JĀPU, with the Punjabi complimentary Jī commonly suffixed to it as an honorific, is the opening composition of Sikh Scripture, the Gurū Granth Sāhib. At the head of the table of contents of the volume, this composition is recorded as Japu Nīsāṇu, meaning the 'flag composition Japu' or, according to some other exegets 'authenticated Japu'. The title Japu is from the verb japanā (lit. to repeat orally) or what is meant for meditating or repeating, usually silently, with or without the help of a rosary, of the name of a deity or of a mantra (lit. spell, incantation) . Japujī is the most riveting Sikh prayer recited by the devout early in the morning. The composition is not assigned to any particular rāga or musical measure, as is the rest of the Scriptural text. It, however, forms part of the liturgy for the preparation of amrit, consecrated water used in the Khālsā initiatory rites.
Japujī is universally accepted to be the composition of Gurū Nānak, the founding prophet of Sikhism, although, unlike other scriptural hymns and compositions, it remains anonymous without being credited individually to any of the Gurūs. Opinion is however divided about the date and manner of its composition. One conjecture is that it came to be given its present form and arrangement as a serialized collection of some of Gurū Nānak's revelatory meditations at a later period of his life at Kartārpur-on-Rāvī, possibly by Bhāī Lahiṇā (Gurū Aṅgad) at his own behest. The śloka at the close of the Japujī also appears with a slight variation in Gurū Granth Sāhib, p. 146, where it has been unambiguously credited to the second Gurū (Gurū Aṅgad). That the thought was Gurū Nānak's own is evidenced in his śabda in Rāg Mārū (GG, 1020 -21). But in a fragment of the Purātan Janam Sākhī, that has come down to us, the Japujī is recorded to have been uttered by Gurū Nānak at the time of his mystical encounter with the Master which is supposed to have occurred in the River Beīṅ much earlier.
Preceded by what is called Mūl Mantra, the basic statement of creed, the Japu comprises an introductory śloka and 38 stanzas traditionally called pauṛīs and a concluding śloka attributed by some to Gurū Aṅgad. The initial śloka too appears again in the Scripture as a preamble to the 17th aṣṭapadī of Gurū Arjan's famous composition Sukhmanī, the Psalm of Peace. The entire composition including the Mūl Mantra, two ślokas and the thirty-eight pauṛīs form the sacred morning prayer Japujī Sāhib or Japu Nīsāṇu. It serves as a prologue to the Scripture and encapsules Gurū Nānak's creed and philosophy, as a whole. It embodies in a concentrated and compact style his vision of the Ultimate Reality and traces the path which a seeker must adopt to realize it.
The Mūl Mantra, comparable to Gāyatrī Mantra of traditional Hinduism and the Kalimā of Islam, defines the nature of Reality as the One Transcendent, the Timeless Creator, owing Its Existence to Itself, realizable only through the Gurū's grace. The Truth or the True One, as the initial śloka announces, ever was, is, and shall forever be. He is unattainable through intellectual workouts or austerities. How can the Truth be realized? How can the barrier of falsehood be demolished? The answer is, by moulding one's life in accordance with hukam and razā, i.e. His Will and Pleasure. Hukam is the regulative principle controlling the entire created existence. The understanding of hukam will rid the seeker of his I-am-ness which individuates him and throws a wall around him separating him from his spiritual essence. One can attain the truth by glorifying His Name and singing constantly His praises. The self-governing Lord of Lords is unknowable, indescribable and inscrutable. The individual's one and only one duty is to pray that he always remembers Him who is the sustainer of all that exists. There is no other way to comprehend Him except to attune our consciousness to Him by listening to or about Him (suṇiai or śravaṇa). Realization will come through reflection, meditation and faith (manana and mannan) and a loving remembrance (bhāu or nididhyāsana) . Among the objects of reflection and meditation are the illimitable expanse and variety of the created nature. Through this awareness of the vastness of His creation will break forth upon the seeker's consciousness the ineffability of God, the ever-existent Creator, true King of kings whose will reigns supreme. Man must learn to submit to His will and pleasure.
This in a nutshell is the substance of the teaching underlying stanzas 1 to 27, couched in a simple and direct style. The remaining stanzas, though exploring the same theme of search for God-realization are cast in a more concentrated idiom and are pregnant with classical allusions and mystic content. It is for this reason that some commentators ascribe this part of the Japu to a later period of the Gurū's life. Pointing the way to realization, Gurū Nānak immediately rejected the path of the Nātha Yogīs, and their magical and mystical powers and practices.
The path to God-realization comprises five stages. Man's spiritual progress begins in Dharam Khaṇḍ, that is, the realm of duty or morality. The first requisite is the purity of conduct. This temporal and spatial earth is the field for righteous action. From here, God in his grace will lead the individual, if he has been living virtuously and if he has been true to his social obligations, to the next stage. The stage following will be that of Giān Khaṇḍ, the region of knowledge. This will mean the dawning in the individual's consciousness of the knowledge of the vastness of God's creation and the comparative puniness and insignificance of the individual's existence. The third stage is Saram or Śrama Khaṇḍ, the region of toil--not physical hard work but inward cogitation and meditation on knowledge gathered through the physical faculties so as to train the reflective faculty, intellect, and mind in such a way as to acquire an understanding of the godly and spiritual qualities. But the real spiritual force comes into effect at the next stage, Karam Khaṇḍ, the region of grace. It is the descent of God's grace that ushers the seeker's soul to vistas of indescribable beauty, heroism and bliss. Beyond these four regions is the region of eternal Truth, Sach Khaṇḍ, the abode of the Formless One creating innumerable universes and revelling in the vision of His own creation.
In the last pauṛī (stanza 38), the Gurū employing the imagery of the mint shows how the elixir of the True Word is prepared and eternal bliss attained by cultivating certain qualities issuing from the Grace of God. "Patience is to act (diligently) as the goldsmith does and moral discipline the smithy; right understanding his anvil and knowledge his hammer; God's fear his bellows and sustained hard work his fire; thus does the elixir drop into the vessel of devotion and the Word realized in the true mint."
In the concluding śloka, the imagery used changes. "Air is the Gurū, water the father, and the vast earth the mother. The whole world is playing in the laps of the two nurses, i.e., Day and Night." The great sustaining principle, Dharma, watches their deeds and categorizes them whether they are acceptable or not. Those whose actions prove acceptable will obtain seats closer and others will be cast far behind. Those, sayeth Nānak, "who have cherished the Name Divine will emerge triumphant and save not only themselves, but countless others, too." The śloka has traditionally become part of the Sikh liturgy and is recited singly or in unison by the saṅgat at the end of a service.
The language of the Japu is old-Punjabi mixed with sādh bhāshā or sadhūkāṛī, the lingua franca of holy men in medieval India, with liberal borrowings of conceptual vocabulary from Arabic and Persian as well as from Braj and Sanskrit, their form freely modified to suit the Punjabi idiom, script and inflectional system. Even some philosophical terms have been invested with special connotations different from those carried in the source languages. The style is generally terse, compact and direct, and mythical allusions are minimal. The vision of the poet far transcends time and space as exemplified in phrases such as 'asaṅkh nāv asaṅakh thāv'. ādi, anīlu, anādi, anāhati' and khaṇḍ, maṇḍal, varbhaṇḍā.' The message of the Japu is abiding in nature and universal in application. It simply describes the nature of Ultimate Reality and the way to comprehend it, and is not tied to any particular religious system. In a word it simply defines Sikhism, the religious view of Gurū Nānak. The Japu carries an important message. Over the centuries it has shaped the Sikh ethos of devotion and action.