Asa di Var is a unique and thought-provoking ballad composed by Guru Nanak in the then-prevalent Punjabi language. It has a strikingly simple and spontaneous, sarcastic yet soothing style. It consists of 24 pauris and 60 Shlokas (including 14 Shalokas of Guru Angad).
|Gurbani||Asa Di Vaar|
|Author||Guru Nanak Dev Ji|
|SGGS Ang||462 – 475|
According to Teja Singh, “The whole is very artistically arranged and in the method, sequence, and coherence of thought it is as perfect as the Japji”. The main theme of Asa di Var is obviously ‘God, man, and Guru’. In almost all the Pauris the author pays glowing tributes to the infinite, immeasurable, and all-pervading Greatness and Glory of God. He also lays considerable emphasis upon the need for a spiritual guide or Guru without whom a man, he holds, will be like spurious sesame left desolate in the Held.
The way of religion advocated and preached by Guru Nanak is, however, not an amalgam of set views or doctrines but a way of life. And as such the author felt very much concerned about the socio. religious lives which the people of that age were leading. Hence in his Asa di Vaar, and more particularly in the Shlokas attached to every Pauri, he gives numerous references, direct, regarding the conditions of that society.
The ballad in musical mode Asa, popularly called Asa Di Var is sung at places of Sikh worship in the early hours of the morning. In Harimandir Sahib (The Golden Temple), Amritsar, it starts at 4.00 a.m.
It is a master composition of Guru Nanak. In its present form, as recorded in Guru Granth Sahih, it contains 24 stanzas called pauris and 59 (60) couplets called Shlokas. All the pauris are composed by Guru Nanak whereas, out of 59 Shlokas, 44 are composed by Guru Nanak and 15 by Guru Angat Dev.
In the Puratan Janamsakhi, an authentic life account of Guru Nanak, this composition is attributed to two possible occasions. In Sakhi (story) number 32 there is a reference to the first nine stanzas of the composition, which according to tradition, were recited by Guru Nanak when he met Sheikh Kamaal, an heir of Sheikh Farid of Pak Pattan. In these stanzas, there is a description of a dual between two rival forces of good and evil and Wahcguru presiding and watching it.
In Sakhi number 37 there is a reference to the other fifteen stanzas being addressed to Duni Chand of Lahore. In these stanzas, the Guru has highlighted the futility of hoarding wealth instead of sharing it with needy people. The construction of the ballad is as follows:
1. Three Shlokas, two of Guru Nanak and one of Guru Angad precede the 1st and 2nd pauris.
2. Two Shlokas, both of Guru Nanak precede pauris: 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19th, and 20th,
3. Two Shlokas, one of Guru Nanak and one of Guru Angad precede 7th, 24th pauris
4. Three Shlokas of Guru Nanak precede the 11th Pauri.
5. Four Shlokas, two of Guru Nanak and two of Guru Angad precede the 12th Pauri.
6. Four Shlokas of Guru Nanak precede the 15th Pauri.
7. Three Shlokas of Guru Nanak precede the 18th Pauri.
8. Two Shlokas of Guru Angad precede 21st and 23rd Pauris.
9. Five Shlokas of Guru Angad precede the 22nd Pauri.
The counting of the total Shlokas is summarised as follows:
1. Pauris 1, 2, 11, and 18 are preceded by three Shlokas each = 12 Shlokas.
2. Pauris 12 and 15 are preceded by four Shlokas each = 8 Shlokas
3. Pauri 22 is preceded by five Shlokas = 5 Shlokas
4. Other 17 pauris are preceded by two Shlokas each = 34 Shlokas
Grand total of all Shlokas = 59
However, at times, many people count shlok ‘Dukh Daru…’ which precedes Pauri twelve, as two Shlokas and thus count the total number of Shlokas as 60 rather than 59.
Religion with all its false, formal, and superstitious practices, it appears, was the most dominant force in that medieval society as depicted in Asa di Var. A man in that society was nothing if he was not a Hindu or a Mussalman and both Hinduism and Islam had assumed the most perverted forms at the time. The Brahmins and the Mullahs who were regarded as shepherds of their respective flocks and actually did nothing more than to remove the fleece of the sheep of their flocks bad imposed most taxing and vexatious ceremonies upon the innocent and ignorant masses so that individual liberty had virtually ceased to exist.
Instead of liberating the soul of the people — the solemn and sacred task they had been entrusted with — they had really made them slaves, both mentally and spiritually. “Man”, says Rousseau “is born free but everywhere he is in chains”. In the society under discussion, the man was not even born free and he was bound to heart and soul by the chains of religion, family, and state. Even the restrictions imposed upon the man by the Sultans and the aged beads of the family were more often than not, dictated by them and so it came to pass that religious tyranny reigned in that, society. Right from his birth down to his death, an individual had been overburdened with numerous to-called religious ceremonies.
