We received the following polite inquiry from Narayan Nurayn who believed our charge against the dual concepts of Nirgun-Sargun being a theological contradiction, and thus false, might be flawed. In response, we drew his attention to a number of prominent Sikh academics and their understanding of this paradoxical orthodoxy in an attempt to prove that our position was not simply predicated on a mere etymological interpretation, but a broader conceptual one.
Hi, I appreciate very much your use of logic in debating with the Sikhs. I can’t identify myself as a baptized Sikh, but still I would like to understand more your position on the Sargun-Nirgun.
In short, I do not see that these terms are being clearly enough defined. As far as etymology is concerned, does the terms [sic] simply collapse into a no-attribute/yes-attribute dichotomy?
This strict dichotomy where the two states are interpreted as bipolar opposites is how a number of prominent Sikh scholars have understood and interpreted it. For instance, as quoted in the article: Attributeless Waheguru, Prof Trilochan Singh makes a clear distinction between what he calls “two metaphysical Truths”:
Rajinder Kaur too accepts that “God is also transcendent because the immanence of God is NOT IDENTICAL with the WHOLE being of God”  (bold, underline, capitalisation ours). In other words, the immanent aspect has a nature that is unique enough to make it entirely distinct from and dissimilar to the nature of the whole. What is more, she is forced to divide the two natures with respect to God’s temporal relationship with creation by acknowledging that while the part of God beyond space-time is atemporal the other is temporal:
Now unless someone believes in one identical and indistinguishable nature of God that is both temporal and atemporal, the only logical conclusion must be that there are two essential natures of God.
Likewise, Rajinder Kaur Rohi holds the following:
The very definition of the law of non-contradiction holds that a proposition and its negation are false at the same time and in the same respect. This is precisely what Rohi affirms that the two natures of God – one being the immanent manifestation of God that exists in creation as its very essence while the other being the “unmanifest, transcendent, formless” aspect of God who exists “in his purely essential nature” – exist at the same time, but as non-identical natures.
Prof Daljeet Singh goes into some detail regarding the indelible relationship between what he refers to as the “attributive aspect (Immanence) of God”, which in Islam is called the Transitive Attributes of God, i.e. those attributes that require an object (for more information, read the section in our article: Attributeless Waheguru, titled: The Attributeless God), and His creation. It is worth exploring his position in some depth. He begins by stating that “God is both Transcendent and Immanent. He is both in the universe and outside it”. Daljeet continues by explaining what the Gurus meant by the term Transcendent:
He Himself exists in the creation as the very essence of it. But, at the same time God is UNMANIFEST, transcendent, FORMLESS, in His purely essential nature. – Rajinder Kaur Rohi
The Transcendent state of God is, therefore, atemporal, “Wondrous, Infinite, Unfathomable, Unknowable, Indescribable, Ineffable and Immeasurable”. Following the becoming of creation, Daljeet states that “[a]ccording to the Gurus, God creates the universe, then becomes Immanent in it, being at the SAME TIME Transcendent. … Thus, God is both Transcendent and Immanent. … He is SIMULTANEOUSLY Transcendent and Immanent” (bold, underline, capitalisation ours). But, the crucial point to note is that “[n]aturally, when the world is not there the question of His Immanence does not arise. That is why when there was no form, the Word (immanence) in essence abided in the Transcendent God”. Hence, while the “term Transcendent describes Him as ‘Wholly Other’,” the “Immanent aspect indicates the same God’s love for His creation … it emphasises God’s capacity for revelation, His nearness to Man and His deep and abiding interest in the world”. But, it is the aspect of God that is “flowing from His Immanent character” and through which He is described as “the Ocean of Attributes, Values and Virtues”, that “God has been described as full of all values, as Father, Mother, Friend, Brother, Enlightener, Protector, Shelter of the shelterless, Loving, Benevolent, Beneficent and Helper of the poor and weak”. In other words, it is not the “wholly other” Transcendent aspect of God that could have these values, since He is “Unfathomable, Unknowable, Indescribable, Ineffable and Immeasurable”, but rather the Immanent nature, which arises with the becoming of creation. This is what Daljeet says below:
If it is inconceivable to think of a God of attributes in the absence of creation, then the attributive aspect of God, i.e. Immanence, could not have existed sans creation. This proves that for Daljeet, there are two separate and distinct aspects of God – a single aspect sans creation, and two bipolar aspects that came to be with the becoming of creation. This is also true of God’s Will, says Daljeet:
Hence, it is not just restricted to, as you put it, a yes-attribute/ no-attribute dichotomy, but rather extends to encompass two contradictory natures of God.
