Asa Ki Var is a collection of 24 pauris or stanzas written by Guru Nanak Devji (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, page 462-475).Some people argue that the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev ji wrote the first 9 together on one occasion and later wrote 15 more stanzas on a different occasion but Professor Sahib Singh and some of the foremost Sikh scholars believe that the whole Var was written at the same place as the Var itself proceeds in a definite uniformity. The whole Var was compiled by the 5th Guru, Guru Arjan Dev ji in 1604 AD.
When Guru Arjan Dev ji was compiling the Holy Granth, he added a few Sloks of Guru Nanak and in some cases Guru Angad Dev ji, the second Guru of the Sikhs. These Sloks are tied together in a way that they relate to the same theme as highlighted in the pauri. In its present form, the Asa Di Var contains a few more shabads recited by Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru.
The Asa Di Var kirtan is recited in the early morning hours in a very melodious way and style as mentioned by Guru Arjan Dev Ji called “Tunde Asraje Ki Dhuni” after the name of the contemporary brave and pious king Asraj. One of the hands of the king was amputated, so he was called Tunda meaning (one hand amputated) . The deeds and the ode of this king was sung by the bards in that typical fashion which then was extremely popular and melodious and was therefore adopted to performing Asa Di Var.
ASA KI VAR, is the term recorded in the index to the Guru Granth Sahib but this Gurbani is commonly called “Asa di Var”. It is found in the Sikh scripture from page 462 line 17 to page 475 line 10. It is a composition by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhi and is sung by kirtania (religious musicians) at Sikh congregations or gatherings as part of the early morning service. It is said that if recited and sung with true belief, then one’s hopes/wishes are fulfilled.
The term “Asa di Var” comprises three words: The third word var means an ode or a lyrical verse; the word Asa which means “hope” in Punjabi) is also a Raag or musical measure used in the Guru Granth Sahib; and “ki” or “di” mean “of”. Thus together the terms means “A ballad of hope”. Raag Asa is the raga of pre-dawn hours and the custom of reciting the hymn at morning time is traced to the days of Guru Nanak himself.
It is said that Bhai Lahina (the later, Guru Angad) was the first to sing it in the presence of Guru Nanak. The Var then comprised twenty four pauris or stanzas by Guru Nanak and some slokas which were also of his composition as indicated in the title given it by Guru Arjan when entering the composition in the Holy Book (salok bhi mahalle pahile ke likhe), the slokas were also composed by the First Guru, Guru Nanak. In its present form, it carries twenty four stanzas with a total of fifty nine slokas, 45 by Guru Nanak and 14 by Guru Angad.
At the time of recitation, the choir will prefix each of the stanzas by a quatrain from the series by Guru Ram Das entered separately under Raga Asa, collectively known as “chakkas”, or sextettes from the groups of six quatrains each counting as a unit. They will also punctuate the singing with illustrative hymns from Guru Granth Sahib and with passages from Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Nand Lal whose compositions constitute approved texts.
According to the musical direction recorded by Guru Arjan at the beginning of the Var, it is meant to be recited in the tune of an old folk ballad which had as its hero a prince by the name of Asraja, called “Tunda Asraj” because of a maimed hand (tunda). From passage to passage, the Var touches upon several different themes, but one central point of emphasis is the state of man, and how he may liberate himself from the bondage of self and prepare himself for union with the Divine. The text is also strewn with telling social comment. The ills of contemporary life, its inequalities and artificialities are sharply noticed.
The message of Asa ki Vaar
The Asa-di-var does not tell a story, its theme is: “How to become a spiritual person”- a devta, “a spiritual being”. In it, Guru Nanak also warns us against the rituals and tricks of priests and monks. The most important thing is how to build up one’s character and how to remove the obstacles that lay in the path of a disciple, the most important of which is the ego, selfishness or conceit.
Even holy persons, who are outwardly very good and kind, often suffer from religious pride. Sometimes so-called religious people, commit heinous crimes through self-righteousness and bigotry. It should be remembered that Ego in its pure essence is self-awareness or identity which when regulated is an essential, for it is the basis of one’s character or moral nature. When regulated by right motivation and active service, it is positive and beneficial. But if uncontrolled through self pride of position or riches, it becomes selfish and mean.
The effects of the Ego are particularly contemptible and disastrous when disguised by the apparent holiness or tradition, which exploits ordinary people’s ignorance and credulity. The practice of humility and love are the most effective qualities for keeping people away from sin, far better than all recitations and rituals of religion.
Initially, it is the fear of God’s wrath or displeasure which inspires the seeker to offer worship and prayer. Over the years this fear should become gradually replaced by love and self surrender, so that he loses his Impatience with those who are imperfect; he is in sympathy with them, for they are like strayed sheep. Only by self-discipline and serving other people, can one become worthy of divine grace. Associate with holy persons and learn from them, the secrets of spiritual wisdom.