[Author’s note: This article is dedicated to the memory of Bhai Sahib, Subedar Dharam Singh Sujjon of UK. It is in response to a query about the nature of the human soul (atma).
Ram rattan tab paayiay jao pehlay tajeh sareer. (SGGS 1366)
The Lord’s Jewel is obtained by first shedding the [egocentric] body.
Meeting Bhai Dharam Singh Sujjon in 2003
I met late Bhai Sahib Subedar Dharam Singh Sujjon in 2003 at the Panjab Times UK 38th Anniversary function held at Guru Nanak Sikh School (Hayes, London).
He walked over, a tall slim and saintly Gursikh with a grey flowing beard. He said Gur Fateh with a faint knowing smile and said, “Mai tuhanoo kafee samay to(n) milan babat soch reha si”. (I had been thinking of meeting you for some time). A short conversation followed. I had read his articles in Punjabi and he seemed to be well acquainted with my work, partly through renowned UK author, late S. Gurbachan Singh Sidhu of Nottingham (UK)
He said something about his age[i] and health and asked me to read and comment on some of his unpublished manuscripts. I told him that I was not qualified for such a task but he persuaded me with his humility and Gursikhi aura. Bhai Sahib subscribed to Bhai Sahib Bhai Randhir Singh ji’s interpretation of Gurbani. It is possible that he had read my translation of Bhai Rama Singh of Akhand Kirtani Jatha’s autobiography, “Roop Gobind ka, Raj Khalsay ka, Sikka Sonay ka”, to which I had given the title: “In Search of the True Guru” (Published by Panjab Times UK, April 2001, 412 pages).
He said: Pad ke, vichaar ke, jivayn tusseen ttheek samjho karr leo. (Read, reflect and do as you please.) That was the only time I met this saintly Gursikh, although we remained in touch for some years.
Over the next few months, I received some draft articles and a book draft with the title, Sikh Ik Sresht Dharam Kivayn? (How is Sikhi a leading faith? Sresht can also be translated as superior.)
As I read through these scripts (in Gurmukhi), it became clear that Bhai Sahib was truly a treasure-house of knowledge. He remained a humble Gursikh to the end.
Atma in Sikhi
A recent query about the human soul – atma or rooh - prompted me to look up some relevant passages from Subedar Dharam Singh Sujjon’s manuscripts. The specific question is, “What is atma with reference to man (mun) and mat (muth)?” For example, we distinguish between mun and muth when we say Sikhan da man neeva, mat uchi in our daily Ardaas (prayer). We pray that the muth, the discerning part of the mind of the Sikhs should remain in control of mun, the wandering or fickle part of the mind.
This article explores around the above query and looks at one Sikh view about the nature of atma, the human soul, and its relationship with mun and muth in the context of the cycle of birth, life and death.
The topic in hand is complex. Some repetition is not only unavoidable but also intentional. Often, related concepts are shrouded in mysticism and exploited by those wearing the scholarly garbs ranging from the Vedic Pandits to the derawadis running own schools and cults. However, it has been simplified in Gurbani as interpreted by Gursikh scholars.
Guru Nanak Sahib took the Message to the masses in their own simple language. That is because this human life is an opportunity for all to seek blissful union with the Ik Oangkar, the One Creator Being. That opportunity is there for everyone – from the pundit to the simple peasant. The Bhagats, whose Bani is included in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, were from diverse social backgrounds.
When discussing interpretation of Gurbani, I always aim to make the reader conversant with as many original Panjabi word-concepts as possible without interrupting the flow of thought.
In this article:
Sareer = body. Three types of sareer are mentioned: the physical (sathool) or earthly body which we can see; and the energy (sookhsham) and ideas/causal (karan) bodies which we cannot see.
Words which refer to the mind and will be explained later, are man (mun), mat (muth), budh, chitt, antehkaran.
Three bodies or sareers
The law of nature is that everything returns to its source of origin. That is true with human beings also.
Jeh te upjio Nanaka leen Tahe mai maan. (SGGS 1426.)
Believe it O Nanak, you will [one day] blend/merge with the Source of your origin.
When someone dies, we say the person has left the body. (We say: Falana sarir tiyag gyia hai.) It means after death a person leaves this earthly body behind and goes somewhere else.
The question is who left this body?
The body which is left behind is the earthly body made of bone, flesh, and blood vessels (hadd, maas, naadi ko pinjar….), called the sathool sarir. Sathool means material. It is the body we can touch and feel. It is made from matter, the panj tatt or five elements mentioned in Gurbani: fire, earth, water, air and sky/space.
The soul or jeev-atma resides in, or rather, is trapped in, three bodies or layers:
1) The physical body which we see and which will be shed on death;
2) The energy or etheric body; and,
3) The causal or ideas body.
Within these three bodies or layers resides the jeev-atma.
