Concepts in sikhism

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An important feature of the conception of the Void in Sikhism is that it can be realized through transcendental devotion (nam) which consists in the constant mindfulness of the Divine (simaran). This feature brings in many positive elements as a matter of course and consequently the ecstatic experience of the Divine is characterized by positive attributes. Nevertheless, these positive attributes do not exhaust the innate state of sahaj or the Void (sunn). Kabir uses sunn in the sense of space, finite as well as infinite, i.e. ghatakash and mahakash. The three lokas enveloping sunya is nothing but Brahman with maya but the fourth sunya about which Guru Nanak stresses more is pure Brahman who is nirakar and nirguna. In Rag Maru, Guru Nanak defines sunn as the creative power of the Almighty—paunu pani sunnai te saje (GG, 1037). The sense of nada has also been exacted from the term sunn in the Sidha Gosti where Guru Nanak says: “nau sar subhar dasavai pure tah anahat sunn vajavahi ture—after filling up the nine pitchers with love, through the tenth gate the entry is made; the anahat sunya in the form of melodies is realized” (GG, 943). The term sunn in the Guru Granth Sahib is thus used in a variety of senses, of which predominantly are Brahman with and without maya, the creation, the power of Brahman and nada.

Here the unstruck sound, inaccessible to ears, goes on as ‘the music of spheres’ as it were, and the wonderful (acharaj) bewilderment (bismad) characteristic of it cannot be described (kahanu na jai). Peace (santi), bliss (sukh, ananda) and satiety (santokhu) are attained in this state. But here in the ultimate state there is neither he who attains these things nor he who listens to their description; void has gone to Void, emptiness had merged into Emptiness. He says: sunnahi sunnu milia samdarsi—the individual spirit has joined the supreme spirit (GG, 1103).

Bhai Gurdas, explicator of Gurbani, uses sunya in the sense of cosmic silence—diti bangi nivaji kari sunni samani hoa jahana (1.35). As in the Hathayogapradipika, Guru Nanak also accepts that sunya is within, sunya is without and the three lokas are also imbued with sunya. Whosoever becomes the knower of the truth, sunya, goes beyond sins and virtues. He transcends both error and excellence.

It may be observed that like the word Nirvana, the word sunya also underwent a gradual process of transformation in its meaning and use in the literature of medieval India. The Madhyamika conception of sunyata was almost completely changed in Nathapantha, Kabirpantha and Sikhism.


1. Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary

2. Dutt, N., Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita-sutra. London, 1934

3. Robinson, Richard H., Early Madhyamika in India and China. Wisconsin, 1967

4. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1969

5. Dasgupta, Surendranath, Indian Idealism. Cambridge, 1961

6. Kabirgranthavali

7. Jodh Singh, The Religious Philosophy of Guru Nanak. Delhi, 1989

L M J.

SYMBOLISM IN SIKHISM (Taran Singh). The poetry of the Guru Granth Sahib is noteworthy especially for the wealth and variety of its images and symbols. The Gurus and sants whose compositions form part of the Holy Book have rendered their mystical and spiritual experience in the idiom of poetry. A large number of similes and metaphors and numerous other forms of figurative expression enrich the text. Most of the imagery has come from the storehouse of Indian culture, but there are in the text allusions to Islam and the Islamic way of life as well.

The symbolism adopted is more akin to the theme of the hymn than a mere embellishment. Most of the imagery in the text has been derived from the ordinary householder’s life. For example, the experience of bliss from the union of a human soul with the Supreme Soul is expressed with the help of an image of conjugal union. Apart from numerous such symbols scattered throughout the Scripture, the whole of Phunhe, a composition of Guru Arjan’s included in the Guru Granth Sahib after the Gatha verses, is couched in figurative speech wherein the ‘woman’ is adjured to love her ‘spouse’ because that would be for her like ablution in the ambrosial water of the Divine Name that should purify ‘her’ of all sloth and sin and bring to ‘her’ the bliss of union with the Divine. The symbol of lotus, which grows and blooms in muddy water but still remains unsullied, has often been used to bring home the idea that to realize God man need not renounce the world. He should lead a life of detachment living amid worldly temptations.

According to Sikh teaching, God is nirankar, i.e. without form. He is Infinite, Inaccessible, Indescribable, Ineffable and Unknowable. To make Him comprehensible to the common man, various symbols and metaphors have been resorted to. He has been called the Sultan, i.e. the king, husband, father, gardener, farmer, et al. He is the creator of this universe and of all that is there in it and like a true gardener or farmer, He takes very good care of it. He rules over the entire universe where His will reigns supreme. He loves his creation as the husband loves his wife. For the family, He is the father. He has the responsibility of looking after it.

