Strengthening Sikh Studies
– A Renewed Call for Concerted Action –
The field of Sikh Studies has expanded and matured considerably during the past few decades. However, it also seems to have become more difficult to navigate, mainly due to a proliferation of writings of uneven quality or with contradictory or deliberately-biased messages. To overcome these deficiencies and to properly develop and utilize the products of current and future Sikh studies, this paper briefly addresses two questions: (1) Where should one begin the study of Sikhism, and what should its focus be? and (2) What more could we do to further improve the benefits derived from all the existing sources?
Based on the work of other scholars and a general but purposive survey of the field, the article suggests that the primary criteria for determining whether a particular study and its conclusions are worth the effort, ought to be whether the research undertaken is sound and rigorous, is in line with authentic Sikh doctrines and beliefs, the methodology is appropriate for the subject matter studied, and whether its conclusions help us better understand and appreciate the original teachings of the Sikh Gurus.
These criteria have been used to organize the sampled writings. A small segment of the burgeoning literature is briefly covered; and the examples given are illustrative only. Admittedly, the groups of scholars identified below cannot be neatly characterized, for their research encompasses many topics over an extended period, and everyone’s ideas inevitably evolve over time. Nevertheless, one has to start somewhere; and this is where these reflections begin. We end with some suggestions regarding promising avenues for improving product quality and access, pitfalls to be avoided, and considerations that could help direct future efforts for strengthening Sikh Studies.
Where to Begin, and What to Focus on
The starting point for the study of Sikhism must obviously be the teachings of the religion’s founder Guru Nanak, his nine successor Gurus, and the Shabad now enshrined in the sole Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. All else follows.
The seminal contributions of Bhai Gurdas, who helped Guru Arjan compile the Adi Granth and was the first Sikh scholar 400 years ago, set the standard to be emulated. For understanding his views as a student (disciple)-cum-scholar of Sikhism, see for example,Dr. Jodh Singh, Varan Bhai Gurdas - Text, Transliteration, and Translation, and Dr. Gobind Singh Mansukhani, Hymns from Bhai Gurdas’s Compositions. The writings of other renownedscholars such as Bhai Rattan Singh Bhangoo (Sri Gur Panth Prakash);Mr. Max Arthur Macauliffe, (The Sikhs - their Religion, Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors); Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha (Ham Hindu Nahin and Gurmat Martand); and Bhai Vir Singh (Gurmukh Sikhya,and many other books)are essential reading as well.
Equally important are the writings of such prominent scholars as Giani Gian Singh (Panth Prakash), Giani Ditt Singh (Guru Nanak Prabodh; Durga Prabodh; SadhuDayanand Tey Mera Samvad, and about 70 other books), Dr. Taran Singh (Sikh, Sikhi ate Sidhant; Teachings of Guru Nanak Dev; and Sikh Gurus and the Indian Spiritual Thought), PrincipalTeja Singh (trans. Asa di Var, and Psalm of Peace (Sukhmani Sahib), and many others; including with Dr. Ganda Singh, A Short History of the Sikhs), Dr. Sardul Singh Kaveeshar (Sikh Dharam Darshan),and Prof. Gurbachan Singh Talib (An Introduction to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, and a 4-Vol. English translation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, in consultation with Bhai Jodh Singh). These and other contributions of outstanding Sikh scholars of years past provide a solid foundation for current and future Sikh studies.
A number of excellent efforts have been made in the past 50 years to delve deeply into Sikh doctrine, beliefs, and practice. One such noteworthy program of study culminated in the ‘International Seminar on the Life and Teachings of Guru Nanak’ organized in September 1969 by Punjabi University, as part of the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sikhism’s founder. Nearly 60 scholars from India, USA, UK, Canada, Australia and Sri Lanka took part in this important seminar. In the preface of the book Perspectives on Guru Nanak which compiled their work, the editor Prof. Harbans Singh noted that the ‘papers are a call to a new generation of scholars who will come under the discipline of both traditional and modern critical scholarship.’ (p. vi).
Since then, many scholars from India and abroad have responded to this call. Some of their work has received critical acclaim throughout the world, but other writings are not so well known, or have raised a lot of controversy. The scholars who have made their mark, for good or bad, come from many countries and many academic disciplines. The extensive research done and publications thus produced are too numerous and diverse for any meaningful generalizations to be made. But the authors and their writings could be loosely grouped into three broad categories, based on the topics covered, the research done, and the conclusions reached.
Group 1: Reputed scholars who produce reliable materials
Most of the trustworthy literature on Sikhism has been produced by scholars in India. The foremost among these is Prof. Sahib Singh, the celebrated scholar and prolific writer whose work on Guru Nanak, the Guru Granth Sahib, and many other important aspects of Sikhism remains unmatched in scope, depth, rigor, relevance, and impact. Many of his books have now been translated into English, and are available in print and electronically. Prof. Sahib Singh’s writings (an internet search produces a long list) are a ‘must read’ for anyone seriously interested in Sikh studies.
In addition, there are many other knowledgeable scholars whose writings improve our understanding of Sikhism. The book on Guru Nanak edited by Prof. Harbans Singh (mentioned above) contains contributions from over 40 well-known scholars, mostly from India; the book titled Recent Researches in Sikhism compiled and edited by Dr. Jasbir Singh Mann and Dr. Kharak Singh in 1992 includes contributions by more than 15 eminent scholars; as does the book titled Sikhism - Its Philosophy and History edited by S. Daljeet Singh and Dr. Kharak Singh in 1997. These books provide a good overview; but this is just the starting point. The list of recent scholars who have devoted themselves to Sikh Studies is long and rewarding.
