Private worship in Sikhism and Guru Nanak's Japji

‘True worship is solitary; when the religions gather together, they put on pageants for their gods’, reflects one of the characters in Brian Aldiss’s majestically unfolding trilogy of scientific romances describing the ordered turmoil of the long cycle of existence on the distant planet Helliconia, whose original sun Batalix has been drawn into orbit around the fiercer star of Freyr with violent consequences for the evolution of life on the planet now subject to conflicting influences from its double suns. Like all the best science fiction, these books (1) positively invite one to draw continual parallels with life on earth, and it is hard to resist the temptation to draw an analogy with the evolution of Sikhism, which has for so long been characterised by an apparent dichotomy — much more obvious to outside observers, it may be said, than to Sikhs themselves — between the original teachings of Guru Nanak and their militant reformulation some two centuries later by Guru Gobind Singh, when he founded the new brotherhood of the Khalsa.

For anyone involved with the task of having to teach a religion in any context which does not imply that teacher and students are themselves adherents of the faith which is being taught, there is a much less casual temptation. This is to concentrate upon the safe neutral gound of externals, of easily imparted facts, like the Five Pillars of Islam or the performance of the Hajj, or the Five K’s of orthodox Sikhs and the layout of the Golden Temple. This safe ground at least provides suitable material for testing by the depressing ‘write short notes on the following’ formula, which comes so easily to hand when it is time to knock out an examination paper. Most committed teachers these days, while recognising their duty to impart this type of factual information, are well aware that more is required of them if their pupils are to achieve any genuine glimpses of understanding of what the religion being taught is all about. It is generally accepted that some sort of participatory experience must be encouraged for these to have any hope of being imparted. In most British cities today such experiential understanding of Sikhism can be encouraged by, for instance, organising visits to a local gurdwara or by building an assembly programme around Diwali or some other festive occasion. In practical terms, this is probably as much as most teachers and most of their students will be able to manage, particularly if they are somehow going to have to cover the whole gamut of the World Religions field.

Without in any way wishing to belittle such initiatives, I would argue that Helliconia is — unsurprisingly — remarkably like our own planet, and that the spectacle of other people’s pageants is only a very partial preparation for helping us to understand their idea of true worship. Simply to attend a major service at some great cathedral with a superb choir or to observe the mighty gathering of the faithful at the Id prayers in a large Muslim city is one thing; to have the Lord’s Prayer or the Fatiha implanted within one’s being either through upbringing or even through deliberate adoption (without necessarily implying a conversion in the formal sense) is quite another.

In view of all that is commonly written of the powerful sense of community felt by Sikhs, which is indeed manifested in the congregational worship of the gurdwara and the associated co-operative administration of the langar or free kitchen as well as in so many other ways, it may seem perverse to insist that such a participatory understanding of solitary private worship is especially important in the case of Sikhism. But to realise the importance of such worship to devout Sikhs, one has to look no further than the official guide to the Sikh way of life, (2) whose first section homes rapidly in upon the injunction to perform the daily liturgical offices. This deliberately precedes the much lengthier sections which go on to deal with the regulations for behaviour in the gurdwara or the rituals prescribed for performance at different stages in the life-cycle of an orthodox Sikh.

The relevant section reads:

1. A Sikh should rise early, take a bath and then meditate on the one true God.

2. The following hymns should be read or recited daily:

a) Japji Sahib
b) Jap Sahib and Ten Swayyas Early morning of Guru Gobind Singh
c) Sodar Rahiras (evening prayer)
d) Sohilla (late evening prayer said before retiring).

The most important of these daily offices, known as nitnem in Punjabi, is the first, prescribed for recitation in the ambrosial hour of the early morning when the spirit is still clear from the distractions to be imposed during the inevitable course of the daily round. The readings prescribed for the latter part of the day consist for the most part of hymns selected from other parts of the scriptures, being items taken from the hymnal of the Guru Granth Sahib. Those enjoined for morning recitation have, however, been deliberately designed for this most important act of solitary worship. Guru Nanak’s Japji does not simply stand at the head of the Guru Granth Sahib in the same way as the Fatiha stands at the head of the Quran, breaking the rigid order of length by which the subsequent Suras are arranged. It is the one composition in the scriptures which is designed to be privately recited, not sung in public congregation, and its unique status is rightly confirmed by the general acknowledgement that it is the most superb of all Guru Nanak’s compositions, constituting the very quintessence of the extensive body of Sikh scriptural writings. With equal justification, the Japji is also generally regarded as the most complex and difficult of all the several Gurus’ major utterances.

