HEAVEN IS WHERE YOUR PRAISES ARE SUNG
Importance of Kirtan: Meditative singing of hymns in Guru Granth Sahib
(Gurmukh Singh UK and Dya Singh of Australia)
The Guru's Word, Gurbani, in Guru Granth Sahib(GGS), the Sikh holy Scripture, is in verse. The Word was delivered by the Sikh Gurus, as received from the Lord:
"As I receive the Word of the Lord
So I express it, O Lalo" Guru Nanak (GGS p 722)
The Word received was in meditative musical verse. Gurbani kirtan (singing of the hymns in Guru Granth Sahib) is an "experience" of the Word. The understanding comes with repeated experience through Gurbani kirtan.
To quote a Sikh scholar:
"Indeed, part of the lure of the poetic form is that it eludes total comprehension and is enriched by ever new interpretations. The poem does not provide an answer to life's mysteries, but reveals its wonders. The poem by its very form is not limited to a singular meaning, so it does not offer an answer with the confidence of an ego-centric bark. Instead it entices the ego to unravel its mystery, and in the process unravels itself. The poetic structure is inherently contemplative and unsettling - it refuses to be tamed into singular plain speech of prose philosophy." (*Dr Balbinder Singh Bhogal )
The musical aspect is stressed in Guru Granth Sahib. With few exceptions (e.g. the first liturgical part), the name of the raag (mood-inducing melody) is always mentioned before the author. The musical sound creates the environment and mental state for focussed reception of the Word. Singing the praises of the lord in sangat (holy congregation) takes precedence above all else, to be able to sing with and listen to others, and by sharing that experience, to be able to contemplate and experience the Word within oneself. This collective and personal experience must be repetitive so that the ego-centric habit is replaced by humility and wondrous love and awe for the works of the Creator Lord. This changed attitude would then reflect in the behaviour and daily life of a Sikh, which stresses humility, constant meditation on the Lord's Name, life of a householder in the service of the Lord and His creation. The Ultimate Reality cannot be expressed in words i.e. in "singular plain speech of prose philosophy" alone.
Gurbani is in many musical measures (called raags - which induce moods corresponding to time divisions of the day, to seasons or occasions etc.). There are many rhythms, beats and rhymes. These reflect not only the wide spectrum of classical and popular traditions of the sub-continent of India but beyond. Therefore, with the exception of some compositions, Gurbani is meant to be sung for maximum impact of its intrinsic message, which needs to be understood and experienced.
Gurbani kirtan is the meditative singing of Gurbani. The aim of Gurbani kirtan is to harmonise the individual soul (atma) with the Universal Supreme Spirit (Param Atma or Paramatma) by singing the praises of the Creator so that resonance with the music of creation, (wismaad naad) is achieved. Wismaad is a state of ecstatic wonderment and naad is a heavenly musical note. Discover the naad of creation and you are one with the Creator. Indeed, wismmaad naad is the Word. The concept of wismaad naad was introduced by Guru Nanak in his first Gurbani of Japji, a composition of 39 stanzas. The total philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib (1,430 pages) is also based on Japji.
Kirtan is a form of meditative music or bhagti sangeet, the music form adopted by the Indian saints (sadhus, sants and fakirs etc). As elsewhere in the world, the development of bhagti sangeet in India dates back to the evolution of religious thought which gained momentum with the progress of the bhagti movement in India from about 11th Century C.E. onwards.
Nature of Bhagti (Devotional) Music
The Bhagats preached and sang the universal love of God to convey the joy of the mystical experience of union with the Lord. They wrote and sang poetry in the local dialects of the people, and mostly in popular local tunes and semi-classical raag versions. They were not bound by the strict and complex rules of writing poetry (prosody, or pingal in Sanskrit) nor the strict rules for singing raags (although, even Indian classical music has evolved over the centuries, partly due to the bhagti movement which included musicians from Hindu, Islamic and Sufi musical traditions. See note about Indian classical raags below). Bhagats were from the people, their language was for the people, and they sang and danced with the people celebrating the wondrous glory of the Lord. These bhagats had no formal training in writing poetry or music - nor did they care for any, except for delivering the messages they received directly through the revealed Word. It is unlikely that they consciously set out as social reformers, as did Guru Nanak Sahib; but one consequence of the bhagti movement was that it began to challenge Brahmanic monopoly of religious teaching, to dismantle caste based walls, and to question ritualism and strict religious codes of behaviour. The enlightened bhagats saw the divine Light of One Creator in all.
