Misinterpretation of Guru Nanak's Teachings Part 1 (Baldev Singh)

Misinterpretation of Guru Nanak’s Teachings, Part I
Baldev Singh
316 R Glad Way, Collegeville, PA 19426 USA

Professor W. H. McLeod has claimed that Guru Nanak accepted the theory of karma and transmigration, but Aad Guru Granth Sahib (AGGS), which is the only authentic source of Guru Nanak’s teachings, rejects these beliefs unequivocally.

Misinterpretation of gurbani (sacred hymns of AGGS) and misrepresentation of Sikhism is not a new thing in the history of the Sikhs. It started right during the time of the Sikh Gurus and is still going on. It is not only the non-Sikh scholars, but many Sikh scholars are doing so either ignorantly or innocently or for personal reasons.1 Recently, while browsing through the religious section of a library, reviewer’s comments on the cover of McLeod’s Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion caught my attention.2

“W. H. McLeod is widely known as being among the foremost scholars of Sikh studies in the world. In his analysis and comparison of his sources Dr McLeod’s touch is so sure, his critical faculty so acute, his zest in unraveling the truth so patent and the sheer scholarly honesty of the enterprise so palpable that the turgid and sometimes the puerile fables acquire a new interest, and the very process of exact scholarship which can be so tedious becomes fascinating and absorbing.”

Notwithstanding this laudatory review, I found several statements and the elucidation of many verses in Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion to be inconsistent with teachings of AGGS, 3 which is the only authentic source of Nankian philosophy (Guru Nanak’s teachings, Gurmat). McLeod is widely known for his controversial views regarding Sikhism. His works have received in-depth scrutiny from many Sikh scholars. However, to my knowledge his interpretation of gurbani has gone unnoticed. This article examines his interpretation of gurbani on the touchstone of Nankian philosophy enshrined in the AGGS.


Karmi and Karma
While elaborating on the differences between Sufis and Guru Nanak, McLeod remarks, “The obvious example of this is his acceptance of the doctrines of karma and transmigration.”4 But later on he says that Guru Nanak rejected the caste system. “Guru Nanak emphatically condemned pride based upon caste status, notions of purity and contamination arising out of caste distinction, and above all any suggestion that caste standing was either necessary or advantageous in the individual’s approach to God.”5

How did he reach the conclusion that Guru Nanak accepted the doctrines of karma and transmigration? Why would Guru Nanak accept the doctrine of karma, which justifies the caste system? It is difficult to believe that a “skeptical historian” like McLeod is not familiar with the history of caste system? May be it is McLeodian way of expressing gratitude to his research supervisorA. L. Basham, the author of The Wonder that was India 6who knew nothing about Guru Nanak and little about Punjabi language. 7

Caste system was originally imposed on the dark complexioned natives as Varna Ashrama Dharma (color, place and duty) by the Caucasian conquerors of the Indus Valley. This was similar to the Apartheid system of South Africa based on racial superiority and segregation. Later on, Varna Ashrama Dharma was changed into the caste system by dividing the Indian society into four castes.8 And it was designed to serve the interests of Brahmansthe uppermost casteat the expense of a vast majority of people belonging to lower castesthe bulk of whom were Shudars (lowest caste). Religious sanction was invoked in order to perpetuate the caste system for eternity. Hindu scriptures proclaimed that God sanctioned the caste system.8 Strict observance of caste rules and regulations was made the essence of Hindu religion and transgressors were severely punished.

Later on came the doctrines of karma and transmigration to desensitize people’s sense of justice and compassion against the atrocities committed on the masses to enforce the caste system.9 According to the laws of karma and transmigration, one reaps the fruit in this life for the deeds performed in the past life. So, if a person is subjected to injustice and cruelty in this life, it is the due to one’s own actions in the previous life, not due to the perpetrators of cruelty and injustice. By observing the caste rules strictly and serving the superior castes faithfully one can earn the reward for next life. Even modern Hindu leaders like Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi believed in the validity and sanctity of the Varna Ashrama Dharma / caste system.

“There is something in caste, so far as it means blood: such a thing as heredity there is, certainly. Now try to [understand]—why do you not mix blood with the Negroes, the American Indians? Nature will not allow you. Nature does not allow you to mix your blood with them. There is unconscious working that saves the race. That was the Aryan’s caste…. The Hindus believe—that is a peculiar belief, I think; and I do not know, I have nothing to say to the contrary, I have not found anything to the contrary—they believe there was only one civilized race: the Aryan. Until he gives the blood, no other race can be civilized.”…

From a speech delivered by Swami Vivekananada on February 2, 1900, in Pasadena, California. Singh, G. B. Gandhi: Behind the Mask of Divinity, 2004 p 239-240.

