A Book Review by Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal
The Japuji: The Way to Divine Lif, With an Introduction, Paradigmatic Essays, Punjabi Text, English Translation, and Notes – 240 pages.
By Prof. Balbir Singh Makkar.
B.Chattar Singh Jiwan Singh – Publishers
Among the world scriptures, the Japuji is considered Guru Nanak’s foremost composition, thereby qualifying it to be the essence of Sikh thoughts and Sikh teachings. Some find it an inspiring prologue to the Sikh scripture, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, as the Japuji prefaces it.
On this account, the Japuji has attracted the attention of theologians and scholars alike so that they rendered it into many world languages including Arabic, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, Hebrew, all the European languages, and so on, and nearly hundred translations into English.
The Punjabi translations dated back to the times of Guru Arjan Dev; and an Arabic rendering going back to the times of Guru Nanak. We are indebted to Dr. Rattan Singh Jaggi for exploring many of them and giving us a comparative overview.
With a few exceptions, the available translations are regurgitations of what has been published centuries ago. Then, some versions were just devotional, others were outlines of the philosophical traditions of the time, and still others were the interpretations of a class of god-men and clerics who toed the themes of their times when religions were replete with Man-Made rituals, superstitions, and beliefs in occult traditions.
Until the advents of the Guru Nanak Dev University (Amritsar), the Punjabi University (Patiala), and alike, the god-men were devoid of modern education and were ill-trained to interpret Sikhism to the millennial generation. Instead, they propagated ethnocentrism and blind faith in the local lingua franca that benefited them by promoting their commercial and political interests or enterprises. Their compositions were devoid of modern exegesis of the scripture, or the practices of Sikhism as a more contemporary global dharma or religion that was initially founded for the benefit of the whole humanity. The illiterate god-men kept on harping on the ancient concepts of orthodox schools of ancient philosophy.
More recently, Sikh academia felt challenged to the necessity of interpreting the Japuji for the Millennials. They began to make welcome efforts. I recall with appreciation, the translation and commentary of Japuji by Dr. Diwan Singh and his contemporaries as the very first ones in the new series. Professor Makkar’s rendition is the most recent contribution.
Professor Makkar described the Japuji as Guru Nanak’s theological system as not a mythical or theoretical abstraction, but as psycho-spiritual-scientific. He has attempted to offer the Guru’s wisdom meant to raise human consciousness to the level of immortal consciousness through Guru Nanak’s teachings.
Through his interpretation, the author has integrated the various elements of the Sikh theological system like the concepts of the Creator, the creation, and creativity, conscious-creative energy, cosmology, divinity, Hukam, human evolution and evolution of human mind. To those, he has briefly added the ways of successful living and various elevations of human consciousness, and how to get there.
His introduction is a coherent chapter that gives a full overview as well as background vocabulary. He prepares the reader for grasping what would be described in the forthcoming interpretations and the English rendition of the Japuji. Every section provides necessary citations to the material that he chose to include in the book. Professor Makkar prepares the reader with an overview of the relevant fields touched upon in the text.
The first chapter has turned out to be a precious chapter and unique to this book. His treatments of the anthropomorphically-mythologized figures of God/s, and the concepts of non-existent heavens and hells as propagated in earlier prophetic and Vedic religions are novel in contemporary Sikh literature.
The author in his writing style takes into account the fact that Guru Nanak propagated one universal dharma of Truth, but he did not approve the use of force, miracles, or any other enticement for its propagation. Guru Nanak wanted to spread his gospel throughout the world only by interfaith dialogues and such other persuasive ways. His reach was to not only South East Asia but also to the whole Middle East where clergy had the strongest holds rendering people significantly different in their belief systems. Guru Nanak’s universality of psychospiritual-scientific message seemed far ahead of his time and, sometime, could not be appropriately understood and appreciated by his contemporaries.
The author has organized the book into chapters and sub-chapters which cover the material into themes using a style more in line with the exegesis than transliterations and translations, although the English rendering of the verse by verse translation is not omitted. There he supported his interpretation with citations from the Guru Granth, Bhai Gurdas, and others. At places, he compares the thoughts given by Guru Nanak with those promoted by other world religions.
This book is very timely because, the Sikhs stand at a new juncture today, unique crossroads in the arena of war of thoughts. Guru Nanak resolved all differences by propagating an entirely new faith based on the eternal principles of nature and emphasizing that our karmas become divine only by conforming to the creative laws of the Cosmic Will (Hukam) and not by following the ethical principles or rituals of any sect or religion.
Guru Nanak analysed these principles as deduced in Chapter 3 of the book and thereby attempted to lift humankind out of the open mold in which it found itself. Guru Nanak’s ideas introduced an element of universality in all religions and attempted to take humanity towards his ideal of one universal dharma; whether we call it, dharma or religion hardly matters. It is a way of life to bring life to higher and higher states of consciousness in practical terms, and that is what matters, for all else is a falsity.
The book gives a glimpse of how Guru Nanak perceived centuries ahead of the concept of global village and universal civilization and showed the path to make use of such an idea with the messages that are indeed universal.
It is upon all of us to embrace the citizenship of the global village and rearticulate Guru by taking his teaching out of a small ethnic benefaction but as a scripture of universal values.
The book will serve a useful tool in understanding what the Guru had in mind for humanity. It was one universal dharma that takes the whole of humankind towards higher states of divinity not by the traditional means of imposing the faith of one religion on all others but through inspirational means and divine wisdom.
This book on the Japuji is written by an academician, who indeed bears the mark of a devout Sikh and a Sikh scholar. The book is for the academicians, graduate students, and postgraduate researchers as well as for those interested in research on Guru Nanak’s message to humanity. Both scholars and laity will benefit from Professor Makkar’s treatise.
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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