JANAM SĀKHĪ, i.e. life story, is the term used to designate traditional narratives of the life of Gurū Nānak. Although the compound is occasionally applied to narratives concerning later Gurūs or other religious teachers too, it is normally confined to those which relate in anecdotal prose the life and teachings of the First Master. Several janam sākhī traditions have evolved, particularly during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From small beginnings these traditions rapidly expanded and diversified, supplementing the early nucleus with additional anecdotes and interpretative discourses.
At first the various anecdotes apparently circulated and multiplied orally, a process which continued until the twentieth century. Collections were, however, recorded at an early date (probably during the latter part of the sixteenth century), and it is to these early recorded selections that the distinctive traditions can be traced. Extant manuscripts enable us to follow the evolution and growth of these traditions. A further impetus was provided by the introduction of lithographic printing during the late nineteenth century, and, by the turn of the century, the janam sākhīs constituted a substantial corpus of both narrative and exegesis. Their language is mostly Punjabi and their script almost always Gurmukhī.
The word sākhī has developed from Sanskrit sākṣya which means 'evidence' or 'testimony'. In Punjabi, however, the term sākhī means a story or anecdote. Similarly, janam is a term with multiple meanings. Ordinarily it means birth, but in theological context it stands for life, as in the phrase janam saphahlā karanā (to spend the life in a fruitful way). As such the connotation of janam sākhī is life story or a biography. If we accept the original Sanskrit meanings of these terms, janam sākhī would broadly mean 'the evidence of the divine mission of the Gurū'. Gurū Nānak had taught a message of liberation and had himself lived a life which gave visible expression to that message. Anecdotal descriptions of that life provided a series of "testimonies" to the divine quality of his teachings and each individual story thus came to be known as a sākhī. This usage was apparently carried over to the first recorded collections of these stories which were termed simply sākhīāṅ.
The word sākhī designating a section or chapter of janam sākhī is generally confined to the collections which are properly called narrative janam sākhīs. Although this is the most popular form, it is not the only one encompassed by the customary usage of the term. There are in fact two major forms, one of them erected upon the other but differing substantially from it. The second variety is the so-called gosṭ form. A janam sākhī embodying this form consists not of a collection of narrative anecdotes, but of a series of discourses structured in accordance with a standard pattern. Each of its subdivisions is thus known not as a sākhī but as a gosṭ (discourse). The gosṭ form builds upon the standard sākhī form in that it often uses narrative incidents as a setting for an appropriate discourse. There is, however, no doubt concerning the interest and intention of those who compiled janam sākhīs of the gosṭ variety. Almost invariably their emphasis is firmly upon the discourse element, and frequently the narrative setting is dropped altogether. It is, moreover, a particular variety of discourse which interests these compilers. Their purpose is strictly exegetical and the discourses which they record consist of extended commentaries on the bāṇīs of Gurū Nānak.
In its narrative form the janam sākhī probably owes a debt to some earlier models. India had an unbroken tradition of biographies of religious men. As such janam sākhī may be a continuation of an existing genre. The simple anecdote lent itself as readily to the needs of the early Sikh community as to the previous generations of Punjabis. In both cases the intention was to communicate with terse conviction the claims of particular religious teachers. Believing that Gurū Nānak had spoken as the one true Gurū, his early followers naturally sought to demonstrate this belief by relating incidents which testify to the divine favour bestowed upon him. In some cases the divine favour is manifested in a miraculous happening. More commonly, it appears in the form of divinely inspired utterances. By his wisdom as much as by his power, Gurū Nānak is witnessed as the true Gurū.
The miraculous element in the narrative janam sākhīs is well illustrated by the everpopular sākhī concerning the monster's cauldron. Details vary in the different traditions, but its earliest form appears to be as follows. Gurū Nānak, having lost his way in a wilderness, was there seized by a rākṣasa (demon or monster). The monster set about boiling him in a cauldron of oil, a plan which was frustrated when the intended victim dipped his finger in the seething liquid, instantly cooling it. Confounded by this miracle the monster fell at his feet and became a disciple.
