Abstract: Inquiries into Sikh ethics emphasize the tension between human agency and divine will, wherein divine grace takes primacy over personal effort. To date, scholars have primarily drawn on passages from the Adi Granth as authoritative pedagogical sources for morally imagining the Good Life. Adopting the hermeneutical tools of reader response theory, I will suggest that the Janamsakhi literary tradition offers a heretofore-overlooked repository of theodical life-worlds that both supplements and complicates conventional teachings on the experience of Sikh discipleship. In particular, I will demonstrate that these stories do real ethical work on the reader by intending an imagined space and refiguratively calling forth ‘a way of dwelling there.’ Drawing on three particular sakhis from the Puratan anthology, I will examine the ways in which these episodes try to reach in front of themselves to shape the reader, thereby equipping her with ‘technologies of the self’ with which to navigate issues of risk, ambivalence and surrender. Finally, I will encourage scholars in the field of Sikh Studies to take this reception-based approach to the Janamsakhi tradition seriously as a middle ground between the contemporary hegemonic voices of etic historical criticism and emic apologetics.
“To be a disciple of the Guru is a very subtle activity.” [i]
-Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 9, Pauri 2
estled within his tome of coded Sikh moral prescription lies Bhai Gurdas’ telling confession: “Discipleship of the Guru is such a difficult task that only a rare one can understand it.”[ii]Despite all attempts at fixing Sikh ethics as a systematic “doctrine” of values directing human conduct, any gesture towards coherence or transparency necessarily belies the multivocality of the ethical resources available to practitioners.[iii] Most poignantly, a deep ambivalence regarding the interplay between human agency and divine will riddles these polyvalent texts. To date, Sikh scholars have primarily looked to the authoritative Guru Granth Sahib for answers.[iv] In so doing, they have restricted themselves to a rich anthology that nevertheless offers few clues as to what a devout Sikh life looks like amidst the messiness of embodied experience.
In contrast, I want to suggest that the Janamsakhi tradition represents a heretofore-overlooked repository of ethical life-worlds. Employing the tools of Paul Ricoeur’s textual hermeneutics, I argue further that the Janamsakhi stories equip readers with technologies for ethical self-fashioning. Three episodes drawn from the Puratan collection, in particular, demonstrate the nuance obtained by the Janamsakhi tradition regarding the tension between freedom and determinism. Finally, I submit that this turn towards textual reception clears a middle path between apologetic and historical critical studies of the Janamsakhis more generally.
1. THE ETHICS OF NARRATIVE
Before we indulge the Janamsakhis themselves, we first must consider the ethical efficacy of narrative from a theoretical vantage point. To do so, I propose the lens of a reception-based hermeneutic. In reaction to the formalism of New Criticism, which promotes the scientific investigation of a literary artifact’s objective qualities, reader-response theorists and ‘theological’ phenomenologists[v] draw on the legacy of Romantic subjectivism to re-focus attention on the effects that literary texts have on their readers. This approach endorses the interpretive activity of the reader over and against authorial intent or internal literary structure. For the purposes of this paper, I will make use of three interpretive strategies documented in Paul Ricoeur’s analysis of Christian holy texts.[vi]
For one, Ricoeur allows us to approach narrative on its own terms. This is especially relevant in light of the surge in historical criticism now permeating the field of Sikh studies. Rather than parsing texts into fractional fossils of unique literary time-slices, Ricoeur follows Robert Alter in viewing second-order historical considerations as bound up with, and complementary to, the internal coherence of the text itself.[vii] The world of the text, thus, contains the world behind the text. Further, Ricoeur takes seriously the norm-governed nature of literary production. A unified text sets its own rules. As interpreters, we must place ourselves in “its sense.”[viii] That is not to suggest that interpretation remains captive to an endless repetition of fixed signification. Rather, the very act of reading dynamically prolongs “the itineraries of meaning opened up by the work of interpretation.”[ix] By engaging a text, the reader simultaneously decontextualizes meaning from the specificity of its fictionalized location and recontextualizes it in her contemporary Sitz im Leben. The seeming fluidity of this transition from narrative to human action originates with the inherent temporal relation that binds the two: “time becomes human to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience.”[x]
In this way, texts can be approached as revelation. Their revelatory power does not rest in the propositional sense of monologically transmitting deposited divine truths, however, but in the performative sense of enacting new meaning through the reciprocity of reader and text. In effect, texts reach out in front of themselves into Husserl’s Lebenswelt, or what Ricoeur terms the world in front of the text. Narrative evinces as if life-worlds that desire inhabitation. Through interpretation, the reader unfolds “a proposed world…wherein [she] might project [her] ownmost possibilities.”[xi] In turn, this new modality refigures the subject by empowering her to put on and try out novel ontologies. Beyond description, then, narrative actively shapes and forms readers.
Thirdly, this experimentation with unfamiliar ontological configurations mirrors the human construction of selfhood. In reality, the reader’s self-identity involves a constant struggle of reinterpretation. She continuously internalizes and embodies possible ways of being-in-the-world. The process of creating a self proves malleable, fluid and context-dependent. She patches together a life-story out of the narrative fragments she has chosen and claimed as her own. In this way, the world of the text functions as a propaedeutic or laboratory for thinking and working through the moral life in the world in front of the text. Or, as Ricoeur intuits, “to understand the world and to change it are fundamentally the same thing.”[xii]
For Michel Foucault, the act of refiguring the self requires tools of subjectification. The subject, on his view, must create, as opposed to merely discover, a self. Attending to the multiple patterns of truth that a subject may fashion into an “art of living,” he thus lifts up technologies of the self as one of four practical modalities[xiii] of subject-formation.[xiv] These technologies of the self, in particular, address the “exercise of oneself on oneself.”[xv] As reflexive practices, they inculcate a certain mode of existence in and through power, allowing individuals to work on themselves through bodily, behavioral and intellectual regulation. In short, technologies of the self empower subjects with self-policing tools to mold themselves into ethical agents.
