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Mainstream, VOL LV No 50 New Delhi December 2, 2017

Guru Arjan Dev — The Great Visionary

Saturday 2 December 2017, by Ashok Celly


Guru Arjan Dev (1563-1606)—the fifth Sikh guru—was a great visionary and one of India’s greatest heroes. The grandeur and catholicity of his vision is best seen in the compilation and editing of the Adi Granth which later, in its expanded form, came to be known as the Guru Granth Sahib. The Adi Granth contains not only the devotional compositions of the Sikh gurus starting with Guru Nanak but also that of bhakti poets like Kabir, Namdev, Raidas, Mirabai etc. and also Sufi poets like Baba Farid. To quote Mona Mehta, “In the Granth Sahib you get to read the teaching of masters such as Sant Kabir who was a weaver; Sadhna, a butcher; Sain, a barber; Baba Namdev, Bhagat Pipa, and Sufi mystic Baba Farid—36 evolved people who meditated by themselves and then chose to ‘share their divine experiences for humanity’ as author and poet Innis Kaur puts it.” (The Speaking Tree, October 8, 2017)

A religious book containing works of poets and authors belonging to diverse faiths is simply unheard of. Religions and religious books define themselves by exclusion. The Granth Sahib defines itself by inclusion. While other religions divide people into believers and non-believers, Guru Granth Sahib demolishes all distinctions between us and they, believers and non-believers. By bringing the Sikh Gurus, the Hindu bhakti poets and he Muslim Sufis on the same platform it affirms the oneness and equality of all men and women. This has no precedent in the history of religions. I believe it signifies a quantum jump in the spiritual evolution of mankind. No religion has gone that far; no prophet soared so high.

This act alone places Guru Arjan Dev in the category of India’s greatest heroes like Samrat Ashoka, Amir Khusrau, Kabir, Emperor Akbar, Ramakrishna Paramhansa etc. Guru Granth Sahib is the finest embodiment of the soul of India. And without any sense of chauvinism one could venture that the Granth could have been conceptualised and created only in India. Also, it seems to me that Guru Arjan Dev hasn’t received the kind of appreciation he deserves from India’s cultural historians or even from the religious-intellectual leaders of the Sikh community.

Almost everything that Guru Arjan Dev did bore the stamp of his cosmopolitan world-view. The construction of the Golden Temple at Amritsar was another of his exemplary achievements. The foundation stone of the temple was laid by a Muslim pir called Mian Mir, another testimony to his liberal outlook and inclusive vision. In his openness, his daring and his freedom from conventional thinking he is truly a precursor of someone like Shri Ramakrishna Paramhansa.

Even the architectural design of the Golden Temple reflects his all-embracing vision. The Temple is open on all sides signifying its access to all people irrespective of their caste, creed and gender. In Guru Arjan Dev’s own words, “My faith is for the peoples of all castes and creeds from whichever direction they came and to which-ever direction they bow.” This can be seen as an extension of Nanak’s concept of the community kitchen, the langar, where the rich and poor, the high and the low sit and dine together. The egalitarianism that inspired Nanak also seems to be at the root of Guru Arjan Dev’s design of the temple.

The cultural legacy of Guru Arjan Dev and other kindred spirits is seriously threatened today by the monomaniacs of the Sangh Parivar who have a pathological aversion to the cultural diversity of India. The eminent historian, E.P. Thompson, once paid a glorious tribute to India when he observed: “All the convergent influences of the world run through this: Hindu, Muslim, Christian secular, Stalinist, Liberal, Maoist, Democratic Socialist, Gandhian. There is not a thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind.” The India that Thompson admired, the India that our forefathers built with so much love and care, the India where different religions and ideologies flourish simultaneously is in danger of disappearing altogether unless we wake up and fight the saffron fundamentalists with all our strength.

The author, who retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi, is now a free-lancer.

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