Harjot Oberoi - Scholar or Saboteur?
Dr Manjeet Singh Sidhu
Breaking the serene midnight stillness an enchanted maker of music plays aloud upon his drums. His neighbours, all ardent advocates of the freedom of expression, file a joint complaint against the music maker charging him with public nuisance and invasion of their privacy. Authorities summon the music-maker and order him to stop his mid-night passion or else face punitive action. The advocates of the freedom of expression are jubilant for putting an end to the unwelcome flow of musical nimbers into their ear-drums. They are the same people who felt appalled and outraged when Khomeni decreed a death sentence against Salman Rushdie, author of the Satanic Verses.
Khomeni’s decree has been denounced as a judgment that lacked judicial procedure and stretched beyond his jurisdiction and power. However, denunciation of Khomeni’s decree does not absolve Rushdie of the serious offence of hurting the religious faith and feelings of millions of Muslims all over the world. Therefore, Rushdie must also be held accountable for his potentially explosive transgression. Freedom of expression has its own implicit and explicit code which has to be scrupulously adhered to. Absolute freedom is inconsistent with a harmonious social order which demands restraint, responsibility, discipline and discreetness and forbids adumbral adventurism into the sensitive terrain of religious beliefs.
Portraying a revered prophet as an idiot is far graver and provocative an act than playing drums loudly at midnight. Yet the advocates of the freedom of expression idolize Rushdie and denounce his critics by branding them as bigoted fundamentalists. Drums hurt a handful of protesting diehards and were instantly silenced. Rushdie grievously hurt millions of believers in Prophet Mohammad and was grandiloquently elevated to the stature of Lincoln and Gandhi.
Somehow the logic of it all is beyond me. To me it is double standards. More often than not a deliberate and sacrilegious assault is quietly condoned but a simple unintentional act is blown out of all proportions and vehemently denounced. The prevalence of such equivocation has provided to some pseudo-scholars a strategic baseto distort and destroy historically established beliefs, traditions and practices.
Under the deceptive disguise of research, scholarship and creativity piles of malicious materials has of late been excre1ed first to dilute and then to erode the essentials of the Sikh religion. Harjot Oberoi and Pashaura Singh belong to a group that owes its allegiance to W. H. McLeod, the Christian missionary masquerading as a commentator and historian. This group is engaged in the pernicious program of making convenient but untenable formulations that attempt to negate the overwhelming facts of history with the sole intent of under-mining the revelatory character, distinct identity and historical pre-eminence of the Sikh religion.
The trouble with Mr. Oberoi is that he is a mendacious gleaner and not an objective researcher. He picks up only such material as can be twisted to suit his perverted politico-nihilist agenda. To accomplish his mission of denigrating Sikh religion he has carefully ignored the authentic historical documents and records as well as dispassionately researched books by reputed scholars. The central argument in his book ‘The Construction of Religious Boundaries’ is that during the Guru-period and the post Guru-peroid, the landscape in the Punjab presented an indistinguishably integrated terrain without any noticeable undulating religious divisions like Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. This argument is so farfetched and far removed from the facts of history that in academic evaluation it will be dismissed as either the dream projection of a drugged mind or a calculated concoction with insidious intent. As a natural corollary of his argument it would follow that the elaborate accounts of religious persecutions, forcible conversions, communal holocausts, discriminatory taxes (Jazia) and martyrdoms of Guru Arjun Dev, Guru Tegh Bahadur and thousands of other Sikhs were nothing but figments of a fertile imagination, and in Oberoi’s logic it would be proper to charcterize them as pure myths.His weird logic will have us believe that there were no religious boundaries during the Mughal period simply because Hindu Rajputs helped imperial Mughal forces to subdue independent Hindu Kingdoms. How could there be distinct religious boundaries if Hindus were fighting Hindus to promote a Muslim empire? Such is the nature of Oberoi’s logic. Nothing can be more pathetic than his arbitrarily stretched and violently applied process of reasoning. According to him these boundaries developed later as a consequence of the British rulers’ political compulsions.
The reading of Mr. Oberoi’s book makes it abundantly clear that he has purposely ignored the genesis and growth of Sikh religion, and has resorted to self-constructed formulations to adulterate the crystal clear message of the Gurus and its consequential blossoming into a valiant and highly successful Sikh community. The homage of the term Sanatan Sikhs and its application to Sahejdhari Sikhs is transparent enough to show that Mr. Oberoi has an ulterior motive. His motive is to project Sikh religion as just another tradition in the jungle of Hindu conglomerate in which contradictory dogmas, deities, myths, miracles, rituals, fasts, worships, jantras, mantras and a host of other beliefs coexist and often overlap one another. Contrary to this amorphous and incongruous collectivity, a follower of the Sikh religion stands distinct as one who has an unflinching faith in the Guru Granth Sahib, and who unreservedly follows the teachings of the ten Gurus, and accepts no other tradition, belief or practice.