Notable examples of this body of scholarly literature include the works of Dr. Jodh Singh, Kartarpuri Bir De Darshan(1968); Dr. Gobind Singh Mansukhani, Introduction to Sikhism (1977); Prof. Harbans Singh, Berkley Lectures on Sikhism (1982), The Heritage of the Sikhs (1983), and several other major publications, including (as Editor-in-Chief) The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism (1992); and Sardar Daljeet Singh, Essays on the Authenticity of the Kartarpuri Bir and the Integrated Logic and Unity of Sikhism (1987), The Sikh Ideology (1990), Essentials ofSikhism (1994), and Sikhism - A Comparative Study of its Theology and Mysticism (1994).
Also included are Dr. Jasbir Singh Mann and Dr. Kharak Singh (eds.), Recent Researches in Sikhism (1992); Dr. Bachittar Singh Giani, Planned Attack on Aad Sri Guru Granth Sahib - Academics or Blasphemy? (1994); S. Daljeet Singh and Dr. Kharak Singh (eds.), Sikhism - Its Philosophy and History (1997); as well as Dr. Balwant Singh Dhillon (ed.), Early Sikh Scriptural Tradition - Myth and Reality (1999), and Interfaith Study of Guru Granth Sahib (2005). They all build upon and extend Prof. Sahib Singh’s earlier writings, including About the Compilation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib (1996), originally completed in 1951 as Adi Birh Bare, and first published in 1970.
In making their case, these scholars rightly emphasize Sikhism’s foundational belief that Akal Purakh’s revelations provided the basis for the Gurbani recorded by the Gurus in the Sikh scripture; the Gurus created a unique Sikh identity,and lived according to Guru Nanak’s teachings during the 239-year Guru period from 1469 to 1708; Guru Gobind Singh personally ordained the Guru Granth Sahib as the sole scripture and eternal Guru of the Sikhs; and Sikhism has been distinct from Hinduism and Islam from its very inception, based on the teachings of its founder Guru Nanak.
The books of all these scholars are readily available in India; and can be obtained in Western countries through the internet or from local distributors of books on Sikhism. These publications, and those of other highly-regarded scholars like them, ought to be essential reading for anyone keen to understand in depth the essentials of Sikhism.
In addition, some of the books produced by the Dharam Parchar Committee of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) could be helpful for a beginner. See for example, Dr. Jasbir Singh Sabar (ed.), Sikh Studies: Basic Introduction (Parts I and II) (in Punjabi, 2009 and 2010), used for a correspondence course for adults. For younger students, Baba Iqbal Singh’s Sikh Sidhant (2005); SGPC’s booklets titled Dharam Pothis (Nos 1-10; in Punjabi, 1997-2010); and the ten booklets used by the Gurmat Gian Missionary College, Ludhiana for its Gurmat Elementary Course (correspondence course, in Punjabi, 2012-2013) provide a basic foundation upon which to build.
More advanced students could benefit from such books as Dr. Gobind Singh Mansukhani, Gursikhi Kee Hae? (1979); Prof. Teja Singh and Dr. Ganda Singh, A Short History of the Sikhs (1989); Prof. Gurbachan Singh Talib, An Introduction to Sri Guru Granth Sahib (1991); and Dr. Avtar Singh, Mera Dharam, Mera Itihas (Amritsar, 1996; in Punjabi). There are many other good authors and books as well, both in India and abroad, as everyone involved in Sikh Studies knows.
Group 2: Authors with Subtle Biases
The second group of authors needs to be separately identified. Some of these scholars are held in high esteem by the Sikh community. But despite their large number of popular as well as scholarly publications, a careful reader would spot subtle biases and obviously-wrong statements that make it hard to accept all their arguments and conclusions.
The work of Prof. W. Owen Cole, a popularWestern scholar, is instructive. Prof. Cole has authored a chapter on Sikhism in a widely-distributed reference book on world religions; see pages 310-339 in Dr. John R. Hinnells, The Handbook of Living Religions (1997). In this, he includes some statements which in the absence of a fuller explanation or context could easily be misunderstood by those not already well-versed in Sikh doctrine and history. For example, Prof. Cole says that Sikhism developed into a distinct religion ‘with the passage of time’ (p. 310); the Dasam Granth ‘is also scripture’ (p. 311); Sikhism owes its origins to ‘the sense of mission’ of Guru Nanak [and not to his revelatory experience of Akal Purakh] (p. 312); and Guru Nanak’s installation of Guru Angad as his successor ensured ‘eventually, the emergence of Sikhism as a distinct religion’ (p. 315). He also says that Guru Arjan was responsible for [simply] ‘authorizing the compilation of the Adi Granth which he formally installed’ (p. 317); he ‘encouraged the Sikhs to hope that they might be the reconciling agent between Islam and Hinduism’ (p. 317); and that he was imprisoned, and [simply] ‘died in captivity’ (p. 318).
Though in the same chapter Prof. Cole’s coverage of ‘Sikh teachings’ is much less objectionable - he acknowledges, for example, the Sikh belief that their Gurus were ‘faithful messengers through whom the Word was revealed’ (p. 329); and ‘Guru Nanak explicitly rejected the authority of the Vedas’ (p. 330); and ‘It would be wrong, therefore, to describe Sikhism as theologically syncretistic’ (p. 332) - there remain many statements in this chapter that give the wrong message about the revelatory origin of the religious philosophy of Guru Nanak and the subsequent history of Sikhism that this set in motion.
This biased orientation seems to be due in part to the writings of other scholars, such as Prof. Hew McLeod and his associates (discussed below), whose strong influence Prof. Cole himself acknowledges (p. x-xi). Some of these scholars are based in India, but others are Westerners or have strong affiliations with some of the scholars in the McLeod group. Books by well-known but oft-mistaken scholars include Prof. Geoffrey Parrinder (ed.), World Religions - From Ancient History to the Present (1985; originally 1971); Prof. J. S. Grewal, Historical Perspectives on Sikh Identity (1997), Contesting Interpretations of the Sikh Tradition (1998), and The Sikhs of the Punjab (1994); Prof. W. Owen Cole, Sikhism (1994); Prof. W. Owen Cole and Dr. Piara Singh Sambhi, Sikhism - Beliefs and Practices (1999); Prof. Sewa Singh Kalsi Simple Guide to Sikhism (1999); and Prof. Eleanor Nesbitt, Sikhism - A Very Short Introduction (2005).
