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A New Definition of Sikhism
A review of Sikhism by Gurinder Singh Mann (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall); 2004; pp. 128.
By PASHAURA SINGH
Pashaura Singh, Ph.D. (1991), University of Toronto, is Lecturer III of Sikh Studies at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His Ph.D. dissertation topic was "The Text and Meaning of the Adi Granth." His more recent research has focused on the life and teaching of Guru Arjan. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. Journal of Punjab Studies is published by the Center for Sikh and Punjab Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Gurinder Singh Mann is professor.
Journal of Punjab Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, Apr. 1, 2004 (Volume 11, Number 1, Spring 2004)
Photo: Pashaura Singh
Gurinder Singh Mann's book Sikhism is published as part of the Religions of the World series edited by the late Ninian Smart. Assuming that 'religions and ideologies not only form civilizations but directly influence international events' (p. 6), the editor invited a new generation of scholars to write introductory books in an accessible and informative style. Mann's book, however, goes well beyond the scope of an introductory text and successfully offers a fresh interpretation of Sikh history and religiosity.
The book is divided into five chapters. The opening chapter examines the life and legacy of Guru Nanak, and here comes the author's most significant contribution. Based largely on Guru Nanak's writings, Mann's analysis of his 1ife and more particularly the founding of Kartarpur ('Creator's Abode'), Guru Nanak's town, provide us with a new way of understanding the starting point of the Sikh tradition. He argues that Guru Nanak consciously worked toward creating a new religious community and for the first time in Sikh scholarship offers a sense of composition of the community at the stage of its origin. Departing from traditional understanding that Guru Nanak was an iconoclast, Mann argues that Guru Nanak created institutional structures, ceremonies, and rituals at Kartarpur. These were taken from the socio-religious context of his time but a clear Sikh stamp was put on them in the process of appropriation.
Mann exemplifies this with the initiation rite (charan pahul) at Kartarpur. Using Bhai Gurdas's var (1: 23) Mann explains this as follows: 'the initiate's toe was washed and other Sikhs drank that water' (p. 28). These details are corroborated in the Persian work Dabistan-i-Mazahib (School of Religions), written in the 1640s.
Having provided a different starting point, Mann then goes on to present later developments as constituting a coherent pattern rooted in the founder's teachings. The second chapter covers the consolidation of the community under the nine successors of Guru Nanak and the emergence and elaborations of institutions such as a sacred text, a sacred mythology, a sacred geography, and so on.
The Sikh confrontation with the Mughal administration resulted in Guru Arjan's execution/martyrdom. Not surprisingly, the dominant rural Sikh constituency since the days of Kartarpur played a significant role in resisting the challenge of the Mughal authorities: 'The Jats, who had a history of defiance against authority, would have had no compunction in resisting any onslaught on the community's autonomy' (p. 36). This tension between the Mughals and the Sikhs continued and later led to Guru Tegh Bahadur's execution/martyrdom in 1675 under the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb. In response to this situation, Guru Gobind Singh declared the Sikhs to be the Khalsa, 'the community of the pure,' embodying Guru Nanak's conception of a life of 'honor and fearlessness.'
Based on contemporary sources, Mann presents the 'Khalsa' and the 'Sikh' as synonymous terms. Those who undergo the ceremony of the khande di pahul ('nectar made with the double-edged sword') are the Singhs, the distinction thus is between the Sikhs and the Singhs, both being part of the Khalsa. The elevation of the community to be the Khalsa also obliged it to establish the divine rule of justice and humility. The process of the political ascendancy of the Khalsa began with Banda Singh's short-lived rule (1710-16) and came to fruition with the establishment of the Khalsa Raj under Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839).
The third chapter focuses on the impact of modernity on the Sikh tradition during the colonial period (1849-1947), doctrinal debates of the times, the post-partition Sikh situation, and the move toward a world community. Mann again departs from existing scholarship that divides Sikh thinking of the period between the Sanatan Sikhs and the Tat Khalsa and convincingly argues that there were three strands represented by three prominent individuals.
First, Khem Singh Bedi supported the centrality of the Singh identity arid the significance of the khande di pahul, but he also stressed the idea of divine incarnations, the need for a living guru, and the indivisibility of Sikh and Hindu society.
