SHABAD (Sanskrit śabda, of obscure etymology) is generally rendered as sound, voice or tone. Another series of meanings includes word, utterance, speech. In distinctive Sikh usage shabad means a hymn or sacred work from the Gurū Granth Sāhib. In the theological sense, it stands for the 'Word' revealed by the Gurū. In the Gurū Granth Sāhib it is spelt as sabad with its inflectional variations sabadu, sabadi and sabade. Its equivalent substitutes used in the Sikh Scripture are dhun or dhunī (Sanskrit dhvani), nād, anahat or anahad nād (Sanskrit nāda or anahata nāda), bachan, bāṇī, kavāo. Sabad is often linked with gurū to form gursabad or gur kā sabad (Gurū's word). Inasmuch as shabad is connected with both sound and voice, in English it may be rendered as 'word-sound'.
In the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika systems, śabda as verbal testimony is acknowledged as a valid means of knowledge (śabda--pramāṅa). Grammarians such as Yāska, Paṇini and Kātyāyana take śabda or pada as a unit of language or speech (vāk or vāka). The word śabda first occurs in a philosophical sense in a late Upaniṣad, the Maitrī Upaniṣad. This text states that Brahman is of two types, śabda brahman and aśabda brahman, Brahman with sound and soundless Brahman, respectively. According to some schools, notably tāntric, the essence of śabda lies in its significative power (śakti) : This power is defined as a relation between śabda and artha, between word-sound and meaning.
In Gurū Nānak’s usage, and subsequently in that of his successor Gurūs, shabad means the Word of divine revelation or any aspect of Akālpurakh's revelation to mankind. The Word is 'spoken' by the voice of Akālpurakh. The 'voice' is the divine Gurū who may be one of the ten personal Gurūs of the Sikh tradition, but may also be the utterance of the mystical Gurū. This was particularly the case with Gurū Nānak for there was no personal Gurū who could speak the Word of Akālpurakh to him. The Gurūs' voice ---their utterances--as preserved in the Gurū Granth Sāhib is gurshabad or gurbāṇī. It is noteworthy that the term shabad, which occurs independently in the Gurū Granth Sāhib 1271 times, is also linked 572 times with the term gurū. It is nowhere used in the sense of ordinary human word or speech; in reference to common human speech other terms such as bolṇā, bolī, ākhan, kahan-kahāvan and kathan are used.
Being a term of mystical import, shabad is capable of multiple implications. In Sikhism, shabad or the Word originally belongs to God, the Gurū being only the instrument through which it is articulated. Gurū Nānak calls his own speech as khasam kī bāṇī the utterance of the Lord Master (GG, 722); for Gurū Rām Dās, Nānak IV, it is satigur kī bāṇī utterance of the Ture Gurū -- which the Creator makes him articulate (GG,308); and Gurū Arjan, Nānak V, says, nānaku bolai tis kā bolāiā--Nānak speaks what He makes him speak (GG, 1271). At places in the Scripture, shabad is directly identified with God Himself (GG, 162, 448, 945). Elsewhere it is called Gurū (GG, 601, 635). In some cases shabad is used in contexts which seem to make it for all practical purposes a synonym of nām (GG, 932, 1125). This is understandable, for in Sikh theology God and Gurū, shabad and nām share common range of meaning. God speaks through the eternal Gurū and also he makes himself known through shabad, the Word, so that "the Word is the Gurū," as says Gurū Nānak (GG, 943). At the same time, God makes the principles of liberation known to mankind through the immanent pattern of nām. The three terms, nām, shabad and gurū overlap in meaning, each pointing towards God. At times they mean exactly the same thing. Each of the three terms has, however, a certain area which is explicitly its own. Akālpurakh speaks through the eternal Gurū and for His 'voice' the only possible word is gurū. To mankind he makes known the principles of liberation and for this immanent pattern the only effective word is nām. The 'Word' that he speaks in making known this pattern of liberation is the shabad and for that 'Word' shabad is the only term that will serve.
The shabad or the Word is described in its frequent usage by Gurū Nānak and his successors more in terms of what it does than in terms of what it literally is. This is natural, for it is the function which gives it meaning and it is in actual experience that if is to be known rather than in any purely intellectual sense. One of the shades of signification of shabad is hukam, the Divine cosmic order or the Divine creative might. The word kavāo, a synonym of shabad, is used in this sense (GG, 3, 1003). And shabad itself: "By the Divine Word occur creation and dissolution; by the divine Word again comes about creation-- utapati parlau sabade hovai/sabade hī phiri opati hovai" (GG, 117). Again : "chahudisi hukamu varatai prabh terā chahudisi nāmu patālaṅ, sabh mahi sabadu varatai prabh sāchā karami milai baiālaṅ-- in all four directions, Lord ! is thy order operative; in all four directions and in the nether regions prevails thy Name. In all beings is manifest the eternal Lord's holy Word. By good fortune is the Eternal attained (GG, 1275). "Shabad not only creates, it also sustains (GG, 228, 282) as it also destroys and recreates (GG, 112.).
