Does Language Impact the Transmission of Wisdom from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib

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

Introduction

The light of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) is sought by over 300 million spiritual seekers worldwide. With this rapidly expanding urge and need, there is a concern that haunts us. It is about providing easy access to the Guru’s wisdom to a rapidly evolving global village.

Many linguists and educational researchers have established that the language of a culture, or mother tongue of an individual, is essential to impart any ideology or educational material.

Expanding Need

In the past, the ideas of the SGGS have been communicated to 100 million Punjabi speaking people in the world. But if we continue to use only Punjabi, the Sikh ideology and the essential knowledge of the Guru’s Wisdom will not be communicated effectively to 500 million Urdu speaking people, a billion of each Hindi, Spanish, or Chinese speaking people, or twice as many English-speaking people in the West.

It does not matter, whether this audience is of Indian origin or others. It will not serve its purpose unless the knowledge is imparted in a local language – the language people learn from their surroundings, and not have to go to a Gurdwara school to learn it.

Information, Knowledge, and Language

There is a difference between information and knowledge. Information can be easily translated and transmitted in any language and is stored as well as propagated in any language. Knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be imparted effectively in a language other than the mother tongue.

Mother tongue is a language, which is acquired without requiring formal instructions in a school or from a tutor. It is learned from continued communication with the family members living at home, particularly the mother. We are losing Punjabi as the mother tongue day by day even in the areas where it has dominated for centuries. Further, Punjabi is not the mother tongue of the most of the world.

The Guru Granth In The Future World

The children of the future world would not know the relevance of the SGGS in their life unless they learn it through language, which can effectively impart the required knowledge to them. And, that the knowledge is imparted in the newly acquired mother tongues of their parents and siblings.

At present, English is the most spoken language and the language of 75% printed material in the world.

If you do not believe me, then tell me how many of you can understand the advantage of Macintosh over Windows in any language other than in English. Why are all technologists even in Hindi speaking India, Urdu speaking Pakistan, or Hebrew speaking Israel making all software in English, why not in Hindi, Punjabi, or Hebrew? You know the answer.

We Sikhs take a lot of pride in the universality of the message of the Gurus meaning that our Guru revealed their message for the benefit of all peoples and all communities. Our clerics and our leaders miss no opportunity to emphasize this distinction of our Guru’s message. Similarly, we speak of our Gurdwaras and other congregational institutions open to everyone in the global village.

But we fail to realize that by trussing Sikh beliefs and practices far too tightly with Punjabi language, ethnicity, and lifestyle, we commit the sin of utterly refusing to share our religion with the rest of the world.

Disfranchising Children And Failing To Share

Failing to share our heritage with others is far too evident in our religious practices. Traditionally we limit our congregational services and prayers only to the language of our ancestors, and in doing so we virtually close doors to others. We even make it harder for our life partners to connect to our faith if they happened to be born outside Punjab.

Similarly, we disfranchise even our children and the young Sikhs growing up in the West from having full access to the Guru’s teachings.

It is not difficult to see a parallel with the days of racial discrimination in America. When the white population wanted to disfranchise a black people from their birthright to vote, they used the hurdle of literacy in a language that the black community had difficulty to be proficient in.

The Founders Differed

Strict adherence to any one language of a predominant religion was not the case at the time of our Gurus. Guru Nanak and his successors traveled to all reachable lands to spread the Word; they unreservedly used whatever language would get their message across. They defied tradition set by Brahmins and Mullahs, who insisted on Sanskrit and Arabic to teach theology; in contrast, the gurus used the spoken language of the people as a medium of their mission. I do not recall reading anywhere that when Guru Nanak visited many lands that he ever required his audience to learn Punjabi or he taught Punjabi to anyone.

Guru Amar Das rebuked a delegation of religious scholars who came to persuade him to use the language of the religious elite, Sanskrit, to impart his message.

Picture3According to Bhai Santokh Singh [4], Guru Amar Das told the visitors a metaphor to make his point. He said, “God’s theology is like water to a thirsty person. Divine knowledge in Sanskrit or Arabic is like water in a deep well; it takes the effort to draw it and then irrigate crops of only those who own the land and the means. Guru’s teachings must be in a language that serves like a cloudburst which turns the crops of everyone and in every field green; it reaches mountains and valleys alike, birds and mammals alike, animals and human alike, poor and rich alike.” (English translation from original Punjabi by the author.)

Guru Amar Das’s response was like a famous biblical parabola where Jesus said that when you light a lamp; place it on a higher pedestal so that the light can reach everyone. Requiring especially made colored glasses to see the light will contradict the essence of this parabola.

