Concepts in sikhism

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MUL MANTRA (G. S. Talib). This is the title commonly given to the opening lines of the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikh scripture, or to these lines when they or a portion of them are repeated at the beginning of each new raga section as contained in the Holy text. This is the primary or fundamental formula of the Sikh faith. Transliterated into Roman script it would read: (ik) oankar satinam karta purakhu nirbhau nirvairu akal murati ajuni saibhan gurprasadi. The English paraphrase, given the inherent inadequacies of the genre translation, would read, “God is one; call Him Eternal truth; He is the Supreme creator; He knows no fear and is at enmity with none. His being is Timeless and Formless; He is autogenous, attainable through the grace of the Guru.” Its placing at the beginning of the Sikh Scripture and its use, in its entirety or in part, at a number of places in the text, especially at the opening of new raga sections indicates the importance in the Sikh tradition of the vision that the Mul Mantra summons. The Mul Mantra is spoken on all occasions to invoke divine aid, to bless or to sanctify. In usage, the Mul Mantra corresponds to the numerous Hindu formulae such as Gayatri Mantra, Om Shivay Namah, Sri Ganeshaya Namah, or Namo Bhagvate Vasudevah. Similarly, it corresponds to the Islamic Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ar-Rahim, or the Kalima, La illa, il Allah Muhammad-ur-Rasul Allah, the Buddhist Om Mani Padme Hum or Buddham Sharnam Gachchhami and similar formulas or invocations in other religious traditions. It is enunciated at the beginning before a new venture in life is undertaken. It is also repeated to fortify the soul against despondency or lower tendencies.

In the sequence in which these epithets are placed, this unique piece brings forth the inner dynamics of the Sikh way of life along with its theology, philosophy, culture, sociology, ethics and aesthetics. It differs fundamentally from the ‘secret’ mantras of certain other traditions. Unlike the latter it is communicated to any seeker who sincerely wishes to meditate on it, to live by faith in it. It is used openly and is taught not in a secret session between the initiator and neophyte but in the presence of the assembly. Besides the Mul Mantra, there are in the Sikh Scripture other mantras or (sabdas) to render worship, express faith or invoke divine blessings, but the repetition of Mul Mantra at numerous places establishes its fundamental and supreme importance. It is repeated with due reverence by a person being admitted to the Khalsa brotherhood and is thus also a formula of initiation.

The term Mul Mantra itself receives early mention in the writings of Sikhism. A hymn of Guru Nanak in praise of meditation on God, “mul mantru hari namu rasainu, devotion to God’s Name, the basic creed of all, is the elixir of immortality” (GG, 1040). The Sikh poet and savant Bhai Gurdas says: “sati nam karta purakh mul mantra simran parvanai.” (Let the devotees put faith in Mul Mantra which enunciates sati nam karta purakh) and Mantra mul satiguru bachan ik man hoe aradhai koi (Rare is the devotee who meditates on the Mul Mantra, the holy Guru’s Word).

Mul Mantra is, in the first place, the unequivocal and firm assertion of the vision of eternity and immutability of God who is the Creator of the Universe. The quality of eternity is emphasized by representing God as timeless, unborn and self-existent, and by dissociating him from fear and rancour. Emphasis is also placed on devotion and on seeking, in all humility, the Divine grace without which realization is not possible.

Ik Oankar is composed of two parts: the numeral Ik, or one, stands for the sole Formless Reality: signifying His existence as well as His oneness, and Oankar (Omkar) is expressive of Absoluteness of God and is synonymous with Brahm. The root-word of Omkar is of course Om which occurs in Indian philosophical literature to express the concept of the Supreme Being and is held to be the holiest of all. In Sikh sacred writings, however, om as extended into Omkar (written and pronounced as ‘Oankar’) is adopted. In Guru Nanak’s composition Oankar is said to be the essence as well as the creator of the three worlds.

Satinam: Eternal Truth. It is an amplification of Ik Oankar and is, in a sense, its tribute. It implies the immutable character of the Absolute who is beyond categories of the qualitative common names based on His actions. His real name is Sati which denotes a homogenous indestructible power, that is truth which was in the beginning, truth which is in the middle and truth which will be in the end.

