Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill
Congregational worship happens at the Gurdwara, with the Guru Granth Sahib taking the literal and metaphorical center place in worship. Along with the transformative aspect of visual and aural presence of the divine word in the congregation, Sikhs also consider the congregation's presence as transformative. The goal of worship is not just to hear, see, and read scripture but to enact its message. Music provides Sikh worshipers with an aesthetic aid so that they can better understand their scripture, and so they can enact the scriptural message in their daily lives.
Akhand path is the term for an "unbroken reading" of the entire scripture at several kinds of events. Some Sikhs prefer to do sahaj path ("slow reading") over a period longer than the forty-eight hours it takes to complete an akhand path, with long breaks between the readings so the readers, listeners, and their families can better understand and reflect on the holy verses. This form fits better with the message of the Guru's teachings, who said that to reflect and understand the ideas are the step to enacting them, from which liberation can be gained.
Music has been central to Sikh spiritual life since the founding of the community. In his own compositions, Guru Nanak (1469-1539) reports himself to be a minstrel singing the divine message, and encourages his Sikhs to sing the divine praises. Not only does the accompaniment of instruments to the singing of Sikh hymns heighten the aesthetic experience, but the Guru Granth Sahib is itself structured to the musical meters in which the Gurus composed their hymns.
Daily prayers have, for centuries, been a central part of the Sikh routine. The Guru's compositions play a primary role in Sikh devotion from morning to night. Ideally before sunrise, Sikhs are supposed to wake up and recite Guru Nanak's hymn entitled Jap ("Recite"), also called Jap Ji. Around sunset, they recite Sodar ("That House," also known as Rahiras, or "Sustenance") and perform Sohila ("Paean") before sleeping. These three main prayers form the liturgy section at the very beginning of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Guru Nanak's "Ballad in the Meter Asa" (Asa Di Var) is also a popular composition performed in the morning time. Guru Amar Das's hymn Anand ("Bliss") and Guru Arjan's Sukhmani ("Pearl of Peace") are also performed daily or intermittently, especially in times of celebration or mourning. Guru Ramdas's Lavan ("Circumambulations") provides the scriptural basis for the Sikh wedding ceremony. Compositions attributed to Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), like Jaap ("recitation") and Sawaye ("quatrains"), are also recited by many Sikhs, though they do not come from the Guru Granth Sahib.
The practice of ardas, Sikh congregational supplication for Kartar's good graces, goes back to at least the 17th century. In the early 20th century, Sikh leadership came to a consensus on an official text of the ardas. Today, ardas is performed by a leader agreeable to the congregation while the members stand to hear it. Sikhs end every ardas today by asking for divine grace for the "good spirits" (chardi kala) of the community and "the welfare of all humanity" (sarbat da bhala).
Sikhs also perform simran ("meditation" or "remembrance") in congregation or alone while contemplating divine attributes. While performing simran they may choose to repeat a word like Vahiguru ("Great is the Guru") to focus their attention. In Sikh theology, shabad ("the divine word") is both the content of divine revelation as it is understood by the individual, and the word of the Guru's teachings. Sikhs try to use the medium of the shabad to attain the content of the divine revelation, which is known as Naam, or the Name of God.
One of the culminating acts of a Sikh worship ceremony is the reading of the hukam ("command"), also known as vak ("utterance"). This is a slow reading of one complete hymn from a page opened at random by the reader, designated by the community, for all to hear and understand. If the congregational gathering is a court, then the hukam is the day's royal pronouncement from the Guru. After the reading of the hukam, a learned member of the community may be asked to offer commentary and clarification so that the members of the congregation can better enact that day's command from the Guru. At the core of the idea of the hukam is to understand it so that one may apply it one's life; therefore katha ("discourse") explaining the hukam is also an important part of the process. Typically this explanation may be done by any competent member of the community. Recently in English-speaking areas, a reading of an English translation of the hukam (or even the projection of a digital English translation on a large screen) accompanies the reading of the original text.
The hukam from the central Sikh Gurdwara, the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, is available to be heard and read on a daily basis via television, radio, and the internet. Performance of Sikh kirtan by highly-trained, celebrity performers (ragis) is also readily available and consumed in the diaspora. The ideal, however, is that local congregations themselves perform, hear, and understand the Guru's word and not rely on professionals to do it for them. Again, most important to Sikh devotional life is the ethical imperative to enact the message of the hukam in the course of one's day.
1. What role does music play in Sikh congregational life?
2. What are the Sikh daily prayers?
3. What is ardas? Simran?
4. Why do Sikhs do a daily reading of the Sikh scripture and how?