BOLE SO NIHAL, SATI SRI AKAL is the Sikh slogan or jaikara (lit. shout of victory, triumph or exultation). It is divided in two parts or phrases. The first, bole so nihal or jo bole so nihal, is a statement meaning “whoever utters (the phrase following) shall be happy, shall be fulfilled,” and the second part sati sri akal (Eternal is the Holy/Great Timeless Lord). This jaikara, first popularized by Guru Gobind Singh, Nanak X, has become, besides being a popular mode of expressing ebullient religious fervour or a mood of joy and celebration, an integral part of Sikh liturgy and is shouted at the end of ardas or prayer, said in sangat or holy congregation. One of the Sikhs in the sangat, particularly the one leading ardas, shouts the first phrase, jo bole so nihal, in response to which the entire congregation, including in most cases the leading Sikh himself utter in unison sati sri akal in a long-drawn full-throated shout. The jaikara or slogan aptly expresses the Sikh belief that all victory (jaya or jai) belongs to God, Vahiguru, a belief that is also expressed in the Sikh salutation Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa, Vahiguru ji ki Fateh (Khalsa is of God and to God belongs the victory, or Hail the Guru’s Khalsa! Hail the Guru’s victory!!) In their hour of triumph, therefore, the Sikh’s remember sati sri akal instead of exulting in their own valour.
Traditionally, the slogan or war-cry expressing communal fervour and assent to or enthusiasm for a cause, sat sri akal has been so used through the three-hundred-year-old history of the Sikh people, since the creation of the Khalsa. In a normal situation when two Sikhs meet, they exchange greetings pronouncing Sat Sri Akal thus pointing out the glory of God to each other. Although as a salutation it is by now the established form of Sikh greeting, it does not have the sanction of history or orthodoxy. Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa Vahiguru ji ki Fateh, the other form of salutation, is generally used only by people punctilious in the observance of proper form. Those addressing a Sikh religious congregation will, as a rule, greet the audience with the salutation, Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa Vahiguru ji ki Fateh. Sat Sri Akal shouted in unison responding to the call jo bole so nihal (whoever so pronounces shall prosper) is a call to action, or expression of ecstatic joy or an invocation for Divine aid or succour. While sat or sati (Sanskrit satya) means ‘true’, ‘good’, ‘abiding’, ‘real’ and ‘eternal’, sri is an honorific denoting beauty, glory, grace or majesty. Sati has the sanction of Guru Nanak’s Mul Mantra in the Japu where after Ik Onkar, it appears as a constituent of Satinamu (Reality Eternal). Akal also occurs in Mul Mantra in the phrase Akal Murati (Form Eternal), descriptive of the Absolute.
Akal as the Divine name appealed particularly to Guru Gobind Singh, as his philosophical vision of the cosmos and the human life centred around this concept. Akal means ‘Timeless’ or ‘Transcending Time.’ Time being the consuming element, making for birth, decay and death, in Guru Gobind Singh’s vision the most essential attribute lying at the core of human conception of the Divine is Its timeless quality. Kal is Sanskrit for time and in common parlance stands for death—more precisely, the inevitable hour of death. Fear being fear of death basically, in Guru Gobind Singh’s metaphysical thinking and moral philosophy, to make the Timeless the centre of one’s faith is the way to banish fear and to make heroes of ordinary mortals. Consequently, the inevitability of death and the futility of fear are among the principal themes of Guru Gobind Singh’s teaching. In his compositions there are several verbal formations from kal (time) which express his vision. God is Sarab Kal (Lord of All-Time), Akal-Purakh (the Eternal Pervasive Reality) and has all the attributes arising from His quality of Timelessness. Guru Gobind Singh’s principal composition of adoration is entitled Akal Ustati (Laudation of the Timeless). In places, the Guru has identified God with Time or All-Time, that is eternity. The opening line of one of his hymns reads keval kal i kartar (the All-Time, i.e. the Eternal alone is the creator). This by implication repudiates the claim of Brahma, one aspect of the Hindu trinity or of other deities, to be the true creator.
