Guru Nanak’s Poetry – Sublime Humanism
By Prof. Darshan Singh Maini
Outside of the faithful who daily chant his hymns, and of the scholars who explicate the text, very few admirers of Guru Nanak – and their name is legion – have any real idea of the supreme beauty and glory of his voluminous verse. Somehow the prophet has so eclipsed the poet that, in talking of his message and vision, people are apt to focus exclusively on his mystic and numinous experiences. It is not sufficiently realized that Guru Nanak’s poetics have the same spiritual base as his ethics and meta-physics, and that to understand the one is to understand the other. In a general way this is true of all artistic creations, but where a poet turns into a great seer in practical life, and founds a great religion and church, his aesthetic activity, naturally enough, is considered no more than an aid to his divine ministry. And, in a larger sense, this is as it should be: Guru Nanak did not write verse to vindicate his poetic prowess : the song was but a vista, a vision, an epiphany that ascended, like a rose to the bush, to claim attention. He also, as we know from his life, used discourse and argument and deed to vindicate his message. But as I have tried to suggest, a peep into his poetry is really a peep into his innermost spiritual states and experiences. The message may not be separated from the medium and the muse.
The sheer volume of this splendid poetry – 958 hymns, to be more exact – shows that Guru Nanak was no occasional poet though some of the compositions, such as Siddh- Ghost and the Babarvani were occasioned by the events of the day. What spurred him into song was the Divine drive from within even as the contemporary reality impinged forcefully upon his roused consciousness. Here was indeed a devout consummation of the prophetic and the mundane in a manner that rendered the latter equally moving and great.
A conjectural classification of Guru Nanak’s poetic output has been attempted and, on the basis of both external and internal evidence, three distinct periods have been tentatively fixed . As we shall see, his divine muse was, from the beginning, in quest of fresh fields of experience and reality. From period to period, or from phase to phase, it gathered new overtones, showing a graph of perceptible poetic development, both in theme and technique. The depth and richness and splendor of the verse composed towards the end would tend to support the view that the growth of his muse was integrally related to the growth of his spiritual vision.
The movement of the verse, then, is from the horizontal to the vertical, from the personal and the subjective to the impersonal and the universal, from the polemical and the rhetorical to the devotional and the mystical, from the didactic and the hortatory to the tangential and the symbolic. On the whole, the poetry remains lyrical, mellifluous and figurative till the end, though it becomes more austere , controlled and majestic en route . Which is not to say it lacked mystic fervour at the outset : on the contrary , even the earlier verse embodied more advanced and inaccessible states of the mind and the soul.
The first period (1469-98) witnesses a harvest of youthful and revolutionary verse directed chiefly against the ritualistic and hypocritical clergy and the temporal powers steeped in sin. One recalls, for instance, the lines uttered by the schoolboy Nanak when he questioned the credentials of his teacher whose learning was more a millstone round his neck than a liberating or enlightening force. He served similar sermons where the family priest and the village hakim were concerned:
Burn worldly love,
grind its ashes and make it into ink;
turn: superior intellect into paper.
Make divine love thy pen,
and thy heart the writer,
ask they guru and write his instruction.
Write God’s name,
write His praises
write that He is neither end nor limit.
One feature of his poetry which is perceptible in those youthful poems of protest is this persistent and protracted use of figurative or metaphorical language .This idiomatic quality, we find, assumes for the maturer poet, a deep semantic and philosophical significance. The dominant from of expression in the first period is shlokas or the couplets which often have a sharp, satirical tang. Their aphoristic verve, however, does not diminish the dream which we find in constant attendance in his early poetry. Also, his revolutionary humanism, which leavened his poetry till the end, is unmistakably evident. The second period (1498-1521) is roughly the period of high missionary travels, and the hymns uttered or composed during these years show Guru Nanak’s wide awareness of contemporary reality. His long and frequent sojourns suggest his deep desire to acquaint himself with as many peoples, cultures and religions as possible. There was in him an infinite thirst for truth which will not let him rest, as it were. He composed a great deal of polemical verse during this period. The themes are denunciation of barren ritualism, fruitless pilgrimages, misguided and masochistic asceticism, false splendour and false values, the futility of in human intellection and logic-chopping, etc.
