THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF SIKH STUDIES
GOBIND SINGH MANSUKHANI
In the beginning, let me make a few general observations on Sikh Studies. The Gurus travelled a lot and established sangats (congregations) over a period of over 200 years, and they did put into writing some of their doctrines in the Scripture. Sikh theology and way of life can be discovered in the holy text of the Gurus. It needs intuitive exploration of the basic concepts even though different expositions of Gurbani are available. Most of the old writings of Sikhs deal either with the lives of the Gurus or the scenes of persecution and torture. Later Sikh history is 40minated by the achievements of the Sikh Raj under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, mostly written in Panjabi, Persian and Urdu.
Sikh studies in its modern sense means creative literature on Sikh history, philosophy, eligion and culture. The British conquest of the Panjab in 1849 evoked western interest in Sikh religion. The works of the British administrators in English, like James Browneand John Malcolm, about the Sikhs are elementary in character but practical in their approach and application for the smooth working of government machinery. They have hardly any significance in the modern context. However, after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, British interest in the welfare of Panjab gathered momentum.
The British admired the hard-working and valourous Sikhs and desired to study their religion and culture. The India Office, London, commissioned a German missionary and linguist - Dr. Ernest Trumpp - to prepare an English translation of the Sikh Scripture. In 1877, Trumpp published parts of the holy text under the title The Adi Granth. This work dates the origin of Sikh Studies. Dr. Trumpp was unfamiliar with medieval Panjabi language and Indian religious thought and, as such, failed to interpret through his translation the core of Sikh philosophy and Sikh ethos. His work, to say the least, was crude and therefore unacceptable to the Sikhs. Moreover, he lacked patience and perseverance. In his Introduction to the Adi Granth, he wrote:. “The Granth is a very big volume, but I have noted incoherent and shallow in the extreme, couched at the same time in dark and perplexing language. It is for us Occident lists a most painful and almost stupefying task to read even a single raga.” 1 Again he complained: that the ‘’Adi Granth was perhaps the most shallow and empty book that exists in proportion to its size.” 2 No wonder, Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha protested to the Viceroy of India about the inaccuracy and “pejorative tone” of Trumpp’s work. 3 The first decade of the twentieth century marks the early stage of Sikh Studies. Durin & this period the approach of the writers was historical and biographical. Their main aim was to educate the English-knowing public on the lives of the Gurus and their teachings. The Sikh religion was under dual attack of the Hindus and Christians, as such the nature of Sikh publications was polemical. Bawa Chhaju Singh published The Ten Gurus and their Teachings in 1903. A year later appeared Sewa Ram Singh’s bookA Critical Study of the life and Teachings of Sri Guru Nanak Dev.
The next writer - Max Arther Macauliffe – British Administrator posted in Amritsar made a comprehensive study of the lives and writings of the Sikh Gurus. He published his monumental work in six volumes entitled The Sikh Religion, Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors in 1909. He called Trumpp’s Adi Granth “highly inaccurate and unidiomatic.” He made amends for Trqmpp’s failings, for he understood the distinctive principles of Sikh religion. He summed them as follows: “It prohibits idolatry, hypocrisy, caste exclusiveness, the concremation of widows, the immurement of women, the use of wine and other intoxicants, tobacco-smoking, infanticide, slander, pilgrimage to sacred rivers and tanks of Hindus, and it inculcates. loyalty, gratitude for all favours received, philanthropy, jutice, impartiality, truth, honesty and all the moral and domestic virtues known to the holiest citizens of any country.” 4 Macauliffe’s work serves even today as an authentic reference book to the lives of the, Sikh Gurus and their doctrines and to some sacred compositions.
The above publication was followed by an important work of Khazan Singh on The History of Sikh Religion in 1915. Khazan Singh offers a philosophical exposition of Sikh concepts on God, Guru, Soul, Karma, Khalsa, etc. In the same year appeared a sympathetic study by a British lady - Dorothy Field - under the-title The Religion of the Sikhs. This is in the tradition of Macauliffe who showed both understanding and appreciation of Sikhs for she had personal contact with many Sikhs.
Prof. Teja Singh’s earlyworks are booklets on Guru Nanak and His Mission (1918), The Sword and Religion (1918), but they introduce academic interest in Sikhism. His more important works came later: Essays in Sikhism (1944), Growth of Responsibility in Sikh ism (1948), and Sikh ism, its Ideals and Institutions (1951). The reason for these later publications was that the third and fourth decades of this century were full of struggles for Gurdwara reform and non-cooperation with the government for limitation on political rights.
