Akal literally timeless, immortal, non-temporal, is a term integral to Sikh tradition and philosophy. It is extensively used in the Dasam Granth hymns by Guru Gobind Singh, who titled one of his poetic compositions Akal Ustat; i.e., In Praise (ustati) of the Timeless One (akal). However, the concept of Akal is not peculiar to the Dasam Granth. It goes back to the very origins of the Sikh faith. Guru Nanak used the term in the Mool Mantar, the fundamental creedal statement in the Japji, the first composition in the Guru Granth Sahib. The term also occurs in Guru Ram Das, Nanak IV, who uses it in conjunction with murat in Siri Raga chants (GG. 78) and in conjunction with purakh in Gauri Purabi Karhale (GG, 235). The term occurs more frequently in Guru Arjan’s bani (e.g. GG, 99, 609, 916, 1079, and 1082). We encounter the use of the term akal in Kabir as well.
It may be noted that the term akal has been used in Gurbani in two forms: (a) as a qualifier or adjective, and (b) as a substantive. In the expression Akal Murat, the first part is often treated as a qualifier, even though some interpreters take the two words as independent units, viz. akal and murat. In the Maru Raka Kal and Akal have been clearly used as substantives by Guru Arjan and Kabir. Guru Gobind Singh more often than not treats the expression as a noun. Akal Ustat is the praise of Akal and “Hail, O Akal, Hail, O Kirpal!” of Jaap Sahib also takes the related expressions as substantives. The meaning of Akal in this context is ‘timeless’, non-temporal’, ‘deathless’, ‘not governed by temporal process’, or ‘not subject to birth, decay, and death’. This appears to be negative coining in each case. But the intent is affirmative. Akal as deathless or non-temporal implies everlasting reality, eternal being, or Transcendent Spirit; it further implies Eternity, Being, or Essence. The linguistic form may be negative, but the semantic implication is unmistakably affirmative.
Guru Gobind Singh
Guru Gobind Singh in his Jaap Sahib in the Dasam Granth, has designated the Supreme Reality Akal. It is the same Reality that was given the epithet of sati in the Guru Granth Sahib. ‘Sat’ is the primordial name of the Eternal Being (GG, 1083). All the names that we utter in respect of God are functional or attributive names. The basic reality is nameless, in Guru Gobind Singh’s terminology anama. But even the Nameless can serve as a name. When we say Brahman is featureless, ‘featurelessness’ becomes its feature. Nirankar (Shapeless) is a name, and so are other epithets so coined. To signify what they regard as the Eternal Spirit, beyond the pale of time, temporality, or cosmic processes, the Gurus have chosen the terms Sat and Akal. Vahiguru is a positive saguna substitute for the negative nirguna term Akal.
Another avenue of thought on this term Akal brings into play the word 'Kal' which can be translated to 'death' or 'time'. the a- prefix makes it the opposite so a-kal can mean not subject to death or time. Guru Gobind Singh’s bani is a repository of concepts and terms, especially of the epithets relating to ‘time’. Besides Kal and Akal, Guru ji uses Maha Kal (macro-time) and Sarb-Kal (all-time) to indicate a Being above and beyond the eventful times of the universe. For him, Kal itself is a dimension of Akal, the only difference being the process that characterizes temporal events, and the eternality of Akal. Every occurrence or event has a beginning and an end, each event is a link in the on-going process of Time. The cosmic drama or the wondrous show of the world is all a creation of Time.
The power of Time controls worldly events; the only entity independent of time is Time itself, and that is Akal, the Timeless One. That is how God is both Time and Timeless in Guru Gobind Singh’s bani. The temporal aspect of Time is the immanent aspect, the presence of Spiritual Essence in each worldly occurrence. It is the ‘personality’ of the Supreme, the chit or consciousness of sat-chit-anand. The other, transcendent aspect, is the Eternal, the Beyond, the Inexpressible, the Fathomless, Nirguna Brahman, assigned the name Akal, the Timeless One or the One-beyond-Time.
Akal is not a fast substance, but the dynamic spiritual principle of the entire cosmic existence. The phenomenal world emanates from the Spirit, and the Spirit permeates the world. Akal in Sikh philosophy is not mere consciousness, bland and void, but is the Creative Spirit, as the expression Karta Purakh implies. In other words, creativity is the core of Akal. And it is creativity that is manifest in the dimension of Kal. Acting through Time, the Timeless One creates worlds and beings of the worlds. It is through creativity that the Timeless One transforms itself from nirgun to sargun, from the aphur state into saphur state, from the pre-creation sunn, or dormant essence, into cosmic existence.
The creativity of Akal is not confined to the timeless and timeborne aspects of the Supreme. Through its sargun facet the nirgun assumes the character of the Divine, of the gracious God, the loving Lord or Prabhu of the devotees. From ‘It’ the Ultimate becomes ‘He’, the person with whom communication is sought and established. From ‘Akal’, He becomes ‘Sri-Akal’. The Sikh slogan and popular form of greeting Sati Sri Akal Sikh sums up the concept that the timeless Being is the singular Eternal Reality. The phrase combines the concepts of Sat and Akal, implying that the Eternal and the Timeless are one; Sat, itself is the Everlasting Lord-beyond-Time. Thus, the creative essence turns the metaphysical Being into active principle of the world, into conscious Power involved in the cosmic process, into Hero or Master of the world, cherishing His creation with benign joy. Being the beneficent Lord, He lends some of His creativity to the created beings. Humanity draws its creativity and creative energy from the Divine reservoir of creativity.
Valour and heroism are pronounced characteristics of the Sikh tradition. The Akal of Guru Gobind Singh is All Steel (Sarb-Loh), symbolically applauding valour. Guru Nanak had applied the epithet of Jodha-Mahabali-Surma to the valiant in Japji, 27 (GG, 6). Guru Gobind Singh, Nanak X, expresses His creativities with terms such as Sarb-Kal (Jaap Sahib, 19, 20), Sarb-Dayal (Japu, 19, 23, 28), Sarb-Pal (Japu, 28, 45). He calls Him Glorious and great, Super-form, Yogi of yogis, Moon of moons, Melody of melodies, Rhythm of the dance, Liquidity of waters, Movement of the winds. He is Akal as well as Kripal, the Compassionate Lord. In fact, the whole composition of Japu, with its wide range of attributive names for the Timeless Being focuses on the Akal-Kripal unipolarity. The impersonal appears through all persons, the Timeless encompasses all timeborne beings emanating from His Essence. He transcends the human world, yet He is full of compassion for all. His timeless essence permeates the temporal existence.
The concept of Akal, central to Guru Gobind Singh’s Jaap Sahib has percolated to the social, political, and cultural aspects of Sikh life. Inspired by its theme, they call the Gurus’, bani Akali-Bani. The political wing of the community is known as Akali Dal. The slogan Sati Sri Akal has become a form of greeting for the Punjabis in general. The process had been initiated much earlier, half a century before the advent of Guru Gobind Singh on the scene. The Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, had already identified the throne built at Amritsar as Akal Takht—the Throne of the Timeless one.
- Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasna (Reprint). Amritsar, 1989
- Gopal Singh, Thus Spake the Tenth Master, Patiala, 1978
- Talib, Gurbachan Singh, Selections for the Holy Granth. Delhi, 1982
- Jodh Singh, Bhai, Gurmati Nirnaya, Lahore, 1945
- Above adapted from article By Wazir Singh
- Concepts In Sikhism - Edited by Dr. Surinder Singh Sodhi