Articles

Akand Path – Ritual or Spiritual?

Karminder Singh Dhillon,
PhD (Boston), Kuala Lumpur.

THE SIKH REHAT MARYADA (SRM) stipulation for the akhand paath begins as follows:

  • ਅਖੰਡ ਪਾਠ ਕਿਸੇ ਭੀੜ ਜਾਂ ਉਤਸ਼ਾਹ ਵੇਲੇ ਕੀਤਾ ਜਾਂਦਾਂ ਹੈ।[[1] This stipulation provides the two conditions during which an akhand paath is to be done – ਭੀੜ  and ਉਤਸ਼ਾਹ.  The Punjabi University at Patiala’s dictionary defines BIV as “multitude, swarm, stampede, and crisis.”[2] The same dictionary defines auqSwh as “zeal, enthusiasm, ardour, verve, avidity.” It is clear that both terms (ਭੀੜ and ਉਤਸ਼ਾਹ) thus denote two extreme ends of sorrow and happiness respectively.  Using the vocabulary of the Punjabi University, it can be surmised that an akhand paath is to be done when one’s sorrow is akin to being “swarmed or stampeded with a multitude of crisis,” or when one’s joy is one of “enthusiasm, ardour, verve and avidity”. Given the modern world we live in, sorrow and happiness are very subjective indeed. Yet such subjectivity cannot take away primary rationale and basic logic from our attempt to make sense of the above mentioned SRM stipulation.  And in doing so the one thing that comes across clear is that this is a limiting The purpose of using the terms (ਭੀੜ and ਉਤਸ਼ਾਹ) as derived from two extreme ends of the spectrum of human emotions is twofold.  The first is to seriously narrow the scope of both the emotions of happiness and sorrow that are applicable for an akhand paath. The second is to limit severely the circumstances under which an akhand path is to be undertaken.

The following two points help establish this “limiting clause” argument.  First, the provision of limiting clauses is not the norm in the SRM when looked at holistically. There is no such clause for stipulations regarding sadharan path, nitnem and kirtan for instance.  The conclusion therefore is that the limiting clause for the akhand paath is deliberate, calculated and purposive.  In fact the stipulations on sadharan paath have the exact opposite objective – “it should be done by EVERY Sikh, at EVERY opportunity and EVERY day even”[3] – effectively saying that the sadharan paath needs NO REASON to be undertaken even. The section on akhand paath comes immediately after sadharan paath. It is thus logical to assume that the panth was definite in the intent that while the sadharan path was virtually unlimited in its conditions, the akhand paath on the other hand was to be severely limited. Why this needs to be the case will be dealt with later in this article.
Second, there are additional limiting clauses and principles within the remaining SRM portion on akhand paath.  Such a situation suggests that the limitations of  and ਉਤਸ਼ਾਹ are deliberate in the sense that more limitations are to follow.  Within the first para there are the two additional ones:  (i) ਪਾਠ ਸਾਫ ਤੇ ਸ਼ੁਧ ਹੋਵੇ [ (That the paath be clear and accurate)  (ii) ਪੜ੍ਹਨਾ ਜਿਸ ਤੋ ਸੁਨਣ ਵਾਲਾ ਕੁਝ ਸਮਝ ਨਾ ਸਕੇ, ਗੁਰਬਾਣੀ ਦੀ ਨਿਰਾਦਰੀ ਹੈ. (Reading or Recital, from which the listener is unable to understand, is contempt of Gurbani). Within the second paragraph there are two more limitations (i) ਅਖੰਡ ਪਾਠ ਜਿਸ ਪਰਵਾਰ ਜਾਂ ਸੰਗਤ ਨੇ ਕਰਨਾ ਹੈ, ਉਹ ਆਪ ਕਰੇ, ਟੱਬਰ ਦੇ ਕਿਸੇ ਆਦਮੀ, ਸਾਕ ਸਬੰਧੀ, ਮਿਤਰ ਆਦ ਮਿਲ ਕੇ ਕਰਨਾ। ਪਾਠੀਆਂ ਦੀ ਗਿਣਤੀ ਮੁਕਰਰ ਨਹੀ [ (The family or sangat that desires to do an akhand paath should recite it themselves, or collectively with family members, relatives and friends.   The number of people reciting is not fixed. Further, (ii)  ਇਹ ਨਾ ਹੋਵੇ ਕਿ ਪਾਠੀ ਆਪੇ ਇਕਲਾ ਬਹਿ ਕੇ ਪਾਠ ਕਰਦਾ ਰਹੇ ਤੇ ਸੰਗਤ ਜਾਂ ਟੱਬਰ ਦਾ ਕੋਈ ਆਦਮੀ ਨਾ ਸੁਣਦਾ ਹੋਵੇ [ It should never be the case that the person reciting does so all by himself/herself, and no member of the family or sangat is listening.

