Mountain on a Molehill Foundation
Dr Sarjit Singh
The concept ofhistory, like beauty seems to reside in the mind of the writer. Sir Wins ton Churchill allegedly wrote his autobiography in the guise of history. Among equals, history is an on-going saga of conflicting ideas. Among unequals, it is an account of the Vanquished by the victorious. In the West, most historians, solely relying on the secondary Sources for their research on the East, continue to insist their version to be ‘accurate’ not withstanding their lack of expertise in the languages of the original Sources. Colonialists may have gone but not the associated mentality.
Nevertheless, students from the developing world are still attracted to the West. Their intent is not as much to learn about their own history and culture as to get a lucrative job in the West after they graduate and bypass the long lines of, unemployment in their own countries. In almost all cases they successfully accomplish their mission.
In search of a parchment in Sikh history, Professor Harjot Oberoi, an Indian of Punjab origin, went all the way to Australia, in preference to his home state where Sikhism was born, nurtured, be- came a religion and is burgeoning with three reputable universities. Australia, once a penal colony, has a checkered history and has shied away from dealing with the third world countries. Its universities, seldom known for excellence in any we a, not even the core subjects like science and technologies, are by no means a Mecca for learning history of Indian religions. Ironically, they show much resourcefulness in bestowing terminal degrees on students from the developing world. Mr. Harjot Oberoi received one in the history of Sikh religion. There he also received ‘guidance’ from a New Zealander, Dr W.H. McLeod, Professor of History. Once a missionary in Punjab and now a self proclaimed atheist, he”has a rei’u(ation, high in the Western world and inversely proportional among Sikh scholars, for his writings on Sikhs.
With encouragement from his mentors Prof. Oberoi has now crafted this long book. In it he says that the Indian peoples, set of religious beliefs could not be neatly parcelled out into Hindu, Sikh or Muslim categories as these did not mutually exhaust the whole population of believers. Instead, he maintains that there were only sacre , traditions as the people crisscrossed the bounds of each others’ category and acquired multiple identities. For unexplained reasons, he is silent about Christianity. Were its followers in India marching to a different tune?
Focusing his arguments on the ‘Sikh traditions’ the author repeats Prof. W.H. McLeod’s assertion that ‘there were several Sikh identities available during the period immediately following the 1849 annexation of Punjab and concludes that by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the Tat Khalsa purged the prevailing pluralistic Sikh traditions and enunciated an orderly, pure, singular form of sikhism.
As far as the story goes it reads like a fiction for its background plots. To make it interesting, secondary material in the form of private memoirs, an observation by a foreigner, and remotely related un-published Ph. D. dissertations from distant lands where Sikhs probably have been heard of only in the newspapers account for their valor in World Wars, are relied upon. But the plots remain more flawed than interesting. The author succeeds in constructing a mountain of a book on a molehill foundation. Its deficiencies are too many to be enumerated. Space limitations allow only an inking into them.
The very start of the book is based on a false premise. Its justification is grounded in what could at best be called aberrations. (The author himself seems unsure of its justification. He repeats its purpose at least five times on pages 4, 23, 25, 30, 47.) His initial claim (p. 30) that there are ‘rich data’ available for the book, is belied when he switches (p. l44) to improvised proxies as a substitute. He draws on ‘facts’ of convenience, ignores the relative magnitude of those with multiple identities at the macro level, superficially mentions the nature of the role of the non-Sikh organizations, and fails to discuss the impact of the distribution of economic resources among communities on the development of religious identities. His chapter conclusions do not always follow the narrative and his main conclusion is overdrawn for wrong reasons. Besides, the theoretical concepts interjected here and there stay un-hinged.
He expects the religious classification such as Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam to have “one-to-one correspondence” between the followers and their specific categories. Since they do not, he [rods these categories inappropriately classified. He cites many examples - a Sikh smoking tobacco (forbidden under Sikhism) a Hindu worshipping Idols as well as reciting from Sikh scriptures, a Muslim following Hindu rituals, and all three categories undertaking pilgrimages to Muslim shrines.