Karta Purakhu: Creator. Guru Nanak, contrary to the Advaitic and Sankhya concept of purusa, affirms his belief in God being the Creator and His followers full of activity. Purakhu in the Mul Mantra also implies the pervasive reality, leading to the belief in the immanence of God as against the transcendentalism of Islam and Advait Vedanta.

Nirbhau: Fearless. Nirvairu: Without enmity. Since Oankar is the Supreme Being and all else His own creation, He is not under fear of anyone or anything. Fear always arises from the sense of ‘otherness’ or duality. God is free from such maladies. Similarly, He has rancour towards none, again in contrast to the deities of Puranic and epic Hindu literature. Since God is the only One Supreme Being, He cannot be inimical towards anyone.

Akal Murati: Timeless and Formless. Though Akal means eternal, the juxtaposition of these words usually results in their being treated similarly in translation. Sikhism teaches that God is nirguna, i.e. beyond qualities: when he is called saguna, it is as ‘word’ that he becomes manifest, not in a physical form. These two words reiterate God as eternal by further defining the concept—the eternal transcends strictures of time and form.

Ajuni: unborn. Saibhan: self-existent. Saibhan is a popular form of the Upanisadic svyambhu, implying self-willed existence. Here it seems to qualify the first term which in turn is a denial of the Hindu concept of avatar. God is not only unborn, He manifests Himself purely and only as a result of His own will. This autonomy is a necessary prerequisite of the concept contained in the next and final part of the mantra. Ajuni and saibhan are two facets of one vision and imply that the Creator is not born of any of the known physical processes of procreation, but that His Being is eternal and inhering in His own volition to be. Ajuni appears to be analogous to the Qur’anic affirmation in Sur Ik las (La Yalid wa la yulad—He neither is born of any, nor is any born of Him). Despite this similarity, there is a clear distinction with regard to the context and the significance of these affirmations. Ajuni has the force of repudiating the incarnation doctrine, personalized as Guru. Grace is the final arbiter. By His favour all matters come to requiem. Through His grace the individual becomes worthy of His favour. The Guru shows the way by which God’s approval is won.

The Mul Mantra shows the way in which Sikhism relates the transcendence and immanence of God. In Sikh teaching with its emphasis on bhakti, God is seen as immanent in all existence. He is ‘qualified’ with certain attributes to which the individual human self can offer devotion and love. In the Mul Mantra it is unmistakably the transcendent aspect that gets emphasis. God as revealed in this creed is the indivisible Absolute, Timeless and Uncreated. This transcendent-immanent aspect of God, neither element of which can be omitted from the full enunciation of the Sikh creed, sets it apart from the general trend of belief in Indian religious devotion; this divine presence does not shed its character of abstractness, to be realized in the soul and not viewed as an object of sense-perception, even though it is invested with supreme beauty and loveliness to inspire and receive devotion. Like Allah in Islam, Ik Oankar in Sikhism is transcendent yet a presence.


1. Sabdarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1964

2. Saluja, Jagjit Singh, Mul-mantar: Sankalp ate Vivechan. Ludhiana, 1982

3. Sher Singh, Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944

4. Guninder Kaur, The Guru Granth Sahib: Its Physics and Metaphysics. Delhi, 1977

G. S. T.
NADAR (G. S. Talib) (Arabic nazar: glance, favourable regard, favour) implying Divine grace, is a concept central to Sikh religious tradition affirming its faith in a Transcendental Being responsive to human prayer and appeal for forgiveness and mercy. It reiterates at the same time a belief in the sovereignty of Divine Will (raza) overriding the law of karma which itself is a constituent of hukam, the all-pervading and all-regulating Divine Law. From His Will flows grace which as the divine initiative leads the seeker to his ultimate destiny. It is postulated as the critical determinant in this process. In their holy utterances recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Gurus have repeatedly stressed how indispensable is God’s grace in one’s spiritual quest and how in devotion and contemplation it be constantly solicited. Some other terms used to express the concept of nadar are prasad (graciousness, favour, mediation), kirpa (krpa: tenderness, favour, clemency), kirpa katakh (krpa kataksa: glance or nod of grace), and daya or taras (pity, mercy, compassion) drawn from Indian tradition. Others, drawn from Islamic tradition, particularly of Sufi orientation, are karam (bounty, favour, grace), bakhshish or bakhshish (gift, grant, beneficence) and mihar (love, favour, mercy).