Besides these, there are other authors considered authoritative on Sikhism in Western circles but not by India-based scholars, who question some of their statements about Sikhism. Some of these authors have written on Sikhism in encyclopedias, handbooks, history books, and reference books on world religions. There are numerous examples of such writing, but despite the justified criticism of this work - see for example, the articles by Prof. James R. Lewis and Dr. Kharak Singh, respectively on the misrepresentation of Sikhism in text books and Western encyclopedias, in S. Daljeet Singh and Dr. Kharak Singh (eds.) Sikhism - Its Philosophy and History (1997; pgs. 612-639) - many such examples continue to be generated even now.
One such Indian author has made tremendous contributions to the study of Sikh history. But in writing about the Sikh religion he has made statements that he himself has contradicted, or which subsequently have been severely criticized by reputed scholars of Sikhism. See for example, S. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs(1963) in which he states that Guru Nanak initiated ‘a religious movement emphasizing what was common between Hinduism and Islam and preaching the unity of these two faiths practiced in the Punjab’ (Vol.1, p.vii)…[which] ‘in due course grew into a faith’ (p. 17)…[and] ‘it is unlikely that in his lifetime his numerous admirers formed a distinct sect’ (p. 37). A few pages later, however, in the same book he says that ‘Nanak not only founded a new religion and started a new pattern of living, he also… ’(p. 39). Similarly, in his book The Sikhs Today (1959), he says that Guru Nanak’s disciples’ ‘faith was exclusively the teachings of Nanak (p.2), but he also minimizes the differences between Sikhism and Hinduism and Islam (pgs. 24-25). The author’s ‘variant statements’ in different writings have been pointedly criticized by S. Daljeet Singh, the distinguished scholar of Sikhism. See his “A Critique and a Clarification of Sikhism,” in Essentials of Sikhism (1994).
A well-known Western scholar of popular books on world religions gives similarly mixed- or incorrect messages. See the chapter on Sikhism (pgs. 131-138) in Prof. John Bowker, Beliefs that Changed the World - the History and Ideas of the Great Religions (2007). Though much of this chapter seems unobjectionable, Prof. Bowker also says that Guru Nanak ‘spent much of his time chanting hymns’ (p. 132), and ‘certainly learned much from the Sant tradition’ (p. 133). With regard to the Sikh Scripture, he says ‘The Guru Granth Sahib is also known as Adi Granth, the first volume, in distinction from Dasam Granth, the tenth or supplementary book’ (p. 134); which is plainly incorrect. He also says that the fifth Guru’s ‘authoritative collection of hymns…became the Adi Granth’ (p. 136), [which then] Guru Gobind Singh said ‘would be the only visible Guru’ after him (p. 137). Prof. Bowker neglects to say that the Tenth Guru included in the Adi Granth the Bani of the Ninth Guru; and it is now only the Guru Granth Sahib that is the Sikh’s eternal Guru and Scripture. These inconsistent, incorrect, or incomplete statements of key facts and beliefs of Sikhism can be easily misunderstood or misinterpreted by those not already familiar with the basics of the religion.
Because much of what such authors have written elsewhere is considered sound and sensible, some of their incorrect statements about Sikhism have also been accepted and are widely-quoted as valid characterizations of Sikhism. Because these authors are not always unscholarly or blatantly incorrect, and because they have already achieved a broad global following, their popular writings could arguably be as much of an obstacle to the proper understanding of Sikhism by the general public as the publications of those in the McLeod group of scholars whose books are perhaps equally well-known but are also recognized as highly controversial and misleading.
Group 3: Biased Scholars with Controversial Writings
During the past several decades, Prof. H. W. McLeod and his associates have undertaken extensive research using the ‘Western’ methodology of critical textual analysis of early Sikh documents. The ostensible purpose has been to uncover the essence of Guru Nanak’s philosophy, and to determine the ‘authentic’ content of the first five Sikh Gurus’ teachings and the process by which they came to be enshrined in the Adi Granth in 1604. This research, mostly led and conducted by scholars living outside India, has also accepted several manuscripts, such as the ‘Goindwal Pothis’ and MS 1245, as documents that pre-date the preparation of the Adi Granth by Guru Arjan. Research by these scholars and their students has resulted in several books and masters and doctoral theses that canbe easily accessed by other scholars and lay readers worldwide. Their long list of books, many published by the reputed Oxford University Press, can easily impress those not familiar with other literature on Sikhism.
Notable examples of this research include the writings of Prof. Hew McLeod and his close associatesDr. Pashaura Singh and Dr. Gurinder Singh Mann. See for example, the four books by Prof. W. H. McLeod included in his Sikhs & Sikhism (1999), which are: Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (1968), The Evolution of the Sikh Community (1976), Early Sikh Tradition (1980), and Who is a Sikh? (1989). Prof. McLeod’s research approach and conclusions have been accepted and followed by Dr. Gurinder Singh Mann, The Goindwal Pothis: The Earliest Extant Source of the Sikh Canon (1996);Dr. Pashaura Singh, The Guru Granth Sahib - Canon, Meaning and Authority (2000); and Dr. Gurinder Singh Mann, The Making of Sikh Scripture (2001).
This research has also been noticed by other scholars of Sikhism. About two decades ago, S. Daljeet Singh identified several concerns, highlighting the key issue of the research methodology used by Prof. McLeod and his associates. He also noted that since by its very definition, the study of religion involves the study of the transcendent or the spiritual, purely phenomenological and materialistic interpretations are inherently invalid for the study of a religion. As explained by S. Daljeet Singh, this lesson applies in particular to the study of Sikhism, which fundamentally seeks to integrate the spiritual and empirical life of man. (see his Essentials of Sikhism, 1994; pgs. 12-14).
