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Sikh Concept of Sunn

By: L. M. Joshi

Sunn, a Punjabi form of the Sanskrit term sunya (Pali, sunna) is derived from the root svi which is connected with the root su; both these roots mean ‘to swell’, ‘to expand’ or ‘to increase’.  From the etymological standpoint the term sunya 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 sunya belongs to the religious and philosophical terminology of India. Its meaning has to be explored in relation to two other cognate words, viz. sunyata and sunyavada. The words sunya and sunyata have attained widespread currency chiefly through the agency of Buddhist literature: while ‘sunyavada’ is the name given one of the systems of Buddhistic thought, the word sunya means void, empty, a lonely place orsolitude. The word sunyata means voidness, emptiness, vacuity or nothingness. The word‘ sunyavada’ 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 ‘sunyavada’ in 1899 as ‘the (Buddhist) doctrine of the non-existence (of any spirit either supreme or human), Buddhism, atheism.’

As a mater of fact, it is in the work of the Brahmanical theologians, such as Kumarilabhatta and Sankaracarya, that the name ‘Sunyavada’ is employed for the Madhyamika School of Buddhist philosophy. The Buddhist philosophers themselves have never used or approved this nomenclature.

At numerous places in the Pali scriptures it is stated that the world (loka) is empty (sunya); it is empty of self (atman) 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 myself.’ A whole section of the Patisambhidamagga is entitled ‘discourse on the void.’ In this section twenty-five kinds of void are enumerated. The Mahayanasutras and Sastras elaborated these teachings concernings unya and sunyata and developed a soteriological technique based on the philosophy of Emptiness. A class of Buddhist Sanskrit literature consisting of the Prajnaparamita sutras is devoted to the exposition of emptiness.

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

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

Sunya means that all the objects of the world are lacking in their ‘own-nature’ (svabhava dharma or ‘self-existence’ (atmabhava); 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 (nihsvabhavata) and the absence of self (nairatmya) are thus synonyms of emptiness. Not only the persons are characterized by emptiness(pudgala-nairatmya) but also the things are characterized by emptiness (dharma-nairatmya). He who realizes this twofold emptiness (sunyata) attains transcendental wisdom (prajnaparamita).

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

The concept of sunya (sunn) was transmitted by the Siddhas and the Nathas to the sant-poets of medieval Vaisnavism. In the works of the Sikh Gurus we find the last phase of the development of the concept of sunya outside Buddhism. The Sikh Gurus have used the words sunn, sunn kala, anahat-sunn and sunn-samadhi 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 Gurus. This continuity is found inthose cases in which sunn or sunya is employed as a symbol of the Absolute. Thus, for example, it is said that when one is awakened to the teaching of the Guru, one merges into the Void (sunn samaia) even while alive—jivat sunni samania gur sakhi jagi (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 (nam) 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 innatestate of sahaj or the Void (sunn). Kabir uses sunn in the sense of space, finite as well asinfinite, i.e. ghatakash andmahakash. The three lokas enveloping sunya is nothing but Brahman with maya but the fourth sunya about which Guru Nanak stresses more is pure Brahman who is nirakar and nirguna. In Rag Maru, Guru Nanak defines sunn as the creative power of the Almighty—paunu pani sunnai te saje (GG, 1037). The sense of nada has also been exacted from the term sunn in the Sidha Gosti where Guru Nanak says: “nau sar subhardasavai pure tah anahat sunn vajavahi ture—after filling up the nine pitchers with love, through thetenth gate the entry is made; the anahat sunya in the form of melodies is realized” (GG, 943). The term sunn in the Guru Granth Sahib is thus used in a variety of senses, of which predominantly are Brahman with and without maya, the creation, the power of Brahman and nada.

Here the unstruck sound, inaccessible to ears, goes on as ‘the music of spheres’ as it were, and the wonderful (acharaj) bewilderment( bismad) characteristic of it cannot be described (kahanu na jai). Peace (santi), 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: sunnahi sunnu milia samdarsi—the individual spirit has joined the supreme spirit (GG, 1103).

Bhai Gurdas, explicator of Gurbani, uses sunya in the sense of cosmicsilence—diti bangi nivaji kari sunni samani hoa jahana (1.35). As in the Hatha yoga pradipika, Guru Nanak also accepts that sunya is within, sunya is without and the three lokas are also imbued with sunya. Whosoever becomes the knower of the truth, sunya, goes beyond sins and virtues. He transcends both error and excellence.

It may be observed that like the word Nirvana, the word sunya also underwent a gradual process of transformation in its meaning and use in the literature of medieval India. The Madhyamika conception of sunyata was almost completely changed in Nathapantha, Kabirpantha and Sikhism.


1.       Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary

2.       Dutt, N., Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita-sutra. London, 1934

3.       Robinson, Richard H., Early Madhyamika in India and China. Wisconsin, 1967

4.       Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1969

5.       Dasgupta, Surendranath, Indian Idealism. Cambridge, 1961

6.       Kabir Granthavali

7.       Jodh Singh, The Religious Philosophy of Guru Nanak. Delhi, 1989

Source - Concepts in Sikhism, pp. 549-58