The Persian language occupies a strange place in Sikhi. Sikhs are universally aware that Persian has a place in our history yet simultaneously unaware of its magnitude. It is fascinating how one repeatedly hears the same common knowledge as if the bit were rehearsed:
Guru Gobind Singh Sahib was fluent in Persian and wrote his Zafarnāma to Emperor Aurangzeb in pure Persian.
Guru Nanak Sahib has one sabad in Persian, by the name of yak araj guphtam.
Many Sikhs repeat these statements as a universal truth, not pausing to think and reflect on what might be missing. Let’s take a careful look…
These statements show us that the Persian language survived in Sikhi from the First Guru to the Tenth. Why would only Guru Nanak Sahib and Guru Gobind Singh Sahib know the language? Would a language really skip eight generations of Gurus in between? And if the Zafarnāma and yak araj guphtam are written in fluent Persian, why would the Gurus stop at one composition each? If they knew the language so well, why would they limit themselves? After all, words are the way of the Guru. Our living Guru is the sabad and gurbani, the Infinite-Wisdom of the Guru Granth Sahib.
And this is where the truth begins to reveal itself, after generations of being cut to size and tucked away. The truth is, all Ten Gurus lived during Mughal rule, in an era where Persian was the single most important cosmopolitan language. Anyone that hoped to be involved in the politics and poetics of the time needed to use Persian to communicate their aims. We know for sure that Guru Nanak Sahib and Guru Gobind Singh Sahib were fluent in Persian from their recorded wisdom in Persian, and we also see proof that Guru Arjan Sahib was a prolific Persian writer, who wrote numerous Persian sabads in the Guru Granth Sahib. There are further Persian sabads in the Guru Granth Sahib that can be accredited to Bhagat Nam Dev, Bhagat Kabir, and Bhagat Farid.
In the spirit of #Nanakshahi550, celebrating 550 years since the arrival of Guru Nanak Sahib, I would like to use Guru Sahib’s life and context to explain why I believe the richness of Persian in Sikhi has been so downplayed, particularly in the Guru Granth Sahib itself. As I said before, Persian was the language of politics and poetics. Generally speaking, Sikhs are able to look at poetry in neutral terms. Persian poetry is known for its beauty and richness. Many Sikh families will boast of a family member or ancestor well-versed in Persian poetry. Politics, on the other hand, are another beast. In the Sikh community, the history of Persian in conjunction with politics is synonymous with the Mughal Empire. There is a history of struggle there, and as such the topic is often approached in negative or hostile terms.
This is a piece for another time, but in short, the way we are taught to perceive of Mughal influence in South Asia is very simplistic. The Mughal rulers were invaders, who imposed Islam on Hindus, then Sikhs, Persian was their language, and Arabic their script. We have an image of a dark force constantly being pushed upon the masses from above. This influence attempts to expand and corrupt. And here we see the issue in understanding the role of the Persian language in our history—if we admit too much to its use, we are admitting that we were corrupted.
This framing also explains why many Sikhs view Guru Gobind Singh Sahib as the Guru with profound Persian skills, whereas we talk as if Guru Nanak Sahib uttered one, single, anomalous Persian sabad. Guru Gobind Singh Sahib is the one who has status as a political figure, as the warrior vanquishing the darkness of ever-corrupting Mughal influence. Many assume that Guru Nanak Sahib was a pacifist—so there would be no reason to battle invaders.
The truth is, the history we have absorbed is revisionist. The Mughal Empire was vast, strong, and long-lasting. And in that era, the overwhelming majority of society was illiterate, aside from those that moved within the Royal Court. Mughal courts were the epicenter of policy, but also cultural hubs for literature and poetry. If one was literate, Persian was not an outside force, it was embedded in the very fabric of cultural exchange and production. It was the ocean each poet swam in.
When Guru Arjan Sahib and Bhai Gurdas compiled the Adi Granth, they left us with a special gift--the Persian Voice of the Guru is the unaltered speech of the commoners. The Gurmukhi script records the pronunciations ordinary people used, rather than the standard court Persian.
Guru Nanak Sahib did not float aimlessly in this ocean. He lived in it, he breathed it, and when it came time, he created his own current. He took on cultural norms and religious leaders with a ferocity, as Harinder Singh describes, he was the “Sun and the Lion.” He shed light on the hypocrisies of the day, with warmth and love, but he never stood down. His words were sharp and his actions brave. Persian words allowed Guru Nanak Sahib to speak to Muslims in the Mughal Era in the context they understood best. He could embed Islamic references in his speech more fluently. And he did so frequently, not just with the sabad yak araj guphtam.
Like Guru Nanak Sahib, I feel there are times when my context can be best explained through the Persian language. My family has lived between borders and moved across borders, and spent very little time in Indian Panjab. My great-grandfather was a Zahedani merchant. He traversed the border between Iranian and Pakistani Baluchestan, spoke fluently in Persian, and had a deep love for the language. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother raised their children in Iran, and upon moving to India in their old age, never quite felt the same.
I have made it my mission to use my Persian language abilities to uncover the overlooked Persian sabads of the Guru Granth Sahib, beginning with those by Guru Nanak Sahib. With this article, I am excited to announce our new SikhRI series, The Persian Voice of the Guru. We will be releasing full transcreations in Gurmukhi, English, and Persian, along with written commentary to illuminate the linguistic context.
To celebrate our year of #Nanakshahi550, the first set of transcreations will be focused entirely on sabads by Guru Nanak Sahib. Each transcreation will then be accompanied by a short written and audio commentary, as well as a recitation of the sabad. This will allow readers to fully immerse themselves, perhaps for the first time, into the depths of Persian in gurbani.
And with that, I leave you with a line from Guru Nanak Sahib:
ਪੁਰਾਬ ਖਾਮ ਕੂਜੈ ਹਿਕਮਤਿ ਖੁਦਾਇਆ
پر آب خام کوزه ی حکمت خدایا
May this unbaked vessel be filled with the water of your wisdom, O’ Khuda!
– Guru Granth Sahib 1291
Asha Marie Kaur is a Research Assistant with SikhRI. She has a BA in Political Science and International Studies from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she was born and raised. Her work at SikhRI is tied to her love of the Persian language and the ways it connects Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. She is working on re-introducing Sabad (Divine Word) in the Guru Granth Sahib to the Persian world.