In other words, are the terms genuinely functioning, philosophically, as polar opposites?
The above strongly seems to suggest this, yes.
Or, as it seems to me, are they functioning in a different way, meant in a different “sense” as they are being used?
Let’s further explore prominent Sikh scholar Wazir Singh’s conception of this counterintuitive theology with his exposition of the conception of creation:
However, this transformation is not one where God transformed from one state to another in toto, but rather partial:
What does it, therefore, mean to say that a being is infinite-finite? Again the answer to this is alluded to by Wazir in his interpretation of the all-important first composition of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the basis of Sikh theology, the Mool Mantra:
Here he refers to two diametrically-opposed concepts as aspects of the same single system. He continues elsewhere:
God is also transcendent because the immanence of God is NOT IDENTICAL with the WHOLE being of God. – Rajinder Kaur
Hence, what Wazir has posited is a concept of God where His essential being exists as a single system comprising of bipolar aspects of which one is his Transcendent attributeless self that was infinite, ineffable, atemporal and timeless sans creation, whilst the other, i.e. His Immanent self, is its mutual opposite. Yet, despite this Immanent nature emerging with the becoming of creation, this single system (God) has nevertheless managed to somehow remain Transcendent. The inevitable question is how a theology can be logically coherent while affirming something, let alone God, to be infinite-finite, temporal-atemporal, and timeless-transitory at the same time and in the same respect?
For example, in one sense I am strong, say lifting a feather, but in another sense I am without strength, or weak, as when I try to lift a building.
The analogy is flawed because unlike Waheguru who can be described by two mutually exclusive qualities, your analogy describes two separate situations for which two separate attributes can take effect. On the other hand, if we take only a single situation, then you cannot be described as both strong and weak at the same time in lifting either the feather or the building.
But there is another important factor that warrants further examination. In order for you to lift a feather, the following two essential components are required: 1) will or volition, i.e. your will to act, 2) an object, i.e. a feather.
In Waheguru’s case, he is said to have been in a state of sunya (crudely translated as an absolute state of latency; equipoise) during his Nirgun state sans creation. Prof Bhandari better explains this concept by stating that before Waheguru assumed the Sargun state, “[t]he Gurus … used ‘Sunya’ in conjunction with terms like samadhi, tari (trance, meditation) or sahaj (equipoise, balance) or sach (holy truth) … [to] describe the state of complete tranquillity and oneness of the Absolute Self, and refer to that latent form in which every aspect of creation lies dormant in Him, waiting for the operation of the Divine urge for its unfoldment”.  While Wazir puts it thus:
Here Wazir feels it necessary to go as far as to justify applying names to that which he calls “Nothingness, Emptiness, Big Zero, Sunya”. Be that as it may, the point is that during this state of sunya, not only was Waheguru in a form other than what he was with the becoming of creation, but he was latent and inactive sans creation. Hence, a being that is inactive, i.e. does not have the will to act, and is surrounded by nothingness, is in actual fact devoid of those attributes that necessarily require an object for their functionality. Hence, how can the capacity to act be ascribed to a being who, in the complete absence of anything external to him, exists in a perpetual state of dormancy (sunya), i.e. eternally volitionless and incapable of willing to act, let alone lifting a feather or mountain?
To be clear, I am merely suggesting that one could be clearer as regards the ways in which the terms nirgun and sargun are being used, because they could be more contextual and functional than just to be simple opposites.
