Musings on Gurmat Sangeet, or Gurbani Kirtan, Sikh Sacred Music

Friday, November 02, 2012

Of Bluegrass, Rimpoches and Baba Nanak

November 2 2012

A day after Hurricane Sandy, the sun is shining again and I set out on a long walk with my dog by my side . Today I am taking a break form the music and listening to a Fresh Air podcast. Featured on the program today is of all things, a Bluegrass band. I groan silently and start sifting through the podcasts on my phone. I have always been a bit of a music snob :-) When I listened to Rock, back in the day there were several bands I would just refuse to listen to. It was no different in my Jazz phase and my friends in the Shastriya Sangeet world know how I feel about certain accomplished Khayaliyas, who in my view lack gravitas and a prone to playing to the gallery while performing. My contempt for those sorry 'Ragis' who peddle cheap film and ghazal based tunes under the guise of Gurmat Sangeet is well known and documented.

I have never been really exposed to Bluegrass. To my untutored ears, it lies in the realm of (shudder) Country Music, which is roughly at the same place in my musical hierarchy as the filmi pap masquerading as Gurmat Sangeet. But before I can find a podcast whose title looks interesting, the interview has begun and the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band starts their song.

The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band sings Across The Rolling Hills

I am pleasantly surprised. It sounds good! No i am mesmerized! You can form your own judgement, but I love the melody and the harmonies and the interplay of the instruments, including the Banjo. ( As an aside, when I watched Debra Granik's fabulous movie, Winter's Bone, I remember absolutely loving the soundtrack, which in hindsight was probably very Bluegrass-heavy). The surprises, BTW, aren't over yet. AT the end of the song there is a chant sounds like a Sanskrit chant. it IS a Sanskrit chant, Peter Rowan explains later. He is a practicing Buddhist and the chant is the well known Vajra Guru Mantra, attributed to Guru Rimpoche, also known as Guru Padmasambhava, the Buddhist mystic who brought Buddhism to Tibet. In fact the song IS about Guru Padmasambhava, as he rides across the rolling hills, his banner flying, spreading the message of the Buddha.

Serendipity :-)

Growing up in Sikkim, the presence of Guru Padmasambhava always loomed large. As a child, I remember countless visits to the Chorten in Deorali, where the monastery has a large beautiful statue of Guru Rimpoche. He is considered the patron saint of Sikkim, who consecrated and blessed this beautiful land; it is said that he named Sikkim Bay Yul Demajong or the valley of hidden treasures.

A depiction of Guru Padmasmabhava

Prayer Lamps at The Chorten (September 2012)

It is a well documented fact that Sri Guru Nanak Sahib visited Bay Yul Demajong, during one of his Udasis. It is said that he traveled to the farthest reaches of Northern Sikkim, a cold, barren and inhospitable place. Local legend has it that the local villagers having no source of drinking water in the winter, were blessed by Guru Nanak Sahib after which the Guru Dongmar lake never freezes, even in the dead of winter.

Guru Dongmar Lake in North Sikkim

Growing up, I also heard legends that rice, which is the staple food in Sikkim, was a gift from Guru Nanak Sahib during his visit. Guru Nanak Sahib's visit is well document in ancient Sikkimese texts. My father, who came to Sikkim in the mid 1950s and has lived there since, cultivated a relationship with His Holiness, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, whose seat was at the Rumtek Monastery. My father would visit him often and ask him about Guru Nanak Sahib's journey, which he had knowledge of. The holy men of Sikkim, revere Guru Nanak Sahib as Nanak Rimpoche. Rimpoche is a Buddhist honorific, meaning precious one and is typically used to refer to reincarnated Tibetan Lamas.

Recently, I chanced upon a reprint of an article written by His Holiness the 11th Trungpa Tülku (also a line of reincarnated Tibetan Lamas) in the Indian Express in 1966. A quote from the article :

"In Tibet, Guru Nanak is revered as an emanation of Guru Padmasambhava. 

Many of our pilgrims visited Amritsar and other holy places, which they looked upon as equal in importance to Budh-Gaya. They always said that the Sikhs treated them with great respect and were very hospitable: "as our expression goes, they bowed down to their feet." It seems that the Sikhs really practice the doctrine of their religion; perhaps they are the only ones who give such wonderful dana (alms) to travellers. 

