"Soundlessness" in Sikhi
- Ravleen Kaur
14th-century Indian poet Kabir, whose writings are revered by Sikhs, Hindus, and Sufis alike, wrote, “The more I search, the deeper within you are In my awareness dwells your form. Kabir has lost his mind!”
Permeating a myriad of ancient Indian texts is the philosophical concept of anhad nad, or “unstruck sound,” sound without external vibration. This is the sound of the cosmos and of human consciousness, an ultimate Sound that transcends space and time, a sound that has no beginning or end. As described by Sikh scholars and poets alike, this Sound is beyond the paradigm through which language understands the world.
In Hindu tradition, the primordial sound – this “constant hum” – is rendered through Aum or Om, an attempt to codify the ineffability of the universe's Silence into a channel accessible to human beings.
In Sikhism, the Creator may, in fact, be synonymous with this Sound. The first two words in the massive holy text – a revered figure containing hymns that describe the qualities of God – are ik onkar. “Ik”, literally, means “one”. Tracing the semantic footpath of the word “onkar” (pronounced oh-ANg-kaar) reveals that the word, which has come to simply mean “the Creator”, is derived from the sacred syllable “om”. “Ong” produces the same tonality of vibration as “om”. The Creator, then, is the Primordial Sound.
The Power of Music, or Struck Sound
If Sikh spirituality is rooted in various notions of “soundless sound”, then Sikh religious devotion is expressed through anhad nad's counterpoint: audible music.
Sikh religious worship is centered around musical renderings of its holy text, often relayed at community events where the sangat body of people sing in rapture with the musicians. Experiential worship through this music, called shabad kirtan, is a cornerstone of Sikh lived experience. Reminiscent of Sufi music's swelling lilt, Sikh music is essentially is love music, a sonar expression of devotion toward towards the ineffable Beloved.
Most religious and spiritual traditions employ sound in conversing with ideas of the Transcendent – from the Gregorian chant to intonated readings of the Q'uran, from the bellow of the shaman's drum to the African American gospel tradition.
But where does devotion through music and mantra meet the shore of anhad nad, the sound found through the most infinite regress of silence? By losing oneself in audible sound, does inaudible sound emerge?
“There is no end to seeing and hearing
There is no end in sight. ..
What Mantra lies within God' s mind?
The structure of the universe is infinite.
Endless vibrating expansion.”
-Guru Nanak Dev Ji
Anhad nad's elusiveness stems from its inherent mysticism. It must be experienced , not acquired through secondhand knowledge. A certain irony lies in the fact that many adherents of Sikhism recite Guru Nanak's and Kabir's poetry for their rhythmic flavor and supposed healing properties without meditating on messages themselves. And yet this may not be blindness at all; many believe that the very combination of syllabic effect and musical sound may very well produce, in an intuitive sense, more fruitfulness than intellectual ponderings about anhad nad. Guru Nanak writes in the holy text, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib:
“The sound of Your Name so subtle, that It goes unheard,
Resounds endlessly. You have a thousand eyes, forms, feet, noses…And you have none…
I am charmed!”