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GIAN (Sanskrit jnana), knowledge, understanding or consciousness; is what differentiates human beings from the animal world and establishes the superiority of homo sapiens over the other species. Nature has not only provided man with a qualitatively superior brain but has also endowed human mind with a dynamic inner stimulus called jagiasa (Sanskrit jijnasa), desire to know, inquisitiveness. Perhaps it is on account of this urge for knowledge and the consequent exercise that human brain or mind (psyche or soul for the ancients) gradually developed over the millennia.

Gian consists in man's capacity to distinguish various forms, colours, sounds, smells or their compounds in the shape of objects in the phenomena surrounding him through his sense perceptions. It also includes an understanding of his thoughts, sentiments, feelings and emotions which, though conditioned by external stimuli, are yet the formulation or creation of his own mind. Gian is acquired or gathered through the mental faculties of cognition (process of knowing) and affection (affective process pertaining to feelings and emotions). The mind also possesses a third faculty, conation (concerning desire and volition), which is closely related to and interacts with cognition and affection. Epistemological theories are broadly classified as materialism and idealism. While the materialists regard the mind, consciousness or spirit as the product of material world, or nature, the idealists hold that nature and material world are the product of consciousness, of spirit, which is independent of the material world.

In the religious context the idealist view takes precedence over the materialist. Even the primal man must have noticed through experience a twofold division in phenomena. Some things existed and events happened in an orderly or regular manner so that they were easier to understand by personal experience. These formed for the aboriginal mind its natural world. But there was another world of experience, the extraordinary or supernatural, which was baffling and difficult to understand. This was the world of belief, which formed the earliest religion of magic, sorcery, necromancy and witchcraft, traces of which persisted even during the later civilized ages in the form of superstitions, rituals and forms of worship. Knowledge (gian) thus came to be classified as natural or ordinary and spiritual or mystical. In Greek philosophy especially in the works of Plato or Aristotle, for instance, words used are episteme for ordinary and gnosis for spiritual knowledge in opposition to doxa (belief).

In India, too, gian is divided into two categories: paragian (higher or spiritual knowledge) and aparagian (lower or worldly knowledge). In practice, the word gian in philosophical sense usually refers to paragian, also called atmagian, and the highest knowledge is termed brahmagian, the awareness and understanding of the Ultimate Reality. The earliest Indian religious text, the Rgveda, though mainly comprising hymns of praise and prayer addressed to personalized powers of Nature, does contain some speculative hymns. Brahmanas only describe rituals by means of myths. It is the Upanisads which are devoted primarily to religious speculation using rational tools. Advait Vedanta defines gian as self-effulgent (svaya-prakas). No other knowledge is required to know it. The self- effulgent gian enlightens human minds and eradicates the darkness of ignorance (agian or avidya). Metaphors of day and night and of light and darkness have been extensively used in Indian religious literature for jnana and ajnana, respectively.

Sikhism, without rejecting empirical perceptual knowledge, holds gian (spiritual knowledge) definitely superior and more desirable than ordinary knowledge. Guru Nanak beautifully illustrates gian vis-à-vis worldly knowledge in Japji Sahib. After referring to, in stanza XXXIV, the perceptual phenomenon of day and night, changing seasons, the elements amidst which is set the Earth for practising dharma (righteous actions or righteousness), stanza XXXV depicts gian khand, the region of true knowledge, as illimitable expanse of myriad karam bhumis (lands of action), suns, moons and universes.

The comparison clearly brings out that gian consists in directing the mind from the limited realities and concerns of this puny Earth towards the limitlessness of the True Reality depicted as sach khand and finally defined as inexplicable in stanza XXXVII. Elsewhere gian itself is said to be inexplicable and available through grace to the exclusion of other wayward efforts (GG, 465). It is also acquired by listening to nam (God's Name), having faith in it, internalizing it with love and delving deep into the inner recesses of one's mind (Japji, xxi), i.e. through reason, contemplation and meditation. That the jewel of gian or understanding of Ultimate Reality lies within one's self and may be had by listening to Guru's advice, subject of course to God's grace, has been stressed again and again in the Sikh Scripture (GG, 2, 102, 425, 569, 644, 684, 1002, 1378).

Faith has of course been prescribed as essential, but stress is also placed on vichar (reason or contemplation). Another crucial factor to attainment of gian is the Guru whose words and whose favour are the key to true understanding. Guru for the Sikhs, after the ten prophets from Guru Nanak (1469-1539) to Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), is their Word embodied as Guru Granth Sahib. Company of holy men (sant) and holy assembly satisangat is also highly commended as being instrumental in the attainment of gian. Mere intellectualism and sophistry are, on the other hand, decried as useless wrangling detrimental to body and mind (GG, 230).

Knowledge attained by super-rational and super-sensuous faculties is intuitive and mystical in nature. It is paragian, the highest form of knowledge. Its attainment not only leads to emancipation of the seeker but also enables him to work for the emancipation of others. Possessor of the highest gian, the brahmgiani, is highly praised by Guru Arjan, Nanak V, and is even equated with God Himself (GG, 272-74).


1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1964

2. Jodh Singh, Bhai, Japuji Satik. Patiala, 1988

3. Bhasha Vibhag, Japuji: Ik Tulnatmak Adhiain. Patiala, 1972

4. Locke, John, Essay on the Human Understanding. 1690

5. Berkeley, George, The Principles of Human Knowledge. 1710

6. Progress Publishers, ABC of Dialectical and Historical Materialism, Moscow, 1976

7. Punjabi University, Sant Vinoba Bhave Krit Tika Japuji. Patiala, 1969

8. Gurnam Kaur, Reason and Revelation in Sikhism. Delhi, 1990

9. Talib, G.S., ed., The Origin and Development of Religion. Patiala, 1985

Above adapted from article By Dharam Singh and Major Gurmukh Singh