In social sciences 101, every aspiring college freshman knows that human behaviour cannot be mathematically formulated and that there is no one-to-one relationship. Even the most commonly observed human behaviour when conceptually formulated and empirically tested is contingent upon stringent qualifications. An infringement of these formulations does not refute their validity. Religious behaviour is no exception. There is hardly a religion whose followers follow its tenets religiously. To varying degrees most of them succumb to practices, ‘enchanted’ as well as not so ‘enchanted’, sometimes intermit-tently, other times for prolonged periods of time.
Muslims forbidden from consuming alcohol are not all abstainers. About fifty percent of adult Christians who get married in churches, break their vows and get divorced. Ten Commandments are disobeyed even by the preachers with large followings. By the author’s standards, these religions are not demarcated either, and their followers practicing popular religion.
The British come in for criticism for short-changing the classification of Indian religions in their Censuses. The author implies that the Punjab population being of hybrid beliefs got arbitrarily divided at the time of the partition in 1947! If this were the case, why did these categories practising ‘popular religion’ slaughter each other? How could the ‘traditions’ built over 100 years become devoid of their influence so quickly? Either the ‘popular religion’ was too sterile to generate enough goodwill and contain the fury, or the people with ‘multiple identity’ were too few to have any restraining influence. The answer, either way, goes against the main theme of the book.
Where evidence is not forthcoming, the author invokes the ‘modesty-is-an-over-rated-virtue’ maxim. Rhetorically he asks why the principles of silence, and of negation ‘have come to exercise such a powerful influence on Sikh historiography’ (regarding the existence of multiple identities). In other words he asks why did the Sikh or the European writers not recognize that there was a wide variety of religious practices within the Sikh ‘tradition’? Unable to provide any evidence, he resorts to conjectures (pp. 31-35).
No information is provided on the number of the Sahajdhari Sikhs (Nanak Panthis, Udasis, Nirmala and the like) beyond asserting it was ‘not insignificant’ and that a few of them were very knowledge-able of Sikh scriptures. Without any supporting evidence his assertion remains only a hypothesis. The fact that a number of these sects were led by those denied succession to become Guru, or wanted to cash in on family lineage (as the Bedis had done) is not mentioned, much less underlined. Their number was most likely small since the Sikh Gurus did not have many such relatives. The others - ascetics - just wanted to extend their circle by including rural Sikhs for collecting alms after the political situation turned in favour of Sikhs. Banda Singh Bahadur, once an Udasi, had led the Sikh forces as a Khalsa Sikh.
He cites the census figures relating to Sikh followers of Sakhi Sarwar. They were no more than 2.7 percent of the Sikh population.Not content with such a small percentage, the author once again conjectures their numbers to be larger, thus blurring the distinction between hypothesis and hallucination.
In any case, the era preceding the study had witnessed religious intolerance the world over. The territory now labelled India- Pakistan-Bangladesh had been ravaged by the ruling clans in the name of religion. Wherever marauding armies could not reach, the local majority terrorized the minority. The British had come to India for commerce, but religious conversions also were not far away from their mind. (The ruling elite in the third world countries still continue to play with greater finesse the insidious game of keeping the cauldron of sectarian strife boiling).
In a political environment where prices were specified on their head, and echoes of their total annihilation filled the air, the Khalsa (those with genuine conviction in the Sikh religion and baptized in the tradition introduced by their tenth Guru), were hunted like wild beasts for their principled stand to fight oppression. As late as February 5, 1762, the Afghan invaders led by their king Ahmed Shah Durani had suddenly attacked Punjab and killed more than 30,000 Sikh men, women and children in Ludhiana. They blew up the Sikhs most revered gurdwara popularly known as Golden Temple, and claimed that they had broken the back-bone of the Sikhs.
Under these conditions facing the invaders was nothing short of committing ‘harakiri’. But the Khalsa did fight, not in frontal assaults but as guerrillas between 1716 and 1765 and bore the entire brunt of the predatory onslaughts. They defended themselves, and the op-pressed where they could, against the prevailing politically directed religious tyranny. More often than not did they end up laying their life. In death they inspired others to take their place. During this period the Khalsa had trusted their important religious infrastructures to their ‘sympathizers’ for upkeep, for which they had to pay heavy price much later. Who were these Khalsa? Most of them were the tillers of the land - the peasants, not the Udasis or Nirmalas. They were not around as Sikhs and there was no room for another version of the Sikh identity to emerge. Khalsa was the only identity the Sikhs carried.
