Subject to Interpretation: Philosophical Messengers and Poetic Reticence in Sikh Textuality


The translation of the Guru Granth Sahib (GGS), or Sikh ‘scripture’, within the discourse of (European) colonial/modernity was enacted by the use of hermeneutics—which oversaw the shift from the openness of praxis to the closure of representation and knowledge. Such a shift demoted certain indigenous interpretive frames, wherein the GGS is assumed to enunciate an excess that far transcends the foreign demand to fix the text’s ‘call’ into singular meanings (beyond time), but rather transforms the hermeneutic desire into a process of learning (Sikhi) through multiple meanings (in time). Thus the GGS is not translated according to a particular life-world, but actively transforms the life-world of those that respond to its excessive call. How should hermeneutics be reformed in this case? If the GGS as text demands interpretation, then the text as Guru demands engagement, and together they would necessarily call forth a radicalization of hermeneutics via a certain poetic reticence to all philosophical messengers.

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  1. 1.

    I would like to thank Drs. Julie Byrne, Ann Burlein, John Teehan, and Sophie Hawkins, as well as Arun Chaudhuri and Prabhsharanbir Singh, for reading this paper and offering their insights and valued criticism. All remaining errors are mine. Translations of the Guru Granth Sahib are taken, and often adapted, from Sant Singh Khalsa’s (2003) Internet version.

  2. 2.

    Translation adapted from Macauliffe, [1909] 1993, vol V: 288. ‘God’ in the text is Kal – Time. Cf. Kohli’s (2003: 110) translation: ‘None hath been able to tell up til now the measure, which may be adopted to save himself from the blow of KAL,’ and Jodh Singh and Dharam Singh’s (1999: 127) ‘So far none could tell the trick through which the stroke of time could be escaped.’ Original given in Appendix.

  3. 3.

    See Nicholas Wolterstorff in Lundin 1997: 29.

  4. 4.

    For the most philosophically incisive analysis of this process, see Mandair 2009. Here, I am viewing mimesis of the native reformers as a response that is transformative but largely inflected by an internalized and coerced feeling of inferiority - rather than a strategic countervailing force.

  5. 5.

    Note the controversies surrounding Pashaura Singh’s since published PhD thesis on the textual genesis of the GGS (2000), as well Harjot Oberoi’s (1994) views about the (supposed) textualization of the Sikh tradition. There were those who resisted this mark of servility – for example, certain poetic texts by Bhai Vir Singh and Prof. Puran Singh, as well as particular indigenous interpretive traditions, like the Damdami Taksal exegetes, that have largely escaped the vortex of modernist reforms – though not without their own leanings.

  6. 6.

    See, for example, Kharak Singh (ed) 1996, particularly Gurtej Singh’s ‘Keynote address’ therein (1996, 10–29). However, the paradigm that strives to finally fix the meaning of Sikh Scripture lies in two foundational works by Prof. Sahib Singh: his highly influential textual grammar, Gurbaanii Viaakaran (1939), and his monumental commentary (in 10 volumes) Sri Guru Granth Sahib Darpan (1962–4).

  7. 7.

    The monotheistic interpretation of the GGS has now been institutionalized as orthodoxy, viz., it is self-sustaining, since only that evidence that supports the monotheistic construction of the GGS is cited and reproduced. Evidence to the contrary is either ignored or subsumed; the monotheistic interpretation, then, is a form of myopia, a veiling given its desire to totalize the meaning of the GGS. Other interpretations that have now been politically sidelined are those that have fore-grounded themes of pantheism, atheism, nihilism (Trumpp 1877), monism and nondualism (Udasis, Nirmalas), and nondual monotheism (Singh, Nirbhai 1990). Yet all of these interpretations follow the same modernist desire to totalize and thus discipline the meaning of the GGS according to a particular ideological (viz., ontotheological) logic of capture and control – which the Gurus themselves resisted.

  8. 8.

    See ‘On Exactitude in Science,’ in Museum, Borges 1999: 325 [1960–9].

  9. 9.

    Jean Baudrillard begins his The Procession of Simulacra in Simulations with this same Borgesian tale understood now as a ‘second order simulacra’: ‘Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal’ (1983: 1–2). The first order is when the image is a reflection of a basic reality. However, I am not too sure the earth’s ‘physicality’ or one’s own body can be displaced so easily and totally.

  10. 10.