S. Daljeet Singh has also elaborated on how Sikh ideology, based on the revelatory experience of Guru Nanak, differed from the very beginning from the (Hindu) Sant and Bhagat traditions, and from Nathism and Vaisnavism. Sikhism rejected many beliefs of various sects of Hinduism, including sanyasa, ahimsa (pacifism), celibacy, withdrawal from society, and the efficacy of rituals, mantras, fasts, pilgrimages, yoga, and sacrifices. In doing so - and contrary to the motivated views wrongly espoused by Dr. Hew McLeod - Sikhism clearly established itself as a religion with a unique “whole-of- life” (miri-piri) ideology and a distinct and integrated set of beliefs and practices that differed radically both from Hinduism and Islam. See, for example, S. Daljeet Singh’s The Sikh Ideology (1990), Essentials ofSikhism (1994), and Sikhism - A Comparative Study of its Theology and Mysticism (2004).
Despite these and other criticisms by many outstanding Sikh scholars, Dr. Anne Murphy has recently studied Sikhism by focusing primarily on the sites and objects revered within the Sikh tradition. Since she uses a research approach unsuitable for the study of Sikhism, her bookThe Materiality of the Past-History and Representation in Sikh Tradition (2012) is likely to be found wanting. The Ph.D. thesis of Dr. Rahuldeep Singh Gill, supervised by Dr. Gurinder Singh Mann, accepts the conclusions of Prof. McLeod and his associates, and takes no notice at all of the serious controversies these have raised. See his thesis Growing the Banyan Tree: Early Sikh Tradition in the Works of Bhai Gurdas Bhalla (2009). Dr. Ami Praful Shah’s Ph.D. dissertation,in which the English translation of Sainapati’s Sri Gursobha is highly questionable and suspect, was supervised in 2010 by Dr. Gurinder Singh Mann.
Another scholar whose work has raised considerable controversy due to its methodological approach and conclusions is Dr. Harjot Singh Oberoi, who too acknowledges his considerable debt to Prof. Hew McLeod. See Dr. Harjot Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries - Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition (1994). This work has been severely criticised by a large number of genuine Sikh scholars as being methodologically, scripturally and historically unsound and conceptually illogical. In claiming that the boundaries between Sikhism and Hinduism (and Islam) remained unclear and amorphous until the Singh Sabha Movement of the late 19th century, Dr. Harjot Oberoi fails to recognize or accept the revelatory experience of Guru Nanak and his establishment of Sikhism as a distinct religion, the significance of the teachings of the Sikh Gurus enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib, and the importance of Guru Gobind Singh’s establishment of the Khalsa Panth. As a result, he wrongly argues against the notion of Sikhs as a separate and distinct religious community from the very beginning of Sikhism. See Dr. Jasbir Singh Mann, et. al., (eds.), Invasion of Religious Boundaries - A Critique of Harjot Oberoi’s Work (1995).
Much of the work of Prof. McLeod and his associates has been sharply criticized by many reputed scholars of Sikhism. This criticism has led to a large body of publications and commentary strenuously opposed to the wrong statements and conclusions about Sikhism by Prof. McLeod and his associates, the inappropriate textual analysis of Sikh scripture, and the misrepresentation of some old Sikh manuscripts as authentic pothis or ‘drafts’ that were supposedly subsequently used for preparation of the Adi Granth. Based on their rigorous and convincing research, a large number of outstanding scholars in India have justifiably concluded that some of the statements of the McLeod group are baseless, incorrect, misleading, motivated, and even blasphemous.
Suggestions for Further Strengthening Sikh Studies
The implication of the above grouping of scholars and their studies seems to be that the Guru Granth Sahib and the publications associated with the authoritative scholars in Group 1 ought to be the primary basis for understanding Sikhism. Their books could be supplemented by the work of scholars in Group 2, provided we remain mindful of their subtle biases and obvious mis-statements. And since some of the work of those in Group 3 has been controversial in the past, other scholars need to remain vigilant about their work so as to counter future erroneous and misguided statements, if any, as they arise.
But this addresses only one part of the problem; and hence is only one part of the required solution. Other steps are also needed, first to better identify what we are up against, and then to devise ways to counter it, building upon current strengths. Some further thoughts on this are outlined below.
The Underlying Bigger Problems
The publication record of some prominent but controversial authors is impressive and their ideas remain influential, especially in Western countries, despite the valid criticism that some of these writings are misleading and inaccurate. The opposite phenomenon seems to exist as well. Some of the most trusted India-based scholars of Sikhism remain relatively unknown in the West, despite their having produced books that are well-researched, comprehensive, and consistent with the authentic teachings of the Sikh Gurus and Scripture. Despite many efforts to challenge and correct the controversial views of scholars in Group 3, the counter-balancing literature on Sikh philosophy and history has yet to make the widespread impact it so richly deserves.
Furthermore, the Centers of Sikh Studies in Western universities, from where some of the motivated or incorrect writings continue to emanate, are likely to become better established in the coming years. They have the strong support of those who fund the Centers and appoint Chairs who continue to do disservice to the very community they are supposed to support. A new generation of younger researchers has also become active in America, and a few are continuing the legacy of their controversial mentors, some of whom remain engaged in research and writing and are in a position to direct new lines of work. It is not so obvious that a similarly-committed and productive cohort of new scholars is ready in India to counter any further deliberately-biased research, should it arise.
Introduction of apocryphal writings to muddy the message of Sikhism is not a new problem; it has been an issue since the time of our Gurus, and pre-dates preparation of the Adi Granth. Despite efforts through the centuries to firmly establish the authentic teachings of Sikh Gurus and to weed out those that are not, it is clear that the problem will never completely go away, and every generation will have to fight this battle anew.
