Gurū Granth Sāhib

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GURŪ GRANTH SĀHIB . The Sikhs' full title for their scripture, the Ādi Granth, is Ādi Srī Gurū Granth Sāhibjī. More generally they refer to it as Gurū Granth Sāhib. Srī, Sāhib, and jī are all honorifics, conveying the Sikhs' reverence for this volume of scripture. This entry complements the encyclopedia's Ādi Granth entry by focusing upon the text as Gurū and the practical implications of this status, rather than upon its content, structure, and message. Sikhs regard the Ādi Granth as their living Gurū in succession, at his command, to Gurū Gobind Singh and his nine human predecessors, starting with Gurū Nānak. According to his follower, Bhāī Nand Lāl, Gurū Gobind Singh's last words before his death in 1708 were: "Whoever wishes to hear the Gurū's word should wholeheartedly read the Granth or listen to the Granth being read." Whereas the word gurū in Hindu usage refers to teachers generally, and in contemporary parlance more widely it is applied to any expert, Sikhs reserve the word for their ten Gurūs, for the Gurū Granth Sāhib, and for Godhence the need for a capital G in the Roman alphabet.

The Sikhs' place of worship, the gurdwārā (i.e., "doorway of the Gurū"), is such only by virtue of the presence of the Gurū in the form of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Conversely, any room in which the Gurū Granth Sāhib is appropriately installed is a gurdwārā. Those who enter do so only after taking off their footwear and covering their heads (if they are not already wearing a turban).

Use of Text in Worship

The text of the scripture plays several roles in Sikh worship. Each day the pages are opened at random for a vāk (utterance) or hukam (order) that is regarded as guidance for the day. The passage that is read is the first stanza on the left hand page, which will be read from the beginning even if this is on the previous page. The vāk from Sikhs' holiest shrine, the Harmandir Sāhib (the Golden Temple) in Amritsar (Punjab, India) is now disseminated worldwide by the internet, as the daily hukam-nāmā (command, edict). Some of the vāk s from the Harmandir Sāhib have attained historic status because of their pertinence to a particular situation. In 1920, for example, a vāk resolved (in the affirmative) the question of whether converts from the lowest caste should be allowed to offer prasād (blessed food) that is distributed to the congregation.

The scriptures are read aloud in worship and also sung. Almost the entire text is arranged according to musical modes (rāg s, i.e., rāgas). The shabad s (hymns) are sung by rāgī s (musicians) to the accompaniment of instruments. These usually include the tablā (pair of hand drums) and at least one harmonium, and often a saurangī (similar to a violin) and a chimtā (literally "fire tongs") that is inset with disks like those in a tambourine. By singing and listening one is steeped in the gurbānī (the Gurū's utterance) and so this is a form of nām simaran (i.e., remembrance of the Name, in the sense of divine reality encapsulated). Musical rendering of the scripture is known as kīrtan and in this way Sikhs express their devotion.

Pāth (pronounced like English part ) is the word for a reading of the scripture. Akhand pāth means unbroken reading and so denotes a forty-eight-hour reading of the entire Gurū Granth Sāhib. Such readings are held to mark both happy and sad occasions. Most people gather for the commencement and the culmination of the reading. Individual readers take turns to read in shifts, and the family who organize the akhand pāth provides food for all who read or attend.

The Gurū Granth Sāhib plays a part at significant life cycle rites, commencing with the naming of infants. When parents bring their baby to the gurdwārā, the granthī opens the volume at random, as for a vāk, and reads out the initial for the child's forename. This is the first letter of the stanza with which the left hand page starts.

A Sikh couple is deemed to be married when they have completed the central marriage rite of circumambulating the volume four times. In this way the Gurū Granth Sāhib is at the heart of the ceremony, as its witness. Moreover, it provides the Lāvān hymns that are read and then sung as the couple proceeds round. The Lāvān, composed by the fourth Gurū, Rām Dās, celebrate the soul's movement towards full union with God.

Although the Gurū Granth Sāhib is not present at a cremation, it is the Sohilā, the hymns from the Gurū Granth Sāhib that mark the close of the day, that will be sung at this time. It is also customary for a complete reading of the scriptures to take place following a death. The reading may be an akhand pāth or may be an intermittent reading over seven or ten days.

Like the life cycle, daily life too is punctuated by the reading or hearing of select passages of scripture. Devout Sikhs begin each day by bathing (between 3:00 and 6:00 am) and singing or chanting Gurū Nānak's Japjī. A selection of hymns, known as Sodar Rahirās, is recited in the early evening and the day ends with the selection of hymns entitled Sohilā.

Sikhs' annual festivals are preceded by an akhand pāth, which concludes on the morning of the festival day, and the largest-scale celebrations involve bearing the Gurū Granth Sāhib in a procession, known as a nagar kīrtan, through the streets. Often the volume is carried in a vehicle serving as a temporary mobile gurdwārā.

Gurū Granth Sāhib as the Gurū's Embodiment

The litany at the conclusion of Sikhs' principal congregational prayer, the Ardās, affirms that the scriptures are "paragat gurān kī deh ", "the Gurū's body made manifest." This dictates the physical treatment of the volume in ways appropriate for a revered Indian spiritual teacher. Account is taken of whether it is day or night, and other details such as seasonal temperature may also be considered in deciding where the volume is placed at night or how warmly it is covered. The Gurū Granth Sāhib spends the day reposing on a cushioned, canopied stand, the pālkī (literally palanquin). When not being read it is covered by rumālās, brightly colored covers which devotees make from velvety or satiny fabric. When open the volume is fanned by an attendant who waves a chaur (chaurī or chanwar) above it. The chaur usually consists of a switch of silvery hair from a horse or yak's tail that is mounted in a wooden or metal handle. Like the pālkī and chananī (canopy) this has come to symbolize sovereign authority, because in the heat of India in the days before electricity dignitaries would be kept cool by being fanned in this way by a servant.

