As Sikhs all over the world prepare to celebrate Vaisakhi and the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, the tenth Sikh master, the author offers a reflection on one of his most beloved compositions.
Each time I get to this particular moment in my Nitnem (prayers, part of daily Sikh religious practice), my head starts to fill with fleeting images, even as I savor the cadence of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s divine poetry. Bhai Sahib Dharm Singh Zakhmi, in his inimitably eloquent manner, likens the Bani (writings) of Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji to a clear and sparkling stream, bursting forth from the heart of a mountain in the pristine wilderness.
The powerful torrent of words conjures up images, no less powerful. Whinnying stallions, fleet of foot, galloping like the wind. Richly caparisoned elephants, swaying majestically. Hordes of brave warriors with arms of steel, capable of laying waste to impregnable forts. And then, all of this magnificence magically morphing into a single point of infinite calm and peace.
The words alone are enough to energize and uplift. The inherent drum beat of the poetry is so insistent that it pervades your being. The rich images create tremendous excitement and anticipation. And yet, he tells us that the trappings of power and wealth are but an illusion. As he strips the illusion away, all that is left is pure love. And peace.
I speak of the Tav Prasad Savvaiye, also known as the Sudha Savvaiye, a collection of ten verses that appears in Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s sublime work, Akal Ustat.
I start wondering. Why these particular words? Why these images? Surely there is much else in the world that is illusory! Why these particular examples?
One of the elements of traditional Sikh scholarship is ‘Uthanka’ or historical context, which provides a contextual understanding of a particular Shabad (hymn) or Bani. By far the most widely drawn upon work for this contextual understanding of Sikh scripture is the work titled Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth by Santokh Singh, popularly known as Suraj Partap.
The few traditional contextual sources I could find for the Tav Prasad Savvaiye point to Guru Gobind Singh’s interaction with a groups of Kings as the backdrop for the composing of the Savvaiye. There seems to be general agreement that the words in this Bani clearly address temporal leaders, to help them understand the ephemeral nature of their power, undoubtedly a source of great pride to them. I feel that the Savviye have great relevance to our lives in the modern world as well; while we may not be surrounded by powerful despots thirsty for conquest in the traditional sense, it is rather easy to recognize the modern avatars of the kings with their stallions and elephants and armies and forts!
Before sharing the stories of these Kings and their interactions with Guru Gobind Singh Ji, I would like to offer a translation of the Savvaiye, with the caution that my insipid translation can never even attempt to capture the magnificence and raw power of this hymn. All that it will provide is some context.
Tav Prasad Savvaiye
Holy men of many stripes have I encountered in my wanderings
Warriors, demons and demigods; ‘saints’ of various orders
Many countries have I seen, but none is truly His
Without the Lord’s blessing, all these are utterly worthless
Tall, richly caparisoned and bejeweled elephants, swaying majestically
Countless horses, faster than the wind, prancing like deer
Kings, strong of arm; saluted by all; their power incomprehensible
Of what consequence these trappings? For they too depart barefoot from this world
Triumphant they march through many lands; kettle drums extolling their glory
To the cacophonous trumpeting of their elephants and the neighing of their horses
Countless proud kings there are have been and will be
Unmindful of the Lord, they go to their final resting place, these trappings, left behind
Pilgrimages, ablutions, restraint, charity and mercy
The diligent study of the Hindu and Muslim holy texts
Abstinence from food; celibacy; all this I have seen
Without contemplating the Lord, all this is futile
Brave warriors, clad in shining armor who crush their enemies
Proud and steadfast; even more than the mountains
Bereft of His grace, they too shall depart from the world
Multitudes of fearless heroes, who face steel unhesitatingly
Conquer nations and crush rebels, subduing proud elephants
With threats alone, cause impregnable forts everywhere to surrender
They too are naught but beggars at His doorstep
Demons, demigods, serpents and ghosts; forever have and will submit to God
As will all creatures in sea and land that He created in the twinkling of an eye
And thus will their good deeds multiply and their sins will be erased
The holy will roam the world in ecstasy and their enemies will be subdued
Powerful kings of men and demigods, with powerful elephants in their command
Men who perform ritual ablutions, believe in charity and have many splendid weddings
They too, along with the Gods of the Hindu Pantheon, shall not escape death
But those that are truly aligned with Him, shall escape the cycle of rebirth
Pointless it is to shut your eyes and meditate silently as if you were a crane
To wander seeking holy places to bathe at, rather than contemplating the Lord
Or to waste one’s life in the pursuit of pleasure
God can be obtained only by loving Him and his creation
Some venerate and worship stones; others are attached to idols (like Shivalingams)
Some seek him in the South (Dwarka); others in the West (Mecca)
Some fools worship idols and others pray at gravestones
The world is tangled in pointless ritual; none have fathomed the inscrutable Lord
So who were these Kings then? That might have elicited such a response from Guru Gobind Singh Ji?
Popular tradition holds that the Tav Prasad Savvaiye were composed when the Guru was at Anandpur Sahib. Max Arthur Macauliffe, in Volume V of his monumental work, The Sikh religion, its gurus, sacred writings and authors tells the story of a visitor that the young Guru Gobind Singh Ji received at Anandpur, where he then resided. Raja Ram Rai of Assam, had become a follower of Guru Tegh Bahadur Jis, many years ago, when Guru Tegh Bahadur had traveled to the East. Then childless, he asked for Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji’;s blessing and in due course, a son was born to him, who was named Ratan Rai. Macauliffe’s account is largely based on the traditional work Gur Bilas Patshahi Dasvin, written by Bhai Sukha Singh as well as the work Suraj Prakash, cited earlier.