Reading Baba Guru Nanak

November 17, 2019

Muzaffar Ghaffaar takes the poetry of the revered founder of Sikhism and makes it accessible

The value of Muzaffar Ghaffar’s Baaba Naanak Within Reach on Baba Guru Nanak’s poetry is incalculable. He published six volumes on Waris Shah’s Heer two years ago, and two more classical texts are on their way.

To introduce readers to its rich contents, I include a selection from the book under review, which will also give them an idea of Muzaffar’s style of explication:

Baba Nanak used virtually all known forms of folk poetry. He wrote vaars (long poems), kaafis (poems with refrains), ashloks (poems of several styles), dohrae (couplets), paoris (ladders), etc. He used available forms to suit his needs and purposes. For example, the poem above is a paori from a long vaar. Most of his work was named after classical ragas.

In a paori, as in this one, the rhyming device is in the middle of the line, not at the end. Two rhyming devices are used here, one in the middle and one in the end. Each line is complete in itself. The rhyme in the middle of the line is the same throughout the paori. The end rhyme used by the poet changes in every couplet. The middle rhyme maintains a relationship between the couplets. The metre is delicious and powerful. The second part of each line is shorter.

lt includes several Pahari words, several Sanskritised words and some words from the special vocabulary of Sants and Saadhus (Hindu religious mendicants), which was called Sidh Bhaasha or Siddhokri. This language was much in use during the Bhakti Movement. In the above poem, we see a beautiful mesh up of Arabic, Persian and the ‘classical language’.

Line 1 :

‘Raajae raiyyat sikdaar, koi nah rahsi O’

King, subjects, royal officers, none will remain at all

Kings, those who accept their kingship, and royal officers, no one will remain, says the poet. All temporal authority and those who accept the authority, are reminded of the transitory nature of authority itself. The end rhyme of this line and the next takes a strong tone that is almost taunting – almost a sneer that is offered when someone resists a known fact and has to be reminded forcefully.

Line 2 :

‘Hat pattan baajaar, hukmi dhaesi O’

Shops, towns, bazaars, by order will fall

Busy shops, flourishing cities, and much-frequented markets, all will fall. In this line, the poet brings in an essential ingredient of his beliefs and philosophy. All these are the natural order of things. We can see here a glimpse of the transcendental God, and His order.

Line 3 :

‘Pakkae bank doaar, murakh jaane aapnae’

Stylish, strong doors, fools consider their own

The doar (door) has a special meaning in Baaba Naanak’s verse. Getting to the door is the objective of cultivating the self. Only fools consider that the stalwart doors are theirs for the asking. There is also a concern here for considering whatever is made of brick and mortar as the door. The implication is that you can only reach that door through inward discipline and devoted practice.

Line 4 :

Darb bharae bhandaar, reetae ik khanae

Storehouses filled with treasures, in a moment will be empty

Warehouses full of treasures will be emptied in a moment (by others who are stronger and win wars; thieves; misfortune, etc). Again the theme of the impermanence of all that we cherish and hoard is present. The experience of Baba Nanak – who had been a storekeeper in the service of Daulat Khan Lodhi, the governor of Punjab – showed him this phenomenon, time and again.

Line 5 :

Taazi rath tukhaar , haathi pakhrae

Arabians, chariots, chargers, elephants in the armoury

Horses of all kinds – those which came from the east or the north (etc) – as well as elephants in armour (will not remain). The images of strong stallions and magnificently armoured elephants come before us. They too will not stay in these roles, says the poet, and could (indeed would) be put to other uses. The power they provide to their owners will be lost. The historical context here is of some Arabs and more Central Asians who came as conquerors and stayed on. This cycle of history has happened before the Arabs and Central Asians came, for example in the case of the Aaryans, non-Aaryans and the pre-Aaryans who came to the Indus basin, mainly from Central Asia.

Line 6:

Baag milakh ghar baar kithae syaapnae

Dominions, households, orchards, where will they be known

Gardens, ominions, households (all that we recognise as our own), will not be recognised as such. The word kithae (where) makes us consider the situation after the event as well as, ‘in other circles’. Perhaps we are being told that they will return to nature. Or not recognising our ’ownership’ others will take over.

Line 7:

Tanbu palang navaar, saraaecae laalty

Pavilions, tape laced beds, little inns desirable

Pavilions and comfortable beds and inns which provide comfort (all will go away or we will not be able to use them). There is no particularly new thought or imagery (though the armoured elephants and rearing stallions might stay in our minds). What then is special about this poem?

We may find some answers in the last line.

Line 8:

Naanak sach daataar, shanakhat qudrati

Naanak truth is the giver, recognition natural

This line affirms that Truth is the giver. This is recognised by nature. Or that nature gives us the recognition of Truth. All the above is the recognition of excess. And Truth is the ultimate source of life. Truth is God. Some devotees read this as “Naanak is the truth giver” but Baaba Naanak’s humility may not permit such a claim by him.

Baaba Naanak: Within Reach

Author: Muzaffar Ghaffaar

Published by: Ferozsons (Pvt) Limited

Pages: 435

Price: Rs1,095

Baba Guru Nanak's poetry: The art of reading and understanding