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Eurocentric Research
A review of Sikhism and History edited by Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier (Oxford University Press); March 1, 2004; pp. 336.

Ishwinder Singh Chadha, born and raised in Chandigarh, topped the Bachelor of Commerce (B.Comm.) class of 2001 at Delhi Univeristy's Shri Ram College of Commerce and went on to earn an M.B.A. from the Indian Institute of Management (I.I.M.), Lucknow prior to joining his family's business. He is allied with The Institute of Sikh Studies., Aug. 1, 2004

Photo: Sikhism and History

This volume is a collection of papers presented at an international conference on Sikh studies held during September 27-29, 2001 at the University of Michigan. Two previous compilations of papers presented at earlier conferences at the same university have been published by Manohar Publishers & Distributors. The current volume was prepared in honour of W.H. McLeod and includes contributions by Pashaura Singh, N. Gerald Barrier, Nikki-Guninder Kaur Singh, Louis E. Fenech, Robin Rinehart, Tony Ballantyne, Doris Jakobsh, Arthur Helweg and Darshan S. Tatla. The contributors hold various positions at Western universities and regard themselves as 'critical' and 'objective' commentators on Sikhs and Sikhism. However, their critics often label their research as 'Eurocentric' and belonging to the 'revisionist,' 'McLeodian' school of thought.

The book starts with a two-part introduction. The first is an essay by Pashaura Singh on the W.H. McLeod's contribution to the field of Sikh studies. This essay contains a brief biography of McLeod, extracts from an earlier article by McLeod on 'Methodology and Belief' and a list of McLeod's publications. However, there is little here that isn't in McLeod's autobiography, released last year. Interestingly, Pashaura Singh reproduces a private communication between McLeod and himself as a proof that McLeod encouraged Singh to be his 'own person.' Predictably, Singh is all praise for McLeod's research and is quick to label criticism of McLeod's research as 'polemic.' The listing of McLeod's publications is likely to be of benefit to students and researchers of Sikhism. In part two of the introduction, N. Gerald Barrier neatly summarizes the themes of various papers contained in the book.

In his keynote speech reproduced here, W.H. McLeod discusses some of the challenges he faced while researching the rahit [Sikh code of conduct]. His paper focuses on three issues - how Jeevan Deol's discovery of M.S. 770 at the Guru Nanak Dev University library helped McLeod's research on the rahit, the difficulties involved in translating some words found in the rahitnamas and how the Guru Kian Sakhian hindered his research. McLeod also reiterates one of his favorite theories - that the rahit of the five Ks was not enjoined by Guru Gobind Singh but was formulated later by the Singh Sabha scholars. McLeod has been at the task of researching the rahit for about quarter of a century and the fruit of his labor - Sikhs of the Khalsa - was released in 2003. Those who have read this book will find nothing new in his keynote speech.

In his response to the keynote address, Pashaura Singh tries to counter McLeod's theory on the five Ks. However, his reasoning only ends up making matters worse. Singh informs us that Guru Gobind Singh gave the injunction to the Khalsa to wear 'five weapons.' At the time of annexation of Punjab in 1849, the British put a legal ban on carrying arms. Therefore, in order to meet this new situation the organizers of the Singh Sabha movement replaced the tradition of 'five weapons' with that of 'five religious symbols,' known as the five Ks. The kirpan was no longer considered a weapon. It was worn as a matter of religious conviction along with unshorn hair and was 'concealed' under the turban. To justify his theory, Singh offers the following poor apology - 'This is not surprising since every dynamic community is always involved in the process of re-definition and renewal in response to new historical situations.'

The weakness in Singh's analysis is evident to the discerning reader. The carrying of weapons was banned by the British under the Arms Act of 1878 (not in 1849). Writing in 1877 (i.e. before the ban), Ernest Trumpp clearly states that the Sikhs are required to always have with them five things all of which commence with the letter kakka [the Punjabi equivalent of the English letter 'K'].

Compromise on Sikh symbols is unacceptable to the Sikhs even today as is amply evident from the protracted legal battles fought by Sikhs all over the world for wearing their symbols. If compromise with the British authorities was the intent of the Singh Sabha leaders, then why was a hukamnama [edict] issued from the Akal Takht in 1913 stating that the minimum length of the Sikh kirpan should be 12 inches and why did Sikhs enter into agitations to get the restriction on keeping the kirpan removed? In 1914, yielding to pressure from the Sikhs, the British had removed the restriction on keeping the kirpan.

One wonders how useful such research would be for the cause of diaspora Sikhs? Often one hears of legal battles undertaken by Sikhs to fight for their right to wear the turban or kirpan. Shouldn't the authorities expect the 'dynamic' Sikhs to 'redefine and renew' their tradition in response to new laws? What would happen to the case against the ban on wearing the turban in France? In the past, Pashaura Singh's 'expert testimony' in the Air Canada case ensured that Sikhs lost their right to wear the kirpan on Air Canada flights.

Pashaura Singh's other contribution in the book is an essay on 'Sikh Identity in the Light of History: A Dynamic Perpective.' This is essentially a rehash of McLeod's book Who is a Sikh?, with Singh being careful to gloss over some of McLeod's controversial statements. It is only in the concluding section of the essay that Singh offers something original. Here, Singh proposes to introduce a new term ichhadhari into the Sikh lexicon. He informs us that 'the clean-shaven Sikhs do not like the term mona as the designation of their status within the Panth.' In order to overcome this difficulty he has coined this new term. He avoids using the equivalent term manmukh because 'it is loaded with pejorative connotation.' However, in his enthusiasm Singh forgets gurbani's clear injunction that a Sikh is one who follows the guru's ichha [will]:

He alone is a Sikh, a friend, a relative and a sibling, who walks in the way of the guru's will. One who walks according to his own will, suffers separation from the Lord, and shall be punished (Guru Amardas, AG, p. 601).