Even those with a cursory appreciation of Gurbani would understand the severity of the implications of the above limitations. Three come to mind immediately. First, since an akhand paath must be done by oneself, family, relatives and friends, the implication is that it cannot and should not be done by hired hands who do so on account of payment.  Second, since the paath must be recited clearly and accurately, the implication is that those reciting it (self, family, relatives and friends) must possess a reciting ability of a higher standard. The assumption is that they have themselves undertaken enough sadharan paaths in their lifetimes prior to engaging in an akhand paath. Accurate reading which includes the oftentimes difficult task of inserting pauses at the right places can ONLY come from a high level of understanding of what is being read.  The assumption here is that they have themselves acquired a high level of understanding of the 1430 pages of the SGGS in their lifetimes prior to engaging in an akhand paath. The third implication is that those who are undertaking the akhand paath must not only ensure that they, their family, relatives and friends recite it, but they must all also sit and listen to it to the maximum extent possible. The fourth implication is by far the most serious, and hence most limiting. It arises from the admonishment that reciting in a manner that does not enable the listener to understand is contempt of Gurbani.  The implication is that if attention is not paid to this aspect, then the entire exercise stands at risk of becoming contemptuous.

The reasons behind the above severe limitations lie within the philosophical underpinnings of Sikhi and Gurbani; four of which are fundamental and of relevance here. The first has to do with the character and nature of Sikhi.  On page 465 of the GGS, the Guru provides a spiritual definition of Sikhi as ” ਸਿਖੀ ਸਿਖਿਆ ਗੁਰ ਵੀਚਾਰਿ]” (Sikhi is the learning and reflection of the Guru’s thought processes.)  By deduction therefore, the most important aspect of Sikhi is the message of the Gurus which is embodied in Gurbani.  The 1430 pages is the living Guru in the sense that the Shabad (message) is the guiding and commanding force of the everyday spiritual journey of the Sikh. A Sikh needs to connect to the core of the Shabad’s message.

The second fundamental principle has to do with the nature and purpose of Gurbani. The starting point of the Sikh’s journey of Gurbani (as laid out in the order of the paurees in Japji)[4] is suxnw (listening). Sunena  is NOT hearing. Listening happens with the mind, while hearing is a function of the ears.  The activity of essence in Sikhi is thus listening, as Guru Ram Das ji states on page 719 of the GGS:  suin mn AkQ kQw hir nwm ]  Listen, O mind, the unfathomable discourse regarding the virtues of the omnipresent Lord. The midpoint of the spirituality journey is mMnxw (internalizing, or believing). Listening leads to internalizing because the mind is involved in both processes. Listening leads to believing because the mid-point of listening and believing is knowing.  Knowing cannot happen unless the mind is present.  Kabir says on page 656 of the GGS: ਕਹਿ ਕਬੀਰ ਅਬ ਜਾਨਿਆ ॥ ਜਬ ਜਾਨਿਆ ਤਉ ਮਨੁ ਮਾਨਿਆ] (Now that I know; my mind thus believes / accepts). The final point on this journey is ਪਰਵਾਨ  or acceptance of the message by the Sikh, and acceptance of the Sikh’s journey by the Guru. It is only at this point that the business of bringing the Shabad into the practical life of the Sikh can begin.

