Songs of Nanak Dev

Chants de Nanak

Who was Nanak?

Very few know Nanak Dev, the reformer, legendary traveller and outstanding poet. Nanak Dev was born on 13 April 1469, although his birth anniversary is celebrated in November, in a small village called Talvandi near the big city of Lahore in India. In those times Pakistan did not exist.

Nanak Dev and stories of his travels

Nanak Dev is better known through stories in the four Janamsakhis (life stories) that were written over a hundred years after his death. With his companions, Bala a Hindu or Mardana a Moslem or both, Nanak Dev travelled for twenty-four years in India, Arabia, Iraq, Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Sri Lanka, No other prophet is known to have travelled as much. (See Map). These stories helped the historians to trace the routes Nanak Dev followed, the places he visited and verify the dates.

According to these stories Nanak performed numerous miracles. But they are not true because he was fiercely against the practice of miracles and magic. Moreover the stories contain too many chronological inconsistencies, miraculous events often coming close to magic and incredibility ransacking Nanak’s thinking amply expressed in his own poems. Nanak Dev was a very great and brave person having undertaken such long perilous journeys full of dangers. He met many people of all sorts, good and bad. To guide people in the right direction he often set up a funny situation. To associate such a great person to out-of-the ordinary acts is not exceptional.

At the time when the stories were written, faith and belief were much stronger than knowledge. There were few people who could explain Nanak’s innovative ideas to illiterate people. A big section of the society depended on exploiting people using false religious practices and cheating the uneducated. With these stories, mostly written by some bad intentioned members of Nanak Dev’s own family, they succeeded in side-tracking and taking the entire Sikh community away from correct teachings of Nanak Dev. The stories served as a subtle and successful tool for traditional Hindus to pervert his poems by associating them with ancient Indian myths pertaining to gods and goddesses. Many stories are without sense or logic, and chronologically impossible. By adding traditional illustrations to the miracles, the stories have become a powerful but false belief. Often they insult Nanak’s humanity and transform him from a normal human being to an extraordinary super human being, something Nanak never aspired to be.

His Humanity

Gifted with intellectual, emotional and spiritual benevolence marked from his childhood, he accomplished extraordinary oeuvres in literary, social, philosophic and religious fields. It is said that his guru was the nature itself. His lively spirit observed all around him, acquiring an unbelievable amount of knowledge in the course of his far-reaching travels.

During his entire life he unrelentingly struggled against noxious religious and social practices in order to uphold human dignity. He aimed at spreading and put to practise the principle of human brotherhood, an egalitarian society without caste or religious distinctions as well as the equality of men and women.

At the end of his last journey, Nanak Dev set up the village of Kartarpur (Creator’s village) on the right bank of River Ravi. Here he spent the rest of his life. His innovative and modern ideas drew many disciples. From among them he chose Lehna to become his successor. Nanak Dev died on 22 September 1539 at the age of seventy years.

Nanak Dev, the philosopher, and his thoughts

Saddened by the falsity of religious practices of Hindus, Moslems, Jains, and Buddhists and by the innocent people hoodwinked by leaders, Nanak chose the way of simplicity. He has postulated this thinking in an expression which has become the preamble of the sacred book of the Sikhs, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, also known as the Adi Granth, le Premier Book (AG):

One Unique Supreme Being, all-pervading;

Eternal truth that enfolds all;

Ultimate creative-reality; without fear and hate;

Timeless image, not incarnated, self-existent,

Gracious enlightener-Guru.

Evidently he has not invoked God or another name designating God. He as postulated one Force that envelopes all and that pervades everywhere and all the time – an eternal Flux. When he uses various names of gods in his songs, they form a part of this Flux even though often he uses these traditional names to indicate the Supreme Being. In short, he harmonises the nature and the concept of God as one unique entity, supreme and eternal.

In a number of poems Nanak Dev affirms that the “guru-in-book” is neither the book, nor the words, nor the songs, but the ideas it expresses. If we do not know these ideas and we are unable to follow them we cannot learn from the guru nor obtain its blessings. Frequently the Sikhs quote the Adi Granth: “the word is guru and guru is the word” in a narrow sense limiting it to the writings in the Adi Granth. In reality, “Word”, that is a universal expression englobing everything, here means “Name” a term that Nanak Dev uses frequently to express the essence of God-Flux* composed of vital energy, information, interactions and interdependences. God-Flux itself is the true perfect Guru.

Nanak Dev put emphasis on our correct behaviour (livelihood), sharing and the practice of Name. He rejected idolatry, rituals and the ascetic life of yogis that he said is escaping from family and communal responsibilities. Each human being is spiritually sovereign. Therefore each individual can become happy by his own deeds. In order to learn this way of life he specifies the absolute need to have a guide, a guru. This concept continues to be the fundamental basis of education in all human and scientific branches. The guru can be in any form, not only a human being. Nanak Dev’s writings form the philosophic and spiritual foundation of the Adi Granth as well as the Sikh tradition.

