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Mundavni
A review of Mundavni (Punjabi) by Gurdit Singh (Chandigarh: Sahitya Prakashan, 2003; 302 pages).

By I.J. SINGH
Gurdit Singh, born on February 24, 1923, was owner-editor (1947-1978) of Parkash (a Punjabi newspaper) and editor (1973-1988) of Singh Sabha Patrika, a monthly magazine of Sikh history and divinity. He may be reached at contact@gianigurditsingh.com. I.J. (Inder Jit) Singh is professor & co-ordinator of anatomy at New York University. Among other publications, he is the author of two books of essays: Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias and The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim's Progress. He is member of the editorial advisory board of The Sikh Review, Calcutta and advisor-at-large to The Sikh Times. He may be reached at ijs1@nyu.edu. On December 1, 2004, Iqbal Singh, jathedar (head-priest) of Takht Patna Sahib (one of Sikhism's five seats of supreme authority) excommunicated Gurdit Singh.

The Sikh Times, Jan. 28, 2004


Photo: Gurdit Singh

Whether the Guru Granth ends with Mundavni, a composition of Guru Arjan, or with Raagmaala, which has a disputed authorship, is a matter that has sporadically engaged the attention of Sikh scholars for over a century. Mundavni, literally a legally binding seal, should appear at the end because it indicates the closure or completion of a seminally important document. (This is the accepted translation of Mundavni, though in some dialects of Punjabi the word also means a conundrum or a brainteaser.) Then where did the little over one page of Raagmaala come from?

Most educated Sikhs would agree that Raagmaala is an index or listing of the raagas [musical tune or harmony] in the Guru Granth, and it is incomplete at that. We read it though it fits neither the style nor the substance of the Guru Granth. Yet it has become integral to the Guru Granth and I reckon it appears in every printed copy that is available in the marketplace. Scholars have debated it and rejected it, yet its persistent appearance continues to give it life. So much so that the Sikh Code of Conduct (Rehat Maryada) takes no position on this issue. Its recommendation is that Sikhs may chose to read this composition or not, as they wish. How this happened is evidence of the power of politics or of benign neglect.

Giani Gurdit Singh is a dedicated scholar and respected interpreter of Sikh scripture and related literature. It is appropriate, therefore, that he has cast an analytical eye on the controversy that surrounds the Raagmaala how it arose and how it continues to be fed so that it still survives.

In the early 17th century, when Guru Arjan compiled the main corpus of the Guru Granth, a spurious rescension (Bhai Banno's Birh [book]) appeared and this contained many additional compositions, including the Raagmaala and even a recipe for making ink. In these early days before printing when handwritten copies of sacred liturgy were made by scribes, errors and additions were not uncommon, either through ignorance, carelessness or because the spirit so moved the scribe. Also Indian culture, rich as it is, is really one of oral tradition. It has never valued consistency, precision or accuracy in evidence, whether in history or literature. The first printed copy of the Guru Granth debuted in 1864, almost 400 years after the Guttenberg Bible was printed.

Giani Gurdit Singh ably explores almost all available historical rescensions of the Guru Granth and finds that most did not contain this spurious composition. Early history is fascinating and provides some interesting vignettes. In 1907, controversy broke out in the Police gurdwara at Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) on whether to read the Raagmaala or not. The matter was referred to the Chief Khalsa Diwan (founded 1901), which ruled that Raagmaala was not gurbani [the Guru's word]. The same controversy in a Nairobi gurdwara in 1917 elicited a similar response and decision. Some gurdwaras resorted to placing two slips of paper with the choices written on them in front of the Guru Granth and picking one at random after prayer. Raagmaala stood consistently rejected.

Most Sikh reformers of that time, including the Bhassaur group, Chief Khalsa Diwan and Bhai Veer Singh took a principled stand against the Raagmaala. Macauliffe too concluded that the Guru Granth concluded with Mundavni, which was inexplicably followed by Raagmaala - a composition of a Muslim poet, Alam. Yet, Bhai Veer Singh, a luminary of the period, changed his mind in 1917 and started advocating the inclusion of Raagmaala. In 1918 Bhai Jodh Singh, another celebrated Sikh scholar concluded the reading of the Guru Granth with Mundavni.

In 1920 when Sikhs regained control over the Akaal Takht, once again they started concluding the reading of Guru Granth at Mundavni. This remained true for all the akhand paaths [continuous full readings] that were concluded during the Gurdwara Reform Movement in the 1920's. In the first draft of the Rehat Maryada in 1936, Raagmaala was rejected. Yet in 1945, the question was revisited and finally tabled without resolution. At this meeting Bhai Jodh Singh had done an about turn and now supported Raagmaala. By then Bhai Kahn Singh (Nabha) was no longer alive, and the debate was dominated by the sants [saints] and mahants [priests] of the time. To be fair, Bhai Jodh Singh was seriously challenged on his changed stance on this issue. He answered some and then preferred to walk out of the meeting. The author of this book - Giani Gurdit Singh - was also present at the meeting, so we have an eyewitness account of history in the making.

Giani Gurdit Singh also takes a pleasantly educational detour and lists several Raagmaalas composed by poets and musicians of that era; apparently it was a much-favored style of versification.

A whole chapter is devoted to the Muslim poet Alam who is reputed to have been a contemporary of Guru Arjan and of Emperor Akbar. With a plethora of citations from Sikh and non-Sikh scholars, Giani Gurdit Singh leaves little doubt that Raagmaala, which has become a part of the Guru Granth, is in fact derived from an epic poem of Alam celebrating a love story - a la Romeo and Juliet - that would be found in every culture. How it jumped to the pages of Guru Granth still remains a mystery. Why Sikhs keep it there is a bigger riddle. It appears to me at times somewhat like the Indian equivalent of the Gordian knot with its frustrating persistence, which will only respond to similar treatment.

A discussion of Mundavni is an integral part of Giani Gurdit Singh's fundamental work on the Sikh scripture, Ithihas of Guru Granth sahib. The author has a website, gianigurditsingh.com, where his works are available.

It is a sad commentary on the popularity of Sikh literature that this book, which analyzes such an important matter, is privately published and not by an important house with worldwide distribution facilities.