The Sikh sacred music tradition, kirtan, started with Guru Nanak, the founder of the faiih.

Nanak and the successor Gurus were all well versed in music and commended kirtan as

the highest expression of one’s devotion. They gave kirtan the position of centrality in Sikh worship.

The Sikh Gurus composed a large volume of devotional writings in poetic form. Most of the verses are in Punjabi and Brajbhasha, a language composite spoken and understood by common people of the time, with sprinkling of Sanskrit, Prakrit, Persian and Arabic. Verses only from Sikh scriptural literature can be sung in kirtan.

The compositions are set to classical Indian ragas. The language has a uniquely lyrical quality. The choice of words and imagery is from life and bounteous nature – a unique union of rhyme, rhythm and imagery creating a divine melody in praise of and expressive of devotional love for the Creator.

Nanak has referred to himself as – khasam da dhadi – God’s minstrel. He had Mardana play rebeck when he sang in communion with the source of his inspiration. The Gurus developed several new instruments for providing accompaniment in kirtan.

In sodar, Guru Nanak wonders about the court of the Lord. His vision is of a place where music abounds – so dar tera keha so ghar keha jit beh sarab samaalai, vaajai terai naad anek asankha ketai teraia vaavanharai – innumerable instrumentalists, infinite variety of notes and symphonies with the entire universe singing God’s praises. Innumerable the notes, infinite the players, countless lending their voice, all singing His praises. Music does have a special place in the Divine court – it connects and interconnects. 

Gurus lauded the great merits of kirtan –

gun gavat teri utras meil

Singing God’s praises removes impurity from mind

jo jo kathey sunay har kirtan ta ki durmat nas

Those who sing and listen to kirtan their evil propensities are curbed

sookh sehaj anand gun gaave man tan deh sukhali

Singing His praises brings peace, composure, bliss and comfort to mind and body

har din rain kirtan gaave bohr neh joni paave

Kirtan day and night will bring freedom from cycle of birth and death,

And remember

kaljug main kirtan pardhana

That kirtan is supreme mode of worship in this troubled age of kaljug


gaaviye suniye man rakhiye bhau

Sing thou His praises: sing, listen, internalize.

And know that

har kirat sadhsangat hai sir karman kae karma

The highest merit is in singing kirtan together in the company of the virtuous.

As Professor Philip V. Bohlman said in an article in Sightings [Jan 17, 2008]: Sacred music may well envoice the individual, but it gathers the multitude — we worship in different ways, and our sacred musics, perhaps more than any other expressive component of worship, are more dissonant than consonant – [but] every voice deserves its own melody – [so let us] search for new ways to listen beyond difference — to understand the sacred voices of others.

I invite you in that spirit to lend your melody to my dissonance for indeed –

sabhna ragan vich so bhala bhaee jit vaseya man aaye

The melodies in which the sacred word is sung are all true

Their worth cannot be told but

Of all the musical measures that alone is sublime by which the Lord comes to abide within

Remember thee therefore that

God is beyond melodies and merely through melodious singing His will cannot be realized.

Let your endeavor be to live in His will.

So let us come together in our search, our love, our devotion for the Divine. Let it find expression in love for one another and for God’s visible manifestation – the creation. Let our voices rise together singing His praises. It is then that we will truly create heaven on earth for as the Guru says

tehain baikunth jeh kirtan tera

Verily heaven is where His praises are sung.

Praying – nanak naam chardhi kala, terai bhanai sarbat ka bhala – that Thy name shall always be buoyant and let the well being of one and all be Thy will.

                                    Wahiguru ji ka khlasa wahiguru ji ki fateh
Nirmal Singh,

New Cumberland, PA,

Jan 18, 2008

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *