Kids Corner

Images: details from paintings by Pardeep Singh, courtesy: "Journey With The Gurus", by Inni Kaur.


Let Us Talk About Your Book:
Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West" Part XVIII

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM




Continued from last week …




Q: Some poor soul seems to have raised the issue, in the context of your book, of whether or not Guru Nanak is a prophet. What’s all that about?

A:  Well, here’s what was written by someone who claims to have read the book:

Mandair does not accept the representation of Guru Nanak as a ‘prophet’. And in the same vein he suggests that the Sultanpur Lodi episode in which Guru Nanak achieved ‘revelation’ is imagined, a pseudo-theory. Further, Mandair suggests that the kind of ‘revelation’ (ilhaam) can be achieved by anyone.”

Let me begin by answering the question about Guru Nanak being a ‘prophet’.

First of all, what exactly is a prophet?

A prophet is regarded as someone who is believed to have had a communication from God and speaks to others on behalf of God. A prophet mediates and interprets the supposed will of God.

The term ‘prophet’ refers especially to any of the Old Testament or Hebrew prophets. A prophet is therefore a person who foretells events, prophesies about future events, or whose utterances contain a prediction about the future. This ability to predict events is part of the prophet’s persona.

The so-called ‘classical prophets’, especially in the Jewish tradition, had a background in cultic prophecy and remained connected to the cult. Their authenticity was judged by the content of their message (was it loyal to Yahweh? etc). The classical Prophets often performed symbolic actions to bring their words into effect and could (and did) perform miracles.

In Islam, the prophet (rasul or nabi) is the one sent by God, a messenger or apostle, or supremely in Islam, the Prophet Muhammad.

There are several reasons why I am put-off by the use of the term ‘prophet’ for Guru Nanak.

First of all, what is wrong with the word ‘Guru’?

What does the word ‘Guru’ lack, such that we need to use an additional word, ‘prophet’, to make it seem more acceptable?

Acceptable to whom? If mainstream Sikh tradition hinges around the specific understanding that Nanak gave to this term and its relationship to the word ‘Sikh’, e.g., gursikh, gurmat, gurbani, shabad-guru, gurmaryada, etc., etc., what is the need for the term ‘prophet’?

These days, some younger folk in the gurmat camps and in advocacy literature in North America have begun the practice of adopting the term ‘Guru-Prophets’ as a way of referring to the Sikh Gurus. As if the term ‘Guru’ needs something additional that was missing in the tradition itself!

My reading of this new phenomenon is that these folk are trying to reach out to a Judeo-Christian audience and gain recognition from them. The easiest way to do that, they think, is to take the short-cut and portray Sikhi as analogous to Semitic monotheistic traditions.

Secondly, as I have argued in my book, in the janamsakhis there is representation of Guru Nanak as a kind of ‘prophet’ figure, especially in relation to the Sultanpur Lodi episode where Nanak is consecrated by God himself who purportedly speaks to Nanak and gives him his life’s task.

I won’t repeat the janamsakhi narrative here as readers will be familiar with it. Don’t get me wrong, I think this version of it is a very nice story, but that’s all it is. It’s a legend composed by the janamsakhi authors speaking about Nanak’s climactic spiritual experience (after which he comes to be regarded by his followers as ‘Guru Nanak’).

These authors are writing many decades after Guru Nanak’s death. It is not Guru Nanak himself who narrates this story. These are secondary representations about Nanak’s experience. To get an authentic sense of what Nanak himself actually says about such an experience, you have to go to a primary source which is gurbani itself – and gurbani speaks rather differently about the nature of such experience.

The Singh Sabha reformists were certainly aware of the problem of taking the janamsakhi narratives too literally. Nevertheless they pushed the meaning of Guru closer to the sense indicated by ‘prophet’ and develop it into a half-baked theory of divine revelation.

Thus when I use the word ‘pseudo-theory’ in my book. I use it to refer to the Singh Sabha strategy of marketing Sikhi in terms of the Middle-Eastern models of revelation. This is what I actually said:

To overcome this problem the reformists had to reinterpret the janamsakhi legend of Nanak’s consecration as God’s representative, in terms of a pseudo-theory based on revelation and embellished with suitable quotations from the Guru Granth Sahib” [p 211].

Thirdly, and for me this is the most important reason for doubting the simplistic equation of ‘Guru’ with ‘prophet’: in the prophetic traditions the purported revelations occur in the lifetime of the prophet, with there being one major revelation which is a kind of defining event that sets into motion a new path.

The problem is that such revelations are part of a linear model of time. The revelation occurs only once as a sacred origin, a zero-point or original event on the map of linear time. With the passage of time their initial intensity (or proximity to the divine) is progressively forgotten or diluted with the prophet’s death. His followers try to maintain the initial intensity of the revelatory event by remembering, either through his recorded utterances or narrations of the prophet’s life.