In the West especially, just fifty years ago there was a shortage of information about Sikhism, and it was difficult to know what Sikhism stands for. Now, ironically, there is a surfeit of information, and it is still difficult to know for certain what this religion stands for. Not because of the absence of information, but because it is difficult to discern what is authoritative and correct, and what is not.
For the general public, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that what is presented as valid statements about Sikhism are in fact incorrect conclusions or deliberate misrepresentations that only a learned scholar would spot. Dependable sources, and consistent and correct messages about Sikhism, could counter this. But unfortunately these are hard to find, and the task has become even more difficult due to the recent proliferation of academic as well as popular writings on Sikhism.
This confusion is exacerbated by the free movement of information via the internet, which is notoriously hard to monitor and impossible to control. We need to find new ways to help ordinary folk navigate through the mis-information contained in the vast, diverse and seemingly contradictory literature on Sikhism, so that they could separate fact from fiction, and authentic teachings from misinterpretations and inaccuracies about Sikh doctrine and practice.
A Systematic Response is Required
One part of the solution is to continue to widely disseminate the criticisms already made, and to keep responding to every instance of motivated, ill-advised or inappropriate academic research on a case-by-case basis. This needs to be done by authoritative academic researchers who could respond in kind, but from a more appropriate perspective based on a correct, objective, in-depth, and unbiased understanding of Sikhism, its beginnings and its essentials, including beliefs, doctrines, and practices. Since instances of questionable writing are unlikely to ever end, this process of responding every time will remain a continuing responsibility of well-trained scholars firmly grounded in Sikh theology, philosophy, and history.
Dr. Gurdarshan Singh, Prof. of History (retd.), Panjab University, Chandigarh is doing a commendable work in this regard. Recent critique of Anne Murphy’s “The Materiality of the Past History and Representation in Sikh Tradition” (2012) and Arvinder Pal S. Mandair’s “Religion and the Spectre of West: Sikhism, India, Post-Coloniality and the Politics of Translation” in his two perceptive articles in the Abstracts of Sikh Studies, 2014 need to be studied.
We also need to recognize that this kind of point-counterpoint type of debate, though initially limited to the research community, has much larger spillover effects - of both the good and the bad ideas - to the general public. The same academics who write scholarly papers also train the next set of scholars, participate in meetings and conferences, communicate with the public through print and electronic media, write about Sikhism in reference books and professional journals, and author books for school and college students. So their reach is considerable, and their impact continuing.
Claiming freedom of speech and of religious expression, some of the authors previously criticized or sanctioned by the Sikh community for proposing ideas and conclusions that deviate from authentic Sikh doctrine will continue to do further research;and they will be free to publish more and train the next generation of students, researchers and scholars. They have the legal right in Western countries to propound even ‘wrong’ ideas. While we remain vigilant about possible future distortions of Sikhism, we also need to accept that not all of their work can be considered objectionable. And in any case, the experience of the past decades shows that the only appropriate remedy at our disposal is to counter their influence through painstaking and thorough research that easily clears all tests of good scholarship on Sikhism, and has the capacity to withstand the test of time.
In many ways, the current situation may be analogous to what existed a generation ago. At that time too, the academic Sikh community was keen to dramatically improve the global understanding and appreciation of Sikhism as a distinct faith based solely on Guru Nanak’s revelatory experience of the One God, the consequent oneness of all humankind, the teachings of the Sikh Gurus enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib, and the teachings and practices established by the Gurus themselves.
In response, to enable Sikhs to do more for themselves and their community and to facilitate the education of others about their faith, Dr. Kharak Singh made the following important suggestion in 1992 in his paper titled ‘Need for World Institute of Sikhism’ (in Recent Researches in Sikhism, pgs. 365-382). This call for systematic action seems very relevant even today:
“The present situation demands concerted and coordinated efforts. Utmost vigilance is necessary to take quick notice of any uninformed or biased attacks on the philosophy, theology, ideology and history of Sikhism. Fundamental research needs to be conducted into the doctrines of Sikhism. An authentic interpretation of Gurbani is required. Basic literature of Sikhism needs to be studied in depth. There are some real or substantial controversies which need to be resolved. This cannot be done by small societies and their efforts here and there in an unorganized manner. There is an immediate need for Centre(s) of Sikh Studies to take up this responsibility.” (p. 381)
It is gratifying that there has been considerable follow-up of Dr. Kharak Singh’s suggestion. Several promising programs and institutions of Sikh Studies now exist, both in India and in Western countries. But because the literature on Sikhism is now so abundant, it needs to be more-systematically mined through further research and writing so that its messages could reach a wider global audience. This suggestion is directed both to students and scholars of Sikhism, and also to established institutions supporting scholarly research and publication of Sikh studies.
Such an approach has proven useful for some writers in America who seek to disseminate authentic teachings of Sikhism through non-academic books meant for everyone interested in Sikhism’s foundational beliefs. Two such books address issues of Sikh identity and distinctiveness based on its religious beliefs, philosophy, and practice; and they also cover other major religions, highlighting differences, similarities and opportunities for interfaith dialogue. See Dr. Paramjit Singh Sachdeva, Appreciating Sikhism (2008), and Appreciating All Religions - Religious Literacy in Small Bites (2011). Other similar efforts need to be encouraged, so that scholarly research findings could be made available to ordinary folk, both Sikh and non-Sikh.
For the world-wide dissemination and use of research products, barriers of language and geography need to be overcome, and publication and marketing programs, both in English and Punjabi, may need to be strengthened. Intensified efforts may be needed, especially at university departments in Punjab, to nurture the next generation of researchers who could continue the work of the well-known scholars in Group 1 to effectively disseminate authentic Sikh teachings.
