Concepts in sikhism

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SHABAD (W. H. McLeod) (Sanskrit sabda, of obscure etymology) is generally rendered as sound, voice or tone. Another series of meanings includes word, utterance, speech. In distinctive Sikh usage shabad means a hymn or sacred work from the Guru Granth Sahib. In the theological sense, it stands for the ‘Word’ revealed by the Guru. In the Guru Granth Sahib it is spelt as sabad with its inflectional variations sabadu, sabadi and sabade. Its equivalent substitutes used in the Sikh Scripture are dhun or dhuni (Sanskrit dhvani), nad, anahat or anahad nad (Sanskrit nada or anahata nada), bachan, bani, kavao. Sabad is often linked with guru to form gursabad or gur ka sabad (Guru’s word). Inasmuch as shabad is connected with both sound and voice, in English it may be rendered as ‘word-sound.’

In the Nyaya and Vaisesika systems, sabda as verbal testimony is acknowledged as a valid means of knowledge (sabda-pramana). Grammarians such as Yaska, Panini and Katyayana take sabda or pada as a unit of language or speech (vak or vaka). The word sabda first occurs in a philosophical sense in a late Upanisad, the Maitri Upanisad. This text states that Brahman is of two types, sabda brahman and asabda brahman, Brahman with sound and soundless Brahman, respectively. According to some schools, notably tantric, the essence of sabda lies in its significative power (sakti): This power is defined as a relation between sabda and artha, between word-sound and meaning.

In Guru Nanak’s usage, and subsequently in that of his successor Gurus, shabad means the Word of divine revelation or any aspect of Akalpurakh’s revelation to mankind. The Word is ‘spoken’ by the voice of Akalpurakh. The ‘voice’ is the divine Guru who may be one of the ten personal Gurus of the Sikh tradition, but may also be the utterance of the mystical Guru. This was particularly the case with Guru Nanak for there was no personal Guru who could speak the Word of Akalpurakh to him. The Gurus’ voice—their utterances—as preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib is gurshabad or gurbani. It is noteworthy that the term shabad, which occurs independently in the Guru Granth Sahib 1271 times, is also linked 572 times with the term guru. It is nowhere used in the sense of ordinary human word or speech; in reference to common human speech other terms such as bolna, boli, akhan, kahankahavan and kathan are used.

Being a term of mystical import, shabad is capable of multiple implications. In Sikhism, shabad or the Word originally belongs to God, the Guru being only the instrument through which it is articulated. Guru Nanak calls his own speech as khasam ki bani—the utterance of the Lord Master (GG, 722); for Guru Ram Das, Nanak IV, it is satigur ki bani—utterance of the true Guru—which the Creator makes him articulate (GG, 308); and Guru Arjan, Nanak V, says, nanaku bolai tis ka bolaia—Nanak speaks what He makes him speak (GG, 1271). At places in the Scripture, shabad is directly identified with God Himself (GG, 162, 448, 945). Elsewhere it is called Guru (GG, 601, 635). In some cases shabad is used in contexts which seem to make it for all practical purposes a Synonym of nam (GG, 932, 1125). This is understandable, for in Sikh theology God and Guru, shabad and nam share common range of meaning. God speaks through the eternal Guru and also he makes himself known through shabad, the Word, so that “the Word is the Guru,” as says Guru Nanak (GG, 943). At the same time, God makes the principles of liberation known to mankind through the immanent pattern of nam The three terms, nam, shabad and guru overlap in meaning, each pointing towards God. At times they mean exactly the same thing. Each of the three terms has, however, a certain area which is explicitly its own. Akalpurakh speaks through the eternal Guru and for His ‘voice’ the only possible word is guru. To mankind he makes known the principles of liberation and for this immanent pattern the only effective word is nam. The ‘Word’ that he speaks in making known this pattern of liberation is the shabad and for that ‘Word’ shabad is the only term that will serve.

