An Attempt at Destruction
Dr Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon
Harjot Oberoi’s book “The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition” seems to be a motivated attempt to distort the Sikh identity by purposely ignoring the historic role of Sikh ideology in establishing an entirely new system as opposed to earlier Indian traditions. The book does not differ materially from the formulations of W.H. McLeod, who has been his examiner for his Ph.D. thesis, which has now been published in book form. The book seems to be aimed at making a systematic misrepresen-tation of Sikhism, its basic beliefs, ideals, institutions and history. By twisting and distorting the Sikh history Harjot Oberoi has tried to cast doubts regarding the well-entrenched and long cherished Sikh traditions, and thus to erode the very foundations of Sikh identity. His approach is not only biased, but also lop-sided and negative. The author’s difficulty seems to be that he is absolutely ignorant of history and growth of religion, nor does he seem to be interested in knowing it.
The major drawback of Oberoi’s work relates to the methodology adopted by the author in the study of Sikhism. A proper study of religion involves a study of the spiritual dimension and experiences of man, a study which is beyond the domain of Sociology, Anthropoogy and History. Any materialistic interpretation ofreligion, which does not go beyond the physical reality, perceived by senses, is bound to be lop-sided, limited and partial. Religion has its own tools, its own methodology and principles of study which take cognisance of a higher level of reality and a world-view which is comprehensive and not limited. The study of religion requires sharp insights into the totality of life including transcendental knowledge concerning God, the universe and the human spirit.
Harjot Oberoi’s book is a typical example of verbose style through which he can succeed to some extent in mis-Ieading lay readers. But those who have knowledge and understanding of the history of religions cannot be mis-Ied. In the introduction of his book, he writes: “It is all very well for historians of religion to think, speak and write about Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism, but they rarely pause to consider if such clear- cut categories actually found expression in the consciousness, actions and cultural performances of the human actors they describe. When reading religious histories, biographical texts mythical literature, archival materials, political chronicles, and ethnographic reports from nineteenth century Punjab, I was constantly struck by the brittleness of our textbook classifications. There simply wasn’t any one-to-one correspondence between the categories that were supposed to govern social and religious behaviour on the one hand, and the way people actually experienced their everyday lives on the other hand.” (pp. 1-2).
The premises on which the author is trying to build his thesis are too flimsy to make an indepth study. It is within the knowledge of every student of history that the pre- and post-1947 history of the Indian sub- continent is nothing but the history of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, social and communal tensions, clashes and even massacres. In the pre-Muslim India, the Buddhists were the victims of a religious crusade launched against them by the Hindu orthodoxy. The Bodhi tree at Gaya under which Buddha had attained his Nirvana was burnt, and in its place a Hindu temple was erected. A large scale massacre of Buddhists and burning of their monastries took place, resulting in the virtual disappearance of Buddhism from India. The Hindu rule that followed, is looked upon by the Hindu historians as the golden epoch in the Indiah history. This past was closely linked with the ideology of caste which over the centuries has been the foundation of a religiously ordained social fabric. The Maratha Peshwa rule, a period of Hindu revival, was known for the rigid perpetuation of the Brahminical caste system. In that rule some lower castes could not enter the city of Pune before 9 A.M. and after 3 P .M., because their long shadows could defile the higher castes, especially the Brahmins. The Muslim state in India was entirely subordinate to its church, and waged a relentless religious war (Jehad) against non- Muslims, who had to suffer political and social disabilities and pay toll tax (Jazia) and pilgrimage tax. Under Aurangzeb, there was large scale destruction of non-Muslim religious temples and other religious institutions in Northern India. In sharp contrast to this, the Sikh rule under Ranjit Singh witnessed a policy of religious tolerance and large hearted liberalism which had its roots in the Sikh ethos. During his reign, there were no outbursts of communal fanaticism, no forced conversions, no attempts at bloody revenge, no language tensions, no executions and no tortures. These being the historical realities well known to students of history, Oberoi’s vision and senses seem too blurred to see the evil depths of division that have marked and ruined the course of Indian history leading to four divisions of the Indian sub-continent in the brief span of a single eneration. This reminds us of Prof. Neol King’s warning that in the field of history and religion, it is very necessary to know the background of the person. For, Oberoi’s perceptions seem to be typical of a town-bred sheltered school boy, who lacks sense of proportion and assessment.
The author emphasises that ‘the Sikh studies need to fully open up to the gaze of history’, but at the same time chooses to ignore the overwhelmingly strong historical evidence, which distinguishes Sikhism from other religions. The martyrdom of the Sikh Gurus was to uphold the religious freedom of their own followers as well as that of others. Four sons of the Tenth Master laid down their lives for the same cause. Catholicity of Sikhism with its emphasis on universal brother-hood and tolerance of other people’s beliefs cannot be confused with the lack of religious solidarity among the Sikhs. Even the contemporary Muslim chronicler, Mohsin Fani, bears testimony to the clearly demarcated features of Sikh ideology and ethos. The spirit of the Sikh Gurus was carried on by Banda Singh Bahadur and his men, who fought against the Mughals under the most inhospitable circumstances. But they stuck to their faith and principles till the end of their lives. The devotion of Sikhs to their religion and their spirit is evident from the fact that out of 740 Sikh prisoners of war, who were executed in Delhi, abng with Banda, not one deserted the faith, even while given the choice to do so.
