. It is a moan of women whose men have died in battle. Guru Nanak says: For women whose men have not returned from the fight, the night is endless.

Since the world is not Maya for Guru Nanak, they are people of flesh and blood and not just abstract “souls” who change shape in eternity. Human concern is so pronounced in his verses that he believes the Lord only blesses those lands where the oppressed are empowered.

In this place where we take care of the humble, There, Your gaze of grace rains blessings.

Music occupies an important place in the verses of Guru Nanak. The janam-sakhis tell us that Baba Nanak is asking Bhai Mardana to play the rabab then follows with an interpretation in a raga. Spirits thus granted become receptive to contemplation chabad. Its verses are not intended to propagate any religion or sect. Instead, nature’s resilience and common humanity are interconnected in his vision. Musical mode transforms a random mass into the tuned sangat Saints. The shabad naad extend it sangat in the spiritual realm, not the physical plane.

Shabad naad is the most effective way to conquer both the mind and the world. Guru Nanak’s house is deeply rooted in music. The musical note and the divine word are in an eternal embrace in Guru Granth Sahib. Each verse inhabits a raga. Guru Granth Sahib is ranked according to 31 ragas, not themes. More than an embellishment, music is a philosophy in its own right in gurbani, which connects us to the unstruck sound, resonating throughout the universe and audible to purified souls in harmony with it.

Music is the mother tongue of the universe. There is a spectacular vision of the cosmic chorus in the verses of Guru Nanak having countless singers and musicians, including wind, water and fire. From his composition entitled ‘So darling‘(This Door), the whole universe is a cosmic chorus praising the divine.

Where is this door, and where is this abode, in which You reside, taking care of everything, The sound / the currents of naad vibrates there, and innumerable musicians play there all kinds of instruments, So many ragas, so many musicians sing there, The pranic wind, water and fire sing, the righteous judge of dharma sing at Your door, The planets, solar systems and galaxies, created and arranged by Your hand, are singing.

Musicality is an intercultural phenomenon. This is the greatest argument for the unity of mankind. One of the many graces of music is that it lifts us beyond logic, without being illogical. Freed from the yoke of the word-meaning pair, music frees communication from the confines of logic and the omnipotence of language. All humans are illuminated by one source of light, all souls are one, even nature, and humans are one and the same. The whole philosophy of music in Guru Nanak’s verses testifies to this awareness.

Sitting under a tree or under the starry canopy, in the sun or on top of a rock, the image of Guru Nanak, singing alongside Bhai Mardana on the rabab– is an image of the chabad, downpour of drizzle on a simmering world.

Surjit Patar is a Punjabi poet and writer. Recipient of the Padma Shri and the Sahitya Akademi Award, he is currently President of the Punjab Arts Council.

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