“I do not believe the caste system to be an odious and vicious dogma. It has its limitations and defects but there is nothing sinful about it.
Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, 1933.
“I believe in Varnasharma (caste system) which is the law of life…. The law of Varna (color and / or caste is nothing but the law of conservation of energy. Why should my son not be a scavenger if I am one?”
Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, March 6, 1947.
“He Shudra (lowest caste) may not be called a Brahman (uppermost caste) though he (Shudra may have all the qualities of a Brahman in this birth. And it is good thing for him (Shudra) not to arrogate a Varna (caste) to which he is not born. It is a sign of true humility.”
Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, November 24, 1927.

On the other hand Guru Nanak preached universal love, respect, justice and equality and proclaimed solidarity with the lowest of lowest

sBu ko aUcw AwKIAY nIcu n dIsY koie ]
ieknY BWfy swijAY ieku cwnxu iqhu loie ]
Consider everyone high as I don’t see anyone low. One, Whose light permeates the entire creation, creates all.
AGGS, M 1, p 62.

schu ErY sBu ko aupir scu Awcwru ]
Truth is higher than every thing but still higher is truthful living.
AGGS, M 1, p 62.

kQw khwxI bydI AwxI pwpu puMnu bIcwru ]
dy dy lyxw lY LyY dyxw nrik surig Avqwr ]
auqm miDm jwqI ijnsI Birm BvY sMswru ]
It is the teachings of Vedas, which has created the concepts of sin and virtue, hell and heaven, and karma and transmigration. One reaps the reward in the next life for the deeds performed in this lifegoes to hell or heaven according to the deeds. The Vedas have also created the fallacy of inequality of caste and gender for the world.
AGGS, M 2, p 1243.

jwiq kw grbu n kir mUrK gvwrw ]
iesu grbu qy cilh bhuqu ivkwrw ] 1 ] rhwau ]
cwry vrn AwKY sBu koeI ]
bRhmu ibMd qy sB Epiq hoeI ]
O ignorant fool, don’t be arrogant about your high caste as it can lead to degeneration. Pause. Everyone talks about the four castes without realising that all are created from the seed of God.
AGGS, M 3, p 1128.

eyku ipqw eyks ky hm bwirk qU myrw gur hweI ]
There is one Father and we are His progeny and you are my fellow disciple.
AGGS, M 5, p 611.

nIcw AMdir nIc jwiq nIcI hU Aiq nIcu ]
nwnku iqn kY sMig swiQ vifAw isau ikAw rIs ]
ijQY nIc smwlIAin iqQY ndir qyrI bKsIs ]
Nanak will stand by the lowest of the lowest, not with the elite. Where there is compassion and care for the downtrodden, there is Divine grace.
AGGS, M1, p 15.

Contrary to Mcleod’s views, Guru Nanak rejected all the essentials of Hinduism and the moral authority of Hindu sacred texts. 10, 11, and 12
Some examples from Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion have been selected for discussion in this article to demonstrate misinterpretation of Guru Nanak’s thoughts.

On page 205 karmi aavai kpra nadri mokh duar (krmI AwvY kpVw ndrI moKu duAwru) has been interpreted as: “karma determines the nature of our birth (lit. cloth), but it is through grace that the door of salvation is found.”

There are three mistakes in this interpretation. First, a single verse from a stanza of seven verses, which are interconnected, has been interpreted out of context. Second, karmi (krmI) is not derived from karam (Punjabi) or karma (Sanskrit) meaning actions, it is derived from karam (Persian) meaning kindness or favor. Third, though, kapra (kpVw) has been used as a metaphor for human body in the AGGS, but in this verse it means cloth or clothing, a metaphor for God’s love. Moreover, there are numerous verses in AGGS in the form of questions and answers. Lack of attention to such verses could result in their misinterpretation.

