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Understanding
Asa ki Var:
A SikhRI Seminar

by MANJYOT KAUR

 

SANEHA  - "Asa ki Var: Transcending Duality" - A Sikh Research Institute Seminar 

 

 

Recently, I participated in a SANEHA ("message") seminar presented by the Sikh Research Institute (SikhRI) on the Bani of Asa ki Var (literally, The Ode of Hope).

Established in 2003 and located in San Antonio (Texas, U.S.A.), SikhRI is a nonprofit, faith-based initiative whose mission is to "facilitate training and development while inspiring Sikh values, create global awareness of Sikhi, and deliver solutions to the key challenges faced by the Sikh community."

This program, led by Harinder Singh, Simranjit Singh and Gunisha Kaur, was held at the Bridgewater Gurdwara in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Coordinated by Mandhir Singh, Principal of the Bridgewater Khalsa School, it attracted over 75 participants.

It was divided into five sessions.

The first session centered around the structure and significance of Asa ki Var.

While Nitnem is usually an individual pursuit, Asa ki Var - which forms part of the morning liturgy of the Sikhs - was termed "a collective engagement to develop collective clarity."

Found on pages 462-475 of Guru Granth Sahib, Asa ki Var is one of the scripture's 22 Varaan (odes). Sung in the early morning period before sunrise, it is in Raag Asa, a musical measure that is intended to evoke an intense mood of hope or desire.

It consists of 24 Pauris (which can be envisaged as "rungs of a ladder," on which an idea is unfolded, step-by-step) composed by Guru Nanak. Every pauri has one or more Saloks, which are "couplets" (but not necessarily limited to two lines) meant to express praise or describe various phenomena.

There are 59 saloks in all, 44 of which were composed by Guru Nanak, and 15 by Guru Angad (the Second Guru).

According to the musical instructions recorded by Guru Arjan at the beginning of the Var, the saloks are meant to be recited in the tune of a ballad which had as its hero a prince by the name of Asraja, called "Tunda Asraj" - named thus because of a maimed hand ("tunda").

Asa ki Var also includes six Chhants, comprising four stanzas each (colloquially known as 24 Chhakas or quatrains), authored by Guru Ram Das (the Fourth Guru), each of which is sung before a set of saloks.

This bani's central emphasis can be considered to be the theme of freedom from duality and slavery of the mind, which is attained by "imbibing the glory of Truth."

Portraying human life as a Divine gift, it discusses the transformational role of the Guru, by which an average person can attain "angel-like" behavior. Through it, we are led to explore our Divine potential, which can allow us to operate on "a higher paradigm that goes beyond duality."

Duality, in this context, is seen as a divergence between ideal and practice, with two elements at tension with one another - for example, true and false, sacred and profane.

The second, third and fourth sessions of the seminar dealt with some of the ways in which Asa ki Var leads us to transcend various manifestations of duality.

At the start of each of these three sessions, a handout was distributed with the text (in the original Gurmukhi script, with Roman transliteration and selected vocabulary in English) of a particular pauri and its accompanying saloks (all of the ones chosen were by Guru Nanak).

After reading the text aloud, it was intensively dissected and discussed line-by-line, with further translation being provided by the facilitator, as needed. In one of these sessions, the participants were split up into separate groups, depending on the language - Punjabi or English - in which they felt most comfortable.

The second session focused on "Transcending Duality in Thought." Its text was taken from page 468 of Guru Granth Sahib, beginning with the salok that starts: "Koorrh raja koorrh parja koorrh sabh sansaar." ("False is the king; false are the subjects; false is the whole world.")

The realization was brought forth that we often have "a relationship with things, but not with the Giver of these things." If we do not connect with the Divine, anything and everything can be reduced to utter falsehood. Recognizing Truth is a process that will gradually take place as we invite Divine Love and its ensuing freedom into our lives.

As we ourselves are a part of Divine Light ("Man toon jyot saroop hai"), directions for living a Truth-centered life are to be sought within from Waheguru, not from external sources. But, for this to become possible, an active personal relationship with the Guru is essential. If our thought processes remain mired in duality, like a "split seed," we cannot grow and develop the necessary sense of harmony with the Divine.

However, once we take a "pilgrimage within ourselves," discovering our intrinsic connection with Divine Truth, our thought processes can become clarified and we can attain an understanding of what constitutes virtuous living.

The text of the third session, revolving around "Transcending Duality in Conduct," was taken from page 465 of Guru Granth Sahib. It began with the salok that starts: "Musalmana siphati sariati pari pari karahi bichar." ("The Muslims praise the Islamic law; they read and reflect upon it.")

We discussed that, in this portion, which speaks of the dichotomy between belief and practice, the Guru is giving examples of the duality inherent in what people say and what they actually do. We may hypocritically praise the philosophy (which is in the form of the Divine), but continue to slavishly follow overly-stringent laws and blind rituals. Like Yogis, we may attempt to totally empty ourselves, but we cannot get rid of what is truly impure within us.

Without the Guru, nothing can be achieved and union with the Divine is impossible. But, when we meet the Guru and focus our consciousness on the Truth, we will be "liberated by the One who removes attachments," and thus "obtain the life of the Universe."

Session Four, which dealt with "Duality in Society," used a text from page 471 of Guru Granth Sahib, beginning with the salok that starts: "Gau birahman kau karu lavahu gobari taranu na jai." ("They tax the cows and the brahmins, but the cow-dung they apply to their kitchen will not save them.")

While dissecting this section, we pondered many of the ills that beset society throughout the ages (and continue to do so today), such as official corruption, hypocrisy, exploitation and unfair double standards.

Unethical religious leaders conspire with ruthless "power brokers" to control the lives of the common people. Cruelty and tyranny prevail everywhere; falsehood is practiced on an immense scale. But Waheguru can never be deceived - the Divine Will always prevails.