Bodies 2) and 3) above remain after death with the atma trapped in them due to the attraction of world-play referred to as maya, prakriti or nature which is the dynamic energy of the Creator Being.
Let us digress a little: In Sikh thought, this world play (maya or prakriti) is true (real) because the Creator is True, and maya is within His Hukam or Command. It is not an illusion as in Vedic thought. It is the Bachittar Natak (ref. Guru Gobind Singh), the wondrous or fantastic play in which we all have roles according to the Hukam of Akal Purakh. That is the reason why a Sikh is always a full participant in life and living, an activist and not an opt-out from human society.
One component of the sookhsham sareer is called the antehkaran which is combination of mun, budh, chit and ahankaar.
Mun is the intuitive part of the mind; budh the discerning part; and chit is consciousness which forms an idea in the mind, thinks and reflects upon. Perhaps, the reader should pause and reflect on these descriptions of the mind functioning in different modes.
Ahankaar means “I am”. This “I” entity is separate from the sathool, sookhsham, and karan sareers. It gives power to the three bodies and keeps them going. If it withdraws that power, the three bodies/sareer – sathool, sookhsham and karan – do not function. This fourth entity, “I am” is my true being.
It is called jeev-atma. It is the atma or rooh.
Jeev-atma is the offspring (ulaad) of Akal Purakh.
Kaho Kabir eh Raam ki ansh (SGGS 871)
Jeev-atma is the offspring of Akal Purakh and is always longing to return to its Source but is prevented by the outer three bodies/layers. It is covered by them like a jewel which is hidden in layers of mud or mire also referred to as pankaj in Gurbani.
Even after death only the outer physical body is shed but the other two bodies in which the jeev-atma is entrapped, remain and seek another body. And so, the cycle of birth and death continues numerous times until the jeev-atma is freed by the True Guru’s guidance to return to its Source, the Creator Being. That is the cycle of karam (karma).
In our physical body, is the sookhsham sareer. It is the energy or etheric body and is the true copy of the body (sathhool sareer). It is connected to every cell of the body and operates through the meridian system. Meridians are electricity pathways in the body along which vital energy flows. The system gives life force to the body. Without this life force the body is dead. It is lifeless.
The sookhsham sareer itself receives instruction from the karan sareer. Karan means the cause or the reason for something happening, as when say “Is da ki karan hai – what is the cause or reason for this”. So karan sareer is the causal body formed by ideas. The karan saree sends instruction and the sookhshm sareer converts these ideas to actions of the physical body by sending it electrical impulses through its network of meridians.
It sounds complicated but can be understood simply as: ideas activating electrical impulses in our body which in turn cause physical movement or actions. In daily language, the mind sends instructions through the network of nerves, which the body parts carry out as actions. Without thoughts, no signals are sent and there is no action.
So, why not say that we have a mind located in the head, a network of nerves which reaches all parts of the body to activate the physical body? I believe this concept of three bodies in one – the sathool, sookhsham and karan – shows that the three systems operate together to the level of every cell in the body. “I” awareness is in every cell of the body! On the other hand when we understand Hukam through Naam Simran (meditation on Naam), it is “You”, the Creator Being, Who is in every cell of the body!!
We must remember that this is a two- way system. The body parts carry out the instruction of the mind; however, the body parts also send back signals to the mind and influence and shape thoughts. So the mind instructs the body, but the body also instructs and can control the mind. The question is who or what is in control?
Beyond the causal or ideas body, the karan sareer, is the atma or jeev-atma , the offspring of Param Atma, the Akal Purakh or the Timeless Being. Let us pause and reflect: jeev-atma is very much part of the Param Atma, the Akal Purakh, just like a drop of water is not different from the ocean full of water. The drop arose from the ocean and seeks to return to the ocean. So, the jeev-atma seeks to return to the Param Atma or Akal Purakh. However, it is prevented from doing that by the karan and the sookhsham bodies engrossed in world-play.
The Hukam/Command of the Param Atma operates through the jeev atma which activates the causal/ideas, energy and physical bodies in that order. So, it is by the Hukam we suffer pain/unhappiness (dukhi) or are happy and contented (sukhi). One who understands, accepts dukh/sukh in Waheguru’s Hukam or Bhana, remains aloof and in a state of equipoise. One who does not, is affected by these.
We cannot see the Param Atma and the jeev-atma. Eventually, the jeev-atma entrapped by the ideas, energy and physical bodies (karan, sookhsham and sathool sareers) collectively, starts believing “I am” the doer, forgetting that it is the Will/Hukam of Akal Purakh which is the Doer. So hao-mai or ahankar i.e. “I am the doer” is created and takes over. That becomes the root cause of all pain and sorrow and the reason for the cycles of birth and death.
On death, the causal/ideas and energy bodies in which is imprisoned the jeev-atma, leaves this earthly body to be reborn.
