A Book Review Article
Book – 2 in his trilogy ‘Way to God in Sikhism’ by Maneshwar Chahal, published by Prakash Books, New Delhi is Asa di Var. There are 22 compositions in the SGGS that have been labeled Var. The Var making the subject of this book is written on pages 462 to 475 of the SGGS and its heading says: Asa First Mehal, Var with Sloks, Sloks too written by the First Mehl – Asa Mehala Pehla, Vaar Salokaa Naal Salok Bhee Mehalae Pehilae Kae Likhae.
The SGGS index names the Var as Asa ki Var. The title Asa di Var possibly is come about pursuant to vigorous promotion of Punjabi in Sikh liturgy. The composition consists of 24 pauris and 59 sloks – all pauris and 44 sloks are written by Guru Nanak. The other 15 sloks in the Var are written by Guru Angad.
Chahal has chosen this Var as part of his trilogy ‘Way to God in Sikhism.’ His reasons for the choice seem obvious. Even though singing of this Var is not a prescribed ritual in Sikh Rehat Maryada, Asa di Var has a very special place in Sikh liturgy in that it is invariably sung by Ragis as part of the Morning Prayer service in Gurdwaras. The tradition seems to have emanated from the practice at Darbar Sahib where the morning kirtan Choki has been known as Asa di Var Choki. This kirtan choki starting in the early pre-dawn hours is intended to be timed to be completed by sunrise – the total time taken varying between well over one hour to around two hours plus.
An average Sikh familiar with the morning Sikh prayer service in the Gurdwara may likely recognize that the text used in the musical rendering is not the text that Chahal has limited himself to in his exploration but is a longer version in which a chhant from those by Guru Ramdas on pp. 448-51 of the SGGS is affixed before sloks of each pauri. It is also well known that in addition the Ragis traditionally insert shabads between pauris at intervals of their choosing.
It is this ‘kirtani’ version of this Var that the lay Sikhs know as Asa di Var. They listen to it in the morning service in the Gurdwaras and on the TV and many in their homes playing CD’s of the kirtan. This has made Kirtani Asa di Var as possibly the only anthological version that has come to be accepted and standardized as part of the daily Sikh worship routine at individual as well as congregational levels without its text being sanctioned by the SRM. The Kirtani Asa di Var also undoubtedly is the most sung portion of all the compositions in the SGGS and would therefore seem eminently suited to be included in the trilogy envisioned by Chahal.
A question that may be asked is about what do we mean by Asa di Var that may be termed as the way to God in Sikhism – is it the reading version written on pages 462 to 475 of SGGS or the singing version known as Kirtani Asa di Var. My sense is that while a simple translation of the Var could well have been restricted to pages 462-75, a commentary should go by the singing version and include the Chhants because that is the text that has come to be used in praxis and is the text that Sikhs listen to all the time and recognize as Asa di Var. Limiting the explication to the text as read from pages 462 to 475 does not serve the purpose fully. If the above approach were adopted, the thematic consistency of the anthological version of Chhant, Sloks and Pauri will also likely get to be looked at and discussed. This aspect does not come up in the present study though the author has mentioned about the addition of Chhants of Guru Ramdas in kirtan of the Var and speculations about when the Var may have actually been composed by Guru Nanak and its subsequent development.
Another important aspect not discussed in the book is about the advisory to sing of the Var to the tune set by As Raja. The fact is that of the 22 Vars in the SGGS, specific tunes have been prescribed for only 8. Even though all the Vars are placed within the Raag system, the only tradition that has survived is of singing Asa ki Var as a composite whole. Its style of musical rendition is quite different from the shabad kirtan. While there is increasing proclivity to sing shabad kirtan as per the prescribed Raags, Asa di Var singing in spite of the huge variety of presentations by eminent Ragis, continues to be a mix that Gurmat Sangeet musicologist Dr Gurnam Singh views as being of rendering chhant in Raag Asa, slok in anibidh and pauri in a secular folk tune. This kirtan belongs to a separate genre and is an important part of how the devotees receive the message of the Var. Some discussion on the musicality of the Var would therefore have added range to the value of this extensive textual study.
The format of the rendering of translation and commentary in this book is the same as used by Chahal for his work on Japji Sahib. He has done considerable study and has assembled a comprehensive, though rather long, explication of the Var. The translation and explanations are detailed and Chahal has related some anecdotes that help in understanding the contexts of certain verses. The value of the book is that it should help readers grasp the textual meaning of the Var and possibly encourage them to explore how its contents really underscore the core teachings of the Gurus making this Var eminently placed to be central to Sikh congregational worship liturgy.
During the course of my reading this commentary, I also happened to read through some on-going exchanges on an Internet Forum citing and interpreting the following verse from the 12th Pauri – parriaa hovai gunehagaar thaa oumee saadhh n maareeai jaehaa ghaalae ghaalanaa thaevaeho naao pachaareeai. Those participating were all well versed in Gurbani but most explanations seemed to be skimming at the surface – if a learned person commits transgressions then a simple seeker – who can only utter Om and listens to the scholar – is not harmed; whatever we do we get that reputation. I thought of looking through the explanation that Chahal offers and let me say I found it quite extensive, informative and credible.
