This discussion between the author, Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh and his prison companion in the Indian Freedom Movement, Bhai Kartar Singh, took place in the Rajahmundry Jail in Andhra State of India. One day Bhai Kartar Singh was reciting the Sukhmani, on hearing which Bhai Randhir Singh remarked, "There is devotion and eager thirst, but how sad that there is no aesthetic and spiritual flavour (Rasa) in this recitation." These words created a disturbing agony in the mind of Bhai Kartar Singh. He began to reflect seriously over his spiritual shortcomings, and he wanted to know what aesthetic and spiritual flavour (Rasa) actually was? It led to a brief but thought provoking discussion with Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh about Sikh Baptism and aesthetic experiences of Sikh mysticism. The Introductory remarks in this chapter are Bhai Kartar Singh's reactions in his own words and recorded by him. The views of Bhai Randhir Singh are expressed in subsequent chapters in the context of the questions raised by Bhai Kartar Singh.
Bhai Kartar Singh's Reactions to Bhai Randhir Singh's Comments:
"There is love, spiritual thirst but how sad there is no spiritual flavour Rasa." On hearing these words of Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh, that there is no Rasa (aesthetic flavour) in my recitation, I came out of my state of emotional religious sentiments, and seriously reflected on the whole of my past from the time of my taking baptism upto this disarming remark of Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh, which became an unsolved riddle for me. He had made the remark but not explained it. Many questions disturbed my mind. How is that no sermon from any missionary or teacher had ever enlightened me about Amrit-rasa (spiritual flavour of the divine Nectar) administered by Sikh Baptism? How is that I had not acquired it even after taking baptism according to Sikh rites?
The reader may not understand how deeply I felt the pain of these remarks; "there is no Rasa (aesthetic and spiritual flavour)". The first disturbing question was, why I alone of all the prisoners reciting the hymns felt the poignancy of these remarks. In life I had faced great suffering, misfortunes, but never had I felt so agonised and pained as by these words of chance remarks of Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh. If anyone could look into my heart with a clairvoyant vision he could see nothing else except the deeply bleeding wounds created by these words. From every pore of my body one could hear the cry, "How is it that, after sixteen years of reading the scriptures, meeting holy people and contemplating the Divine Name, I have achieved nothing? Am I still in the same spiritual state in which I started my religious quest sixteen years earlier. I recited the scriptures, lived in the company of godly men, contemplated His Name, performed various types of services, and yet how sad it was to be told that nothing has been accepted at His Door. All the spiritual seeds I sowed did not seem to bear any fruit. Who else besides me could feel the agony of what I felt:
The heart that suffers alone knows
The poignant pain of inward agony
How can others know,
The sorrow of inner pain and suffering.1
I do not think my companions paid any serious attention to these chance remarks of Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh. Probably they did not hear them. If they did hear words, they ignored them and remained silent. These words pierced my heart like an arrow and it was the consolation and knowledge imparted by divine men that could give a healing touch to these wounds. And now even this door appeared to be closed, because I came to know of this shortcoming in a very odd place in the world - the prison. I pinned great hope on the Guru and His Grace that some day I would be released, but I was undergoing life imprisonment, and to get released from prison while living appeared beyond expectation. There was only one way out. The saintly Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh who had pointed out this malady should be requested to heal it.
I knew Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh's temperament and attitudes intimately because I had lived close to him in prison for seven years. He would not talk so openly about spiritual matters and mystical experiences as I wished. He might, I thought, get annoyed, if I asked him some pertinent questions. But then I reflected over his remarks and felt, that he having divined my shortcoming might even now explain to me how to remove it. So I would like to say a few words about him, before the reader goes through the actual discussion, recorded later on.
It is difficult for me to say anything about Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh's earlier spiritual achievements, because I knew him intimately only for the last six or seven years. When I was transferred first to his prison (Hazaribagh, Bihar) there were about forty Sikh Freedom Fighters with him. During the seven years of life as political prisoner I frequently got an opportunity to be locked up in the cell next to him. The prisoners had to talk to one another from within their cells at the top of their voice. But Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh and those locked near him spent their days in solitude and prayer under his spell. Everyone close to him was asked to rise up early at 2 A.M. and those who had memorised various prayers from the Adi Guru Granth recited them by turn. The recitation was, loud enough to be heard in the whole Block of prison cells. Very little time was given to rest. The recitations and the meditations, stopped when the prisoners had to take their bath. During recitation, Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh remained silent and deeply absorbed in meditation. He would not indulge in discursive discussions about spiritual matters. So I feared that he might get annoyed if I asked him some pertinent questions. If anyone talked just for the sake of talking, he remained silent.