Man’s self or soul is a spark of the Supreme Self. Its essential attributes are sat (real), chit (consciousness), and anand, (perennial bliss). It is immortal and rewarded or punished according to its good or evil deeds in this life. It transmigrates from one body to the other depending on its deeds. The process of transmigration into a low or high species is explained with the metaphor of the Persian wheel: the buckets on the chain of the wheel ascend and descend in turn, implying a soul’s migration into the body of a higher or lower species. The second commonly used metaphor for the soul is that of mundh or dhan, i.e. a woman whose husband is away and who is pining for union with him.

Man, i.e. mind, of man is an attribute which raises him higher than any other form of creation in this universe. Going through the process of transmigrations man has come by this rare opportunity which he must now avail himself of fully. Among the various functions of man, also called hirda, are surti, i.e. concentration, and budhi, i.e. intellect. It has been compared with the lotus both in its upward (sudha) and downward (ulta) condition; whereas the former condition denotes its receptive nature, the latter refers to its perverted or non-receptive nature. These qualities of man have been brought forth with the help of figures of maigal, i.e. a mad elephant, which destroys everything that comes its way; of khar, i.e. ass, which is downright obstinate; of karhala, i.e. camel, which is tempted by the wayside creepers of desires; of kala haran, i.e. black buck, which contains the musk in its own body, but ignorant of this runs around looking for it among the bushes; of dadar, i.e. frog, which is happy in the mud and does not learn a lesson from the lotus which remains above the mud though born out of it; of sasi, i.e. moon, which has no light of its own but shines in the light of the sun; of haran, i.e. deer, which gets enchanted by the fragrance emanating from its own body and of a bail, i.e. bullock, which pulls the burden of the body.

The two attitudes of mind, when it is attracted towards God or towards the world by the material comforts of life, belong respectively to the categories of gurmukh and manmukh. The inner instincts of these two are explained with the help of metaphors of hans (swan) for gurmukh which picks at pearls and thus has the power of discrimination and of bagla (crane) for manmukh which is known for its hypocrisy for it stands on one leg with its eyes half closed as of meditating but pounces upon the small fish as soon as it comes within its reach. The uselessness to society of a manmukh is brought out with the help of metaphors of simal (oak) tree; andhla (blind man) who cannot see; and of kaihan (bronze metal) which glitters but shows up its true worth when rubbed.

Like the musk of a black deer, the man resides in human body which is called kachi gagar (unbaked earthen pitcher), pinjar (cage), rath (chariot), etc. The world where the human soul spends a certain period equivalent to the life of its mortal frame has been described in the various metaphors of an inn the visitor stays in for a while; of a vari (garden); of peka ghar (parents’ home) where the bride (human being) lives only until her marriage (death) after which she leaves for sahura ghar (in-laws’ house); of bhavjal or the rising ocean; of gandharb nagari, i.e. an illusory abode; and of such others.

Sikhism attaches a great deal of importance to the institution of guru. The Guru has been described as a setu (bridge) between God and man. The importance of Guru in the spiritual uplift of man and in making him worthy of acceptance at the Divine Portal is explained with the help of various metaphors and symbols taken from mundane life, such as that of khevat (boat-man or sailor) who ferries the boat-of-life across the river of life to a place where the Lord abides; of sarovar (sacred pool) where gurmukhs (swans) dwell and pick up pearls (good deeds) as their diet; of tirath (lit. a holy place for a dip, but originally the safe place to cross the river ) which enables man to wade through the river of life; of sur (sun) which enlightens the sasi (moon) or the dark minds; of vichola (mediator) who helps arrange the marriage of man (with God); of anjan and kajal (collyrium) which improves the sight of our mind’s eye; of paharua (the watchman) who drive away the thieves of kam (lust), krodh (anger), lobh (greed), moh (infatuation) and ahankar (ego); of sura (warrior) who wields the sword of jnana (knowledge) and drives away the evil of ignorance; of jot (light) which illuminates the dark recesses of the human mind; and paras, the philosopher’s stone which turns dross into gold. He is also likened to a siddha (the perfect being), the jogi or yogi (who is in communion with the mata (mother), pita (father) and the bandhap (relative).

Meditation on the name of God has been recommended time and again as the only means of realizing Him, but the nature of His Name and the method of meditation have not been elaborated. However, there are many symbols and images used in the Guru Granth Sahib which reveal to us the nature of His Name; it is called the amrit (nectar) which rejuvenates man; mat dudh (mother’s milk) which nourishes the child and the energy gained from it works in man throughout the life-period; sajan or mitar (friend), mata (mother) and pita (father) who are man’s real well-wishers; tulha (raft) which enables man wade across the ocean of life; pauri (ladder) with the help of which man can climb to the Lord’s seat; a kharag (sword) which cuts asunder the net of evil; and paras, i.e. the philosopher’s stone which transforms the gross mind. Nam has also been called nidhan, i.e. the treasure of all excellence and daru or aukhad which relieves man of all his evil propensities.