However, in 1944 appeared an important publication by Sher Singh entitled Philosophy of Sikhism. It was the result of his research for the Ph.D. degree. This scholarly work became a pacesetter for later researchers in Sikhism. Sher Singh’s exposition of ideological identity and of Sikh philosophical concepts like Wl.wrad was quite remarkable. Duncan Greenlees’ The Gospel of Guru Granth Sahib (1952) contains a simple exposition of theological tenets of Sikhism. The present writer’s Quintessence of Sikhism published by the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar, in 1958 deals not only with the lives of the Gurus, but also later history and the culture of the Sikhs.
Another important work of this period was Prof. Kapur Singh’s Parasharprasan OR The Baisakhi of Guru Gobind Singh (1959). This book contains a valuable exposition of the Khalsa Panth and the rationale of its distinctive features and symbols. After the Independence of India, Sikh Studies tended to be more critical than philosophical. Teachers and Professors started writing on Sikh themes from an academic angle and professional competence. Ganda Singh, Bhai Jodh Singh, Trilochan Singh and others began depth-research in specific Sikh themes. Dr. S.S.Kohli’s A Critical Study of the Adi Granth (1961) may be called a land-mark in Sikh Studies of this period.
The second phase of Sikh Studies consists of, what may be labelled as “Centenary Scholarship.” With the establishments of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in Chandigarh and the Guru Nanak Foundation in Delhi in 1965, Sikh Studies gathered momentum. Moreover, the later establishment of Departments of Sikh Studies in the universities at Chandigarh, Patiala, Benares, Jadavpur and Amritsar provided an impetus to the younger generation to undertake many other areas of Sikh Studies for exploration. First came the Tercentenary of GuruGobind Singh’s Birthday in 1966. Guru Gobind Singh Foundation published a number of books on the Tenth Guru, of which the major ones are Harbans Singh’sbiography of Guru Gobind Singh, R.S.Ahluwalia’s The Founder of the Khalsa, and G.S.Talib’s Impact of Guru Gobind Singh on Indian Society. Many other scholars published books on different aspects of the Guru’s life, work and personality.
In 1969, the Quincentenary celebrations of Guru Nanak’s Birthday took place all over the world. The Punjabi University, Patiala, held an international Seminar on “The Life and Teachings of Guru Nanak” from September 3 to 5, 1969, where worldrenowned scholars read papers on Guru Nanak dealing with topics like the Founder of Sikhism, and the Guru as a social reformer and religious leader, etc. This contributed a lot to inter-religious understanding and social harmony. Later these 54 papers were published by the university under the title Perspectives on Guru Nanak. It is difficult to indicate the wide spectrum of approaches discussed in this remarkable volume, Panjab University, Chandigarh, published a number of books on Guru Nanak like Life of Guru Nanak by S.S.Bal, Philosophy of Guru Nanak by S.S.Kohli and some other books. The Guru Nanak Foundation, Delhi, published in 1969 a volume of essays entitled Guru Nanak, His Life, Time and Teachings edited by Gurmukh Nihal Singh. The present writer’s Life of Guru Nanakwas also published by the Foundation.
Similarly, the Chief Khalsa Diwan, Amritsar, brought out two books on Guru Nanak, one by Narain Singh and the other by H.S. Shan. Other scholars like Prof. Harbans Singh, Khushwant Singh, G.S.Talib and others published a number of books on Guru Nanak. Special issues on Guru Nanak were brought out by Journals like The Panjab Past and Present, The Journal of Religious Studies (Patiala), and the Sikh Review on this occasion.
Then came the Tercentenary of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom in 1975. During the celebrations, a number of books were published, of which Guru Tegh Bahadur, Martyr and Teacher by Fauja Singh and G.S. Talib, Biography of Guru Tegh Bahadur by Trilochan Singh. Guru Tegh Bahadur Commemoration Volume by Satbir Singh, Amritsar, and Ranbir Singh’s work on the Ninth Guru deserve a deep study.
The 400th Foundation celebrations of the city of Amritsar in 1977 included a number of books on Amritsar, the Golden Temple and Guru Ramdas. This author’s volume entitlet1 Guru Ramdas – His Life, Work and Philosophy was however published in 1979.