Akal occurs at four places in the Varan of Bhai Gurdas. In each context it conveys the sense of God the Eternal, Timeless. By the time of Bhai Gurdas, whose active life spanned the periods of Guru Arjan and Guru Hargobind, this term was familiar and well established in the Sikh tradition, and consequently when Guru Gobind Singh picked it out to make it the vehicle for expressing his deepest inspiration, he was only enriching a concept already a constituent of the philosophical milieu of the Sikh people.
As reported by the royal news-writer, when in 1699 the new initiation of amrit was introduced by Guru Gobind Singh, for days afterwards, the whole atmosphere around Anandpur, the venue of the baptismal ceremonies, was resounding with cries of Akal, Akal. This referred to the shouts of Sat Sri Akal incessantly raised by the converts to the Khalsa faith filled with new fervour. In subsequent times, after the Sikhs acquired political power in the Punjab, the seal of the Sikh chiefs would bear the inscription, Akal Sahi (Akal be our Succourer). The most militant section of the Sikh crusaders, the Nihangs were called Akalis (followers of Aka). During the early 1920’s, when the Sikh people were fired with a new reformist and patriotic zeal, the party spearheading these programmes took to itself the name Akali, which is politically still a viable term.
The Sikh form of greeting or salutation has its individual significance and character. It is different from the Islamic salutation in which blessings of peace are sought for each other (salam alaikum, wa’alaikum salam). It is distinct also from Indian greetings (namaste or namaskar) which aim at paying homage or respects to the person addressed. The Sikh greeting exchanged with folded hands on either side in mutual courtesy and respect is essentially an utterance of laudation to the Timeless and an expression of faith in human unity and dignity.
Over the years, the boundaries between the Sikh slogan and Sikh greeting have become interlocked. Sat sri akal which is part of the Sikh slogan is now the general form of Sikh greeting. This has usurped the place of the more formal and proper salutation which also carries the sanction of Sikh theological postulates, i.e. Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa Vahiguru ji ki Fateh. The Sikh node of salutation has gone through a long-drawn process of evolution. The earliest form of Sikh salutation was Pairi Pauna. In one of the life-accounts of Guru Nanak known as Adi Sakhian, the injunction is said to have come down from the Almighty Himself. One day, it is recorded, the Formless (Nirankar) called Baba Nanak into His presence and said:
Nanak, I am greatly pleased with you . . . Listen Nanak. I do, hereby, ordain a
separate Order of yours. In the Kaliyug I shall be known as the True Lord and
you as the Preceptor Lord. . . And, I bless you with a unique Order. The greeting
of your order shall be Pairi Pauna (I bow at your feet), whereas the greeting of
the Vaisnavas shall be Ram Kishan, of the Sannyasis, Om Namo Narayanaya, of
the Yogis, Adesa, and of the Muhammdans, Salam ‘Alaikum.
But O Nanak, all those who come into your fold, shall greet one another with
Pairi Pauna, the reply in each case being Satguru Ko Pairi Pauna.
This quotation is from a seventeenth century compilation. We have still an earlier testimony vouchsafing that in the early days of Sikhism, the Sikhs had, as their greeting.Pairi Pauna and the practice of touching each other’s feet. Bhai Gurdas, a contemporary of the Fifth and Sixth Gurus, mentions the practice of pairi pauna, i.e. touching the feet, in very clear terms. He writes:
(In the Court of Guru Nanak)
The Ruler and the Pauper were equal.
He brought into vogue the practice of bowing at each other’s feet.
What a wonderful feat the Beloved wrought!
Lo, the head bows at the feet.
Do not give up the practice of bowing at others’ feet.
For in the Kaliyug this is the path.
A Sikh should adopt the practice of bowing at another’s feet;
He should listen to the advice of the (other) Gursikh, and ponder over what he says.
These examples can by multiplied and even supplemented with sakhis (stories) from the Puratan Janam Sakhi and even from the Janam Sakhi of Guru Nanak by Miharban. Both these life-accounts contain numerous stories to show the prevalence of this form of greeting at an early stage of the evolution of the Sikh Panth.
