Gurmukhi: Guru Nanak Sahib’s Alphabets - Sikh Research Institute

Gurmukhi: Guru Nanak Sahib’s Alphabets

Gurmukhi – what is it?  Its two most popular etymological explanation are from “the mouth of the Guru” or “the utterance of the Guru.”  Here’s another alternative:  “Of the Guru-oriented” for it became the script of choice for those who articulated Sikhi, regardless of the language.   And gradually it developed from a script to a culture.

Have you ever wondered why was Gurmukhi script used to inscribe Guru Granth Sahib?

If so, let’s first understand the language versus the script.

The function of both language and script is communication.  While language is both spoken and written, script is only written.  Words, phrases, idioms and grammar make it a language whereas script must have individual characters to denote the words, phrases, idioms and grammar of a language for reading and writing.  Languages are one of the intricate forms of communication that allows us to converse with each other and share thoughts and ideas.  Scripts are writing systems that allow the transcription of a language via alphabet sets.

The internal evidence of Guru Granth Sahib records a bani (teachings in composition) Patti (tablet) by Guru Nanak Sahib; it details all thirty-five alphabets.  It has thirty-five stanzas where each stanza introduces the sound of each alphabet and insightful commentary of life forming the Sikh paradigm.  On a side note, now “tatta” (that’s what Guru Nanak Sahib inscribed) has been replaced with “tainka” because “tatta” has become a slang for “balls.”  I submit, we can’t be so complex-ridden so as to change our verbiage due to contemporary phenomenon.  But even then, we are too discretionary, “mamma” is also now a slang for “tits” but we don’t say “mammainka.”  Gurmukhi is of the Guru-oriented!


I have been fortunate to visit Gurduara Patti Sahib at Nankana Sahib, Panjab, Pakistan.  I tried to visualize Guru Nanak Sahib composing “Rag Asa Mahla 1 Patti Likhi” (Guru Granth Sahib, 432-35).  After mastering the learnings from Pandit Gopal, Pandit Brij Lal, and Maulvi Kutab-ud-din, the Guru recorded “Eternal Sovereign, Eternal Identity, Infinite’s Language of Love” (Guru Granth Sahib, 2).  It was an awe-struck moment!

For the language enthusiasts out there, they would be delighted to know that Guru Amardas Sahib also recorded Patti in Guru Granth Sahib, 434-35.  Another bani called “Bavan-Akhri” is recorded by Guru Arjan Sahib in Guru Granth Sahib, 250-62.  Additional “Bavan-Akhri” is recorded by Bhagat Kabir in Guru Granth Sahib, 340-43.  Bavan Akhri refers to fifty-two letters of Devnagari script.

In Language and Solitude Ernest Gellner, a leading twentieth century thinker, suggested when a new script emerges, a new political unit develops.  That is definitely the case in Sikhi as emphatically inscribed in Guru Granth Sahib:  “Nanak commenced a Raj, raised an eternal fort on firm foundation” (966).

So, why Gurmukhi?

Education was, and remains, a privilege; the religious education was severely restricted to maintain hegemonic control.  Men of letters?  Back then, it was actually upper class, categorized religious men by the religious laws made by same men.  Its residue still remains.

In simple terms:  Gurmukhi script is a phonetic script, i.e., the way you write is the way you speak it and vice versa.  There is only alphabet for one sound and vice versa.  And it accommodated articulation of prevalent languages of the time.  For linguistics elements and how to learn it a foreign language, see Guru Granth Sahib:  Its Language & Grammar. 

As to why Gurmukhi was the chosen script for Guru Granth Sahib, the best explanation I have found to-date is in Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth by “Kavi Churamani” (Crest-Jewel Poet) Bhai Santokh Singh.  In this voluminous classical medieval source of Sikhi in Braj verse in Gurmukhi script, Bhai Santokh Singh carries a symbolic meaning summed up in the cosmic metaphor of suraj, i.e. the sun. He explains, "As the sun rises, the darkness of the night vanishes, thieves and thugs hide themselves, owls and bats go to slumber and the stars disappear, so with the advent of the Gurus, the rays of their spiritual light spread all around dispelling the darkness of ignorance."  

First part is on Guru Nanak Sahib.  The second is divided into portions, rut (season), according to the twelve signs of the zodiac, sub-divided into chapters called arisu (rays). Both parts are further sub-divided into numerous sections according to the episodes narrated, each named after the sun's course, viz. the twelve zodiacal signs, the six seasons and the two solstices (winter and summer) which in turn comprise 1151 sunbeams, each one comprising a chapter. The phrase and imagery in both the parts of the book generally require expert explanation. This has been provided, painstakingly and exhaustively, by Bhai Vir Singh in a 14-volume annotated edition. 

As you can see, I am so excited by the care and thought given to even the layout by Bhai Santokh Singh on his incredible explanation albeit few narrations which do not seem to hold to the Gurmat (Perfection’s Wisdom) standard.