The Quincentenary celebrations of Guru Amardas’ birthday in 1979 included a number of publications of which Narain Singh’s Life Sketch of Guru Amardas. Fauja Singh’s Perspectives on Guru Amardas and G.S. Talib’s Bani of Guru Amardas deserve commendation.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s 200h Birthday celebrations in 1980 produced a number of good books on the life and achievements of the Lion of the Panjab. The important are Fauja Singh’s Maharaja Ranjit Singh - Political Society Economics and J.S. Grewal’s Maharaja Ranjit Singh and His Times. Being a humane and non- communal ruler, he won the respect of all communities and even his enemies.
The third phase of Sikh Studies consists of papers and publications of special seminars held by universities, Foundations and other organisations. Seminars held by the Guru Nanak Dev University resulted in the publications of special studies on Guru Nanak and Amritsar. Some of the major works are The Concept of the Divine edited by Pritam Singh, Guru Nanak and His Teachings by Madanjit Kaur. The latter contains 11 papers in English and 6 in Panjabi. It critically examines Guru Nanak’s contribution to Indian religious thought and the universalism of his teachings. Similarly, the seminars held by the Punjabi Univesity, Patiala, resulted in the publication of Guru Teg Bahadur edited by G.S. Talib. Perspectives on Guru
Amardas, edited by Fauja Singh and yet another volume entitled Religious Situation in the Present-day, World edited by Taran Singh (1980).
Some controversies were started by H. McLeod in his books on Sikh themes like The Evolution of the Sikh Community and Early Sikh Tradition. Many scholars met his challange, and exposed his distortions. Gurdev Singh’s Perspectives on the Sikh Tradition (1986), Daljeet Singh’s (1979) Sikhism, The Sikh Ideology (1984) and a later book entitled Advanced Studies in Sikhism edited by J.S. Mann and H.S. Saraon (1989) effectively ebutted the conclusions of McLeod.
Perhaps, the main difficulty with many western studies of Sikhism is the ignorance of foreign scholars about the sources and critique on Sikhism published in Panjabi and the lack of understanding the depth of Sikh scriptural texts. The English translations available do not carry the spirit of the original. As such, their work suffers from superficiality and sometimes distortion of the Sikh tradition and ethics. Secondly, the background of their own religion directly or indirectly moulds their perception and prevents their proper appreciation of Sikh values and ethos. Often, they fall back on biased sources and as such there is an inherent flaw in their interpretation of a certain event or approach to a Sikh practice. On the other qand, some Indian scholars who have a proper understanding of religious texts are unable to convey the spirit of the original while writing in a foreign language like English. Some time they follow the band-wagon of Western scholars and express their’ agreement with their views, little realising the harm they cause to the spirit and purity of the Sikh doctrine and in the process hurting the psyche of practising Sikhs. The so-called “analytical method” has its own weakness, because religion founded on Revelation is beyond the realm of ordinary occurrences. How can one scientifically measure the intensity and depth of inner spiritual experience?
A number of International Sikh Conferences have been organized during 1990-91 in UK, Canada and USA, which apart from breaking new ground on the methodology of Sikh Studies, concentrate on contemporary issues like Sikh identity, Sikh struggle for human rights and problems of Sikhs settled in foreign countries. Some of these topics have been earlier discussed in western publications like Juergensmeyer & Barrier’s Sikh Studies Berkley 1979), Sikh Religion and History in the Twentieth Century (Toronto 1988), Michigan University Papers on Sil & Diaspora by Barrier and Dussenbury (1989).
Gaps in Sikh Studies
Undoubtedly, the Guru period has received considerable attention at the hands of scholars. The post-Guru period of the 18th “and 19th century has been neglected except for the reign of Ranjit Singh. The persecution of Sikhs continued after Banda Singh’s death for about 50 years at the hands of local governors and Afghan invaders. Only three writers, B.S. Nijjar (Punjab Under the Great Mughals), H.R.Gupta (Studies in Later Sikh History), and three volumes of History of the Sikhs (numbers 2,3 and 4) and Bhagat Singh (Sikh Polity) deal with the period. Bhagat Singh concentrates on the political problems and the rise of the Sikh Misals. Their guerilla tactics against the Afgha marauders and the rescue of Hindu and Sikh women from foreign mercenaries are a store-house of heroic tales revealing their fearlessness and extraordinary valour.