Now, the downside is that nobody can ever directly re-experience something like this event. The memory of the sacred origin is just a memory whose guardian is the priest, the ones who now mediate between ordinary followers and the prophet.

So again, the problem with this prophetic model is that the lives and practices of ordinary people follow a kind of mimesis – a mere copy of some sacred origin. As a result there will always be a wide chasm between the follower and the prophet.

The Sikh tradition teaches something quite different.

During the lifetimes of the Sikh Gurus we see them demonstrate a phenomenon in which the Guru becomes a Sikh and Sikh becomes Guru. And in the Gurus’ writings it is clear that the intensity of the experience that Guru Nanak underwent, can be experienced by anyone, at any time, anywhere.

It is open to all. None are barred. If there is something called the ‘sacred’ it opens up in the time of ordinary life.

The prophetic model says that you can look but you better not touch!

Guru Nanak’s model states that you can touch, taste, smell, hear and see the divine anytime. Your body is the means for experiencing the divine. To undergo that experience just learn how to lose your ego! Learn how to transform yourself from manmukh to gurmukh. You don’t need a ‘prophet’ to do this now or in the future!

Continued next week …

May 21, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), May 21, 2014, 3:59 PM.

It was a physical fact that Guru Nanak witnessed Babar(the Mughal invader) when he raped and plundered the land in 1526-27. And yet Guru Nanak in gurbani used the word 'khasam' for God when describing the episode. "jaisi mai aavai khasam ki baani ...". It seems that Guru Nanak may not have been known as 'Guru' during his lifetime by the ordinary public. He was addressed as 'Guru' after his death in 1539. And thereafter, whoever followed him was called Sikh.

2: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), May 23, 2014, 1:52 PM.

Arvind ji says: "During the lifetimes of the Sikh Gurus we see them demonstrate a phenomenon in which the Guru becomes a Sikh and Sikh becomes Guru. And in the Gurus' writings it is clear that the intensity of the experience that Guru Nanak underwent, can be experienced by anyone, at anytime, anywhere." It is true, but not completely. Actually then how many Sikhs or others are known to really experience that intensity in the last six centuries, besides Guru Nanak's nine successors? Is that experience meant only for that few in the whole world or even within the Sikh world? If so then it is not a Sikhi that is meant for the majority of people in the wide world. Another question. If Gurmat philosophy/doctrine is not the one revealed to this world through Guru Nanak, then was it derived from historical events and/or response to them by Sikh Gurus? Were they made up by the Gurus themselves through their human wisdom? Were they gradually evolved, if not revealed? Did Guru Nanak make up the divine doctrines instead of being revealed to him to take them to humanity? Are Guru Nanak's fundamental philosophy and/or doctrines then subject to modification by historical events?

3: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), May 23, 2014, 2:25 PM.

The Sikh Religion is Guru's Religion. And the True Guru being God, it is known as God's Religion. "Har darshan paavai ..." [GGS:360] -- "Fortunate are those who accept God's religion through the Guru's Word. This brings true yearning for detachment from the world".

4: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), May 23, 2014, 8:57 PM.

The doctrine of Guruship is the basic principle of the Sikh Religion and in fact forms a part of the Mool Mantar itself. Gurbani repeatedly stresses that to cross the ocean of life, the Guru's guidance is an essential prerequisite.

5: Sukhdeep Dahia (Warwickshire, United Kingdom), May 24, 2014, 4:16 AM.

Dr Avind Pal Singh has superbly presented with clarity a structured challenge to articulate the Sikh platform and its diaspora to a western audience. Many authors get lazy or provide an equivalent non-Gurmat translation to explain this doctrine. This approach morphs Gurmat into what it is not. He reminds us that Sikhs do not need to compromise or translate the essence of Gurmat. There is no substitute.

6: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), May 25, 2014, 2:15 PM.

Ref #2 by Harbans Lal ji. My response is that those with such visions, which Guru Nanak underwent through in Sultanpur's River Bein are rare and special persons. They may not appear in the world for centuries. They are the voice of God, those who become Guru in their lifetime to advance human happiness. "The terms Guru and God have become identical and interchangeable. God is the most perfect Guru. He speaks through prophets and seers who become Gurus to reveal the Divine Light." [GGS:864] Bhai Gurdas says in his vaars: "When the Lord-Benefactor heard the cry of pain coming from the world, He sent Guru Nanak to provide comfort to the crying mankind." The Guru is thus a rare phenomenon intended to fulfill God's own purposes.

Comment on "Let Us Talk About Your Book:
Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West" Part XVIII"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.