NĀM (lit. name), a collection of sounds possessing the capacity to signify a person, place, thing or idea, is a key term in Sikh theology, embodying a concept of central importance. It subsumes within it the revelation of God's being, the only fit object of contemplation for the individual, the standard to which his life must conform, and the essential means of purification and liberation.
Nām translates easily and accurately into the English word ‘Name', but this does not provide an actual understanding of its full import as a conceptual category in Sikhism. Even as commonly understood, a name is not a mere label. It expresses something of the nature of whatever it designates, or at least points towards that nature. As used in the compositions of the Gurūs, the word nām is a summary expression for the whole nature of Akāl-Purakh (God). Anything which may be affirmed concerning Akāl-Purakh is an aspect of nām. Because He is all-powerful, it follows that omnipotence is part of nām. Because He knows all things, omniscience is similarly a feature of nam. The many and varied qualities which may be attributed to Akāl-Purakh — His timelessness, His transcendence and immanence, even His manifestation in the form of the created world of time and space — are all to be regarded as aspects of nām. And because Akāl-Purakh is infinite, so too is His Name.
This stress upon nām as an expression of the inherent nature of Akāl-Purakh should not imply that it is essentially passive. In the Sikh belief, it is crucial that individuals should understand its active role. Nām is the bringer of liberation. The means to release from the circuit of birth and death are enunciated by the Gurū, and the message thus communicated by him enjoins all people to bring their lives into harmony with the divine Name. By means of regular devotion, coupled with strict virtues, each person can develop a pattern of living which accords with the nature of Akāl-Purakh as expressed in his Name. By bringing one's being and personality into ever-closer conformity with the being of Akāl-Purakh as affirmed by the Name one shall obtain liberation from the cycle of transmigration. The task is not an easy one, but persistently pursued it leads to the ultimate harmony. For some people this condition of perfect peace can be attained while they are yet living this life.
The person who wishes to appropriate the benefits conferred by a discernment of the divine Name must undergo the discipline of nām simaran, remembrance, i.e. constant awareness of the Name. The act of simaran (smaraṇa) is on the one hand related to the act of śurati (śruti), hearing or listening to the Word (nām, śabda), and on the other to the function of smriti, i.e. consciousness which means retention in one's awareness of what has been heard. The notion of nām simaran is thus similar to that of śurati-śabda. At one level this involves the practice of nām japaṇā or repeating the Name, a long established convention whereby merit is acquired by devoutly repeating the sacred word. This helps the devotee to internalize the meaning of the word he may be uttering and in this sense the practice is explicitly enjoined in the Sikh faith. Further, the discipline must be practised in a corporate sense with devotees gathering as a fellowship (satsaṅg) to sing hymns of praise (kīrtan). A third level which is also required of the loyal disciple is meditation. Akāl-Purakh, as expressed in the Name, is to be remembered not merely in the repeating of auspicious words or the singing of inspired hymns but also in deep contemplation of the divine mystery of the Name. All three practices constitute legitimate and necessary forms of nām simaran; and all serve progressively to reveal the divine Name to the person who earnestly seeks it. As Gurū Rām Dās, Nānak IV, says in Sāraṅg kī Vār, "Name incorruptible is beyond our comprehending. At the same time, it is our constant companion and pervades all creation. The true Gurū discloses it unto us and lets us perceive it in our hearts. It is through God's grace that we meet with such a Gurū" (GG,1242). According to Gurū Arjān, God's Name is the key to emancipation (muktī) and the means of attaining it (jugatī) ; God's Name is the fulfilment (tripatī) and enjoyment (bhugatī). He who repeats God's Name suffers no setback. God's Name is the devotee's distinction. Repeating God's Name the devotee wins honour (GG, 264-65).
In Sikhism, nām is an ontological category, a term denoting the Divine presence, a proper name for the Reality, an epithet of the Truth which does not exist apart from or in addition to the Truth, but is Truth by itself. Nām thus means Akāl-Purakh, the Creator who is beyond time. The word is sometimes used in compounds such as sati-nām and hari-nām, the Name of God. Occasionally, it is also used as a prefix as in nām-nidhān (the treasure of nām)and nām-ras(sap or essence of nām). In Sikh usage, nām is not mere name, but the Ultimate Reality itself. Nām is that Omnipresent Existence which manifests itself in the form of creation and is the source and sustenance of all beings and things (GG, 284). In other words, nām is the manifest form of the Transcendent Spirit, unknowable otherwise to the human mind. Nām is the source of creation and like God is all-pervasive. At the same time, Nām is coextensive with creation; there is no space where nām is not — jetā kītā tetā nāu viṇu nāvai nāhī ko thāu: all that Thou hast created is Thy Name, i.e. manifestation; there is no place where Thy Name does not pervade (GG, 4). This manifestation of nām is orderly; its operation conforms to a fixed plan. From this point of view nām is identifiable with hukam, the divine Ordinance, and is closely connected with divine Will (razā) and divine Grace (prasād), which are further aspects of the divine Ordinance (hukam). Nām reflects the immanence of the Transcendent One in creation, which does not exist apart from His conscious Will.
The word nām is normally discussed in association with the terms shabad (Skt. śabda) and gurū, and it is also closely linked to the word hukam. In many instances nām and shabad are used interchangeably; in other cases, however, they can be separated. "From shabad has originated nām" (GG, 644), which implies that the Truth as mediated by the Gurū is the shabad (Word), whereas Truth as received by the believer is nām. The Gurū is the ‘voice' ( bāṇī) of Akāl-Purakh speaking the ‘Word' (shabad ) which communicates the truth of the Name (nām). He who cognizes shabad shelters nām in his heart. Bhāī Gurdās, in his Vārāṅ, 1.37, says that Gurū-Nānak set in motion the wheel of sati-nām or the vision of Holy Reality. Here nām refers to the doctrine or teaching of Gurū Nānak. This doctrine is traced by Gurū Nānak to his preceptor who is none other than God. "In whose heart is embedded the Name of the Lord is the true preceptor" (GG, 287). He it is who illumines the mind of the devotee with the nām. The mysteries of nām are indeed manifold; at several places in Gurū Granth Sāhib it is called nidhān or the treasure-house of riches (GG, 29,522); without it everyone is poor (GG, 1232). It is called the light, joti (jyoti) which dispels all darkness (GG, 264).
In Sikhism, the concept of nām represents a whole religious way, a ‘discipline leading to God-realization . But one cannot cognize nām without divine Grace. Words commonly used in this context are nadar, dayā, prasād, kṛpā, etc., variously translated as ‘grace' or ‘mercy'. Deluded by his haumai (egocentricity), man remains blind to the nām which lies all around him, and by the act of grace will be put in the path to realizing it. By the favour of Akāl-Purakh he meets the holy Gurū who makes him aware of nām. The person who pursues and glorifies nām and, in obedience to the Gurū, lives a life which conforms to it, will eventually achieve the blissful serenity of union with the Divine. The actual obligations of a life of obedience find expression in the regular, disciplined practice of the various forms of nām-simaran, individually as well as in saṅgat, and in acts of approved piety. Faithful cultivation of nām lifts the disciple to that sublime condition known as mystic experience by far transcending the power of expression. It is this experience which frees him forever from the cycle of transmigration and confers on him the gift of eternal bliss.
L. M. Joshi