Even this avowedly well-meaning gesture by Singh seems to have misfired because some 'clean-shaven' Sikhs feel that by labeling them ichhadhari Singh is likening them to a snake. Also, some of Singh's statistics in this section are widely off the mark. For example, his statement that 85-90% of the Sikhs are amritdharis [baptised] / kesdharis [with unshorn hair] reflects an ignorance of realities on the ground.

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh's paper entitled 'Mythic Inheritance and the Historic Drink of the Khalsa' is one of the best essays in the book. The paper explores the similarities between Guru Nanak's mythic initiation by the Divine in the river Bein and Guru Gobind Singh's initiation of the five beloved ones on Vaisakhi in 1699. The author concludes that it was Guru Nanak's experience that was organized and systematized by Guru Gobind Singh into an essential rite during his unique performance. Emphasizing a powerful message of continuity and tradition at the heart of the Sikh religion, the author notes that when researchers of Sikhism get preoccupied with contrasts and contradictions it leads to historical aberrations and prevents them from understanding the liberating process inherent in the amrit initiation.

Louis Fenech is currently working on a book on Bhai Nand Lal 'Goya.' The current volume contains a paper by him on 'Bhai Nand Lal Goya and the Sikh Tradition' in which he shares with the readers his current line of research on the Persian poet. He explores why Nand Lal's Persian works remain unreported in rahit literature, the value and limits of Persian in evolving Sikh tradition, Sufi influence and the changing attitude of Sikhs towards the Muslims. His research on the subject still seems to be in the preliminary stages, since even Fenech accepts that what is mostly offered in the paper is speculation.

Robin Rinehart's paper on 'Strategies for Interpreting the Dasam Granth' is topical and quite interesting. Without taking any sides, the author aptly observes that in the current debate on the authorship of the Dasam Granth the same arguments are repeated ad nauseum, often without full consideration of the available evidence. The author feels that the existing evidence may not be sufficient to reach a conclusion on authorship that will satisfy everyone. She further adds that even if such evidence were to be found, it is quite likely that everyone would not accept the validity of such evidence and come to an agreement. In conclusion, the author suggests that scholars need to rethink the strategies that are being used in considering the text of the Dasam Granth. At the same time, she reminds us that in the past theological issues raised by the Dasam Granth had been deflected for the sake of maintaining unity in the panth.

Tony Ballantyne's paper on 'Maharaja Dalip Singh: History and Negotiation of Sikh Identity' reflects themes that he plans to develop in his forthcoming book on the Sikhs, colonialism and issues facing the community in the diaspora setting. Ballantyne shows how Dalip Singh has been viewed differently by the Sikhs at different times and places. He argues that Dalip Singh enjoys an iconic status amongst British Sikhs because for them his travels and life in Britain laid the very foundations for their community. His paper also explores the ongoing interaction between the Sikhs and English culture and concludes by stressing that for any useful understanding of the Sikh experience in the last two centuries the researchers need to consider factors internal to Sikhism as also outside it.

Doris Jakobsh's contribution to the current volume is a paper entitled 'What Is in a Name?: Circumscribing Sikh Female Nomenclature.' The main point pursued by her in this paper is that Guru Gobind Singh did not require that Sikh women adopt the name 'Kaur.' Sikhs had been using the name 'Kaur' in a culturally significant manner since long and it was only in the Singh Sabha period that the appellation 'Kaur' as a specific Sikh symbol was for the first time sanctioned. This conclusion seems to have rattled Pashaura Singh as in an endnote he refers to Jakobsh's theory and remarks that the actual naming practice was there since pre-modern times, though the formulation of the convention may have come as the result of Singh Sabha reforms. As in the case of the five Ks, Singh's comments once again end up marginalizing the contribution of Guru Gobind Singh.

Gerald Barrier is in familiar territory when he analyzes issues relating to the Akal Takht, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.), the Rahit Maryada and law in his paper on 'Authority, Politics and Contemporary Sikhism.' Barrier explores how Sikhs have constantly struggled with balancing the need for consolidating traditions with the political task of expanding numbers and compromise. Even though the author tries to take the position of a detached observer, his sympathies are quite evident throughout.

In his paper on 'Ethnic Dynamics Within a Transnational Framework: The Case of the Sikh Diaspora,' Arthur W. Helweg tries to understand the recent Sikh experience from the perspective of migration studies. Focusing on Sikhs in England, he applies a field theory framework with the stages of decision making, freedom, conflict, settlement and nationalism, and illustrates how that helps explain initial Sikh reaction to life in England, changing norms, interaction with the homeland and the rise of militancy and organizations.

Darshan S. Tatla's essay entitled 'Writing Prejudice: The Image of Sikhs in Bharati Mukherjee's Writings' explores how non-Sikhs view the Sikh community and portray them in fiction and history. The essay is a balanced critique of the fictional and non-fictional writings of Bharati Mukherjee, professor of literature at the University of California (Berkeley). By quoting portions from Mukherjee's writings, the author clearly brings out the distorted portrayal of Sikhs and Sikhism in her writings. Tatla shows how Mukherjee indulges in wholesale and crude generalizations in her books through which a religious tradition along with the majority of its followers are condemned.

I have mixed feelings about the book. Some of the essays are quite interesting and provide valuable information and insightful analysis. Pashaura Singh's contributions are quite disappointing considering his religious background. Some of his 'research' reminds the reader of George Santayana's observation that 'History is a pack of lies about events that never happened, told by people who weren't there.' On the whole, one gets the feeling that the two and a half year delay in the publication of the conference proceedings has reduced the book's novelty factor. This is because the contributors have repeated their points in other publications released since the conference. In light of the repetitive material, the book appears overpriced.