According to K.M. Ashraf, ”Religious emotion found its best expression in them. Society even judged the responsibility of a person by the amount of care and attention he gave to the fulfillment of these social and religious rites”. The birth ceremony of a child, especially a male child, was celebrated with great enthusiasm. Guru Nanak alludes to the peculiar practices of impurity – the so-called ‘Sutak’ associated with the birth of a child.
All the family members, even the caste-fellows were regarded as impure, So their very touch was supposed to defile all the cooked food. Guru Nanak strongly condemns this futile superstitious practice. He writes:
If we admit the idea of impurity (Sutak),
impurity will be found in everything.
There are worms and wood,
There is no grain of corn without life;
Water is the primary element of life,
by which everything is made fresh and green.
How can we keep away from this impurity?
It will enter our kitchen,
Nanak, we can remove impurity only by true knowledge.
Then he goes on to say that the real impurities consist of greed, lying, lust, and slander which defile the heart, tongue eyes, and ears respectively, and lead a man to hell.
After passing through various ceremonies in early childhood, whereas a Muslim child was circumcised at the age of seven, a Hindu child belonging to the three upper castes proclaimed his boyhood by wearing a sacred thread (usually at the completion of nine years) in a traditional ceremonial manner. Guru Nanak who attaches no religious sanctity and importance to this ceremony exposes its hollowness and at the same time dilates upon the real significance of moral virtues of eternal value; such as mercy, contentment, truth, and self-control in these lines: Make the thread of contentment from the cotton of mercy by giving it twists of truth and ties of self-control.
The sacred thread thus formed will be for the soul.
If thou hast it, o ‘pandit’ put it on me.
It will not break, or become soiled, burnt, or lost.
Blessed is the man, O ‘Nanak’, who goeth with such a thread around his neck.
He also mentions how on the eve of this ceremony a goat is slaughtered, cooked, and eaten, and then everybody present saith, ‘Put on the Janeu’.
We do not find any reference regarding marriage ceremonies in Asa di Var. But we learn from other sources that “all sorts of sober and humorous rites and numerous superstitious ceremonies filled the program of the bride and the bridegroom”. Likewise, many superstitious rites were performed before and after the death of a person. For a few days following the death, the house was considered to be ceremonially impure. The Hindus burnt the dead bodies whereas the Mussalmans buried them. In one passage of Asa di Var, Guru Nanak talks about the futile but much-pronounced difference between the Hindus and Muslims regarding the disposal of their dead bodies. He says:
The clay of a Mussalman finds its way into the posters’ hands,
Who fashions vessels and bricks out of it? It cries out of the fire;
And as it burns poor thing, it weeps and sheds and tears of cinders.
Nanak, only the Creator who made the world knoweth whether cremation is better or burial.
That is to say that it is simply vain and whimsical on the part of the Mussalmans to find fault with the Hindu practice of burning the dead bodies, for the Muslim dead bodies which are buried may be dug out by the potter and put into the fire of his oven.
But the religious ceremonies did not end with the end of a man. Year after year following the death of a person, his descendants in the Hindu family performed the Shradh ceremony dedicated to the deceased. While preaching honest earning, the Guru in one interesting Shloka refers to this ceremony with characteristic humor and Sarcasm :
If a robber robs a house and offers
the proceeds of his theft to his departed ancestors,
The property will be recognized in the next world and will bring the charge of theft on the ancestors.
Justice will require that the hands of the intermediary Brahmin be cut off.
Nanak, we get hereafter only what we give out of our own hard-earned substance.
In this way the whole life of individual-that of a Hindu in a greater degree-was overburdened with innumerable rites which, to Nanak, bad more superstition than sense in them. Yet the self-styled protectors of Hinduism and Islam, the Brahmins and Mullahs, professedly attached religious sanctity to all these ceremonies.
It was the Kalayuga in which there was, as it was bound to be, degeneration and deterioration all around in the moral level of the people. The Master refers to the prevalent tradition of four yugas’ pointing out how the Kal-Jug differed from the preceding Yugas.
In the Satya yuga, contentment was the chariot (of human life), and piety – was the driver in front.
In the Treta yuga, temperance was the chariot and strength – the driver in front.
In the Dwapra yuga, penance was the chariot, and Truth the driver in front.
In the Kala yuga, flaming passion is the chariot and falsehood – the driver in front.
In this Kalayuga the people had forgotten the substance of religion. As Guru Nanak writes in Majh Di Var,
“Religion has taken wings and vanished.
Falsity prevails like the darkness of the darkest night.
The moon of truth is visible nowhere”.
The darkness of the age had made goblins of men. The seed of religion had exhausted its merit with the departure of those who had sown it. False and formal practices were all that was left of religion.