Guru Granth Language

There are some Punjabi compositions in the SGGS, but mostly they are written in many other languages of India as well as Middle Eastern and South Eastern countries. There are over 22 languages used to compose the hymns in the Guru Granth [3].

Guru Gobind Singh mostly used Braj Bhasha (the language of Bihar), Persian and Arabic, but not any Punjabi in his compositions or in his daily teaching. The Sikh rulers similarly used Persian to conduct their day-to-day business. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, only two centuries ago, used Persian and so did Banda Bahadur, a contemporary of Guru Gobind Singh. He issued coins of the Sikh kingdom with Persian inscriptions.

Picture12The language of the SGGS, the Eternal Guru of the Sikhs, is so different from modern Punjabi that most Punjabi speaking people of today do not understand much of it. I have difficulty myself in understanding the Punjabi text that is currently being used by Sikh scholars in India to explain the doctrines in the SGGS.

No wonder that their Punjabi books find only negligible circulation in North America or Europe. Even in India, they are not read as is evident from a meager number of prints that are made of books on Sikhism published in Punjabi.

History is a witness, that if the Gurus were here in North America today, they would depart from the past and use English to communicate. They would use a language in which more than three fourth of all the printed material is produced.

Today Most Communication Is In English

Most of the progressive elements in every religion now use English to communicate. The cyberspace technology as the medium of future communication began to require that we speak the cyberspace language or be eclipsed from the wired communities.

Our youth outside India exclusively use only English language to conduct their daily lives both at home and at work. It will be wise not to resist the trend for the propagation of our religion among this generation.

Erosion Of Sikh Identities is Warning

I personally visited many places in North American where Sikh identities were entirely wiped out of existence by the third or fourth generation. It was primarily because their immigrant parents would not convey their religious inheritance to their children in the language of their adopted country. That left only the rituals or ceremonies of their faith for the children to relate to and those lost their meaningless appeal within a generation. You may not have to go far to see this trend continuing even today.

In many old communities of North America today, the only thing children recall to a visitor is the memory of their grandparents being Sikhs, the term that they can often not even pronounce correctly. These children usually preserve, besides photographs, one or two of their parents’ “prayer books” as the museum pieces in their homes.

It breaks my heart when I visit homes of this generation. But all I can do is to show some love towards them and promise to relate their message to our first-generation Sikh community here.

Many of them do ask me if I can send them some Sikh literature in English.

Some Hope

I am pleased to see that Sikh congregations in Pakistan use Shahmukhi script and Urdu language to publish the Sikh literature. In Sind and North West Pakistan, over 3 million Sikhs who are popularly known as Nanak Panahi use Sindhi. The newly converted Caucasian Sikhs in North America use English and Spanish as a medium in their Gurdwaras. Their outfits in China and Brazil similalry speak of the Guru Granth teachings in their own languages.

Only a very tiny but gradually growing population of Sikh children of Punjabi parents in North America is getting bold enough to break from the tradition and improvise the religious liturgy in English. The efforts of the youth groups promoted by Charhdi Kala in Northern California is one example. There are sprouting several cybergroups in the West to impact the Guru Granth knowledge in English.

Conclusion

For the conclusion, I would like to quote Dr. Indermohan Singh of the Charhdi-Kala Foundation. He recently wrote, “There are very good reasons for Sikhs of Punjabi origin to want to preserve their language and culture. There is also no question that for those who can understand it, Gurbani in its original languages is much more beautiful and meaningful. It is tough to capture the beauty and poetry of the original in a translation. But I believe we should be very clear about the differences between the religious versus cultural and linguistic issues. And we should make an effort to share the Guru’s Word using every language and medium that is effective and available.” [2].

Let us join the progressive civil societies of today and communicate the universal messages of the Guru Granth in the languages of the civil societies of today and tomorrow. And, that language today is English.

NOTE

See discussions, stats, and author profiles for an earlier version of this publication at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238764513

REFERENCES

  1. SGGS = Sri Guru Granth Sahib. 1983 (reprint). Publishers: Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar. (M = Mahla, i.e., succession number of the Sikh Gurus to the House of Guru Nanak).
  2. Indermohan Singh. 2002. Chardi Kala Network Archives.
  3. Padam, Piara Singh. 1990. Sri Guru Granth Da Bhasha Prabhat, In: Sri Guru Granth Parkash, Patiala, p. 307-322.
  4. Santokh Singh. 1954. Sri Gur Partap Suraj Granth, Raas 1, Part 46, p. 1518. Reprinted Amritsar, Khalsa Samachar.

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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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27 thoughts on “Does Language Impact the Transmission of Wisdom from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib

  1. We do need people who have mastery of Gurmukhi as well as the other language to undertake any translation work. Moreover the important factor is the ANUBHAVof the Gurbani without which no translation will make any sense. At present not a single translation captures the true spirit of the Gurbani of the Guru Granth Sahib.

