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Once actor Balraj Sahni asked the late Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, “You have written the national anthem for India. Can you write an international anthem for the whole world?” “It has already been written, not only international but for the entire universe, in the 16th century by Nanak,” replied Tagore. He referred to the Sikh arti (ceremony of light). Gurudev Tagore was so enamoured of this arti that he personally translated it into Bengali.
Every evening in all Gurudwaras, after the recitation of Rehraas Sahib, we can hear a melodious rendition of the arti sung by the Raagis in Raga Dhanashri. This is a tremendously soothing experience, capable of taking us directly into the spiritual realms of devotion through music.
As Guru Arjan Dev has written on page 393 of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji – arti kirtan sada anand. Singing God’s praises is His arti, bringing boundless bliss.
As legend has it, in 1508 CE
Guru Nanak Dev visited the famous temple of Jagannath at Puri in Orrisa, which was very well known for its arti for Lord Krishna. In the evening, priests brought a platter full of many lighted lamps, flowers, incense and pearls and began the arti. Guru Nanak Sahib meanwhile spontaneously gave words to the wonderful arti which was being hummed by Nature before the invisible altar of God, the creator of this universe:
Gagan mein thaal rav chand dipak bane, tarika mandal janak moti,
dhoop malyanlo pavan chavro kare saal banray phulant joti, kaisi arti hoye bhav khandna teri arti.
(SSGSJ page 663)
The sky is puja thaal (platter used for the artis), in which sun and moon are the diyas (lamps)/The stars in the constellations are the jewels/ The wind, laden with sandal-wood fragrance, is the celestial fans/All the flowering fields, forests are radiance! What wonderful worship this is, oh! Destroyer of fear, THIS is your arti!
However, the art that is sung daily in the Gurudwaras is however only partly composed by Guru Nanak Dev Ji. The second stanza, from “Naam tero arti majan muraare Hark e Naam bin jhoothey sagal pasaarey” – SGGSJ page 695 (O Lord, Thy name to me is the arti and holy ablutions. Everything else is false, onward has been composed by Bhagat Ravi Das, who, incidentally, was a cobbler.
The third stanza, “Dhoop deep ghrit saaji arti vaarne jaau kamalapati” (May I be a sacrifice unto the Lord: that for me is the arti performed with lamps, ghee and incense’ (SGGSJ: 695) onwards, was composed by Sant Sain, a barber in the court of Raja Ram, King of Rewa.
The fourth stanza, from “Sun sandha teri dev devaakar adhpat aad samaayi”, ‘Brothers! That is how the Immaculate Lord’s arti is made: Let Divine essence be the oil, the Lord’s Name the wick and the enlightened self, the lamp. By lighting this lamp we invoke the Lord’ (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji: page 1350) onwards, was composed in the same vein by Sant Kabir, the Muslim Julaha (The Weaver).
Thereafter, from “Gopal tera arta jo jan tumhri bhagat karante tin ke kaaj sanvaarta”, ‘O Gopala, accept your arti! You grant the wishes of those who worship you! (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji: page 695) onwards, was composed by Bhagat Dhanna, a simple Jat farmer from Rajasthan.
The final part was composed by Guru Gobind Singh Ji, right from Ya te… maha mun devar ke tap mein sukh pave jag kare ik ved rarey”. The Lord is pleased by penance, prayers, rituals, recitation of scriptures, meditation music and dance of celestial beings and the melody of the arti. The cosmic worlds rejoice and chant the Divine Name onwards That the arti which we sing daily has been composed by two Gurus, a cobbler, a barber, a weaver and a farmer is yet more proof that Sikhism believes in the equality of all human being:
Awal Allah noor upaya/
Kudrat ke sab bandey/
Ek noor te sab jag upjaya/
Kaun bhale ko mande.
‘First of all, God created light; Mother Nature created all human beings equal; from that one Light the entire world came into being; so how do we differentiate that one is better that the other?’