Books on Punjab under British rule were frequently written by English officers and therefore do not give an impartial picture. The Singh Sabha Movement has however received considerable attention but the sufferings of the Sikhs in the Freedom movement in this century have not been adequately evaluated. Recent history of the Sikhs after the Independence of India has been equally painful and this is also a comparatively fresh field of study. Some scholars argue that true history can only be properly handled after the dust of the storm has settled down, and passions and prejudices subsided.
Another area which needs exploration is the Sikh Institutions, and specially the working of the Takhts and the Gumzatta. For example, in the current situation, the position and status of the Jathedar of the Akal Takht is being questioned by the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (Amritsar) which would treat him as an employee. Similarly, the powers and the status of the so-called “High Priests” (in journalistic jargon) are under challenge. Hukamnamas are being issued by different groups and religious organisations. What is the forum of final decision of the Khalsa Panth?
There are very few books on Sikh Theology. Recently, Sikh concepts like Guru, Hukam, Sabad, Nam, Sahaj, Haumai, and others have been taken up as topics of research for Ph.D. degrees in India. I learn that Prof. S.S.Kohli’s Conceptual Dictionary of Sikh ism is ready awaiting publication. Similarly, a lot of research needs to be done on the Granthian music. This author published his first ever book on the theme of Kirtan, entitled Indian Classical Music and Sikh Kirtan in 1982. Further research on topics like Ghar, Partal, Dhuni, composite ragas and Ragnzala should be our first priority.
Another area which deserves notice is the non-existence of suitable translations of the Sikh Scripture in different languages, eastern and western. Sikhism is now recognised as a world religion. So we need translations of Guru Granth Sahib in German, French, Spanish, Russian, Malay, Thai, Chinese and Japanese, to name a few languages.
The problems facing evelopment of Sikh Studies are many but not insoluble. Firstly, the commercial publishers feel diffident in undertaking publications on account of the high cost, low sales and lack of readership. Secondly, university authorities, literary organizations and charitable institutions give low priority to publications of research theses on account of limited funds and problems of marketing. We need a global Sikh organisation for publications like other religious literature publishing Trusts to subsidise some of the prestigious theses and manuscripts, which are still gathering dust on University shelves. Individual writers who can afford to publish their works: it their own cost should be encouraged by individual. Sikhs and Gurdwaras for their libraries.
In India, we have some religious and charitable organizations like the Guru Nanak Foundation, Delhi, Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, Chandigarh, Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan, Delhi, Chief Khalsa Diwan, Amritsar, Central Gurmat Parchar Board, Lucknow, which promote books on Sikh Studies. In the United Kingdom, The Sikh Missionary Society, Southall, The Sikh Education Council, HItchin, the British Sikh Education Council, Southall, have started publications of books and pamphlets on Sikhism for the common reader. Perhaps, it is time these organisations took up research publications for the benefit of the intelligentia. I know similar organizations exist in Singapore, for example, the Guru Nanak Satsang Sabha, and in Kenya, the Sikh Students Federation, Nairobi, and in the USA and Canada. 5 With the growing interest in Sikh Studies among the educated youth in foreign lands, the demand of such books is likely to gather momentum in the coming years. The growth of Gurdwara libraries and the establishment of New Sikh Centres throughout the western world may hopefully encourage scholarly studies of Sikhism.
As I began to think of the future of Sikh studies, a thought came to my mind that the universal love and service of humanity of the Gurus could never be confined to a few countries in the west, where the Sikhs have settled in sizeable numbers. The Gurus’ message can now be carried to the people in Eastern Europe and the SiJviet Union which have recently witnessed the downfall of communism and rejection of dialectical materialism. This offers a new domain for the development of Sikh Studies. Perhaps that day is not far off when Sikhism and’ Sikh Studies will be known to the erstwhile anti-God and atheist communities, and they will then bear witness to the unique power of love, benevolence and inner peace which are the core of Gurmat. The latest challenge opens up new avenues and approaches in Sikh Studies. I have a vision that such Conferences on Sikh Studies will be held in Warsaw, Budapest, Belgrade, Prague, Kiev. Moscow and eastern Siberia in the not too distant future.
Let me end with the verse of Prof. Puran Singh:
“The harvests shall come and harvests shall pass,
But the seed is of God and is growing!”
1 Trumpp: The Adi Granth, introduction
2 Ibid., pp. cxxii
3. The Sikh Review, June 1984, p.46
4. Macauliffe: The Sikh Religion, Vol. I. Preface p. xxiii.
5 Mohinder Singh, Ed., Prof. Harbans Singh Commemoration Volume, Author’s article, pp.298-307
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