The Making of Sikh Scripture

The origin of the pothi

The Making of Sikh Scripture by Gurinder Singh Mann. Oxford University Press,New York. Pages 193. $39.95.

Review by Roopinder Singh

THE author traces the history of the Guru Granth Sahib, the primary Sikh scripture, in this important new book. He reconstructs the compilation of the Sikh sacred text from the time of Guru Nanak, the founder of the tradition, to the text presently used in Sikh worship. Given the importance that the Guru Granth Sahib enjoys in the Sikh community, the study deserves serious attention.

The Making of Sikh Scripture by Gurinder Singh Mann

The Making of Sikh Scripture by Gurinder Singh Mann

The book is divided into eight chapters. Mann begins by placing the origin of the Sikh sacred text in the larger context of Guru Nanak’s foundation of the Sikh community at Kartarpur on the right bank of the river Ravi. He explains Guru Nanak’s activity as follows: “During the final stage of his life, we see him translating the theological and ethical ideas in his hymns into reality. Using families as building blocks, Guru Nanak gathered his followers at Kartarpur, involved them in agricultural activity for sustenance and attempted to replicate what he thought to be the ideal way of life.”
Mann differs with W. H. McLeod and many others who have argued that Guru Nanak belonged to the sant tradition and emphasised a religion of meditation and interiority. He contends that “In Guru Nanak’s case, however, meditation is one critical piece in an otherwise larger vision of life that constituted the basis of the community of Kartarpur. For Guru Nanak, three key virtues ‘meditation of the divine (naam), charity (daan) and purity (ishnaan)’ are prerequisites to a successful search for liberation.” Thus, for the author, the compilation of the pothi fits into his general effort of building a community.
In the second chapter, Writings on Sikh Scripture, there is an overview of early scholars’ works on Sikh scriptures. Mann should be given credit for paying due attention to indigenous scholarship. He painstakingly summarises the significant contribution of Sikh scholars, beginning with Chaupa Singh in the early 18th century coming up to the works of Giani Gurdit Singh, Piara Singh and Pashauara Singh in the 1990s.
In the next three chapters, basing his argument on the evidence available in the early manuscripts, Mann presents his understanding of the history of the compilation of the Adi Granth. Mann highlights the importance of the Guru Harsahai Pothi, in the early formation of the scriptural text. Quoting Giani Gurdit Singh, Mann reports that the opening text of the Guru Harsahai Pothi contained only the hymns of Guru Nanak. To date, no comparable manuscript recording the hymns of Guru Nanak and him alone, has come to light. All other manuscripts we know of contain his hymns followed by those of his successors at different stages in the development of the Sikh text.
The Goindval Pothis are the next landmark in the author’s examination. His analysis supports the Sikh traditional view of their being compiled during Guru Amardas period (1551-1574). He maintains that originally there were four of these of which only two are extant. These two pothis are in the custody of the descendants of the third Guru and are at present in Pinjore and Jalandhar.
The pothi, that is at present with Sodhis of Kartarpur comes into focus next. Mann supports the firmly-held Sikh tradition of its being compiled during the period of Guru Arjan (1584-1606). He analyses the contents of the pothi and discusses the changes introduced from time to time. He, however, argues that it is at the fountainhead of the later scriptural tradition.
In the following chapter, Mann examines the data in 27 extant manuscripts of the Sikh sacred text created between1642 and 1692. He traces the compilation of the canonical text known as Guru Granth Sahib. Here he differs from the traditional accounts of there being three families of manuscripts available during this period and argues for a two branch picture. For him, “The Kartarpur Pothi began to be copied while still in the process of reaching its final form; a copy of it made in 1605 was taken to Peshawar area where it served as a source for manuscripts that constitute branch 1; the Kartarpur Pothi reached its final form in 1606 and then its copies became the manuscripts of branch 2.”
Discussing the organisation of the text at various stages of its expansion, the author contends that while the use of raag and the compilation of the sacred text according to raag assignments of the hymns is not unique; the way the Gurus applied raag-related knowledge in compiling these texts indicates a high degree of originality.
He differs from the traditional view and argues that bhagat bani was incorporated during the time of Guru Amardas. The incorporation of the bhagat bani into the Sikh scriptural text provided Guru Amardas with the unique opportunity to assert the “Sikh belief in social equality, without diluting the doctrinal thrust in any way”.
In the final chapter, Mann traces the history of the Guru Granth Sahib from 1680s up to the present day and explains the variations in manuscripts in terms of the continued re-copying of the early scriptures. This situation, however, underwent major change with the coming of the printing press to Punjab in the 1860s. The SGPC produced the first one-volume Guru Granth Sahib in 1952 after establishing its own press. The text came under criticism for not following the Kartarpur Pothi. Subsequently the SGPC brought out a revised edition presently in use.
Mann also examines the future prospects and talks about the Sikhs born and brought up abroad and the new converts to Sikhism in the West. They both have difficulty in reading the text in Gurmukhi and “the inevitable need for a non-Gurmukhi text for performative and ceremonial purposes.”
In examining the dilemma that this issue raises, he notes that the Jews and the Muslims have similar views on the notions of sacred language and script. He explains how the Jews have reaffirmed the sacredness of Hebrew, while simultaneously permitting the use of translation of the Torah in congregational worship and individual study, while the Muslims have stuck to the original Arabic script for all devotional purposes. There is still tension in both the religious communities about this issue.
Understanding various dimensions of the Sikh scripture is a continual effort that has spanned centuries. Gurinder Singh Mann has spent the past 10 years studying the history of the Guru Granth Sahib and has presented a well-researched and considered account of what went into the compilation of Sikh scripture.
No doubt scholars will examine his observations and his theories, and may differ with his position. The book, however, deserves to be commended for its comprehensiveness, the sensitivity with which the author approaches the subject and in demonstrating what is now, unfortunately, a rare quality of scholarly examination of tradition without the condemnation of positions inimical to one’s own.
The book is refreshingly jargon-free, which is no mean accomplishment. The writer establishes a tone of scholarly humility, and prefaces his observations with statements like ‘it seems to me’; ‘the evidence at our disposal points to this’. And makes no claim of giving the final word on the issue.
It is an expensive book for Indian readers and one hopes that OUP, Delhi, would publish an Indian edition so that it becomes more accessible to scholars in the region. It could also be translated into Punjabi for wider dissemination, since this book will be read by those who are interested in Sikh studies.

The review was published in The Tribune on August 26, 2001