Nadar implies a cosmic order wherein a law superior to the law of karma, i.e. ordained system of retribution, operates. In systems like the Sankhya and Purva Mimansa and in the creeds like Buddhism wherein karma is held as supreme in determining and shaping destiny, the concept of nadar will have little relevance. It is in the theistic creeds, particularly those with attachment to devotionalism and with sensitiveness to cosmic mysteries that it takes priority as a principle overriding the retribution. Within the traditional Indian religious thought, the concept of grace finds its strongest expression in the philosophy of Visistadvaita (identity in difference) formulated by Ramanuja. In Islamic tradition which describes Allah employing epithets such as rahman and rahim (merciful), karim (beneficent, gracious), ghafur (forgiving, clement), sattar (concealer of sins) and rauf (benign), karam and fazal are the words used for grace. In Christianity, too, the concept of grace is firmly established. But even in these creeds grace is not uncaused or an arbitrary favour, but is the result of good actions, devotion and complete surrender and submission of the self to the Universal Self. Yet the phenomenon is not unknown that of the many who tread the path of good actions and devotion and strive to grasp the Ultimate Truth, only a few in fact lay hold on it. As says Guru Nanak: tere darsan kau keti bilalai, virla ko chinasi gur sabadi milai—many there be who long for Thy vision; but few encounter and perceive the Guru’s Word (GG, 1188).

In the Sikh system the doctrine of nadar is juxtaposed to that of karma. Karma is certainly important in that it will determine a favourable or unfavourable birth. At times the theory seems to receive support in the Sikh scriptures that those who in their previous existences have lived lives of relative merit acquire thereby a faculty of perception which enables them to recognize the Guru. But the total order of creation visualized in Sikhism, besides according a necessary place to karma as far as the initial perception of the Word is concerned, specifies mercy or grace as the ultimate arbiter. It is finally through nadar that the initial desire for liberation is roused as well as opportunity to lay hold on the means of liberation is obtained. In a significant line in the Japu, Guru Nanak contrasts the two, karma and nadar, karami avai kapara nadari mokhu duarukarma determines the nature of our birth, but grace alone reveals the door to liberation (GG, 2). Nadar is the basic and primal factor even in prompting the human self (jivatman) to devotion. Says Guru Arjan: ja kau kirapa karahu prabh ta kau lavahu sev—whomsoever Thou favourest, O Lord, him Thou putest in the path of devotion (GG, 814). And, again, it is through God’s grace that the seeker reaches his goal: gur parsadi hari paiai matu ko bharami bhulahi—through Divine grace is union with God attained, let no one linger in doubt about this (GG, 936).

Just why Akal-Purakh should show mercy or grace in this manner is a matter which must remain a mystery. Mankind’s understanding of the Divine Order will not provide an explanation for the fact that the prerequisite perception is awakened in some, whereas others remain bereft of it. There is a point beyond which the human understanding cannot proceed, and the giving or withholding of such perception is an issue which lies beyond that point. Akal-Purakh confers this awareness of nam, sabda and hukam, through His sovereign Will (raza) and Grace (nadar), freely and openly bestowed, yet not upon all seekers. The ability to find the True Guru, to hear to the Guru’s voice (sabda) and to respond to it comes to some by Akal-Purakh’s gift of mercy. Were He to withhold it, there is nothing a man can do. Without this gift of initial perception, without a divine stirring, the Guru will not be heeded and the divine Name remains unrecognized. There is, however, no cause for fatalism and despair. Sovereignty of the Divine Will notwithstanding, Guru Nanak points to the path to divine favour. One is to be content in His Will and to cleanse the mind with a view to deserving and receiving His Grace, if and when bestowed. Resorting to the imagery of curd-making for which the vessel must be thoroughly washed, the Guru affirms at the opening of Raga Suhi: bhanda dhoi baisi dhupu devahu tau dudhai kau javahu—wash the vessel, purify it with incense, only then proceed to receive the milk (GG, 728). Another helpful way is that of sukrit (right action) which has a lasting effect. Says Guru Nanak: “Listen, listen to our advice, O my mind, it is the right action that will last; and there may not be another chance” (GG, 154-55). At another place, he says: “Everyone desires, but whether one will be fortunate enough to achieve depends upon karam” (GG, 157). The use of the term karam raises a kind of ambiguity. Karam as spelt and pronounced in Punjabi may mean either the Sanskrit karma (action) or its resultant karam of Punjabi meaning fate or destiny, or it may mean the Persian karam (grace, favour). In any case, the doctrine in Sikhism is that nadar is most likely to descend on one who engages in good actions. Another way to earn grace is ardas, prayer and supplication in extreme humility, self-abnegation and self-surrender to Divine Will. Such humility of spirit is the basis on which the spiritual and ethical life pleasing to God may be built, and grace obtained. In a nutshell, Divine favour (nadar) prompting the self to prayer and devotion may possibly be won through humble supplication and through cultivation of virtue and right action.


