Borrowing from scholars of Sociology, I have often argued that religious traditions
and practices are the glue that unite a people and creates a community. People, then,
need to elaborate a statement like the Articles of Confederation as the defining document of a
community’s basic connecting glue. For a religious people, the prayer–Ardaas–is that.
The many faiths of humanity agree on that One fundamental, although they continue to quibble over
the language, words, their meaning and application, even as they haggle on structure and just about
everything else. They vengefully bicker about the Creator: definition, nature, features, functions, biases, language, temperament and the Divine Court from where He (She or It) supposedly commands the domain.
Religious faiths generally posit that the Creator nurtures us and that we must unceasingly nurture
our connection with Him. Further, that God will save us all. We differ–often violently–on which
followers of which faith deserve his largesse, and which ones will or should suffer eternally.
Hence this exploration today on the idea of prayer : Ardaas. In order to function, as a collective assemblage, besides individual prayers, a community evolves, creates and records a common historical narrative of its successes and defeats, hopes, troubles and travails; a recounting of what they have been through and where they hope to be. Prayer connects the past with where we are today and defines a vision of tomorrow. This is how we struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds to survive and thrive.
Christians revere the Lord’s Prayer because it is what Jesus is said to have taught his disciples when
they asked him how they should pray. It runs like this: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be
thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily
bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
Some significant and universal features of prayer emerge from this, no matter where in the world a
human community exists. Prayer speaks of a Creator. It focuses on human aspirations, needs and insecurities. Possibly, pride is abandoned, hope is lifted, supplication made. The critical place of humility and Hukum which in Sikh parlance is acceptance of life and moving forward with grace and trust in a Creator greater than us are emphasised. Thus, begins faith.
Major elements of a prayer seem to be Adoration of the Creator; Contrition, asking for forgiveness;
Petition, entreating God for favours; Thanks and gratitude to God; Remembrance, a society’s collective memory. How often do people pray? On that I came across some data, though it remains incomplete and inadequate considering the vast number of human communities that exist. Some caveats: ‘The New York Times’ reported these numbers, but from where did they emerge?
Which country or culture; ages, men, women or both; education and socio–economic status; finally, how old is the data? Also, many religions, Muslims, Jews and Sikhs, for instance, are not represented. How large was the sample for each category? And a fundamental question–what do people pray for?
Frequency of Prayer: Some Faith
Frequency of Prayer: Some Faiths
Buddhists 43 29
Hindu 51 22
Catholic 59 13
Evangelical Protestant 79 4
Black Protestants 80 4
The limited data shows how little we know of matters that we might want to know more about.
Now let’s segue to Sikhi and the Sikh Ardaas. The Punjabi word Ardaas seems to come from
the Persian Arzdasht meaning a petition to a superior authority. (A few scholars also assert Sanskrit roots of the word Ardaas, but I leave that untouched here.) In Sikhi, Ardaas is rendered to the Creator, individually or as a congregation, usually standing and often with hands folded. The congregational Ardaas is led by a designated officiant. The Sikh Ardaas, like an invocation
or a convocation is often said not only at all religious services or gatherings, wherever held, but also at the start of meetings or conferences; at official inauguration of significant undertakings; to invoke goodwill, support and blessings for important ventures, events or occasions, be it an illness, marriage, bereavement or celebration such as marriage or birth.
Much has been written about the Sikh Ardaas yet some fundamentals remain historically unestablished. Today, I lean largely on three sources: The official guide to Sikh Code of Conduct Darpan Sikh Rehat Maryada in Punjabi by Gurbax Singh Gulshan, 2005; Encyclopaedia
of Sikhism, Ed. Harbans Singh, 1992 and the book, Ardaas of The Sikhs by Dr Jaswant Singh Neki, 2012.
The Ardaas is simple to follow and interpret and I will not methodically parse it. In fact, I am likely to get stuck in the first few lines. The authorship of the Ardaas engages us first. Most scholars aver that Ardaas has three recognisable parts. The first part appears to come almost verbatim from the first few lines of the prelude of the composition mostly, but not entirely, attributed to Guru Gobind Singh (Vaar Sri Bhagauti Ji Ki) and includes the names and attributes of the first nine Gurus. The addition of Guru Gobind Singh’s name to the list of Gurus here likely represents addition by the Panth around that time or later.
Part I starts with a brief preamble Prithm Bhaugauti Simar ke…. Exactly where does this line come from? If the opening words acknowledge Bhagauti, a much– revered goddess in Hindu mythology, what is she doing in a Sikh Ardaas? The resulting controversy remains hot and unsettled.
The reference to Bhagauti comes with no easy answer but let’s try. Some Sikhs assert that her name
implies not the Hindu goddess but appears as a metaphor for supreme power–Divine Might, Destroyer of all evil or as Sword of the Creator–and should be translated and recited accordingly. But no supporting evidence from history or poetry helps us. I see this ambiguity as a reference to the beginnings of Sikhi. And that was the Hindu connection. Most early Sikhs, including the first three Gurus (or four by some reckoning) came from Hindu roots. On becoming Sikhs, they abandoned their Hindu practices. But I would be very surprised, even shocked, if no connection to Hindu roots surfaced in early Sikh literature and practice.