Most Tibetans know that Guru Nanak visited Tibet, and the mystical ideas of our two religions are very similar. I have noticed that the Sikhs never worship images in their shrines, but that there is in the centre the book, the Guru Granth Sahib. In our tradition, one of the last things that the Buddha said was that in the dark age after his death, he would return in the form of books. "At that time," he said, "look up to me and respect me." Just as we do not believe in mystifying rituals, so in the Sikh ceremonies, it seems that the people simply read and contemplate the words of their text, so that no misunderstandings arise.

I was interested in the Sikh symbolism of the three daggers: in Buddhism, a knife often appears as the cutting off of the roots of the three poisons: greed, hatred and illusion. I was also very interested in the Sikh practice never to cut one's hair, as this is also the practice among Tibetan hermits and contemplatives. The most famous of these was Milarepa, who said that there were three things that should be left in their natural state; one should not cut one's hair, dye one's clothes, nor change one's mind.

Both Guru Nanak and the Buddha said to their followers that the real nature of the universe should not be limited by the idea of personal god and gods. Those who made offerings at their shrines should remember that the whole universe was the power offering, offered before and to itself.
It seems that there is very much in common between our philosophies.

For example, the belief in the role of
maya (illusion) in bringing suffering and keeping us from salvation is a key part of the philosophy of both religions. Gurbani speaks of moh maya in many places:

houmai maar sadhaa sukh paaeiaa maaeiaa mohu chukaavaniaa

Subduing your ego, you shall find a lasting peace, and your emotional attachment to Maya will be dispelled. 

[GGS 110:1, Guru Amar Das, Raag Maajh]
maaeiaa mohu eis manehi nachaaeae anthar kapatt dhukh paavaniaa
The love of Maya makes this mind dance, and the deceit within makes people suffer in pain.

[GGS 122:1, Guru Amar Das, Raag Maajh]
When I return to India, I hope to increase understanding of the Sikh religion among Tibetan people, and it is my wish one day to translate the Guru Granth Sahib into Tibetan. Now I am living in England, and I can see that much good might be accomplished by Sikhism in England, and Europe and America, and I wish success to everyone whose concern this is."

Thank you Peter Rowan !!!!

The connections that bind us all together, regardless of who we are, where we come from or what we believe in are real and powerful. Sometimes we just have to seek them out. My friend, the late P.G.Tenzing, a Sikkimese Renaissance Man and Gadfly :-) would probably say that this is part of our individual search for Thamzi.

A statue of Guru Rimpoche adorns my desk :-)


Blogger candosando said...

Sarbpreet, the music is fabulous , of course. But interesting are the connections between Sikhism and Buddhism and the wise ones that spread the Word. Maybe you can unearth some accounts of Baba Nanak's journeys ! Authentic historical accounts without the mysticism! I am very interested in reading those . Thank you.

November 2, 2012 at 4:03 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

I just happen to come across your blog by hap-chance and I was fascinated at the event and musicians. Thank you so much for sharing the information, it was a joy to read. :) Blessings!

February 16, 2013 at 10:49 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

I just happen to come across your blog by hap-chance and I was fascinated at the event and musicians. Thank you so much for sharing the information, it was a joy to read. :) Blessings!

February 16, 2013 at 10:50 AM

Blogger philologos said...

THank you for i am a bhakta of Babajo and Guru Rinpoche La.

June 23, 2015 at 6:33 PM

Blogger Amneet Singh said...

Hi, Is it possible for you to share the 1966 Indian Express article you mentioned about Guru Nanak Dev ji?

March 2, 2016 at 8:34 AM

Blogger Ajmer Singh Randhawa said...

Sardar Sarbpreet Singh, please give me more authenticated details on visit of Guru Nanak ji in Sikkim and your birth, your fathers settlement, as i couldn't find any Sikh family in my several visits to Sikkim at Gangtok.
The Sikkim govt and the locals at Lachen made attempts to convert Gurudwara Gurudongmar into a Buddhist monastery. We have challenged them in High Court at Gangtok. We have many evidences but i am searching for the evidence before it was built a tin-shed. I want the evidences before that, may be in mid 80 or you may better give a detailed account on progress in building the Gurudwara there.
Sir, i am not in a fix but i want each and every document, picture, article etc as evidence to prove that the Gurudwara Gurudongmar was built before 1991 and that Guru Nanak ji visited and blessed the tribesmen in this inhospitalized, barren land.
If possible, give me a call at 9818610698, Delhi at urgent.
Guru fateh.
My best regards and Guru fateh.
Ajmer Singh Randhawa.

April 3, 2018 at 1:40 AM


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