Why Read Gurbani If You Don't Understand the Words?

Nitnem, the Daily Prescription for Ego

Sikh Reading Nitnem
Sikh Reading Nitnem. Photo © [Gurumustuk Singh Khalsa]

Why Read Gurbani If You don't Understand?

The text of Guru Granth Sahib scripture is written using the Gurmukhi script in a poetic language known as Gurbani. The Gurmukhi alphabet is nearly identical to the Punjabi alphabet. Many words of Gurbani are similar to Punjabi, yet the poetic arrangement and usage of Gurbani requires in depth study to be understood even by a Punjabi speaking person. Never the less, every Sikh, regardless of ethnic heritage, is required to read Nitnem prayers every day without fail.

A question is often asked is. "What is the use of reading Gurbani if I'm not able to understand the words?"

Nitnem, the Daily Prescription for Ego

Sikhs view ego as a disease which results in a sense of separation from the divine. Ridding oneself of ego is the task of Sikhism. When one is unwell a doctor is sought for a cure. The doctor prescribes medicine and it is taken daily. The medicine heals whether or not one knows what the ingredients are. The effect is the same regardless of whether one understands exactly how the remedy works to combat disease. In Sikhism, Guru is the doctor and Gurbani is the medicine for the soul.

Nitnem is the daily prescription which counter acts ego. The first hurdle to subduing the ego comes with the faithful practice of reading Nitnem. Regular review is the only way that one can ever understand and become familiar with Gurbani. Intuitive insight develops over time as the effect of ego is reduced and realization occurs.

Eventually intrinsic comprehension occurs. Reading Nitnem and Gurbani are a divine prescription meant to be taken for life, one only needs to begin.

Rehraas, the evening prayer of Nitnem advises:
"Dukh daaroo sukh rog bhaiaa jaa sukh taam na hoee||
Suffering is the medicine and pleasure the disease, for where there is pleasure, there is no desire for God." SGGS||469

Devotional Reading

The required daily devotional reading of Nitnem is a selection of Gurbani hymns and prayers taken from Guru Granth Sahib and Dasam Granth, a collection of poetry written by Tenth Guru Gobind Singh. In addition to the five daily prayers of Nitnem, every Sikh is also encouraged to also read paath every day from the scripture of Guru Granth Sahib. Reading is carried on until the entire 1430 page scripture of Guru Granth Sahib has been read all the way through. Once reading is completed, a new reading begins all over again. Such devotional readings of Guru Granth Sahib are a continual practice meant to carry on through out all of life.

Tips For Learning to Read Gurbani

Initially it can present a challenge to learn to read Gurbani. However, there are plenty of ways to make the learning curve enjoyable and easy. English to Gurmukhi prayerbooks, online resources, and simple exercises that can be done by complete novices are just the beginning. The results of efforts made are immeasurably rewarding.