Symbolism in Sikhism

The poetry of the Guru Granth Sahib is noteworthy especially for the wealth and variety of its images and symbols.  The Gurus and sants whose compositions form part of the Holy Book have rendered their mystical and spiritual experience in the idiom of poetry.  A large number of similes and metaphors and numerous other forms of figurative expression enrich the text.  Most of the imagery has come from the storehouse of Indian culture, but there are in the text allusions to Islam and the Islamic way of life as well.

            The symbolism adopted is more akin to the theme of the hymn than a mere embellishment. Most of the imagery in the text has been derived from the ordinary householder’s life. For example, the experience of bliss from the union of a human soul with the Supreme Soul is expressed with the help of an image of conjugal union. Apart from numerous such symbols scattered throughout the Scripture, the whole of Phunhe, a composition of Guru Arjan’s included in the Guru Granth Sahib after the Gatha verses, is couched in figurative speech wherein the ‘woman’ is adjured to love her ‘spouse’ because that would be for her like ablution in the ambrosial water of the Divine Name that should purify ‘her’ of all sloth and sin and bring to ‘her’ the bliss of union with the Divine. The symbol of lotus, which grows and blooms in muddy water but still remains unsullied, has often been used to bring home the idea that to realize God man need not renounce the world. He should lead a life of detachment living amid worldly temptations.

            According to Sikh teaching, God is nirankar, i.e. without form. He is Infinite, Inaccessible, Indescribable, Ineffable and Unknowable. To make Him comprehensible to the common man, various symbols and metaphors have been resorted to. He has been called the Sultan, i.e. the king, husband, father, gardener, farmer, et al. He is the creator of this universe and of all that is there in it and like a true gardener or farmer, He takes very good care of it. He rules over the entire universe where His will reigns supreme. He loves his creation as the husband loves his wife. For the family, He is the father. He has the responsibility of looking after it.

            Man’s self or soul is a spark of the Supreme Self. Its essential attributes are sat (real), chit (consciousness), and anand, (perennial bliss). It is immortal and rewarded or punished according to its good or evil deeds in this life. It transmigrates from one body to the other depending on its deeds. The process of transmigration into a low or high species is explained with the metaphor of the Persian wheel: the buckets on the chain of the wheel ascend and descend in turn, implying a soul’s migration into the body of a higher or lower species. The second commonly used metaphor for the soul is that of mundh or dhan, i.e. a woman whose husband is away and who is pining for union with him.

            Man, i.e. mind, of man is an attribute which raises him higher than any other form of creation in this universe. Going through the process of transmigrations man has come by this rare opportunity which he must now avail himself of fully. Among the various functions of man, also called hirda, are surti, i.e. concentration, and budhi, i.e. intellect. It has been compared with the lotus both in its upward (sudha) and downward (ulta) condition; whereas the former condition denotes its receptive nature, the latter refers to its perverted or non-receptive nature. These qualities of man have been brought forth with the help of figures of maigal, i.e. a mad elephant, which destroys everything that comes its way; of khar, i.e. ass, which is downright obstinate; of karhala, i.e. camel, which is tempted by the wayside creepers of desires; of kala haran, i.e. black buck, which contains the musk in its own body, but ignorant of this runs around looking for it among the bushes; of dadar, i.e. frog, which is happy in the mud and does not learn a lesson from the lotus which remains above the mud though born out of it; of sasi, i.e. moon, which has no light of its own but shines in the light of the sun; of haran, i.e. deer, which gets enchanted by the fragrance emanating from its own body and of a bail, i.e. bullock, which pulls the burden of the body.

            The two attitudes of mind, when it is attracted towards God or towards the world by the material comforts of life, belong respectively to the categories of gurmukh and manmukh.  The inner instincts of these two are explained with the help of metaphors of hans (swan) for gurmukh which picks at pearls and thus has the power of discrimination and of bagla (crane) for manmukh which is known for its hypocrisy for it stands on one leg with its eyes half closed as of meditating but pounces upon the small fish as soon as it comes within its reach. The uselessness to society of a manmukh is brought out with the help of metaphors of simal (oak) tree; andhla (blind man) who cannot see; and of kaihan (bronze metal) which glitters but shows up its true worth when rubbed.

