Symbolism in Guru Granth Sahib - Sikh Research Institute

Symbolism in Guru Granth Sahib




Scroll down for Animal Video Series

Guru Granth Sahib is a treasure house of a variety of figurative expressions like imagery, symbolism, metaphors, similes, and so on. The contributors to Guru Granth Sahib have intertwined a diverse range of such expressions with their poetic revelations. These expressions bring alive the mystic and spiritual experiences that are otherwise inexpressible through language and make them more relatable for a commoner. Most of these expressions draw parallels from South-Asian day-to-day life and its surrounding environment including nature, creatures, professions, faith and religion, socio-cultural mores, politics, and more.

Amongst these, symbolisms are the most pervasive in the Guru Granth Sahib. They are routinely invoked to exhibit certain ideal behavior or relationships to inform the human mind and help it reorient in the ideal direction.

For instance, a human being’s relationship with IkOankar (1-Ness) is primarily explained through the symbolism of either a conjugal relationship or through a parent-child relationship. The former forms the basis of a variety of compositions in the Guru Granth Sahib like Phunhe, Sucaji, Kucaji, Gunvati, and many more. As an extension of that symbolism, a person’s stay on earth is equated to a parent’s house, in contrast to the abode of IkOankar, which is referred to as the inlaws’ house. In the parent-child analogy, IkOankar is seen as both the mother and the father of all beings, and who takes care of them with each and every breath. 

Additionally, the importance of the Guru-Wisdom in a person’s life is explained through the symbol of a boat or a ship that takes them across the world-ocean and unites with IkOankar.

Numerous symbols have been used from nature as well to convey a specific message. In the Sikh context, this assumes significance since, for us IkOankar, the Creator is in the creation, and we are encouraged to engage with it to enrich our life experiences, without indulging in it. It also underlines the need to celebrate life and engage with it constructively, and not approach it as an abstraction or burden.

In this context, the analogy of a lotus flower that grows in muddy water but still remains blemishless is evoked multiple times to show the attitude of a realized being who, while living in this world, stays detached from it. The person who engages with the world seeing IkOankar in it, but does not indulge in it, is considered ideal.

The uselessness of a self-willed person is explained through the bronze metal, which though shines, but gives out blackness when rubbed.

Amongst this cache of symbolisms is the animal world, which plays an important role in conveying critical behavioral lessons. 

For example, the symbolism of fish that cannot survive outside the water is often used to depict the nature of the relationship a human being is encouraged to have with IkOankar. Similarly, the thirst of a rain-bird (chatrik) that only survives on rainwater is evoked to show the exclusive nature of love an individual is supposed to develop for IkOankar.

Many negative human tendencies have been highlighted through parallels with typical animal behavior to evoke shock in order to highlight the futility of such human dispositions. Amongst these is the figure of a mad elephant that is used for a greedy mind and uncontrollable desire, which destroys everything that comes in its path. A camel is used as an example of wandering as well as a greedy mind. The symbol of blackbuck, which has the musk in its own body, but runs around trying to find it outside itself highlights ignorance. This is used to point to those individuals who envision IkOankar to be dwelling at a specific place away from them.

The contrast of a Wisdom-oriented individual with a self-centered person is brought forth with the analogy of a swan and a crane; while the former is shown to be interested in only picking pearls (love of IkOankar), the later stands on one leg with its eyes half-closed pretending to be oblivious of its surrounding while its real motive is to catch fish that comes near it.

A dog is used to show faithfulness when domesticated, and as well as for its propensity to eat filth as a stray animal. This also highlights Guru Granth Sahib’s approach to not label beings or creatures as inherently good or bad but gauging their position or status based on their actions and behavior.

In this spirit, the current video series focuses on the animal world and brings forth typical animal behavior to inform the human mind of its fallibilities, futilities of its actions and inappropriate behavior, so that it mends its ways before it has to bear the consequences of those negative actions.


The Dog:



The Swan:



The Fish:


Share this on:

Showing 2 reactions

Sign in or create an account to comment
Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Join Us

SikhRI is made possible by hundreds of volunteers, donors, team members and educators—all just like you. Help us illuminate Sikh paths throughout the world.