    1. Thank you, Kirpal ji, for your words of wisdom on this important issue. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
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  2. Appreciable article in context of SGGS jee for spreading the true understanding of Sabad in local spoken languages.
    For this we will have to accept that if english is the most common language then translitration of gurmikhi into roman script is the only way.
    But a great care is required in translitration of SGGS jee in other scripts. How to preserve the basic essence of the messages as being envisaged in gurmukhi script. So long as translitration matches the script of sggs jee there should be no problem .
    The problem is that most of the translitration of sggs jee done so far in Roman script does not match the script of gurbaanee in SGGS jee.
    This is is very important to get the understanding of core concept of gurbaanee which makes gurbaanee as unique one.

    1. Thank you for your words of wisdom on this important issue. You made very thoughtful comments. Yes, we must keep an eye on the translations; only discussions and not literary translations are desired. Vichaar is recommended. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
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  3. I agree knowledge should be in as many languages as possible. But assimilation is not possible if done in other languages than Gurmukhi SGGS.

    I had read Dr. Manmohan Singh, translated into Gurumukhi and English. But when I began reading Darpan by Prof. Sahib Singh then meaning and description had a meaning for me. Literal meaning of any language may impart knowledge but the gist may not be transmitted. For example; the shabad “ Thakur Tum Sarnai aya…”. The word sarnai —in literal translation is written as “sanctuary” doesn’t relate. The word sarnai should be described in detail and doing so for the whole SGGS would make translation voluminous. To raise an individual on the basis of SGGS would be impossible. The Guru in SGGS states many times, to be a Sikh follower follow the path of a learned who practices, Sant or Satguru. SGGS was not meant to make historians out of people but rather run a better life. It may take generations for families to change habits as that many that made them depart from Guru’s path. To be Gurbani is a different life.

    1. Thank you for your words of wisdom on this important issue. Yes, literary meaning are not of that value; serious discussions are needed. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
      You may consider forwarding my blog to your friends and ask them to sign up for free. At the bottom of the post, there is space to write down the email to sign up future blogs.

  4. I agree with the point made by of S. Kirpal Singh in stressing the importance of the person doing translation of Gurubani having good understanding of the language of SGGS as well as of the language into which it is being translated. The ‘bhav-arth’ (essence of the message ) must be kept in mind and only literal translation should be avoided. For example , the translation of “jau sabh mah ek khudai kahat hau tau kiu muragi marai” has been done as : You say that the One Lord is in all, so why do you kill chickens?
    I feel it completely misses the intent of the original Gurubani line One may infer from the translation that killing chickens is wrong but killing other animals like lamb is fine.

    1. Thank you for your words of wisdom on this important issue. Yes, it i vichaar that is helpful. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
      You may consider forwarding my blog to your friends and ask them to sign up for free. At the bottom of the post, there is space to write down the email to sign up future blogs.

    1. Thank you for your words of wisdom on this important issue. Yes, cyber sangats are the future. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
      You may consider forwarding my blog to your friends and ask them to sign up for free. At the bottom of the post, there is space to write down the email to sign up future blogs.

    1. Thank you for your words of wisdom on this important issue. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
      You may consider forwarding my blog to your friends and ask them to sign up for free. At the bottom of the post, there is space to write down the email to sign up future blogs.

    1. I am pleased to hear from you after a long time. Thank you for your words of wisdom on this important issue. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
      You may consider forwarding my blog to your friends and ask them to sign up for free. At the bottom of the post, there is space to write down the email to sign up future blogs.

  5. RESPECTED ALL MEMBERS OF HUMANITY AT LARGE:
    Language Punjabi in Gurmakhi Script is a original divine Word of the “ALMIGHTY GOD” which is a source of transforming all creations from the beginnings of this all endless Universe over Universes. Thou all Languies spoken belongs to ONE WEHAGURU, ALMIGHTY GOD” but Punjabi in Gurmakhi script are original DIVINE Words of “ALMIGHTY ONE GOD” Guru Nanak Dev Ji Sahib, testify this when He says: ” Jase me aae Khasam ki Bani, thesera Gyan be Lalo”. Thank you all.
    Dr. Piara Singh, Cerritos, CA, USA.

    1. Thank you for your words of wisdom on this important issue. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
      You may consider forwarding my blog to your friends and ask them to sign up for free. At the bottom of the post, there is space to write down the email to sign up future blogs.

    2. Very True ! who knows may be GOD will speak again in other common languages for all his children globally .
      Thank you !

