Approaches to the Exegesis of Sri
Guru Granth Sahib
Hardev Singh Virk
Professor Emeritus, Eternal
University, Baru Sahib, HP
The Nature of Religious
• According to Gurnek Singh2: “The religion is based on
the experience of the metaphysical reality, i.e. God or
Numinous. This experience is the result of the direct
encounter or the communication with Reality. As a
consequence, it comes down to us through nonrational media, i.e. the intuition which is beyond
intellectual understanding and comprehension. So
being the product of direct vision of the ultimate
Reality, i.e. God, it is intellectually both intelligible and
unapproachable because the language through which
the Bani or revelation is coming down to humanity is
most of the time symbolic, metaphorical and
Metaphysical versus Phenomenal
• Man’s mental encounter with his surroundings
result in expression of his feelings.
• Man deals with this phenomenal existence
and that is why the expression of man is easily
comprehensible in common language.
• The category which is non-mundane, which is
non-rational, i.e. divine or intuitional is
beyond proper intellectual comprehension.
Importance of Exegesis
• Exegesis or interpretation or exposition is of great
eminence, for it unfolds the hidden, i.e. esoteric
meanings or message of scripture. Otherwise the
scriptural message would be beyond the
comprehension of layman as well as scholar. So
to impart the message to the people in
general, and the scholars in particular, the
endeavours have been made to decode both
literal as well as esoteric message enshrined in
the scripture to the people at large.
Exegesis of SGGS
• The exegesis of Sri Guru Granth Sahib is of great
import for the philosophical, theological and
sociological comprehension of its message. Its
implications and concepts shall certainly lead
man to imply the Sikh thought on mundane level
consequently building and establishing the better
world where in peace, happiness and prosperity
shall reign supreme and in this way in the words
of Bhagat Ravidas, the Halemi Raj shall be
established, wherein peace shall prevail and trials
and tribulations shall cease to be operative.
Exegesis as a tool to decode Message
• The scriptural message shall help to decrease the
sufferings of man and will lead man to establish a
beautiful world worth living. The better social order
shall come into existence which shall provide the
chance to men to live peacefully and happily.
• Exegesis has been used as a tool to decode the
message of the scripture. It has been used in various
religious traditions, such as Tafsir in Islamic
tradition, Exegesis in Christianity and Tika or Pramarth
in Sikh Tradition has been employed for this purpose.
Origin of Exegesis in Sikh Tradition
• The first effort to interpret the Gurbani was
made by Bhai Gurdas.
• The practice of exposition of Gurbani was
started during the Guru period.
• SGGS was interpreted to Sikh Sangat at
Damdama Sahib by Tenth Master himself.
• Thus the historical roots of Sikh exegesis are
traced back to Damdama Sahib and the origin
of Damdami Taksal in Sikh tradition.
Approaches to Sikh Exegesis
• During the eighteenth - nineteenth century, the
task of interpreting and preaching the Holy Guru
Granth Sahib primarily rested with the Udasi and
• This continued during the time when Sikhs had
established authority in the Punjab.
• All instruction was carried out orally. The only
writings of this period were the Rahitnamas
which were, strictly speaking, rules of conduct
rather than works of exegesis.
Historical Origin of Tikas
• The first Udasi exegete of this period was
Anandghana, who completed his tika of Japu
in 1795, followed by exegeses of several other
banis. His interpretations are saturated with
Upanisadic lore and are densely Vedantic
rather than Sikh, and are apparently a
conscious reincubation of Hindu ideology in
Nirmala School of Exegetes
• Nirmala scholars generally echoed the Udasi trend of
interpreting Sikh scriptural texts in the inflated style
prescribed by Hindu commentators on Upanisadic and
• Bhai Santokh Singh, the most prominent among the
Nirmalas, did write his Garabganjani Tika, but he too was
writing from within the Hindu framework and represented
a deep Brahmanical influence.
• The best representative of this school is Pandit Tara Singh
Narotam. He wrote about a dozen books and is
acknowledged as the first exegete of SGGS. However, his
interpretation of Gurbani is based on Vedas, Puranas and
other Hindu texts.
Western Scholars of Sikh lore
• Gurnek covered all works of Western Scholars
starting from Colonel A.L.H. Polier right up to
W.H. Mcleod and his Sikh Scholars.
• Ernest Trumpp’s English translation of Guru
Granth Sahib was full of scorn for traditional
interpretations of the faith, and his overt
antipathy towards it earned him the reproach
of the entire Sikh people.
• “Macauliffe observed many moral and political merits
in the Sikh religion. It does not allow
idolatry, hyprocrisy, caste, exclusiveness, the cremation
of widows, the immurement of women, the use of
smoking, infanticide, slander, pilgrimages to the sacred
rivers and tanks of the Hindus. He was of the opinion
that the Sikhs are not the Hindus. Thus he opposed to
the idea of the Sikhs being declared to be Hindus
because this idea was in direct opposition to the
teachings of the Gurus. Thus in many ways Macauliffe’s
work on interpretation of Sikhism was positive and it
displaced Trumpp’s for the non-Sikh scholars as well”.
A Critique of Sikh Exegesis
• Dr Taran Singh has given different modes of SGGS
interpretation in his book.5
• The tikas attempted earlier to the twentieth century were
coloured with veda, shastra and vedant interpretation. The
exegetes while attempting tikas used to do this in the light
of the ancient Indian religious lore.
• Bhai Vir Singh, Professor Puran Singh, Kahan Singh
Nabha, Teja Singh, Sahib Singh and Bhai Jodh Singh belong
to Singh Sabha phase of SGGS interpretation. Bhai Kahan
Singh published, Gurshabad Ratnakar Mahan Kosh in 1930.
He also published Gurmat Prabhakar and Ham Hindu
Nahin. In the last one he established that Sikh religion is an
Schools of Sikh Exegetes
• Joginder Singh mentioned five major Schools of
Sikh exegesis7 : School of Meharban; School of
Udasis; School of Nirmalas; School of Gianis, and
School of Modern Scholars of Singh Sabha phase.
• Recently, a new School of Scientists has appeared
on the horizon of Sikh exegesis.
• The present author made his first attempt in
interpreting Sikh Cosmology in view of modern
scientific theories in 1969.
• DS Chahal claims to interpret Gurbani, or
Nanakian Philosophy, scientifically and logically11.
Paradox of Scientific Exegesis
• Science and Mysticism are two different modes of
experiencing the Reality. While science lays stress
experimentation, mysticism relies more on
intuition and transcendental experience.
• Gurbani belongs to the realm of mysticism as
Guru Nanak proclaims that he preaches what he
experiences in his mystic reveries.
• A difference of opinion exists between the Sikh
theologians and Sikh scientists on exegesis of
SGGS in modern scientific context.
Science & Sikh Religion
• Professor Puran Singh lamented that the Guru’s
message has been misinterpreted: “It is to be regretted
that Sikh and Hindu scholars are interpreting Guru
Nanak in the futile terms and dissecting texts to find
the Guru’s meaning to be same as of the Vedas and
Upanishads. This indicates enslavement to the power
of Brahmanical traditions.”6
• In my personal view, a dialogue between Science and
Sikh religion is need of the hour. We must promote
Sikh religion and the message of Sri Guru Granth Sahib
globally using modern communication skills at our