In the Bala Janam Sakhi occurs a different form of greeting. Instead of Pairi Pauna of the Puratan cycle and of the Miharban tradition, we have here, Kartar Kartar (Creator! Creator!) meaning let us bow to the Lord, and Sat Kartar (Creator is True). This, we are told, was anterior to the former. Even Miharban himself writes:
At that time whosoever of the Sikhs came, he did not greet others with the word, Pairi Pae Ji, nor would the addressee say, Satguru Ko Pairi Pauna. On the contrary, whosoever came, he would greet others saying, “Kartar, Kartar, O’ Sikhs of the Guru, Kartar, Kartar.” All the Sikhs who came to Guru Nanak, too greeted him saying, “Kartar, Kartar.” The congregation was known as the Kartaris.
Supporting evidence may be found in Guru Nanak naming the town he raised on the bank of the River Ravi, Kartapur. Besides, we have the testimony of Zulfikar Ardistani, author of the famous Persian work Dabistan-I-Mazahib. He lived during the time of the Sixth Guru. He has left us a graphic account of Nanak-panthis or Sikhs of his time. He records in his book that the followers of Guru Nanak were known as Kataris. This obviously refers to their practice of repeating Kartar Kartar on meeting each other.
So Kartar Kartar is the first form of greeting which became prevalent in Sikhism. It was, however, soon replaced with Pairi Pauna. It is recorded in Adi Sakhian that when Bhai Lahina came from Guru Nanak back to Mate di Sarai, Takht Mall, a close associate of Bhai Lahina came to see him. Bhai Lahina, who had by now become Guru Angad, wanted to receive him with an embrace. But Takht Mall avoided this saying, “You are back from a place of great reverence. I stand to gain by bowing at your feet “and not hugging).” This probably was the beginning of the new form of greeting. And, the practice spread. It touched its zenith at Amritsar, the town founded by Guru Ram Das. The Guru had encouraged people from all castes, high and low, and from all classes, to come and settle in the new town. All of them greeted each other with Pairi Pauna and touched one another’s feet. This practice continued for a long time; and even today it is not unlikely that one would be greeted by an old citizen with the words Pairi Pauna Ji, razi ho” (I bow at your feet, Sir, how do you do?).
The next vital change occurred when the Tenth Guru created the Khalsa. Since Guru Gobind Singh wanted a complete transformation of Sikh society, he ordered the overhauling of two fundamental institutions of the Sikhs. The first was the substitution of Khande di Pahul for Charan Pahul and the second was the substitution of Vahiguru Ji Ka Khalsa Vahiguru Ji Ki Fateh for Pairi Pauna. Sarup Das Bhalla, Mahima Prakash, describes the end of the custom of the Charan Pahul graphically in the following verse:
The Guru collected the washing of his feet in a jar,
Sealed its mouth with wax,
And consigned it to the River Sutlej
In its place he now ordained Khande di Pahul
Thus, the practice of administering Charan Pahul was discarded and along with it was discarded the former mode of greeting,Pairi Pauna. In its place the Panth was now given a new salutation, a new form of greeting, Vahiguru Ji Ka Khalsa Vahiguru Ji Ki Fateh (Khalsa belongs to God, and to Him alone belongs the Victory).
The proper salutation for the Khalsa—Vahiguru Ji Ka Khalsa Vahiguru Ji Ki Fateh—was made current among the Sikhs by command of Guru Gobind Singh at the time of manifestation of the Khalsa in 1699. Vahiguru (also spelt Vahguru) is expressive of wonder or ecstasy at Divine infinitude or glory. Vahiguru has become the most characteristic name for God in the Sikh creed, like Allah in Islam. It occurs in the Guru Granth Sahib “Saviayyas by Bhatt Gayand, p. 1402) repeated ecstatically as a mantra. In the compositions of Guru Arjan (GG, 376), it is used in the inverted form as Gur Vahu. Bhai Gurdas in hisVaran has used it as being synonymous with the absolute, the Creator in a number of places (I. 49, IV. 17, VI. 5, IX. 13, XI. 3 and 8, XII. 17, XII. 2, XXIV. 1, Xl. 22). This prolific use by one whose philosophical exposition of Sikh metaphysics and mysticism is the earliest on record indicates that by the time of Guru Arjan (the Savaiyyas referred to above were also composed by poets, Bhatts, attending on him) Vahiguru as the Sikh name for God was well established and had acquired the overtones which have since been associated with it as expression of the Sikh monotheistic affirmation of faith.