  6. “We Sikhs take a lot of pride in the universality of the message of the Gurus meaning that our Guru revealed their message for the benefit of all peoples and all communities. Our clerics and our leaders miss no opportunity to emphasize this distinction of our Guru’s message. Similarly, we speak of our Gurdwaras and other congregational institutions open to everyone in the global village.

    But we fail to realize that by trussing Sikh beliefs and practices far too tightly with Punjabi language, ethnicity, and lifestyle, we commit the sin of utterly refusing to share our religion with the rest of the world.”

    Great article to rethink our faith and reengineer our strategies in line with, our Guru’s far sighted reach to humanity , irrespective of the languages or cultures, spread in vast diversity, to knit them into the oneness of the design of creation.
    Thank you Sir, for such an enlightening peace of wisdom, our faith needs it most in the current times.
    My regards.👏

    1. Thank you for your words of wisdom on this important issue. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
      You may consider forwarding my blog to your friends and ask them to sign up for free. At the bottom of the post, there is space to write down the email to sign up future blogs.

  7. Thank you for the great article. The Sikh Holy Book, SGGS, includes a large number of languages and dialects used over centuries in the Sub-continent. If we compare it to the languages of Europe, it would be equivalent to having a Holy Book including text in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, Romanian and other minor Romance dialects. It is also beautiful in its poetry and its message can be delivered with precise musical structures. For the average person born out of the Punjabi language sphere achieving knowledge and fluency in the language of the SGGS is out of question. The same will hold true for an increasing number of people born in Sikh communities outside of Punjabi.

    1. Thank you for your words of wisdom on this important issue. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
      You may consider forwarding my blog to your friends and ask them to sign up for free. At the bottom of the post, there is space to write down the email to sign up future blogs.

  8. Very important issue has been raised.Though the original language of the scripture is very important but to communicate the universal message of our Gurus use of other languages need to be resorted to.We hear that Guru Nanak Dev”s Japuji is being read by some tribes in Arabic countries,which goes to elicit the fact that message of our Gurus can be effectively communicated in languages other than Punjabi.

    1. Thank you for your words of wisdom on this important issue. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
      You may consider forwarding my blog to your friends and ask them to sign up for free. At the bottom of the post, there is space to write down the email to sign up future blogs.

  9. Language is a powerful tool of communication and having good verbal skills are considered very important in order to convey the correct meanings of person’s ideas, instructions and theories. In matters of religious services and instruction, a proper delivery and correct uses of terms, simple and easily understood concepts, are considered essentials for the experience of those in attendance.
    I remember vividly an incidence occurred, more than fifty years ago, in the earlier period of my teaching profession at a state college in Southern Colorado. The incidence is very much related to this important and relevant issue of theology as described by Dr. Harbans Lal, in this excellent essay. During the Fall academic term of 1967, I came across an elderly lady, wandering about the Social Sciences building, somewhat bewildered and searching for a Spanish speaking history professor Dr. Blanco at the college. Dr. Blanco was a historian and a Spanish speaking Roman Catholic Priest. According to the lady, she must see Father Blanco for the fact that her church is without a priest for several weeks due to the illness of their regular priest. The congregation of the church is made up entirely of Spanish speaking individuals. There was no other priest available to conduct the Sunday mass in her small town which was approximately 50 miles from the campus. Realizing the importance of her needs, I immediately drove her to meet Dr. Blanco and she engaged him to lead the Sunday mass for several months. It was a win-win transaction for the community and Father Blanco who enjoyed the task as much as the community did. The community was mostly comprised of Native Americans and Americans of Mexican descents.
    The above story sheds light on the fact that, it is exceedingly important for our religious leaders to be trained in professional institutions of higher learning and they must be multi-linguists in order to meet the needs of the Sikh diasporas all over the world. The ability to use correct language is important in speaking, listening, writing, persuading, leading in all human interactions and assemblies, across communities, institutions and nations.

  10. Thank you for a great article that brings out a very critical issues for Sikhs.

    As you point out, the Gurus wrote their message for all humanity. We proclaim that Sikhi is a universal religion, but completely fail to share the message with anyone else, limiting its access to only to Punjabi speaking people. We should see ourselves as custodians of this treasure meant for the whole world. We are depriving our own future generations as well, particularly those living in foreign countries. It is true that extant translations do not capture the full beauty of the original, but without them we are offering ZERO.

    In my opinion Gurdwaras outside Punjab should offer traditional services in Punjabi, as well as services in the local language – English in America and England. They also need ‘bhai’s who are fluent in English who can communicate with young Sikhs and non-Sikhs.

    1. Dear Inder Singh ji,
      Thank you for your words of wisdom on this important issue. It gives all of us an impetus to probe more into the issues of today.
      You may consider forwarding my blog to your friends and ask them to sign up for free. At the bottom of the post, there is space to write down the email to sign up future blogs.

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