Noteworthy News and Analysis from Around the World

In-Depth Coverage of Issues Concerning the Global Sikh Community Including Self-Determination, Democracy, Human Rights, Civil Liberties, Antiracism, Religion, and South Asian Geopolitics

Home | News Analysis Archive | Biographies | Book Reviews | Events | Photos | Links | About Us | Contact Us

Launchpad for Sikh Studies
A review of The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies by Pashaura Singh and Louis Fenech (Editors).


The Sikh Times, Jul. 14, 2020

This book is a solid stepping stone into the world of Sikh Studies for anyone who has perhaps read a few introductory texts and seeks a broader perspective. The book's Preface suggests a target audience consisting of advanced graduate students and research scholars. A budding scholar should indeed have a well-rounded perspective of their subject of study. And this book is an essential component of that. Furthermore, the Handbook series claims to "set the pace" for the field, pointing out the state of current research and topics for further exploration. The book comprises 50 odd essays by nearly as many scholars from all over the globe writing on every imaginable facet of Sikh Studies, covering not only the usual categories of history and diaspora but also the less commonly discussed topics like arts, sects, and gender. The cover photograph is a very rich detail of the opening page (Guru Nanak's Mool Mantar) from an Adi Granth manuscript at the British Library Board.

All of the contributors have, of course, already written complete books on the subjects of their essays. Many of these are books I have read. Some I have even reviewed. So, my first instinct was to wonder if I will find anything new in the essays from the scholars whose works I am already exceedingly familiar with. Take for instance Jakobsh's essay. Firstly, even having read her book on the subject, I found much of her presentation to be fresh and compelling. The truth is that one doesn't remember all of what was read a few years ago and a well-written refresher is always welcome. I encountered a few words I had not known before including "deocentric" (God-centric) and "karad" (which Jakobsh describes as a feminine domestic utensil).

The publisher and the editors must be commended for assembling a who's who of contributors. The book introduced me to several up and coming scholars such as Purnima Dhavan (on the left), Harpreet Singh (on the right), and many others all along the spectrum. However, no list of contributors is ever complete. Notable absences from this very impressive list of contributors include Jagtar Singh Grewal, Gurinder Singh Mann, Harjot Oberoi, Tony Ballantyne, and Brian Axel.

In the introduction, the word "Sikhi" is embraced as a replacement for the Western word "Sikhism". The use of "Sikhism" has long been rejected in popular Sikh circles as having been imposed by the West. Therefore in many cases "Sikh tradition" had become the standby word/phrase. I don't know if this is the first major Western publication from an authoritative publisher to do so, but it must be one of the first. Of course, the word "Sikhism" is still used widely in many of the actual essays in the book.

Pashaura Singh's "Overview of Sikh History" takes head-on the conflict between positivism and post-modernism in historiography. (Historiography is the study of how history is written.) Positivism is the post-Enlightenment modernism (Age of Reason) view that history ought to be purely evidence based and that primary sources must be allowed to tell the story without any external interpretation. In other words, if something isn't in the Adi Granth or a few other sources considered reliable, then it must be discarded. The alternative, let's call it post-modernism (of which there are enough variants to make your head spin, so we won't go there), is to make room for "group memory", also known as tradition. That's a long-winded way of acknowledging the age old battle between history and tradition that has been a thorn in the side of historians writing Sikh history. Offering a listening ear to tradition does not, however, mean that the implausible is recorded as history. For example, the hand-print on a large boulder at Punja Sahib, supposedly resulting from Guru Nanak stopping it with his bare hand as it hurtled his way would forever remain implausible and outside the realm of history. On the other hand, giving voice to different traditions about the founding of the Khalsa in 1699 may well result in some useful insight.

Singh retells the story about Guru Nanak disappearing into the River Vein (also known as Kali Bein) for three days before reappearing and proclaiming "There in no Hindu. There is no Muslim." as a precursor to offering a new united path for all religions. However, Singh describes the three-day immersion as a "metaphor". Another example of having to make history plausible whereas tradition is free of any such burden. And yet, we are talking about history of religion. So, we have to set aside our reason when Singh writes that Guru Nanak had "direct access" to God, whatever that means.

Singh's recap of the Guru Period is in the form of three groups of threes that will be familiar to most. A threefold discipline of "nam, dan, and ishnan" (contemplation, charity, and purity). Three key institutions of "sangat, gurdwara, and langar" (community, place of congregation and worship, and communal eating without regard for caste or creed). And three key events, namely the writing of the Guru Granth by Guru Arjan, the martyrdoms of Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur, and the founding of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh.