Putting Ricoeur and Foucault into conversation, we come to understand narrative as a method of deepening the reader’s capacity for selfhood by reorienting her to an ever-enlarging vision of human possibility. In witnessing and engaging the literary other as that stranger navigates the ambiguities of fictional life, she trains herself in the dynamic execution, or creative living-out, of static moral scripts. By implication, she sharpens her technologies of self-fashioning. In the Sikh context, this enabling and constraining of the embodied self resonates with the exhortation: the “field of the body is to be cultivated for truthful life and spiritual advancement.”[xvi] Practitioners, thus, strive to harness the virtues of the body, speech and mind using the five organs of perception (gyan-indriyas) and the five organs of action (karma-indriyas). Narrative not only casts characters who model such self-disciplining, but it also provides insight into how the reader might make “sense of time – and, again, of action, and with it, of our freedom.”[xvii] This brings us to the domain of Sikh ethics.
2. DESCRIPTIVE SIKH ETHICS
The Guru Granth Sahib explains that the Lord indwells in the human subject “through the lifestyle of Truth.”[xviii] But what form does that lifestyle take? Scholarship on Sikh ethics sends at best enigmatic, at worst incongruous, messages. I suspect that this ambivalence derives in part from these scholars’ attempts at artificially fitting the Sikh ethical climate into the Western framework of moral philosophy.[xix] Either way, the underlying thematic indeterminacy in this literature coalesces around the tenuous relationship between human autonomy and the hukam, or divine will. In his comprehensive ethical treatment of the Sikh tradition, Surindar Singh Kohli addresses this complexity with candor. On the one hand, the human being appears to lack all agency: “He is a mere puppet in the hands of God.”[xx] Yet, Kohli recognizes that such a representation wholly deflates the ethical project. “If we deny any free will to the individual soul,” he notes, “there will be no ethics.”[xxi] On Kohli’s account, the Sikh tradition falls back on divine grace precisely in such moments of over-determinism. This move is not intellectual artifice, but rather enfolded within the expansive theological tradition. Kohli articulates it in this way: “His grace begins when one makes an effort to move on the right path.”[xxii] Paradoxically, then, the human subject must exercise agency and adopt a “lifestyle of Truth” in obedience to the hukam in order to summon God’s liberating grace. Discipleship focuses on the nature of that path towards God. By exploring the foundational building blocks of Sikh ethics, we will briefly patch together a mosaic of what discipleship should look like from within the sterile and detached halls of the academy.
As suggested, the notion of hukam dominates the ethical literature. Nripinder Singh writes: “The moral character of human actions and of human conduct is determined, in Sikh theology, within the framework of God’s hukam.”[xxiii] Guru Nanak testifies to this centrality in his japji by recounting the various ways in which “everyone is within Your hukam, no one is outside of it.”[xxiv]With roots in Islamic thought,[xxv] the term hukam signals God’s law or will, which does not stand independent from the divine. According to Wazir Singh: “The Ordainer (hukami) is not distinct from his Ordinance (hukam). From the concealed, unmanifest state, He springs into the revealed, manifest state.”[xxvi] In its immanence, hukam reflects the central life principle, which conceives existence, births ego, determines transmigration, offers the promise of truth and encapsulates activity and passivity, among other operations. In other words, hukam comprises creative and destructive tendencies, comforts as well as sorrows. It signals the primal, conscious power at the base of all cosmic phenomena. The universe obeys hukam, for creation depends on and is the outcome of it. In her self-centeredness or egoism (haumai), however, the human being loses sight of divine law. This does not reflect a wrinkle in God’s power, since hukamendows the subject with the “freedom to choose.”[xxvii] The Guru Granth Sahib teaches that God offers the human this choice so that she may make or unmake herself and move in either “the direction of being ‘regenerate’ or ‘degenerate’.”[xxviii] Throughout, it must be remembered that the hukam remains “always just.”[xxix]
Further, the Sikh ethical subject acts under the purview of hukam against the backdrop of karam, or karma. Originating in the Sanskrit as a signifier for action, the term developed out of its Rig Vedic[xxx] and Upanisadic[xxxi] contexts into its Sikh definition as a component of divine will. An inherited chain of action from previous lives, karma determines individual birth states against the measure of hukam, which by no means guarantees an equal playing field: “Some are born beggars and some may hold vast courts.”[xxxii] Similarly, that which the subject sows in the present he will reap in the future. Different life positions do not eclipse the possibility of human union with God. Through devotion, a member of any gender or caste can become the model disciple, orgurmukh, one who faces the Guru. Moreover, God may choose to intervene in this process. If God deems the subject worthy, God may reverse the adverse effects of karma through divine grace.