In contrast to McLeod, almost a century ago, Macauliffe interpreted this verse accurately.13

swcw swihbu swcu nwie BwiKAw Bwau Apwru]
AwKih mMgih dyih dyih dwiq kry dwqwru]
Pyir ik AgY rKIAY ijqu idsY drbwru]
muhO ik bolxu bolIAY ijqu sux Dry ipAwru]
AMimRq vylw scu nwau vifAweI vIcwru]
krmI AwvY kpVw ndrI moKu duAwru]
nwnk eyvY jwxIAY sBu Awpy sicAwru
True is the Lord, true is his name; it is uttered with endless love.
People pray and beg, ‘Give us, give us’; the Giver giveth His gifts.
Then what can we offer Him whereby His court may be seen?
What words shall we utter with our lips, on hearing which He may love us?
At the ambrosial hour of morning meditate on true Name and God’s greatness.
The Kind One will give us a robe of honour, and by His favuor we shall reach the gate of salvation.
Nanak, we shall thus know that God is altogether true.
AGGS, M 1, P 2.

The examination of the stanza reveals that the first two verses describe the greatness of God. God’s bounty is unlimited and whatever we posses is God’s gift to us. The third and fourth verses are questions: then what should we do or offer to God to win His love? The fifth and sixth verses are answers to the third and fourth verses: if we meditate on God constantly then He will love us resulting in union with Him. In this stanza there is no mention of past or future life. Karma (actions) is described in the fifth verse.

Professor Sahib Singh has also interpreted this verse the same way as Macauliffe has done.15 (This way) the Gracious One gives a scarf of (meditating on His greatness). (The wall of falsehood) is eliminated by God’s kindness and the door of salvation is opened to the devotee [(ies qrHwN) pRBU dI imhr nwl ‘isPq’-rUp ptolw imldw hY, ausdI ikrpw-idRStI nwl ‘kUV dI pwl’ qoN KlwsI huMdI hY qy r`b dw dr pRwpq ho jwNdw hY[].

Both, Macauliffe and Sahib Singh have interpreted kapra (kpVw) as cloth. However, due to cultural differences one calls it a robe of honor and the other calls it a scarf of love. Both robe and scarf are metaphor for God’s love.
Additionally, the meaning of kapra (kpVw) as cloth becomes abundantly clear from Guru Nanak’s use of this word in another stanza. For example, in his discussions with yogis Guru Nank said:

hau FwFI vykwru kwrY lwieAw]
rwiq idhY kY vwr Durhu PurmwieAw]
FwFI scY mihl Ksim bulwieAw]
scI isPiq swlwh kpVw pwieAw]
I was an unemployed minstrel (dhadi), but the Master gave me an occupation. He called me to His abode of Truth and ordered me to sing His praises day and night. And honored me with a robe (kapra paya, kpVw pwieAw) of “propagating His true glory.”
AGGS, M 1, p 150.

On several other pages 42, 398, 470, 962, 1094, 1098 of the AGGS, kapr (kpV, kpiV, kpVu) has been used for clothes. Thus using the correct meaning of karmi (krmI) and kapra (kpVw) the verse karmi aavai kpra nadri mokh duar (krmI AwvY kpVw ndrI moKu duAwru) should be interpreted as:
Then the Bounteous One will reward us with His love and by His grace the door of salvation will open for us.

Moreover, Pashaura Singh has cited the interpretation of this verse by Giani Badan Singh as follows:

“Through the Lord’s gracious glance one achieves the robe of honor in the form of loving devotion (bhakti), by means of which one reaches the door to liberation in the form of knowledge [(ndrI) hrI kI ikRpw idRStI sy (kpVw) BgqI rUp isrpwau imlqw hY AOr iqs sy moK kw dvwrw gXwn pRwpq hoqw hY[].”
Commenting on McLeod’s interpretation of this verse, Pashaura Singh points out: “Here there is no mention of the role of the past actions (karmi) in the interpretation of this line from Japji. Rather, the emphasis is placed on the dual function of divine grace which paves the way for the loving devotion in the first place and then for the knowledge of the door to liberation.”15
The claim that Guru Nanak accepted the theory of karma and transmigration is contrary to Guru Nank’s teachings. In the beginning of his composition of Japu on the opening page of AGGS, Guru Nanak has described God as Sach, meaning Everlasting or Truth. Then in the first stanza of Japu on the same page he has enunciated the purpose of human life.

ikv sicAwrw hoeIAY ikv kUVY qutY pwl]
hukm rjweI clxw nwnk iliKAw nwil]
How could one become a sachiara (Godlike), a God-centered being (gurmukh) and how could one get rid of ignorance and falsehood? “By living in harmony with Hukam (Divine Law),” says Nanak.
AGGS, M 1, p 1.

