Guru Arjan's Ramakali Hymn: The Central Issue in the Kartarpur-Banno Debate

By Singh, Pashaura | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 1996 | Go to article overview

Guru Arjan's Ramakali Hymn: The Central Issue in the Kartarpur-Banno Debate


Singh, Pashaura, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Academic discussion on the text of the Adi Granth so far has been focused on the so-called Kartarpur-Banno debate. That debate started in 1944 when G. B. Singh set about marshalling evidence to challenge the authenticity of the Kartarpur manuscript as being the original text of the Adi Granth prepared under Guru Arjan's supervision and recorded by his amanuensis, Bhai Gurdas. He suggested that the Banno recension represents the original text.(2) He made this claim without examining the Kartarpur manuscript itself, and this fact alone provided sufficient reason for Sikh scholars to discard his pioneer work. It is, however, important to note that the Kartarpur-Banno debate originated in a polemical context (khandan-mandan), which was the characteristic feature of those days when Aryas and Sikhs frequently attacked each other's faith. G. B. Singh seemed to be serving the Arya Samaj interests, as evidenced by his defense of Dayanand's arguments in his book.(3) Since then much of the energy of Sikh scholars has been devoted to proving the authenticity of the Kartarpur bir or recension.(4)

One of the main issues that has drawn a great deal of scholarly attention in the Kartarpur-Banno debate is related to a hymn by Guru Arjan in the ramakali mode. A single couplet stands recorded in the standard version of the Adl Granth after chhant 4 and before Guru Arjan's composition on the six seasons (ruti) of the Indian calendar.(5) In order to address the incomplete nature of this hymn, W. H. McLeod, for instance, argues that there should apparently be a complete hymn in the section assigned to the longer chhant compositions. The organization of the hymns in the same section indicates that the couplet must be either the first two lines of a chhant, or a shalok introducing a chhant.(6) The academic issue raised here by McLeod drew a great many polemic responses from Sikh scholars, whose works generated more heat than light on the Kartarpur-Banno debate.(7)

This paper seeks to address the issue of Guru Arian's ramakali hymn in the light of an actual examination of early manuscripts of the Adi Granth, including the Kartarpur bir itself. It is important to note that only two lines of this hymn are to be found in the manuscripts of both the Kartarpur and the Lahore traditions.(8) Even in the Kanpur manuscript (1642 C.E.), which is claimed to be the first copy of the Adi bir prepared by Bhai Banno (and hence popularly known as Banno bir), the additional twenty-two lines of the hymn were added later in a smaller hand.(9) Here one can argue that, originally, the scribe had written the single couplet since the remainder of the hymn was not available at that time. When the additional portion became available he completed the hymn in the Banno version of the Adi Granth. This explanation may be supported by the scribal practice of writing the opening verse first and then completing the text later on. But this simple explanation does not solve the textual puzzle. I will argue that the completion of this hymn was intentionally done at a time when the volume was converted into the Banno text.

In order to understand the problem of the Banno recension, we must examine Guru Arjan's ramakali hymn in its original context. On folio 703/1 of the Kartarpur manuscript the two lines read as follows:

Raga Ramakali Mahala 5

ran jhunjjhanara gau sakhi bari ek dhiavahu. satgur turn sevi sakhi mani chindiara phalu pavahu.

Sing the trilling tunes in the [dance]-field, my sister friends, by meditating on the One Lord.

Accomplish your heart's desires, my sister friends, by serving the True Guru.

The opening words, ran jhunjjhanara ("trilling tunes [sung in the dance]-field"), indicate the setting of a wedding scene at which Punjabi girls were accustomed to gather together in a circle to sing wedding songs. Guru Arian may have uttered these aphoristic sayings on the happy occasion of a marriage, intending them to be developed into a complete hymn later on. …

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