The Sikh ethical ideal can be glossed under the rubric of God-realization. Bowing before hukam, the disciple aligns her will to the divine Way, sowing the seeds of devotion in the field of action. Accordingly, God’s grace saturates and liberates the devotee in spite of karmic hindrances. Dr. Hardayal adopts a tripartite evaluative framework to track the disciple’s growing alignment withhukam.[xxxiii] Initially, the practitioner focuses on discipline, negatively controlling impulses and reigning in gratuitous desire. Secondly, she positively unfolds the body, mind and soul, thereby enriching her sense of personhood. Lastly, in dedication, she serves humanity and God with selfless devotion. Notably, this matrix advocates neither hedonistic self-gratification nor ascetic self-negation. The way of the disciple is one of self-blossoming in the muddied waters of temptation: “Both self-indulgence and self-denial lead us nowhere; self-restraint is the proper mode of training.”[xxxiv] Counter-instinctually, then, the devotee’s true spiritual freedom depends on her “transvaluation of ego-consciousness into Universal or Cosmic Consciousness,” which derives from willing submission to hukam.[xxxv]
The aforementioned ethical précis relies on a descriptive second-order synthesis of Sikh practices and teachings. But where might we turn for first-hand prescriptive advice? As indicated, the Guru Granth Sahib serves as the primary object of scholarly interest to date. Nripinder Singh characterizes the sacrosanct compilation as “the source” of Sikh ethics.[xxxvi] Steeped in dense metaphor and elaborate symbolism, the ethical directives of the Guru Granth Sahib are admittedly “very often only felt vaguely,” requiring a prolonged and concerted effort on behalf of the devotee.[xxxvii] In contrast, the rahits, or codes of conduct, address quotidian concerns in a matter-of-fact fashion. Although it can be argued that inchoate rahit injunctions found their way into earlier Sikh writings,[xxxviii] W.H. McLeod contends that the majority of rahit literature took shape several decades after the inauguration of the Khalsa on the Baisakhi festival day in 1699.[xxxix] Most notably, the Rahit Maryada details normative attitudes towards personal practice and ritual, panthic discipline and the order of Khalsa initiation. Concise and didactic in tone, therahit manuscripts tend to narrowly focus on so-called “baptized” Sikh life.
Two other collections are of note. Guru Arjan reportedly hailed the Vaaran of Sikh scribe Bhai Gurdas as the key to the Guru Granth Sahib. In the Sikh imaginary, Bhai Gurdas comes to represent “the very first apostle who expatiated, for the followers of a nascent faith, on moral principles which he saw derived from the authority of his Gurus.”[xl] Much like the Guru Granth Sahib, theVaaran consists of propositional assertions couched in a poetic register. In the late sixteenth century, around the time Bhai Gurdas composed his anthology, another substantial body of literature surfaced. Referred to as the birth stories or janamsakhis, these narrative accounts of Guru Nanak’s travels record miraculous events offensive to modern sensibilities. Yet, according to Nripinder Singh, the janamsakhis played a “pivotal role” in early Sikh tradition, enshrining “virtue and obligation through anecdote.”[xli] Even today, the stories are “still widely read…[and] endlessly related to Sikhs of all ages.”[xlii]
3. THREE JANAM SAKHIS
I have chosen three discrete birth stories out of the Puratan collection for closer examination. Although the Puratan anthology does not enjoy the popularity claimed by Bhai Bala’sjanamsakhi, it presents a “coherent travel itinerary” acceptable to “educated opinion.”[xliii] Given the inscribed audience of this paper, I therefore esteem the selection to be appropriate. As we will soon discover, however, the stories still carry vestiges of the supernatural. In fact, Ernest Trumpp, whose translation I will use,[xliv] brazenly remarked: “The whole story is so mixed up with the miraculous, that it bears the stamp of fable on its front.”[xlv]
The first sakhi reads:
The Baba departed thence and went on … In that village one Khatri was attached (to Nanak). He came one day to have an interview, and after having had the interview he came continually to do service … One of his neighbouring shopkeepers asked: "Brother, why art thou continually going, to what rendezvous art thou going?" That disciple replied: "Brother, some pious man has come, I go to meet him." That one said: "Sir, let me also have an interview with him!" One day that one also came with him; (but) coming and coming he attached himself to a slave-girl. Thence they were always going together from home, but that one went to the whore's house, and the other, who had been coming before, went to do service to the Guru, the Lord. One day that one said: " O brother, I go to do a bad work and thou art going to render service to the holy man. To-day let us make an agreement between ourselves, that we will see, what will accrue to me and what will happen to thee. If thou wilt come first, sit down here, and if I should come first, I will sit down here. To-day we will go together away." When that one went, he found the slave-girl not at home. Being vexed he rose and came to the (appointed) place and sat down there. In his stray thoughts he began to dig up the ground; when he looked on, it was a gold coin. Then having drawn out his knife he began to dig (more). When he looked, they were charcoals, a whole jar full. The other, after he had fallen down at the foot of the Guru, went away. Outside the door a thorn pierced his foot. Having bound up his foot with a cloth he came (to the appointed place), with one shoe drawn off and one being put on. That one asked: "O brother, why hast thou drawn off one of thy shoes?" He replied: " O brother, a thorn has pierced my foot." That one said: " O brother, to-day I have found a gold muhar and thee a thorn has pierced; we must ask about this matter. For thou goest to do service to the Guru and I go to commit sin." Then both came and told the whole truth. The Guru said: "Be silent!" They replied: "Sir, may an explanation be given (to us)!" Then the Guru said: "The jar of charcoals were gold muhars; it is what he has sown in his former birth. He had given one muhar to a holy man, these his alms had become muhars. But in proportion as he ran after wickedness, the muhars became charcoals. And in thy destiny an impaling-stake was written. In proportion as thou wast coming to do service (to me), the impaling-stake decreased, of the impaling-stake became a thorn, as the result of service rendered (to me)." Then they rose and fell down at his feet and became devotees of the name; they began to mutter: "Guru, Guru!"[xlvi]