Given the above, this is certainly not the case. These bipolar concepts have a much more concrete and specific understanding than what you might have understood so far or are even perhaps willing to concede.
It is worth considering that the acceptance of a seemingly contradictory nature of God is not entirely unsurprising given the ancient tradition from which this concept was borrowed, i.e. Hinduism, as well as the socio-cultural and religious backdrop in which the Gurus subsequently moulded it, albeit with their own peculiar refinements. If there is anything that uniquely identifies the theological paradigm of the Indian subcontinent it is the erroneous belief that since God is not subject to the bi-valued laws of logic, He can thus exist and act contradictorily.
As I understand, describing God as being “without attribute” is simply a condensed form of the argument that God is not bound by any attribute, but is superior in His essence to any attribute or description.
The word “bound” is too loose a term and would require you to define it.
One could argue that the attribute of life, for instance, is a sine qua non of a living being. The same would be true of the attribute of will or volition for a being that acts. Moreover, if this being is, to borrow Anselm’s oft-quoted descriptive, the greatest conceivable being, then all the attributes possessed of this being must be perfect in the absolute sense of the word. It, therefore, makes no sense to firstly make a distinction between the attributes and the essence of a being before suggesting that the essence is superior to any one of these attributes when these very attributes are a sine qua non of the essence of this being.
Besides, as we have quoted above, to say that God is “without attributes” is to say that attributes that necessarily require an object, i.e. creation, are “latent” sans creation and, hence, only make sense in “a relative or changing world”. As Daljeet put it: “God was by Himself, the question of ‘love and devotion, of good or bad actions, or of the saved or Saviour’ could not arise, there being nothing other than Him.”
Likewise, to say that God has attributes is a condensed form of the argument that states that God reveals Himself in the medium of attributes such as Truth, Mercy, Oneness, etc.
This argument is a gross over simplification of God and is essentially exposed by the attributes you have cited as examples. If we accept a priori God’s oneness and existence to be eternal, then these do not require any type of revealing or manifestation precisely because they are examples of intrinsic attributes that are unchanging and constant – what we can call intransitive attributes. At the same time, intransitive attributes cannot be the same as those that necessarily require an object and are functionally dependent upon His will, e.g. love, mercy, compassion, seeing, hearing, etc, i.e. His transitive attributes. Hence, a basic categorisation of transitive and intransitive attributes must be affirmed if we are to correctly understand the essential nature of God. To cite an obvious example, unlike the attribute of mercy, the attribute of life does not require an object for its functionality.
These attributes apply to Him functionally,
As we have argued, if you mean that they all apply to Him functionally in the sense that they are actualised through His divine will, then in light of the obvious dual categorisation of God’s attributes mentioned above, this is false.
and so to relate this back to the Nirgun argument is, then, to say that God, to use the term “transcend,” transcends any attribute which, though transcended in His essence, yet equally applies to Him as a valid attribute on the basis of His Self-Revelation of Himself in Scripture.
The scholars and academics we have cited above suggest that there is certainly more to the definition and understanding than you have construed. It seems as though your knowledge of the concepts of Nirgun and Sargun are at best superficial and at worst contrived.
What is more, the above argument is so generalised that it fails to distinguish between God’s attributes. It further seems to imply that attributes that we have argued are a sine qua non of His essence can somehow be “transcended in His essence”! Your explanation forces us to the conclusion that not only can all His divine attributes apply to Him functionally, but that He can also somehow transcend them. This begs the question of how an eternal creator can, firstly, treat His absolute perfect attribute of life as a functional attribute à la mercy or love that’s dependent upon His will; and secondly, how He can choose to transcend His attribute of life?
In this sense, I would argue, the affirmation of nirgun and sargun does not violate the law of non-contradiction.
As we have said, we consider your understanding to be too simplistic and, therefore, entirely flawed.
Furthermore, the idea of transcending logic, if one takes the term “transcending” at face value, meaning going beyond logic but also including logic, is not to advocate irrationalism or violate the law of non-contradiction. Transcend means to exceed but simultaneously incorporate that which is transcended, as a city is transcended by a country, where the country incorporates and goes beyond the bounds of the city. In other words, as the saying goes, there is always a greater knower, and so it is sensible, in my understanding, to say that God, in His essence, transcends the logical process, but at the same He does not defy it either.