How could one get rid of ignorance and falsehood? Through knowledge based on truth. When the yogis asked Guru Nanak, “Who is your Guru or whose disciple are you?” “Word (Divine knowledge) is the Guru and my mind, which comprehends the Word is the disciple,” replied Guru Nanak.16 What is needed to understand Hukam? It is tue knowledge. So a sachiara is one who understands the Hukam.

Who understood the Hukam, Galileo or the Pope? In our opinion it was Galileo who understood the Hukam, which makes him a sachiara.

Furthermore, according to Nankian philosophy mankind is supreme among the living beings as it is endowed with discerning intellect and free will. One can choose to be a sachiara or a reprobateself-centered being (manmukh). According to their deeds, some are drawn closer to God whereas others move away from God.

Avr join qyrI pinhwrI ]
iesu DrqI mih qyrI iskdwrI ]
O man other living beings are at your service and you are their leader in the world.
AGGS, M, 5, p 374.

mn qUM joiq srUp hY Awpxw mUlu pCwxu ]
mn hir jI qyry nwil hY gurmqI rMgu mwxu
O, my mind recognize your rootsthe Cosmic Light. That Light is within you, enjoy yourself by reflecting on the Word.
AGGS, M, 3, p 441.

kir krqY krxI kir pweI ]
ijin kIqI iqin kImiq pweI ]

The Creator created mankind and let it free to do as it wills. But how it was accomplished, only the Creator knows.
AGGS, M 1, p, 932.

mwtI kw ly dyhurw kirAw ]
aukiq joiq lY suriq prIiKAw ]
The Creator fashioned human body from the earthy elements and by some method endowed it with life, wisdom and discerning intellect.
AGGS, M 5, p 913.

jYsw kry su qYsw pwvY ]
Awip bIij Awpy hI KwvY ]
One gets reward according to what one does and what one sows, so shall one reap.
AGGS, M 1, p 662.

idnu rYin Apnw kIAw pweI ]
iksu dos n dIjY ikrqu BvweI ]
We earn what we do day and night. Why blame others, it is our own doings that lead us astray.
AGGS, M 5, p 745.

nwnk Aaugx jyqVy qyqy glI jMjIr ]
jy gux hoin q ktIAin sy BweI sy vIr ]
Nanak, vices are like chains around our necks and they can be cut only with virtues, which are our only loved ones.
AGGS, M 1, p 595.

cMigAweIAw buirAweIAw vwcY Drmu hdUir ]
krmI Awpo AwpxI ky nyVy ky dUir ]
Good and bad deeds determine the relationship with God. According to their deeds some are drawn closer to God, whereas others move away.
AGGS, M 1, P, 8.

sMjogu ivjogu duie kwr clwvih lyKy Awvih Bwg ]
There are two types of human activities, the ones that bring about union with God and others that cause separation from God.
AGGS, M 1, p 6.

The one who realizes union with God is called jiwan mukt, the liberated one (gurmukh), the other who is separated from God is called reprobate (manmukh), the self-centered being.

Besides, Guru Nank’s composition on creation makes it clear that gods and goddesses, karma and transmigration, hell and heaven and reincarnation are the inventions of man, not the creation of God.17

Moreover, AGGS clearly rejects the theory of transmigration based on karma by asking its proponents:

jb kCu n sIE qb ikAw krqw kvn krm kir AwieAw]
Apnw Kylu Awip kir dyKY Twkuir rcnu rcwieAw]
When there was no creation, how did the first being inherit karma? Or who created karma initially? The reality is that it is God, Who created the world. For Him creation is a game and He continues to play.
AGGS, M, 5, P 748.

pMc qqu imil kwieAw kInI qqu khw qy kInu ry]
krm bD qum jIau kihq hO krmih ikin jIau dIn ry]

You say that the body is made of five elements, from where were the elements created? You say that the law of karma determines man’s fate, but who created the law of karma?
AGGS, Kabir, P 870.

mwie n hoqI bwpu n hoqw krmu n hoqI kwieAw ]
hm nhI hoqy qum nhI hoqy kvnu khw qy AwieAw]
swsqu n hoqw byd nw hoqw krmu khw qy AwieA]
When there was neither mother, nor father, nor body, nor karma, or when neither I was there, nor you were there, what came from where? When there was no Veda or Shastra, there was no karma? How did the karma originate?
AGGS, Namdev, P 973.

