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Music as Guru Nanak’s Mode of Communication

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Music as Guru Nanak’s Mode of Communication

A Tamil Perspective

- N. Muthumohan


The present paper is an attempt to understand from a Tamil perspective the musical mode of communication of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder Guru of Sikhism. While claiming no specialized knowledge of music, the author feels that the Tamil perspective of Guru Nanak’s music could add up to the already existing studies on Gurbani. The basic hypothesis of the paper is that the musical mode of articulation of Guru Nanak Dev is aimed at constructing a community, a unique and new type of living in the history of India, that coincides with the core philosophy of Sikhism and emphasizes annihilation of haumain. The problem discussed becomes pertinent in the context of civilizational debates unfurled recently in the West as well as in the East.

Music: A Tamil Perspective

The oldest recorded Tamil term for music is Pann. The term Pann also came to be used for Raagas in Tamil. The ancient Tamil musicians and singers were named as Paanar. Pann and Paanar figure in the earliest known Tamil poetry that is the Sangam literature whose age goes up to 5 century B.C. The Paanars occupy a place in Sangam literature not only as musicians and poets but partly also as magicians or shamans (Mudhuvaay, Mudhumozhi meaning Primordial Speech) of the ancient Tamil communities. K. Kailasapathy, a reputed scholar of yester generation, in his study on Sangam literature, titled Tamil Heroic Poetry, discusses the role of the ancient Tamil bards, Paanars [1]. According to him, the Paanars were the mystic bards of the ancient Tamil communities who performed a vital social function of organic intelligentsia of the communities. Pann is the root word of another term ‘Panpaadu’ that is equivalent to culture, or “Panpadu†meaning ‘cultivate’. The term hailed from the practice of cultivating the land. The ancient Tamil country was divided into five landscapes and consequently, the most ancient Tamil ragas too were classified into Five (pancha pann).

Another more comprehensive Tamil term for music is Isai that too appears in Sangam literature. The term contains in itself an important historical context when the native community or tribal relations started breaking down and individualistic relations started emerging in Tamil soil, and the need for reconstructing the social relations too appeared. The term Isai acquires its meaning in the context of social reorganization and literally comes to mean consent, consensus, cementing, accord, acceptance, achieving common standpoint etc. Isai often occurs in Sangam literature with the prefix “Thol-isai†meaning ancient consent, primordial unity, ancient order etc [2].

As per the descriptions of Sangam literature, when the tribal chieftains were abolished and kingdoms started appearing in Tamil soil, the term Isai also acquired the fresh meaning of fame or acceptance of kings by the people, when the new kings were advised to rule the people not by mere coercion but by consensus that must be created by the kings among the people. The bard-poets started playing the role of mediators between the emerging kings and the people. In the new meaning of the term, it has an economic and social meaning that the king ought to rule the people by redistributing the new surplus wealth keeping in mind the ancient rules of economic and social justice, that is, the chieftains sharing the wealth with the people. The fame or acceptance of the king by the people is guaranteed only when social justice is kept intact by the rulers.

On the basis of the above discussion, I would like to assert that the origin of the term Isai in Tamil contains certain very significant meanings and message. Music is the medium of reconstructing a broken unity, constructing a consensus, and thus constructing a community. In a peculiar sense, the mode of music in Tamil includes in its origin itself the themes of separation and unity. It refers to the theme of separation due to the broken unity of the ancient order and, to the theme of unity due to the suffered longing that is aimed to be overcome. In place of the tribal unity, a socio-cultural and socio-psychological unity is advocated. An anthropological or an ideological world constructed with the help of values is conceived by the Sangam poets. The themes of separation and unity, in more recent words, can be called as the themes of difference and unity or difference and identity. Keeping in mind the historical context, we can say that the theme of music from Tamil perspective immanently contains the problems of primordial unity and broken unity, broken unity and reconstructing the unity, separation and unity, and finally difference and unity.

The second chapter in Tamil music starts with the devotional movement that is associated with the activities of the Vaishnavite Alwars and the Saivite Nayanmaars. The Alwars and Naayanmaars appearing from 5th century A.D traveled widely in the territories of the Tamil land and composed the devotional hymns in the form of Paasurams, literally meaning musical hymns. The devotional culture of Tamilnadu tried to unite the Tamil land in the aftermath of the Sangam Age (native Tamilian) and the Post Sangam Age (Jaina-Buddhist Period). The discords emerged in Tamil society in terms of folk religious worships, Jainism and Buddhism, and finally in terms of Varnashrama Dharma, were encountered by the devotional culture of Tamilnadu. Saivism and Vaishnavism tried to construct the monotheistic religions transcending the emerging caste differences. The devotional singers appealed more to music and emotion. A musical cementing or an emotional unity is constructed.

