Oberoi - A Stranger to Sikhism
Dr Madanjit Kaur
Dr Harjot Oberoi’s book “The Construction of Religious Boundaries Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition” is a strange combination of micro-study of sociology of Religion, Anthropology and Theology imposed in interpreting Sikh Religion, Sikh Tradition and Sikh Identity. At the outset, the- foremost shortcoming of the book is the very selection of the title, covering huge area of folk religion and original, historical religion (Sikhism). The author claims this voluminous thesis is an outcome of his questions related to the Sikhs and Singh Sabha Movement, subject of his M. Phil. dissertation, and further extention of this area in his Doctoral dissertation on Social History of Modern India. The author himself admits that he had to take a long journey of fourteen years to complete his project. It is apparent from the text and contents of the book that Oberoi had combined the folk beliefs of the Punjab into the frame-work of Sikhism, and focuses on what it meant to be a Sikh in the nineteenth century. After losing political power, Sikhs were engulfed in identity crisis until it was redefined by the Tat Khalsa and the Singh Sabha Movement. The author looks upon Sikhism as a stranger with no insight into the Sikh history and development of Sikhism and its fundamental concerns. That fact of the continuity of the Sikh tradition and the established Sikh identity distinct from the Hindu identity (see Dabistan-i-Mazahib, Extracts of Akhbarat-i- Darbar-i-Muhalla Jang Nama by Kazi Nur Muhammad, Ham Hindu Nahi by Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha etc.) has been ignored by Oberoi. With a bias and prejudice or some motive he views Sikhism as a religion of plurality. Even a simple rustic of the Punjab understands Sikhism better than Western scholars engaged in studying Sikh theology, Sikh beliefs, Sikh identity and Sikh history.
Oberoi is neither familiar with original resources of the Sikh history nor can he perceive the concepts and essence of Sikhism because of his subjective attitude. The author must realise that he is dealing with an original and historical religion and not with the study of some sect, tribe or folk beliefs. In our view the project should have been divided into two separate studies. The first one dealing with the origin and development of Sikh traditions and the interpolation of Punjab folk-beliefs into the Sikh society; keeping in view the contem-porary socio-political milieu and the pre-dominance of Brahminism in the nineteenth century Punjab.
The second study could have covered issue of Sikh identity crisis, the Singh Sabha Movement, the Sikh resurrection and the attitude of the British Raj towards the minorities, specially the Sikhs and the Muslims in the context of procuring their services in the armed forces and police.
Fundamentally, Sikhism is the only modern religion in India which is not a melting-pot of religious plurality. It is neither a sect nor an eclectic or a mixed religion. It has its distinct theology, beliefs, practices, value system and cultural identity. Oberoi’s approach is subjective and motivated with some pre- notions which he has tried to project in his thesis whether they have any connection with Sikhism or not. He is following the projection of Sikhism from the point of view of some Western scholars concentrating on Sikh Studies.
History of Punjab is the greatest evidence of the fact that the Sikhs kept their tryst with death rather than abjure their faith. The history of Mughal period is full of sacrifices made by Sikhs on this issue. Oberoi does not bother to distinguish between the out-group religious boundaries and the mixing and interpolation of folk-beliefs in the Punjab society during the 19th century, particularly in the rural areas. If worship of Devi cult, Guga Pir and Sakhi Sarvar was observed by some of the Sikhs, that does not mean that these rituals and practices became part and parcel of Sikh religion. Therefore, one cannot legitimize the observance of folk-beliefs as part of the Sikh theology. We should remember that history of religion has two aspects, viz. socio-religious and mytho-religious. Local cults and myths help us to classify folk beliefs and folk traditions. Although they prove useful too in tracing the development of the religious movements, they do not bear testimony to the spiritual essence or fundamentals of any original religion. In fact, these beliefs and practices were the borrowing features of Indian religious traditions and an indication of religious beliefs behind faith and superstition of the contemporary Punjab society. Therefore, the adoption of the Hindu deities and Devi cult, worship of the shrines of Guga and worship of Muslim Pir Sakhi Sarvar, formed an eclectic pantheon religion of the contemporary society and not a part of the real Sikhism.