The Hindus (who had been ruled by a minority community for more than a thousand years, and frequently persecuted particularly during the rule of Aurangzeb, a Muslim ruler of the seventeenth century), looked up to the Khalsa as their shield and, therefore, held them in great respect in the days of physical insecurity. A few of them supported the Khalsa. The others substituted discretion for the better part of valor. They were not averse to changing their tune in line with the prevailing political and/or economic winds.
In 1765 the Khalsa-Sikhs were able to throw all the oppressors out of Punjab and establish a bridgehead for their own government. The days of religious persecution were over. It was during this period that a large number of Hindus of high caste Sanatan Sikhs as the author calls them, were attracted to the Sikh faith. The author does not specify their origin except to say, without any evidence, that they were the offshoot of the rapprochement between the Sahajdhari and the Khalsa tradition and that the Sanatan Sikh tradition had displaced the Khalsa tradition. He would have the reader believe that the Sikhs, as a matter of choice, now could practise Hindu philosophy as well. Why could they not practise the Muslim religious code, whose adherents were numerically dominant, remains a mystery. Would not the devotion to Sakhi Sarvar have made the tansition much easier?
It is the role of the Sahajdhari Sikhs and the Sanatan Sikhs which Prof. Oberoi inflates beyond recognition, and tries to create reality out of hallucination. He uses the Sahajdhari Sikh label as an umbrella for assorted tiny groups of ascetics scattered in the Hindu majority areas. Being Hindus they diametrically differed from the Khalsa in their philosophy, code, and way of living. The author produces an oblique letter from an obscure place as evidence, and marshals every bit of scrap to make his characterization of their importance stick. Otherwise the whole edifice of his “construction” would come crumbling down.
This brings us to a central question. How does one acquire a particular identity? Could a believer in Guru Nanak’s philosophy contravene it in practice as a matter of principle? Could the Muslims not claim to be Sikhs since many of them regard Sikh Gurus as their Pirs? Of course there were no Sikhs of any identity before Guru Nanak, the founder of sikhism. They came into being as followers of the line of Gurus following the same religious message. If the Sahajdhari selectively set up their own set of philosophy and rules, they could not be considered Sikhs. The Udasis were celibates, did not work for a living, emphasized a different mode for salvation, and stressed the need to serve the sadhus, saints and priests.
At best they may have been Sikh sympathizers but were not Sikhs. According to the author, the so called Sanatan tradition could worship idols, practise caste system or subscribe to the ancient Hindu philosophy, and still be called Sikhs! If this tradition had displaced the Khalsa’s how could its own ‘tradition’ vanish so quickly in a period which was more favourable to its growth? It is more logical to believe that their influence was too weak to take the ground. Scattered instance here and there do not constitute credentials for making a ‘tradition’.
To construct the historical bounds, it is imperative to define, mathematically speaking, which element in domain (the population) belongs to which element in the range, and by what rule. The author refrains from facing this task and does not define criteria which could sort out Sikhs into a category or a tradition. Employing this yardstick, the incongruities underlying the author’s argument become clear and the ‘raison- d’etre’ for the book ceases to exist.
In practice, the new entrants followed neither the Sikh code nor their basic philosophy. They had engaged in a familiar kind of intellectual deception, practised about two thousand years ago, to successfully eradicate Buddhism, a religion born in India. They set in motion again. This time the methodology was to equate a doctored manuscript called Oasam Granth (containing about 98 percent of the ancient Hindu philosophy and a small portion of writings by the tenth Guru) with the Sikh scriptures. It worked in a very limited way. A large number of Khalsas were not familiar with their own scriptures. But it is a far cry from the claim that they all fell for it.
The 1848 defeat of the Lahore Ourbar had removed all their pretenses and showed that the converts were there not so much out of conviction in the religion as an opportunity to exploit the new situation. Their past experience had made them adept at it. And they wasted no time. When the British annexed Punjab in 1849, they changed back to their ariginal calar. “When Khalsa was in the ascendant, large number of Hindus had begun to’ graw their hair and beards and pay lip-warship to’ the Sikh Gurus. After annexatian, these time servers returned to the Hindu fold”.
