Three Pillars of a Fulfilled Life Part 3: Isnaan – The Ethics of Good Deeds


Isnaan in Sikhism is the third of the three pillars of fulfilled life, Naam, Daan, and Isnaan. Isnaan literally means cleansing practices. It encompasses all those deeds, learnings, processes, or religiosities that are potent in cleansing. The object of cleansing is the mind, body, and their environments, in that order.

The cleansing deeds may be physical, cognitive or intellectual. The priority is to cleanse the inner faculties; mind, intellect, consciousness alike. Then comes the body to be washed from inside and out. The body cleansing alone has no impact on inner cleansing.

Age-Old Filth’s carried as Memes

Numerous undesirable impressions, ideations, and habits spread from person to person within and across cultures. In modern science, these are called memes. A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.

Memes form clusters in the human brain. A collection of all these clusters together is described in the Sikhi phraseology as MANN.

Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogs to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. Once they are formed they are hard to get rid of; therefore, the teachings of Isnaan.

ਜਨਮ ਜਨਮ ਕੀ ਇਸੁ ਮਨ ਕਉ ਮਲੁ ਲਾਗੀ ਕਾਲਾ ਹੋਆ ਸਿਆਹੁ ॥u SGGS, p.651

The human cognition and mind, that is Mann, are blackened with the dust of cultural memes and the narcissist memes accumulated over many cycles of cultural birth and death.

Further, once MANN is smudged everything else around us is also smudged, and they maintain continuous reinfections that are hard to clean. The wise men noted that this was an enigma only a few realize.

ਮਨਿ ਮੈਲੈ ਸਭੁ ਕਿਛੁ ਮੈਲਾ ਤਨਿ ਧੋਤੈ ਮਨੁ ਹਛਾ ਨ ਹੋਇ ਇਹ ਜਗਤੁ ਭਰਮਿ ਭੁਲਾਇਆ ਵਿਰਲਾ ਬੂਝੈ ਕੋਇ. SGGS, p.558

If the Mann or mind is Soiled, all is Soiled,: by bathing the body, the mind is cleansed not. This world is led astray by Misgiving, and rare is the one who knows the Truth.

This is a vital point: people try to infect each other with those memes which they find most appealing, regardless of the memes’ objective value or truth. In the field of religion, the clerics class is one example of professionals who continually infect people’s mind with ever increasing religiosity.

The immediate impact may not be visible. But, like the carrier of the cliff-jumping meme might never actually take the plunge; they may spend the rest of their long lives infecting other people with the meme, inducing millions of gullible fools to leap to their deaths. Historically, this sort of thing is happening all the time.

The Deed of Isnaan

At the practical level, Guru Nanak described Isnaan as:

ਨਾਉ ਨੀਰੁ ਚੰਗਿਆਈਆ ਸਤੁ ਪਰਮਲੁ ਤਨਿ ਵਾਸੁ ॥ SGGS,16

Let your body and mind take a cleansing bath with the waters of Goodness to be followed by application of the scented oil of the Truthfulness that produces irresistible fragrance transmitting only welcome memes.

ਗੁਰੁ ਦਰੀਆਉ ਸਦਾ ਜਲੁ ਨਿਰਮਲੁ ਮਿਲਿਆ ਦੁਰਮਤਿ ਮੈਲੁ ਹਰੈ ॥ ਸਤਿਗੁਰਿ ਪਾਇਐ ਪੂਰਾ ਨਾਵਣੁ ਪਸੂ ਪਰੇਤਹੁ ਦੇਵ ਕਰੈ. SGGS, p. 1329

The Divine Wisdom is the perennial spring of pure water of Life Force which is competent to remove impurities and paralysis of the human soul, and the Guru, therefore, is the only fulfillment and refuge for any person for him to transcend himself from humanity to divinity.

While stressing on the treatment by Isnaan, the Eternal Wisdom also advised us to take the preventive measures so that we avoid the infection of the mind.

ਸੋ ਕਿਛੁ ਕਰਿ ਜਿਤੁ ਮੈਲੁ ਨ ਲਾਗੈ ॥] ਹਰਿ ਕੀਰਤਨ ਮਹਿ ਏਹੁ ਮਨੁ ਜਾਗੈ. SGGS, p. 199

Though your body and mind, practice only those deeds that do not permit soiling of the body and mind. Your mind may remain continuously alert and connected to the life giving awareness of the Creator manifested in the whole creation and its environment.


This metaphor of a bath as Isnaan is meant to elucidate a major lesson on Sikh values and behaviors.


The memes of cultural practices made up of Narcissism, and other selfish genes have been polluting the human Consciousness for ages. These memes are viruses that have been multiplying in the human mind and MANN throughout the cultural history of humankind. Their viral spread is badly needed to be disinfected. The crust formed from that infection requires scrubbing off by the deeds of Isnaan. There is no other way.

While practices of Isnaan will cleanse the mind, the practice Naam and Daan (discussed in previous blogs) will prevent those viruses from re-infecting the human spirit. It will ensure the everlasting health of the human mind and the universal consciousness. As Guru stressed, this cannot be accomplished by washing the body even in the waters at the places of pilgrimages.

In Sikhism, cleansing of both body and mind are stressed. It is a total negation of toxic environment as well as evil thoughts. It is the opening of your heart, your mind, your life and your relationships to a process of detoxification. That process is described as Isnaan.

