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Guru Granth Sahib: An Introduction To Sikh Scripture

In addition to viewing it as Divine revelation, Sikhs also understand the Guru Granth Sahib as their complete, eternal, and infallible life-guide.
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The central text of the Sikh religion -- the Guru Granth Sahib -- is a different kind of scripture. A number of features mark its distinctiveness among the scriptures of the world, including its style, content, history and authority.

One unique aspect of the Guru Granth Sahib relates to its historical development. Unlike the texts of most world religions, Sikh scripture was written and compiled by the prophets of the tradition.

In fact, the precedent of Sikh scriptural writing began with the founder and first Guru of the tradition -- Guru Nanak (1469-1539). Nearly 1,000 of his compositions have been preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib, and to this day, some of his writings are included among the daily prayers of the Sikhs.

On the basis of references within the text and other early literature, traditional Sikh interpretations consider the scriptural writings to be revealed. For instance, one of Guru Nanak's compositions translates as: "I have spoken as You have caused me to speak." Another proclaims: "I express the speech of the Divine as it comes to me."

For Sikhs, these references serve as evidence of revelation and give the Guru Granth Sahib a level of Divine authority.

As the Sikh tradition developed over the 16th and 17th centuries, so did the scriptural corpus. Six of the 10 Gurus contributed to the canon, and in compiling the scriptures, the Gurus took an unprecedented step by collecting and including writings of religious thinkers from a variety of backgrounds (e.g., social, regional, professional).

These diverse backgrounds highlight the tradition's inclusive worldview. For example, the Guru Granth Sahib does not just include the compositions of the Sikh Gurus; it also contains the words of Sufi Muslims and low-caste Hindus.

According to traditional interpretations, these writings share the same message, ideology and spirit expressed by the Sikh Gurus, and furthermore, their inclusion reflects the Sikh belief that anyone can experience the Divine, no matter their context or background.

The Guru Granth Sahib is written in a unique script -- Gurmukhi -- and incorporates a number of different languages, including Persian, Punjabi, and Braj. Sikh traditions explain that these languages were purposefully selected to make the message more accessible -- by using popular languages that diverse communities could understand, the Gurus created a scripture that catered to the masses.

Before he passed away in the early 18th century, the 10th Sikh Guru -- Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) -- conferred the authority of the Sikh tradition to two distinct institutions: Guru Khalsa Panth and Guru Granth Sahib.

(The former [i.e., Guru Khalsa Panth], refers to the community of formally committed and initiated Sikhs, an institution to be discussed in a later essay.)

The elevation of the scripture to the status of Guru gave it a further level of authority. In addition to viewing it as Divine revelation, Sikhs also understand it as their complete, eternal, and infallible life-guide.

Another unique aspect of Sikh scripture relates to its content and style. The Guru Granth Sahib is comprised of poetry and music relating to Divine experiences; some compositions provide guidance for achieving these experiences, while others offer inspiration by expressing the bliss and satisfaction that comes with these experiences.

These poetic and musical expressions continue to serve as the centerpiece of Sikh public and private religiosity.

Individuals read and recite selections from the text on a daily basis, congregations gather and sing from the scripture collectively, and major life events (e.g., birth, marriage, death) are marked by ceremonies that center around the Guru Granth Sahib.

The lives of Sikhs, as well as the life of the Sikh community, revolve around their central text -- the Guru Granth Sahib -- a unique scripture that establishes and exemplifies foundational Sikh ideologies.