The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 1, 2002

Bhai Gurdas, more than a chronicler
Nirbhai Singh

Bhai Gurdas: The First Sikh Scholar
by Surinderjit Singh Pall. Amritsar: Chattar Singh Jiwan Singh. Pages 216. Rs 200

THE book under review is on Bhai Gurdas, scribe of Guru Granth Sahib. It is an addition in Sikh literature, an exegetical work rendered into English for the benefit of those who don’t know Punjabi. It can be useful for the Sikhs living in foreign countries. The author makes it clear that he banked upon two earlier English translations of Bhai Gurdas’s Vaar.

Translation is an art of hermeneutics, which transports meaning from one linguistic and cultural universe to another. The work in hand is an explanatory exposition based on the prevalent conventional beliefs among Sikhs. The book has 10 chapters: (i) Bhai Gurdas—The First Sikh Scholar, (ii) Bhai Gurdas-A Genius Philosopher, (ii) Vaars, Kabbits and Swaiyyas, (iv) Bhai Gurdas’s Contribution to Sikh History, (v) Bhai Gurdas as an Interpreter of Gurbani, (vi) Bhai Gurdas’s Art of Story Telling, (vii) Bhai Gurdas-Elucidator of Sikhism, (viii) Bhai Gurdas as an Exponent Sikh Way of Life, (ix) Poet and The Man, and (x) Summing Up. It has been written in a simple question-answer style for the convenience of common readers. The questions are raised for those who are keen to understand the basic tenets of Sikh religion.


The author repeatedly eulogises Bhai Gurdas as the greatest scholar because tradition recognises him an exponent of the Sikh faith. Bhai Gurdas was the first to give a scholarly exposition of Sikh tenets. In the second chapter the author calls him "genius philosopher". The genius philosopher is a creative thinker who propounds new interpretation in lucid Punjabi. His expositions are explanations that could be easily grasped by the common reader. Bhai Gurdas explains Hindu tenets, mythology, and orthodox six-systems and the singular contribution of the Gurus was to reinterpret the ancient Indian culture in the then contemporary spoken dialects. He tried to explain the Hindu mythical references and legends in simple Punjabi. For the lay reader, Bhai Gurdas explains the term ‘vaheguru’ is derived from ‘Vishnu’, ‘Hari’, ‘Gobind’, and ‘Ram’. But the advanced scholar will say that it signifies the mystic’s state of ecstasy.

In the Sikh tradition Bhai Gurdas’s Vaar is called the key to Sikh scriptures. It is true for the explanation of simple meanings of the verses for lay readers. His verses shed light on the Sikh moral conduct (rahit mariyada) and the Sikh doctrines. He composed these for indoctrinating the Sikh doctrines for understanding the faith. His works are interpretative of the Sikh canon. Thus, the kernel Sikh doctrines (hukam, haumai, atma, et al.) are lucidly explained in his compositions.

In the fourth chapter, the author claims that Bhai Gurdas contributed to history. In the times of Guru Nanak, Indians had not developed a historical sense. At that time, hagiographical literature (Purana, Jataka stories, sakhis, bhaktamalas, etc.) was in vogue. The Janamsakhi tradition is continuation of the hagiographical genre. Bhai Gurdas’ compositions also come under this category because he did not give a chronology of events. Baba Budha, a close associate of Bhai Gurdas, saw the Sikh movement from Guru Nanak to Guru Hargobind. Bhai Gurdas got authentic information from him and gave detailed legendary account of Guru Nanak. In the technical sense of the term, he was not a historian but an expositor of the Sikh faith.

The seventh chapter calls Bhai Gurdas an elucidator of Sikh faith. His explanations are based on the verses of Guru Granth Sahib and life events of the Gurus. Again, the author claims (eighth chapter) that Bhai Gurdas was an exponent of the Sikh rahit maryada. As a matter of fact, Guru Nanak was the pioneer of Sikh rahit maryada and other Gurus continued enriching it and it was finalised in Guru Gobind Singh’s period. Some chronicles and written documents (rahitnamas) of prominent Sikhs came into being. A non-Sikh scholar could particularly welcome the book.