SUNN, a Punjabi form of the Sanskrit term śūnya (Pālī, sunna), is derived from the root śvi which is connected with the root śū; both these roots mean 'to swell', 'to expand' or 'to increase'. From the etymological standpoint the term śūnya is often used in the sense of 'zero' or 'cipher' (Arabic, sifr), a symbol of naught. However, 'zero' again, when used by a mathematician with a figure, increases the value of that figure ten times.

        The word śūnya belongs to the religious and philosophical terminology of India. Its meaning has to be explored in relation to two other cognate words, viz. śūnyatā and śūnyavāda. The words śūnya and śūnyatā have attained widespread currency chiefly through the agency of Buddhist literature: while 'śūnyavāda' is the name given one of the systems of Buddhistic thought, the word śūnya means void, empty, a lonely place or solitude. The word śūnyatā means voidness, emptiness, vacuity or nothingness. The word 'śūnyavāda' has been translated as 'the ism of void' or 'the doctrine of empty'. The barrenness of this translation is inherent in the pejorative force which gave birth to this name in anti-Buddhist circles. It is on the authority of anti-Buddhist Brahmanical sources that Monier-Williams described 'śūnyavāda' in 1899 as 'the (Buddhist) doctrine of the non-existence (of any spirit either supreme or human), Buddhism, atheism.'

        As a matter of fact, it is in the work of the Brahmanical theologians, such as Kumārilabhaṭṭa and Śaṅkarāchārya, that the name 'Śūnyavāda' is employed for the Mādhyamika School of Buddhist philosophy. The Buddhist philosophers themselves have never used or approved this nomenclature.

         At numerous places in the Pālī scriptures it is stated that the world (loka) is empty (śūnya); it is empty of self (ātman) and empty of anything belonging to self. There is nothing in the world with which one could identify one's self, or of which one could say, 'this is my self.' A whole section of the Paṭisambhidāmagga is entitled 'discourse on the void.' In this section twenty-five kinds of void are enumerated. The Mahāyānasūtras and Śāstras elaborated these teachings concerning śūnya and śūnyatā and developed a soteriological technique based on the philosophy of Emptiness. A class of Buddhist Sanskrit literature consisting of the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras is devoted to the exposition of emptiness.

        The Prajñāpāramitāsūtras teach that śūnyatā is the nature of all phenomenal things or entities called dharmas. Things are empty (śūnya) because they are conditioned; they are conditioned because they depend on a multiplicity of causes. Nothing is, uncaused, therefore nothing is free from śūnya, emptiness. The dependence of entities on causes and conditions constitutes their emptiness. All things or phenomena are subject to dependent origination (pratītyāsamutapāda); therefore all phenomena are characterized by emptiness (śūnyatā). This fact is called dharma śūnyatā, the emptiness of dharmas or the phenomena.

        Nāgārjuna who flourished in the first century AD is the main originator of the doctrine of śūnya which in fact offers the critique of all the philosophies. Going beyond the viewpoints of asti (is) nāsti (is not) about the Supreme Truth, the śūnyavādins adopt a dialectical method which seeks to abolish all viewpoint but, side by side, they do not claim to have śūnyavād, a viewpoint in itself. The aim of this teaching is soteriological and not philosophical.

        Śūnya means that all the objects of the world are lacking in their 'own nature' (svabhāva dharma or 'self existence' (ātmabhāva) ; that is to say, the dharmas are without an essence of inward nature of their own and are without self. The absence of own-nature (niḥsvabhāvatā) and the absence of self (nairātmya) are thus synonyms of emptiness. Not only the persons are characterized by emptiness (pudgala-nairātmya) but also the things are characterized by emptiness (dharma-nairātmya). He who realizes this twofold emptiness (śūnyatā) attains transcendental wisdom (prajñāparamitā).

        The Prajñāpāramitasūtras have employed the master symbol śūnyatā not only for the phenomenal things but also for the Absolute. The phenomenal things are called śūnya because they are dependent on causes and conditions. The Absolute is called śūnya because it is devoid of distinctions and discriminations. Śūnyatā demonstrates the ultimate unreality of entities and the unseekability of the Absolute which transcends thought and speech.