The idea of creativity and growth are an integral part of life and morality according to the Gurus. Besides, the Gurus did not talk about the past life or the life after death, what they talked about and laid stress on is the present life. For example:

iehI qyrw Aausru ieh qyrI bwr]
Gt BIqir qU dyKu ibcwir]
This is your opportunity, this is your turn to meet God, ponder and seek within.
AGGS, Kabir, P 1159.

BeI prwpiq mwnuK dyhurIAw]
goibMd imlx kI ieh qyrI brIAY]
Take advantage of your human birth, as this is your opportunity to meet God.
AGGS, M, 5, P 378.

Awgwhw kU qRwiG ipCw Pyir nw muhfVw]
nwnk isiJ ievyhw vwr bhuiV nw hovI jnmVw]
“Don’t look to the past, make efforts to move ahead. This is the only chance to meet God because you won’t be born again,” says Nanak.
AGGS, M, 5, P 1096.

gur kI swKI AMimRq bwxI pIvq hI prvwxu BieAw ]
dr drsn kw pRIqmu hovY mukiq bYkuMTY krY ikAw]
Guru’s teaching is like nectar that imparts immortality; one who imbibes it receives Divine grace.
Why should one, who wants to have a glimpse of the Beloved bother about paradise through salvation.
AGGS, M I, P 360.

These verses clearly emphasize that one’s current life is the only chance to realize God. On the other hand according to the theory of karma and transmigration there could be many chances to meet God, theoretically unlimited chances.

Based on his views that Guru Nanak accepted the doctrines of karma and transmigration, MacLeod has interpreted expressions like ‘avan jan (Awvix jwx), ava java (AwvY jwvY)’ and bhavaya (BvweIAY) as cycle of birth and death or cycle of transmigration. However, in the AGGS these and other related expressions are used as metaphors for spiritual death and regeneration or they represent the belief of Hindus. According to Nankian philosophy there are two types of people, gurmukhs (God-centered beings) and manmukhs (self-centered beings). A gurmukh is a person who dwells on God’s attributes constantly and does every thing according to God’s Will. Such a one achieves perfect union with God. Whereas a manmukh is a degenerate person who does every thing according to his own will under the influence of haumai (self-centeredness). He is entangled in maya (material world) and leads a life of duality. He is separated from God. His mind is unsteady and he can’t decide to choose between God and maya. Thus he keeps experiencing spiritual death and spiritual regeneration.

On page 170 McLeod has interpreted the following verses as:

BwxY so shu rMglw isPiq rqw guixqws jIau]
BwxY shu BIhwvlw hau Awvix jwix mueIAws jIau]
If it pleases Thee Thou art a Lord of joy and I am rapt in Thy praises, Thou storehouse of excellences. If it pleases Thee Thou art a fearsome Lord and I go on dying in the cycle of transmigration.
AGGS, M 1, P 762.

These lines are from a shabad (stanza) about God’s Will (Bwxw). Keeping this in mind, the appropriate interpretation of these verses is as follows:
Understanding of Your Will makes You a Lord of joy and I am completely absorbed in Your praises, O the Storehouse of virtues. Whereas ignorance of Your Will makes You a fearsome Lord and I keep suffering from the cycle of spiritual death and birth.

On page 177 he has translated a whole shabad except the first two lines to explain the nature of unregenerate man. However, his interpretation of the two lines following rahau (Pause) described below is incorrect and inconsistent with the rest of the shabad:

Many times I was born as a tree, many times as an animal, many times I came in the form of a snake, and many times I flew as a bird.

kq kI mweI bwpu kq kyrw ikdU Qwvhu hm Awey]
Agin ibMb jl BIqir inpjy kwhy kMim aupwey]
myry swihbw kauxu jwxY gux qyry]
khy n jwnI Aaugx myry] rhwau]
kyqy ruK ibrK hm cIny kyqy psU aupwey]
kyqy nwg kulI mih Awey kyqy pMK aufwey]
ht ptx ibj mMdr BMnY kir corI Gir AwvY]
Aghu dyKY ipChu dyKY quJ qy khw CpwvY]
qt qIrQ hm nv KMf dyKy ht ptx bwjwrw]
LY kY qkVI qolix lwgw Gt hI mih vxjwrw]
jyqw smuMdu swgru nIir BirAw qyqy Aaugx hmwry]
dieAw krhu ikCu imhr aupwvhu fubdy pQr qwry]
jIAVw Agin brwbir qpY BIqir vgY kwqI]
pRxviq nwnku hukmu pCwxY suKu hovY idn rwqI]