The second sakhi reads:
In Singhala-dipa they went to the Raja Siv-nabhi and took up their abode in his garden on the other side of the ocean … The Raja Siv-nabhi sent slave-girls of exquisite beauty, who, having arrived there, began to dance. They sang many Rags and made many sports, but the Baba did not say anything, he remained sunk in meditation. Afterwards the Raja Siv-nabhi came (himself) … When the Baba had concluded (this verse), the Raja came and fell down at his feet, humbly begging and saying: "Sir, be so kind as to come to my house." The Baba replied: "I do not go on foot." Raja Siv-nabhi said: "'Sir, all is given to thee. If it be thy wish, mount a horse or an elephant! or mount also a traveling-throne!" The Baba replied: "We will ride on men." The King said: "Sir, there are also many men (at thy disposal), mount!" The Baba replied: "Your honour, if there be such a man, who is a Raja (or) a prince, and if there be the Raja of the city, on his back I will mount." The Raja said: "O King, I am thy creature, the Raja am I, mount!" The Baba mounted on the back of the Raja. The people (seeing this) began to say, that the Raja had run mad. When he (the Baba) had come, he sat down. The Rani Candkala and the Raja Siv-nabhi joined their hands (in supplication) and stood before him, humbly saying: "Do you wish to eat, Sir?" The Baba answered: "I am keeping a fast." The Raja said: "Sir, how may we bestow any benefit (on you)?" The Guru answered: "If there would be some flesh of man, I would eat it." The Raja Siv-nabhi said: "Sir, many men also are a sacrifice for you." The Baba replied: "Your honour, if there would be such a man, a son in the house of the Raja, a prince of twelve years, his flesh I would eat." On this the Raja and the Rani became thoughtful; then the Raja said: "O Lord, perhaps there is a son in the house of some Raja." The Rani said then: "How shall I give him up by thy order?" A fight ensued with her; when she was overcome, she gave her son up. The Rani said then: "Your honour, there is a son in our house, look at his janam-patri!" When the janam-patri was examined, it was found, that he was twelve years old." The Raja said then: "O son, thy body is required for the Guru! what is thy desire?" The boy replied: "O father, what benefit is derived from this, that my body should be required for the Guru?" The Raja said: "As this one has been married seven days, his wife also should be asked." Then the Rani and the Raja went and sat down at the side of their daughter-in-law. The Raja said: " O daughter, the body of thy husband is required for the Guru, what is thy pleasure?" The girl replied: "O father, this one's body is required for the Guru, and my widowhood is sacrificed to the Guru, what other benefit is derived from this?" Then the four came to the Guru and stood before him. The Raja Siv-nabhi said: "Sir, here is the boy!" The Baba replied: "Your honour, thus he is of no use to me. The mother should seize his arms and his wife should seize his feet and thou shouldst take a knife into thy hand and slaughter him, then he will be of use to me." The Raja Siv-nabhi obeyed the order of the Guru; taking a knife into his hand he slaughtered his son. Having boiled (the flesh) he brought it and put it before him. Then the Baba said: "You three, closing the eyes and saying: ‘Vah Guru!' put (it) into your mouth!" The Raja and the Rani and the Raja's daughter-in-law closed their eyes and said: ‘Vah Guru!’ When they put it into their mouth, the four were sitting there, but when they opened their eyes, the Guru Baba was not there. The Raja became distressed and went to the wilderness; he stood on his feet bare-headed and wandered about saying: "Guru, Guru!" Then after twelve months he (the Guru) came and gave him an interview and applied him to his feet; the regeneration and dying of the Raja Siv-nabhi was cut off, he became a disciple … all the people of Singhala-dipa became disciples, they began to mutter: "Guru, Guru!" the whole region was pardoned after the Raja Siv-nabhi.[xlvii]
The third sakhi reads:
Then by the order (of the Lord) Gorakhnath came to the Baba and said: "A wide diffusion (of thy name) is made." The Baba replied: "O Gorakhnath, if any one will belong to us, you will see yourself." Then the Baba went out of the house and many people, votaries of the name, followed him. By the order (of the Lord) copper coins were laid on the ground; many people took the copper coins, rose and went away. When they went further on, Rupees were laid on the ground; many people taking the Rupees went away. When they went further on, gold muhars were laid down. Whoever had remained with him took the gold muhars and went away. Two disciples remained as yet with him. When they went further on, there was a funeral pyre, upon which four lamps were burning; a sheet was spread over it, (under which) a dead one was lying, but a stench was coming (from him). The Baba said: "Is there any one who will eat this one?" The other disciple, who was (with him), turned away his face and spit out, and having spit out walked away. Guru Angad alone came on, and having received a promise stood there and said: "O Sir, from which side shall I apply my mouth?" It was said: "From the side of the feet the mouth should be applied." When Guru Angad lifted up the sheet, Guru Nanak was lying there asleep. Then Gorakh pronounced the word: "O Nanak, he is thy Guru, who will be produced from thy body." Then his name was changed from Lahana to Guru Angad. Gorakhnath departed and Nanak returned to his house. Then the people began to repent very much (of what they had done). Those who had taken the copper coins said: "If we had gone further on, we would have brought Rupees," and those, who had taken the Rupees, said: "If we had gone further on, we would have got gold muhars."[xlviii]
Independently, these three narrative episodes invite us into the world in the text using a variety of literary techniques. The first sakhi commands our attention through its anthropomorphic dramatization of two natural human instincts. Initially, we eagerly cozy up to the devout disciple, whose steadfast commitment to “some pious man” proves worthy of our veneration. Conversely, we can also readily relate to the inquiring neighbor, whose preference for instant gratification supercedes his passing curiosity about the mysterious figure offering interviews. Recognizing these two personified human tendencies, we enter into the narrative with prefigured expectations about the respective consequences of each character’s actions. The power of the episode lies precisely in its refusal to accommodate these anticipations. Accordingly, we, too, find ourselves running to the Guru in search of an explanation.
