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Above: detail from one of many paintings of Guru Nanak by Sobha Singh.


Guru Portraits:
Right or Wrong? The Roundtable Open Forum # 110





A unanimous vote of the California Board of Education on March 8, 2007, unearthed a long time issue occupying the Sikh community.

The vote was to remove the image of Guru Nanak (1469-1538), founder of the Sikh Faith, from page 95 of “An Age of Voyages: 1350-1600.”

It is a seventh-grade history book that has been used in California schools since l906. The Board of Education decided to remove the portrait of Guru Nanak from future printings, and to provide a sticker with another, unrelated image or text to place over the portrait in existing copies of the book.

“The image itself was offensive to the Sikh community,” said Thomas Adams, director of the Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division of the State Education Department. “And it wasn’t defensible on the issue of accuracy, because it is from a much later period” than the one in which Guru Nanak lived.

The Sikhs of California and North America did the right thing to object to the printing of their Guru’s portrait that could not be a real representation of the Guru. The state board also did the right thing to not substitute the version of one painter with that of another. I am pleased that I joined others to strongly nudge the California authorities into rectifying the error. 


Sikh teachings do not permit idols, paintings, portraits or statues of their Gurus to be given any spiritual significance except their reference in the history. If they are sketched exclusively for that purpose, they must be authentic and represent true history or historiography. Then they may be accepted in the museums for preservation as archives.

The Gurus’ portraits have no place in the places of worship or gurdwara sanctuaries. Until a century ago this was enforced strictly; Gurus’ writings alone were supreme and no other physical representation of the Guru was permitted.

When managers of Sikh gurdwaras and Sikh shrines deviated from the above practices to promote paintings and other images (including the introduction of some idols of Hindu deities by mahant/priests who had usurped some of the properties), the Sikh masses undertook a massive movement to dislodge the mahants as well as remove the images from all historical gurdwaras.

However this did not last for any meaningful span. Physical representations of our Gurus are fast coming back; our institutions and their caretakers seem to have been careless and irresponsible in this regard.


Let us take the case of the portraits of Guru Nanak.

There have been many images made since his time but they were, until recently, only in the museums; rarely did any one of them find a place in the gurdwara sanctuary. Furthermore, none represented either a true look alike of Guru Nanak. Each represented a historical event from the life of Guru Nanak, some factual, some embellished through reverence and devotion. Different artists had painted them as homage to the Guru and their own visualization of what Guru might have looked like during the time of a particular historical event.

Portraits of Guru Nanak, however, began to appear in ever increasing numbers in the last few decades. They are now popular in our gurdwaras, homes and work-places.

An essay in the Daily Tribune of November 24, 2001 states: “… these works touched a deep chord within Sikh minds, and Sobha Singh’s portraits of the great Gurus were suddenly everywhere; in the form of reproductions, calendars, portfolio pictures. It is as if everyone had been waiting for these works to appear. The moment seemed to be just right; and, personally, for Sobha Singh, too, everything started coming together …”

The momentum started with the action of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), then respected as the mini-parliament of the Sikhs.

SGPC was determined to adopt and release a standardized painting of Guru Nanak’s portrait on his 500th birth anniversary in 1969. They felt that since the Vatican had sponsored iconic images of Jesus and Hindus had too of Rama and Krishna, Sikhs should not lag behind.

They did not take into account that the believers of the One Formless God and followers of the world’s fastest growing religion, Islam, did not even permit any painting of Prophet Mohammad. 

SGPC invited suggestions from for a standardized image of Guru Nanak.

Professor Sahib Singh was a member of the SGPC religious advisory committee. He was also the Principal of Sikh Missionary College at that time. Also, he had just published a biography of Guru Nanak based upon his extensive research on the events of Guru Nanak’s life, sifting through both fact and apocrypha. Guru Nanak’s teachings, he found though, were easy to trace and follow since they had been enshrined in the body of the Guru Granth Sahib.

Obviously, Sahib Singh too was approached by the SGPC on the subject of the portrait. His help was sought. He was asked to come up with suggestions on creating a portrait that instantaneously elicited an inspired response about the life and message of Guru Nanak.

Prof Sahib Singh laughed at Narinder Singh Soch who contacted him on behalf of SGPC. S. Narinder Singh told some of us of this encounter before he died. Prof Sahib Singh articulated his views to the SGPC Secretary in no uncertain terms.

I paraphrase here what he reportedly said:

The SGPC has started painting pictures with colors and brushes instead of projecting the actual values in the
philosophy and doctrines as treasured in the Guru Granth. I am training preachers who would oppose worship of statues, portraits, idols, or pictures because the Guru Granth condemns such practices. The SGPC, on the other hand, is busy handing over Gurus’ portraits of its own design and asking the Sikh preachers and gurdwara caretakers to disseminate those among those newly-embracing Sikhi. What a pity; the SGPC feat will become a laughing stock among my trainees. These preachers will first hang a portrait in the congregation and then condemn the painting and picture worship. What a contradiction!

Let me tell you, the SGPC is not just getting one portrait painted. Rather, it is opening the door to numerous portraits that will invariably follow. Will the Sikh nation accept this historic action of SGPC on the eve of the Fifth Centennial celebration of Guru Nanak’s coming?

According to Narinder Singh, Prof Sahib Singh then made his own suggestion instead.

What will be welcome is to gather all of the writings of Guru Nanak, translate them in appropriate idiom in a variety of languages and distribute them among the spiritually bankrupt masses. On the quincentenary, translations of Guru Nanak’s shabads in many languages would be the most important contribution. Also, get Sikh history written in many languages suitable for different age groups.

Visibly getting emotional, Prof Sahib Singh told the SGPC messenger: Please ask the SGPC leadership to at least make a modification. Get the following verse printed above the name of Guru Nanak: gur moorat gur shabad hai. 'The Guru’s image is in the Shabad'.

