Guru Nanak And The Art Of Listening


By Zile Singh

“Through listening occult powers and saintliness are gained.

Heaven and earth are made stable,

And the world and lower worlds revolve.

Through listening, death does not touch.

Nanak says: Through listening devotees attain bliss,

And sin and sorrow are destroyed.

Guru Nanak laid great emphasis on listening. In his discourses when he was put a question by the seeker he would ask Mardana, his close companion, to play on the Rebeck (rabab) and he himself used to start singing. The first word Nanak used to utter was ‘Suno’ means ‘Listen’. In Punjabi, it is “sharvana’. At the face of it, it looks strange that one can attain bliss and sins and sorrows are destroyed only through listening. We have been listening for infinite births and nothing has happened. It is our experience that no matter how much we hear, we remain the same. The fact is that our vessel or our mind is greasy. The words fall on it but they slide off, leaving us untouched. It is like ‘listening from one ear and letting off from another’. We can learn the importance of listening through the example of a newborn child. The child has no knowledge of reading or writing but very soon he develops the faculty of talking in his/her mother tongue fluently. The only reason is that his attention to listen is total to any sound whether that sound is from a member of the family or any other natural noise. The child absorbs himself fully in the process of listening as well as seeing. Gradually, in a short span of time, he masters the art of right listening and seeing. Similarly, Nanak says that if we listen to the Mother Nature as attentively as a child, we can uncover many mysteries of the Nature. For Nanak, God resides in his creation. “ Khalkat mein hee Khuda basta hai”. The Creator lives in his Creation. The Creator or God goes on continuously talking to us in different ways. We need an intuitive eye and an attentive ear to listen to the language of Nature. It is also clear that God has its own language different than any worldly language. Nanak, implicitly as well as explicitly explained that Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Arabic or even the largest spoken English language will not serve the purpose in front of God. God’s language is of the Silence. It is of ‘surrender’. When Nanak talks about “ pataloan patala and aakashon akash” he is mentioning that there is total silence in the lower and the upper worlds. The only sound is of Ek Omkar. It is a sound of the silence.

Then, where are we lacking that simple, ungrammatical, unstructured and the childlike language? Unfortunately, we have many tricks and devices not to listen. If our scriptures, beliefs and doctrines stand in the way we will never be able to listen. Whatever falls on your ear will be nothing but the echo of your own concepts. A Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or a Buddhist listens only that which strengthens his mind and his belief. The Truth has nothing to do with your mind and belief. It is beyond the mind. Thus Nanak’s words will seem untrue. We ignore the sound of Ek Omkar. Another way to escape listening is to fall asleep when something significant is being said. Most of the people go to religious discourses just to fall asleep. You look as if you are listening but you are not awake. You are busy in your own internal dialogue. According to Guru Nanak, he alone is capable of listening who has broken this internal dialogue. This is the art of Sharvana or listening. When the art of listening is mastered, the guru is present everywhere. If sharvana is not known, all the masters sitting in front of you cannot make you listen. The guru is – only when you can listen. Nanak says, “Listen and forget about sin, forget about evil. When you start listening, a new path begins to unfold in your life. A new spark will kindle a fire that will burn away your sins. Mahavira and the Buddha also spoke about ‘samyak shravana’ – right listening.

Nature has music for those who listen in silence. The Hindus call it Om or Aum, the Sikhs call it Ek Omkar, the Christian call it Amen and the Muslims call it Allah. Also, the quieter you become, the more you can listen. After listening if you interpret, it becomes a speech and if you reflect, it becomes meditation, contemplation or simran.

Intimacy with God is not experienced through monolog prayers but through reflective listening as well as earnest petitioning. Meditation begins as soon as you submerge yourself in any one word. Any word would do but no word is as beautiful as Omkar. The English poet, Tennyson repeated his own name and lost himself in its resonance.

We are very cunning. When a person like Guru Nanak speaks, we add our own meaning to his words as it suits us. We do not reshape ourselves in Nanak’s words. Though his songs (bani) he is directing us towards the Destination, but we have made him The Destination. Fear of silence, distorted knowledge of the Scriptures, cheap music literature and entertainment, being closed to what He might say in unconventional ways are some basic factors which are hindrances to our proper art of listening.

Mr. Zile Singh is much respected Link Columnist, writer, a Vipassana Meditator and has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Human Rights. He can be reached at [email protected]