BĀLĀ JANAM SĀKHĪ, The Janam Sākhīs of the Bālā tradition owe both their name and their reputation to Bhāī Bālā, a Sandhu Jaṭṭ from Gurū Nānak's village of Talvaṇḍī. According to the tradition's own claims, Bālā was a near contemporary of Gurū Nānak who accompanied him during his period in Sultānpur and during the course of his extensive travels. If these claims are correct and if in fact the eponymous tradition records the authentic narrative of such a man, it must follow that the Bālā Janam Sākhīs provide an essentially trustworthy account of the early life of Gurū Nānak. For more than a hundred years, from the late eighteenth until the early twentieth century, this claim was scarcely challenged. During the course of the present century it has been vigorously assaulted, without being wholly demolished. To this day popular portraits of the Gurū, flanked by Mardānā the minstrel and Bālā the attendant, testify to a continuing acceptance of its claims.
The tradition's claims to eye-witness authenticity are set forth at the beginning of all Bālā Janam Sākhīs. The earliest extant version opens as follows :
In the year Sammat fifteen hundred and eighty-two, S. 1582 [AD 1525] on the fifth day of the bright half of the month of Vaisākh, Paiṛā Mokhā, a Khatrī of Sultānpur, wrote this book. Gurū Aṅgad commanded that it be written. Paiṛā recorded the dictation of Bālā, a Sandhū Jaṭṭ who had come from Talvaṇḍī, the village of Rāi Bhoi. He had come in search of Gurū Aṅgad. The recording of his narrative took two months and seventeen days to complete. All the facts and all the places visited by Gurū NānakJī were faithfully and fluently described by Bhāī Bālā, with the result that Gurū Aṅgad was greatly pleased with him. Bhāī Bālā and Mardānā, the bard, accompanied Bābā Nānak on his travels and Bhāī Bālā was with him during the period he spent at the commissariat (of Daulat Khān in Sultānpur).
The text then relates the circumstances which brought Bālā to Gurū Nānak's successor, Gurū Aṅgad, who was at that time residing in the village of Khaḍūr . Gurū Aṅgad who previously knew nothing of Bālā, was one day reflecting on the fact that he did not know the date of Gurū Nānak's birth. Bālā, having only recently discovered the identity and abode of Gurū Nānak's successor, conveniently arrived in Khaḍūr and agreed to bring the first Gurū's horoscope from Talvaṇḍī. When he returned after locating the vital document, Paiṛā Mokhā was deputed to transcribe it. The process of transcription immediately becomes one of dictation as the horoscope, having served its purpose, is forgotten and the writer takes up Bālā's narrative. There then follows the lengthy collection of anecdotes which constitutes the earliest version of the Bālā Janam Sākhī tradition.
Two conflicting theories have been advanced to explain the origin of the earliest of the extant Bālā Janam Sākhīs. Neither accepts outright the text's own claim to represent an authentic narrative of the early life and travels of Gurū Nānak. Such an interpretation is rendered insupportable by the inconsistencies and fantasies which it provides in abundance.
The first theory does, however, affirm a modified version of the Bālā claim. Within the earliest text there are to be found references which are plainly traceable to the seventeenth-century Hindālī sect. These seek to denigrate Gurū Nānak at the expense of Bābā Hindāl, father of the sect's founder. Early in the nineteenth century, Bhāī Santokh Siṅgh suggested that these references were to be explained on the grounds that the original Janam Sākhī authentically dictated by Bhāī Bālā had been mischievously corrupted by Hindālī interpolations. A version of this theory is still current. The profuse legendary material is, it affirms, the product of interpolation. Behind it there lies an original and essentially reliable Janam Sākhī which may be restored by stripping away the extraneous content.
This theory is difficult to sustain in that a mere pruning, however drastic, cannot reduce any of the Bālā texts to a consistent narrative. The second theory takes account of Janam Sākhī as a typical seventeenth-century product, a composite work incorporating the results of a lengthy period of oral growth and transmission. Other extant Janam Sākhīs demonstrate the same process. The Bālā tradition differs in its wealth of fantasy and in its attempt to establish authenticity by the contrived introduction of an eye-witness narrator. Its actual composition may have been the work of the Hindālīs; or a seventeenth-century text may have been interpolated by them in the manner suggested by Santokh Siṅgh. Hindāl interest of some kind is plainly evident in all early manuscripts of the Bālā tradition.
This leaves unsolved the problem of Bālā's identity. It may be safely affirmed that no person of this name could have been the constant companion of Gurū Nānak as none of the other early traditions refer to him. This omission is particularly noteworthy in the case of Bhāī Gurdās. It would, however, be going too far to deny his existence entirely. Bālā Sandhū may well have been a real person.
Although the second of the theories outlined above reduces the Bālā tradition to the level of other early Janam Sākhīs, it does nothing to minimize the importance of the tradition in later Sikh history. Bālā primacy had been firmly established by the end of the eighteenth century and its hold upon nineteenth-century affections is clearly demonstrated by the degree to which such writers as Santokh Siṅgh, Sant Reṇ, and Bhāī Bahilo rely on it. When the introduction of printing produced a spectacular expansion of recorded Janam Sākhī materials, the growth was almost wholly monopolized by the Bālā tradition. Many of the most treasured of all Janam Sākhī anecdotes derive from Bālā sources and, if today one asks for a Janam Sākhī in a bookshop, the volume which is produced will almost certainly be the twentieth-century Bālā version.
Amongst the numerous extant manuscripts of this tradition, two principal recensions are to be found. Whereas the earlier terminates the narrative prior to Gurū Nānak's death, the latter has Gurū Aṅgad relate this episode for Bhāī Bālā's benefit. In order to do so, the latter compiler has borrowed a death narrative from the Miharbān tradition. The oldest of the extant Bālā manuscripts is the earliest of all Janam Sākhī manuscripts of whatever tradition. It bears the date 1715 Bk/AD 1658 and is in a private collection in Delhi. Pañjābī Hatth-likhtāṅ dī Sūchī lists twenty-two Bālā manuscripts in the Punjab. Three are located in London and individual items are to be found in various other places.
Four editions have appeared since the printing press was first used for Janam Sākhīs in 1871. An edition lithographed by Hāfiz Qutab Dīn of Lahore in 1871 generally follows the earlier of the manuscript versions. Thereafter, however, there is progressive and substantial augmenting of the text, culminating in the letter-press version which has been current for most of the twentieth century.
A critical analysis of the linguistic characteristics of Bālā and Purātan Janam Sākhīs reveals that the language of the latter is older than that of the Bālā Janam Sākhī. Auxiliary verb which is conspicuous by its absence in the Gurū Granth Sāhib and has very low frequency in Purātan, appears in Bālā on the pattern of modern Punjabi. Many of the case-inflexions regularly used in the Purātan have disappeared in Bālā . Case-inflexions were a characteristic of the old language, which have been gradually giving way to the postpositions. Again in the use of nasalization, the language of Purātan is akin to that of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Many of the verbal and nominal forms which contain nasalized vowels in Bālā (just as in modern Punjabi) are oral in the Gurū Granth Sāhib as well as in Purātan Janam Sākhī. The Purātan uses the older forms of the adverbs of time and place, whereas the Bālā employs the modern forms of the same adverbs. In general idiom, too, the language of the Purātan Janam Sākhī is certainly older than the language of Bālā Janam Sākhī.
W. H. McLeod