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1969

2. Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs. Patiala, 1970

3. Sher Singh, The Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944

4. Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi,1990

5. Wazir Singh, Philosophy of Sikh Religion. Delhi, 1981

6. Harned, David Baily, Grace and Common Life. Patiala,1970

NAM (L. M. Joshi) (lit. name), a collection of sounds possessing the capacity to signify a person, place, thing or idea, is a key term in Sikh theology, embodying a concept of central importance. It subsumes within it the revelation of God’s being, the only fit object of contemplation for the individual, the standard to which his life must conform, and the essential means of purification and liberation.

Nam translates easily and accurately into the English word ‘Name’, but this does not provide an actual understanding of its full import as a conceptual category in Sikhism. Even as commonly understood, a name is not a mere label. It expresses something of the nature of whatever it designates, or at least points towards that nature. As used in the compositions of the Gurus, the word nam is a summary expression for the whole nature of Akal-Purakh (God). Anything which may be affirmed concerning Akal-Purakh is an aspect of nam. Because He is all-powerful, it follows that omnipotence is part of nam. Because He knows all things, omniscience is similarly a feature of nam. The many and varied qualities which may be attributed to Akal-Purakh—His timelessness, His transcendence and immanence, even His manifestation in the form of the created world of time and space—are all to be regarded as aspects of nam. And because Akal-Purakh is infinite, so too is His Name.

This stress upon nam as an expression of the inherent nature of Akal-Purakh should not imply that it is essentially passive. In the Sikh belief, it is crucial that individuals should understand its active role. Nam is the bringer of liberation. The means to release from the circuit of birth and death are enunciated by the Guru, and the message thus communicated by him enjoins all people to bring their lives into harmony with the divine Name. By means of regular devotion, coupled with strict virtues, each person can develop a pattern of living which accords with the nature of Akal-Purakh as expressed in his Name. By bringing one’s being and personality into ever closer conformity with the being of Akal-Purakh as affirmed by the Name one shall obtain liberation from the cycle of transmigration. The task is not an easy one, but persistently pursued it leads to the ultimate harmony. For some people this condition of perfect peace can be attained while they are yet living this life.

The person who wishes to appropriate the benefits conferred by a discernment of the divine Name must undergo the discipline of nam simaran, remembrance, i.e. constant awareness of the Name. The act of simaran (smarana) is on the one hand related to the act of surati (sruti), hearing or listening to the Word (nam, sabda), and on the other to the function of smriti, i.e. consciousness which means retention in one’s awareness of what has been heard. The notion of nam simaran is thus similar to that of surati-sabda. At one level this involves the practice of nam japana or repeating the Name, a long established convention whereby merit is acquired by devoutly repeating the sacred word. This helps the devotee to internalize the meaning of the word he may be uttering and in this sense the practice is explicitly enjoined in the Sikh faith Further, the discipline must be practised in a corporate sense with devotees gathering as a fellowship (satsang) to sing hymns of praise (kirtan). A third level which is also required of the loyal disciple is meditation. Akal-Purakh, as expressed in the Name, is to be remembered not merely in the repeating of auspicious words or the singing of inspired hymns but also in deep contemplation of the divine mystery of the Name. All three practices constitute legitimate and necessary forms of nam simaran; and all serve progressively to reveal the divine Name to the person who earnestly seeks it. As Guru Ram Das, Nanak IV, says in Sarang ki Var, “Name incorruptible is beyond our comprehending. At the same time, it is our constant companion and pervades all creation. The true Guru discloses it unto us and lets us perceive it in our hearts. It is through God’s grace that we meet with such a Guru” (GG, 1242). According to Guru Arjan, God’s Name is the key to emancipation (mukti) and the means of attaining it (jugati); God’s Name is the fulfilment (tripati) and enjoyment (bhugati). He who repeats God’s Name suffers no setback. God’s Name is the devotee’s distinction. Repeating God’s Name the devotee wins honour (GG, 264-65).