In the second sakhi, we encounter an uncharacteristically removed and pertinacious image of Guru Nanak, who oscillates between meditative numbness and exigent authoritarianism. The seeming ease with which he caters the specificity of his requests to the unique conditions and possessions of the Raja works to both draw us into his emerging machinations and push us away out of disgust. Nanak borders on the fearful and fascinating mystery. The feeling of antipathy climaxes with the Guru’s abrupt character reversal: formerly a detached religious spectator immersed in meditation and fasting, he suddenly develops an appetite for the “flesh of man,” insisting on the slaughter of a young boy. The sheer incongruity of this grotesque demand with our prefigured admiration of the Guru confronts us with a “new, ‘opaque’ reality that no longer allows itself to be understood from a pregiven horizon of expectations.”[xlix]
The third sakhi extends the cannibalistic theme but recasts it in more familiar terms. Here, we confront Nanak in the process of discerning his true disciples by tempting them with riches. Eagerly anticipating the next ordeal, we invest ourselves in the competition, right up until the final trial. Again, the episode’s uncanny barbarity startles us through its disruption of Lahana’s perceived ascension from the material to spiritual plane. The raw fleshliness of Nanak’s demand tears our prefigured loyalty to the Guru in two: part of us wants to follow the “other disciple” who nobly “turned away his face and spit out,” while another part of us remains committed to Lahana’s arduous path of discipleship. It only becomes clear at the cathartic moment of lifting the sheet that the latter’s steadfastness was preferable.
Standing alone, then, each of the three sakhis comprises “itself an itinerary of meaning” with a plurality of voices, perspectives and significations.[l] Yet, it should be remembered that each story remains embedded in an encompassing narrative by means of intertextual quotation – both in the local sense of characterological consistency and in the more expansive sense of scriptural citation.[li] In this way, “the text interprets before having been interpreted.”[lii] The three excerpts under discussion lean on and interpenetrate one another through their shared topos of movement. In each episode, the disciples journey to the holy. Whether “continually going” to his teacher, sending “slave-girls of exquisite beauty” before making his own way to the Guru, or following the Baba “alone,” each protagonist must embark on a pilgrimage of differing length and frequency. The very act of traveling opens up the possibility of disclosure, which occurs orally, visually or as a combination of the two. In every case, this revelation sheds new light on past occurrences, as well as on the decisions and events unfolding in the other sakhis. The reader is left wondering: how might the slave-girl-courting disciple of the first episode respond to the allure of the copper coins? Would Lahana have agreed to eat the corpse if it had been that of his own son? Why was the Raja not granted guruship? The ambivalence of these intertextual inquiries mirrors the indeterminate outcome the sakhis themselves: in the first story, both men end up disciples despite their radically different natures; in the second, “all the people of Singhala-dipa” convert and are “pardoned” on account of one man’s favorable interview; in the third, a successor is chosen but his community remains ignorant of the Guru’s intended message. Thus, the immediate import of discipleship remains unclear.
4. PRESCRIPTIVE SIKH ETHICS
This irresolution nuances the second-order descriptive ethics presented above. It complicates programmatic assertions about the relationship between human agency and divine will. Further, through the method of narration, it outfits readers with technologies of self-fashioning. To illustrate the ethical significance of the janamsakhi tradition, I now want to turn away from narrative’s configurative ability to organize a diversity of “agents, goals, means, interactions, circumstances, unexpected results” into an “intelligible whole,” to the “intersection of the world of the text and the world of the hearer or reader.”[liii] Following Ricoeur, I submit that “what a reader receives [by engaging a sakhi] is not just the sense of the work, but…the world and the temporality it unfolds.”[liv]
In Bhai Gurdas’ Vaaran, we read: “One reaps what one sows and receives the fruit of seeds offered to earth.”[lv] This theological prescription evinces a certain foundational causality that should guide ethical action. On this logic, the Sikh must vigilantly attend to the seeds that she plants and expect lush fruit in return. To a large extent, the first sakhi confirms this rule. Whereas the lustful disciple loses money on account of his impropriety, the loyal disciple is rewarded for his faithfulness with his life. Both reap what they sow. At the same time, however, the story obscures this linearity in important ways. For one, it dramatizes the degree to which the disciple always finds herself thrown into a world with an unknowable chain of karma. Seemingly free acts are necessarily unpredictable, because “the character of the agent is partially formed and partially reformed [through karmic accumulation] in the moment of free decision.”[lvi] Secondly, the Guru introduces an additional element of uncertainty into this already fraught autonomy. Karma itself is subject to divine will, further distorting the logical, inexorable principle of cause and effect. The disciple, thus, always acts against the opaque backdrop of past actions under the scrutiny of the divine, whose own enigmatic dispensation of grace may alter that karmic trail. What does this philosophically dense picture look like in practice? The first sakhi offers some clues: it prescribes, above all, an ethic of trust. Living into the experience of faithful devotion exemplified by the fictional pilgrim, the reader is equipped with the tools to build a discipleship of confidence in the unknown and unpredictable ways of the world. The world in the text draws the reader into a life-world to which she may at any time return and from which she extracts concrete, lived images of a trusting disposition. After all, without the Guru’s intervention, the faithful practitioner in the sakhi would have little reason to maintain his devotional posture. What is more, even after having understood his blessing, the disciple is worse off than when he set out on his journey! Not only does he suffer from the pain of the thorn’s incision, but his reward remains intangible. He has nothing to show for his faith. Reaching into the world of the reader, then, this episode models the insecurity a disciple must come to accept.
