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On Gurbilaas Patshahi 6
A review of Gurbilaas Patshahi 6 (Punjabi) edited by Joginder Singh Vedanti and Amarjit Singh (Amritsar: Shiromani Gurdwara Parpandhak Committee); 1998; pp. 858 and Gurbani Di Kasauti Tey Gurbilaas Patshahi 6 (Punjabi) by Gurbakhsh Singh Kala Afghana (Roseville, California: Singh Sabha International); 2003; pp. xxxxi + 375.
By ARDAMAN SINGH MADAN and I.J. SINGH
Ardaman Singh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. I.J. (Inder Jit) Singh is professor & co-ordinator of anatomy at New York University. Among other publications, he is the author of two books of essays: Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias and The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim's Progress. He is on the editorial advisory board of The Sikh Review, Calcutta and is an advisor-at-large to The Sikh Times. Email I.J. Singh at email@example.com.
The Sikh Times, Oct. 3, 2004
Photo: Gurbakhsh Singh Kala Afghana
Vedanti, co-editor of the first of the two books being reviewed here, is jathedar (head-priest) of the Akal Takht, the most important and visible position of authority in Sikhism. The author of the original book is unknown. Presumably the book was originally written in the early 18th century. For editing, publishing and sponsoring this book the jathedar has attracted considerable criticism around the world, as did the publishers, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.).
The second book under review, which is almost half as long, is a critique of the first and is written by the controversial author Gurbakhsh Singh Kala Afghana in his well known contentious style for which he has been subjected to considerable humiliation and condemnation by the Akal Takht.
The summer of 2003 was a season of turmoil in Sikh affairs. Akal Takht, the highest seat of spiritual authority in Sikhism, excommunicated Gurbakhsh Singh Kala Afghana for failing to appear at a hearing by a committee of jathedars of the five takhts (seats of Sikh religious power) and explain views published in several of his books. Particularly galling to the clergy, it appears, was his penchant for indiscriminate criticism of old well established texts of historical interest, notably the Dasam Granth, Gurbilaas Patshahi 6 and Suraj Granth by Santokh Singh, and also of certain well established Sikh rituals practiced in various gurdwaras for centuries.
Kala Afghana responded by writing a harsh critique of Gurbilaas Patshahi 6, newly edited and reissued by Vedanti and Amarjit. If the jathedar was not one before, certainly this work by Kala Afghana converted Vedanti into a mortal enemy of Kala Afghana, and divided Sikhs worldwide as few events could. Some publicly challenged the authority of the Akal Takht to excommunicate Sikhs, which made the Sikh clergy and jathedars act even more desperately.
Now that the dust seems to have settled somewhat, while the problem still festers, it is time to revisit these unsettled issues to put them in some perspective. Both books deserve to be examined in tandem. Hence this brief review.
The first book, Gurbilaas Patshahi 6, a refurbished version of an old book dating back to almost three hundred years, was published in June 1998 by the Dharam Parchar Committee of the S.G.P.C. and carried testimonials by a virtual Who's Who of Sikh scholars from across the world. Vedanti and Amarjit edited this new version. These two are highly regarded scholars who hold eminent positions in the community. Vedanti is now jathedar of the Akal Takht. Amarjit holds a doctoral degree in religion and is professor at Shahid Sikh Missionary College, Amritsar. Their credentials are impeccable, their integrity and devotion to Sikhism unquestioned.
The original version of this book was written in 1718 C.E. (Bikrami 1775) by an unknown author. Efforts by many historians to identify the author have failed. There is no definitive original version. A few copies exist in private libraries and in institutional archives but they contain variations in the text. In the 1998 version, the editors have tried to reconcile such differences in text and make minor corrections as needed. In addition, the editors have provided footnotes to explain the text in simpler language, but they do not claim any credit for the contents of the book. The original text is written in a language and style that is reminiscent of books written around the same time by Santokh Singh.
The book purports to recount in great detail the life of Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh guru, from birth to passing away, including some dubious passages on the period before his birth. While the book has some historical value, it is not a religious text. A significant part of the writing is not only inconsistent with Sikh tradition, it is in direct contradiction to the teachings of the gurus compiled in the Guru Granth, acknowledged as guru by all Sikhs. These passages are full of mythic stories that seem to have been taken right out of much discredited books of Hindu mythology, rejected by the gurus in no uncertain terms. For example, the book portrays that Guru Hargobind was not conceived and born in the same manner as all mortals, indeed all gurus, but by divine intervention of the Hindu god Vishnu. There are numerous such instances in the book, some even bordering on the pornographic, more consistent with the stories of Hindu mythology than the gospel of Guru Granth.