We did very little work in the prison. The prison officers just wanted us to avoid any confrontation with them. They feared us considerably. The Jail Superintendent inspected the prisons hurriedly in the morning. We were supposed to clean about 20 pounds of wheat every day. Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh remained silent all day, deeply absorbed in meditation. The prisoners locked close to his cell were asked to maintain peace and silence. We knew he did not like being disturbed. So absolute silence was maintained around his prison cell. When we talked we did so in whispers.
We who lived with him in prison have considerable evidence of his great spiritual powers but these are things which I hesitate to discuss openly. He generally recited the first two lines of the prayer which was to be recited, and the man whose duty it was to recite got the hint that he must start it. And he immediately began to recite the particular prayer. Thus prayers were recited from 2. A.M. to about 7 A.M., when the bell rang for morning bath and meals. He tactfully guided those who recited with incorrect pronunciation. Where they erred, he either tactfully asked them to read again from the Gutka (Short Prayer Book) or he would himself recite the lines with correct pronunciation.
He expressed his views about the divine Name and the recitation of Hymns rather curtly. If anyone asked which composition of the Sacred scriptures should be memorised, he said, "Anyone you like, and as much as you can with concentrated attention. If you stop reciting, contemplate the Name of God, then after contemplation again recite the Prayers. The human mind is as restless as a monkey. It has to be tied to a post and kept revolving around a fixed point like an ox around a Persian wheel".
Although the Scriptures, which are mostly in the Punjabi language, were generally understood by most people, he avoided getting into linguistic discussion. To those who asked for the meaning of some hymns he would say, "Brother, I do not know the meaning of those hymns; but if you have understood them please explain them to me". I am not a certified preacher (Gyani). I have not studied the sacred scriptures in school and college. How comes it, that you are so worried about interpretations? Are you taking up a preacher's profession? Recite the scriptures and contemplate the divine Name and the inner meaning will unfold itself.
Man is born as a human being,
To read and hear the Divine Word.2
The Sacred Writings of the Gurus and the Perfect Saints will liberate the mind and soul of mankind from ignorance and darkness.
Know the Sacred Hymns of the Guru,
to be Truth and the ultimate Truth;
God Himself inspires the Guru, O disciples,
to utter these sacred Words.3
"While praying and meditating," continued Bhai Randhir Singh, "I have never stopped to think why and the wherefore of the Prayers and Scriptures. The Sacred Hymns are self-revealing. The very words of the Guru are for us an embodiment of Truth."
I sing the Word recorded in Scriptures as Embodiment of the Guru's spirit
I consider not any other writing as the spiritually inspired Word.4
When you come to interpretations, you will find that different people interpret differently. It will become difficult for you to decide which is right and which is wrong. It will lead you to doubts and scepticism. It is also difficult to decide the historical context of every hymn as is generally done.
The great Apostles deliver a sermon to a particular person,
But it is a universal message to the whole world.5
The second question which was usually raised before Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh was "What is the Guru-mantra of the Sikhs?" Bhai Randhir Singh's reply generally was: "It is the divine Word which only the Panj Pyaras (Five Beloved Ones) are entitled to impart to one who comes for initiation through baptism". The eminent Congress leader Sri Venkata Kundu6 generally tried to persuade him to give him Guru-mantra for meditation, but he frankly told him that no individual Sikh can do it. He shall have to accept baptism and baptism is given to those who prepare themselves for it and deserve it, and not to anyone for the asking. He was against breaking this tradition. When he was asked the method of contemplating God's Name, he said contemplate God with every breath:
I string every breath I breathe,
With the divine Name of God.
The breath that passes
Without His Name on my lips,
Is a breath wasted in evil thoughts.7
"The Sikh Gurus command us to remember God with every breath. Whether awake or asleep, sitting or walking, weeping or laughing, remember His Name with every breath. People may laugh at you or mock at you for repeating the Name of God mechanically but disregard them. In the prison you are much better off because no such person can reach you".
Five of us including Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh had been transferred to this prison from Bihar State. Four Freedom Fighters were brought from the Exile-prison of Andaman Island. We were all imprisoned in one block. The recitation of the Hymns continued as before. One evening when the evening Prayer (Rahiras) had been recited I started reciting the Sukhmani. (a Devotional Prayer of Guru Arjan which takes about an hour to be recited). As I was very ill I could not continue the recitation. Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh asked another person to recite it. After the prayer, Bhai Sahib came to me and enquired about my health and parted after saying "I hope you will be well tomorrow morning and will be able to recite the Sukhmani".