There is a long list of the bhagats like Tulsi Das, Meera, Jaidev, Namdev, Shaikh Farid, Ravidas, Kabir etc who promoted bhagti music. The next phase of bhagti music was introduced by the Sikh Gurus starting with Guru Nanak (1469 to 1539 A.D.) as Gurbani kirtan.
In an ancient Indian scripture, the Lord says "Where my bhagats sing my praises there I reside." The Sikh Gurbani confirms "Tahan baikunt jeh kirtan Tera" ("Heaven is where Your praises are sung.") Gurbani kirtan started when Guru Nanak said to his musician companion Mardana "Touch the string of your rabaab (rebeck) O' Mardana, I am receiving Gurbani (the Lord's word)".
Guru Nanak Sahib composed and sang Gurbani in 19 classical raags; Guru Amardas (Third Guru) in 17, Guru Ramdas (Fourth Guru) in 29 and Guru Arjan Dev (Fifth Guru) in 30 raags. Together with the Gurbani contribution by Guru Tegh Bahadur (Nith Guru), there are 31 raags in Guru Granth Sahib and many further raag combinations and popular folk tunes.
Guru Nanak travelled extensively to take the message of the revealed Word to the world (Bhai Gurdas). In this respect the Guru parted company with the bhagti movement. He was a socio-political revolutionary, who intentionally set out to bring about religious, social and political reforms. No other bhagat had undertaken such a task before. He sang to the people outdoors, sitting under the shade of trees or in the open fields. He sang in many different languages and popular tunes (vars and dhunees). He went out there and communicated with the ordinary people in their own language and through the language of "world music" which they understood and loved. Yet, he preserved the essential character of classical raag tradition as well and selected raag bases to enhance the spiritual message of Sikhi, the Sikh way of life.
Above all, the underlying criterion for the raag bases selected by Guru Sahiban was that Gurbani kirtan should enhance the spiritual message of Gurbani and induce a mood of meditation and spiritual equipoise (sehaj anand). Technicalities about the musical measures, which are evolving all the time in any case, is a secondary consideration.
Kabir says that people might regard his outpourings as songs only, but they are in reality meditations on the Supreme Being (GGS p 335)
Examples of hymns which follow the pattern of Panjabi folk poetry are
Aarti, anjali, sohila, swayyas, thittin, patti, phune, bavan-akhri, and baramaha. The titles indicate the form of poetry. Patti, bavan-akhri and oankar propound philosophical and religious themes and doctrines; thittin and baramahas are built around the lunar days and the twelve solar months. Alahnian and sadd (funeral hymns), karhale, gatha, ghorian (wedding songs), cchant (recited at time of marriage), dakhne, var, ruttin (seasons) and var sat (weekdays) are the moulds of the folk-poetry of Panjab. Baramaha was common mould for singing of the pangs of separation love in the various Indian languages including Sanskrit. Alahnian, sadd and ghorian have been sung in all medieval literature in India. These hymns stress the importance of utilising the time at all religious and social occasions to the remembrance of the Lord**.
Some facts about Gurbani kirtan, the raag bases, folk tunes, beats and rhythms are as follows:
a) There are 31 main raag bases used in Guru Granth Sahib.
b) In addition there are almost as many mixed raags, popular folk music bases called dhunee (rhythm and beat) used. The different types of vars (ballads about heroes, wars and popular love stories) are examples of these popular tunes. Some examples are:
- Tunde Asraje ki dhunee
- Malik Mureed tatha Chandra Sohian ki dhunee
- Rai Kamal Maujdi ki vaar ki dhunee
- Jodhe Vire Purbani ki dhunee
- Rai Mehme Hasne ki dhunee
- Lalla Behlima ki dhunee
- Raaney Kailash tatha Maaldey ki dhunee
c) There is popular folk music such as ghorian, satta, bir-harey and alahonian etc.
d) Guru Gobind Singh's poetry in Sikh scripture called Dasam Granth (which also includes compositions of other poets) is in folk tunes, rhythms and beats. Guru Ji was an accomplished musician in 235 raags. Indeed, Dasam Granth reputedly includes poetry to the beat of "Ferangi Taal" i.e western beat!
e) The Sikh dhadis to this day sing martial songs of Sikh heroes to music bases of popular vars including love stories e.g. those of Mirza, Heer etc.
f) Sant led Sikh sampardais (schools) and jathas (groups like the Akhand Kirtani Jatha) have their own style of singing, and, like most Sikh raagis (professional singers) today, do not follow prescribed raag bases in Guru Granth Sahib
f) As for who can do Gurbani kirtan, some popular raagis from the times of the Gurus and later at Darbar Sahib (at Amritsar) and other major Gurdwaras e.g. Bhai Chaand at Darbar Sahib and Bhai Laal at Nankana Sahib have been Muslim or non-initiated Sikhs.
