The Voice of a Nation
A Book Review of Sirdar Kapur Singh's PARASARAPRASNA
by MANJYOT KAUR
PARASARAPRASNA, by Kapur Singh. Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, 2001 (3rd ed.). ISBN 81-7770-014-6. 319 pages. Price: Rs. 250.
This book was conceived in 1950, during a period of what the author qualifies as "forced leisure and detention" at Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where he had come on holiday.
In the course of this stay, which was lengthened by circumstances into a semi-permanent one, Sirdar Kapur Singh met an old friend, Sri Sardari Lal Parasara, Principal of Simla's Government School of Arts. For more than a year, the two men made a practice of enjoying long walks and talks together in the rugged woods and snows.
Out of this scholarly intercourse was Parasaraprasna ("The Questions of Parasara") born.
The masterwork of Kapur Singh, National Professor of Sikhism and considered by many to be the faith's outstanding theologian, its every page radiates his amazingly profound erudition and insightful interpretations of various aspects of Sikh identity and institutions.
Indisputably a true "leading light" of Sikhi, he possessed an intellectual arsenal of staggering proportions which he displays most impressively throughout the book, adroitly connecting a mind-blowing array of esoteric and seemingly disparate "dots", in an absolutely awesome comparative study of world religions.
I have not undertaken here to write a formal, comprehensive review of Parasaraprasna; that did not seem appropriate, given it was first published in 1959. The following simply underscores some of the myriad highlights of this work, characterized by its author as "An enquiry into the genesis and unique character of the Order of the Khalsa with an exposition of the Sikh Tenets".
Right from the very first chapter, "The Baisakhi of Guru Gobind Singh", the author puts forth Sikhi as a completely unique religion, utterly at variance with Hinduism, embarking on a lengthy discussion of how the Tenth Master specifically repudiated the latter's four major traditions. In prescribing a new way of life and creating a distinct people owing allegiance to no earthly sovereign or power, the Order of the Khalsa gave rise to a "Third Panth", totally divorced from the Aryan and Semitic religions, "dedicated to the achievement of political ends aimed at the eventual establishment of a universal and egalitarian global community".
Out of the next group of chapters, dealing with even the most arcane aspects of the transformation of a Sikh into a Khalsa, pre-eminent is the one explaining the injunction of keeping long, unshorn hair, the breach of which is viewed more seriously than any other.
Grounding his arguments in "the metaphysical postulates of transcendental aesthetics" (a typical Kapur Singh-like turn of phrase!) and - as he does throughout the book - lavishly studding them with quotes from Gurbani, the author spares no effort to portray the human body as "nothing less than a microcosm of the entire Cosmos". Furthermore, he integrally identifies the beauty of the body's pristine, complete form with holiness and the Godhead itself.
Equally inspiring sections regarding Guru Granth Sahib and the Rite of Amrit soon follow. In the former, Kapur Singh characterizes the Shabd as "the only authentic portrait of the Guru" and "a perceivable record of revealed transcendental wisdom", the acceptance of which leads to beholding the Guru Himself, attaining comprehension of the Truth, and becoming one with it.
In a chapter intriguingly named "Parthenogenesis" (often likened to virgin birth), he terms Amrit chaknaa "the mystery of baptism of the Pure Steel", a "uniquely regenerative act of communion and union with God", engendering a new creation committed to Truth, and "releasing ever-expanding forces of love and service and strength, to form the basis of a new heaven on Earth".
Kapur Singh's monumental knowledge of mythology, world history and comparative religion is in full evidence throughout the concluding chapters. Securing the balance between Church and State, repudiating the Hindu caste system and extolling the Sikh institution of Ardas, the congregational prayer, are just some of the plethora of topics touched upon here.
Like almost every other issue treated in earlier parts of the book, all of these propel the author into immense, sweeping tangents, multi-page discourses which afford the reader dazzling - and often dizzying - glimpses of the labyrinthine twists and turns so innate to his convoluted thought processes. I must confess that while in their thrall, it would not be hyperbole to say that I often felt as if I were astride a runaway horse galloping at breakneck speed, while I simply tried to hang on for dear life!
To give but one example: in what other tome could one possibly find an interpretation of the significance of Guru Gobind Singh's "vision-inducing" jeweled aigrette, an analysis of the effects of colors on the mind, and an exegesis of the "extra-psychical perceptions" provided by yogic disciplines and hallucinogenic drugs presented in such rapid-fire succession?
Dear readers, if all of the above sounds just a bit too formidable for your liking, buck up and be brave! Delving into this book need not be done gingerly, as a "walking on quicksand" experience. In the words of the Introduction to its first edition,Parasaraprasna is, indeed, a "tour de force of living adoration of the Master".
Sikhs of all stripes (and not just those who strictly adhere toMaryada) may justifiably glory in the descriptions of the incomparable beauty and true uniqueness of our faith; non-Sikhs will certainly find much that enlights and delights.
While this work is seldom a gaping door, once prized open, there is genuine treasure to be found for those intrepid enough to explore its pages.
December 28, 2007