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Revision as Katha: Five Translations of Sikhism’s Mūl Mantr

Revision as Katha: Five Translations of Sikhism’s Mūl Mantr
Mul Mantar

A detail from an illuminated Sri Guru Granth Sahib, featuring Mul Mantr handwritten by the Tenth Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh.

 Mūl Mantr (“root mantra”) is a short composition by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the first Sikh Guru. It opens Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture (and 11th and eternal Guru). It’s a telegraphic list of adjectives and nouns followed by a couplet,* and it is very hard to translate. Beyond the twin risks of gross inaccuracy and unintelligibility, there is a deeper issue. Ambiguity is a feature, not a liability, of Mūl Mantr. A common way for Sikhs to engage with the poetry of their Gurus is to listen to expansive discourses on it, called katha. Katha of Mūl Mantr can easily last several hours, as the kathawak (lecturer) shifts his or her interpretative approach to reveal many facets of the text and, in a rather non-hierarchical way, get the listener closer to the singular, indescribable Truth behind it.

Multi-dimensionality is difficult to preserve in translation, an exercise that tends to ossify one interpretation, forsaking the others. For my chapbook of Guru Nanak translations, All Plants Are Flowers, O Light!, I made five separate English versions of Mūl Mantr—a tribute to the expansiveness of the original and a nod to the katha tradition.

 

Mūl Mantr, Trans. 1


Truth’s name
The Doer—
Fearless
& Vengeless
The Everlasting Form—
Unborn
& Self-sustaining
A Gift from the Guru

Recite this—
True at the timeless beginning
& true at the beginning of time.
It also is true. Nanak, it also will be true.

 

This translation is one of the most “literal” of the five. It is almost as telegraphic as the original. It leaves the “seed mantra” ੴ (ik oankar) untranslated. Some interpret ੴ as a grammatical phrase, some don’t. Visually, it consists of the numeral ੧ (“1”) and a stylized version of the syllable Ong (“Aum”) in Gurmukhi script. Whether grammatical or not, it is an affirmation of the ultimate oneness of reality. Leaving it as is, the rest of Mūl Mantr can be understood as brief katha of that one teaching. “Ik Oankar is Truth’s Name; Ik Oankar is the fearless, vengeless Doer;…”

Mūl Mantr, Trans. 2


The very Name of Truth
The Doer and Maker
Fearless
& Unrivalled
The very Image of the Deathless One
Uncreated
& Self-lighted
A Gift from the Guru

Recite this—
True at the timeless beginning
& true at the beginning of time.
It also is true. Nanak, it also will be true.

 

This translation brings out three undertones in Mūl Mantr. In the first I rendered karta purakh as “The Doer.” Purakh can mean “man” or “being,” and it is often used in phrases where we would use “one.” Akal Purakh is the Timeless One; Maha Purakh is “great one.” (“The Doing One,” seemed needlessly awkward, so I condensed it to “The Doer.”) But there is a second thing going on here as well. Purakh can also refer to a concept in Vedic and Upanishadic traditions. In the Vedas, Purusha is a primal being whose death at the hands of the gods created life on earth. In the Upanishads, Purusha is the word for a disembodied, all-pervading animating principle. The word purakh comes up several times in Sri Guru Granth Sahib with reference to these concepts. So here, I render the word as a reference to the Vedic figure rather than as a personal target for karta.

Nirvair means “without enmity” or “without hostility.” Here I foreground the sense that the One acts not only with no sense of ill-will, but also (being the only doer in the universe) is completely unmenaced. There is no evil counterpart to the One. The One does everything.

Mūrat means “form.” More specifically it means “embodiment.” A statue of Ganesha, for example, is called a murti. It is the embodiment of the deity and an instrument of devotion. So, here, I’m taking akal mūrat to mean that the mantra ੴ is—in a sense—the devotional image of the Timeless or Deathless One.

 

Mūl Mantr, Trans. 3

The One is the Pervasive Vibration Aum
and the very Name of Reality.
This Creator and Universal Consciousness
acts without reverence
or hostility.
Its eternal form
was not born from the womb,
but is self-produced.
It is realized through the grace of the Guru.

Recite this—
At the beginning was the True One.
At the beginning of time was the True One.
The True One is. Nanak, the True One also will be.

 

This translation renders ੴ grammatically, allows the One to be seen primarily as a being, and translates nirbhau as “without reverence” to form a neat binary with nirvair, “without hostility.”

 

Mūl Mantr, Trans. 4

There is one transcendent, immanent force:
the way to permanence,
the essence of action and of being,
beyond fear
beyond hatred,
the essence of timelessness and of form,
not bound by transmigration,
spontaneous,
experienced through the grace of the perfect teacher.

Recite this—
The pristine source is real. The temporal is real.
Even the phenomenal is real.
Nanak, even what is yet to happen is real.

 

This translation is about as abstract as it gets. It is generally sympathetic with an interpretation of Sikhi favored by the Sikh Research Institute. The translation of the final couplet is based on Sirdar Kapur Singh’s essay “Essentials of Sikhism.”

 

Mūl Mantr, Trans. 5

The One and the Everything
are one and the same—
Know this and
absorb yourself in Truth,
find the Creator, the Primary Being,
become fearless
and vengeless,
reach the Eternal Form,
escape the cycle of births and deaths
for self-sovereignty,
and receive the generosity of the Guru.

Recite this—
This is the truth of the timeless beginning.
This is the truth of the beginning of time.
This is the truth even of what is.
Nanak, this is the truth even of what will be.

 

This last translation is, as it appears, highly interpretive and non-literal. Words are added all over the place. A second-person perspective is imposed. It represents an approach to the Mūl Mantr that one might hear an hour or more into katha of the passage.

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*Many people consider the Mūl Mantr to end before “Recite this—“

Param Anand Singh

Param Anand Singh is a poet and translator who used to be called R.M. O'Brien. A sticker he made might be in a movie.

About The Author

Param Anand Singh

Param Anand Singh is a poet and translator who used to be called R.M. O'Brien. A sticker he made might be in a movie.

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