The second sakhi enlarges this ethic of trust to encompass an ethic of self-sacrifice. Again, in Bhai Gurdas’ Vaaran, we read: “One could be such a person [i.e. disciple] only after getting sacrificed for truth and contentment and by eschewing delusions and fears.”[lvii] As an abstract conceptual proposition, this utterance drops few clues as to what form this act must take. Questions abound: what is being sacrificed? Who performs the sacrifice? How often must this sacrifice be repeated, if at all? The dramatic narrative unfolding of the deeply disturbing secondsakhi testifies to the symbolic complexity of this ethical injunction. On one level, discipleship involves an initial act of selfless renunciation. In the case of the Raja, the humiliating event of carrying another man on his back represents the first of multiple demands made by the Guru on the disciple’s normative expectations. In this way, the very first move towards discipleship entails a transposition of authority. It means obeying the divine will and submitting to its perfect justice. Thus, in compliance with the Guru’s request, the Raja must summon his family and oversee the slaughter of his son. The symbolic force of this act should not go unnoticed. By sacrificing his heir, the Raja sacrifices himself, his legacy. Further, the sakhi prescribes a trust permeated by risk. At the end of the episode, the Guru provisionally disappears – any recompense is indefinitely deferred. Was it all an illusion? Driven to madness, the Raja sacrifices his sanity, social status, causal understanding of the world. It is not even clear whether or not he remains obedient to divine precept while exiled to the wilderness. Eventually, erratically, the Guru intervenes and extends his grace. Hence, the story works on the reader by reframing her prefigured understanding of autonomy. Not only does she learn to reinscribe her freedom within a web of relationality (the sacrifice of another as a sacrifice of self), but she refashions her definition of “contentment,” as intimated by Bhai Gurdas. Contentment no longer signals instant gratification or concrete reward, but rather the very unpredictability of discipleship. Is self-sacrifice worth the cost? Eschewing fear, the disciple must risk not always knowing.
The third sakhi draws on this careful interplay between freedom and determinism, enthroning the virtues of trust and self-sacrifice within an ethic of devotion. Lahana, in one sense, determines his own fate. In contradistinction to the greed and weak-willed opportunism guiding his companions, he perseveres in trust, sacrificing effortless contentment and cheap grace for the audacity of risk. However, Lahana only exercises his agency insofar as he submits to the divine will. The story, thus, complicates Bhai Gurdas’ call to “walk the path of Truth.”[lviii] Lahana models for the reader the ethical paradox identified by Wazir Singh, namely that an individual’s freedom from hukam lies in direct proportion to the “degree he knows and comprehends” it.[lix] The final scene typifies this tension. Through absolute obedience to divine command, Lahana gains the sovereignty of guruship. He moves from disciple to teacher, from passive recipient to active giver. That is not to say that he escapes the matrix of hukam and arrives at an absolute, pure autonomy. But through “obedience to, and adoration of, God,” identified by Nripinder Singh as the “core” of Sikh ethics, Lahana opens the path for the reader to the realization of true spiritual freedom.[lx] The concluding cannibalistic trope poignantly illustrates this truth. Lahana’s devotion affords him the opportunity to physically consume the Guru, to ingest the sacred, to put on his face (gurmukh). The act creatively illuminates Bhai Gurdas’ perplexing observation: “The Guru and the disciple are two identities but one shabad, Word permeates through both of them. When the Guru is disciple and the disciple Guru, who can make the other understand.”[lxi] This ontological difference-in-unity gains further significance in light of Guru Nanak’s injunction to devour the feet, which reframes Bhai Gurdas’ observation that “the feet carry the burden of mouth, eyes, nose, ears, hands and the whole body.”[lxii] The disciple is enjoined to walk the way of God, as well as welcome other students at her feet – companions with whom to see, hear, speak and do the work of the divine. Blowing life into inert ethical principles, the sakhi reaches into the world of the reader to help her fashion a life of bodily devotion, so that she may move beyond the selfish stop-gap of “If we had gone further on, we would have got gold muhars.”
In sum, the three sakhis equip the reader with the necessary tools to cultivate a way-of-being marked by trust, self-sacrifice and devotion. In contrast with the poetic, at times prescriptive, flavor of the Guru Granth Sahib, rahit literature and Vaaran of Bhai Gurdas, the narrational genre of the janamsakhi collection produces moral life-worlds that readers are encouraged to try on and live out. Regardless of age, individuals easily access and relate to the sakhis from different angles, in different social locations and with different interpretive strategies. The stories, thus, represent a form of ethical drag. They offer at once the possibility of performatively reanimating and subverting rigid ethical norms, as well as self-reflexively reappropriating power for ethical subjectivation. The sakhis clear space for the reader, temporarily estranged from her locatedness, to play with the dynamic and open-ended ontological attire offered by narrative. Returning to the world in front of the text, she thereby gains a novel perspective on and practice in what it means to be a Sikh ethical subject.