Most of the songs of Nanak Dev deal with the problem of the depraved religious practices and often social injustice. How can simply singing such songs be beneficial? They are popularly being used to perform rituals glorified by the elegance of their music without knowing their inestimable literary, linguistic, philosophical and social value. It is sad to observe that the songs of Nanak Dev have become more a means of worship than a path to spirituality.

Nanak Dev, the poet

Nanak Dev was a sublime poet. He wrote his thoughts in the form of songs mostly during his travels. He sang them when the occasion arose. It is the first literary masterpiece of the Punjabi language. So, to learn better about Nanak Dev it is essential to study and understand his songs.

All the poems were composed to be sung. In order to enable people, largely illiterate, to understand the social and ethical precepts, Nanak Dev freely uses plain and popular language of that period. For the same reason he uses metaphors and allegories drawn from Hindu mythology and other traditions, and from everyday life and current trades of people. In this way, he managed to instill the population with nature pure and simple. The poetry is rhymed, musical and metrical, arranged in ragas to be sung in any place at any time. These songs end up connoting a relationship with the divine that has no limit; it is love for its own sake, typical, sane and level headed.

Nanak Dev adopted the mystic Sufi tradition and often used erotic terms to describe the communion of female human soul with the Eternal Being, a virile masculine husband. This image also represents Indian social reality from ancient times, where man remains dominant. By using this metaphor has Nanak unknowingly strengthened the masculine power in the Sikh mind set, going against his own campaign to promote equality between men and women?

The language of the songs

Nanak Dev expressed himself in medieval languages in various dialects of northern India, all close to Punjabi and Hindi, with many expressions in Sanskrit, Farsi and Arabic. The reason why Sikhs continue to sing his songs with much love without appreciating Nanak’s message is the evolution of the language in the same way as the English of Shakespeare and the French of Molière.

In undertaking this translation I’ve tried to faithfully express the thoughts of Nanak in French. I learned that the lyrics of songs are a lot less difficult than those of ‘The Tempest’ of Shakespeare and those of the language of English or Punjabi poets of modern times. This difficulty is inherent in poetry; one can’t avoid it. But the noticeable difference is that we continue to study and enact Shakespeare’s plays at all levels, from school to University, in national and regional theatres world-wide. However, this does not happen with Nanak Dev’s songs. During Nanak Dev’s time people understood them. Today, they could be understood without difficulty if people learned Hindi and Punjabi at the same level as we learn the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Molière. With the knowledge of a few rules of grammar of the language of the Adi Granth, we will find that the language of Nanak is not as difficult as it appears. Many French-speaking people are aware of the thoughts of Indian literature. Therefore they can comprehend these songs correctly, without the need to add explanatory words.

Where are the songs of Nanak Dev?

They are in the sacred book of the Sikhs, the Adi Granth which is an anthology of songs put together in 1604 by Arjun Dev, the fifth spiritual successor of Nanak. The five other guru-successors followed the poetic tradition, reinforcing the thoughts of Nanak Dev without deviating. The Adi Granth also contains writings from other different religious traditions. Adhering strictly to Nanak Dev’s principle, songs of twenty bhaktas, holy men and bards, were chosen. These men belonged to various faiths and castes in the twelfth to seventeenth centuries. This ensemble represented the social range of entire India. Most of their songs were collected by Nanak Dev during his travels.

Arjun Dev, an enlightened and erudite person, with the help of other scholars, classified 6667 poems and couplets, of which 974 composed by Nanak Dev, all written in Gurmukhi script.

As the songs called shabads are intended to be sung Arjun Dev divided them, including those of Nanak, according to musical scales known as raags**. He juxtaposed Nanak Dev’s compositions with those by other authors, arranged according to Raags and not according to the subject or theme. For the convenience of readers, the musical scale of each raag has been added at the beginning of each chapter. Nanak Dev’s songs having been distributed through the 1430 pages of the Adi Granth, putting them together should facilitate study of his poetry, his thoughts, his ideology, his literary and linguistic gifts, his social and religious concerns, his approach to a simple life and his rejection of duplicity, hypocrisy and the falsity of the lifestyle of the Hindu, Muslim, Jain and Buddhist religious leaders.

French translation

Dr Jarnail Singh has translated the Adi Granth into French, which could have greatly help me in this project. Regrettably I could not obtain it. Sources I have used for interpretation and translation into French:

Gurbani Viakaran. (Punjabi) -(Grammaire de la langue de l’Adi Granth) par Dr Sahib Singh ; Singh Brothers, Amritsar (Inde), 1939 ; 4ème éditions, 1990.

Sri Guru Granth Sahib Darpan. (Punjabi)  (10 Volumes) par Dr Sahib Singh; Raj Publishers, Jallandur, (Inde), 1962-1964.

Sri Guru-Granth Sahib [ENGLISH VERSION] (4 Volumes) par Dr Gopal Singh, Gur Das Kapur & Sons, Delhi, (Inde), 1962-1964.

