The Gur Mantar, also known as Gurmantar in Punjabi, is that esoteric formula or term significant of the Supreme Being or the deity which the master or teacher confides to the neophyte to meditate on when initiating him into his spiritual discipline. The concept of mantra goes back to the pre-Vedic non-Aryan tradition and to the primitive cults of magic, animism and totemism.
It has since been a continuing element one way or another in the religious traditions of the world and traces of it pervade to this day among the most modern of them. The occultist and the tantrist believe that mantras have power over the deity and can make it confer the desired boon or favour. According to the Brahmanical tradition, the universe is under the power of the gods, the gods are under the power of the mantras and the mantras are under the power of the Brahmins. The mantras have power over the gods or forces of Nature, but the Absolute Reality or the Supreme Being is here excluded. The mantras of the occultist comprised words which, in most cases, were merely weird sounds or perversions of meaningful words. The repetition, ceaseless repetition in the prescribed manner, of these was believed to prove efficacious in producing the desired result. Mantras also began to be culled from scriptural texts, and were used for the purpose of propitiating the gods. Similarly, certain mystic words from Scriptures were chosen to be meditated upon to win release or liberation. Om is the highest mantra in the Hindu system.
With the initiation ceremonies of different creeds developed the concept of the gurmantra. In Hinduism, Brahmans were the teachers. Their Gur Mantars, mantras imparted by gurus or teachers, were neither uncommon nor secret. The usual forms were Hari, Har, Rama, Hare Krishna, etc. Sohang (That I am) and Ahang (I am That) are the mystic gurmantras of the Vedantists. What makes a gurmantra meaningful is that it is whispered into the ear of the disciple by the guru. The disciple repeats the gurmantra as he is told to do to realize the Supreme. Whereas the mantras of the tantrists aim at gaining worldly advantages, the gurmantra is meant to lead one to the ultimate objective of liberation.
In Sikhism, the gurmantra is neither variable nor confidential. It is not whispered into the ear of the disciple, but openly pronounced. The word Vahiguru has been the gurmantra for the Sikhs from the very beginning; Vahiguru is the name by which the Supreme Being is known in the Sikh tradition. Bhai Gurdas (1551-1636) makes the statement "Vahiguru is the gurmantra; by repeating it thou hast thy ego erased," (Varan X111.2). In the Guru Granth Sahib, the gurmantra to be practised is referred to as nam, i.e. the Divine Name. Absorption in nam, i.e. constant remembrance of God's Name is repeatedly recommended. "All gains—spiritual and material—flow from concentration on nam" (GG, 290). "Gather the riches of God's Name; thus wilt thou earn honour in the hereafter," (GG, 1311). "Grant me the merit (O God) of remaining attached to thy Name." This nam, according to Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak received in a mystical experience, during his disappearance into the Bein rivulet which is described in the Puratan Janam Sakhi in terms of a direct communion with the Divine Lord. "As the Lord willed, Nanak the devotee was escorted to His Presence. Then a cup filled with amrit (nectar) was given him with the command, 'Nanak, this is the cup of Name-adoration. Drink it. . . Go, rejoice in My Name and teach others to do so. . . I have bestowed upon thee the gift of My Name. . ." It is believed that the Name Guru Nanak revealed was Vahiguru.
The Mool Mantar or root formula with which Sikh Scripture opens defines the Reality. The epithet sati (satya from Sanskrit as) in it means ever-existent, eternal. Onkar, the primal word in the Mool Mantar, is for the temporal world that wonder whose name is sat. Vahiguru directly and verbally echoes the wondrous aspect of the Guru, here the Timeless Being. Vahiguru and Satinam thus convey an identical awareness, the former being implicit and the latter explicit in the Guru Granth Sahib. The Supreme Being is the ultimate Guru (GG, 357). Gurmantra Vahiguru means the wonderful Ever-existent Lord, the Supreme Enlightener.
Sikhism by definition is the faith of discipleship. The Guru is central to the system—the Ten who lived in person and the Guru Granth Sahib which was so apotheosized in 1708 by the last of the Gurus, Guru Gobind Singh. The Guru's word is for the Sikh the Word Divine, and he is meant to live by it. He to whom the Guru imparts nam mantra, i.e. gurmantra, alone achieves perfection (GG, 1298); he receives bliss transcending all desires, (GG, 318); he has his fear and suffering annulled (GG, 51); he has himself accepted everywhere (GG, 257); and he has his sins cancelled pierced by the arrow of truth (GG, 521). Gurmantra acts as panacea for all ills (GG, 1002). Accursed is he who is devoid of gurmantra (GG, 1356-57). Gurmantra fixes one's mind on Him Who pervades everywhere (GG, 1357).
The initiation ceremony in early Sikhism was known as charanamrit or charan pahul, i.e. baptism by water from the holy foot (charan). The disciple drank water touched by the toe of the Guru who imparted the gurmantra. As the community grew in numbers, local sangat leaders in different parts administered charan pahul. One more practice is said to have originated in the time of Guru Arjan of placing water under the wooden seat (manji) of the Guru Granth Sahib and then using it as amrit to initiate the neophytes. While inaugurating the Khalsa in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh substituted khande di pahul or amrit for charan pahul. At that ceremony, the neophytes quaffed five palmsful of sweetened water churned in a steel vessel with a khanda, double-edged sword, to the chanting of the holy hymns. In response to the Guru's call, each of them shouted Vahiguru ji ka Khalsa, Vahiguru ji ki Fateh, every time he took a draught of the elixir. He thus imbibed the gurmantra Vahiguru. Initiating in this manner the first five Sikhs known as Panj Pyare, the Five Beloved, Guru Gobind Singh had himself initiated by them with the same rites. Since then any five Sikhs reputed for their religious devotion can initiate the neophytes and administer to them the gurmantra. Constant repetition of Vahiguru with full concentration, withdrawing one's mind from the world of the senses, is practising the Sikh spiritual discipline of nam so reverberatingly inculcated by the Gurus in the Holy Book.