In Sikhism, nam is an ontological category, a term denoting the Divine presence, a proper name for the Reality, an epithet of the Truth which does not exist apart from or in addition to the Truth, but is Truth by itself. Nam thus means Akal-Purakh, the Creator who is beyond time. The word is sometimes used in compounds such as sati-nam and hari-nam, the Name of God. Occasionally, it is also used as a prefix as in nam-nidhan (the treasure of nam) and nam-ra (sap or essence of nam). In Sikh usage, nam is not mere name, but the Ultimate Reality itself. Nam is that Omnipresent Existence which manifests itself in the form of creation and is the source and sustenance of all beings and things (GG, 284). In other words, nam is the manifest form of the Transcendent Spirit, unknowable otherwise to the human mind. Nam is the source of creation and like God is all-pervasive. At the same time, nam is coextensive with creation; there is no space where nam is not—jeta kita teta nau vinu navai nahi ko thau: all that Thou hast created is Thy Name, i.e. manifestation; there is no place where Thy Name does not pervade (GG, 4). This manifestation of nam is orderly; its operation conforms to a fixed plan. From this point of view nam is identifiable with hukam, the divine Ordinance, and is closely

connected with divine Will (raza) and divine Grace (prasad), which are further aspects of the divine Ordinance (hukam). Nam reflects the immanence of the Transcendent One in creation, which does not exist apart from His conscious Will.

The word nam is normally discussed in association with the terms shabad (Skt. sabda) and guru, and it is also closely linked to the word hukam. In many instances nam and shabad are used interchangeably; in other cases, however, they can be separated. “From shabad has originated nam” (GG, 644), which implies that the Truth as mediated by the Guru is the shabad (Word), whereas Truth as received by the believer is nam. The Guru is the ‘voice’ (bani) of Akal-Purakh speaking the ‘Word’ (shabad) which communicates the truth of the Name (nam). He who cognizes shabad shelters nam in his heart. Bhai Gurdas, in his Varan, I.37, says that Guru Nanak set in motion the wheel of sati-nam or the vision of Holy Reality. Here nam refers to the doctrine or teaching of Guru Nanak. This doctrine is traced by Guru Nanak to his preceptor who is none other than God. “In whose heart is embedded the Name of the Lord is the true preceptor” (GG, 287). He it is who illumines the mind of the devotee with the nam. The mysteries of nam are indeed manifold; at several places in Guru Granth Sahib it is called nidhan or the treasure-house of riches (GG, 29, 522); without it everyone is poor (GG, 1232). It is called the light, joti (jyoti) which dispels all darkness (GG, 264).

In Sikhism, the concept of nam represents a whole religious way, a discipline leading to God-realization. But one cannot cognize nam without divine Grace. Words commonly used in this context are nadar, daya, prasad, krpa, etc., variously translated as ‘grace’ or ‘mercy’. Deluded by his haumai (egocentricity), man remains blind to the nam which lies all around him, and by the act of grace will be put in the path to realizing it. By the favour of Akal-Purakh he meets the holy Guru who makes him aware of nam. The person who pursues and glorifies nam and, in obedience to the Guru, lives a life which conforms to it, will eventually achieve the blissful serenity of union with the Divine. The actual obligations of a life of obedience find expression in the regular, disciplined practice of the various forms of nam-simaran, individually as well as in sangat, and in acts of approved piety. Faithful cultivation of nam lifts the disciple to that sublime condition known as mystic experience by far transcending the power of expression. It is this experience which frees him forever from the cycle of transmigration and confers on him the gift of eternal bliss.


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1969

2. Jodh Singh, Gurmat Nirnaya. Lahore, 1932

3. Sher Singh, Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944

4. Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs. Patiala, 1970

5. Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi, 1990

L. M. J.

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