However, already songs of a more metaphysical and devotional nature, dealing with the reality of God, the Soul, creation and the Name are on the lips of the Guru. A shift in theme and style is well under way. The dominant aspect is still the rhetorical, though tender lyrics of godly passion have made their appearance. We also find the poet borrowing apposite and telling phrases from Sindhi, Marathi, Persian, Arabic and other languages to heighten the effect of his hymns. However, the use of the native Punjabi dialect, or vernacular, remains the grid for the energies of his musical discourse.
However it’s the poetry of the third period (1521 -39) which constitutes the crowning glory of his genius. All the major banis such as the Japji, the Vars, the Pati, the Tithaan, the Sidh Goshth and, possibly the Sohle, and the Chhants, were composed by Guru Nanak in the plentitude of his spiritual and poetic powers. After his pilgrim soul had had a full measure of the world. He settled down at Kartapur, and it was mostly there that the poetry of splendid apostrophes and epiphanies was born. He brought a rich and varied experience, a prescient mind, and an ardent imagination to bear upon the verses which now appeared in such profusion.Though some of the poems still have traces of the earlier polemical and didactic verse, the new compositions are, by and large, more philosophical. They have an air of ease and assurance.These poems centre round the themes and motifs of God’s grace, meditation on the Name, the nature of the ineffable,. fear of God, hukam and raza, or the will of Lord. etc. time and mortality, hell and heaven, Karma and predestination, dukha or suffering and angst, evil and the necessity of action, trans-migration, polity, haumain or ego, moral reason and social ethics, public weal the splendour of nature and the sanctity of the body. Obviously, the poetry of the final phases which comprehends theological doctrines, metaphysical and supra- rational reality, mystical experience, economic and social necessity, flesh-soul relationship, etc in a body of verse which in the ambit of its interests and – in the quality or grain of its fineness – equals the greatest religious poetry of the world. No translation of the verse can ever convey its vastness and heights, its depth and profundity. One may, at best, struggle with the sense of the lines and the complex metrics based on the classical Indian ragas, one may not be drawn to the point where all literary cunning shrivels up, and render the effort pitiable, if not grotesque. The Japji, which is recited every morning by devout Sikhs, is a long poem of 38 pauris or stanzas, and is the quintessence of Guru Nanak’s achieved vision and art. Its mul mantra or preamble, which is repeated in almost every bani, in its full or abridged from, is the theological basis of all Sikh scriptures.
From the nature of the Godhead, Guru Nanak goes on to illustrate the glory of the Creation which extends over millions of earths and skies, millions of suns and moons, million of sentient forms and figures. The human imagination boggles at the immensity and magnitude of the geometry of the universes, and is fascinated by the dapple and dazzle of the “many-splendour’d world.” Man’s creatureliness is emphasized again and again as against the Lord’s infinite might, tenderness and mercy. Moral reason is suggested as one of the ways leading to salvation, for man’s life is a strict summary of his deeds and consequences.
The Japji shows Guru Nanak’s encyclopedic knowledge of Hindu philosophy and mythology, of Semitic doctrines and practices, of ascetic schools of thought and theology, of Indian history and heritage, of the contemporary sacio-political reality. Though the form is not epical, the effect of vastness, grandeur and loftiness is achieved because of the sublime imagination which is at work throughout this great composition. These metaphysical lyrics form one sustained paean to the miracle of the universe and of human existence.