For better reaching the Western audience, there is a need for more scholars of Sikhism who publish in English, as well as reliable translations of scholarly research done in Punjabi, so that Western readers could more easily access the latest trustworthy writings, and have no excuse for not doing so. The greater use of digital technology for storage and dissemination of research products, and better use of advanced internet-based tools to reach audiences of all ages and inclinations, would also be helpful. This would facilitate the spread of sound ideas and research findings, and would help properly educate scholars and the general public, both in India and abroad.
Overall, and importantly, to forcefully counter the continuing influence of those scholars who have succeeded in muddying the waters, simply maintaining the status quo of present institutional efforts will probably not be enough. Current efforts, though necessary, seem not to have proven sufficient for the task. There appear to be many unexplored opportunities for making a bigger difference; and this applies both to organizations in India and in Western countries.
In the USA, for example, the Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE), the Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs, SALDEF, and the Jakara Movement are now well established, but they need to do more to educate the public about the beliefs and practices of Sikhism, and how these are similar or different from those of other religions. These and other organizations engaged in educational programs in America could make greater efforts to help clear misunderstandings about Sikhism, and counter the misinformation being spread by interested parties, especially Western authors or Sikh scholars who appear to know a lot, but ought to know more, or better.
By saying unambiguously and publicly not only what Sikhism is and also what it is not, these institutions might be able to help the public better understand that Sikhism is a distinctive revealed religion, and not merely a sect of Hinduism or a syncretic blend of Hinduism and Islam. This would send a strong message that Sikhs are neither Muslim(as mistakenly believed by some people in America), nor Hindu (as mistakenly claimed by some interested parties in India, who say that Sikhs are simply keshdhari-Hindus). In both cases the underlying cause of the misrepresentation seems to be ignorance or willful mis-interpretation of Sikhism, compounded by intolerance and lack of respect for religious differences.
The need for concerted action is perhaps as pressing today as it was in the 1990s. The tremendous efforts of scholars of Sikhism and the many volunteers and activists working with various centers of Sikh Studies in India are making a noticeable difference; but much more needs to be done. For students, youth programs such as those conducted by the Guru Gobind Singh Study Circle could perhaps be further expanded and strengthened. For institutions, especially in India, new opportunities probably exist or need to be created to further strengthen research, education, dissemination, and outreach programs that capitalize on the achievements of the past decades.
Institutional strengthening of the research and dissemination programs, infrastructure, and staffing of centers for Sikh and religious studies in India - such as the Institute of Sikh Studies (IOSS) in Chandigarh, the Department of Religious Studies in Punjabi University, and the Department of Guru Nanak Studies in Guru Nanak Dev University - is perhaps needed to enable them to become fully established as globally-recognized‘Centers of excellence’ for the study and promotion of Sikhism. For this, additional financial and human resources, emphasis on quality, reliability and impact of research, and effective dissemination and marketing of research products, may be needed.
Scholars of Sikhism need to strengthen efforts to ensure that the results of their work do not remain confined to other researchers and scholars. The essentials of Sikhism need to be disseminated in simple language that can be easily understood by a beginner in Sikh Studies. This would greatly enable the lay audience, both Sikh and non-Sikh, to improve their knowledge and understanding of the basics of Sikhism, and how these compare with the essentials of other religions.
Furthermore, at both the individual and the institutional levels, greater emphasis is needed on both learning and teaching. The Guru Granth Sahib is our eternal religious teacher, and every Sikh is expected to always be a student. But we also need to educate others on the universal teachings and wisdom of Sikhi, just as our Gurus first did. Only then would they - and we ourselves - know what it truly means to be a Sikh. For this, carefully-crafted educational programs, curricula and teaching materials, and effective modes of teaching and learning (including distance learning) suitable for each category of student, novice or advanced, are needed. Also essential is the effective use of new modes of electronic communication suitable for the global information age.
By doing this in a systematic and concerted manner, scholars and Sikh leaders who seek to provide direction to the field of Sikh Studies would have good reason to remain optimistic that their work will continue to have a significant impact on both the researchers and writers who are within the mainstream of Sikhism’s authentic teachings, and those who have breached its boundaries.
In sum, additional efforts are probably needed to further strengthen the Centers of excellence for scholarly research, publication, education, and dissemination of knowledge about Sikhism, both in India and in Western countries. Since we cannot expect to give centralized guidance on the direction or parameters of academic or field research, we need to counter mis-information with better information, rather than seek to prescribe what others should or should not do. We also need to further develop credible researchers and promote their work not only in Punjabi and Punjab, but also through translation of their work into English and possibly other languages.
More seminars, conferences, and authentic teaching are needed; but to sustain these, we need well-resourced,long-term,result-oriented programs for the development of the next generation of leaders and scholars steeped in Sikhi and guided by a strategic orientation and a firm commitment to strengthening Sikh Studies globally. Only through this kind of systematic effort would we be able to build strong programs for Sikh Studies at universities, think tanks, foundations, and research- and education Centers of excellence that could guide us through troubled times whenever they arise.
Considerations for Charting the Way Forward
The specific details of the opportunities for improvements in research, publication, dissemination, learning, outreach and institutional strengthening at each institution would, of course, depend on the particular mission, circumstances, resources, and leadership of each organization. The general direction and considerations that could guide the way forward may, however, be common. Some of these are re-capped below for scholars and decision-makers in a position to make a real difference.This list of desirable features is long, but it seems necessary, and is doable over a period of time.
For research: An emphasis on relevance and rigor, depth and quality, allowing freedom of expression within the bounds of propriety, producing products that are acceptable and conclusions that are consistent with the authentic teachings of Sikhism. For this, research methodology has to be appropriate, thorough and transparent, and personal attitudes honest and humble.