The third foundamental principle has to do with the mere act of reading – reading without listening, reading without making an attempt at understanding, or reading in such a way that no understanding can take place.  Guru Nanak says on page 468 of the GGS ਪੜੀਐ ਜੇਤੀ ਆਰਜਾ ਪੜੀਐ ਜੇਤੇ  ਸਾਸ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਲੇਖੈ ਇਕ ਗਲ ਹੋਰੁ ਹਉਮੈ ਝਖਣਾ ਝਾਖ] (One  may read all through one’s life; one may read till one’s final   breath even. O Nanak, only one thing is of any account: that such reading is useless babbling and idle talk in ego. It is idle talk in ego because beyond being able to lay claim to how many times one has read, or how much one has read, there is no tangible spiritual benefit.

The fourth fundamental principle is embodied in a Gurbani verse on the GGS page 474 : ਆਪਣ ਹਥੀ ਆਪਣਾ ਆਪੇ ਹੀ ਕਾਜੁ ਸਵਾਰੀਐ (With one’s own efforts, one resolves one’s own spiritual affairs). The notion of hiring others to perform spiritual deeds on our behalf is anti thesis to everything Sikhi stands for.  Equally repugnant is the existence of pseudo professionals who go around making a living by “doing spiritual deeds” for others. This group is referred to by Guru Nanak on page 1245 of the GGS as follows: ਧ੍ਰਿਗੁ ਤਿਨਾ ਕਾ ਜੀਵਿਆ ਜਿ ਲਿਖਿ ਲਿਖਿ ਵੇਚਹਿ ਨਾਉ ॥ਖੇਤੀ ਜਿਨਕੀ ਉਜੜੈ ਖਲਵਾੜੇ ਕਿਆ ਥਾਉ] (Cursed are the lives of those who consider the Lord’s discourse as a way to make a living. Consequently, their own spiritual crop is devastated — what harvest will they have? ) A Sikh should pause to think here: if the crop of those I hired to read my paath for me is both cursed and devastated, how can they make mine grow and produce fruit?

So the answer to the question “why the limitations within the SRM with regard to akhand path” lies in two points.  Firstly, without these limitations, the akhand path practice would run contrary to everything that Sikhi stands for.  Second the limitations are aimed at stressing the point the any kind of reading of paath without understanding is futile.  The limitations are aimed at preventing a futile act from becoming a norm in the spiritual life of a Sikh.  The following paragraphs attempt to elaborate these assertions.

AKHAND PAATHS AS THEY ARE DONE TODAY. The first point that strikes even the casual observer is the fact that akhand paths are being undertaken for the flimsiest of reasons or for no particular reason at all. The first limiting factor – ਭੀੜ ਜਾਂ ਉਤਸ਼ਾਹ has been thrown out of the window. Wealthy and not so wealthy individuals are undertaking them merely to make a statement of their financial abilities or of the influence they have over their sangats. They do so as if to suggest that akhand paths are meant for the well to do while sadharan paaths are for the lower mortals.  Gurdwaras undertake them to celebrate petty renovations to their langgar halls, parking areas or even toilets. Deras have akhand paaths running non-stop in an obscure room in one corner of the the premises merely to prove that they are more spiritual than other institutions.  They claim to undertake a banee da parvaah; literally a stream or fountain of banee.  It matters not if no one is drinking even a drop from such streams. Barsis for their babas that died mortal deaths decades ago, birthdays, new material acquisitions, job promotions, pay rises etc – the list is as long as it is mindless – have become the excuses for Sikhs to undertake akhand paths.