6. TOWARDS A READER RESPONSE HERMENEUTIC
With the introduction of the historical critical method, scholarship on the janamsakhi tradition has shifted its focus to a preoccupation with questions of historical accuracy. Esteemed Western scholar W. H. McLeod, for example, exemplifies this new wave of etic investigation, classifying the janamsakhis as “hagiographic accounts” wholly “unsatisfactory” to the rigorous historian.[lxiii] Perturbed by their unreliability, McLeod therefore undertakes the task of excavating the “superstructure of legend” for vestiges of historical fact, which he manages to gloss in a single paragraph.[lxiv] Taking note of this “intrinsic zeal for historical investigation,” emic apologists, in contrast, insist that the janamsakhis remain “the most important source of information on Guru Nanak if we study them carefully and intensively.”[lxv] Even if such scholars push back against certain conclusions educed by the historical critical hermeneutic, their attempts at a “more fruitful and objective study” rarely escape the parameters and intentions of the “quest” they bemoan.[lxvi] With notable exceptions,[lxvii] thus, contemporary study enslaves the janamsakhis to issues of historical authenticity.
I hope that this paper has demonstrated the efficacy of a reception based hermeneutic, which shifts our attention away from the text and onto the reader. This narratological approach is, of course, by no means a recent invention. With roots in Heidegger’s depiction of poetry as a vehicle for the “setting-into-work of truth,” reader response theory traces its heritage through a variety of thinkers who expanded and exploded Heidegger’s intuition that art functions as a history-(re)making act.[lxviii] Other important voices in this lineage include Hans Robert Jauss, for whom literature does not objectively represent empirical fact but rather socially forms the subject,[lxix] as well as Jauss’ colleague at the University of Constance, Wolfgang Iser, who advocates a “dynamic reading” in which the reader weaves connections between sentences and images into a “particular world” that frustrates expectations.[lxx] Heidegger, Jauss and Iser emphasize the power of texts to inspire and help readers to change their lives. Approaching the janamsakhi corpus in this way should not eclipse valuable inquiries into the nature of the texts themselves or the historical backdrop coloring their rhetoric and structure. Rather, the reception based hermeneutic endows Sikh scholars with a novel methodology for taking seriously the dominant use of the janamsakhis in popular practice as stories describing and prescribing the value of Sikh discipleship.
The aforementioned argument that the janamsakhi literary corpus exhibits profound ethical impulses always circles back to the deep ambivalence knitted into these popular tales themselves. Whereas the Adi Granth communicates ethical truth through the continual repetition of aesthetically moving if, at times, admittedly opaque poetics, while second-order scholarly treatises resort to didactic prose, Guru Nanak’s birth stories employ the technique of narrative illustration. In so doing, they preview a human world necessarily fraught with paradox, indeterminacy and the lack of satisfying closure. At its core, this irresolution points to the unique function of these stories as modalities of identity experimentation – as ethical drag. And yet, the reader’s agency is marked not by self-inflated hyperactivity, but by awakened passivity – an engaged and vulnerable patiency that allows the stories to shape her. Narratives like the janamsakhis neither prescribe the good life conclusively nor explain away suffering on their own. They do not gift the reader pre-packaged truths for her to unwrap and enact. Rather, these narrative life-worlds morally educate the reader through the pedagogy of experiential learning. The reader works in and through them, much as they work on her, to discover her own solutions to the internal conflicts and external pressures that confront her in the messiness of existence.
In this vein, the janamsakhi tradition represents an invaluable ethical resource for Sikh practitioners. Scholarship must therefore come to embrace these texts not as replacements for, but as supplements to, other sources of Sikh ethical instruction. If ethics function like a musical score that requires execution, the subversive nuance of the janamsakhis may serve as the very best teacher of that “very subtle activity” known as discipleship, akin to the “licking of the tasteless stone.”[lxxi]
[i] I wish to express my gratitude to Sutopa Dasgupta and Harpreet Singh for their insight, guidance and inspiration. Through their direction and friendship I have learned to rejoice in the subtle activity of discipleship.
[ii] See Vaar 13, Pauri 1 of Bhai Gurdas’ Vaaran
[iii] Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs (Delhi: Punjabi University Patalia, 1970): 1.
[iv] Surinder Singh Kohli, for example, unapologetically states that his inquiry into Sikh ethics entirely derives from the “main Sikh scripture.” See Surindar Singh Kohli, Sikh Ethics (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers, 1975): 66. Avtar Singh allows space for both the Guru Granth Sahib and “allied” literature, yet heavily privileges the former as the “principal repertory” of the unchanged didactic “fundamentals” informing Sikh thought. See Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs, 3, 10, 17.
[v] In Phenomenology and the Theological Turn, Dominique Janicaud places Ricoeur in the camp of phenomenologists militating against the supposition that “phenomenology and theology make two.” Dominique Janicaud et al. Phenomenology and the Theological Turn (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000: 3.
[vi] Paul Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995)
[vii] Robert Alter coins the term ‘narrative art’ to describe the way in which apparently disparate material is creatively woven together into a narrative whole that achieves coherency. See Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1983): 11.
[viii] Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred, 140.
[ix] Ibid, 145.
[x] Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984): 3.
[xi] Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred, 43.
[xii] Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 234.
[xiii] Foucault identifies four different types of technologies: that of production, which permits the subject to produce, transform and manipulate objects; that of sign systems, which involves the production of signs and meaning; that of power, which determines conduct and objectivizes the subject; and that of the self, discussed above. See Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault (London: Tavistock, 1988).
