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FIVE KHANDS or Panj Khand literally means as follows: Panj = five and khands = regions or realms. These signify in the Sikh tradition the five stages of spiritual progress leading man to the Ultimate Truth. The supporting text is a fragment from Guru Nanak’s Japji Sahib, Pauris (Stanzas) 35 to 37 inclusive.
The concept of the spiritual journey running into several stages is found in other religious traditions as well. The number of stages and the nomenclature may vary, but the broad features of the journey remain the same. The seven muqamat of the Sufis, the eight angas of Patanjal yoga, the five kosas of Vedanta and dash bhumis of Buddhism run on parallel lines though they are embedded each in a different cultural milieu.
The Panj Khands in the Japji Sahib delineate the different stages of spiritual ascent tracing the evolution of human consciousness on different planes involving man’s thought, emotions and action. Though Guru Nanak does not explicitly deal with these transformations and only touches upon the core characteristics of each stage (khand), yet the emphasis on one aspect does not exclude the others. In each stage, the status or position of the individual is set forth in a social setting. The seeker is not conceived of as a recluse or ascetic: social obligations and moral qualities form an essential core of the spiritual path. The empirical mind is first emancipated from the grip of desire and purified by a rigorous moral discipline. When it learns to stand still, it is brought to the Divine Portal which it can enter only with the divine grace. There it finds itself face to face with the Truth Eternal, i.e. God.
The delineation of the Panj Khands is preceded by two introductory remarks in the two preceding stanzas. First, there is the term pavarian, i.e. rungs of a ladder, denoting stages of the mystical ascent. Guru Nanak relates this ascent to the constant remembrance of God's Name. Then occurs another insight which implies that all the endeavours that the spiritual aspirant makes and all the means that he employs during these endeavours have their ultimate source in divine grace without which he may not even feel the initial impulse towards spiritual life.
The first stage is the dharam khand. “The earth exists for dharma to be practised.” The word dharam has been employed in the sense of duty. Duty is usually performed either out of a sense of social responsibility or through moral awareness. Guru Nanak links this sense of duty to man’s consciousness of divine justice. This is the stage in which a sense of inquisitiveness is aroused in the mind of the devotee who is now no longer a casual onlooker of the world around but can perceive the divine purpose behind the creation of this planet of ours, the earth, which is set in the cosmic cradle of time and space and is sustained by the vital elements. Man has been placed in this world to respond to the Creator’s purpose. In His court, he will be judged according to his moral response.
The next is gian khand. “In the realm of knowledge, knowledge is ignited, i.e. illumination dawns.” The seeker here becomes aware of the universe and the mystery of existence. Through the creation, he gains knowledge of the Creator from whom it emanates. Knowledge here is not merely intellectual or sensual; it is intuitive awareness, a spiritual consciousness which expands the vision of the seeker. His sense of wonder is born not merely of his awareness of the many forms of life or the ordered movement of numerous celestial spheres, but of his perception of God who is the sole force behind all. In front of this limitless variety of cosmic life, he feels humble. This simultaneous experience of expansion of vision and of the sense of humility leads to vismaya or vismad (wonder).
Saram Khand is the sphere of spiritual endeavour. Here man strives against the last remnants of his ego which still afflict him in spite of his experiencing strong emotions of humility in the gian khand. If the sense of awe and wonder is not accompanied or followed by discipline, the experience might become a mere emotion, something remembered with nostalgia but having no permanent worth. To become worthy of receiving the divine grace, one must chisel one’s surati (consciousness) which is a unifying thread for all human faculties. This chiselling of intellect and wisdom would erase even the subtlest layers of ego from one’s mind.
Karam Khand (the realm of grace) is the sphere where reigns the Divine grace. The process of liberation with grace initiated is now brought to completion. All sense of dualism ends. The devotee is one with the Lord and with those who have attained this state of bliss. One reaches here only after achieving a heroic victory over the evils. Yet he is not a passive devotee, but a man of awakened courage and great deeds.
The final stage of spiritual ascent, i.e. sach khand (the realm of the Truth), defies description. “Hard as steel is the story of this state to narrate.” Described as the abode of the Nirankar, the Formless One, sach khand is not a geographical spot, but the final state of the evolution of human consciousness. One can only experience it, but not describe it, for here words cease to have any meaning and no analogies can help in describing the Unique. Here in the Divine Court, the perfect ones rejoice in His presence. It is from here that His Will (hukam) goes out to the universe, and the liberated, grace-filled souls perform it joyously and effortlessly. The devotee becomes one with Him and realizes Him as a unifying force working through all objects of His creation. This way he attains to the non-spatial sach khand and to the Dweller therein, the Nirankar, who is nowhere outside his own heart.
The intuitive consciousness, intellect and understanding of the mind are shaped there.The consciousness of the spiritual warriors and the Siddhas, the beings of spiritual perfection, are shaped there. ॥36॥
ਕਰਮ ਖੰਡ ਕੀ ਬਾਣੀ ਜੋਰੁ ॥ ਤਿਥੈ ਹੋਰੁ ਨ ਕੋਈ ਹੋਰੁ ॥
Karam kẖand kī baṇī jor. Ŧithai hor na koī hor.
In the realm of karma, the Word is Power. No one else dwells there,