The function of the shabad is that it provides the means whereby man can know both Akālpurakh and the path which leads to Him, the way in which the individual may secure release from the bonds of transmigration and so attain union with God in Gurū Nānak’s understanding of the term sahaj. Again and again shabad is declared to be the essential pointer to the way of liberation, the means whereby a person can be made aware of the presence around him and within him of the nām or divine Name. The path to liberation lies through recognition of the immanent Name (nām) and the duty of disciplined nām simaran or remembrance of the divine Name. The prime purpose of the shabad is to reveal this path, in all its wonder and variety, to the person who is prepared to be a believer. Given the initial act of Akālpuarkh's favour (nadar), there arises in men and women a longing for the transmigratory bonds to be broken, leading to a state of union with the divine. To such people the shabad is spoken, or we may say, the shabad speaks. The complete mystery of shabad is not completely within the range of human understanding, for the shabad shares in the infinity of Akālpurakh, but it is sufficiently within reach to be readily accessible to all who desire it. In this sense the Gurūs have called shabad a dīpak (lamp) bringing enlightenment (jṅāna) giān for mankind to see the path (GG, 124, 664, 798). Elsewhere it is described as pure and purifying (GG, 32, 86, 121).
Shabad is the subtle knowledge essential for emancipation. Says Gurū Rām Dās : "terā sabadu agocharu gurmukhi pāīai Nānak nāmi samāi jīu-- Thy invisible knowledge by the Master's guidance is obtained ; saith Nānak, this by absorption in the Name is attained" (GG, 448). "What can one offer to him through whom śabda is received? Offer him thy head, anulling egoism -- tisu kiā dījai ji sabadu suṇāe....ihu siru dījai āpu gavāe...." (GG, 424). "Quaff the Master's teaching that is amrit or elixir; thus shall thy self be rendered pure --gur kā sabadu amrit rasu pīu tā terā hoi nirmal jīu" (GG, 891). The Gurū's śabda is like an anchor for the wavering mind. Gurū Arjan says in the Sukhmanī "As is the edifice propped up by the pillar, so is the Gurū's śabda support of the mind -- jiu mandar kau thāmai thammanu, tiu gur kā sabadu manahi asthammanu" (GG, 282). In the Japu (GG, 8) in the line ghaṛīai sabadu sachi ṭaksāl, i.e. forge God-consciousness in such a holy mint, shabad is used in the sense of God-consciousness (jñāna). A similar sense is yielded by an affirmation in Gurū Amar Dās' Anandu : "Andarahu jin kā mohu tuṭā tin kā sabadu sachai savāriā -- they whose attachment to the world ceases their spiritual vision is purified" (GG, 917).
One of the features of Sikh doctrine of shabad is the emphasis placed on nām, i.e, repetition of the Name (nām) of God; this name is shabad. The recitation (pāṭh) of the Gurū Granth Sāhib and of the texts from it is an essential part of Sikh practice. One of the nine forms of bhakti is listening (śravaṇa) to shabad, nām, bāṇī, i.e, words denoting God and His greatness. Words or sounds are the means of celebrating and singing the glories of God and this act is called kīrtan. Since worship of images is forbidden in his faith, a Sikh takes the help of words and sounds in his daily meditation (dhiān, dhyāna) on God. These words and sounds are literary and vocal symbols of the unmanifest sound (sabadu agocharu) which is of the nature of light (joti-sarūp). Without this luminous Word-sound there is darkness in and out. The light of shabad is the principle of knowledge by means of which one knows the reality of God. He who succeeds in closing the nine doors (nau darvāje) in his body and in opening the tenth door (dasvāṅ duār) by breaking the hard wall of ignorance, enters the luminous chamber which is His own real abode. Here he listens to that mystic melody which is unstruck or deathless sound (anahada nād, anahata śabda). Knowledge or understanding of shabad is important, like the recitation of it. One merges in the Truth only when one comprehends the utterance (bāṇī) and has experienced the sound (shabad).To this concept of shabad are added in Sikhism the necessity of a virtuous living and of the grace of blessing of God or Gurū in enabling one to discover the shabad.
W. H. McLeod