Because of this close and inalienable association, Guru Gobind Singh, at the time of introducing the new form on initiation with adjuration to the initiates to maintain a stern moral discipline and to cultivate qualities of crusaders and martyrs for the faith, administered the new faith in terms of the name of God which was held in the highest reverence in the tradition handed down to him. The new form of salutation, which annulled all the previous ones till then prevalent in Sikh society, was enunciation as Vahiguru Ji Ka Khalsa Vahiguru Ji Ki Fateh—the Khalsa is the Lord’s own: to the Lord is the Victory. This two-fold affirmation was, in the first place, expression of a special relationship between God and those who dedicated their entire life to His service. Second, it was the expression of that faith in the ultimate triumph of the forces of goodness which, despite all apparent setbacks, trials and travail, is the just and essential end of the fight between good and evil in the world. This faith has been asserted over and over again by Guru Nanak and his spiritual successors. After being administeredamrit (water stirred with a two-edged dagger, sanctified by recitation of the Guru’s word and thus transmuted into the elixir of immortality), each initiate was adjured to raise the affirmation, Vahiguru Ji Ka Khalsa Vahiguru Ji Ki Fateh! This was duly repeated, and the tradition continues till this day. Apart from being used as the affirmation of faith, this formula is also the orthodox approved Sikh form of salutation.
Two terms in this formula need elucidation. Khalsa is an Arabic word, meaning, literally, ‘pure’ and used in the administration terminology of the Muslim State system in India for lands or fiefs directly held by the sovereign and not farmed out to landlords on conditions of military service and of making over to the State a share of the produce. In the term Khalsa, both these meanings are discerned. In one of Guru Hargobind’s Hukamnanas and in one of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s, Khalsa is used for the Guru’s devotees, with the implication particularly as ‘the Guru’s Own!’ As Guru Gobind Singh adopted the term and gave it centrality in the enunciation of the creed, the idea of purity perhaps came to acquire primacy. Khalsa occurs also in the Guru Granth Sahib (GG, 654), where it is used in the sense of ‘pure’, ‘emancipated.’ This term appealed to Guru Gobind Singh as being truly expressive of the vision of a noble, heroic race of men that he was creating.
Fateh, fath in Arabic, literally means opening or forcing the portal of a besieged fort, implying victory. It has been used in the Qur’an in the sense of victory, and one of the attributive names of God in the Muslim tradition is Fatih (lit. Opener, i.e. Vanquisher over all evil forces). While jai, jaikar have been used in the Sikh tradition for victory and are used thus even in the Dasam Granth, jai was dropped from the new Sikh tradition, though for shouts of victory the term jaikara has become firmly established. Fateh was adopted as the current popular term for triumph or victory and made part of the Sikh affirmation and salutation. Fateh as faith occurs once in the Guru Granth Sahib (GG, 258). “Phahe kate mite gavan fatih bhai mani jit—the noose of Yama hath been cleft, transmigration hath ceased and, with the conquest of the self, true victory hath been achieved.” The implied meaning here is of a moral victory. Jit, a word from Indian tradition, like jaikara had got established also in Sikh tradition, and in the invocation Panth ki Jit (Victory to the Panth) is repeated in the Sikh congregational prayer daily. Fateh nonetheless remains the prime Sikh term for victory, and has been repeated again and again in Sikh history, down from the Persian couplet put on Sikh coins (Deg-o-Tegh-o-Fateh-e-nusrat bedarang, yaft az Nanak Guru Gobind Singh) to the common daily parlance of the Sikh people, wherein every success is designated as fateh.
1. Piar Singh, ed., Adi Sakhian. Amritsar 1983
2. Kirpal Singh, Janam Sakhi Prampara. Patiala, 1969
3. Narain Singh, Varan Bhai Gurdas Ji Satik. Amritsar, 1960
4. Kahn Singh, Bhai,Gurmat Martand. Amritsar, 1938
5. Ganda Singh, Hukamname. Patiala, 1967
6. Kapur Singh, Parasapraprasna. Amritsar, 1989
7. Macauliffe, M. A., The Sikh Religion. Oxford, 1909
8. Cole, W. Owen and Piara Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Delhi, 1978
Source – Concepts in Sikhism, pp. 41-50
By: Gurbachan Singh Talib