Taking the Word to the Global Communities
With few exceptions (e.g. Japji of Guru Nanak), most Gurbani is in classical raags and should preferably be sung to those raag bases. However, as we have seen above any rigid application of this rule would go against the underlying spirit of Gurbani kirtan as taught and practised by the Gurus and great saintly Sikhs over the centuries. Singing Gurbani is meant to be a collective experience and not restricted only to those trained in classical raags. The sant tradition of the 20th Century was not bound by any rules of classical raags. Great Gursikhs like Baba Nand Singh and Bhai Sahib Bhai Randhir Singh took the message of the Word through musical Naam Simran (recitation of “Waheguru” – the Wondrous Dispeller of Darkness - as the Name of Ultimate Reality, which is felt and experienced but is beyond human comprehension) to the country folk in their own non-conformist popular kirtan styles. These Gursikhs were close to the Guru's thought (Gurmatt) and preached in the Guru's way. They brought thousands to the Guru's fold. Gurbani Kirtan, the rapturous expression of the Word in music, seeks resonance with the universal music emanating from all creation (the universal octave or wismaad naad). Although desirable, kirtan is not restricted by classical technicalities alone. Provided there is a meditative sincerity to attain the wismaad naad, Gurbani kirtan will always attract lonely souls seeking union with the Lord.
Gurbani Kirtan in the Sikh diaspora: recent trends
Starting with Guru Nanak Sahib (1469-1539), Gurbani, the Word in Guru Granth Sahib, has been taken to the people mostly through kirtan and katha (discourse). This trend continues in the Sikh diaspora worldwide. Dozens of Sikh raagi jathas (groups) travel around and perform kirtan in the Gurdwaras around the world. One interesting development in the last decade has been the interpretation of Gurbani kirtan in "World Music" - an initiative pioneered most successfully by Dya Singh of Australia with non-Sikh musician colleagues highly proficient in playing a variety of musical instruments. They are all dedicated to Guru Nanak’s universal message and have taken kirtan “World Music” style to mixed audiences worldwide. Meanwhile, American Sikhs have evolved their own meditative kirtan style along similar line. Again, a range of Western and Eastern musical instruments are used. These initiatives continue to enrich the great Gurbani kirtan tradition while taking the message of the Word Guru, Guru Granth Sahib, to all corners of the world.
About Indian Raags: Very few Indian raags have survived in their pristine form. In fact most Indian classical raags sung or played on musical instruments today are a mixture of middle-eastern and old Indian music and were given their present form from the thirteenth century onwards. The name of Hazrat Amir Khusro, a courtier of Emperor Allaodin Khilji, is associated with the establishment of the Northern Indian School of music. The poet Lochan in the fifteenth century first introduced the concept of thaats (thaat literally means “harmony” or “combination” in Sanskrit). A southern Indian scholar, Pandat Vayankatmukhi, worked out mathematically that it was possible to have 72 thaats but even he used only 19 of these to classify raags. Finally in the 19th century, a great scholar of music Pandit Vishnu Narain Bhaa’tkhand’e selected only 10 thaats based on 12 notes (7 shudh and 5 komal/thibar) to classify Indian raags. This is the system in use throughout India today, although, many music schools continue to disagree with this modern classification. Such controversies will remain and will continue to grow as Indian classical tradition is exposed to world music and international influences, and as musicians respond to the rhythm/beat needs of “westernised” ears. The ancient system of classifying raags into families i.e. main raags and their “wives and sons” described in the “Ragmala” in Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), has not been used for many centuries since the introduction of thaats. Many scholars of Indian music regard this as a great loss and corruption of the ancient raags; others see the change to the current (comparatively) much simpler system as a vehicle for making Indian classical music more popular and accessible. This change would be in the spirit of Gurbani kirtan.
* Dr Balbinder Singh Bhogal’s essay, “Approaching The Guru Granth Sahib” in “Our Greatest Treasure: Guru Granth Sahib, Vaisakhi 2004 Gala” published by the The Sikh Centennial Foundation
** Dr Bhogal see above.
(The first version of this article by Gurmukh Singh, was published in Amrit Kirtan in 1997.)
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Gurmukh Singh (UK)