In the history of the nineteenth century Punjab, the most important socio-religious phenomenon was the impact of Vaishnavite, Shaivite and Sakti cults as result of Hindu revivalism and popular response to folk- beliefs. A social scientist would interpret such phenomenon as interaction of different religious traditions in society rather than consider them as introduction of some new development or classify them as introduction of religious boundaries as been deciphered by Oberoi.
The above mentioned practices of folk-traditions are indication of the religious beliefs behind faith and superstitions, belief in evil spirits, witch-craft, sorcery and magic healing, astrology and divination of mythical objects, rituals and participation in local festivals and fairs of the contemporary Punjab society. This development of mass beliefs is also an evidence to the revival of Brahmanic cults. The impact of witch-craft is equally dominating the folk psyche, particularly in the Hindu and Sikh communities. But they never formed a part of transformation in the philosophy of religion. The impact of Hinduism was so strong that some of the Sikhs who were weak in their faith and determination, fell prey to the allurement of some popular practices and usage. The presence of such a situation demands a revision of the author’s opinion regarding the personal religion of these folk as well as the true nature of the Khalsa Panth during the period under study. Had Sikhism been a religion of plurality the Mughal Emperors need not have issued firmans against the Sikhs and declaring them as outlaws and political offenders. No suchfirmans were issued against any other minority or religious community of the contemporary India. These firmans had clear instructions about the identity of the followers of Guru Nanak. Even foreign invaders like Nadir Shah and the Court Historian of Ahmad Shah Durrani, Kazi Nur Mohammad, had clearly described the distinct identity, revolting spirit, astonishing courage, valour and high character of the Sikh soldiers, although they have been condemned with all sorts of abuses.
In spite of producing a bulky volume on Sikh tradition, Oberoi is not in a position to enter into any satisfactory speculation or to make a statem6nt on the precise religious boundaries, culture, identity and diversity issues among the Sikhs and the out group plurality of Hindu society. That is the reason why Oberoi failed to understand the core idea behind the action of the Sikh leaders who looked upon the interpolation of plurality in Sikh culture and identity with disdain and tried to purge the outside practices which had crept into the Sikh society. We have to remember that the Singh Sabha leaders did not introduce any innovation or new doctrine, dogma or any tenet in Sikhism. They only stressed restoration of pristine Sikh practices, and ejected every belief or practice which had no connection with Sikhism. During the Sikh rule many new converts of convenience were attracted to sikhism. They adopted symbols of Sikh identity but never shed their previous beliefs and practices. But the proportion of this class of Sikh society did not lead to dilution of Sikh doctrines. The Sikh code of conduct, the Sikh values and Sikh doctrines remained the same. The inner strength of the Sikh community lies in its psyche for meeting the challenges of situation and crisis which is more vividly apparent in the functional role of Sikhism than in its methaphysical aspect. Oberoi fails to realise this factor and generalizes his conclusions, blindly following the pattern of “Who is a Sikh?” by Hew McLeod.
No doubt Oberoi is well acquainted with Western style for Sikh Studies introduced by McLeod, and his colleagues, but Indian scholars who are well versed in Sikh history and understand Sikh religion, find Oberoi’s work lacking in authenticity and historical con-text of the period under study. Sikhism is an original religion and not a complex pluralism like Hinduism. Oberoi has unnecessarily involved himself in
issues and problems which are not directly related to Sikh doctrines, Sikh culture, Sikh identity and Sikh tradition but are by products of the dynamics of the religious attitude and belief system of the nineteenth century Punjab society. Although profusely documented with notes and references Oberol’s hypothesis, formulations, logic and conclusions are all conceptualized on borrowed framework of Western Sikh scholarship based on pre-notions.
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