Sri Guru Granth Sahib – English and Punjabi Translation. (8 Volumes) par Manmohan Singh; Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandhak Committee, (SGPC), Amritsar, (India), 1969-1996.

Gurbani – CD, par Kabir S. Thind, Sa Mateo, USA.

Gurshabad Ratnakar: Mahan Kosh (Encyclopedia of Sikh Literature) (Punjabi) par Kahan Singh, Bhasha Vibhag, Patiala (India) 1939.

Selections from the Sacred Writings of the Sikhs, UNESCO Collection; George Allen & Unwin, 1960.

Les Sikhs par Michel Delahoutre, Editions Brepols, Belgique, 1989.

JAP-JI: Enseignement initiatique  du Guru Nanak (XVIe siècle), Ed. Présence, Sisteron, 1970.

GURU NANAK Le messager de l’Unité par Gérard Bossy, L’Or du Temps éditions, Saint Martin Le Vinoux (France). 1991

First of all I would like to underline that I have strictly followed the interpretation of songs by Dr. Sahib Singh (Reference 2), a monumental and indispensable work in ten volumes. Three translations in English and Punjabi (References 3, 4, and 5) helped me better understand and interpret certain texts. But it should be noted that these three translations have been severely criticized because the English language used is more decrepit than even the original language. Apart from the grammatical errors and expressions which perturb the reader the following specific criticisms are congruent:

  • The grammar is outdated, difficult to understand, requiring considerable concentration.
  • The expressions used pertaining to the style of 18th and 19th centuries of British India, if not older but often badly used.
  • In short, reading is baffling for the present day ear of the reader.
  • Intention to be humble and reverent to the Adi Granth is present but the authors have added words and expressions that do not exist in the original songs and have so underestimated the capacity of the readers.
  • Most of the time, the importance given to the words deviates the reader from the theme of the song as well as from the simplicity and the poetic beauty of the original.

To avoid these pitfalls, I took the way of simplicity already demonstrated clearly by Nanak Dev himself. In this effort the models in References 7, 8, 9 and 10 have served me well.

First I made sure that the theme of the song is above all else. To achieve this goal, the path showed by Dr. Sahib Singh (Reference 2) has helped me tremendously. Secondly, I avoided to add superfluous words that do not exist in the original, because it is not necessary at all. To achieve the main goal which is to convey the thoughts of Nanak Dev, I limited myself to translate original words without adding glorifying or colored words. It should be noted that everything was done to keep the translation as close as possible to the original in word and spirit and thus try to maintain the images portrayed by Nanak. To transmit the reformist and dominant thoughts of Nanak Dev faithfully, the following aspects have been taken into account:

  • No attempt was made to versify, rhyme or poeticize the translation. Clearly, the French translation cannot render the poetic and metrical qualities of the original.
  • The verse that gives the theme of the song (Rahau) has been highlighted in bold This verse is often used as a refrain when singing.
  • The original meaning of the verse is expressed without adding explanatory words. Where it is inevitable, an explanatory word is added between parentheses or with an asterisk (*) on the word concerned referring to a note at the end of the song.
  • A word that can have several meanings is translated according to the theme of the song.
  • Current French language is used to convey the idea simply without attempting to interpret it as often done in most of the available English translations. The interpretation is not needed.
  • The poetic images have been maintained without too much loss.

The presentation format

To facilitate the study, the writings of Nanak were put together in two parts:

First part:

The Jap, the first poem of the Adi Granth and twenty poems of the next chapter, Sri Raag, have been printed with the corresponding original poems in the Gurmukhi script. The equivalent words in French are indicated with the corresponding superscripts with the intention of familiarizing readers and francophone students to the language and the structure of the original poems.

Second part:

The remaining poems and verses in twenty Raags and a few others are presented in French only.

Important note

Many Sikhs consider the Adi Granth as a living guru and they treat the book as such. It has become a tradition to dress him in fine precious clothes, wake him at dawn, present it on a decorated covered dais, put him to bed at night and feed it symbolically, in the same way that some Hindu sects treat the idols of gods and goddesses. Nanak Dev rejects idolatry firmly. Therefore the Adi Granth must not be worshiped like an idol. He pleads for respecting the script (shabad) that it contains.


* See: big bang YOGA: New God

* The raag which means attraction, coloring, tingeing, dyeing or passion, is a melodic framework (not to be confused with the concepts of scales or mode in classical European music tradition even if there is a certain affinity with them). It is used in Indian classical music. Each raag is linked to a mood, a season, a time of day. A raag is essentially a set of rules on how to build a melody. It specifies the rules for ascending and descending notes to use freely, sparingly or avoid, etc. All this gives a usable framework to compose or improvise melodies, allowing an infinite number of variations based on a set of predefined notes. For the convenience of readers, the scale of each raag is included at the beginning of each chapter. (Text adapted from Wikipedia).