For dissemination: Greater efforts to ensure that the outputs generated by programs of Sikh Studies have the desired effect. The goal of Sikh Studies must include helping ordinary individuals learn about their faith, and the community build confidence and consensus. For this, publications have to effectively deliver messages that are authentic and authoritative, and clear and consistent.
For learning: In education, we need to move knowledge from scholar to student, and library to laptop. We need to supplement seminars, conferences, and classroom- and group teaching with modern approaches to learning, such as websites, videos, YouTube, TV programs, short movies, and other such means. This would enable the learning and teaching to be individualized, on-demand, on-line, and all-the-time. It would improve access to reliable knowledge both in the home and in Gurmat Vichar and Sikh Studies programs organized at our Gurdwaras and youth camps.
For outreach: We need to effectively use various media, and partner with diverse institutional actors and activists, scholars and sevadars, study circles and youth organizations. Communication has to be high-tech and low-effort; and the channels open and diverse. We need to become more effective in moving messages from the producer of scholarly studies to ordinary Sikhs of all ages and interests, in a language they understand and format they use.
For institutional strengthening: We need to build capacity that is strong and sustainable. For this, adequate financial, human, infrastructural, and technological resources are a must. Researchers and scholars need to be highly motivated, and well compensated. Programs need to be targeted, timely and time-bound, focusing both on the production and utilization of quality products.
Thus, vigorous and visionary action needed, however is difficult this may first appear. Only then would we have truly followed the ‘call to action’ so appropriately made by scholars of Sikhism five decades ago at the seminar on the life and teachings of Guru Nanak; and only then would we have fully learned and applied the lessons of experience generated from the work that followed. Pursuit of this goal with confidence and resolve could help fulfill the expectations of the scholars and institution-builders whose legacies we seek to honor and extend to coming generations.
Finally and more importantly, any follow-up measures triggered by this renewed call for concerted action for further strengthening Sikh Studies must be guided by a solid and correct understanding of the doctrine, beliefs and practices of Sikhism. Our touchstone must always remain the Sikh principles enunciated in Guru Granth Sahib, and the way these teachings were followed by the Gurus themselves, ever since Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak as a revealed, separate and distinct religion, more than five centuries ago.
1. Ami Praful Shah, In Praise of the Guru: A translation and Study of Sainapati’s Sri Gursobha (Ph.D dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2010).
2. Avtar Singh, Mera Dharam, Mera Itihas (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Dharam Parchar Committee, Amritsar, 1996; in Punjabi).
3. Anne Murphy, The Materiality of the Past - History and Representation in Sikh Tradition (New York, Oxford University Press, 2012).
4. Bachittar Singh Giani (ed.), Planned Attack on Aad Sri Guru Granth Sahib - Academics or Blasphemy? (Chandigarh, International Center of Sikh Studies, 1994).
5. Balwant Singh Dhillon, Early Sikh Scriptural Tradition - Myth and Reality (Amritsar, Singh Brothers, 1999).
6. Balwant Singh Dhillon (ed.), Interfaith Study of Guru Granth Sahib (Amritsar, Guru Nanak Dev University, 2005).
7. Daljeet Singh, The Sikh Ideology (Amritsar, Singh Brothers, 1990)
8. Daljeet Singh, Essays on the Authenticity of the Kartarpuri Bir and the Integrated Logic and Unity of Sikhism (Patiala, Punjabi University, 1987; 2nd ed. 1995).
9. Daljeet Singh, Essentials ofSikhism (Amritsar, Singh Brothers, 1994; 2nd ed. 1998).
10. Daljeet Singh, Sikhism - A Comparative Study of its Theology and Mysticism (Amritsar, Singh Brothers, 1994; 4th ed. 2004).
11. Daljeet Singh and Kharak Singh (eds.), Sikhism - Its Philosophy and History (Chandigarh, Institute of Sikh Studies, 1997).
12. Ditt Singh, Guru Nanak Prabodh; Durga Prabodh; SadhuDayanand Tey Mera Samvad, and about 70 other books written during the Singh Sabha Movement in the late 19th century. Some of these are now freely on the internet.
13. Eleanor Nesbitt, Sikhism - A Very Short Introduction (New York, Oxford University Press, 2005).
14. Geoffrey Parrinder (ed.), World Religions - From Ancient History to the Present (New York, Facts on File Inc., 1985; originally 1971).
15. Gobind Singh Mansukhani, Introduction to Sikhism (New Delhi, Hemkunt Press, 1977).
16. Gobind Singh Mansukhani, trans. and ed.,Hymns from Bhai Gurdas’s Compositions (Amritsar, Singh Brothers, 1989)
17. Gobind Singh Mansukhani, Gursikhi Kee Hae? (Amritsar, Singh Brothers, 1979; 5th ed., 1991).
18. Gurbachan Singh Talib, An Introduction to Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Patiala, Punjabi University, 1991; 2nd ed., 1999).
19. Gurbachan Singh Talib, a 4-Vol. English translation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, in consultation with Bhai Jodh Singh (Patiala, Punjabi University, 2004).
20. Gurinder Singh Mann, The Goindwal Pothis: The Earliest Extant Source of the Sikh Canon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Oriental Series, 1996).
21. Gurinder Singh Mann, The Making of Sikh Scripture (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2001).
22. Gurmat Gian Missionary College, Ludhiana, Gurmat Elementary Course (ten booklets; in Punjabi, used for its correspondence course, latest eds. 2012-2013).
23. Harbans Singh (ed.), Perspectives on Guru Nanak - Seminar Papers (Patiala, Punjabi University; seminar in 1969; 3rd ed. 1999).
24. Harbans Singh, Berkley Lectures on Sikhism (Delhi, Manohar, 1995; based on lectures delivered in 1982).
25. Harbans Singh (Editor-in-Chief), The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, 4 Vols. (Patiala, Punjabi University, 1992; 4th ed. 2002).