Soon these ‘time servers’ became a part of the Arya Samaj farmed in the late1870s whose slogan was ‘back to Vedic era’. They denigrated every religion including that of the Sikhs, their Gurus and the Granth Sahib. They began canverting Sikhs back to’ the Hindu fold. Christian missionaries were not far behind in playing this ‘game’ with help from the British officials. Their zest had continued unabated. (If an index of the Hindu fervor was needed, they provided themselves in the post- Partitian era when they declared that Punjabi was not their mother tangue althaugh they had spoken it for more than a thausand years. They had came to’ associate the Punjabi language with the Sikhs).
In fact the author makes a lavish use of Professor Ruchi Ram Sahni’s memoirs without informing the reader that Mr. Sahni was, in the early 1930s, the President of a branch (the Swatantrata party) of the
Indian National Cangress in Punjab, and this organization was essentially made up from urban Hindus and was daminated by the Arya Samajis. The Singh Sabha was born after experiencing the belittling of the Khalsa for four years.
The role of the print media, which according to’ the author played a ‘vital’ role in purging the Sikh plurality, is a sheer exaggeration. Hindus in towns and cities, perhaps ten times more numeraus than the Sikhs, owned almost everything called urban. They used it to’ the hilt unmindful of the consequences. ‘For a long time there has been a school of opinion in Punjab that had it not been far the vernacular press then based in Lahare, Partition may have never happened’. The Sikhs being ruralists and the last educated in Punjab lacked ability to’read or write. Only a minuscile number of them could. The Arya Samajis pulled all the staps. If they did not succeed in prapartion to the resources they owned, it was not for the lack of trying.
Khalsa philosophy propaunded by their Gurus was ‘to’ uphold the dignity of humanity, to’ free the mind af man from every type of bandage and to’ uproat the appression and tyranny, social as well as political’. Being easily comprehensible, and humane, the Singh Sabha had a greater success at least in holding their turf. Critical to’ their success was nat as much the number af schaals, baaks, nar the print media, impart ant thaugh they were, as t e nature of the religious message with which the rural Sikhs cauld easily identify.
Yet the Singh Sabha did not penetrate all villages of the Punjab and were nat as successful as the author claims. The villagers are still found practising the ‘popular religion’ althaugh an a consider-ably diminished scale. The problem has all along been, and still is, the Illassive ignorance of the Sikhs which has prevented them from knowing the meaning of their scriptures. Only a very small percentage of them have such knowledge. It wauld take mare than Brain Stack’s textual analagy to’ effectively canvey the message. The Sikhs remain still the least educated in Punjab as reported in India Taday in 1983. But if the Sikhs do not live upto their ideals, that does not make them non-Sikh.
Religions do not develop in vacuum. People do not live by religion alone. They need bread too. The political and ecanamic factors exercise strong pulls and deterrents. Did the exercise of politi-cal power strengthen or weaken the religious identities before and during the British period? Why were the Hindus and their allies in the Indian National Congress appased to Land Alienatian Act of 1901 when the peasantry was rapidly falling in debt and cansequently in the clutches of Hindu maney lenders? Did this appasition sharpen or blur the religious boundaries? Did they feel inundated by other religious communities? These are same of the issues for more impartant than the role of Nais, Sakhi Sarvarias ar the ‘enchanting’ witches.
The vocabulary used in the book is very impressive. The cosmetic treatment alane, hawever, cannot add charm unless the ‘bady’ is fully developed and propartianally distributed. A few mistakes, mastly ‘typas’ did creep in (pages 48, 97, 221.). Footnotes, too, did not always follow the standard pattern with consistency and were looded with partisan allusions. Finally, there is same thing very peculiar to this author’s academic approach. Professor McLead’s works when cited are shawered with a glawing tribute usually reserved for the Gaspel, and the glaw gets a bit dimmer far S.S. Hans’s. On a trivial paint which has no bearing an the main theme of the book, be introduces Pashaura Singh’s Ph.D. thesis written directly under Dr McLead’s advice. The Warks of other authors who offer different versions are cavalierly dismissed, or ignored.
It may be that popular history takes precedence over academic history. It is also a well kept secret in the academic world that academic integrity often takes a back seat to the author’s economic interests. The economic hazards of daily life almost overpower the virtues associated with the research. If the reality becomes too transparent, ‘academic freedom’ is invoked as a shield. They always come out ahead!
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