The second glaring point regarding modern day akhand paaths is that they are invariably done by hired hands or paid individuals.  Their number is fixed (contrary to the SRM injunction) because of the monetary factor. They are pseudo professionals who make uncountable errors in their reading only because they know they will get away with it.  The third is that virtually no one sits down to listen.  Akhand paaths are hummed by these hired hands at formula one speeds to the walls of empty Gurdwaras while the sangats are either absent or sitting in the langgar halls. One is hard pressed to blame the sangat because to sit and listen to such paid humming would be meaningless and totally unfruitful to anyone who intends to understand any messages of Gurbani.  After all the primary concern of the paid pathee is to complete his two hours, save his voice and energy for the second or third akhand paath he is involved in simultaneously,  finish his 60 page quota, collect payment and leave. Reciting the paath in a manner in which the listener can understand is not within his job scope.

The most glaring and corrupting (from a spiritual stand point) however is the fact that akhand paaths have become cash cows for Gurdwaras and many other institutions. These institutions have trampled upon the most fundamental principles relating to Gurbani by putting akhand paaths up for sale. A Gurdwara announces that it is conducting a fixed number of akhand paaths within a fixed time frame (up to 1,000 within a year even). Some do them concurrently – multiple akhand paaths at a time, others consecutively – one after another in a continuous chain. The latter has emerged as a new concept in our Gurdwara practices as laree akhand paaths. These are then sold at fixed prices. All the family has to do is pay the amount and one particular akhand paath will be assigned to it via the family’s mention in the starting and ending prayer of ardas. All other arrangements are undertaken by the Gurdwara in collaboration with a group of pathees on hire.  Families that cannot afford the full rates can buy “shares.” The consequences of these transgressions are serious and need our attention. Three are listed below.

First, akhand paaths as they stand today have lowered the stature of Gurbani to that of a means to an end. This is the direct result of the mindless reciting cum humming[5] that we call akhand paath or the so called banee da parvaah.  It is mindless because we have not applied our minds at any step of the process of the akhand paath. It is mindless because we are doing it for the wrong reason (or no reason at all). It is mindless because we are paying a person to recite something that was meant for us to read ourselves or at least listen; and to understand and apply within our lives. It is mindless because we don’t even hear it being recited, let alone listen to it. It is mindless because we have reduced Gurbani to chanting – a ritual severely condemned in the SGGS. It is mindless because we are being contemptuous of Gurbani while attempting to do something praiseworthy.[6]

The argument by the proponents, propagators and direct beneficiaries of the mindless akhand paaths in relation to the above consequences are as deceptive as they are self-serving.  None of the arguments have any philosophical or spiritual basis. But they are tailored to meet the spiritual demands of large numbers of un-enlightened and gullible Sikhs.  These arguments are further aimed at ensuring that such mindless activity continues and the livelihoods of its proponents remain protected.  Punjab has created a whole host of pseudo pathees who have become the state’s number one export commodity to countries where Diaspora Sikhs reside.  Thousands of Punjab’s youngsters who are school dropouts, otherwise un-employable, shady characters and with hosts of ulterior motives need do as little as adorn a white kurta, pajama and a round turban and head for the streets of foreign capitals declaring themselves as pathees. Local granthis (also from the same school of thought) act as employment agents for these youngsters in the field of akhand path recitals.  These granthis persuade our sangats to agree to multitudes of akhand paths for the flimsiest of reasons and make arrangement for pathees from their preferred lists – charging commissions in the process.  When the supply of pathees exceeds the demand, suggestions are made for Jup banee to be read continuously and simultaneously on the left of the SGGS. This adds five more pathees. Throw in the reading of Sukhmani Sahib on the right, and five more pathees get employed. It matters little that such parallel reading is as mindless as it is un-Sikhi.  The SRM makes clear that parallel and simultaneous spiritual activities are forbidden.  It also matters little that these so called pathees are totally unschooled in the job of SGGS reading. Their only claim to spirituality is the spiritual garb that they have invested in.  It matters not that they make as many mistakes as there are vowels in every sentence, because they know no one ever listens to them to know of their gross inadequacies.   Other more complicated and expensive varieties of the akhand path have been invented by the market forces. There is the sampat akhand path, where the a particular chosen shabad is inserted after each of the 5,800 odd shabads of the SGGS – thereby doubling the job hours (48 x 2) and manpower (ten pathees). The false argument that works is simply that the more banee that is recited or hummed on one’s behalf, the better.