In the language of Sewa Ram Singh, “Both the systems (Hinduism and Muhammadanism) had degraded into sets of formalities and ceremonials, which were performed by their votaries like mere automatons. Their objects were no longer understood or sought to be understood… while each pretended to be righteous, religious, and pious, neither understood the spirit of religion. Hindu had ceased to be Hindu, whom Krishna of the Bhagwat Gita would not care to own, and Muhammadan had ceased to be Muhammadan, whom Muhammad himself if he had somehow reappeared on earth, would have failed to recognize as his follower.”
The Master himself had uttered these significant words, the very first words with which he started delivering his message: “There is no Hindu and no Muslim.”
Leaving aside the fundamental principles of their religion such as sincere devotion to God and self-surrender before his Supreme Will, the Hindus would go to and bathe at the sacred place, worship images, offer oblations and burn incense before them. Guru Nanak alludes to sixty-eight sacred places of the Hindus. Apart from this, the Hindus, he writes, would repeat the Gayatri three times a day, wear rosaries around their necks, put sacrificial marks on their foreheads, and carry a pair of ‘dhotis’ along with towels on their heads. They would read their sacred books for all the months and years. Instead of worshipping one Fearless and Formless God, they worshipped Krishna and Rama. There were numerous tales about Krishna and Rama popular in those days and Krishn-Lilas and Ram-Lilas were commonly performed. It had become a profession with many people earning their livelihood through such stage performances. Guru Nanak gives a graphic description of these funny and profane performances in these lines :
The Gurus dance to the tune set by their disciples;
They move about their feet and shake their heads;
The dust rises and falls on their ruffled hair;
The audience seeing all this laugh and goes home;
For the sake of the bread the performers move to the rhythmic throb or music;
or dash themselves on the ground,
And sing as the Krishnas and the milkmaids
or as Sitas and the royal Ramas.
Like the Hindus, the Muslims also had recourse to formal and futile practices which had supplanted the real tenets of Islam. They extolled their sacred 18w (Shariat) and constantly read and speculated upon it. They read the Namaz (five times a day) in the mosques and did all sorts of atrocious deeds. They wore blue dresses and performed the pilgrimage to Mecca. They often ran to dead and living saints for the fulfillment of their desires and believed in miracles and magic. The Muslim Qazis courted beads of a rosary and worshipped God, yet they accepted bribes and passed unjust orders. Guru Nanak is said to have addressed the Mussalmans elsewhere in these words:
Make kindness thy mosque, sincerity thy prayer carpet,
What is just and lawful thy Quran,
Modesty thy circumcision, civility thy fasting,
Make right conduct thy Kaaba, truth thy spiritual guide,
Good works thy creed and thy prayer
The will of God thy rosary,
and God will preserve thine honor, O Nanak.”
Thus both the Hindus and Mussalmans had gone astray from the genuine path of religion and had fallen into the ditches of ignorance superstition and falsehood.
A special mention may here be made of the caste system which was then, as ever before and after the distinguishing characteristic of Hindu society. According to this system, the Hindu society was divided into four main castes-the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras – each having a large number of sub-castes. Of all these, the Brahmins were regarded as the most superior and privileged class. With the advent of Islam the position of Brahmins in the Indian society bad, of course, received a setback, yet they were still looked upon as the acknowledged leaders of Hinduism. They had, however, abandoned those intrinsic virtues that their class originally stood for, and had themselves fallen prey to all the vices which they were expected to combat in the community and bad bad only external marks of holiness left in them. They would dispense sacred thread to the people, perform their marriages by getting commissions, show them the path for the future on the basis of ‘Patri’ or scroll, and, though blind is soul, call themselves seers. They would go to the houses of other people, sound conchs, and enjoy their food. Next to the Brahmins were the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas who had become covetous and cowardly, and earned their livelihood by dishonest means. Guru Nanak strongly denounces the hypocrisy prevalent among these cowardly and caste-conscious high-caste Hindus in one significant passage which may be quoted as a whole :
They have sacred marks (Tilak) on their forehead and peculiar dhotis around their waist;
They have daggers in their hands and act as the world’s butchers;
They wear blue clothes in order to be acceptable to the ruling class;
They earn their living from those whom they call Malechhas, yet they allow no one to enter their cooking squares;
Having smeared a place for cooking purposes they draw lines around it ;
And sitting within, false as they are, they say:
‘Touch it not, o touch it not’, Or this food of ours will be defiled;
But their bodies are already defiled by their foul deeds
And their hearts are false even while they perform ablutions after their meals;
Saith Nanak, meditate on the True One, If thou art pure, thou shalt obtain Him.
