BĀVAN AKHARĪ, a poem constructed upon 52 (bāvan) letters (akhar) of the alphabet. In this form of poetry each verse begins serially with a letter of the alphabet. The origin of the genre is traced to ancient Sanskrit literature. Since the Devanāgarī alphabet, employed in Sanskrit, comprises fifty-two (bāvan, in Hindi) letters (33 consonants, 16 vowels and 3 compounds), such compositions came to be called bāvan akharīorbāvan akṣarī. Notwithstanding this nomenclature, no such composition consists exactly of fifty-two stanzas as few stanzas will open with a vowel, and the compounds are generally left out of this scheme of poetry. Sometimes a letter is used to begin more than one stanza. There are two compositions by this title included in the Gurū Granth Sāhib, both of them under rāga Gauṛī. One of them is by Gurū Arjan which is also perhaps the earliest in this style in Punjabi literature. The one by Kabīr, which is the other such composition recorded in the Gurū Granth Sāhib, dates chronologically prior to Gurū Arjan's, but Kabīr's language is Sādh Bhākhā inscribed in the Gurū Granth Sāhib in Gurmukhī characters.

        BĀVAN AKHARĪ, by Gurū Arjan, comprises fifty-five pauṛīs or stanzas of eight lines each, preceded by ślokas all of which are couplets except the one preceding the last stanza which is of four lines. Besides, there is an additional couplet following the first pauṛī and a nine-line-long śloka at the very beginning of the composition which is repeated at the end as well. Since all letters, especially the vowels and conjuncts, of Devanāgrī cannot be used in the Gurmukhī script, this Bāvan Akharī does not follow either the order or pronunciation of Devanāgrī and even the number of stanzas is more than fifty-two. Only twenty-nine consonants in Gurmukhī (k to v) conform to those in the Devanāgrī script and stanzas 17-46 begin with these consonants, with m figuring twice. The following stanza (47) begins with a , the consonant that follows v in Gurmukhī is redundant in Devanāgrī. The opening sixteen and the last eight stanzas do not follow the order or pronunciation of Devanāgrī or even of Gurmukhī a few syllables open more than one stanza and a few which are redundant in Gurmukhī are missing.

        The central theme of the composition is summed up in the couplet under rahāu or 'pause' which reads : "Extend Thy grace to the helpless one, Merciful Lord ! May my mind in humility adore the dust of the feet of Thy saints!!" "It is His grace one must seek. Through His grace one meets the true Gurū who will show the path to liberation. " The opening ślokā, which is also repeated at the end of the hymn, stresses the importance of the Gurū who is likened to mother, friend, brother - even God. He washes off one's sins and helps one swim across the worldly ocean. God is self-existent. He is the subtle essence as well as the form (1). He is the Giver and dispenses largesse to all, yet His treasures never fail (34). Words can comprehend and describe everything, but not Him (54). This human body has been attained after transmigrating through numerous lower births. This is now man's opportunity, and he must make the most of it. Now he can have the cycle of birth and death rescinded (30). The purpose of human life is to realize God, but man gets entangled in the world and becomes oblivious of Him (6). Yet man need not resort to the forests in search of Him, for He dwells within him (30). He must abandon his ego. Abstinence and physical mortification do not bring enlightenment. The only way to realization is to become worthy of His grace (52). His grace is attained through the aid of the Gurū who brings purity to the life of the devotee and puts him on the path. Satsaṅg, or company of the holy, is of crucial value. The mind gets detached from māyā and is stilled only if one meditates on the Divine Name. The last stanza is an invocation to God seeking the gift of His Name.

        BĀVAN AKHARĪ by Kabīr is one of his longer compositions, comprising 45 stanzas, included in the Gurū Granth Sāhib. The first five stanzas of this composition are introductory and the sixth begins with oaṅkār, a word which itself begins with the opening vowel of the Sanskrit alphabet. Of the following thirty-nine stanzas, thirty-six are built around the consonants mostly in their Punjabi form, with certain consonants having been repeated.

        Communion with the Supreme Being and the path leading to it form the principal theme of the poem. The letters, says Kabīr, expressing the spiritual bliss of communion with the Supreme Reality are not the fifty-two letters which are used in relation to mundane affairs: spiritual experience falls outside their realm.

        Within the spiritual state, all dilemmas are dissipated and one finally realizes God as pervasive Reality like the banyan tree in the tiny seed (3). Once the lotus of the heart blooms with the rays of supreme knowledge, it never withers away in the illusive moonlight of māyā(7). The spiritual bliss of a person whose heart is illuminated by the Supreme Light is ineffable. For such spiritual achievement, man needs guidance of the Gurū, i. e. spiritual preceptor. A true follower of the Gurū remains uninvolved in worldly affairs, and revels in the love of the Divine (9). Kabīr affirms the unicity and eternity and pervasive nature of God. One who is detached from this world can alone realize the Divine Essence. There is the thick veil of māyā (delusion) over our eyes, which prevents us from perceiving the Ultimate Truth. One who discards evil, overcomes attachment, achieves serenity of mind and is emancipated from delusion.

        The language of Kabīr's Bāvan Akharī is Sādhukaṛī, with an admixture of Bhojpurī, Persian and Sanskrit words in their then current and popular form. The poem makes use of imagery commonly found in other compositions of the Gurū Granth Sāhib : "wife" for the self, "husband" for God, "temple" for the worldly abode, "lotus" for heart and "sun rays" for the illumination of mind.

Rattan Siṅgh Jaggī
Manmohan Sehgal