The collective force of the above decadency that has crept into the akhand path process has shredded the SRM injunctions, made a mockery of the basic principles of Sikhi and earned us the collective disrespect of Gurbani and the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs – individuals, families, Gurdwaras and institutions who are party to the akhand paaths described above are in extremely serious contempt of Gurbani.

THE ROLE OF OUR INSTITUTIONS. Obviously, our leading organizations, the Akaal Takhat especially need to provide guidance in this regard. Yet the Akaal Takhat, the Darbar Sahib, the SGPC and all the five Takhats stand guilty of performing, advocating and sanctifying the mindless akhand paaths mentioned above. These takhats have become the source of the problem in every sense of the word. Akhand paaths at these places are booked up to ten years in advance.  Special offices have been set up to take bookings by telephone from all over the world. All Sikhs have to do is bank in the money and book the date. They have thus become akhand paath factories. One Takhat – Patna – is even undertaking Akhand Paath of a book which is NOT the Guru Granth Sahib at twice the price   – effectively reducing by 50% the fiscal value of the SGGS !

At our local Gurdwaras, the practice is too deeply embedded and our parbhandaks too much in slumber to be expected to take remedial action.  One would be deeply surprised if any one of our local institutions so much as speak out against such malpractice. For many parbhandaks, the akhand paath is a cash cow – easy and guaranteed money churner. All that is required is regular scheduling and dubious announcements to the effect that the Guru will double your investment and resolve all your problems.  Our granthis and parcharaks (with few exceptions) have vested interests in continuing with the practice of this ritual. Limiting or ending it would result in serious loss of income for these groups. So they have no interest in stopping this mindless act.

Our regular and contributing sangats are equally responsible for the continued contempt of Gurbani in the name of akhand paaths.  Where there have been cases of gurmat educated and courageous parbhandaks who have resolved to put an end to akhand paaths within their gurdwaras because they are in contempt of Gurbani; the ritual-imbued sangats have forced the reversal of such actions by a variety of means[7].

CONCLUSIONS.  The title question of this article is whether the akhand paath is spiritual or a ritual. Any spiritual activity that is undertaken WITHOUT creating an understanding or enlightenment – both by intention or by default – is, by definition a ritual.  The stark and undisputed reality is that akhand paaths, by their very nature and structure cannot bring about even an iota of Gurbani understanding – both to the reader and the listener.  Reciting,  chanting and humming God-enriched, philosophical, absorbing and eternally enlightening Gurbanee that was composed out of the spiritual brilliance of our Gurus at a mind boggling speed of 30 pages per hour within a given time frame of 48 hours can create no understanding at all.

THE SRM INTERPRETED OBJECTIVELY.  If read impartially and within the paradigms of the principles of Gurmat and Sikhi, the second limiting clause in para 2 of the SRM which says “Reading or Recital, from which the listener is unable to understand, is CONTEMPT of Gurbani,” is in essence a clear and unequivocal INJUNCTION against the conduct of akhand paaths.  When an activity is limited by making it conditional upon the most severe and most limiting a condition as the above is – the condition itself is in essence equal to imposing a ban on the activity itself; albeit in indirect language. Since it is simply not possible to bring about any understanding of Gubani given the nature, recital speed of 30 pages per hours and the 48 hour limitation complete the SGGS, the SRM, in essence is laying an unstated ban on akhand paths. Even if one argues that the ban was not the original intent of the framers of the SRM,, but that the intent was severe limitation; one could safely establish that current circumstances –in particular the nature of pathees and the absence of listeners –  have removed the understanding of Gurbani from the akhand paath process so completely and so absolutely that the SRM injunction has evolved into the equivalent of an effective ban.