This may sound discouraging, but should not be so if one realises what the Japji is designed to do. Much is often made in general accounts of Sikhism of the importance of the idea of nam simran or remembering the Name (of God). This idea, once one has quotations from the Gurus thrown at one, can clearly not simply be a question of the simple mechanical reiteration of some litany or other. How then is the idea to be properly understood? There is one very simple answer: look at the Japji and see what it has to say.

As usual, of course, there is a catch. The Japji is no more meant to be understood on a single reading than the Lord’s Prayer or the Fatiha: it is a daily work-text for life. As such, its structure is not that of some simple expository text that explains things in neat catechetical order to be learnt by rote. It sets up, instead, an order of resonances within whose over-arching scheme some part of the divine order can one day be glimpsed, only to be forgotten until a different insight can later bring earlier intuitions into play. Texts of this order of complexity are only to be expected slowly to yield up their intimations of reality by continued acts of attentive repetition. This, after all, is what the word jap (—ji is just the ordinary Indian honorific) means, i.e. inward recitation or inward evocation. The expression nam japan, evocation of the Name, is little different in meaning in the Gurus’ usage from the well-known nam simran, and those who suppose that the recitation of the Japji can be reduced to some sort of mechanical act can have had little experience of what is known in the West as prayer.

This is not the place to add to the very substantial exegetical literature which has been generated by the absolutely central place which Guru Nanak’s Japji occupies within Sikh perceptions of the nature of their own faith. The increasing majesty of the exposition, from the initial bald forumulas through the sectional expositions, which juxtapose the keenest of insights into the human condition with hymns to the unknowable majesty of God, until the latter culminate in the great paean of the Sodar of Stanza 27, then give way in their turn to one of the noblest of all descriptions of the way in which the human soul in search of salvation can hope to trace its path, before concluding with a brief— almost dismissive — injunction to get on with it, can here only be hinted at.

At some two thousand words, occupying the first seven pages of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Japji is not to be reduced to any easily digestible formula. It is a long, as well as a complex text, but its importance has at least ensured that it has been translated more often than any other portion of the Sikh scriptures. The translations into English are naturally of very variable quality, but readers of this article are particularly recommended to look at the version of Professor W. H. McLeod in his recently published anthology of Sikh textual sources that must now be required reading for all English students of Sikhism. (3) His is a sensitive and accurate prose version. Others have attempted verse translations which attempt to capture something of the unique form of the original, (4) some idea of whose formal organisation may be gained from translations which also provide a romanised text. (5) For the present, at least, it is less easy to recommend accompanying secondary works of commentary and explanation, for the considerable Panjabi exegetical literature on the Sikh scriptures (which includes many books devoted to the Japji alone) has yet to find any substantial reflection in English. This is, of course, a situation with which many teachers of non Judeo-Christian religions will be familiar. Here, however, I would suggest that it should be seen less as a problem than as a way of approaching more closely the position of the typical worshipper, for whom the act of daily recitation is of infinitely greater importance than an intellectual grasp of the subtleties of the commentators. Rather than feeling deprived of secondary aids when approaching the Japji as the central inspiration of the Sikh faith, both teachers and students should rather be encouraged to look at the sun without lenses. Dangerous perhaps, but is not the willingness to risk direct exposure to other religious traditions a crucial component of the study and teaching of world religions?


1. Brian Aldiss, Helliconia Spring (London 1982), and Helliconia Summer (London 1983), quotation from p139.

2. Printed as Appendix One in W. 0. Cole and Piara Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs (London 1978), ppl68 ff.

3. W. H. McLeod, Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism (Manchester 1984), pp86 ff.

4. Cf. the bibliography given in McLeod (1984), p159.

5. E.g. Rajinder Singh Vidyarthi, Holy Nitnem with easy English translation of Japji (Singapore 1974).

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