Guru Granth Sahib emphatically proclaims:
Contemplation in the mind is the image of the Guru (Perfection);
my mind accepts the Guru’s Sabad (Wisdom) as the mantra (spiritual utterance).
Guru Arjan Sahib, Rag Gond, 864
To many Sikhs, any image of any Guru Sahib is unacceptable. Historically, the only possible real portrait of any Guru is of Guru Teghbahadur Sahib housed in Dhaka. To date, the known information suggests the Guru-images started appearing in the middle of the eighteenth century: Jahanhgir-like miniatures influenced by the Mughal era and portraits in hagiographical texts guided by Hindu traditions. Mostly, they depicted episodes from the Gurus' lives through the artist’s lens or sponsor’s agenda. Popularity or funding rose to such levels that they appeared on murals in gurduaras (Sikh centers of learning), forts, and as portraits in manuscripts and on canvas.
At the onset, let’s consider three notions. First, the Sikh worldview based on Guru Granth Sahib originates from IkOankar, the Force, whose form is timeless (akal murati). Second, the Guru Nanaks I-X exhibited the Divine attributes of IkOankar while on this Earth (partakhya hari). Third, the votaries of All-Pervasive (IkOankar’s often cited Divine attribute) were chiseled by the Gurus to become just like the All-Pervasive (jaisa hari hi hoi) and imbibe Divine-like qualities.
Now, is drawing IkOankar possible? Consequently, is drawing Guru possible? One who dwells in a serious relationship with their vocation may capture a few elements of the Creator and the Creation. Additively, if and when one wants to depict the Guru, one must connect with the Sabad (word-sound of Infinite Wisdom), initiate a personal relationship, and develop the protégé-mentor bond, at the least.
In Sikhi, to see Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, one must accept that the Guru Granth Sahib and the ten Guru Sahibs are inseparable. Then, those who witnessed the Guru, those who loved the Guru, and those who served the Guru their testimonies provide a more suitable lens to visualize the Guru. For contemporary times, those who acknowledge those described above, and exhibit sensitivity beyond ignorance and malice, may do justice to depict ‘The Rider of the Blue Steed.’
Allow me to share a recent challenge. While working with a team of individuals and institutions on an exhibition commemorating the 350-year Prakash Purab (Illumination Day) of the Tenth Guru, we faced a challenge to present the Guru’s life and legacy to the world and to the pilgrims at Patna. No words or images can do justice to the Guru’s grandness. So, we started with the IkOankar, the Gurus as Divine Beings and Perfect Leaders, ending with the Guru Granth Sahib and the Guru Khalsa Panth as legacy unto infinity. For the art frames from Patna to Nanded via Anandpur Sahib, the Panjab Digital Library team cited the best sources capturing the Sikh thesis and best available images while realizing they weren’t capable of grasping the Guru’s infallibility.
What to name the exhibition was most distressing! Sikh parlance was adhered to, for that is what’s most apt: Guru Gobind Singh Sahib. Guru is the highest institution in Sikhi, Gobind the Earth-Force is the given name, Singh identifies the allegiance to the Order of the Khalsa (equivalent Kaur for women), and Sahib for the Sovereign is not answerable to any earthly authority. ‘Emperor-Prophet’ was added to the title before the colon to present the Guru in a global context where the political and religious powers collide, even today. Sikhi integrates the two into one, Guru Nanak Sahib, and all ten Gurus enjoyed both domains of Rule-Union (Raj-Jog) simultaneously. Bhai Nand Lal Goya’s ‘Badshah-Darvesh’ elaborates on the status of Guru Gobind Singh Sahib along the lines of global leaders: religious-political, Eastern-Western, Mystic-Semitic, and so on.
So, what’s offensive or admirable, wrong or right, sinful or virtuous? I humbly submit the ones on the Path continue to best glorify the Guru (satiguru vadha kari salahiai) instead of advocating absolutism with hate and anger. Yes, I understand freedom of speech and expression must be protected, preserved, and promoted, but at the same time do recognize how the secular, political, and popular culture is defining Sikhi rather than the Gurmat (the Guru’s Way). I am also keenly aware of criticisms and satires of dissenters and reformers; they, too, must come out of their silos to stop misappropriating the ‘Emperor-Prophet: Guru Gobind Singh Sahib.’
Upon unveiling Guru Nanak Sahib’s portrait, Bhai Vir Singh remarked to Sobha Singh: “this is not my Guru Nanak,” for the Sikh aesthetics are yet to be born. None of the Gurus focused on the image. In the Land of Five Rivers, the Beloved colored the scholars, the poets, and the warriors with deep crimson red.
I end by paraphrasing Prof. Puran Singh. Let the artist depict IkOankar’s Own ‘Plume-Adorned’ on the heart-canvas and say: You, I. And wait for the art to respond: I, You.
Sikhi doesn’t forbid images; it propels the adherent to demolish mental fixations and prepare to enter the ‘Homeland of the Beloved’ (pritam kai des). To express the Beloved, I must become the lover!