Qazi Nur Mohammad, who came to India with the famous invader Ahmed Shah Abdali, testifies in emphatic words to the separate religious identity and ethos of what he calls the followers of Nanak. Was it not the religious ideology of the Sikhs that equipped them to facejntense persecution during the mid-18th century? If, as stated by Oberoi, the religious boundaries were not clearly defined before the advent of the British, then who were those Sikh heads on whom the Mughal administration, which knew its enemies well, fixed a price? Sikhism has had a long chain of sacrifices and martyrdoms which find no parallel in the history of other Indian communities. It Was surely on account of its glorious heritage of sacrifice, that the Sikh conununity played a vital role not only in stemming the tide of invaders but also in the country’s struggle for independence, a role which was Out of all proportion to its small numbers.
The partition of India into two countries in 1947 was preceded by a long period of communal turmoil and clashes extending over the past few centuries. Seen in this light, Oberoi’s assertions that communal boundaries in India crystallised only in the 19th century, arc absolutely baseless. Oberoi’s entire understanding of the past, that there were no deeply marked communal boundaries, appears too naively simplistic, for, it leads to the suggestion, that the blood baths of the Blue Star attack at Amritsar, the large scale November 1984 massacres in the capital and elsewhere, and the blood soaked Babri Masjid episode at A yodhya, are just post -independence developments that have no roots in the past.
Oberoi is fond of suggesting terms like ‘multiple identities in Sikhism,’ ‘several competing definitions of a Sikh’, ‘religious diversity in Sikhism’, ‘religious fluidity in the Sikh tradition,’ ‘religious pluralism in Sikhism,’ ‘amorphous growth of religion,’ etc. in order to prove that Sikhism has no clear definition. This is typical of a person ignorant of the Sikh scripture, which rigorously defines the doctrines and a worldview which are entirely independent and different from the fundamentals of contemporary religious systems. Had Sikh identity been vague or plural, the entire history of persecution and martyrdoms of the 18th century would become meaningless and un- understandable both for the Mughal administration and the Sikhs. Oberoi’s’major failing is that he does not understand that, unlike Protestantism or Vaishnavism, Sikhism is not a sociological growth or sect, but it has its ten Prophets, who created entirely a new society with radically different motivations, ideals and ethos, separate from the old Hindu society.
In fact, Sikh history is nothing but the expression of Sikh ideology. In sharp contrast to the dichotomous and life- negating systems, Guru Nanak’s system is a whole-life system like Islam and Judaism, and takes an integrated view of the spiritual and empirical aspects of life. Consequently it categorically rejects monasticism, asceticism and withdrawarfrom life. It sanctions a householder’s life with full social participation and social responsibility. Brotherhood of man and equality of men and women and of all castes are repeatedly emphasised in the bani and the lives of the Sikh Gurus. It is a radical departure from the Hindu social ideology of Varna Ashram Dharma, looked upon as divinely ordained. Hierarchical caste system is the pivot of the Hindu society, and has religious sanction. Guru Nanak’s egalitarian mission provides the key to the understanding of the social significance of the Sikh movement. While putting Hindus and Sikhs in the same category, Oberoi again shows his typical ignorance of religion and religious history, when he observes: “Religion was basically a highly localised affair, often even a matter of individual conduct and individual salvation Islam may have been the only exception to this.” (p. 14). Sikhism like Islam and Judaism is basically a societal religion. No serious scholar can deny that Sikhs have always been in the forefront in any struggle for universal causes and human rights. They have been trained to resist and confront injustice.
Oberoi includes Guru Nanak’s religion of ‘nam simran’ (remembrance of the Divine Word) in the ‘paradigm of interior religiosity’. Here the author fails to understand that Guru Nanak set himself apart from the crowd of quietistic Sadhus, Bairagis and Udasis who mused over life’s futilities, and mourned over the state of man in an evil world and who in the pursuit of their spiritual aims sought alienation from the world and its problems. Guru Nanak had a positive outlook on life, in contradiction to denunciation and renunciation of worldly life. With the Guru, Sikhism became a religion of householders. It was given an explicitly social character through a series of measures adopted by the Guru. The institutions of Dharmshalas (the earlier nomenclature of Gurdwaras, meant for public worship), Sangat (a corporate body of the Sikhs), Pangat (seating of the devotees in rows to stress the egalitarian principle), Langar (public kitchen) and Kirtan (singing of hymns in public) have come down to the Sikhs from the days of Guru Nanak. The Guru did not confine his activities to Nam Simran in the seclusion of his home. He was very mobile. He undertook extensive travels and Organised Sangats at a time when foreign travel was a taboo, and caste Hindus felt themselves defiled by it. Guru Nanak looked upon the world as real and meaningful and not as ‘Maya’ or illusion.