WHAT CAN WE DO AS INDIVIDUALS? We can start by NOT sponsoring, supporting or partaking in such a ritualistic activity.  We should take our problems to the Guru and not to akhand paath promoting granthis, deras or pathees.  Every Sikh should instead undertake a sehej paath within his home.  He/she should strive to read (by himself, with family members or friends), with full contemplation, as little or as much as necessary of Gurbani within the SGGS.  Even better still, read the sehej paath on a teeka (translation) in Punjabi or even English.  Read the shabad first and then obtain an understanding from the teeka.  One page of the SGGS per day, or even one shabad per day read with full understanding would guarantee progress of our individual spiritual journeys. When the 1430 pages are completed, the entire process can be repeated. This way we remain connected with Gurbani in a meaningful sense through our life span.

WHAT CAN OUR GURDWARAS DO? The stark reality is that Gurdwaras have inadvertently contributed towards institutionalizing akhand paaths as a ritual.  Parbhandhaks can thus begin by stopping the practice of having sangat sponsored akhand paaths that are done during gurpurabs for instance.  In place of akhand paaths, parbhandaks should organize 3 day 2 night diwans of Kirtan and Katha with instructions to the Ragis and Kathakaars concerned to focus their messages on the subject of the gurpurab. Local members of the sangat, in particular youth and children (who are almost always missing from akhand paaths recitals) should be allowed ample involvement in such diwans in innovative ways.  If possible these youth should be allowed to run their gurpurab events themselves.

FINALLY, in Sikhi ritual is replaced by enlightenment that is Gurbani.  Every word of Gurbani is an attempt to enlighten the human mind.  The irony of ironies is that we Sikhs have turned Gurbani into a ritual in the name akhand paaths which stands today as the central and core ritual of Sikhi – nothing more nothing less. This one transgression is so serious that it has become the duty of every Gurbani loving Sikh to stand up and be counted.  The author can be contacted at dhillon99@gmail.com

[1] Sikh Rehat Maryada, SGPC, 2006 Punjabi Version, p 17.

[2] Punjabi University Punjabi English Dictionary, Punjabi University Patiala, 1999. P 644.

[3] SRM, p 16, Sadharan Path (a)

[4] There are four paurees regarding Sunena in Jap. They are immediately followed by four on Manena. And these inturn are followed by the Parwaan pauree. The above flow is developed from this flow within the Jap.  For a detailed argument see my series of articles titled Understanding Japji which are available at www. sikhbulletin.com

[5] The variety of names given to akhand path recitations by frustrated groups of Sikhs illustrate this point. Three are mentioned here to illustrate.   Bhoond paath refers to recitation that sounds like the buzzing of a bee – meaningless but continuous humming.  Ser Maar paath refers to the left to right and right to left movement of the head to signify reading in the absence of actual recitation.  Gunn-munn paath refers to the pathee reciting loudly the title of every shabad (salok Mehla teeja for instance) and saying out equally loudly the word “Nanak” in the final verse, but mumbling away the remaining verses in between.

[6] It may be worth noting that the sale of akhand paaths parallels the sale of indulgences by the Catholic clergy in the 1400s– an act which made the Church extremely rich, but resulted in the split of Christianity into Protestantism. Martin Luther led the birth of the Protestants (about the time of  Guru Nanak’s coming) by organising mass protests against the sale of indulgences.

[7] The shutting down of Roseville Gurdwara in California, USA in 2005 just after its parbhandaks took  a decision to stop the practice of akhand paaths in accordance with a unanimously passed resolution to this effect at the World Sikh Conference in Chandigarh in October 2004 is case in point. This Gurdwara’s  closure was the direct result of dwindling sangats which was directly related to the decision to disallow akhand paaths. The sangats simply took their akhand paaths to neighboring Gurdwaras.