The shabad or the Word is described in its frequent usage by Guru Nanak and his successors more in terms of what it does than in terms of what it literally is. This is natural, for it is the function which gives it meaning and it is in actual experience that it is to be known rather than in any purely intellectual sense. One of the shades of signification of shabad is hukam, the Divine cosmic order for the Divine creative might. The word kavao, a synonym of shabad, is used in this sense (GG, 3, 1003). And shabad itself: “ By the Divine Word occur creation and dissolution; by the divine Word again comes about creation—utapati parlau sabade hovai/sabade hi phiri opati hovai” (GG, 1l7). Again: “chahudisi hukamu varatai prabh tera chahudisi namu patalan, sabh mahi sabadu varatai prabh sacha karami milai baialan—in all four directions, Lord! is thy order operative; in all four directions and in the nether regions prevails thy Name. In all beings is manifest the eternal Lord’s holy Word. By good fortune is the Eternal attained (GG, 1275). “Shabad not only creates, it also sustains (GG, 228, 282) as it also destroys and recreates (GG, 112.).

The function of the shabad is that it provides the means whereby man can know both Akalpurakh and the path which leads to Him, the way in which the individual may secure release from the bonds of transmigration and so attain union with God in Guru Nanak’s understanding of the term sahaj. Again and again shabad is declared to be the essential pointer to the way of liberation, the means whereby a person can be made aware of the presence around him and within him of the nam or divine Name. The path to liberation lies through recognition of the immanent Name (nam) and the duty of disciplined nam simaran or remembrance of the divine Name. The prime purpose of the shabad is to reveal this path, in all its wonder and variety, to the person who is prepared to be a believer. Given the initial act of Akalpuarkh’s favour (nadar), there arises in men and women a longing for the transmigratory bonds to be broken, leading to a state of union with the divine. To such people the shabad is spoken, or we may say, the shabad speaks. The complete mystery of shabad is not completely within the range of human understanding, for the shabad shares in the infinity of Akalpurakh, but it is sufficiently within reach to be readily accessible to all who desire it. In this sense the Gurus have called shabad a dipak (lamp) bringing enlightenment (jnana) gian for mankind to see the path (GG 124, 664, 798). Elsewhere it is described as pure and purifying (GG, 32, 86, 121).

Shabad is the subtle knowledge essential for emancipation. Says Guru Ram Das: “tera sabadu agocharu gurmukhi paiai Nanak nami samai jiu—Thy invisible knowledge by the Master’s guidance is obtained; saith Nanak, this by absorption in the Name is attained” (GG, 448). “What can one offer to him through whom sabda is received? Offer him thy head, annulling egoism—tisu kia dijai ji sabadu sunae. . . . ihu siru dijai apu gavae. . . .”(GG, 424). “Quaff the Master’s teaching that is amrit or elixir; thus shall thy self be rendered pure—gur ka sabadu amrit rasu piu ta tera hoi nirmal jiu”(GG, 891). The Guru’s sabda is like an anchor for the wavering mind. Guru Arjan says in the Sukhmani; “As is the edifice propped up by the pillar, so is the Guru’s sabda support of the mind—jiu mandar kau thamai thammanu, tiu gur ka sabadu manahi asthammanu” (GG, 282). In the Japu (GG, 8) in the line ghariai sabadu sachi taksai, i.e. forge God-consciousness in such a holy mint, shabad is used in the sense of God-consciousness (jnana). A similar sense is yielded by an affirmation in Guru Amar Das’ Anandu: “Andarahu jin ka mohu tuta tin ka Sabadu sachai savaria—they whose attachment to the world ceases their spiritual vision is purified” (GG, 9l7).

One of the features of Sikh doctrine of shabad is the emphasis placed on nam, i.e. repetition of the Name (nam) of God; this name is shabad. The recitation (path) of the Guru Granth Sahib and of the texts from it is an essential part of Sikh practice. One of the nine forms of bhakti is listening (sravana) to shabad, nam, bani, i.e. words denoting God and His greatness. Words or sounds are the means of celebrating and singing the glories of God and this act is called kirtan. Since worship of images is forbidden in his faith, a Sikh takes the help of words and sounds in his daily meditation (dhian, dhyana) on God. These words and sounds are literary and vocal symbols of the unmanifest sound (sabadu agocharu) which is of the nature of light (joti—sarup). Without this luminous Word-sound there is darkness in and out. The light of shabad is the principle of knowledge by means of which one knows the reality of God. He who succeeds in closing the nine doors (nau darvaje) in his body and in opening the tenth door (dasvan duar) by breaking the hard wall of ignorance, enters the luminous chamber which is His own real abode. Here he listens to that mystic melody which is unstruck or deathless sound (anahada nad, anahata sabda). Knowledge or understanding of shabad is important, like the recitation of it. One merges in the Truth only when one comprehends the utterance (bani) and has experienced the sound (shabad). To this concept of shabad are added in Sikhism the necessity of a virtuous living and of the grace of blessing of God or Guru in enabling one to discover the shabad.