Like the brahmins demarcating their cooking squares with cow dung, we futilely seek to find purity within a artificially prescribed "space." But, when we abandon duality, purity will be found within ourselves, according to the new ways in which we think and behave.

The fifth and final session was a "Question & Answer" Forum. Although it began with subjects relating to Asa ki Var, it soon became quite free-ranging. Whatever the topics raised by the participants, the facilitators consistently presented Gurmat perspectives in thought-provoking and non-judgmental ways that were relevantly connected to contemporary life in the diaspora, while fully respecting the attendees' differing levels of personal observance and depth of Sikhi-related knowledge.

At the conclusion of the seminar, Mandhir Singh spoke briefly about the Bridgewater Gurdwara and Khalsa School, and its many exciting programs and activities.

Having previously attended a SikhRI "Mark of Excellence" workshop ("The Guru: Connecting With the Divine Light") in October, 2008 and taken part in two of the organization's webinars held this spring, I came to this seminar with extremely high expectations.

To a very great degree, they were not only met, but also exceeded.

This seminar, like these previous SikhRI events, was characterized by the wonderfully warm and inclusive feeling of sangat. (This lovely sensation was certainly reinforced by the bountiful langar and tea-time snacks, as well as the much-appreciated child-care services provided by gurdwara volunteers.)

Represented among the attendees were Keshadhari and non-Keshadhari Sikhs of a wide array of ages, high-schooler to retiree.

It could not have been more evident that the three facilitators were deeply steeped in knowledge of Sikhi and Gurmat principles. They consistently encouraged all to actively participate and freely express their views. The spirit of open inquiry and life-long learning - such integral parts of our faith - definitely seemed quite alive and well, and the immense love we all share for our Guru was certainly in ample evidence.

Overall, each of the sessions unfolded in a very cogent and well-organized manner. However, apart from the segment that was deliberately split into separate English- and Punjabi-speaking groups, there were occasions when the desire of some of the participants to communicate exclusively in Punjabi, and the decision of the facilitator to reply in similar fashion, seemed to cause the comprehension level of some of the attendees not fluent in that language (myself firmly among them) to be momentarily lessened.

This occurred repeatedly during the Q&A period. It might have been preferable if the leaders had gone a bit further in these situations (such as quickly translating the questions and responses into English) to ensure that all participants, even the minority who did not possess Punjabi language skills, understood the proceedings as fully as possible.

This seminar might have been of even more benefit if a greater degree of "wrapping-up" after the third "Transcending Duality" session had taken place.

Devoting a little extra time to clearly summarizing and drawing comprehensive conclusions from the numerous lines of thought that arose during the discussion of Asa ki Var's structure and significance as well as the three Gurbani text explication segments would have been extremely worthwhile.

Perhaps this could have taken place either at the beginning or end of the Q&A period, even if it would have resulted in cutting down the opportunity for general, non-Asa ki Var-related discussion slightly.

With the minor exception of the above (which, admittedly, might not have been perceived as shortcomings by many of the participants), this seminar was definitely a very stimulating and valuable experience, as well as a tremendously motivational springboard to further reading, study and discussion of this Bani.

Highly recommended!

 

March 17, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: Mandhir Singh (U.S.A.), March 17, 2009, 9:10 AM.

A well written and balanced article.

2: Arvinder Singh Kang (Oxford, MS, U.S.A.), March 18, 2009, 10:59 AM.

Thanks for sharing. I have attended SikhRI webinars in the past. I agree: highly recommended.

3: Jay (New York, U.S.A.), March 20, 2009, 5:21 PM.

I attended the seminar and enjoyed it very much. I agree with the article and the summary of the sessions. We also had a lively Q&A which brought out some of the nuances of the meanings through discussions.

4: Sargam Sethi (Bridgewater, New Jersey, U.S.A.), March 23, 2009, 6:39 AM.

I was highly impressed with the seminar. Thankyou for the session and this article ... it's well written. I am looking forward to more of these and want to urge my friends to attend.

5: Jodh Singh (Jericho, NY, U.S.A.), March 24, 2009, 6:42 PM.

I wish I had known about it. I would love to have attended it, and would certainly have benefitted from it. Please let us know if there are such seminars in the area in the future.

6: Guravtar ( U.S.A.), May 12, 2009, 5:50 AM.

How can I access the discussion contents of the segment "Mussalmana sifat...". I am particularly interested in the translations of "mitti mussalmaan ki.."

7: Ishmeet Kaur (Delhi, India), July 07, 2009, 3:00 AM.

I am so happy to read about the kind of "parchar" that's going on in the U.S. and elsewhere, and I somehow feel that Sikhs abroad are more attached to our religion than we are in India. I am also jealous of you all who get an opportunity to share your views at forums like these which are rather rare in India. No doubt there are a lot of kirtan darbars but no dedicated seminars like these, at least I am not aware of them. Please do let me know in case any one knows about these in India.

8: Coco Singh (Navi Mumbai, India), March 17, 2010, 9:10 PM.

Is there any way that the transcripts of the different sessions can be had on Asa Ki Var, please, in its entirety?

9: Satsangat Kaur (France), December 27, 2012, 8:00 AM.

Sat Sri Akal. Thank you for this interesting article. Though, I want to ask if maybe some words weren't used very precisely like here in this part: "Found on pages 462-475 of Guru Granth Sahib, Asa ki Var is one of the scripture's 22 Varaan (odes). Sung in the early morning period before sunrise, it is in Raag Asa, a musical measure that is intended to evoke an intense mood of hope or desire." The word at the end ... "desire"? Can you say precisely what was your intention to say here, please? Thank you! Blessings.

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Asa ki Var:
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