It always helps to give a concrete example to better explain something. Nonetheless, in light of the way the bipolar models of Nirgun and Sargun have been conceptualised, the theology of Sikhism violates the law of non-contradiction in that God, since the becoming of creation, has been what He was sans creation while simultaneously being its polar opposite at the same time. Now, if you’re insisting that we as rationale creatures suspend our ability to think logically when it comes to contradictory information revealed by God of God, then that would mean that He expects His servants to accept objectively false notions as true.
God is eminently rational, the Most Rational, but being the Source of Rationality He is not yet bound to it, but binds it according to His Will, His Essence, etc. o:p>
If that were true, then that would imply that His rational creatures would have to be open to the possibility that God could exist contradictorily and act in impossible ways which we would otherwise affirm necessarily as irrational and false. To put it another way, even if God did not reveal what these irrational concepts applicable to Him might be, we would still be forced to counterintuitively believe and accept that since He is not bound by what we, as rational creatures, have been taught to recognise a priori as universal logical truths, He could exist and act illogically.
However, if we accept these objectively based absolute universal truths to be inspired and taught to us by the source of all Truth, then what is more reasonable to affirm that God would reveal to us knowledge of His divine self in harmony with our intellects, or mentally oppressive concepts that force us to violate what we intuitively accept as logical truths?
If Logic were superior to God, then God would [be] the subject, subjected to Logic, but since God is the Most High, He is the Subjector of Logic, the Author o[f] Reason, and so He is above reason while at the same time consistent with it just as He is and must be consistent with Himself.
To say that logic (we take it you mean here the bi-valued laws of logic) is superior to God is to presuppose a conflict between divine truth and the faculties of reason He has endowed us with to recognise these universal truths predicated on the laws of logic.
There are truths of God that we believe and accept as inviolable precisely because God could never be or act in a way that would negate what defines Him as God. These are objective truths that have been revealed by God and which cannot, therefore, violate the universal laws of bi-valued logic and still be defined as truths. We are bounded by and can only make sense of the world through the powers of reasoning endowed us by God. The very idea of God transcending or being above reason, i.e. the human reasoning process, would be meaningless in a practical sense. Hence, to even assert that God is above reason is nonsensical. What could God possibly reveal as an example of Him acting in a way that we would see as illogical and irrational? In fact, can information be called information if it transcends reason?
Yes, God is, as you say, consistent unto Himself, but only in a way we understand Him to be.
I hope to hear your response. May God bless you.
Allah yadeek (may Allah guide you to the truth).
 P. Singh (1985), Sikh Concept of the Divine, (Guru Nanak Dev University Press, Amritsar), p. 123.
 R. Kaur (2003), God in Sikhism, (Secretary Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar), p. 67.
 Ibid., pp. 39-40.
 R.K. Rohi (1999), Semitic and Sikh Monotheism – A Comparative Study, (Punjabi University, Patiala, India), p. 146.
 D. Singh (2004), Sikhism: A Comparative Study of its Theology and Mysticism, (Amritsar, Singh Brothers), pp. 187-8.
 Ibid., p. 190.
 Ibid., p. 191.
 S.S. Bhatia, A. Spencer (1999), The Sikh Tradition: A Continuing Reality (Essays in History and Religion), (Publication Bureau Punjabi University, Patiala, India), p. 91.
 W. Singh (1981), Philosophy of Sikh Religion, (Ess Ess Publications, Punjabi University, Patiala), p. 14.
 Ibid., p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 102.
 J.S. Mann, S.S. Sodhi, Concepts in Sikhism – Cognitive Psychology – Mind Map Approach to Understanding Sikhism for the Second Generation Sikh Children, (Global Sikh Studies.net, online Word file, 9 Dec. 2009), p. 459.
 S.S. Bhatia, A. Spencer, op. cit., p. 202.