Book of Songs

The sacred hymns get a modern translation in Khushwant Singh’s hands

Written by Navtej Sarna | Published: March 8, 2009 12:51 pm

The sacred hymns get a modern translation in

Khushwant Singh’s hands
Four decades ago,Khushwant Singh did a signal service to Sikhism by writing his classic two-volume History of the Sikhs,a work that has made the youngest of the major religions of the world — in both its spiritual and temporal aspects — accessible to the English-speaking audience. He ended the second volume with the two Latin words Opus Exegii — or,my life’s work is done. And,well,that may have been the case for a less dedicated writer. But Khushwant Singh’s work had just begun. A steady stream of books — fiction and non-fiction — flows from his quiet couch at Delhi’s Sujan Singh Park,the result of unassuming scholarship,intellectual vigour and rigorous self-discipline. Songs of the Gurus,generously brought out on art paper and creatively illustrated by the artist Arpana Caur,is the latest from his pen.

It could not have been easy to choose what to include in such a slim volume from the cornucopia of poetry that makes up the Sikh scriptures. The Guru Granth Sahib contains nearly 6,000 hymns,the writings of six of the Sikh Gurus as well as those of 15 Hindu Bhaktas and Muslim Sufis including Farid,Kabir,Jai Dev,Ravidas and Nam Dev. Three of the Gurus did not leave behind any writings and the tenth Guru,Gobind Singh,deliberately did not include his writings in the Holy Granth,though these have been compiled separately in the Dasam Granth. And the hymns are set to 31 classical ragas. The Guru Granth Sahib,with its wealth of spiritual poetry,embodies the teachings and the spirit of the Gurus and when the tenth Guru ended the line of succession he enjoined his followers to look only towards the Granth for guidance. But as Khushwant Singh points out in his pithy introduction: “… the Granth Sahib is not like an idol in a Hindu temple or a crucifix in a church. It is the source and not the object of prayer or worship…. It is more a book of divine wisdom than the word of God. Its songs show the path that leads to the True One.”

Prime among these prayers,and translated in full in this volume is the Japji,which was given primacy of place by the fifth Guru,Arjan Dev,when he first compiled the Granth. In supremely elevated poetry,in varying metres,rich with deep intellectual and descriptive content,Guru Nanak delineates the relationship of the creation with its Creator.

Besides the Japji,Songs of the Gurus contains several other gems,all translated unobtrusively and with a light touch. There is Guru Nanak’s Bara Maha or the lyrical portrayal of twelve months with its emotional and spiritual messages,set to Tukhari raga. There is Guru Amar Das’s Anand,which instantly uplifts the heart. There is the powerful poetry of Guru Gobind Singh in his Chaupai and glimpses of the saint-soldier’s genius from snippets of his writings in the Zafarnama and Bichitra Natak. Suffice it to quote from the last one,a verse in which he warns his followers not to worship him:
But whosoever regards me as Lord
Shall be damned and destroyed.
I am — and of this let there be no doubt —
I am but the slave of God,as other men are,A beholder of the wonders of creation.

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