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1959

2. Gurdas, Bhai, Varan. Amritsar, 1962

3. Jodh Singh, Bhai, Gurmat Nirnai. Lahore, 1932

4. Pritam Singh, ed., Sikh Phalsaphe di Rup Rekha. Amritsar, 1975

5. Nirukt Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Patiala, 1972

6. McLeod, W. H., Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. Oxford, 1968

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

8. Jodh Singh, The Religious Philosophy of Guru Nanak. Delhi, 1983

W. H. M.
SHARDHA ((L. M. Joshi) or Sardha (Skt. sraddha), a conscious positive mental attitude towards a person owing to some special development of a virtue or power in him, is closely connected with faith or bhakti, i.e. loving devotion to God. Etymologically speaking, it is a compound word formed by a combination of srat, ‘heart’ and dha, ‘to put’, meaning to put one’s heart and mind on something. Translated into English, belief, trust, confidence and faith are the terms which put forth different shades of sraddha. In so far as sraddha is related to sradha, a funeral rite in Hinduism performed in honour of the departed spirits of dead ancestors or relatives, it can be interpreted as reverence.

Shardha or faith is the bedrock of all religions. In the Vedic texts, sraddha denotes a belief in the powers of rituals and the priests for securing all that is desired including svarga, heaven. The Upanisads, however, present us with new dimensions of sraddha. In these texts, sraddha emerges as a moral and religious notion. Here it is closely connected with the ideas of dhayana, yoga, karma, sansara and moksa, the ideas which were originally peculiar to Sramana thought. The Mundaka Upanisad representative of the Sramanic impact treats the entire heritage of old Vedic knowledge as lower and declares that knowledge as higher (paravidya) which reveals the Indestructible (Mundak. 1.1.5.). This higher knowledge which leads to spiritual emancipation is the object of sraddha. However, it must be noted here that the nature and function of sraddha in these texts are relative to ritualistic, theistic, dualistic and non-dualistic theologies. The Bhagavadgita gives to this term a definitive meaning for subsequent Brahmanical developments. According to the Bhagavadgita, faith (sraddha) is a factor in mukti (III.31): those endowed with faith attain wisdom, and those without faith perish (IV. 39-40): faith is directly associated with devotion and adoration (VII. 21): among all the yogis one endowed with faith is the best. This soteriological significance and importance of sraddha is tacitly accepted in all the sects of the Brahmanical tradition including Saivism, Saktism, Vaisnavism and the yogic schools. In addition to God or goddess, the prescribed paths, and the scripture, in these schools, the position of teacher or guru becomes an increasingly important object of sraddha. The concept of sraddha occupies an important place in the Sramanic traditions of Jainism and Buddhism also.

The word sardha occurs in the Guru Granth Sahib at numerous places. Often it is associated with other related theological terms such as prem, bhagati (bhakti), puja and seva (devotion, adoration and service, respectively). The necessity of faith and confidence is tacitly accepted in Sikhism and there is a general uniformity in its meaning throughout the Sikh texts. Besides sardha we find other words, nihcha (nischaya), bisvas and partiti (GG, 87, 284, 292, 877, 1270); these words may be translated as ‘faith’, ‘belief’ and ‘confidence’. The word partiti (Skt. pratiti) can also be translated as faith or belief. One has partiti when one has clear apprehension of or insight into anything; it gives the sense of complete understanding, ascertainment and conviction. By implication partiti means credit, respect, trust, confirmation and acknowledgement. Partiti thus is a synonym of shardha in Sikhism. It is a cardinal moral virtue and a prerequisite of piety. The nature and function of shardha in Sikh religion and the way of life cannot be understood without recourse to Sikh theology.

Devotion to God proceeds from faith in God: faith in God is linked to love for God: love for God manifests itself in adoration and service. It is, therefore, appropriate to understand the concept of shardha in the context of bhagti, prem, puja and seva. All these terms bear a significance in Sikh teaching only when we consider their meaning in relation to the reality of Supreme Lord (paramesvara). The first object of faith in Sikhism is thus the supreme Lord. His nature and existence are revealed by the Teacher (Guru) who is another object of faith. This office of revealer and guide has been held by a line of ten teachers; the ten Gurus from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh are therefore equally the centre of faith in this tradition. After the death of Guru Gobind Singh, the Holy Granth assumed the authority of the Teacher. It is now justly called the Guru Granth Sahib, the Book that is the Teacher or the Teacher-Scripture. This being the collection of canonical texts of Sikhism, is the third major object of faith in Sikhism. In this system shardha is directed to God, Guru and the Granth.