Such teaching is religious and found in older scriptures. As Jesus is known to say, Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Isaiah 1:16.

Note: This author has written a more comprehensive article of Isnaan recently published in the J. Studies in Sikhism and Comparative Religion, vol. 32:1, Pages 31-41, 2013.

Send all communications to:

Harbans Lal, Ph.D.; D.Litt (Hons)

Professor Emeritus & Chairman, Dept of Pharmacology & Neurosciences, University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Professor Emeritus, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India.
President, Academy of Guru Granth Studies.


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9 thoughts on “Three Pillars of a Fulfilled Life Part 3: Isnaan – The Ethics of Good Deeds

  1. Isnaan is the last of the Three Core Values of the Sikhs as defined and analyzed by Professor Harbans Lal. I am impressed by the strong correlations of three values with the quality of life of a person to lead a more harmonious living with oneself, with the other humans and the environment. It would be very difficult to follow one value and not the others. In order to be a good follower of Sikhi-sm, one must follow the Gurus’ teaching and their correct interpretations as outlined by Professor Lal. Thank you for helping us understand by highlighting the correct interpretations of these three core values.

  2. Thank you for the article Ji.

    The Gurbani (SGGS) is NOT written at the level of body-consciousness, but at the level of the Aaatma or mind.

    Having said that, therefore, whenever there is a mention of Ishanaan in the Gurbani, it indicates Self-purification through the Inner Isnaan — bathing in the Inner Pool (“Sarovar”) of the Naam or Shabad (Aatam Giaan, Spiritual Knowledge, Virtues…). In other words, cleansing of the mind is the perfect Isnaan.

    ACCORDING TO THE GURBANI, if mind is not clean, then everything else (“Sabhu Kichhu”) will be “filthy” (including “enviroments”, etc.).

    To the contrary, ACCORDING TO THE GURBANI, if the mind is clean, then everything else (“Sabhu Kichhu”) will be clean too (including “enviroments”, etc.).

    • ਮਨਿ ਮੈਲੈ ਸਭੁ ਕਿਛੁ ਮੈਲਾ ਤਨਿ ਧੋਤੈ ਮਨੁ ਹਛਾ ਨ ਹੋਇ ॥: When the mind is filthy, everything is filthy; by washing the body, the mind is not cleaned (sggs 558).

  3. Wonderful, the explanation I have read of the basic concepts of basin.
    With all my respect for the learned Bhaai Sahiba, I suggest that when we write Gurumukhi words in Roman characters ‘mann’ which is written by two simple characters m and n, offers the simple sound m’n . Since the Roman script was introduced to us via English language, so carries It’s own rules and inhibitions, such as using ‘a’ character where there is no need for it.
    When we look around use other languages using Roman script , we can learn that not only but three consonants can be used withowithout a wovel, such in Slovene language quite often when you walk around you find word ‘Trg’ means ‘square ‘. May I suggest that we simplify the spelling when writiwriting such words with mukta character- tn, mn which may sound odd for English speakers, but we use t’n, m’n, dh’n etc.
    With all my respect
    Avtarjeet S Dhanjal

  4. Above comments were written from my phone and had several mistakes. Please ignore these comments.
    Here is correct comments:

    Wonderful, the best explanation I have read of the basic concepts of sacred bani.

    With all my respect for the learned Bhaai Sahiba, I would like suggest that we pay attentions how we write Pnjaabi ਪੰਜਾਬੀ word in Roman script. For example , Bhai Sahib has spelled ਮਨ in Roman characters ‘mann’, it doesn’t keep the simplicity or the sound of the word ਮਨ which is written by two simple characters ਮ and ਨ, offers the simple sound ਮਨ .
    Problem arises as the Roman script was introduced to us via English language; which carries English language rules and inhibitions, such as using ‘a’ character where there is no need for it.
    May I suggest that we simplify the spelling when writing such words with mukta characters ਤਨ, ਮਨ, ਧਨ, in Roman tn, mn, dhn, using these consonant without any vowel in them, sound odd for English speakers.
    If we look around use other languages using Roman script , we can learn that not only two but three consonants can be used without a vowel, such in Slovenja when you walk around in a city/town you find word ‘Stari Trg’ means ‘Stari Square ‘.
    With all my respect I suggest to make it more comfortable we use t’n, m’n, dh’n etc.

    Avtarjeet S Dhanjal

  5. Respected Bhai Sahib,
    You deserve to be congratulated for your excellent exposition of Gurbani.
    I do not, however, agree with the suggestion of S. Avtarjeet S. Dhanjal regarding transliteration of Gurbani words.
    I feel, it would be in the fitness of things to transliterate a word in a way that it is pronounced as close as possible to its original pronunciation in Gurmukhi script, by a large majority of readers(including those who do not know Punjabi/Gurmukhi). One can take guidance from the Transliteration table used by S. Harbans Singh Doabia in his book,’Sacred Sukhmani’. It enables the reader to recite Sukhmani correctly from its Roman Transliteration.
    I can send a photo of the 2 pages, ‘KEY TO PRONUNCIATION’ appearing in his book for your proper understanding of the table through WhatsApp, if you kindly let me know your Mobile No.
    With regards and best wishes, Gurbaksh Singh Oberoi, Mob. +91 9811416099. Email:-

  6. Thank you for your suggestion. My phone numbers and address is given at the bottom of my email and address. Please stay in touch.

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