Guru Nanak inaugurated a virile movement with an activistic approach to the problems of life. His heart melted at the sight of the debilitated Hindu society and the tyranny of the foreign invaders. He clearly saw that by neglecting to take proper steps for the defence of his subjects against the onslaughts of Babur, the Lodhi sovereign of Delhi was preparing the way for his ultimate ruin. ‘The dogs of Lodhi have spoiled the priceless inheritance, when they are dead, no one will regard them’. And very soon circumstances took such a turn that the Guru’s prognostication was literally fulfilled. The Guru regretted that the yogis of spiritual worth had hidden themselves in the safety of high mountains. His own response to the challenge was reflected in iden-tifying the task. He wanted his successors to take up the task and devise practical responses according to the gravity of the challenge. Unlike Buddha or Christ, or any other Prophet of a movement who left the work of its organisation incomplete, Guru Nanak purposely appointed a successor to complete it.
Oberoi makes vague and irrelevant observations regarding Sakhi Sarvar, Gugga, Seetla and ancestor worship among the Sikhs, about which he gives no data at all to support his argument. A correct evaluation of Sikhism cannot be made by a lop-sided or isolated study of a few rituals and beliefs prevalent in a very small section of the community during a period when some Hindus found it convenient to enter the Sikh fold. Any student of Guru Granth Sahib knows that it is full of hymns rejecting the spiritual character of Oevis, Pirs, gods, goddesses, etc., and that both the Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh history record that the Gurus deprecated their worship. The Singh Sabha never invented anything. The mis-statement of Oberoi is coupled with another suppression by him of H.A. Rose’s clear observation (whom he otherwise quotes) that in the Sikh villages there was known enmity between the Sikhs who did not worship Sakhi Sarvar and the Hindus who believed in Sakhi Sarvar. Apparently, Oberoi has concealed this clear observation of Rose. Instead, he makes the distortion that the Singh Sabha leaders were the first to object to these wrong practices. Such mis-statements, coupled with suppression of material facts, are generally made by partisan propagandists interested in misrepresentation of Sikhism, but never by academicians. To draw conclusions about the ideology of Sikhs from a microscopic minority of converts who were Sakhi Sarvarias in the 19th century, ignoring the evidence of all injunctions and doctrines in the Guru Granth Sahib, of over two hundred years of the lives and practices of the Gurus, and of four centuries of Sikh h\story contradicting profusely the worship of Devis and Pirs, is an epistemological absurdity. It is worthwhile to stress that religion can be usefully studied only with the tools of itsown discipline.
Oberoi tries to prove that ‘the colonial state and its institutions played a significant role in the emergence of a homqgeneous Sikh religion’ (p. 423). It is well known that the British efforts were concentrated not on promoting, but undermining the Sikh identity. As in the case of the suppression of the conclusion of Rose’s study, here again Oberoi seems to avoid known facts of Punjab history, like the large-scale missionary onslaughts under the wings of the colonial administration. Darbar Sahib and all the major Gurdwaras were controlled by the Mahants and the Pujaris, who were under the Government patronage. The colonial rule had been extra-vigilant about the control of the Sikh shrines, as is clear from the letter written by Lt. Governor R.E. Egerton to Lord Ripon, the Viceroy, on August 8, 1881. “I think it will be politically dangerous to allow the management of Sikh temples to fall into the hands of a committee, emancipated from government control, and trust, your Excellency will resist to pass such orders in the case, as will enable to continue the system, which has worked successfully for more than thirty years.” (British Museum Additional Manuscript No. 43592, Folio 300-301). It was only after a prolonged struggle that-the Gurdwaras were liberated in 1925.
It is well known that Trumpp, a missionary commissioned by the colonial Government, to please his .masters, wrote a deliberately damaging and distorted translation of the Sikh scripture and version of the Sikh ideology. On the other hand the same government in one form or the other punished and disgraced historians and scholars like J.O. Cunningham and M.A. Macauliffe, who gave an authentic and honest account of the Sikh history and religion. The anti-Sikh bias of the colonial missions is so strong that one of its old functionaries, W.H. McLeod has gone to the extent of making what are considered blasphemous and unethical attacks against the Sikhs.
Oberoi claims to give a new understanding of Sikh history of the 19th century. His view is as correct or authentic as the view of the Amritsar group of British proteges like Raja Bikram Singh of Faridkot, Vihiria band and others, who represented only themselves and their three Singh Sabhas as against the Lahore group, which represented the entire community of 118 Sabhas all over the country - a glaring fact which Oberoi has knowingly concealed while highlighting their views. For, Oberoi is never able to explain the lofty contribution of the Sikh society to history during every period of its life.
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