A Work of Scholarly Indulgence
Dr Sukhmander Singh
At the very outset it must be understood that in recent years, attempts have consistently been made to misinterpret, distort, or even to denigrate Sikhism and to destroy Sikh identity. Most modern attempts have been made m a very clever way to first thoroughly confuse the masses by selective use of historical or anthropological material in order to construct a thesis to blur or dilute the Sikh identity. One of the most significant omissions of such attempts, of which Dr Oberoi’s book, ‘The Construction of Religious Boundaries’ is a good example, is the lack of reference to Guru Granth Sahib and history of the Gurus. Scholars like Oberoi choose to downplay the Sikh Doctrines as enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib. These scholars, however, go to great lenghts and spend great amounts of time and space in their writings to talk about insignificant meters which they dig out in their research. They make vague or irrelevant observations to redefine Sikh identity or Sikhism. Dr Oberoi cleverly does this for a specific period of 19th century, and tries to draw sweeping conclusions stretching beyond the period in question. He does this by attempting to malign or redefine Sikh identity and Sikhism by introducing such words as, “religious pluralism in Sikhism”, and its,” Amorphous growth”, etc. Hence, the reason for this review is to alert fellow Sikhs and other sincere re-searchers. Here are a few additional points relating to Oberoi’s book which should be kept in mind when studying such works of scholarly indulgence, voluminously gathered and somehow published through prestigious university presses.
The methods and materials applied by these scholars are characteristically Eurocentric. Methodologies relevant to Christain ideology where scriptures developed as a result of history and culture,mapplicable to Sikhism where scripture is revelatory and authenticated by the prophet himself. Dr Oberoi admits that he is only a student of history and not of religion. But he does not hesitate to apply his historical techniques to Sikh religion and Khalsa.
The most fundamental flaw in the works of Dr Oberoi and for that matter, also in the works of his mentor Dr McLeod, is that they try to understand Sikhism on the basis of Sociology and Anthropology. That is what Dr Oberoi has demonstrated in his book all along. Dr McLeod and Dr Oberoi rarely quote from Guru Granth Sahib, the fountain of Sikhism and the history of the Guru period. How can a study on Sikhism or Sikhs be considered objective without adequate reference to Guru Granth Sahib and without acknowledging its pivotal role?
In order to prove his theory that in the 19th century the prevailing Sikh practices were purged to establish a homogeneous religious community, Dr Oberoi creates an imaginary conflict between ‘Tat Khalsa’ and ‘Sanatan Sikhs’. He is extremely concerned for Sanatan Sikhs and downplays the works of Singh Sabha which promoted Sikh doctrines as embodied in Guru Granth Sahib. It is suggested by Dr Obreoi, through statements attributed to Sanatan Sikhs, that the Gurus did not envisage Sikhs as a distinct group. Similarly, Dr Oberoi’s references to worship of Sakhi Sarvar, Guga and others by Sikhs are intended to paint an extremely biased picture of Sikhs and to strike at the distinctive identity and religion of the Sikhs. It is quite disturbing to note that Dr Oberoi chooses to ignore the martyrdom of thousands of Sikhs to uphold their identity, following their Gurus, who defended the identity and the distinctive characters of other religions, besides their own.
In the 19th century study of the Sikhs, Oberoi also chooses to ignore the fact that real Sikhs were driven underground due to atrocities and suppression of the British. Sikhs were not allowed to wear Kirpan and the British would charge heavy revenue (ap-proximately 75% of their crops) from them. Granted there were ninety thousand Sikhs in the British army at the turn of the century, but not even a single one of them was an officer. They were not the privileged class then, as observed by Dr Oberoi. The British did not give the Sikh rahit or separate identity to Sikhs, which had been prescribed by the Gurus. The British, however, did not discourage it, because they saw that the Khalsa discipline made excellent soldiers, and had a tradition of glory and valour. Refusal to see this plain fact of history is deplorable. So is the publication of literature like the book under review, which is full of such distortions and inconsistencies.
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