Belief in God and love of God go together: the functional value of loving and believing leads to the same purpose and would seem to be equal. The devotee is said to spread the bed made of shardha for his Lord—hari hari sardha sej vichhai prabhu chhodi na sakai (GG, 836); because of shardha fixed on his Beloved he cannot live even for a moment—sardha lagi sangi pritamai iku tilu rahanu na jai (GG, 928). To have faith in God means to have love for god, and vice versa, to have love for god means to have faith in God.

As an ultimate commitment and supreme concern, shardha may be summed up as concentration of belief in God. It has been said that those that have faith in Ram Nam, do not turn their thoughts to any thing else—jin sardha ram nam lagi tin duja chitu na laia ram (GG, 444). The nature of faith is unifying, which is also to say, it is exclusive and undivided. One cannot have faith in both Divinity and egoity, in God and not-God at the same time. Firm and undivided faith leads to union with God. He who is endowed with true faith is united to God—jin kai mani sacha bisvasu, pekhi pekhi suami ki sobha anandu sada ulasu (GG, 677).

Occasionally this term is used in the sense of a wish or longing for God. Thus when we read nanak ki prabh sardha puri, we have to understand it in the sense that ‘God has fulfilled the desire of Nanak’ (GG, 893). Again, chiti avai ta sardha puri—when awareness (of God) comes then the longing is satisfied (GG, 114). We can even say that in these usages sardha is like mansa, thought, wish, longing, quest. God is the object of love and object of faith and therefore the object of quest.

Although God is attainable through love and faith or loving faith, it is clearly taught that one becomes faithful through God’s grace (hari kirpa), faith in His name is inspired by Him—hari hari kripa karahu jagjivan mai sardha nami lagavaigo (GG, 1310). Faith in God comes through faith in Guru who unites the seeker with the former— sardha sardha upai milae mo kau hari gur guri nistare (GG, 983). God’s servants are very good because they uphold Hari in their heart with faith, and Hari is so good that He accepts the faith of His followers and upholds their honour—prabh ke sevak bahutu ati nike mani sardha kari hari dhare; mere prabhi sardha bhagati mani bhavai jan ki paij savare (GG, 982). Those who with faith sing, listen, and cause others to listen (the glory of God) and drink the Divine elixir (hari-ras), they are indeed fortunate—gavat sunat, sunavat sardha hari rasu pi vadbhage (GG, 1306).

In addition to God, Guru and the Granth, a fourth field for the cultivation of faith in Sikhism consists of the holy company (sadhsangati) of the devotees (sadh, sant). Faith rises in their company and one enjoys the taste of the Divine essence through Guru’s Word—mili sangat sardha upajai gur sabdi hari rasu chakhu (GG, 997). Happiness (sukh), peace and longing (sardha) all these are attained with the help of the holy —sukh sital sardha sabh piri hoe sant sahai (GG, 1000). The Scripture lays down that the dust of the feet of those sages should be kissed with love and confidence who have given their lives for the sake of God—jin hari arathi sariru lagaia gur sadhu bahu saradha lai mukhi dhura (GG, 698). The sages found Hari through faith; they found Hari through the word of the Teacher. That is to say, faith in the Teacher’s word is the door to God-realization. The word gurmukh literally means ‘Teacher’s mouth’; it symbolically means the word (sabda) or speech (bani) which comes out of Guru’s mouth. This word or speech documented in the Granth is an object of faith because it is the vehicle to go beyond sansara. The gurmukh or Teacher’s word is therefore called the door of deliverance (mokhu-duar). As is well known, the word gurmukh also means a pious person imbued with faith, who has turned towards God or the Guru, a God-faced person. As such, the gurmukh is the ideal person of Sikh culture and, therefore, an embodiment of shardha, faith.


