Nov 28 2012
by Guru Nanak
English version by John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer
Person who creates
Beyond fear and opposition
A form beyond time
The guru’s grace.
The ancient truth, ageless truth
Is also, now, truth.
And Nanak says,
It will always be truth.
— from Songs of the Saints of India, Translated by John Stratton Hawley / Translated by Mark Juergensmeyer
/ Photo by Koshyk /
Today, according to the Sikh lunar calendar, is the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. I should highlight more Sikh sacred poetry since, after all, so much of the Sikh scriptures are poetry…
Those first lines, “Ek Omkar” (more commonly rendered as “Ek Ongkar” or sometimes “Ik Ongkar”) are the opening lines of the Sikh holy book, the Adi Granth Sahib.
These lines are so important to the Sikh faith that they are referred to as the Mool Mantar, or root mantra, said to be the first words spoken by Guru Nanak upon enlightenment. As such, they become the core statement of belief for Sikhs.
Ongkar (Omkar) is the fundamental sound “Ong” (“OM” or “AUM”) that permeates and underlies all of existence. Ongkar is understood as the primal manifestation of God, the voice of God, the “true name” of God.
Why do so many spiritual traditions link God with sound? In such a busy visual world, this is not always understood. When we are quiet, deeply still, and the attention is turned inward… a soft sound is heard. At first it might be like the quiet chirping of crickets in the night, the hum of beesong, or the flowing of gentle stream. It is heard as a random, soothing “white noise” that seems to emanate from the base of the skull.
When we learn to recognize it, focus on it, follow it, this sound resolves into a clearer pitch that can resemble the pure note of a flute or the ringing of a bell. First it is heard and, finally, felt throughout the body.
To Hindus, this sound is Krishna’s flute calling his devotees to him. It is the ringing of the bells of paradise. Wordless, it is the vibratory Word through which creation manifests.
This sound signals the beginning of deep communion with the Eternal. The more we open to the sound, the more the attention is drawn heavenward while the divine flow pours through us.
Returning, then, to these sacred opening lines, Ek means One. So we can read “Ek Ongkar” as “God is One,” or “God’s Name is One,” or “God’s Manifestation is One.” And since all of creation is the result of this divine vibration of manifestation, all of creation similarly is One in God. “Ek Ongkar” is an assertion of supreme inclusivity and sacred unity. God is One, and we are One in God.
Ongkar is the sound or vibration of God through which creation comes into existence (what, in Christian theology, would be called The Word). Thus Guru Nanak refers to Ongkar as the “Person who creates.”
The ancient truth, ageless truth
Is also, now, truth.
I love these lines, but they can cause confusion if we read them superficially.
Fundamentalists of various religions have a tendency to misunderstand statements like this and assert that religion should remain fixed. Too often that attitude leads to cultural and intellectual fossilization. They confuse religion with God, the practice with the Goal. This happens especially when the esoteric heart of religion is lost.
When the wise proclaim that truth doesn’t change they are speaking of something deeper. Guru Nanak is proclaiming that Truth is eternal, not just in the past, not just in the distant future, but it is equally present right here, right now. It is “beyond time / Unborn, self-born.” It is a living, accessible Truth, not simply a perpetuation of belief or form of worship.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not at all suggesting we should neglect religious tradition. We must honor the traditions and practices that have brought us into this very moment. But we must honor them by understanding them. In fact, if we don’t understand our religious traditions, we won’t understand the present moment or our cultural identity.
But it is only through directly experiencing the Eternal that our traditions reveal their full meaning. Without that direct experience of Truth, we are simply acting as museum curators. Cultures change — always. We must always be engaged in that change, intelligently adapting the ancient ways, integrating them into the living present.
To do that properly, we must be aware that beneath the shifting surface of time and human activity, there remains a fundamental state of being that is “beyond time,” and this can be directly witnessed. We need true, deep mystics to understand how to live our ancient faiths in the present moment. Better still, we must each become true, deep mystics ourselves. Then we will know and properly honor “the ancient truth, ageless truth” that Guru Nanak and all great sages proclaim.
A form beyond time…
Guru Nanak is the founder and first guru of the Sikh religion.
He was born in a small town outside of Lahore, in what is today Pakistan, to a family in the merchant caste. As a young man, Guru Nanak married and had children. Yet he didn’t fit easily into family expectations. He seems to have only reluctantly entered the clerical profession suggested by his family, often feeling the call to turn inward in meditation at key points in his life.
Guru Nanak’s moment of enlightenment came when, after singing devotional songs, he bathed in the Vein River near Sultanpur. In that moment he was elevated to the heavenly state, where he received amrit, the drink of immortality — in the form of the divine name. He remained in deep silence after this transcendent experience for some time, and then he started to formulate his revelation through the statement, “There is neither Hindu nor Muslim” suggesting the universal brotherhood we all share through the divine vision.
After this awakening, Guru Nanak left his job and became a wandering holy man, journeying throughout India, Tibet, and Arabia. He eventually settled at Kartarpur along the Ravi River in the Punjab, where he lived out the rest of his life teaching a growing circle of disciples.
He taught that individuals had merit according to their hearts and their actions, not according to caste, that all are equal in the eyes of God, and all can approach God directly without the need of a hereditary priest or prescribed rituals.