The poetic qualities of the Japji include extreme condensation verbal reiteration, in-direction, allusion, interrogation and symbolism. The rhetorical style of the earlier shlokas is not much in evidence; on the contrary, the style now has an austere beauty and aphoristic dignity about it. Metaphors continue to be the dominant form of expression, though they too have undergone a chemical change. They are no longer mere embellishments as in the verses of other poets around him; they have become a semantic and structural approach to the understanding of reality. In fact, they have a profoundly cognitive character. The malleable metaphors of the smithy, the crucible and the mint; the triple metaphors of the parchment, ink and pen; of the ocean, ferry and oar; of the earth, seed and fruit; of the lamp, oil and wick; of the potter, vessel and wheel; of the father, mother and child; etc, make the Japji, and also nearly all the compositions of his advanced age, a poetry of complex verbal and phenomenological relationships. The imagery of trade and commerce, of profit and loss, of the weighing balance and merchandize, would suggest the personal and experiential base of this poetry.
And this brings me finally to the poetry of the ragas. The division of Guru Nanak’s poetry along the classical Indian ragas appears, at first sight, somewhat arbitrary, for one finds certain sentiments and thoughts, as also their rendering, repeated in the verses belonging to different ragas or categories of music. However, a careful analysis will show that the verse placed under a particular category is in strict accord with the spirit and genius of the raga in question.
Though, as stated above, the themes and motifs change from raga to raga, a few common features of Guru Nanak’s poetry written thus may be seen. The style and the metaphors of the Japji may, with slight variations, be seen at work once again. The Guru’s love of Nature, though present in his poetry from the beginning, assumes a profoundly mystical character. The imagery of flowers and foliage, of clouds and rains has a lyrical grace which is unique in Punjabi poetry. There are few Wordsworthian sermons here; the sheer opulence of nature suffices.
However, the aspect that impresses one most in the poetry of the ragas is the skilful and changing use of the archetypal metaphor, of spouse and the Lord. This metaphor, in fact, persists in his poetry all through, but now it becomes an ineluctable medium of the union with God. Man, the spouse, yearning for the touch of the Master, filling the universe with felicities when He is around, and with tender songs of separation when He is away, can only realize his spiritual consummation by his merger in the Lord. The bridal imagery of these songs, rich and ornate, would indicate, amongst other things, the importance Guru Nanak attached to the beauty and sanctity of the human body. As against the monks and Siddhs of his day who regarded it as the seat of sins, he affirms its primal purity. Like so many mystic poets, he celebrates the body’s rapture which, at the moment of the union, is inseparable from the rapture or ecstasy of the soul.
I quote below a few lines from Rag Wad-hans to show how the Guru, having been united with the Lord in his dreams, wakes up to feel acutely the pangs of separation:
The peacocks are crying with joy;
O sisters, the rainy season hath come.
The fervent woman,
O God, is enamoured of Thy glances which bind her like a rope.
I am a sacrifice to a sight of Thee,
O God; to Thy name I am a sacrifice.
It may perhaps be wrongly concluded from this brief account of the changing spectrum of his poetry that Guru Nanak, towards the end, had set his sights on the stars, and that the poetry of protest and political awareness, which he had composed in his younger days, had lost its edge or urgency for him. His hymns composed after Babur’s invasion of India in 1526, show, as few other poems of the period do, his boundless feeling of pity and humanity. As he saw the rapacious and predatory soldiery lay waste a beautiful land and a great culture; as he saw the Indian women deflowered and despoiled, and the Indian temples desecrated, a cry of infinite anguish broke out from his lacerated heart:
Babar ruled over Khurasan and hath terrified Hindustan.
The Creator taketh no blame to Himself;
it was death disguised as a Mugal who made war on us.
Thou, O God, feel pain?
Creator, Thou belongest to all.
“The poetry’s is in the pity”, said Wilfred Owan, an English poet of the first world war. The quality of pity in Babarvani makes these superb lyrics some of the greatest war poems in the world. The poetry of Guru Nanak, though religious to the core has, nonetheless, all those attractions which we commonly associate with secular verse. This is because Guru Nanak’s transcendent muse is so firmly rooted in earthly realities that even in moments of pure mystic ecstasy the splendour of life is affirmed in physical, palpable detail. This unique marriage of the numinous and the secular, or of the ineffable and the concrete, is effected out of a great humanist vision.
Article adapted from The Sikh Review – 2000