This shabad is about a sinful man. He is separated from God due to his haumai (self-centeredness) and preoccupation with maya. However, he has recognized his folly. He is repentant and is beseeching God with humility for forgiveness. He starts out by asking the purpose of his life. The gist of the shabd is contained in the two lines before rahau (pause): “O my Lord, who can comprehend Your virtues! None can count my sins.” Guru Nanak advises this man to recognize God’s Hukam (Divine Law) and live in harmony with it. The sinful man acknowledges his faults by saying that other creatures like trees, animals, snakes and birds do not commit sin because they live in harmony with God’s Hukam, whereas he is accumulating sin after sin due to his haumai.

Now let us look at the meaning of the whole shabad line by line.

When did someone become my mother or father and where did I come from? I was conceived and nurtured in the amniotic fluid in the womb, what was the purpose of my coming to this world? O my Lord, who can comprehend Your virtues? None can count my sins. Pause. I have seen numerous trees, animals, snakes and birds, who do not commit sin whereas I break into city shops and fortified buildings and bring home the stolen goods. I look around to make sure that no body sees me, but how can I hide it from You? To wash my sins I go to sacred shores, places, cities, markets and shops all over the world. While weighing my merits and demerits in my heart, I realized that my sinfulness is as immense as the water in the ocean. Dear God, please take mercy on me, with Your grace stonehearted beings can cross the ocean of worldly temptations. My mind is burning with the fire of (haumai) and the temptations of maya are cutting it like a knife. Nanak prays that those who live in harmony with the Divine Law attain eternal bliss.
AGGS, M 1, P156.

On page 204 he says, “Why so few have a vision of God? One explanation is that karma determines the issue. Those who in their previous existences have lived lives of relative merit acquire thereby a faculty of perception, which enables them to recognize the Guru. This theory has a logical consistency and in one place it would appear to be explicitly affirmed.” He quotes the lower verse of the following couplet in support of his views.

jividAw lwhw imlY gur kwr kmwvY]
pUrib hovY iliKAw qw siqguru pwvY]
If it is inscribed in the record of one’s former deeds then one meets the True Guru.

As already discussed, the deterministic Hindu view of karma is rejected in the AGGS. Thus the two verses are explained as:

One profits in life by performing righteous deeds. It is the merit of such deeds, which brings about one’s union with the true Guru (God).
AGGS, M 1, p 421.

On page 212 he has interpreted the following couplet addressed to a Muslim as:

imhr msIiq isdku muslw hk hlwlu kurwxu]
srm suMniq sIlu rojw hohu muslmwxu]
Make mercy your mosque, faith your prayer-mat, and righteousness your Quran. Make humility your circumcision, uprightness your fasting, and so you will be a (true) Muslim.
AGGS, M, 1, p 140.

Here he has interpreted saram (srm) as humility, which is incorrect. Saram (srm) means sharam (Srm, shame). Since the discussion is about male circumcision, it is about sexual morality of man. Therefore, the correct interpretation should be “make fidelity your circumcision.”
Guru Nanak has used saram in the same sense in his description of the degeneration of Khatris and horrors of the attack on Saidpur by Babur.

srm Drm kw fyrw dUir ]
They have no shame and sense of duty.
AGGS, M 1, p 471.

srmu Drmu duie Cip Kloey kUVu iPrY prDwnu vy lwlo ]
O Lalo, both shame and sense of duty have disappeared and falsehood has overtaken.
AGGS, M 1, p 722.

Interpretation of Gurbani.