The metaphysical or mystical experiences have been made comprehensible in images taken from household life. The entire poetic diction of the Guru Granth Sahib is surcharged with symbolic meaning. When Guru Nanak says—tu suni harna kalia ki variai rata ram (listen o black deer, why are you in intoxication). Black deer is actually no black deer, it is symbolic of human mind and the field is no piece of land, but this vast world of earthly pleasures. Rata is also symbolic as it connotes deeply dyed in Lord’s love. Farid says sarvar pankhi hekro phahival pachas (at the pool there is but a solitary bird, but the captors ready to seize it can be counted by the fifties); the sarvar (tank) here is symbolic of the world, the pankhi, bird, is symbolic of man, and phahival (captor), of the temptations of worldly pleasures. Raga Suhi opens with this line of Guru Nanak: bhanda dhoi bais dhupu devahu tau dudhai kau javahu (wash the vessel, smoke it for disinfection, then go to fetch the milk); bhanda vessel, is the symbol of mind, dhupu (incense) is the symbol of purity, and milk is the symbol of the nam; Name; if it is so, then washing, disinfecting and going also becomes symbolic language. So is sapu pirai paiai bikhu antari mani rosu (If a snake is put in a basket, it continues to have poison and to nurse wrath). Here sapu (snake) stands for the mind, pirai (basket) stands for ritualistic restraints, bikhu, poison stands for evil tendencies. sifati salahanu chhadi kai karangi laga hansu (abandoning praise of the Lord, the swan is chasing the carcass). The swan is the holy person or the soul; carcass stands for the evil pleasures.


1. Kohli, Surindar Singh, A Critical Study of Adi Granth, Delhi, 1961

2. Sekhon, Sant Singh, A History of Panjabi Literature, Vol. I. Patiala, 1993

3. Taran Singh, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji da Sahitak Itihas. Amritsar, n. d.

T. S.
TANKHAH (Balbir Singh Nanda), from Persian tankhwah, generally meaning pay or salary, has an additional, ironical connotation in Sikh vocabulary. The word in this sense means expiatory penalty levied upon a Sikh from breach of rahit, i.e. the prescribed code of conduct or of a vow religiously made. This use of the term appears to have come into vogue during the first half of the eighteenth century. The earliest use of the term tankhah and tankhahi or tankhaia appears in Tankhahnama attributed to Bhai Nand Lal, Rahitnamas ascribed to Bhai Daya Singh, Bhai Chaupa Singh (dates not specified) and Gur Ratan Mal (Sau Sakhi) compiled by Sahib Singh in 1724 (or 1734). While Bhai Nand Lal’s Tankhahnama and Chaupa Singh’s Rahitnama list faults of omission or commission which render a Sikh tankhahia, i.e. liable to penalty, Bhai Daya Singh’s Rahitnama also suggests amounts of fine for some of the misdemeanours and mistranslations. Chaupa Singh, on the authority of Guru Gobind Singh, lays down a general rule with regard to the administration of tankhah: “If someone who has committed a kurahit (breach of the code) stands up with folded hands before all, i.e. the sangat, pardon him: do not be adamant. Realize tankhah, but bear him no rancour or animosity.”

Ordinarily it is only the sangat, holy assembly of Sikhs or Panj Piare, five Sikhs chosen or appointed by it, who have the authority to declare a person tankhahia and impose tankhah. The sangat or Panj Piare will confront the offending member of the community with the charge and seek his explanation which, if found unsatisfactory, leads to his being declared a tankhahia, who generally accepts with humility the tankhah levied on him by way of penance for his error and who after undergoing the “punishment” returns to the fold ridding himself of all blemish. It is not uncommon for a Sikh who has violated the religious discipline on any count to confess to the sangat or Panj Piare and voluntarily attract tankhah in expiation. Since the purpose of tankhah is to reclaim the defaulter, it generally requires him to perform certain religious acts such as reciting for a given number of times specified scriptural texts in addition to the daily regimen of prayers, and humble service at a gurdwara which may be in the form of dusting the shoes of the devotees or scrubbing used utensils in Guru ka Langar or the community refectory. One may also have to make an offering of karah prasad worth a declared sum or make a cash contribution towards the Guru’s golak or the common fund. In case of one or more of the four bajar kurahits or major lapses, i.e. cutting of hair; smoking, adultery and consumption of kuttha or halal (flesh of an animal slaughtered according to Muslim practice), occurring, a tankhahia after due atonement must also he reinitiated.

