ĀRATĪ, from Sanskrit ārātrik, meaning the light or the vessel containing it which is waved before an idol, generally in the clockwise direction, accompanied by the chanting of mantras. This is also the name given the ceremony which for the Hindus is a mode of ritual worship to propitiate the deity. In the Sikh system, which totally rejects image worship, there is no sanction for this form of worship. An incident in this regard is often summoned from the Janam Sākhīs, traditional accounts of Gurū Nānak's life. During his travels across Eastern India, Gurū Nānak accompanied by the minstrel, Mardānā, stopped near the temple of Jagannāth, Lord of the Earth, which is the title of Lord Viṣṇu, second god of the Hindu Triad. Gurū Nānak and Mardānā stopped near the shrine upon which sat centuries of history mute and immobilized. The notes from Mardānā's rebeck touched the devotees' hearts with fresh fervour. Several of them came to hear the Gurū's word. The temple priests felt angry and held the Gurū guilty for not making adoration to the deity within the sacred enclosure. The local chief whose name has been described as Krishanlāl one day visited the Gurū and invited him to join the āratī, or the evening service of lights, in the temple. The Gurū readily offered to go with him.
As dusk fell, the priests lighted the lamps and the sumptuous ritual for which the devotees had been waiting began. Twinkling lights fed by ghee were placed on a jewel-studded salver, amid flowers and incense, and worshipfully swung from side to side by the priests in front of the enshrined image to the accompaniment of the chanting of hymns, blowing of conches and the ringing of bells. The priests had a complaint as they concluded. The Gurū had remained seated in his place and not participated in the ceremony. The Gurū burst into a song :
The sky is the salver
And the sun and the moon the lamps.
The luminous stars on the heavens are the pearls.
Scented air from the sandal-clad hills is the incense,
The winds make the fan for Thee,
And the vast forests wreaths of flowers.
The unstruck music of creation is the trumpet.
Thus goes on the āratī (adoration) for Thee,
O Thou dispeller of doubt and fear!
Gurū Nānak taught the hearers how Nature's tribute to the Creator was superior to any ritualistic oblation offered before images.
In spite of such depreciation of the ritual, āratī was performed in some of the Sikh temples under Brāhmaṇical influence. But in the Sikh case the āratī was performed in front of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Wherever the word āratī occurred in the Gurū Granth Sāhib, the hymn was pressed into service. For instance, there was a chain of śabdas culled from the compositions of Ravidās, Saiṇ, Kabīr and Dhannā. Ravidās's hymn begins with the line, "Lord, Thy Name to me is the āratī and holy ablutions. All else is false show" (GG, 694). Says Saiṇ, "May I be a sacrifice unto the Lord : that for me is the āratī performed with lamps, ghee and incense" (GG, 695). Kabīr's hymn is in the same vein. It says, "Brothers! that is how the Immaculate Lord's āratī is made. . . . Let Divine essence be the oil, the Lord's Name the wick, and enlightened self the lamp. Lighting this lamp we invoke the Lord" (GG, 1350). Dhannā's hymn is simply a prayer for the common needs of life (GG, 695).
It is clear that these hymns reject the āratī ritual and lay down loving devotion shorn of all formal practices as the path of true worship. The reformists of the Siṅgh Sabhā school as well as those of the more strident Akālī school discarded the ritual waving of the lighted lamps placed in a tray before the Gurū Granth Sāhib. There could, however, be no objection to the singing of the āratī hymns occurring in the Gurū Granth Sāhib. The Sikh Rahit Māryādā or religious code of the Sikhs issued under the authority of the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee, a statutorily elected body representative of the entire Sikh community, lays down that āratī with incense and lighted lamps and ringing of bells is not permissible. Although āratī ritual is prohibited and no longer practised in Sikh places of worship, the continuous singing of the five Scriptural āratī hymns, often supplemented by some verses from the Dasam Granth, by the holy choir or by the entire saṅgat in unison, is still practised at places as part of the concluding ceremonies for an akhaṇḍ pāṭh, end-to-end unbroken reading of the Holy Book, or at the close of the evening service at a gurdwārā.
Major Gurmukh Siṅgh (Retd.)