Here I want to make a small digression regarding one important aspect of difference between the North Indian Bhakti and the South Indian Bhakti during this period. The Tamil devotion, as we have seen, was basically musical and emotional. The North Indian Bhakti, on the other hand, was narrative-puranic in expression. The narrative expression, as the scholars would indicate, is linear and extensive in form and thickly related with temporality (Narrativity and Time by Paul Ricouer). The musical form used by the Alwars and Naayanmaars cannot be called as linear, neither its temporal aspect is clear. Socially, it was meant to unite the followers into an emotional community transcending the caste and other traditional barriers.

The Context of Guru Nanak’s Music

If the Tamil devotional culture belongs to the so-called early medieval period, Guru Nanak’s devotion belongs to the late medieval period. The inter-space, chronologically around one thousand years, is very important to understand why Guru Nanak resorted to music as his mode of communication. The inter-space between Tamil devotion and Sikh devotion was the historical period when the devotional culture both of North and South became an institution, and consequently revolt against institutional religiosity became widespread in India. The institutionalization of devotion in Indian context also means ritualization, Sanskritization and caste-ization. In the North Indian context, introduction of Islam and its transformation into political Islam became additional factors to the institutionalization of Saivism and Vaishnavism. The institutionalization of Saivism, Vaishnavism and Islam also meant feudalization of religions characteristic of the medieval period.

It is in the above-described context, at least three socio-religious movements namely the Siddhas, the Sufis and the Sants emerged as differing voices to the institutionalized religions and politicization of religion. The internal cultures developed by the Siddhas, the Sufis and the Sants explored an inter-religious space for spirituality, ethics and social justice. The mid-medieval centuries of India, under the political rule of the Islamic kings, was also a period of urbanization, growth of individualism and upward social mobilization from below. The political economy of the Islamic rulers did not adhere to the traditional Indian social order namely the caste system or the closed village order. The so-called Islamic period in India was a historical period of intense and dynamic changes that caused serious breaches in the traditional social structures on the one hand, and also intensification of individualistic moments in human realm. The Siddha-Sufi-Sants triad somehow reflects the positive and negative inputs of the so-called Islamic period. By all means, it was a period when the old orders were broken and the new order had not yet come into existence.

Guru Nanak’s Music

The Tamils are happy to know that the founder Guru of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev, addressed to music as the appropriate mode of communication. The narrative (puranic) mode is thoroughly absent in Guru Nanak as well as in other Gurus. By reviving the musical culture, the Guru revived the emotional mode of early Bhakti. But the revival of early Bhakti was done by Guru Nanak after going through the knowledge and experiences of the Siddha-Sufi-Sant internalization. In this important sense, Guru Nanak synthesized the spirit of early Bhakti and the critical spirit of the Siddha-Sufi-Sant intervention.

Gurbani, as the word immediately means, is in the musical mode of communication. The term communication contains in itself a few more words, namely unity, unification, community and com-unification. Guru Nanak’s music addresses to the problematic of brokenness of Indian society in terms of castes, classes, religions, languages, social structures and cultural paradigms. Bhai Gurdas describes the situation in appropriate words:

Guru Nanak entered the court of the Creator

And was honored with the gifts of the Name and humility

Then he cast a glance at the cotemporary world,

And saw it steeped in sorrow and suffering.

There was total darkness without the Guru,

The masses were crying for help and guidance,

Guru Nanak took birth as a normal human being,

And practiced renunciation in the midst of social life.

He came to the world for the uplift of mankind. [3]

A careful student of Indian philosophy could understand that the issue of one and many was always a basic problem in Indian culture. Buddhist Sangam and Anatmavada, the Jaina theory of Anekantavada and Vedantic Ekantavada and caste system represent the various ways of solving the problem of one and many in earlier contexts. A brief look at them would reveal that the Jaina mode gives priority to multiplicity, the Vedanta mode reduces everything into the Nirgunic One, and Buddhism constructs a mode of relationality. The musical-devotional mode has a fundamental difference from the Vedantic mode of reducing everything phenomenal into the transcendental one Brahman-reality. The Brahman-reality is often expressed in Upanishads as OM, the primordial sound or Sabda. The OM as ultimate reality is not OM spelled as O and M, or spelled as A, U and M. OM is the elongated, undifferentiated and the infinite reciting of the sound of OM. According to Vedanta, the undifferentiated and infinite OM is the only reality and every individual and differentiated noise or sound is mayic or illusory. The Vedantic discussion inevitably ends up in a dichotomy, essentialism and reduction. Making the reduced OM into the ultimate reality, Vedanta becomes a philosophy of dominance.