Sahejdhari word is loosely used for clean-shaven Sikhs who in every other way are as committed to the Sikh tenets as Kesadhari or Amritdhari Sikhs. They neither smoke nor subscribe to a different school of thought. In fact there is no such category as Sanatan Sikhs in the Sikh religion. Plurality is foreign to Sikhism. The distinctivenessof Sikh religion lies in its uniformity which flows as a natural consequence of the uniformity in the teachings of the Sikh Gurus. Since the teachings of the Gurus emanated from the divine fount of revelation, the uniformity is inherent and preordained. It is unlikely that Mr. Oberoi is unaware of the centrality of the message and the meaning of the Bani enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib, but in his anxiety to push his personal point of view he refuses to open his eyes to the overpowering and self-illuminating reality of the Bani and instead takes refuge in conjectural and contrived myths, and tries to disguise them under an elaborate paraphernalia of academic accoutrements.
The proper study of the Bani can dispel the darkness in which scholars of Mr. Oberoi’s genre are groping. Their misguided attempt to portray Sikhism as a reformist movement aimed at cleansing the prevailing religious orders are rooted in dishonest motives. Though reform is fundamental to the mission of every Prophet, yet, Guru Nanak’s message was not limited to effecting reform in the religio-social fabric of the times. Guru Nanak was deeply concerned with the empirical reality and yet transcended the mundane areas of human activity, opening new vistas of spiritual awareness. The word Hinduism, no doubt, has a wide implication but it is altogether incorrect to include Sikhism in it because of the fact that Guru Nanak’s teachings assumed a critical attitude towards the three cardinal pillars of Hinduism i. e. the priesthood, the caste system and the Vedas. He rejected the very fundamentals on which the whole structure of Hinduism rests. A reading of the Guru Granth Sahib strongly suggests that Sikhism should be regarded as a new and separate religion. Guru Nanak tackled the ethical problem in a singularly fruitful way. He justly rejected the earth-bound utilitarianism of the sensate man, and also steered clear of the self-negating pathways of sceticism.
A healthy participation in the process of individual and social life was held up as an ideal. The ritualistic framework of the current Hinduism was abandoned, and the conventional social code governed by caste was rejected with vehemence. He made a radical departure from considering this world as illusion (Maya), and forcefully asserted that the world is the abode of the True One and hence it is a reality, though the reation as compared to the Creator is only a subordinate reality.
Therefore, the term Sanatan Sikhs can at best be used to describe that section of the Hindus which never came within the formal fold of Sikhism but held deep respect for the Sikh Gurus and regularly read and recited selected hymns like Sukhmani Sahib, Japji, Asa di var’, etc. A large number of Sindhi Hindus worship Guru Nanak and keep Guru Granth Sahib in their homes. In every other way these Hindus remained rooted in the Hindu tradition and never observed the basic Sikh tenets. They smoke, observe all kinds of fasts, worship idols and believe in holymen like Sakhi Sarvar and Guga Pir. Mr. Oberoi er- roneously calls such Hindus as Sanatan Sikhs. In the introduction to the ‘Construction of Religious Boundaries,’ he mentions at page 11 that “during the 1891 census in Punjab 1,344,862 Sikhs declared themselves as Hindus.” And to further his argument of plurality in Sikhism he arbitrarily characterizes these Hindus as Sikhs and invents a fallacious term “Sanatan Sikhs” to disguise his real design of projecting Sikhisrn as only a reformist movement within the general Hindu tradition.
He further compounds this error when he projects the Arnritsar Singh Sabha as the bona-fide representative body of the entire Sikh Panth and makes a clever detour to avoid mentioning the authentic Lahore Singh Sabha with as many as 118 branches that were operating to disseminate the teachings of the Gurus. He also avoids mentionting the negative role of the masands and the disgruntled Bedi, Bhalla, Tehan and Sodhi relatives of the Gurus who had established their private centres (shops) and were dispensing libertine potions to attract maximum crowds. These establishments were the decadent aberrations, and stood apart and outside the vigorously vibrant Sikh mainstream. These were the aberrations that in Mr. Oberoi’s words “Created a cultural reference system akin to that of the carnival”, and the perusal of his books and articles strongly suggests that his ardent advocacy of these aberrations is designed to inject a carnivalesque character into the solemn Sikh mainstream as a process of slow poisoning to destroy and dissolve its distinct identity and values.