    Heineken International, a Dutch brewing company, ran a TV ad with the line: ‘refreshes the part other beers cannot reach’ for 30 years in the UK ending in 2005.

  11. 11.

    Within the GGS Word (shabad), Guru and Nam (Name) share an identity among themselves but also with the Truth and True Being (expressed both as an impersonal absolute and a personal Being, as well as a Way). Thus, the Real One/Way that is within and without, is also the Word, Name and True Guru: ‘Through the Word of the True Guru one merges into the True One’ (GGS 944, 59–60). Note that McLeod’s (1968) modernist interpretation reduces the Word to merely an internal subjective realm, denuding its socio-political dimensions.

  12. 12.

    As outlined in the first pages of the GGS (Japuji), where true listening (suniai) leads to transformed mind (maniai) where listening leads to different or new action.

  13. 13.

    Service to the other (sevaa) can mean sacrificing one’s life for the rights of others nonviolently (as did Guru Tegh Bahadur); or fighting to uproot tyranny through defensive violence only employed as a last resort (as did Guru Gobind Singh).

  14. 14.

    Thanks to Prabhsharanbir Singh for a discussion on these three points.

  15. 15.

    Indeed, it has only been since the mid-1990s that the emergence of Singh Sabha exegesis has been historicized and challenged; see Mandair 2009, Chap. 3.

  16. 16.

    See my ‘On the Hermeneutics of Sikh Thought and Praxis” in Shackle, Singh & Mandair (eds.) (2001: 72–96).

  17. 17.

    See also O’Leary 1997; Parkes 1987; Sprung 1978. Gadamer’s central thesis, ‘Being, which can be understood, is language’ (1993: 474), is clearly presaged by Indian Grammarians and philosophers, note Bhate’s observation, that although the 5/6th century CE Indian grammarian, Bhartrhari, states, ‘Language is the only window to the world. Our knowledge of reality is shaped by the language we use,’ he goes on to conclude: ‘It is very intriguing that the VP [Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadia] begins with a declaration that there is no world beyond language, whereas it ends up with a note of disharmony between the two and declares that reality transcends language’ (1994: 67).

  18. 18.

    ‘… that philosophy died one day, within history, or that it has always fed on its own agony, on the violent way it opens history by opposing itself to nonphilosophy… all these are unanswerable questions. By right of birth, and for one time at least, these are problems put to philosophy as problems philosophy cannot resolve’ (Derrida 1993: 79).

  19. 19.

    See also (GGS: 722). Full references of GGS quotes are given in the Appendix.

  20. 20.

    The centrality of this bhakti motif of servitude (daas meaning slave) is evident in their names: Ravi-daas, Amar Daas, Raam Daas, etc.

  21. 21.

    ‘Nanak was not, is not and will not be; through contemplating the Word’ (GGS: 139); ‘I am not, You are’ (GGS: 339); ‘I am nothing, nothing is mine’ (GGS 140; 336; 391; 739); ‘When I am Yours, then everything is mine; when I am not, You are’ (1242).

  22. 22.

    Even in the Western context recent work has also shown the necessity of emotion to reason; see Damasio (1999, 2003, 2005, 2010).

  23. 23.

    It is important to note that not one of the Sikh Gurus sought to record their oral exegesis of their own poetic revelations. This humble reticence is instructive of a thinking/speaking that is acutely aware of human hubris – hence, the genres of poetry, music and satire. Where prose is used within the tradition (in the janamsakhis and sampradai exegesis) they aid and enhance an emotional (bhakti) response, rather than seek to contain or displace it.

  24. 24.

    The Sikh Gurus and most of the Sants were opposed to the refined and elitist poetics institutionalized in Sanskrit learning; the poetry of the GGS is spontaneously ‘created’ or ‘received’ in the vernaculars immediately accessible and comprehensible to the masses.

  25. 25.

    The readings that fix the GGS as a clear-cut monotheistic theology overlook certain pantheistic, Buddhist and Tantric terms that otherwise remain invisible to a religio-nationalist hermeneutics – sunn, sunn-samaadhi, nirbaan, turiaa-vasthaa, chautaa-pad, dasavaa duaar, sahaj, siva-sakatii, niragun, nirankar, agam, agochar, alakh, vismaad, akatha-kathaa, all of which speak of a neglected impersonal, nondual and apophatic discourse throughout the GGS. Arguably this neglect was a consequence of an uneasy pairing of an impersonal godhead with the personal God of the colonial masters. ‘Sikhism’ was an orientalist transcreation at the master’s behest for his understanding.