The Tamil and Sikh musical devotion is a different kind of generalization that constructs a unity that mediates between one and many. It does not characterize the one as the only reality as well as it does not evaluate the differences of multiplicity as illusory. The synthetic spirit of Guru Nanak is the most fundamental and consequently, the musical cementing and construction of consent are negotiations between the two realms of the same reality. Guru Nanak recognizes the many and the agony of the many. Music is a fluid signifier in Guru Nanak’s thought pattern. The rigid and sectarian signifiers like Siva, Vishnu and Allah could not render unity to the then divided popular reason of the subcontinent. On the other hand, they divided the people into various denominations. The nameless and formless one God, the incomprehensible and infinite God of Guru Nanak is thoroughly a fluid signifier to cement the people of different faiths. Guru Nanak enumerates Saivite, Vaishnavite and Islamic names to describe the fluid idea of God [4]. It is this fluidity aimed at cementing the brokenness of Indian society that was the meaning of Gurbani music. Caste too stands to represent the rigid and hard system of signification and brokenness of Indian society.

Music is not just a mode of expression for Guru Nanak and music is the lived reality that is non-conceptual and non-dual. Human personality is conceived by the Guru in the form of music.

Let intellect be the musical instrument and love the tambourine,

And there shall be always joy and pleasure in the mind,

This is the devotion and this is the austerity.

Sing in this way beating time with thy feet.

Let the knowledge of His praise be the clapping of the hands,

And joy in the mind be the rhythm

Let Truth and contentment be the two resounding cymbals,

Let the perpetual vision of the Lord be thy ankle-bells,

Let non-duality be thy music and song

Proceed in this way with measured step. [5]

Music is the reality of Guru Nanak where all hard boundaries of phenomenal world are crossed and blending together of all living beings occur. Guru Nanak’s reality of music transcends even the boundaries such as nature and culture. Every season is the articulation of human suffering and yearning to get united.

In Nature we see the Lord

In Nature we hear His speech,

Nature inspires the devotional trance

In Nature is the essence of joy and peace. [6]

Music is the fluid signifier from the point of which all rigidities are criticized by Guru Nanak. The boundaries of Miri and Piri, the body and soul, temporal and beyond, humans and nature etc., fall away and they blend together to form a unity in Guru Nanak. With a necessary precaution it has to be stated that the did Guru did not ignore the agony and ruptures within the unity. Guru Nanak’s unity is not a dull or absolute identity.

The music of the Guru is the realm of non-concept, as the French philosopher Deleuze would say. A non-concept is always richer than a concept by its concreteness and involvement in the existential problems of the humans. Philosophers do have an attraction to ‘pure’ concepts but they indeed enter into the realm of dichotomy and loose the concreteness of existence. W. Donald Hudson quotes Wittgenstein saying, “Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same†[7]. Further he states, “the two spheres in which the mystical can show itself are art and action†[8]. Thus ethics, aesthetics and the realm of action are similar in status (and different from conceptual philosophizing) to express the mystical. The realms of ethics, aesthetics, practice and mystical are non-conceptual, as we find them in Guru Nanak (wismad) [9]. Guru Nanak’s music “contains a logic of sense inspired entirely from the domain of empiricism which knows how to transcend the experiential dimensions of the visible without resorting to ideas.†[10].

The musical reality of Guru Nanak is also different from the western conception of music. In the West, music is mostly conceived as harmonizing the individualized notes. According to this conception, the individualistic moments are fundamental and music plays the secondary role of harmonizing them. The German philosopher Leibnitz once discussed the theme of harmony along with his basic concept of monads. Monads are primary and individualistic, typical to western philosophizing. Guru Nanak may not agree to this formulation because for the Guru the individualistic moments are not basic or fundamental. On the other hand, the Guru takes inspiration from the primordial unity expressed in Anahad Nada, Sahaja or Sunya. It means that the Guru’s music occupies a middle path between the unstruck melody and the differentiated voices. The Guru’s music as middle path does not presuppose the existence of the absolute identity and the differences as two dichotomous realms. For the Guru, music is the name of a reality where a creative rupture always exists and a community finds its living in it.


A philosophical dealing of Guru Nanak’s music is a promising area where the core problems of Indian philosophy as well as the postmodern and postcolonial debates could be put to test. The Tamil perspective of the idea of music as Isai too creatively contributes to the understanding of Guru Nanak’s music as constructing a community of people perpetually negotiating within and thus guaranteeing an internal dynamism for themselves. In this sense, Guru Nanak’s music organically confluences with the ethics, aesthetics and praxis proposed in the Sikh philosophy.


K.Kailasapathy, Tamil Heroic Poetry, Kumaran Book House, Colombo – Chennai, 2002

Puranaanuuru, Vol 1 & 2, New century Book House, Chennai, 2004

Quoted from Mansukhani, Guru Nanak: World Teacher, 1968

Sher Singh, Philosophy of Sikhism, SGPC, Amritsar, 1993, P.126

Guru Granth Sahib. P.350.

Guru Granth Sahib. P.463

W. Donald Hudson, Wittgenstein and Religious Belief, Macmillan, 1975, P.79

Ibid, P.94

Sher Singh, Opp. Cited, Pp. 238-239

Gregg Lambart, The Non-Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, Continuum, 2002, P.51

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