        The concept of Śūnya (sunn) was transmitted by the Siddhas and the Nāthas to the sant-poets of medieval Vaiṣṇavism. In the works of the Sikh Gurūs we find the last phase of the development of the concept of śūnya outside Buddhism. The Sikh Gurūs have used the words sunn, sunn kalā, anahat-sunn and sunn-samādhī numerous times in their religious compositions. A careful analysis of the use of these key-terms in the Sikh canon shows that their meaning is, in most cases, different from that found in Buddhism. In one case, however, there seems to be a continuity of the word and meaning from the time of the Buddhist Sutras to that of the hymns sung by the Gurūs. This continuity is found in those cases in which sunn or śūnya is employed as a symbol of the Absolute. Thus, for example, it is said that when one is awakened to the teaching of the Gurū, one merges into the Void (sunn samāiā) even while alive ---jīvat sunni samāniā gur sākhī jāgī (GG, 857). Of course the concept of the Absolute in Sikhism differs from that in the Madhyamika, but there can be no doubt that the Absolute is called sunn because it is devoid of duality and discrimination. This negative structure in speech with regard to the Reality is the basic function of the symbol sunn. All positive descriptions imply limitation and determination. The word sunn declares that the Truth is beyond limitations and determinations. Emptiness of Buddhism means 'no doctrine about Truth'; sunn in Sikhism means 'no conception about the Inconceivable.'

        An important feature of the conception of the Void in Sikhism is that it can be realized through transcendental devotion (nām) which consists in the constant mindfulness of the Divine (simaran). This feature brings in many positive elements as a matter of course and consequently the ecstatic experience of the Divine is characterized by positive attributes. Nevertheless, these positive attributes do not exhaust the Innate state of sahaj or the Void (sunn). Kabīr uses sunn in the sense of space, finite as well as infinite, i.e. ghaṭākāsh and mahākāsh. The three lokas enveloping śūnya is nothing but Brahman with māyā but the fourth śūnya about which Gurū Nānak stresses more is pure Brahman who is nirākār and nirguṇa. In Rāg Mārū, Gurū Nānak defines sunn as the creative power of the Almighty--pauṇu pāṇī sunnai te sāje (GG, 1037). The sense of nāda has also been exacted from the term sunn in the Sidha Gosṭi where Gurū Nānak says: "nau sar subhar dasavai pūre tah anahat sunn vajāvahī tūre-- after filling up the nine pitchers with love, through the tenth gate the entry is made; the anahat śūnya in the form of melodies is realized" (GG, 943). The term sunn in the Gurū Granth Sāhib is thus used in a variety of senses, of which predominantly are Brahmaṇ with and without māyā, the creation, the power of Brahman and nāda.

        Here the unstruck sound; inaccessible to ears, goes on as 'the music of spheres' as it were, and the wonderful (acharaj) bewilderment (bismād) characteristic of it cannot be described (kahanu na jāi). Peace (śāntī), bliss (sukh, ananda) and satiety (santokhu) are attained in this state. But here in the ultimate state there is neither he who attains these things nor he who listens to their description ; void has gone to Void, emptiness had merged into Emptiness. He says: sunnahī sunnu miliā samdarsī--- the individual spirit has joined the supreme spirit (GG, 1103).

        Bhāī Gurdās, explicator of Gurbāṇī, uses śūnya in the sense of cosmic silence ---ditī bāngi nivāji kāri sunni samāni hoā jahānā (1.35). As in the Haṭhayogapradīpikā, Gurū Nānak also accepts that śūnya is within, śūnya is without and the three lokas are also imbued with śūnya. Whosoever becomes the knower of the truth, śūnya, goes beyond sins and virtues. He transcends both error and excellence.

        It may be observed that like the word Nirvāṇa, the word śūnya also underwent a gradual process of transformation in its meaning and use in the literature of medieval India. The Mādhyamika conception of śūnyatā was almost completely changed in Nāthapantha, Kabīrpantha and Sikhism.


  1. Monier Williams, Sanskrit English Dictionary
  2. Dutt, N., Pancavimsatisāhasrika Prajnaparamitasutra. London, 1934
  3. Robinson, Richard H., Early Madhyamika in India and China. Wisconsin, 1967
  4. Śabadārth Srī Gurū Granth Sāhib. Amritsar, 1969
  5. Dasgupta, Surendranath, Indian Idealism. Cambridge, 1961
  6. Kabīrgranthāvalī
  7. Jodh Siṅgh, The Religious Philosophy of Gurū Nānak. Delhi, 1989

L. M. Joshi