Freedom from the cycle of birth and death is an important milestone in the life of a Gursikh. However, unlike many other faiths, it is not the end-objective. A Gursikh becomes a witness to this freedom while living, and moves on to the next stage which is to witness and experience the Ultimate Truth, the parkaash/pargaas of the Param Atma.
Thus, the end objective of Sikhi is stressed in the Pangti:
Raj na chaho(n) mukt na chaho(n) man preet charan kamlaaray. (SGGS 534)
I desire not an empire nor do I desire salvation/emancipation, my soul longs for love of your Lotus Feet.
The first stage is to witness the manifestation of the soul – atam parkaash. The next stage is Param Atam parkaash which has been compared to the light of millions of suns.
Saant sehej sookh man upjio, kot sur (soor=sun) Nanak pargaas. (SGGS 716)
Peace equipoise and pleasure/contentment have sprouted in my mind as I experience the light of millions of suns, O Nanak.
The above can be interpreted as a paradigm shift as the mind is cleared of the cob-web, the net (jaal) of ego-centric thought which ensnare the human soul, the jeev-atma, and filled with the Light of Naam – true experience of Divine Virtues and Commands, the Source of all creation, seen and unseen. Instead of “I”, the Akal Purakh is witnessed as the Doer.
The main objective of every human being is to merge with the Source of all creation, the Akal Purakh, the Timeless Being. Gurbani guides us towards that objective so that the jeev atma is freed from the three bodies described as above and is enabled to return to its Source (upaj sarot).
That can be achieved through inner detachment while we remain fully engaged in this world.
The Sikhi way is to become conscious of Naam i.e. Divine virtues and Commands which guide Sikhi living. A Sikh emulates those virtues and obeys the Commands (Hukm). One becomes aware of Naam when the Almighty enables us to find the Guru and follow his teachings[ii]. This Naam consciousness is only possible when the mind (mun) becomes inwardly focussed.
The human mind, mun, “looks” outwards and experiences the outside world through the body senses. Thus, when outwardly focussed, the mind becomes totally engrossed in world play. Therefore, during life on earth, the mind remains pre-occupied with the world play. It begins to believe that it is the doer i.e. “I am” the doer. “I” am happy. “I” am suffering etc. The connection with the Real Doer, the Akal Purakh is broken. That becomes the cause of cycles of birth and death
The mind (mun) is also capable of looking inwards and experiencing/realising the jeev-atma, the soul. The jeev-atma is the offspring of the Param Atma, the Supreme Soul, the Creator Being. Naam Simran is the Gurmat way to turn our senses (mun) inwards to witness and realise the jeev-atma. That is when the mun becomes Jote-saroop.
Panch tatt mil kaayia kini.
Tis meh Raam rattan lai chini.
Atam Raam Raam meh aatam.
Har paayiai sabad vichaara hey (SGGS 1030)
Bringing together the five elements the body is created.
Within that seek the jewel of the Lord.
The soul is in the Lord and the Lord is in the soul.
The Lord is obtained by meditating on Naam.
So, in Gurbani, mun has a pivotal role in realising our true self, the jeev-atma, the ray of Param-atma (Supreme-soul) in every being.
Naam is the means for freeing the jeev atma from the causal (ideas) and the astral/energy bodies. Otherwise, the jeev-atma remains trapped in the cycle of transmigration. Realization of the jeev-atma leads to union with Akal Purak in the realm of Sach Khand, the Ultimate Reality.
Akal Purakh is the self-aware unlimited energy field in which we all live. IT is the Ik Oangkar in Sikh thought: the Singularity which expands and contracts at Own Will or Hukam. We all live in this Self-aware Energy field like fish in water. The jeev-atma is part of Akal Purakh in the same way as a drop water is part of the ocean. It yearns to return to its Source as a drop of water seeks to return to the ocean from whence it came.
So, the Sikhi way is to understand, accept and obey the Divine Law and Commands, the Hukam. In this way, all aspects of Sikhi life, activity and social activism, become attuned to and are in complete resonance with the Divine Law (Hukam). The ultimate objective of human life is achieved through:
Hukam boojh Param Pad paaee. (SGGS 292)
By understanding and obeying the Divine Law operating in creation, the supreme status, the ultimate objective of human life, is achieved.
Sikhi is both, outward looking (worldly) and inwardly contemplative with focus on Naam, i.e. Divine virtues and commands.
There is no re-birth for a Gursikh.
Gurmukh Singh OBE
11 September 2018
© Copyright Gurmukh Singh (U.K.)
[i] Bhai Sahib was born on 8 September 1918. However, having lost contact with him, I am not sure of the year of his departure for Sach Khand..
[ii] Ref: S. Rawel Singh’s Understanding Japji Sahib: Review and e-book at link:
To quote from the review: The author clarifies that living by Naam means emulating Divine virtues/attributes and living by divine commands. That requires daily/timely sustained effort. The reader is left in no doubt that Naam japna requires both, mental and physical activism/effort.