In his anxiety to provide an apparently concrete premise to his insubstantial fairy tale constructions, Mr. Oberoi builds a complex platform of what he calls popular culture, which, according to him, obliterated the religious boundaries. In his reckoning the so called popular culture was so all pervasive and all powerful as to create aharmonious social order in which Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs as separate entities of different denominations became irrelevant. A lay student of history will characterize such a conclusion as an Utopian dream of some deluded idealist, but to a more perceptive and penetrating eye the entire exercise unmistakenly points to a singular objective of undermining the distinct Sikh identity. Mr. Oberoi knowsfull well that nothing, least of all his conjectural concept of popular culture, can diminish the ideological dichotomy obtaining between Hinduism and Islam; that is why at no point of time in history were these two reconciled in any part of India. Clearly this concept of popular culture has been created by him like the term Sanatan Sikhs to submerge Sikh identity into the sea of Hindu polytheism.
To prove his point about the prevalence of popular culture, he mentions that Maharaha Ranjit Singh and the Sikh rulers of cis-Sut-lej State paptronized Hindu temples and made generous contributions to their funds and also participated in their religious ceremonies and rituals. But he fails to mention that rulers generally resort to such exercises as part of their public relations programs in order to show themselves as impartial and just rulers. For the Sikh rulers such a stance was all the more necessary because they were ruling over Over whelmingly non-Sikh population. In Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom Sikh Population was hardly 13%. It was partly political expediency and Partly Sikh religion’s ethos that prompted Ranjit Singh and other Sikh rulers to extend patronage to Hindu and Muslim institutions as well.
Akbar’s visit to Goindwal to meet with Guru Amar Das and his joining the common langar was also a public relations exercise. Similarly the rulers in Delhi from the British period to the present time have been paying visits to various gurdwaras for the same reason. To give a different construction to such visits would mean weaving fictional yarn for a devious personal agenda and to conclude that these visits point to the absence of religious boundaries would mean stretching the argument even beyond the ludicrous. This is precisely what Mr. Oberoi is trying to do when he argues that since some Sikhs also joined Hindus and Muslims in visiting shrines like that of Sakhi Sarvar and Guga pir, it proves that there were no clear cut religious boundaries in the Punjab, Given the population complexion in which Sikhs constituted a very very small minority it was difficult to determine withreasonable degree of certainty whether some stray Sikhs supposedly sighted among the visitors to the shrines of the Pirs were real Sikhs or just fake fair weather Sikhs who had stopped shaving their beards lor material gains and also whether they were actually devotees or merely curious tourists who had come with their Hindu or Muslim friends or neighbours in a spirit of comradeship. I have never felt any reluctance in going to Temple, Mosques and Churches along with my Hindu, Muslim and Christain friends and neither have they felt any reluctance in going with me to the gurdwara. Does it mean we have ceased to be Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or Christians? Does it mean our respect for one another’s religion has dismantled the religious boundaries and created what Oberoi calls a popular culture? Far from it, such a puerile inference deserves to be pitied rather than ridiculed. In fact it is Mr. Oberoi who is inventing “peudo-synthetic historiography” to cloud the clear vision of the world as enunciated and established by the founders of the Sikh religion and its uninterrupted continuation to the present day despite many conspiracies to adulterate its purity. It was to effec-tively counter these misconceived conspiracies that Singh Sabha or-ganized and formalized the Sikh ethos and practices strictly in accordance with the preaching of the Gurus. These conspiracies were hatched by Hindu saboteurs who had put on the garb of Sikhs. Mr. Oberoi identifies them as Sanatan Sikhs. These saboteurs were operat-ing in complicity with the Arya Samaj. Singh Sabha movement exposed their true character leading to their unceremonious dismissal by the mainstream Sikhs.
Mr. Oberoi makes yet another baseless assertion that the peasantry resisted the Singh Sabha manifesto of distinguishing Sikhs from members of other religious traditions but fails to explain why Singh Sabha movement became a glorious success and emerged as the unquestioned nucleus of the Sikh Panth. How is it that Singh Sabha had its largest constituency among the peasantry or why did the con-spiratorial and peripheral Sanatan Sikhs vanish into oblivion? Singh Sabha did not enjoy State or any other patronage, rather it was con-stantly clashing with the rulers. S till, more and more common Sikhsenthusiastically embraced and adopted its manifesto. How does Mr. Oberoi explain this development? Obviously, he will not like to answer questions that point to the hollowness of his make-believe formulations and unmask his real design of undermining the distinct Sikh identity. All through his book he has made wild statements without a shred of evidence or historical document or proof. Mr. Oberoi ought to realize that history is not a puppet that can be made to dance to the prurient whims of pervert scholars, nor is it a slave to abstract theorizing.
Copyright Institute of Sikh Studies, All rights reserved.
Designed by Jaswant (09915861422)