Earlier Sahib Singh had published a book on this topic in which Parkash Singh of The All India Sikh Students’ Federation had expressed his opposition of making any human representation of the Gurus.

The SGPC secretariat received a letter from Sahib Singh a day before the meeting of the SGPC advisory committee, saying that “you are familiar with my views on your resolution through Sardar Narinder Singh Soch. I will not be attending the meeting, which will then allow you to achieve your goal of a unanimous resolution to undertake the printing of Guru Nanak’s ‘authentic’ portrait”.


SGPC’s religious committee passed the resolution to go ahead with the portrait project. It invited Sobha Singh artist to do the job; he did come up with what is currently the most popular portrait of Guru Nanak.

Thus both Sobha Singh and Sahib Singh assured their eternal presence in Sikh history, the artist by his imagination and the professor by his absence.

Sobha Singh was an artist of high recognition but it is questionable if he was capable of projecting an appropriate portrait of Guru Nanak. The portrait he painted resembled none of the portraits of Guru Nanak ever painted before throughout the Sikh history. How did he dream of Guru Nanak’s looks is a secret to this day.

Some time ago, Punjabi University published a biographic account of Sobha Singh. The book’s author was a dear friend who inspired Sikhi in whosoever met him. Dr. Kulwant Singh asked me to write an introduction to the book. I declined with a note to the author saying that I could not do so inspite of my high respect for the artist.

I praised Sobha Singh for his choices of painting historical events that mattered. He perhaps was alone in illustrating the most important event in Guru Nanak’s life: Nanak being inspired by the Almighty during his River Bein meditation. Until recently, no other artist had painted that seminal event. 

However, I could not forgive the painter for undertaking the painting of the Gurus’ portraits. It was not only wrong for a Sikh to do so but also the fact that his paintings did not represent the personality of the Gurus as depicted by Bhai Gurdas, Bhai Nand Lal, or the other historians who had personally known the Gurus.



What are your thoughts and opinions on the views expressed hereinabove?


[Edited for]

November 22, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: R Singh (Canada), November 22, 2013, 8:06 AM.

The artist's intention is his own form of devotion, but the SGPC accepting any portrait and giving its seal of approval to a work of imagination is the oxymoron. As we see now, some Sikhs are not even opening the Guru Granth, instead are fixated on garlanding and ritual-bowing to photos like Hindus do. This is a pitfall we need to make an effort to get out of this silly and meaningless practice. This kind of devotion is the one that rides in tandem with chantings and mantras of selected words and away from vichaar/contemplation and exchange of ideas to understand complex ideas. We are now reaping the fruit of ignorance and distance from the Guru. We are forgetting to pay heed to the reasoning of the Gurus, and are taking the easy way out ... bow your head, put on a incense stick, offer some money -- presto, we are all spiritual. It is wake-up time, for there may not be another Nanak on the horizon for a long long time, if ever again. Mental subjugation is the worst form of subjugation.

2: R Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), November 22, 2013, 8:47 AM.

Sikhs should read gurbani -- "shabad guru surat thon chela / shabad guru jiska tu chela." For Sikhs the shabad is the Guru, not the physical body or human likeness.

3: Harvind Kaur Singh (Chicago, Illinois, USA), November 22, 2013, 8:59 AM.

As a non-iconoclastic faith, the answer is obvious. No pictures or icons. New technology and the rush to make animated films will soon put the community into a deeper contradiction.

4: Harinder (Punjab), November 22, 2013, 10:05 AM.

Guru Granth Sahib clearly rejects worship of images and idols. So, if we follow our heart and the Guru, we can't go wrong.

5: Rup Singh (Canada), November 22, 2013, 3:22 PM.

The SGPC purposely creates issues such as this to divide the Sikhs and have them argue about things that should not be issues at all if we choose to see them in the Light of gurbani. This is done, it appears, to slowly take unsuspecting Sikhs towards karmic rituals that are condemned by gurbani.

6: Balbir Singh (Germany), November 22, 2013, 4:02 PM.

I wish I could realize God without thinking about these images. Bhai Harbans Lal ji: What does one do if one cannot think of God as an abstraction?

7: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 22, 2013, 7:11 PM.

Guru Nanak did away with ritualistic lamps and idols in worship and replaced them with Shabad Guru! He said: "So light the lamp of the Shabad, O Nanak, and burn away your fear" [GGS:843]. Guru Sahib also said: "God's light shines continually within the nucleus of my deepest self; I am lovingly attached to bani, the Word of the True Lord Master [GGS:634]. If you wish to see or worship God, gurbani asks us to move within and have His darshan in the aatma(n) [GGS:943].

8: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), November 22, 2013, 10:16 PM.

We should accept the bani of the Guru Granth Sahib as the complete Guru in letter and spirit. All the dots are connected therein.

9: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), November 23, 2013, 5:39 AM.

This is commercialisation and nothing else! Many people are morbidly superstitious and need these images and calendars in their homes to turn to. In my own household, we have no artist's impression of the Guru for this simple reason alone!

10: Manbir Banwait (Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada), November 28, 2013, 1:07 PM.

I think it's extreme and a waste of money to change the text book. It's hardly "offending" to have a portrait of Guru Nanak. If anything, I think it gives a visual look at Sikhism to most non-Sikhs who look at these text books. Almost every gurdwara I have been to had portraits of Gurus on the walls. Most people do not worship them, and the ones that do, well, that's their own prerogative I feel. I personally like the pictures, especially when they show important events such as when Guru Gobind Singh ji formed the Khalsa, etc., etc. Visual learning is a lot better then reading words out of a history book.

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Right or Wrong? The Roundtable Open Forum # 110"

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