The Concept of Ek-Onkar
by Prof. Harmindar Singh

Guru Nanak's concept and vision of the Supreme Being is embodied in terse terms in the Sikh Fundamental Creed, Mool Mantra, literally meaning the Root Formula. Because of its importance as a basic theological declaration around which revolves the whole Sikh philosophical thought, it is most appropriately placed in the very beginning of the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. It affirms in unequivocal terms Guru Nanak's uncompromising belief in monotheism. In the original the text read as:

"Ek Onkar Satnam Karta Purush Nirbhau Virvair Akal Murat, Ajuni Saibhang Gurprasad(i)"

The English rendering would approximate to:

There is One and only One God who is transcendent as well as immanent. True and Eternal Name. Creator and Person. Without Fear and without Enmity. Timeless Form, Unborn, Self-existent. Realized by Divine Grace.

Besides Mool Mantra there is another term Bij Mantra (Seed Formula) which is occurs in Guru Arjun's composition 'Sukhmani' (Pearl of Peace). The original text where it appears runs as:

Bij Manter sarab ko Gyan. Chahu Varona meh japey kou Naam."

It's English version is:

All can be enlightened with Bij Mantra. Anyone from four castes can meditate on it.

It may be noted that this is entirely in contrast to the traditions of the caste ridden Hindu society wherein the lower castes are not entitled to benefit from enlightenment of Mantras for meditation, etc.

The term Bij Mantra signifies any word or phrase out of which develops a prayer meant to be meditated upon or chanted to invoke Divine blessing. Almost all the Sikh scholars and theologians are unanimous in recognizing Ek-Onkar as the Bij Mantra out of which has emanated Guru Nanak's vision of the Supreme Being in the form of Mool Mantra. That is why it stands majestically at the head of the Mool Mantra and forms its integral part.

It is constituted of two components - Ek and Onkar. Ek means one, and is written as a numerical figure '1'. Onkar stands for the Primal mystical Divine Name of God referred to as Brahma in the Vedic literature. In order to grasp fully the underlying spiritual significance and meaning of Ek-Onkar each of its components needs to be studied in depth, beginning with Onkar.

The root of Onkar is traceable to the Hindu sacred syllable Om, also written as Aum. Historically, in the beginning, Om was used as a reply of approval or consent. It is equivalent to the English word 'Amen' uttered at the end of a Christian prayer, meaning 'so be it'.

At a later stage, with the evolution of Indian philosophic thought, the sages of Upanishads pronounced it as an adequate symbol of the Absolute Transcendent Reality, Brahma. It is considered as the unity of all sound to which all matters and energy are reduced in their primordial form, hence fit as a symbol for Atman (soul) or Brahma, the Supreme Being, which is the unity of all existence. These - and possibly some other - considerations led the Vedic sages to accord to Om the highest Divine reverence and worship. As a very sacred and powerful Mantra it forms part of daily worship and meditation by Hindu devotees. It is treated as the holiest symbol of Divinity calling it Nada Brahma or Shabda Brahma in the form of sound. Its nearest equivalent in the West is Logos or the 'Word'. St. John's Gospel expounds it thus:

"in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." The Word was the true light that enlightens all men!

Written in original, it is composed of three letters of Sanskrit alphabet, corresponding to A U M of English alphabet. According to the polytheistic tradition of Hinduism it also represented the Hindu Trinity, each letter standing for one of the deities, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

This, is obviously, was not acceptable to Guru Nanak whose concept of God was based on unalloyed monotheism. His was One and Only One Supreme Being, an Indivisible Entity. This belief in the unity of God he has re-iterated in various ways in his other compositions as well. At one place he emphatically affirms, Sahib mera Eko hai, Eko hai Bhai, eko hai.

In English:

'My Master is One, One only, Oh Brother, He is Sole.'

So Guru Nanak's revealed Scripture place numerical figure '1' before Onkar thus enhancing his firm conviction in the unity of God. Its main importance and underlying significance lies in the fact that one is not represented by 'one' in words, but by a numerical figure '1'; thus completely eliminating any possibility of words being given different meaning. It was Guru Nanak's own inspired vision that transformed AUM into Ek-Onkar representing the Supreme Being, the Sole Absolute Eternal Reality which, while manifesting itself in multiplicity as Onkar, is still in its essence 'Sole and Absolute'; Transcendent as well as Immanent. Impersonal is also Personal in Ek-Onkar.

By the large, Sikhs worship 'Waheguru' as God's name for constant remembrance by repetition aloud or Sotto Voce. In Sikh parlance, this is known as 'Naam Simran'. There are, however, many a Sikh who also meditate upon and use Ek-Onkar for 'Naam Simran'. Like 'Waheguru' this is also considered to be a powerful Mantra for achieving spiritual progress and Divine Grace for final emancipation of the individual soul.

In conclusion, it can be said that Ek-Onkar is the true symbol of Sikhism given to us by Guru Nanak based on his spiritual experience and inspired vision at the very inception of the Sikh faith.