MŪL MANTRA, This is the title commonly given to the opening lines of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, Sikh scripture, or to these lines when they or a portion of them are repeated at the beginning of each new rāga section as contained in the Holy text. This is the primary or fundamental formula of the Sikh faith. Transliterated into Roman script it would read : (ik) oaṅkār satinām kartā purakhu nirbhau nirvairu akāl mūrati ajūnī saibhaṅ gurprasādi. The English paraphrase, given the inherent inadequacies of the genre translation, would read, "God is one; call Him Eternal truth; He is the Supreme creator; He knows no fear and is at enmity with none. His being is Timeless and Formless; He is autogenous, attainable through the grace of the Gurū." Its placing at the beginning of the Sikh Scripture and its use, in its entirety or in part, at a number of places in the text, especially at the opening of new rāga sections indicates the importance in the Sikh tradition of the vision that the Māl Mantra summons. The Mūl Mantra is spoken on all occasions to invoke divine aid, to bless or to sanctify. In usage, the Mūl Mantra corresponds to the numerous Hindu Formulae such as Gāyatrī Mantra, Om Shivāy Namah, Srī Ganeshāya Namah, or Namo Bhagvate Vāsudevah. Similarly, it corresponds to the Islamic Bismillāh-ar-Rahmān-ar-Rahīm, or the Kalimā, Lā illā, il Allāh Muhammad-ur-Rasūl Allāh, the Buddhist Om Mani Padme Hum or Buddham Sharnam Gachchhāmī and similar formulas or invocations in other religious traditions. It is enunciated at the beginning before a new venture in life is undertaken. It is also repeated to fortify the soul against despondency or lower tendencies.
In the sequence in which these epithets are placed, this unique piece brings forth the inner dynamics of the Sikh way of life along with its theology, philosophy, culture, sociology, ethics and aesthetics. It differs fundamentally from the ‘secret' mantras of certain other traditions. Unlike the latter it is communicated to any seeker who sincerely wishes to meditate on it, to live by faith in it. It is used openly and is taught not in a secret session between the initiator and neophyte but in the presence of the assembly.
Besides the Mūl Mantra, there are in the Sikh Scripture other mantras or (śabdas) to render worship, express faith or invoke divine blessings, but the repetition of Mūl Mantra at numerous places establishes its fundamental and supreme importance. It is repeated with due reverence by a person being admitted to the Khālsā brotherhood and is thus also a formula of initiation.
The term Mūl Mantra itself receives early mention in the writings of Sikhism. A hymn of Gurū Nānak in praise of meditation on God, "mūl mantra hari nāmu rasāiṇu, devotion to God's Name, the basic creed of all, is the elixir of immortality (GG, 1040). The Sikh poet and savant Bhāī Gurdās says: "sati nām kartā purakh mūl mantra simran parvānai. " (Let the devotees put faith in Mūl Mantra which enunciates sati nām kartā purakh) and Māntra mūl satiguru bachan ik man hoe arādhai koi (Rare is the devotee who meditates on the Mūl Mantra, the holy Gurū's Word).
Mūl Mantra is, in the first place, the unequivocal and firm assertion of the vision of eternity and immutability of God who is the Creator of the Universe. The quality of eternity is emphasized by representing God as timeless, unborn and self-existent, and by dissociating him from fear and rancour. Emphasis is also placed on devotion and on seeking, in all humility, the Divine grace without which realization is not possible.
Ik Oaṅkār is composed of two parts : the numeral Ik, or one, stands for the sole Formless Reality : signifying His existence as well as His oneness, and Oaṅkār (Oṁkār) is expressive of Absoluteness of God and is synonymous with Brahm. The root-word of Oṁkār is of course Oṁ which occurs in Indian philosophical literature to express the concept of the Supreme Being and is held to be the Holiest of all. In Sikh sacred writings, however, om as extended into Oṁkār (written and pronounced as ‘Oaṅkār') is adopted. In Gurū Nānak's composition Oaṅkār is said to be the essence as well as the creator of the three worlds.
Satinām : Eternal Truth. It is an amplification of Ik Oaṅkār and is, in a sense, its attribute. It implies the immutable character of the Absolute who is beyond categories of the qualitative common names based on His actions. His real name is Sati which denotes a homogenous indestructible power, that is truth which was in the beginning, truth which is in the middle and truth which will be in the end.
Kartā Purakhu : Creator. Gurū Nānak, contrary to the Advaitic and Sāṅkhya concept of puruṣa, affirms his belief in God being the Creator and His followers full of activity. Purakhu in the Mūl Mantra also implies the pervasive reality, leading to the belief in the immanence of God as against the transcendentalism of Islam and Advait Vedānta.
Nirbhau : Fearless. Nirvairu : Without enmity. Since Oaṅkār is the Supreme Being and all else His own creation, He is not under fear of anyone or anything. Fear always arises from the sense of 'otherness' or duality. God is free from such maladies. Similarly, He has rancour towards none, again in contrast to the deities of Puranic and epic Hindu literature. Since God is the only One Supreme Being, He cannot be inimical towards anyone.
Akāl Mūrati: Timeless and Formless. Though Akāl means eternal, the juxtaposition of these words usually results in their being treated similarly in translation. Sikhism teaches that God is nirguṇa, i.e. beyond qualities : when he is called saguṇa, it is as ‘’word' that he becomes manifest, not in a physical form. These two words reiterate God as eternal by further defining the concept — the eternal transcends strictures of time and form.
Ajūnī : unborn. Saibhaṅ : self-existent. Saibhaṅ is a popular form of the Upaniṣadic svyambhū, implying self-willed existence. Here it seems to qualify the first term which in turn is a denial of the Hindu concept of avatār. God is not only unborn, He manifests Himself purely and only as a result of His own will. This autonomy is a necessary prerequisite of the concept contained in the next and final part of the mantra. Ajūnī and saibhaṅ are two facets of one vision and imply that the Creator is not born of any of the known physical processes of procreation, but that His Being is eternal and inhering in His own volition to be. Ajūnī appears to be analogous to the Qur'ānic affirmation in Sūrikhālās (Lā Yalīd wa lā yulād — He neither is born of any, nor is any born of Him). Despite this similarity, there is a clear distinction with regard to the context and the significance of these affirmations. Ajūnī has the force of repudiating the incarnation doctrine, personalized as Gurū. Grace is the final arbiter. By His favour all matters come to requiem. Through His grace the individual becomes worthy of His favour. The Gurū shows the way by which God's approval is won.
The Mūl Mantra shows the way in which Sikhism relates the transcendence and immanence of God. In Sikh teaching with its emphasis on bhakti, God is seen as immanent in all existence. He is ‘qualified' with certain attributes to which the individual human self can offer devotion and love. In the Mūl Mantra it is unmistakably the transcendent aspect that gets emphasis. God as revealed in this creed is the indivisible Absolute, Timeless and Uncreated. This transcendent-immanent aspect of God, neither element of which can be omitted from the full enunciation of the Sikh creed, sets it apart from the general trend of belief in Indian religious devotion; this divine presence does not shed its character of abstractness, to be realized in the soul and not viewed as an object of sense-perception, even though it is invested with supreme beauty and loveliness to inspire and receive devotion. Like Allah in Islam, Ik Oaṅkār in Sikhism is transcendent yet a presence.
Gurbachan Siṅgh Tālib