[xiv] Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France 1981-1982 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005): 332.
[xvi] Kohli, Sikh Ethics, 32.
[xvii] David Pellauer, “Foreword: Recounting Narrative” in Paul Ricoeur and Narrative, ed. Morny Joy (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1997): xvi.
[xviii] See page 831 of the Guru Granth Sahib.
[xix] The Western tradition of moral philosophy is often parsed into the three sub-genres of meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics, out of which philosophers systematize, defend and recommend certain standards of behavior. One should not assume that this mode of ethical reflection adequately maps onto the Indian context.
[xx] Kohli, Sikh Ethics, 13
[xxi] Ibid, 14.
[xxii] Ibid, 15.
[xxiii] Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition (New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1990): 28.
[xxiv] See Pauri 2 of the Japji Sahib.
[xxv] Mark Horowitz traces the developmental continuities and discontinuities of hukam from its original Qur’anic context through Kabir into the thought of Guru Nanak. See Mark Horowitz, “(Dis)Continuity Between Sikhism and Islam: The Development of Hukam Across Religions” (M.A. thesis, University of South Florida, 2007). In its Arabic usage, the term connotes the divine wisdom and judgment that is immanent within creation.
[xxvi] Wazir Singh, “Hukam: A Comparative Perspective,” Journal of Sikh Studies 8 (1986): 5.
[xxvii] Kohli, Sikh Ethics, 12
[xxviii] Singh, “Hukam: A Comparative Perspective,” 3.
[xxix] Surindar Singh Kohli, Real Sikhism (New Delhi: Harman Publishing House, 1994): 145.
[xxx] In the Rig Veda, the term karma applied to the ritual acts of sacrificing goats or pressing soma in hopes of obtaining a transactional reward from the divine interlocutor.
[xxxi] In the Upanisads, karma is efficized and assigned moral valence as a term denoting the repercussions of action in past, present or future lives.
[xxxii] Nirmal Singh, “Suffering: The Sikh Understanding, Experience and Response,” Sikh Review 51 (2003): 16.
[xxxiii] Kohli, Sikh Ethics, 52.
[xxxiv] Kohli, Sikh Ethics, 17.
[xxxv] Sashi Bala, “Hukam: The Divine Will and Human Freedom,” The Sikh Review 44 (1996): 511.
[xxxvi] Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition, 210.
[xxxvii] Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs, 9.
[xxxviii] W. H. McLeod cities Sainapati’s Gur Sobha as an example. See W. H. McLeod, Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984): 74.
[xxxix] Admittedly, this fact remains contentious, as internal textual evidence points to traces of Guru Gobind Singh in the process of composition.
[xl] Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition, 23-24
[xli] Ibid., 31
[xlii] W. H. McLeod, Essays in Sikh History, Tradition and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 37.
[xliii] McLeod, Essays in Sikh History, Tradition and Society, 40.
[xliv] In 1869, the India Office commissioned linguist Ernest Trumpp to translate the Guru Granth Sahib into English, which he undertook upon returning to his native Germany the following year. By 1876, Trumpp had completed major sections of the Guru Granth Sahib, as well as a translation of the Puratan birth stories that he came across in the India Office's Library in 1872. His legacy remains mixed, however. Perhaps the authors of SikhiWiki say it best: “Gifted scholar and self-righteous bigot.”
[xlv] Ernest Trumpp, The Adi Granth (London: Allen & Trübner, 1877): v.
[xlvi] Ibid., xviii.
[xlvii] Ibid., xxxvii-xxxviii. According to a footnote, this episode underwent significant alteration in subsequent collections: “The story of Raja Siv-nabhi is also contained in the later Janam-Sakhis, but totally changed…It was thought too offensive, as it borders on madness.”
[xlviii] Ibid., xliii-xliv.
[xlix] Hans Robert Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,” in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982): 44.
[l] Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred, 147.
[li] Frequently, the sakhis cite passages from the Guru Granth Sahib, even as translators and commentators tend to omit or make passing reference to them.
[lii] Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred, 161.
[liii] Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 65, 71.
[liv] Ibid., 78-79.
[lv] See Vaar 16, Pauri 1. Bhai Gurdas, here, draws on and reformulates a common topos found in other Sikh sacred literature.
[lvi] Bala, “Hukam: The Divine Will and Human Freedom,” 10.
[lvii] See Vaar 3, Pauri 18.
[lviii] See Vaar 9, Pauri 17.
[lix] Singh, “Hukam: A Comparative Perspective,” 3.
[lx] Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition, 27.
[lxi] See Vaar 9, Pauri 16.
[lxii] See Vaar 9, Pauri 18.
[lxiii] W. H. McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996): 8.
[lxiv] Ibid., 9, 5.
[lxv] Kirpal Singh, Janamsakhi Tradition: An Analytical Study (Amritsar: Singh Brothers, 2004): 21, 11.
[lxvi] Ibid., 24, 15.
[lxvii] Feminist scholar Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, for example, plumbs the janamsakhis for a “poetic synthesis” that testifies to Guru Nanak’s holistic panorama of the universe. See Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 39.
[lxviii] Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1975): 74-78.
[lxix] Hans Robert Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,” in Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).
[lxx] Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978): 277.
[lxxi] See Pauri 2, Vaar 3.
Erik Resly has completed two of his three years at Harvard Divinity School in preparation for ordination in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. Having grown up overseas, he returned to the United States to pursue undergraduate work at Brown University. Vocationally committed to the faith of his upbringing, Resly also finds great spiritual and intellectual sustenance in Sikh theologies and practices.