In the late evening the Gurū Granth Sāhib is carried ceremonially (on a Sikh's head) to its place of rest. This is often a room in which the volume is literally put to bed. For this bedroom the name is sach-khand, the realm of truth, a name which it shares with the last stage of the spiritual journey as mapped out by Gurū Nānak.

Because the Gurū Granth Sāhib is treated as a living Gurū relatively few Sikhs have a copy at home, unless they can set aside a room for its use. Instead Sikhs usually keep a gutkā (handbook) containing the nitnem that is, those passages from the Ādi Granth and from the Dasam Granth (the scripture traditionally attributed to Gurū Gobind Singh) that are used liturgically. If a family holds an akhand pāth at home, a room will be cleared of furniture, the Gurū Granth Sāhib is brought from the gurdwārā and installed under a canopy. While the Gurū is in the house no nonvegetarian food is cooked, and before coming into the Gurū's room people remove footwear and cover their heads.

The sanctity of the Ādi Granth as the Gurū's physical embodiment means that the scripture is printed, bound, and transported with special care. Employees of the press in Gurdwārā Rāmsar, Amritsar, undertake to abstain from tobacco and alcohol. Any "waste paper" is cremated in accordance with Sikh tradition. The bound copies are individually wrapped in a rumālā and transported to gurdwārās in specially appointed luxury buses.

Textual Scholarship and Translation

Sikhs' reverence for the scripture as the living Gurū has discouraged scholarly analysis of the text. During the latter half of the twentieth century, however, some scholars, including Gurinder Singh Mann, sought to understand the complexities of the Ādi Granth 's compilation. Textual study by Hew McLeod from New Zealand and the Sikh scholars Piar Singh and Pashaura Singh resulted in hostile outbursts from some Sikhs and the boycotting of the scholars concerned. The sense of outrage has to be understood in the context not only of Sikhs' veneration of the Gurū Granth Sāhib as the Gurū's living embodiment, but also of their insecurity as a religious minority during a period (the 1980s and 1990s) of violent political instability in Punjab.

One controversial textual issue is why there are discrepancies between different recensions (bīrs) of the Ādi Granth that is, between the early-seventeenth-century Kartārpur bīr and the early-eighteenth-century Damdamā bīr, on the one hand, and on the other hand another seventeenth-century recension known as the Banno bīr, which came to be widely respected by eighteenth-century Sikhs. According to a long-accepted view, while the Kartārpur bīr was being taken for binding to Lahore, another was prepared by Bhāī Banno, but his additions were not approved by Gurū Arjan Dev. Another theory (Pashaura Singh's on the basis of extensive study) is that the Banno group, who held to a less militant style of Sikhism than was emerging after the fifth Gurū's violent death, supported the Banno bīr which omitted dhunī s (heroic tunes) and included, inter alia, a verse by Mīrā Bāī, a woman devotee of Ka, and a poem mentioning a Hindu head-shaving rite.

Translation of the text also began contentiously as Ernst Trumpp, the first translator, was conspicuously insensitive to Sikh sentiment. Subsequently, and thanks in no small part to the devoted labors of the next translator, Arthur Max Macauliffe, translation has been less controversial than textual criticism. English translations of the entire text have been appearing since Trumpp's 1877 version but not for liturgical use. The Gurū Granth Sāhib that is installed in gurdwārās is always the 1,430-page Gurmukhī text, in fact a copy of the Damdamā bīr. (Gurmukhī, literally "from the mouth of the Gurū," is the name for the script used both by the Sikh scripture and for the modern Punjabi language.)

Some attempts to translate the Gurū Granth Sāhib' s medieval mystical verse into a contemporary non-Indic language have produced stilted English and/or a skewing of underlying concepts. The fact that the opening formula "ik oan kār " canarguably less tendentiouslybe translated as "One reality is" (Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh) as well as the popularly accepted "There is one God," epitomizes the difficulty for translators. The gendering of language about the divine reality by successive translators has conveyed the impression of a male God, which Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh and other contemporary scholars have challenged. For example, the original text contains no equivalent to the English words he and his, which are introduced by most translators in the interests of a fluent English rendering of many verses about the divine principle.

See Also

Ādi Granth; Dasam Granth; Gender and Religion, article on Gender and Sikhism; Gurū; Nānak.


Macauliffe, Max Arthur. The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors. Oxford, 1909; reprint, Delhi, 1985. Lives of the ten Gurūs and of the bhagats represented in the Gurū Granth Sāhib plus extensive translation; reflects Singh Sabha influence; still highly influential.

Mann, Gurinder Singh. The Making of Sikh Scripture. Oxford and New York, 2001. A work of rigorous textual analysis.

Singh, Nikky-Guninder Kaur, trans. and ed. The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus. San Francisco, 1995. Contemporary English rendering of selected passages of the Gurū Granth Sāhib and Dasam Granth, using non-gendered language.

Singh, Pashaura. The Guru Granth Sahib: Canon, Meaning, and Authority. New Delhi and New York, 2001. Authoritative analysis of the compilation and status of Sikh scripture.

Singh, Pashaura. The Bhagats of the Guru Granth Sahib: Sikh Self-Definition and the Bhagat Bani. New Delhi, 2003. Definitive study of a major element of the Gurū Granth Sāhib.

Internet Resources

English renderings are of the Gurū Granth Sāhib are available on the internet at and

Eleanor Nesbitt (2005)