Considering the dearth of original material for research, over the past two centuries parts of this book were widely used by eminent scholars like Kahn Singh Nabha, Vir Singh, Karam Singh and Max Arthur Macauliffe. These scholars used sections from this book as their source of reference, without comment on its obviously illogical, inconsistent and erroneous parts.
It needs to be pointed out that in the predominantly oral historical tradition of Indian culture, hagiographic accounts almost always intermix history and mythology. This is what attracts the scholar to the pursuit of Indian history and also makes the task impossibly challenging. Such mythic-historical writing is commonly encountered in the Indian tradition. Just look at the Ramayana, the Bhagvad Gita, and the Sikh historiography in the Puratan Janam Sakhis. The original author, whose identity is unknown, says he heard these stories from his mentor, who in turn heard them narrated by Mani Singh. So one can imagine the potential for distortion and invention.
This did not make the editors' chore any easier. But this is where Vedanti and Amarjit slipped. They translated difficult passages. But conscientious editors would have provided footnotes that commented critically on matters that are clearly contrary to Sikh history and belief and only serve to muddy history, teaching and practice. In a controversial work of this sort, interpretation and analysis, and guiding the unwary reader through its intricacies, are the burdens that editors carry. Only if the editors performed this vital function would the republication of such a book serve any purpose at all. Merely translating difficult words or proofreading a text does not an editor make.
The second book Gurbani Di Kasauti Tey Gurbilaas Patshahi 6 is written by the author of Bipran Ki Rit Ton Sach Da Marg and several other books. His writings are very critical of the influence of Brahmanical practices that have crept into Sikhism over the last two centuries. This book is basically a review of first along with a rejoinder to Vedanti. Kala Afghana found certain portions not only inconsistent with the teachings of the Guru Granth, but also repugnant. So he decided to critique the book using the Guru Granth as his frame of reference. Significantly, Kala Afghana has pointed out pertinent verses of Gurbilaas Patshahi 6 that are clearly inconsistent with the philosophy and gospel of the Guru Granth. He has cited exact verses from Guru Granth to back up his critique.
Kala Afghana has thus served a very useful function that should be appreciated by the Sikh community. However, his style of presentation and his way of disputation often falls short of academic standards as well as the style expected of a mind attuned to and immersed in the message of gurbani. His relentless criticism, delivered in harsh language, is a jarring note in his impeccable command of gurbani.
The question that Kala Afghana and many others also raise is why Vedanti reissued this book. Why did a veritable cast of eminent scholars laud it so fulsomely?
Clearly, Gurbilaas Patshahi 6 has been in existence for almost 300 years and is now an integral part of what constitutes literature on Sikhism. Not that it ever was, but more so in today's academic culture and environment it is not good policy to bury literature or banish it from our presence even if it is seriously flawed. It should be critically evaluated. Readers should eventually decide on it, even though not every reader, author or editor is going to have the necessary wisdom.
Kala Afghana shows great insight into gurbani and an enviable, indeed admirable, command over it. While he has done a great service to the community by pointing out the fallacies in the first book, his criticism is often seen as going at the editors with a sledgehammer rather than pointing out where they fall short of their roles as editors. Sometimes it seems that Kala Afghana sees everywhere a Brahman plot and a Hindu conspiracy to decimate Sikhs and Sikhism.
Nevertheless, excommunicating Kala Afghana and banning his books is not the answer and puts us in the same league as the Islamic mullahs who issue fatwas against authors. Even the Roman Catholics, who used to release lists of books and movies that the faithful may not read or see, stopped the regressive policy almost thirty years ago.
Quite clearly, Vedanti and Amarjit should have done a more rigorous job of editing an old and important but controversial text. It seems obvious to us that while Vedanti erred in summoning Kala Afghana to appear at the Akal Takht for expressing his views and practicing his basic right to freedom of expression, Kala Afghana would perhaps have better served Sikhism via a more restrained expression of his frustration and avoiding invective in his language.