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Piara Singh Sambhi: From Giani to Scholar

Owen Cole is a lecturer, writer and consultant who taught at the University College Chichester, England (previously Chichester Institute of Higher Education, and before that West Sussex Institute of Higher Education), where he was head of Religious Studies until 1989. He has written widely on religious education as well as Sikhism. He is the author of Religion in the Multifaith School, Six Religions in the Twentieth Century, Christianity, Meeting Hinduism and, with Piara Singh Sambhi, A Popular Dictionary of Sikhism and The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices.

The Sikh Review, Feb. 1, 1993

Photo: 'A Popular Dictionary of Sikhism' by W. Owen Cole and Piara Singh Sambhi

Piara Singh Sambhi who died at Leeds, U.K., on November 30, 1992, was an internationally respected Sikh scholar. His study of the religion began in 1948 when he qualified as Giani and developed in Britain, where he arrived in 1963. In 1969 he was member of the Yorkshire Committee for Community Relations and president of the Chapeltown gurdwara in Leeds. It was in this Quincentenary year of Guru Nanak's Birth, when I was invited to be a member of the committee organising the celebrations in City Hall, that our collaboration began.

Piara Singh will be best remembered for helping establish the young Sikh community in Leeds and promoting the understanding of Sikhism among non-Sikhs through lectures and writings. He visited many schools, colleges and universities, and participated in courses for teachers. He was a prolific writer. As sole or co-author he produced over a dozen books and some twenty articles. He was the Sikh, that teachers, students and publishers turned to in matters of religious education. There is no Sikh whom one can readily name, who can take his place in this respect. The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, which we wrote together, is used by undergraduates in India and the U.S.A. as well as Britain.

Thousands of visitors to the Leeds gurdwara, both adults and school children, were received by him, in the last twenty years. He took time off from work to do it, but few realized the loss of earnings this caused him. He also changed his work pattern from night shift to daytime so that The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices could be written more expeditiously; this too demanded financial sacrifice.

Piara Singh was also a founder member of the Leeds group Concord, one of Britain's oldest interfaith groups. Improving relations between religious communities was an objective to which he attached considerable importance. At his funeral, which was attended by some five to eight hundred mourners, the prescence of Hindus, a rabbi and several Christian clergy testified to the regard in which members of other faiths held him. Since then Muslim friends and many teachers have offered me their condolences.

A number of other non-Sikhs, Joy Barrow, Shirley Firth, Eleanor Nesbitt, John Parry among them, besides myself, were encouraged to develop a research interest in the Sikh religion, by his inspiring concern for academic enquiry. As recently as three days before his death he was discussing Sikhism with visitors to his bedside and planning ahead.

It is fitting that the two posthumous books that will appear in 1993 are a school text book on his beloved Guru Granth Sahib (Heinemann), and Sikhism and Christianity: A Comparative Study (Macmillan), an academic book which we have co-authored. A number of articles will also appear during 1993. Piara Singh, my teacher and friend, was, above all, a kind husband and father. He is survived by a daughter, son, and his wife Avtar Kaur, his loving companion, supporter and sustainer. She was with him when he died, strong in his belief in God, at St. Gemma's hospice which he described as his five star hotel. Piara Singh Sambhi had the humour, bluntness and generosity that characterize the best Sikhs. They were well suited to his adopted country of Yorkshire. He has established a historic place for himself among the founding fathers of British Sikhism and lasting affection in the hearts of his many friends.

Bhai Gurdas said of the gursikh, 'He learns the Gurbani, teaches it and writes it for others.' This might well serve as Piara Singh's epitaph.