            Like the musk of a black deer, the man resides in human body which is called kachi gagar (unbaked earthen pitcher), pinjar (cage), rath (chariot), etc.  The world where the human soul spends a certain period equivalent to the life of its mortal frame has been described in the various metaphors of an inn the visitor stays in for a while; of a vari (garden); of peka ghar (parents’ home) where the bride (human being) lives only until her marriage (death) after which she leaves for sahura ghar (in-laws’ house); of bhavjal or the rising ocean; of gandharb nagari, i.e. an illusory abode; and of such others.

            Sikhism attaches a great deal of importance to the institution of guru. The Guru has been described as a setu (bridge) between God and man. The importance of Guru in the spiritual uplift of man and in making him worthy of acceptance at the Divine Portal is explained with the help of various metaphors and symbols taken from mundane life, such as that of khevat (boat-man or sailor) who ferries the boat-of-life across the river of life to a place where the Lord abides; of sarovar (sacred pool) where gurmukhs (swans) dwell and pick up pearls (good deeds) as their diet; of tirath (lit. a holy place for a dip, but originally the safe place to cross the river ) which enables man to wade through the river of life; of sur (sun) which enlightens the sasi (moon) or the dark minds; of vichola (mediator) who helps arrange the marriage of man (with God); of anjan and kajal (collyrium) which improves the sight of our mind’s eye; of paharua (the watchman) who drive away the thieves of kam (lust), krodh (anger), lobh (greed), moh (infatuation) and ahankar (ego); of sura (warrior) who wields the sword of jnana (knowledge) and drives away the evil of ignorance; of jot (light) which illuminates the dark recesses of the human mind; and paras, the philosopher’s stone which turns dross into gold. He is also likened to a siddha (the perfect being), the jogi or yogi (who is in communion with the mata (mother), pita (father) and the bandhap (relative).

            Meditation on the name of God has been recommended time and again as the only means of realizing Him, but the nature of His Name and the method of meditation have not been elaborated.  However, there are many symbols and images used in the Guru Granth Sahib which reveal to us the nature of His Name; it is called the amrit (nectar) which rejuvenates man; mat dudh (mother’s milk) which nourishes the child and the energy gained from it works in man throughout the life-period; sajan or mitar (friend), mata (mother) and pita (father) who are man’s real well-wishers; tulha (raft) which enables man wade across the ocean of life; pauri (ladder) with the help of which man can climb to the Lord’s seat; a kharag (sword) which cuts asunder the net of evil; and paras, i.e. the philosopher’s stone which transforms the gross mind. Nam has also been called nidhan, i.e. the treasure of all excellence and daru or aukhad which relieves man of all his evil propensities.

            The metaphysical or mystical experiences have been made comprehensible in images taken from household life. The entire poetic diction of the Guru Granth Sahib is surcharged with symbolic meaning. When Guru Nanak says—tu suni harna kalia ki variai rata ram (listen o black deer, why are you in intoxication). Black deer is actually no black deer, it is symbolic of human mind and the field is no piece of land, but this vast world of earthly pleasures. Rata is also symbolic as it connotes deeply dyed in Lord’s love. Farid says sarvar pankhi hekro phahival pachas (at the pool there is but a solitary bird, but the captors ready to seize it can be counted by the fifties); the sarvar (tank) here is symbolic of the world, the pankhi, bird, is symbolic of man, and phahival (captor), of the temptations of worldly pleasures.  Raga Suhi opens with this line of Guru Nanak: bhanda dhoi bais dhupu devahu tau dudhai kau javahu (wash the vessel, smoke it for disinfection, then go to fetch the milk); bhanda vessel, is the symbol of mind, dhupu (incense) is the symbol of purity, and milk is the symbol of the nam; Name; if it is so, then washing, disinfecting and going also becomes symbolic language.  So is sapu pirai paiai bikhu antari mani rosu (If a snake is put in a basket, it continues to have poison and to nurse wrath).  Here sapu (snake) stands for the mind, pirai (basket) stands for ritualistic restraints, bikhu, poison stands for evil tendencies.  sifati salahanu chhadi kai karangi laga hansu (abandoning praise of the Lord, the swan is chasing the carcass).  The swan is the holy person or the soul; carcass stands for the evil pleasures.


1. Kohli, Surindar Singh, A Critical Study of Adi Granth, Delhi, 1961

2. Sekhon, Sant Singh, A History of Panjabi Literature, Vol. I.  Patiala, 1993

3. Taran Singh, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji da Sahitak Itihas.  Amritsar, n. d.

Source – Concepts in Sikhism, pp. 559-564

By: Taran Singh