All night I suffered from high temperature. Restlessness, in a state of semi -consciousness of troubled me considerably and at times I started mumbling prayers. When it was dawn and time for prayer I washed my hands and feet and wrapping myself in a blanket I sat for prayers. On one side of Bhai Randhir Singh's cell was Nihang Singh and on the other side was my cell. After the recitation of Japji Nihang Singh recited Asa-di-Var at the pitch of his voice. Everyone could hear him. After his recitation was over, Bhai Sahib recited the first Shloka of the Sukhmani which was an indication that I should start reciting the Sukhmani. I was suffering from fever, headache but I knew that Bhai Randhir Singh's call was meaningful. I knew that from his clairvoyant powers he could clearly study my physical and mental condition and we had tested this many times. I took courage, and even though my health did not permit it, I started reciting Sukhmani with concentrated attention and in a high pitched voice. My body started sweating as I went on reciting and the ache disappeared. The fever came down and soon I forgot everything about it. The recitation went on for about two and a half hours. After the recitation I felt that I still had a little fever, but no headache. Contemplation and prayers filled my mind with peace and bliss. It is only when the morning prayers were over that Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh remarked, "There is devotion and eager thirst, but how sad that there is no aesthetic and spiritual flavour (Rasa) in this recitation." Never in the last six or seven years had he ever made any comments while the prayers were still being recited. This was against his nature and temperament. Now that he had pointed out my major weakness I felt that I must ask him how to cure it. At that time I remained silent, but I made-up my mind that as soon as I got time I will meet Bhai Randhir Singh alone and get my doubts cleared about it.
As I was ill I remained in my cell, while Nihang Singh went to prepare breakfast for us. After an hour or so, Nihang Singh brought hot tea for me. He greeted me and said in his usual hilarious mood, "Wake up Sire, take your tea, hot and plenty. Why are you frightened of this jackal-this cowardly fever. Be brave and drive it away. It has come to give you a little message and nothing else. It is as timid as a jackal. Frighten it and it will run away. Recite your prayers and God's Name, and lo, the fever will go."
Other prisoners also came to get their tea. He distributed it to everyone and gave me a mug full of it. He told me that Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh had asked him to give me good hot tea, and so he poured more and more of it. "Do not worry", he said, "Your illness will disappear. I will send for the Chief Medical Officer. Today we are having rice pudding for lunch, which you will enjoy. I had to drink more tea than I wanted to. Such were Nihang Singh's persuasive words. Then I went to bed for sometime. My body sweated and the fever seemed to disappear. However, I felt a little tired and exhausted. My mind was still brooding over Bhai Randhir Singh's words of comment on my recitation. After brooding over it for an hour, I made-up my mind to ask Bhai Sahib the following questions (1) Can every baptised Sikh achieve the amrit-rasa (the ambrosial spiritual flavour)? (2) Why have I remained devoid of amrit-rasa? What is my real shortcoming? (3) How did he come to know that I lack this? (4) What should I do not to achieve it?
At 12 noon the workshop closed down. Ordinary prisoners had to go to their cells, but we were free to move about because we had to cook our food. We were free to move in the courtyard. The second reason of our being left free was that our cells had special locks and the routine of taking the keys from the office and depositing them again was very complicating. So we enjoyed considerable freedom, with some sentry posted on us. With the exception of those prisoners working in the workshop no other prisoner was supposed to talk to us. As we were considered very dangerous political prisoners no other political prisoner was allowed to talk to us. The Prison Officials and the Guards were also afraid to talk to us.
We took our lunch and were leaving the courtyard for a little rest in our cells. After resting for about half an hour we woke up. I was brooding over all that had happened. So I went to Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh. Everyone was either resting or busy reading some book. I reverently greeted Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh. He was sitting deeply absorbed in Samadhi. He opened his eyes and said, "So you will not leave me alone. You have been disturbing me with your thoughts and questionings in your mind, If you cannot sleep go and recite the prayers. Have you nothing else to do except talk to me. Now that you are so intimate with me, you feel free to come and talk to me as you like. How happy would I have been if there were locks outside my cell. Now that you have come ask what you wish to ask".
1. Adi Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Ram Das, Bilawal, p 835
2. ibid, Guru Arjan, Sarang, p 1219
3. ibid Guru Rain Das, Var Gaudi, p 308
4. ibid Guru Nanak, Basant, p 1171
5. ibid Guru Amar Das Sorath, p 647
6. Congress leader Sri Venkata Kundu was a well known patriot of Andhra Pradesh
7. Adi Guru Granth, Guru Ram Das, Nat, p 981