At a personal level I have always been fond of so many verses in Asa di Var that I love to use conversationally and several of them indeed have become part of the spoken idiom. I hope the readers of the book look for such gems and while they internalize the sublime message of this beautiful composition, they also discover the earthy wisdom that the Gurus seem to have so effortlessly woven into this great work of piety. A sampling follows:
Balihaaree Gur Aapanae Dhiouhaarree Sadh Vaar
Jin Maanas Thae Dhaevathae Keeeae Karath N Laagee Vaar
A hundred times a day, I am a sacrifice to my Guru
who made angels out of men, with no delay occurring -– Slok M I, p. 462
Aapeenhai Aap Saajiou Aapeenhai Rachiou Naao
Dhuyee Kudharath Saajeeai Kar Aasan Dditho Chaao
He created Himself and Naam on his own.
Next He fashioned the creation and seated within it, beholds it with delight – Pauri 1, p. 463
Eihu Jag Sachai Kee Hai Kotharree Sachae Kaa Vich Vaas
This world is the cottage of the True One and he dwells within it – Asa M II, p. 463
Naanak Jeea Oupaae Kai Likh Naavai Dhharam Behaaliaa
O Nanak, having created beings, he installed Dharma to record their accounts – M I, p. 463
So Karathaa Chinthaa Karae Jin upaayaa Jag
The care is of the Creator who formed the world – M I, p. 467
Sikhee Sikhiaa Gur Veechaar
Sikhi is contemplating on the Guru’s teachings – M I, p. 465
Naanak Jinh Man Bho Thinhaa Man Bhaao
O Nanak, minds in awe of God, are also subsumed in His love – M I, p. 465
Houmai Dheeragh Rog Hai Dhaaroo Bhee Eis Maahi
Kirapaa Karae Jae Aapanee Thaa Gur Kaa Sabadh Kamaahi
Though willfulness is a chronic malady, its cure also lies within
for divine grace descending, individual will turns to imbibe Guru’s Shabad – M II, p. 466
Naanak Sachae Naam Bin Kiaa Ttikaa Kiaa Thag
O Nanak, absent the True Naam, what use is tilak or the sacred thread – M I, p. 467
Sach Thaa Par Jaaneeai Jaa Sikh Sachee Laee
Dhaeiaa Jaanai Jeea Kee Kishh Punn Dhaan Karaee
Truth is grasped only by the one who has imbibed the true instruction;
To have empathy for others and share some with the needy – M I, p. 468
Likh Likh Parriaa Thaethaa Karriaa
Mere writing and reading is no more than suffering tension within – M I, p. 467
Math Thhorree Saev Gavaaeeai
Due our small-mindedness, we forfeit merits of what little service we do – M I, p. 468
Dhukh Dhaaroo Sukh Rog Bhaeiaa Jaa Sukh Thaam N Hoee
Pleasures become a malady and suffering a healer for where pleasure is, longing for God does not blossom – M I, p. 469
Mithath Neevee Naanakaa Gun Changiaaeeaa Thath
Sweetness and humility, O Nanak, are the essence of virtue and goodness – M I, p. 470
Mandhaa Changaa Aapanaa Aapae Hee Keethaa Paavanaa
One reaps the rewards for their good and bad deeds – M I, p. 470
Neel Vasathr Pehir Hovehi Paravaan Malaeshh Dhhaan Lae Poojehi Puraan
To seek approbation of Muslim rulers they wear blue robes, and while accepting bread from them, they worship Puraanas – M I, p. 471
Naanak Agai So Milai J Khattae Ghaalae Dhaee
O Nanak, in the world hereafter, that alone is received, which one gives to the needy from his own earnings and labor – M I, p. 472
Jae Kar Soothak Manneeai Sabh Thai Soothak Hoe
If one accepts the concept of untouchability, then there is impurity in all things – M I, p. 472
All impurity comes from doubt and attachment to duality
Sabho Soothak Bharam Hai Dhoojai Lagai Jaae – M I, p. 472
Eating and drinking are pure for He gives nourishment to all
Khaanaa Peenaa Pavithra Hai Dhithon Rijak Sanbaahi – M I, p. 472
Why call her bad from whom kings are born?
So Kio Mandhaa Aakheeai Jith Janmehi Raajaan – M I, p. 473
Don’t argue with fools
Moorakhai Naal N Lujheeai – M I, p. 473
Whoever has come, shall depart; all shall have their turn
Jo Aaeiaa So Chalasee Sabh Koee Aaee Vaareeai – M I, p. 474
With our own hands, let us resolve our own affairs
Aapan Hathhee Aapanaa Aapae Hee Kaaj Savaareeai – M I, p. 474
One who feels good when good is done to him, and bad when harmed – call him not a lover for he only trades for his self
Changai Changaa Kar Mannae Mandhai Mandhaa Hoe Aasak Eaehu N Aakheeai J Laekhai Varathai Soe – M II, p. 474
Friendship with a fool never works out right
Naal Eiaanae Dhosathee Kadhae N Aavai Raas – M II, p. 474
Celebrate the one from whom you receive all that you survive on. O Nanak, commanding the Master does not work, supplication may
Jis Dhaa Dhithaa Khaavanaa This Keheeai Saabaas Naanak Hukam N Chalee Naal Khasam Chalai Aradhaas – M I, p. 474
Unto whom should we go and speak, O Nanak, when He himself is all-in-all
Kis No Keheeai Naanakaa Sabh Kishh Aapae Aap – M II, p. 475
Sayeth Nanak, He does what He wills, there is no place other than the one to go to
Naanak Eaekee Baaharee Hor Dhoojee Naahee Jaae So Karae J Thisai Rajaae – M I, p. 475
Enjoy the book. It should help deepen the ras of Asa di Var kirtan next time you hear it.
25 May, 2012
 Maneshwar S Chahal, Asa di Var, Parkash Books, New Delhi, published 2009, ISBN 978 81 7234 296 8, price Rs. 295/=, pp. 296.