When an act of an individual affects the community as a whole, the authority of Akal Takht at Amritsar is invoked. The procedure is the same as followed by local sangats in dealing with violation of the religious code. In cases, rare so far, where a person refuses to accept its verdict, the Akal Takht has the power to excommunicate him/her.

The first recorded instance of the award of religious punishment involved Guru Gobind Singh himself. According to Gur Ratan Mal, the Guru once travelling through Rajputana reached Naraina, also called Dadudvara after the Saint Dadu who had lived there, where he saluted the sepulchre of the saint by lifting an arrow to his head. The Sikhs accompanying him took exception to this and wished to impose tankhah for he had infringed his own edict: gor marhi mat bhul na mane (worship not even by mistake graves or places of cremation). The Guru appreciated the Sikhs’ vigilance and immediately offered to pay the fine. The Sikhs then debated the quantum of tankhah, adds another old source, Malva Des Ratan di Sakhi Pothi. They in the end asked him to pay Rs.125 which amount they spent on the purchase of a tent for Guru ka Langar.

In 1733, a Sikh, Bhai Subeg Singh, who was an employee of the Mughal government at Lahore and who was deputed to negotiate peace with the Khalsa, was, on reaching the appointed venue, first declared tankhahia for being in the service of the oppressors and allowed to commence parleys only after he had made good the tankhah. Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) was once summoned to the Akal Takht and, held guilty of moral and religious misdemeanour, was awarded tankhah including physical punishment which he readily accepted. The latter punishment was, however, waived by Akali Phula Singh, then jathedar, of the Akal Takht. More recent instances are those of the imposition of tankhah on Baba Kartar Singh Bedi, one of the direct descendants of Guru Nanak, for supporting Mahant Narain Das, the head priest of the Nankana shrine, who had started a campaign against the reformist Sikhs culminating in an open massacre of them on 20 February 1921; proclamation of Jathedar Teja Singh Bhuchchar as tankhahia and his expulsion from the membership of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee for his defiance of and disrespect towards the Panj Piare who inaugurated kar-seva or cleansing by voluntary service of the holy tank at Amritsar in June 1923; and the excommunication on 6 August 1928 of Babu Teja Singh of the Panch Khalsa Diwan, Bhasaur, and his wife for garbling the scriptural texts and altering the form of gurmantra as well as of ardas.

In November 1961, five Sikhs, eminent in the religious hierarchy, were named as Panj Piare to investigate and decide upon an allegation that Master Tara Singh, the seniormost political leader of the Sikhs, had broken his solemnly made religious vow during an agitation against the government. Tara Singh was pronounced guilty of having gone back on his plighted word and of having blemished thereby the Sikh tradition of religious steadfastness and sacrifice in that he had abandoned his fast begun after ardas or prayer at Sri Akal Takht without achieving the stipulated goal. He was laid under expiation to have an akhand path or unbroken reading of the Guru Granth Sahib performed at the Akal Takht, daily to recite for one month an extra path of the Japu, offer karah prasad of the value of Rs.125 and to clean the shoes of the sangat and dishes in the Guru ka Langar for five days. The Panj Piare exonerated Sant Fateh Singh, another political leader, of a similar charge saying that he had given up his fast, which preceded Master Tara Singh’s, under the command of Panj Piare and the sangat in general, though he too was held guilty, along with eight members of the Working Committee of the Shiromani Akali Dal, for acquiescing in Master Tara Singh breaking his fast. Fateh Singh was to recite for one month an additional path of the Japu and wash dishes in Guru ka Langar for five days. Other members of the Working Committee were to broom the Golden Temple precincts and clean dishes in Guru ka Langar for two days.

In 1984, Giani Zail Singh, then President of India, Buta Singh, a Central minister, and Santa Singh, leader of the Buddha Dal of Nihangs, were declared tankhahias by the Akal Takht, the first for allowing the army to march into the premises of Golden Temple in June 1984, and the other two for subsequently holding an unauthorized Sarbatt Khalsa meeting and taking up, on behalf of the government but against the wishes of the Sikh community, the reconstruction of the Akal Takht building. Giani Zail Singh, however, convinced the Panj Piare of his innocence and was pardoned. The other two failed to submit their cases and were consequently excommunicated from the Panth. The institution of tankhah has thus served over generations to ensure religious integrity and discipline among Sikhs, at individual as well as at panthic level.


1. Sikh Rahit Maryada. Amritsar, n.d

2. Attar Singh, ed., Malva Des Ratan di Sakhi Pothi. Amritsar, 1950

3. Padam, Piara Singh, ed., Rahitname. Patiala, 1974

4. Randhir Singh, Bhai, ed., Prem Sumarag Granth arthat Khalsa Jivan Jach. Amritsar, 1965

5. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs. New Delhi, 1994

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

Bb. S. N.

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