26. Harbans Singh, The Heritage of the Sikhs (Delhi, Manohar, 1983; revised 1994).
27. Harjot Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries - Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994).
28. Iqbal Singh (Baba), Sikh Sidhant (Gurdwara Baru Sahib, The Kalgidhar Trust, 2005; 2nd ed., 2006).
29. J. S. Grewal, The Sikhs of the Punjab (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994; revised 1999).
30. J. S. Grewal, Historical Perspectives on Sikh Identity (Patiala, Punjabi University, 1997).
31. J. S. Grewal, Contesting Interpretations of the Sikh Tradition, (Delhi, Manohar, 1998).
32. Jasbir Singh Mann and Kharak Singh (eds.), Recent Researches in Sikhism (Patiala, Punjabi University, 1992).
33. Jasbir Singh Mann, Surinder Singh Sodhi, and Gurbakhsh Singh Gill (eds.), Invasion of Religious Boundaries - A Critique of Harjot Oberoi’s Work (Vancouver, B.C., Canadian Sikh Studies & Teaching Society, 1995)
34. Jasbir Singh Sabar (ed.), Sikh Studies: Basic Introduction (Parts I and II)(Amritsar, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Dharam Parchar Committee, 2009 and 2010; in Punjabi, used for its correspondence course).
35. Jodh Singh, Kartarpuri Bir De Darshan (Patiala, Punjabi University, 1968).
36. Jodh Singh, Varan Bhai Gurdas - Text, Transliteration, and Translation, Vol. I and II (Patiala, Vision & Venture, 1998)
37. John Bowker, Beliefs that Changed the World - the History and Ideas of the Great Religions (London, Quercus Publishing, 2007).
38. Kahn Singh Nabha, Ham Hindu Nahin (“We are not Hindus”), Punjabi translation (Amritsar: the Dharam Parchar Committee of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), 5th ed., 1981; first published in Hindi in 1898 and then in Punjabi. Also published by Singh Brothers, Amritsar, 1992).
39. Kahn Singh Nabha, Gurmat Martand, Parts I and II (Amritsar, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), Part I, 6th ed., 1999, and Part II, 3rd ed., 1993)
40. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, 2 Vols. (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1963; New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2009).
41. Khushwant Singh, The Sikhs Today (Bombay, Orient Longman, 1985; 3rd ed.).
42. Max Arthur Macauliffe, The Sikhs - their Religion, Gurus, Sacred Writings, and Authors, in 6 Vols., (originally published by Oxford University Press, 1909; New Delhi, Cosmo Publications, 1989).
43. Paramjit Singh Sachdeva, Appreciating Sikhism (New Delhi, UBSPD, 2008); Punjabi translation by Parminder Singh, edited by Kulwant Singh,expected in 2014.
44. Paramjit Singh Sachdeva, Appreciating All Religions - Religious Literacy in Small Bites (New Jersey, AuthorHouse, 2011).
45. Pashaura Singh, The Guru Granth Sahib - Canon, Meaning and Authority (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2000).
46. Rahuldeep Singh Gill, Growing the Banyan Tree: Early Sikh Tradition in the Works of Bhai Gurdas Bhalla (Ph.D thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2009).
47. Rattan Singh Bhangoo, Sri Gur Panth Prakash, ed., Jit Singh Seetal (Amritsar, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), 4th ed., 2005); translated by Kulwant Singh, (Chandigarh, Institute of Sikh Studies (IOSS); Vol. I in 2006, and Vol. II in 2010).
48. Sahib Singh, About the Compilation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Amritsar, Lok Sahit Prakashan, 1996), which is Dalip Singh’s English translation of Sahib Singh’s Adi Birh Bare in Punjabi (Amritsar, Singh Brothers, 1970), originally completed by Prof. Sahib Singh in 1951.
49. Sahib Singh, many books in Punjabi, some translated into English (full list available from the internet).
50. Sardul Singh Kaveeshar, Sikh Dharam Darshan, ed. S. Wazir Singh from the original English version (Patiala, Punjabi University, 1969)
51. Sewa Singh Kalsi Simple Guide to Sikhism (Kent, Global Books Ltd., 1999).
52. Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), booklets titled Dharam Pothis (Nos 1-10; in Punjabi, 1997-2010).
53. Taran Singh, Sikh, Sikhi ate Sidhant (Amritsar, the Dharam Parchar Committee of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), 1991).
54. Taran Singh, ed., Sikh Gurus and the Indian Spiritual Thought (Patiala, Punjabi University, 1992).
55. Taran Singh, ed., Teachings of Guru Nanak Dev (Patiala, Punjabi University, 3rd ed., 2001).
56. Teja Singh, trans. Asa di Var (1968; 5th ed. 1998); Psalm of Peace, trans. of Sukhmani Sahib (Amritsar, Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), 1999; original trans. 1937); and several other books by Teja Singh on various aspects of Sikhism.
57. Teja Singh and Ganda Singh, A Short History of the Sikhs (Patiala, Punjabi University, 1989); Punjabi trans., Bhagat Singh, Sikh Itihas (1469-1765) (Patiala, Punjabi University, 1998).
58. Vir Singh, Gurmukh Sikhya (New Delhi, Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan, 2001); and many other books on various aspects of Sikhism.
59. W. H. McLeod, Sikhs & Sikhism (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1999), in which are included four of his books - Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (1968), The Evolution of the Sikh Community (1976), Early Sikh Tradition (1980), and Who is a Sikh? (1989).
60. W. Owen Cole, “Sikhism,” in John R. Hinnells, The Handbook of Living Religions (London, Penguin Books, 1997).
61. W. Owen Cole, Sikhism (Chicago, NTC Publishing Group, 1994; Teach Yourself Books).
62. W. Owen Cole & Piara Singh Sambhi, Sikhism - Beliefs and Practices (New Delhi, Adarsh Books, 1999).
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