Sikhism & Aarti

Lucio Mascarenhas.
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Re-Edited by Lucio Mas. and supplied with notes


From Sanskrit Aratrik, meaning the light or the vessel containing it which is waved before an idol, generally in the clockwise direction, accompanied by the chanting of mantras (magic secrets). This is also the name given the ceremony, which for the Hindus is a mode of ritual worship to propitiate the deity.

In the Sikh system, which totally rejects image-worship, there is no sanction for this form of worship. An incident in this regard is often cited from the Janama-Sakhis, traditional accounts of Siri Guru Nanak Dev Jiís life.

(Nanak was the founder of Sikhism. Nanak means "the little one." Siri is a form of the honorific Sri; Guru is a teacher of esoteric knowledge; Dev means 'god'; Ji is a honorific with vague roots and meaning — possibly it is related to the word jiva, "life". Janama means birth or a life-cycle in metempsychotist talk. Metempsychosis means repititive incarnations or births or lives, changing bodies.

Sikhism is a five-hundreds year old religion. The name originates from the word Sikh, for "student".

Sikhism originated in the Bhakti Movement, a reform and eclectic movement in Hinduism as a result of the Islamic impact. Nanak built upon the work of previous Bhakti teachers — mainly Kabir.)

During his travels across Eastern India, Siri Guru Nanak Dev Ji accompanied by the ministrel, Mardana, stopped near the temple of Jagannath, which name means "The Lord of the Earth", which is a title of the god Vishnu, second god of the Hindu Triad. Siri Guru Nanak Dev Ji and Mardana stopped near the shrine upon which sat centuries of history mute and immobilized. The notes from Mardanaís rebeck touched the devoteesí hearts with fresh fervor. Several of them came to hear the Guruís word. The temple priests felt angry and held Nanak guilty for not making adoration to the deity within the sacred enclosure.

The local chief whose name has been described as Krishanlal one day visited the Guru and invited him to join the aarti, the evening service of lights, in the temple. The Guru readily agreed to go with him.

As dusk fell, the priests lit the lamps and commenced the sumptuous ritual for which the devotees had been waiting. Twinkling lights fed by ghee were placed on a jewel studded salver, amid flowers and incense, and worshipfully swung from side to side by the priest in front of the enshrined image to the accompaniment of the chanting of hymns, blowing of conches and the ringing of bells.

The priests had a complaint as they concluded. The Guru had remained seated in his place and not participated in the ceremony. The Guru burst into a song:

The sky is the salver
And the sun and the moon the lamps.
The luminous stars on the heavens are the pearls.
Scented air from the sandal-clad hills is the incense,
The winds make the fan for Thee,
And the vast forests wreath of flowers.
The unstruck music of creation is the trumpet.
Thus goes on the Aarti (adoration) for Thee,
O! Thou dispeller of doubt and fear!
Siri Guru Nanak Dev Ji taught the listeners, how Natureís tribute to the Creator was superior to any ritualistic oblation offered before images.

Inspite of such depreciation of the ritual, Aarti was performed in some of the Sikh temples during the long period that they were administered by Hindus, mainly Brahmin priests, the Mahants — until they were expelled as a result of the Sikh Reform Movement.

But in the Sikh case the Aarti was performed in front of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib Ji.

(Govind Singh, the ninth and last Guru, eight descendant of Nanak, declared that henceforth the Sikh scripture alone would be their Guru. Granth means "book." Sahib is a honorific, originating from Persian for "friend", it acquired the meaning of a great man, one's superior.)

Wherever the word Aarti occurred in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, the hymn was pressed into service. For instance, there was a chain of sabdas ("words") culled from the compositions of Ravidas, Sain, Kabir and Dhanna.

Ravidasís hymn begins with the line, "Lord, Thy Name to me is the Aarti and holy ablutions. All else is false show" (GG: 694).

Says Sain, "May I be a sacrifice unto the Lord: that for me is the Aarti performed with lamps, ghee and incense" (GG: 695).

Kabirís hymn is in the same vein. It says, "Brothers! that is how the Immaculate Lordís Aarti is made.... Let Divine essence be the oil, the Lordís Name the wick, and enlightened self the lamp. Lighting this lamp we invoke the Lord" (GG: 1350).

Dhannaís hymn is simply a prayer for the common needs of life (GG: 695).

It is clear that these hymns reject the Aarti ritual and lay down loving devotion shorn of all formal practices as the path of true worship.

The reformists of the Singh Sabha (Assembly of Lions) party as well as those of the more strident Akali party discarded the ritual waving of the lighted lamps placed in a tray before the Siri Guru Granth Sahib.

There could, however, be no objection to the singing of the Aarti hymns occurring in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib Ji.

The Sikh Rahit Maryada or religious code of the Sikhs issued under the authority of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, a statutorily elected body representative of the entire Sikh community, lays down that Aarti with incense and lighted lamps and ringing of bells is not permissible.

Although the Aarti ritual is prohibited and no longer practised in Sikh places of worship, the continuous singing of the five Scriptural Aarti hymns, often supplemented by some verses from the Dasam Granth ("Tenth Book"), by the holy choir or by the entire sangat ("congregation") in unison, is still practised at places as part of the concluding ceremonies for an akhand path ("complete way"), an end-to-end unbroken reading of the Sikh Holy Book, or at the close of the evening service at a Gurdwara (Sikh Temple, literally "The Guru's Door").
Lucio Mascarenhas.
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