1. Jayatillake, N., Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. London, 1963

2. Gyomroi-Ludowyk, ‘The Valuation of Sraddha in the Early Buddhist Texts’ in The University of Ceylon Review, Vol. V

3. Edward Conze, Buddhism. Oxford, 1951

4. Minuchehar, ‘Notes on Two Sanskrit Terms: bhakti and sraddha’ in Indo-Iranian Journal. Vol. VII, 1964

5. Rao, K. L. Seshagiri, The Concept of Sraddha. Patiala, 1971

6. Sabadarath Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Amritsar, 1964

7. Wazir Singh, Dharam da Darshanik Pakkh. Patiala, 1986

L. M. J.
SIKH (Ganda Singh). The word sikh goes back to Sanskrit sisya, meaning a learner or disciple. In Pali, sisya became sissa. The Pali word sekha (also sekkha) means a pupil or one under training in a religious doctrine (sikkha, siksa). The Punjabi form of the word was sikh. The term Sikh in the Punjab and elsewhere came to be used for the disciples of Guru Nanak (1469-1539) and his nine spiritual successors. Nanakpanthis (lit. followers of the path of Nanak) was also the term employed, especially in the initial stages. Mobid Zulfiqar Ardastani, a contemporary of Guru Hargobind (1595-1664) and Guru Har Rai (1630-61) defines Sikhs in his Persian work Dabistan-i-Mazahib as “Nanakpanthis better known as Guru-Sikhs (who) do not believe in idols and temples.” According to the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, passed by the Punjab legislature, “Sikh means a person who professes the Sikh religion.” The Act further provides that in case of doubt a person shall be deemed to be a Sikh if he subscribes to the following declaration: “I solemnly affirm that I am a Sikh, that I believe in the Guru Granth Sahib, that I believe in the Ten Gurus, and that I have no other religion.” The Delhi Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1971, passed by Indian Parliament, lays down a stricter definition in that it requires keeping hair unshorn as an essential qualification for a Sikh and that, besides belief in the Guru Granth Sahib and the Ten Gurus, it requires a Sikh to affirm that he follows their teachings. The latter Act thus excludes Sahajdharis (gradualists who profess faith in Sikhism but have not yet complied with the injunction about unshorn hair).

The Sikhs believe in the unicity of God, the Creator who is formless and eternal, transcendent and all-pervasive. The unicity of God implies, on the one hand, non-belief in gods and goddesses, idols and idol-worship, and on the other rejection of divisions among men on the grounds of birth, caste or country. In the Sikh temple called gurdwara no images are installed or worshipped. The sole object of reverence therein is the Holy Book. The Sikhs, considering God’s creation to be real and not mere illusion, believe in the dignity of worldly living provided, however, that it be regulated according to a high moral standard. The human birth is a valued gift earned by worthy actions, and must be utilized to do prayer and engage in devotion and perform good deeds. The popular Sikh formula for an upright living is nam japna, kirat karni, vand chhakna (constant remembrance of God’s Name, earning one’s livelihood through honest labour, and sharing one’s victuals with others). Their faith requires the Sikhs to be energetic and courageous. A hymn by Guru Ram Das, Nanak IV, adjures a Sikh to rise early in the morning, make his ablutions, recite gurbani, the holy hymns, and not only himself remember God while performing his normal duties but also assist others to do likewise. Guru Tegh Bahadur, Nanak IX, defines the ideal man as one who frightens no one, nor submits to fear himself. Sikhs are generally householders. There is no priestly class among them. All on condition of fitness can perform the priestly function. Women among them enjoy equal rights.

Although a person born and brought up in a Sikh family is generally accepted as a Sikh, yet, strictly speaking, initiation through a specified ceremony is essential. Up to the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, initiation through charan pahul was in vogue. According to it, the novice was required to drink water touched by or poured over the Guru’s toe. Guru Gobind Singh introduced khande da amrit or rites of the double-edged sword and prescribed the wearing of five symbols including kesa or unshorn hair, which form is obligatory for all Sikhs. Exemption, that also temporary, is claimed by Sahajdhari Sikhs.


1. Trilochan Singh, “Theological Concepts of Sikhism”, in Sikhism. Patiala, 1969

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

3. Ganda Singh, tr. “Nanak Panthis” (translation from Dabistan-i-Mazahib by Zulfikar Ardistani) in The Punjab Past and Present. Patiala, April 1967

4. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1983

5. Teja Singh, Sikhism: Its Ideals and Institutions. Bombay, 1937

6. Farquhar, J. N., Modern Religious Movements in India. London, 1924

G. S.

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