Apart from indicating the hypocrisy, cowardice, and false sense of purity possessed by the Hindus, the above-quoted lines throw significant light on the cultural commingling of the Hindus and the Mussalmans. Despite the fact that the Hindus contemptuously looked upon the Muslims ag Malechhas and the Muslims, in turn, looked upon the Hindus as infidels or Kafirs, there was, it is evident, a certain degree of social intercourse existing between the members of the two communities. As a matter of fact, the Hindus had learned to accept Muslim rule with all its merits and faults. It was, therefore, not surprising that the Hindus had started taking food and meat prepared in the Muslim fashion and would sometimes wear the typical blue dress of the Mussalmans. All this, thanks to the impact of the Muslim rule, had greatly affected the rigidity of the caste system. So the contradictions pointed out by Guru Napak in the manners of the high caste Hindus may partially be explained by their natural solicitude to preserve the purity of their caste on the one hand and the realization of the reality of Muslim rule on the other. Nor should it be forgotten that the Indian Muslims, too, had adopted some aspects of the Hindu culture. Influenced by the Hindu caste system, for example, they succumbed to the spirit of clags division. They also took an active part in the celebration of Hindu festivals such as Holi, Dussehra, and Diwali. In the economic field also the Muslims and Hindus worked in cooperation with each other. But the point should not be carried too far. It must be admitted that the social intercourse of the Hindus and Muslims was remarkably limited, for it was not instinctive but forced by circumstance. The Muslims, right from Sultan Sikandar Lodhi down to a commoner thought in terms of Islam and treated the Hindus as inferior. The Hindus, as a rule, were compelled to pay Jazia with all humiliation and were deprived of high governmental jobs. Even their freedom of worship and performance of religious ceremonies were also sometimes interfered with. On the other hand, the Hindus, conscious as ever of the superiority of their religion and culture and apprehensive of losing the purity of their caste, did not like at heart to mix with the Mussalmans. Under such conditions, it was left for a Kabir and a Nanak to launch a four-square attack on the caste pride of the Hindus and to preach social brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims.
Finally, we gather and guess from the study of Asa di Var something regarding the position of women in that society. If we believe in Radhakrishnan’s dictum, “The position of women in any society is a true index of its cultural and spiritual level,” we have then to admit that the society under discussion did not have a high cultural and spiritual level in this respect also. Both in theory and practice women bad rather inferior place in society. The existence of the practices of female infanticide, child marriage, Pardha, Jauhar, and Sati, bespeaks of the fact that a lot of women were not happy. The more significant thing in this connection is that all these practices had been given a religious coloring and, as in every other aspect of society so here also, it was the prevalent superstition rather than the actual religion that caused degradation in the status of women. As K.M. Ashraf remarks, “The social laws and customs stamped her with a sort of mental deficiency.” Guru Nanak’s spirit revolted against prevalent customs and notions regarding women. Dilating upon her importance as a mother, a wife, and a companion, he pleads for her a respectable status in these lines:
It is by a woman that man is conceived and from her that he is born;
It is with her that he is betrothed and married ;
It is with her that he cultivates friendship, and through her keeps his race going
When one woman dies, another is sought for ;
It is woman again who exercises restraint upon man;
Why call her bad from whom are born kings?
Asa di Var thus enables us to form a fairly substantial idea about contemporary society. In that society, the strong in general tyrannized the weak – the ruler over the ruled, the upper classes over the lower classes, the Muslims over the Hindus, and the man over the woman. And every sort of tyranny and crime was committed in the name of religion which had been reduced to a solemn farce. People of that society did not, as a matter of fact, could not think or act freely, Customs, rites, superstitious beliefs, and formal practices which were necessary evils here, there, and everywhere, had over-burdened the life of an individual and curbed his liberty in toto. Under such circumstances, Guru Nanak appeared as a Messiah bringing with him the panacea for all the socio-religious ills. Unlike some other great spiritualists, he did not emphasize the nothingness of life, on the other hand, he had a positive cure for ameliorating the present as well as the future life of the people. He strongly decried the prevalent superstitious practices as false and meaningless, and by exhorting the individual to abandon these he not only showed him the true path of religion but also considerably lightened his burden. Hence he may be regarded as a great deliverer or liberator who tried to liberate the individual from the mental and spiritual slavery he was afflicted with. At the same time the Guru, by calling upon the people to throw away all the religious and social trammels, made earnest efforts to purge and purify the society. Perhaps he wanted to build an altogether new society where there would be no place for casteism, communalism, dogmatism, idol-worship, blind superstition, and exploitation of any kind, where all would worship one Formless God with the grace of Guru, and where moral virtues such as truth, love, contentment, forgiveness, mercy, modesty, compassion, love fearlessness, etc. would reign supreme.
Asa Di Var (Ode)
Asa Di Var from Guru Granth Sahib is a masterpiece of devotional poetry that speaks to the soul, offering guidance and inspiration to those seeking a path of righteousness and spirituality. Its timeless teachings continue to resonate with followers of Sikhism and beyond.
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