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Celebrating 400 Years of the Guru Granth Sahib?

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 on the editorial advisory board of The Sikh Review, Calcutta and is an advisor-at-large to The Sikh Times. Email I.J. Singh at

The Sikh Times, May 27, 2004

Photo: I.J. Singh

The thought has been gnawing on my mind and it won't go away. On one level it is perhaps a trivial matter, but I am uncomfortable with the idea that seems not so accurate and refuses to sit well.

Even before the year 2004 started, Sikhs the world over were getting ready to celebrate the '400th anniversary of the compilation and installation of the Guru Granth Sahib.' These days there is hardly a gurdwara that is not deeply involved in such celebrations with a multitude of akhand paaths [continuous readings of the Adi Granth, the primary scripture of the Sikhs], keertans [singing of hymns], lectures, symposia and conferences. Hardly a week goes by when one does not hear of another such celebration somewhere.

Nothing wrong with this at all; in fact, the more the better. We all need to be exposed to the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib. (We can discuss another time what might be the best way to celebrate and highlight the magic and the message of the Guru Granth.)

My little problem is that I see confusion in identifying 2004 as the year of the installation of the Guru Granth. To me, by collating the writings of his predecessor Gurus and of the notable Bhagats of the Indian subcontinent, Guru Arjan in 1604 compiled a unique volume that became the major corpus of the Guru Granth and the spiritual repository of Sikh belief, but it was assuredly not the Guru Granth. The Granth that was installed as the Guru was the version so designated by Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, a hundred years later. If 2004 is 400 years of the installation of the Guru Granth, what kind of a marker will the year 2008 be?

The volume compiled by Guru Arjan may be called the first recension, or Aad(i) Granth or the Pothee Sahib, and some few people do so. (To me the word Aad(i) literally means first.) Most Sikhs do not distinguish this volume from the definitive Guru Granth that came later. I think the distinction is important because the two versions are not identical; the Guru Granth has significant additional entries in it, specifically the writings of Guru Tegh Bahadur.

I think my argument would carry weight even if there were minimal difference between the two. This does not mean that Sikhs should have less reverence for one than the other. Keep in mind that better than 90 percent of the Guru Granth is in the Aad(i) Granth. I know that the Guru Granth published by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.) carries this moniker, and I would argue that it is imprecise and even misleading to use the term 'Aad(i) Granth' for the Guru Granth Sahib. Why? Because this implies a second revision, yet to come. Even to think of a second revised version of the Guru Granth would indeed be heresy.

Am I merely splitting hair or is this important? I don't mean to cavil but if we ignore the critical distinction between the two, we would be muddying our history and even our doctrine, perhaps even short-changing the meaning of the message.

Guru Gobind Singh clearly recognized that after two centuries of guidance by a succession of Gurus and continuous progress since Guru Nanak, Sikhs had reached a level of maturity that had prepared them for self-governance. Sikhs could now become free of the guiding hand of a Guru in human form; that role would belong to the collective body of Sikhs worldwide (Sikh Panth) acting in an awareness of their spiritual roots (Guru Granth Sahib) and historical tradition.

Yet, he also recognized that in time an evolving world would give them many new problems stemming from cultural change and technological progress. These would be temporal time-bound issues that would have to be explored, analyzed, interpreted and resolved by a community that is rooted in a common spiritual discipline that is not bound by constraints of time, culture or geography. This premise and this kind of reasoning would then essentially lead to the inevitable conclusion that the philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib is eternal. In other words, the teachings of Guru Granth transcend the limitations of time, geography or culture and are not restricted to the place or period when they were first enunciated.

So, in 1708 by an act of Guru Gobind Singh the Aad(i) Granth, modified with additional writings primarily of Guru Tegh Bahadur, now became the Guru Granth Sahib as the repository of all spiritual underpinnings and guidance of the Sikhs. Mindful of that base, the Sikh community can resolve whatever issues a changing world could put on their plate; the Sikhs can even revisit issues that appear settled at a given point in context or time but reemerge later. Before Guru Gobind Singh, both roles of temporal and spiritual authority were combined in the Gurus themselves. The period of the early Gurus served to teach and direct their Sikhs how to function as free and mature people, and how to explore ideas - first from the few writings of the early Gurus that were available to them and then from the Aad(i) Granth that Guru Arjan compiled in 1604 - and how to govern their lives by principles that were extraordinary in their resilience and their permanence.

I think we are celebrating 400 years of the Aad(i) Granth, not of the Guru Granth. The celebration is fully deserved but let's keep in mind what we celebrate.