My understanding of AGGS indicates that generally the Gurus didn’t debate with Hindu and Muslim masses the validity of their beliefs. Instead, they emphasised the importance of moral living to achieve spiritual objectives. Their advice was that Nam Simran (constant devotion to God’s attributes) purifies the mind and earns God’s love (grace), which in turn overcomes the obstacles--of karma, transmigration, hell (narak or dozakh), record of deeds kept by Chitr and Gupt, and the fear of Yam and angel Ajraeel. But it does not mean that the Gurus themselves believed in karma, transmigration, hell (narak or dozakh), Chitr and Gupt, Yam and angel Ajraeel. For instance, in Asa Di Var Guru Nanak has described the religious beliefs of Hindus about what happens when one dies.

pauVI ] AwpInY Bog Boig kY hoie BsmiV Bauru isDwieAw ]
vfw hoAw dunIdwr gil sMglu Giq clwieAw ]
AgY krxI kIriq vwcIAY bih lyKw kir smJwieAw]
Qwau n hovI paudIeI huix suxIAY ikAw rUAwieAw ]
min AMDY jnmu gvwieAw ]

When one dies after enjoying the pleasures of the material world, the soul leaves the earthy body. The god of death (Yam) puts a chain around the neck of a dead person’s soul and drags it to the court of Dharamraj, who decides its fate on the basis of the record of dead person’s deeds kept by Chitr and Gupt, who are Dharamraj’s assistants. There is no escape from punishment, it cries for mercy but there is no help. These are Hindu beliefs, not of Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak’s own thought is expressed in the last verse. The ignorant fool has wasted his life (min AMDY jnmu gvwieAw), as the purpose of life is to become one with God by becoming a gurmukh.
AGGS, M1, p 464.

Similarly, Guru Nanak has commented on Muslim beliefs about death.

nwnku AwKY ry mnw suxIAY isK shI ]
lyKw rbu mMgysIAw bYTw kF vhI ]
qlbw pausin AwkIAw bwkI ijnw rhI ]
AjrweIlu Prysqw hosI Awie qeI ]
Awvxu jwxu n suJeI BIVI glI PhI ]
kUV inKuty nwnkw EVik sic rhI ]

Nanak says, “ O my mind pay attention to a true advice. It is God who asks for account of one’s deeds. The derelict ones with deficient accounts are taken to task. The angel of death, Ajraeel is ready to punish them. They don’t know what to do when he forces them through a narrow lane of suffering. The reality is that it is the truth that triumphs in the end and falsehood fails.”
Here the second, third and sixth lines are compatible with Guru Nanak’s philosophy. That is why he calls it a true advice. According to Nanakian philosophy it is God, Who is the cause of creation and it is God’s Hukam (Divine Law) which controls every aspect of its working. The fourth and fifth lines refer to Muslim beliefs. In the sixth line Guru Nanak makes it clear that it is “truthful living” that matters. One, who lives a truthful life, need not fear Angel Ajraeel or the narrow lane of suffering.
AGGS, M 1, p 953.

However, with learned people like Yogis, Brahmans, and Muslims, Guru Nanak and his successors did discuss and debate their own thoughts and the beliefs of others.18 For example, Guru Nanak, advised a Muslim how to be a true Mulim19 by explaining him the true meaning of five prayers. Similarly, he advised Yogis20 and Brahmans21 how to be a true Yogi and a true Brahman, respectively. Whenever he had the opportunity to meet artisans22 or farmers, 23 who could grasp his thoughts, Guru Nanak explained to them his thoughts using their terminology.

Name of Sikh Scripture.

Throughout his works McLeod has used the name “Adi Granth” for the current Sikh scripture which is incorrect. Here is a chronological development of the Sikh scripture, which was declared as eternal Guru of the Sikhs by Guru Gobind Singh.

Guru Arjan Dev compiled the first Sikh Scripture by incorporating the compositions of his predecessors, his own and that of bhagats (devotees) and Sufis and the resulting codex is called Adi Granth (Awid grMQ). It is also known as Pothi (sacred text) and Kartarpuri Bir (sacred text of Kartarpur) as it in the possession of a Sodhi family of Kartarpur. Bir means Jilad -- binding of a book. Since the Adi Granth was a bound manuscript, it acquired the name Adi Bir. Later on Guru Gobind Singh added the composition of his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, to the compositions of Adi Granth and the resulting sacred text was (is) called Damdami Bir, as according to Sikh traditions it was prepared at Damdama. It is Damdami Bir, which was consecrated as Guru by Guru Gobind Singh. The current Sikh Scripture is a copy of Dadami Bir. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) manages the historical Gurdwaras in Punjab, Haryana and Himacchal Pardesh, and Sikh-religious affaires. It is also responsible for the printing and distribution of the current Sikh scripture and it has named it as “Adi Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji (Awid sRI gurU grMQ swihb jI).” In literature it is referred as Guru Granth Sahib or Guru Granth or Granth or Sikh Scripture or even Sikh Bible. However, quite often people not only call it Adi Granth but also pronounce it as Adee Granth (AwdI grMQ), erroneously. From the time of Gurus, the Punjabi language has undergone evolutionary change in pronunciation. For example the vowel i (sihari) of Awid (Adi) in modern pronunciation is de-emphasized and Awid (Adi) is pronounced as Awd (Aad). In Adi, i denotes i (sihari). In my writings I use the name, Aad Guru Granth Sahib, as Aad (Awid) which means eternal and primal is very important to distinguish it from other Granths or Guru Granths. Recently, some malicious people have started calling Dasam Granth as Guru Granth. I have dropped Sri (Mr.) and Ji (yes, Sir) as the use of Sri before Guru and Ji after Sahib is redundant.