A brief detour might help. Jesus was born as Jew. Early Christian traditions and practices show plenty of Jewish influence during the first four centuries of Christianity and its institutions. Judaic scholars assert that mixed practices prevailed for the first seven to nine centuries, though many Christians tend to minimise that lengthy a time–span of Jewish connection and influence. Remember also that no matter the topic, the effective teacher will teach in the historical linguistic, cultural and philosophic framework of the times or the lesson will not hold.
But now, several centuries later, it would be asinine to deny Christianity its independent existence or
insist that it is or was a sect of Judaism. Similar logic applies to the historic Hindu-Sikh connection and interaction. I have explored this theme at more length elsewhere.
Also remember that the first verse of the Ardaas that mentions Bhagauti is from the Dasam Granth.
Its authorship is attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, but reputable scholars strongly differ on that singular authorship; the question has never been entirely or clearly authenticated. Certainly, no line from it is incorporated into the Guru Granth Sahib, the repository of the Sikh spiritual heritage that Guru Gobind Singh compiled as the final recension of the Guru Granth. He pointedly refrained from
including any of his own writings in it.
Guru Gobind Singh was a renowned poet and more than 50 poets of Persian, Braj and many Indic
languages lived at his campus. What did they do all the time? Most likely, they wrote, recited and
enjoyed poetry. And that became the Dasam Granth, a mighty heavy tome. It surely has some of Guru Gobind Singh’s own poetry, but intermixed with other writings. Parsing the authorship of each and every composition in it has defied our best efforts. I have explored these matters at some length elsewhere. In fact, Ardaas is a tripartite document. Part I sequentially names the eleven Gurus (Guru Nanak to Guru Granth) along with a single line on the special boon associated with each Guru. Part II, briefly and often in single-line statements, summarises historical struggles and sacrifices that have shaped Sikhi into its modern presence. These two parts reflect the past.
Part III is open to the attending congregation, to add current events, issues and compulsions that
impact the community or individuals in it. Surely then, while Part I up to naming Guru Tegh Bahadur
is mostly the composition of Guru Gobind Singh, Parts II and III are likely the works of the Sikh
community. This seems to be the current position. Yet, I wonder! Step back to Part I. In it, each
Guru from Guru Nanak to Guru Granth is named, along with a one-line eulogy on each Guru. But
these lines, in keeping with the culture and the times refer to each Guru in magical language. A couple of examples: “Focus on Guru Harkishan and all your ills will depart, or meditate on Guru Tegh Bahadar to be blessed with surfeit of worldly riches”, and so on.
Do such ideas run contrary to the Sikh way of life? No Guru seems to have taught thus. So,
would any Guru then write similarly about his predecessor or himself in such glowing terms? The
Gurus viewed themselves as humble servants of the Creator’s domain. To associate a specific boon with a particular Guru, a specific incarnation of God or a particular holy man, would run counter to the message of Sikhi, then and now.
I think the qualitative and magical attributes of the Gurus in the Ardaas are linguistic devices to
highlight how Sikhs viewed their Gurus and how deeply they rever them. In my view, they are not
necessarily meant for literal rendering. I also offer you some aspirational, captivating
and powerful lines in the second and third parts of Ardaas. For Sikhs, powerful boons are requested: the discipline of Sikhi that includes its core concepts and markers of identity (Naam, Kes, Rahit, Bibek, Visah, Bharosa). This part almost always includes a line that acknowledges the wish and the ability to ignore and forgive – not dwell – on the shortcomings of others: jinha ne dekh ke unditth keeta. The idea is very consistent with my earlier citation of the Lord’s Prayer from the New Testament.
Then, the third part of Ardaas often asks for two simple boons: That Sikhs benefit from listening
to and reading of Sikh teaching and Gurbani (Sikh parhdey soondey sarbat laahay vand hovan) and that they be blessed with the company of those who love gurbani (sayee piarey mail jin milian tera naam chit away).
These words reflect the language and sentiments of ordinary people of a certain time and place. As I
said, the qualitative and magical attributes of the Gurus in the Ardaas highlight how the Sikhs viewed their Gurus and revered them.
Most importantly, the Ardaas always concludes with the wish for the goodwill of all humanity, regardless of their religious identity, Sikh or non–Sikh. Clearly this plea for universal welfare and prosperity of all is unusual in the larger religious context where pleas for blessings are most often limited to believers of just one particular faith.
Contrary to common practice, to my mind Ardaas is not contractual bartering for wants and needs. It’s not a transactional exchange in which the Creator grants my needs and wants while, I, in turn, meet stipulated scriptural/religious requirements. Ardaas, instead, is an exploration of the human
condition (state of mind) at a specific time and place, surely a measure of human yearning. Ardaas or prayer at its simplest and most germane remains a reflection of the state of mind.
Ardaas is concise, precise and aspirational in revisiting the lessons of the past and aspirations for the
future Sometimes, I want for nothing but there remains a critical need for the mind to be at peace: to centre it, I resort to Ardaas to keep me grounded. Major parts of the Ardaas, if not its entirety, reflect traits of the Gurus as seen by an adoring people and are the voice of the people in their own language : norma loquendi. The human mind swings wildly, it may be in seventh heaven and moments later plumb to the depths of despair.
This perennially unstable state of the human mind is flawlessly captured by Gurbani (Kabhoo jeerha oobh charhatt hae kabhoo jaaye piyaaley p. 1216). For the mind to cease its aimless vacillation and function productively in peace, Ardaas becomes the succour. In a communal Ardaas the words resonate as “We the People.” This is how the voice of the people becomes the voice of God.
As they say in Latin: Vox Populi Vox Dei.