Bhai Gurdas stayed close to listen and to write, while all others remained seated attentively.  Then, these instructions on Adi Granth were given to Bhai Gurdas by Guru Arjan Sahib as recorded in Rashi 3, Ansu 41, stanzas 3-10: 

The perfect Guru in Oneness-solitude,

called Gurdās to come near.

Seated him close by, voiced the objective:

“Bhai!  Listen to my wish.

Compose the voluminous Granth,

Write it in Gurmukhi alphabets.

Guru Nanak devised Patti,

Beautified thirty-five alphabets.

In those, record the entire Gurbani,

They are much easier to read.

Those greatly endowed with intellect,

Educated after ample learning,

They’ll study and reflect for many years,

Then they may realize its essence.

That essence in Gurmukhi,

Write with heart full of reverence.

In Sanskrit and Muslim [Arabic and Persian] languages,

The intellectuals will write it themselves.

It will spread in all other [languages],

As oily substance poured over water.

Laboring householders with less learning,
seeking knowledge will study it with ease.

Great Path-Way will be revealed,

Those on track will not astray.

Therefore, write it in the Gurmukhi alphabets,

This will be known in the whole world.
Reverential ones will study it with ease,
will learn All-Pervasive Remembrance brings freedom.

Its glory is incredibly beautiful,

The world will know it as Gurmukhi.

Those who see, study, and write, will revere it

And will love it as eradicator of transgressions.

 As per Sikh doctrine, the Guru Granth Sahib is an infallible sovereign anthology.  Its contributors include the Gurus (Perfections), the Bhagats (devotees), the Bhatts (bards), and the Sikhs (learners).

Thirty-five contributors of Guru Granth Sahib spoke different languages:  up to eight varying groups of languages or their spoken vernaculars.  They were from various South Asian regions which today comprise of eight nations and are the largest global population unit.  Their revelation’s linguistic specimen spanned more than 500 years.  And there is a saying that language changes every twenty-five years and every twenty-five miles.

In this context, Prof. Puran Singh provides us with great insights in Sikhism and Brahmanism on language and Sikh worldview:

When Sikhism came to the Punjab, Brahmanism interpreted it as its off-spring with a view to holding it in its tentacles.  And merely because Guru Nanak’s mother-tongue was Punjabi, and his theological language of the Hindus, the Guru’s wholly original outlook on life was not understood. Guru Nanak’s genius wasted no time in inventing a new language; the very touch of his genius would make any language new and great.  He sang out his soul in whatever language came nearest to him … Guru Nanak adopted a colloquial sort of Persian to speak to Persians, a sort of Prakrit and Gatha languages to those who knew Sanskrit.  To Mussalmans he spoke in the theological system of Al-Quran, to the Hindus to that of the Puranas.  Assuredly, he was nowhere, any time, identified with their speculation.  His message shines through the images of all languages … In the case of a genius, it is his creation that gives meaning to him, not the language he speaks or the country he is born in.  He transcends all geographical limits of blood and caste and color, both of body and mind.

Even today, the extreme right-wing politics shows criminal sympathies to not accept Sikhi as the sovereign system.  Just like there is Hindi-ization of Panjabi going on, there is Panjabi-ization of Gurbani going on too.  Though Panjabi is a lingua franca, it continues to struggle as state’s language of choice in real sense in both East and West Pakistan.  Though Gurmukhi became the script of choice in Indian Panjab, Sikhs are replacing it with romanization or transcriptions even in their diaspora Gurduara Divans (the Guru’s Court).

Growing up in Uttar Pardesh, I first learned to read Gurbani in Devnagari script, for Hindi was the regional language.  While visiting maternal grandparents in Panjab, I was encouraged to learn the Gurmukhi script.  While in Kansas, I really delved into both the Panjabi language and the Gurmukhi script.  While in Chandigarh, I learned the Shahmukhi (Perso-Arabic) script while taking the Farsi (Persian) class.  

While I champion transcription of Guru Granth Sahib for non-native speakers or for referencing purposes, it is not a recommended medium for learning the language or the script as any language acquisition educator will tell you.

Gurmukhi immersion is the way to go!

Guru Nanak Sahib gifted the Gurmukhi alphabets to humanity.  Guru Angad Sahib organized the Gurmukhi alphabets into a Gurmukhi script.  Guru Arjan Sahib compiled the treasure of the Adi Granth in Gurmukhi script.  Guru Gobind Singh Sahib trained the learners in Gurmukhi to elevate the perfect wisdom to Guru Granth Sahib.  

Now, can you spend thirty-five days to learn thirty-five alphabets of Gurmukhi?  Do you want to understand and feel the love-songs of culture of Nam (Divine Identification)?  

There is no international day for Gurmukhi as there is for mother tongue.  I propose we commemorate Gurmukhi as the script and the culture of the Guru-oriented each and every day as part of our Remembrance!

Ah!  The sweet original freshness of Sabad (Infinite Wisdom) beyond time and space! In Gurmukhi, in “Infinite’s language of love!”




Harinder Singh is an educator, thinker and activist who tweets @1Force

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