McLeod has justified his interpretation of Guru Nanak’s teachings and Sikhism in the following way:
“The pattern that I devised was never intended to represent the teachings of Guru Nanak in the form in which they had been delivered in the early decades of the sixteenth century. It was, however, a pattern that could be understandable to readers educated in Western manner. 24 I have always maintained that I am a Western historian and if that status deprives me of reasonable understanding of Sikhism then so be it. My primary objective has been to communicate an understanding of the Sikh people and their religion to educated Western readers and that consequently it is important that I speak to their mode of understanding. 25

How could anyone justify the propagation of distorted understanding of the Sikh people and their religion to educated Western readers? Does Western methodology of historical research permit it? The object of research in any field is to find the truth for the benefit of all! Commercial or prejudicial writings are targeted to a particular segment of the population.


McLeod’s assumption that Guru Nanak accepted the doctrines of karma and transmigration is not supported by the teachings of AGGS. The discussion in this article unequivocally demonstrates that Sikh Gurus rejected ancient Indian beliefs of karma and transmigration. It is not only in McLeod’s book, such misinterpretations are found in many Punjabi and English translations of the AGGS found in the prints, on compact discs, and on many Internet sites in these days. While interpreting the compositions AGGS one must keep in mind that Hindu and Muslim beliefs are not the beliefs of Sikh Gurus. Besides, Adi Granth is not the proper name for the modern Sikh scripture (Aad Guru Granth Sahib).


1 Chahal, D. S. Causes of misinterpretation of Gurbani and misrepresentation of Sikhism. Understanding Sikhism Res. J. 2001, 3 (1), 12-23 & 39.
2 McLeod, W. H. Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, 1996.
3 AGGS: Aad Guru Granth Sahib. 1983 CE (Reprint). Pp 1430. Publishers: Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar. (M = Mahla, i.e. succession number of the Sikh Gurus to the House of Nanak, for the composition of bhagats, M is substituted by the name of the bhagat, P = page of the AGGS).
4 McLeod, W. H. Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, 1996, p 159.
5 Ibid., p 209-210.
6 McLeod, W. H. Discovering the Sikhs: Autobiography of a Historian, 2004, p 36-37.
7 Ibid., p 39.
8 Singh, J. The Sikh Revolution, 4th reprint, 1998, p 8-12, 19, 28, 30-34, 38, 40, 50, 53-55, 266, 274.
9 Ibid., p 34, 38, 40, 54, 86.
10 Grewal, J. S. The Sikhs of the Punjab, 1994, p 31.
11 Singh, J. The Sikh Revolution, 4th reprint, 1998 p 105.
12 Singh, S. The Sikhs in History, 4th ed., 2001, p 19.
13 Macauliffe, M. A. The Sikh Religion, Vols. I, 1990, 197.
14 Singh, S. Sri Guru Granth Sahib Darpan (Punjabi), Vol. 1, 1972, p 58-59.
15 Singh, P. The Text and the meaning of Adi Granth, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Toronto, 1991, p 225-226.
16 AGGS, M 1, p 942- 943: qyrw kvxu GuruUu ijs kw qU cylw ] sbdu gurU suriq Duin cylw ]
17 Massey, J. Guru Nanak’s concept of Creator and creation, Abstracts of Sikh Studies, January 1994, p, 43-57.
18 AGGS, M 1, p 662.
19 Ibid., 141.
20 Ibid., p 6.
21 Ibid., p 471.
22 Ibid., p 8.
23 Ibid., p 595.
24 McLeod, W. H. Discovering the Sikhs: Autobiography of a Historian, 2004, p 38.
25 Ibid., p 129.