Second, Gurmukh Singh held the middle position that the activities of the ten gurus and the Guru Granth Sahib serve as the ultimate source of Sikh belief and practice. The Singh identity was the ideal but those who had not undergone the khande di pahul were an indivisible part of the Khalsa as long as they recognized the Guru Granth. Sikhs constituted a distinct community and the question of Hindu-Sikh relationship was a redundant issue.
Third, Teja Singh Bhasaur's position was far more radical. He claimed that anyone who has not undergone the khande di pahul should have no place within the community. In his vision of 'orthodoxy' the periphery was to be simply excised, and raising the issue of Hindu-Sikh relationship was an insult to the Sikhs.
Mann concludes: 'Bedi and Bhasaur were eventually sidelined' (p. 63). Thus Gurmukh Singh's middle position achieved general acceptance, both in institutional and ideological terms. It will be interesting to watch how scholars like Harjot Oberoi will respond to this new layout presented so cogently by Mann.
The fourth chapter examines the textual sources and other interpretive literature that form the basis of the belief system, devotional activity, ceremonies, and Sikh festivals. It is a succinct statement that emphasizes the close relationship between Sikh religious and temporal concerns. While discussing the architecture of the Darbar Sahib ('Honorable Court,' the presentday Golden Temple), Mann makes the point that 'while participating in the prayers at the Darbar Sahib, the Akal Takhat is not visible, but as the leaders sit on the podium of the Akal Takhat, the Darbar Sahib is in full view, representing how religious beliefs shape decisions regarding temporal matters, not vice versa' (p. 89).
The final chapter analyses the structure of Sikh society, nature of authority within the panth [Sikh community], women in Sikh society and the future of the Sikh community at the turn of the twenty-first century. Mann argues that Sikh society needs to be understood at its own terms and rejects the stance that sees it as some sort of aware of the gap between the 'ideal' and the 'real' situation on social differentiation and gender within the panth, he highlights the changing perspectives on these issues in different historical contexts. Similarly, the authority of the Guru Panth is established impeccably in the mainstream Sikh community, although some Sikh Sants become authoritative figures among their followers by providing 'an important service to many people at a time of emotional distress' (p. 102).
Mann projects a vibrant role for the diaspora Sikh community at the turn of the new millennium when he says that 'the Sikh societies in Britain and North America are in a considerably higher degree of animation than in any other part of the world, including the Punjab ' (p. 117).
To assist the readers in their exploration the book contains a number of useful aids. It contains a timeline of major historical events, maps of Punjab and Sikh sacred geography, glossary, transliteration guide, list of festivals, reading list, index, and an excellent selection of images from paintings and photographs. On page 43 Mann has given a fascinating portrait of Guru Gobind Singh in Mughal style, holding an arrow in hand. This portrait comes from an early manuscript of the Dasam Granth, the greater portion of which was prepared at Anandpur in the 1690s. The portrait fits in well with the contemporary genre of royal painting depicted in the portraits of Raja Sidh Sen (r. 1684-1727) and Raja Ajmer Dev of Mankot. (See Arts of India: 1550-1990; Victoria and Albert; 1999).
I have some minor concerns about certain details in the book. First, there are two references from the Adi Granth that are hard to identify with the observations in the text (pp. 26-7, 80). It would have been much better if actual citations were given. Second, the author claims that the Prem Sumarg was 'written in 1820s' (p. 62) but it is an earlier text. In fact, I have seen a manuscript of Prem Sumarag dated 1815 C.E. Third, the translation of the Punjabi term chauri as 'flywhisk' does not accurately reflect the 'royal function' of this symbol. Finally, the author's interpretation of Sikh ideas of 'political sovereignty' requires further analysis, especially its implications in the modern context. These minor criticisms, however, should not conceal the basic importance of the book.
In summary, Sikhism is an excellent short statement on the religion and history of the Sikhs. It is written in an engaging style and indicates Mann's mastery of the early Sikh sources and acute awareness of current debates in the field. This exciting book will be useful for both specialists in religious and Sikh studies, and of immense value for general readers interested in the Sikh tradition. Here is scholarship of the new generation at its most rigorous and essential reading for anyone in the field of Sikh studies.