Drinking from Love's Cup

Surrender and Sacrifice in the Vars of Bhai Gurdas Bhalla

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Editor(s): 
Rahuldeep Singh Gill
Translator(s): 
Rahuldeep Singh Gill
AAR Religion in Translation
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     2016.
     312 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190624088.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book is also being reviewed in JAAR by Christopher Shackle.

It is generally-agreed that Bhai Gurdas is a figure of unique importance in early Sikh tradition, and that his Punjabi vārs are texts possessing special status in post-scriptural Sikh literature however, the reasons for these such judgments are more often simply repeated, rather than closely examined. Drinking from Love’s Cup by Rahuldeep Singh Gill is therefore particularly welcomed both for its challenge to many of the existing understandings of Bhai Gurdas, and for its attractive presentation through carefully annotated translations of fourteen of the forty vārs.

The first part of the book, entitled “Seeing Gurdas Anew,” offers a critical overview of Gurdas’s mission. As is often the case when dealing with the figures and texts of early Sikhism, present confusions stem from repeated misunderstandings rather than from any lack of industry. Gill provides a list of no fewer than four English translations of the vārs published between 1960 and 2007, as well as the bulky, two-volume version by Shamsher Singh Puri (Singh Brothers, 2009).

Gill’s central argument is that all the vārs are to be dated to the period following the critical turning point created by the martyrdom of Guru Arjan. He shows that the early manuscript in the Lamba collection provides clear evidence of the original ordering of the vārs, running from the present vār 4 through to vār 37, thus suggesting that the famous vār 1 with its condensed account of the life of Guru Nanak is a later addition—probably to be understood as a direct riposte to the schismatic janamsākhī by Miharvan. This understanding paves the way for an account of Gurdas’s understandings of the significance of Arjan’s martyrdom, both for the Sikh community and of the role of Guru Hargobind as his appointed successor. Gill argues strongly against Gurdas’s supposed status as a uniquely privileged scriptural exegete—hence the famous epithet kunjī “key” commonly applied to him—preferring to underline his emphasis on the importance to the community of loving self-sacrifice. Here, Gill sensitively underlines the importance of the Sikh conception of martyrdom in Islamic ideas about the supreme significance of sacrificing life for love. This discussion should prove illuminating to readers who may have been disconcerted by the superficially surprising decision to illustrate the book’s title with the picture on the jacket of a drinking cup belonging to the Emperor Jahangir who ordered Arjan’s execution.

The second part of the book contains fourteen of the vārs, beginning with the vār 4 which Gill believes introduced the original set. The line-by-line translations of each vār are more elegant than most of those which have appeared in earlier versions. These translations are accompanied by helpful notes and followed, in turn, by the very clearly printed Gurmukhi originals. Although it is sometimes awkward to keep referring forward from the translations, to the notes, or to the Gurmukhi, Gill’s translations can profitably be read as stand-alones which should help contemporary readers of English engage directly with a major early Sikh poet whose original significance has too often become obscured.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Shackle is emeritus professor of the modern languages of South Asia at the SOAS, University of London.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rahuldeep Singh Gill is Associate Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University. He lives in Los Angeles with his family.

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