In describing how Kartarpur came to be settled as the first Sikh community, Singh posits that Guru Nanak "managed to purchase for himself" the large plot of land that became Kartarpur. That's seems to go against Guru Nanak's non-capitalistic instincts illustrated in the "janam-sakhis" (eye-witness birth accounts and biographies). According to the lore, Guru Nanak had given up family and work a long time ago in favor of pilgrimages. However, conceivably, his family left him an inheritance despite the fact the he didn't assist with the family business. Or he got a grant from one of the rulers. It's a new addition to my little list of mysteries to solve.

Singh continues his theme of threes, outlining three key "reform" movements during the British colonial period: the Nirankari movement, the Nam-dhari movement, and the Singh Sabha movement. Responding to Oberoi, Singh identifies three strands within the Singh Sabha movement, namely Khem Singh Bedi (Amritsar), Gurmukh Singh (Lahore), and Teja Singh (Bhasaur) representing left-, center-, and right-leaning perspectives respectively. He claims that the center-leaning philosophy of treating uninitiated Sikhs as an "indivisible part of the Sikh Panth" won the day. However, that conclusion seems far too optimistic. As of today, only Khalsa Sikhs are allowed to vote in SGPC elections. This suggests that the far right perspective was the real winner. And the broader, more diverse Panth the sad loser.

Rahuldeep Singh Gill's essay on Gurdas Bhalla seems entirely hagiographical and a bit out of place in this academic volume. He appears to be channeling Islam (or perhaps just Gurdas) when he writes, "Gurdas promises that the entire Sikh community will be liberated in the hereafter." Similarly the chapter by Toby Braden Johnson, a student and collaborator of Pashaura Singh since at least 2011, seems like mostly filler material with the same points made three different ways wherein he can't seem to decide whether to spell Sukha Singh with one k or two. Tejwant Singh Gill's essay is unexpectedly intriguing, but the poems he describes are so obscure that I can not find anything much about them online.

Anyone harboring misconceptions about the steep learning curve required to correctly interpret the Adi Granth ought to read Michael Shapiro's mind-blowing essay. Even though he only scratches the surface of the key elements regarding the grammar and structure of the Sikh scripture, it is detailed enough to leave no doubt in the reader's mind about the subtlety and dexterity that went into the creation of the individual verses and the chaining together of verses taken from multiple authors to form more complex structures like "vars".

Pashaura Singh seems a little off course when he references "from God came air and from air came water; from water God created the three worlds" (AG, p. 19) along with the claim that "Sikh cosmology" does not have any conflict with science (p. 229).

Owen Cole writes that the "enlightenment" incident in Guru Nanak's janam-sakhis is "referred to" in the Guru Granth (AG, p. 471). However, if you read the referenced section of the Adi Granth, you will see that it is a very long stretch to buy this claim (Handbook, p. 251). One has to wonder why a respected scholar like him feels the need to prop up a clownish claim of "enlightenment" when there is much about Guru Nanak's message that is in fact worth appreciating. Additionally, according to Cole, Guru Nanak was not "enlightened" but "commissioned" (p. 251). Apparently, the difference being that Guru Nanak is said to have been born in a state of spiritual liberation and the River Vein 3-day disappearance was merely a "commissioning".

There are a few inconsistencies that point to the editors or the publishers. Such as some bibliographies omitting the first name (e.g. Kalra's essay) and some not. The omission of the first name works in most cases, but is a real problem when the last name is "Singh". There are also a couple of speed bumps. For example, Bhogal uses a lot of long words and longer sentences to say very little that is beyond word gymnastics and of use to the general reader. His message is that the terms post-colonial and post-modern are misleading because colonialism and modernism have not ended but have evolved. It should not take a 15-page essay to say so. Mandair is nearly just as sleep-inducing and way too abstract for the general reader. Nijhawan's essay, too, must be bracketed into the same "avoid" category of pieces. Thankfully, such chapters are rare and the remainder of the book remains excellent.

My library is well stocked with every authoritative work on the Sikh tradition. So, I rarely acquire new volumes. That I made an exception for this Handbook speaks for itself. This is a reference work to be consulted as needed, not a novel to be read end-to-end. So, I'll stop here for now, although I've been reading it end-to-end so far and the first thirty-three chapters went by like a breeze and this volume is quickly becoming one of my all time favorites, mostly for the expanse of topics covered by the expert panel of academics. I hope this write-up gives you a good enough sense of the book and its very obvious value proposition. For a longer discussion on these topics, see The Origin and Development of Sikh Symbols and Traditions.