  26. 26.

    Discussing Derrida, Norris and Benjamin (1988: 7) write: ‘… that philosophy – like literature – is a product of rhetorical figures and devices. What defines philosophy as a discipline, he argues, is precisely its reluctance to face this fact; its desire to ignore the omnipresence of figural language in the texts of its own past and present. Deconstruction is the process of rhetorical close-reading that seizes upon those moments when philosophy attempts – and signally fails – to efface all knowledge of this figural drift…’

  27. 27.

    Most rigorously and brilliantly analyzed by Mandair 2009 (see Chaps. 2 and 3). ‘Western culture has always been deeply allegorical in its operations and results; it has a special genius for constructing ways of reading poetry, or any alien discourse, so as to make it consistent with its own prevailing cultural norms’ (Bruns 1992: 231).

  28. 28.

    Mandair 2009, Chap. 4. charts how the very disciplines of the western academy (anthropology, history, history of religions, philosophy, philosophy of religion, postcolonialism and postructuralism), complicit as handmaidens to empire, are haunted by ‘past imperialisms’ to discipline and fashion conformist subjectivities.

  29. 29.

    Caputo agrees, ‘and it is said that Hermes was also a conniver’ (1987: 206).

  30. 30.

    Throughout the GGS the injunction to pause (rahaao), to ponder and contemplate to deepen one’s thinking towards feeling, is placed into the verse structure of the hymns.

  31. 31.

    Guru Nanak writes, ‘You Yourself are the Yogi, and You Yourself are the Enjoyer’ (GGS: 1021). Guru Nanak’s Muslim musician and constant companion agrees: ‘He Himself is the Yogi, He Himself is the Sensual Enjoyer, and He Himself is the Sannyasi, wandering through the wilderness’ (GGS: 553). Guru Arjan elaborates, ‘Among warriors, You are called the Warrior. Among indulgers, You are the Indulger. Among householders, You are the Great Householder. Among yogis, You are the Yogi’ (GGS: 507).

  32. 32.

    It is within indigenous interpretive traditions (sampradais, pranaalias, like the Damdami Taksal) that have survived largely if not completely uncontaminated by the Empire of European meaning-making, where the beginnings of a pre-modern/colonial ‘Sikh hermeneutics’ may be found. This is clearly where further research is required in any formulation regarding ‘Sikh hermeneutics’ –should that be desired. Thanks to Prabhsharanbir Singh for this observation.

  33. 33.

    Compare Nancy’s Being Singular Plural (2000). My capitalization above indicates that the Plural is always the diverse visible and manifest, whereas the singular is the invisible pattern that connects all that Plurality without denying or demoting its material differences.

  34. 34.

    For example, see Guru Amar Das’s commentary on Shaikh Farid’s hymn (GGS: 1378).

  35. 35.

    Not all who lobbied for their songs to be included were accepted; only those that the Gurus’ saw came from the same source (of an ego-less transcendental effortless state) were selected.

  36. 36.

    Compare Martin Buber’s (1970) I-It and I-Thou; also James Carse’s (1986) Finite and Infinite Players.

  37. 37.

    It is important to note that symbolism in gurbaanii is very fluid working through multiple layers and perspectives, so much so that it can and does employ the same symbol as a marker of liberation and bondage – nothing has a singular valence. Thus, sleep can symbolize forgetfulness in one hymn, but it is also used to express the sweet sleep after union with the Divine in another. Thus, the Fourth State is not only seen as a perpetual state of awareness, but also the forgetfulness of oneself in deep ecstasy (communication with Prabhsharanbir Singh).

  38. 38.

    Another translation of the same verse:

    I speak a language of silence.

    I am already dead…

    I am not what I seem to be. (Tukaram 1991: 186).


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Guru Granth Sahib (GGS) Quotes


Dasam Granth

(Bachitar Natak, v.96, Dasam Granth 45–46, Kohli 2003: 110)

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Bhogal, B.S. Subject to Interpretation: Philosophical Messengers and Poetic Reticence in Sikh Textuality. SOPHIA 52, 115–142 (2013).

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  • Methodological/existential hermeneutics
  • Theoria/praixs
  • Philosophy/poetry
  • Allegory/satire