An example of anecdotes testifying to the Gurū's wisdom is provided by a story describing visits to two very different villages. Having been treated inhospitably by the first of these, Gurū Nānak and his companion Mardānā proceeded on to the second where, in contrast to their previous experience, they received a warm welcome. To Mardānā's surprise Gurū Nānak declared, upon leaving the hospitable village, "May this town be uprooted and its inhabitants scattered." In response to Mardānā's protest he explained that, whereas the inhabitants of the first village would, if dispersed, corrupt others, the occupants of the second village would carry with them truth and goodness.
The narrative janam sākhīs also incorporate numerous discourses constructed in a comparatively rudimentary fashion and producing in consequence a much simpler product than the didactic discourse of the gosṭ form. These narrative discourses are based upon appropriate selections from the works of Gurū Nānak (normally a complete hymn, or a short series of hymns). A setting is briefly described wherein the Gurū encounters a particular individual or group of persons, and a standard variety of dialogue then follows. The interlocutor begins with a question or comment, to which Gurū Nānak replies with the first stanza of one of his hymns. The interlocutor's response produces the second stanza, and in this manner the dialogue proceeds through to the conclusion of the hymn. In most instances these narrative discourses embody authentic compositions of Gurū Nānak, only a few present apocryphal works or, mistakenly, compositions by later Gurūs.
The gosṭ form of the janam sākhī builds upon this narrative pattern, and specifically on the narrative discourse. Normally an interlocutor will be provided and the actual structure of the gosṭ depending as it does upon selected compositions of Gurū Nānak, generally imitates that of its narrative model. In terms of actual content and emphasis, however, there is a substantial difference. The narrative element recedes into comparative insignificance. To each scriptural quotation, the author adds the standard formula tis kā paramārath ("its sublime meaning") and then appends an extended. commentary on the quoted stanza. In its mature farm the gosṭ collates a series of appropriate compositions in order to expound a particular theme.
This constitutes the didactic discourse as opposed to the narrative discourse, and, because the intention has been so plainly transferred from narrative to exegesis, it may be questioned whether the traditional title of janam sākhī properly belongs to the gosṭ form. Janam Sākhīs which follow the gosṭ model are the work of the distinctive Miharbān tradition and the massive Miharbān, Janam Sākhī is the only example of a collection in which this form predominates. Almost all narrative janam sākhīs do, however, incorporate gosṭs borrowed, generally, from Miharbān sources.
To the two major discourse forms a minor variety should be added. This is the heterodox discourse. Heterodox discourses normally employ apocryphal works as their basis, and the exegesis which they offer is generally heretical. The narrative element recedes even further and commonly the discourse amounts to little more than the reciting of a composition spuriously attributed to Gurū Nānak. Some clearly derive from Sūfī sources, while others with a marked haṭhayoga emphasis betray Nāth origins. The Prāṇ Saṅglī is perhaps the most famous of these heterodox discourses. They are not a prominent feature of the janam sākhīs.
For the origins of these forms and the abundant material which they present we must turn, as one could expect, to the life and teachings of the Gurū upon whom they all so clearly focus. Although no extant janam sākhī can be dated earlier than the middle of the seventeenth century, there is no sufficient reason to doubt that the earliest nucleus of sākhīs must have evolved a century earlier during the latter half of the Gurū's lifetime or in the period immediately following his death in 1539. The janam sākhīs present unanimous testimony concerning details of his birth, parentage, and family connections, and there is unanimity concerning the general outline of his life story.
The importance of the janam sākhīs was particularly marked during the seventeenth century during which period they played a vital cohesive role. Throughout its history the Sikh community has stressed personal loyalty to the Gurū, and, until the institution of the Khālsā, this sense of loyalty constituted its principal cohesive bond. As the community grew in numbers and geographical extent, opportunities of immediate contact with the Gurūs became progressively fewer and in these circumstances an effective substitute for the personal presence became necessary. This need was in part fulfilled by communal singing of the Gurūs hymns (kīrtan) and in part by the reading or exposition of the janam sākhīs (kathā) .
W. H. McLeod