The Owl Critic
“Who stuffed that white owl?”
“Don’t you see, Mr Brown,”
Cried the youth with a frown,
“How wrong the whole thing is,
How preposterous each wing is!
I make no apology;
I’ve studied owl-ology.
And I tell you
What I know to be true.
An owl has a toe
That can’t be turned so!
Mr. Brown, I’m amazed
You should be so crazed
As to put up a bird
In that posture absurd.”
Just then, with a wink, and a sly little lurch,
The owl very gravely, got down from his perch,
And looked at his fault-finding critic
With a glance both deep and analytic.
And then fairly hooted as if he should say:
“Your learning’s at fault this time anyway;
Don’t waste it again on a live bird, I pray.”
The bird expert, seeing what he assumes to be a stuffed owl, parades his learning, expertise and wisdom to show the ignorance of anyone who sees the bird as realistic and lifelike. At the end of the poem, the owl looks at its critic and moves and winks to show that it is not only realistic but alive and well - despite the impressive learning of Its critic.
Dr Oberoi, in his academic work, “The Construction of Religious Boundaries,” flaunts similar learning to show that Sikhism founded by Guru Nanak, with a holy scripture written and compiled by the Gurus themselves, a faith recognised as one of the major religions of the world, with millions of followers, does not really exist as an independent entity! Having read Or Oberoi’s ramblings through the history and culture of Punjab before the advent of Guru Nanak practices criticized by the Guru, my first reaction was probably similar to that of the owl; astonishment at Or Oberoi’s erudition and a nod of disbelief at his inability to detach irrelevant past practices from the uniqueness of the Guru’s message. As the Guru reminds us:
One may read cart-loads of books,
With caravan-loads of books to follow; One may study shiploads of volumes,
And heap them pile on pile in his cellars; One may read for years and years,
Right up to one’s last breath.
Of all things, it is a contemplative mind.That really matters;
All else is the fret and fever of egoistic minds.
Guru Granth Sahib, Rag Asa
Sadly, Dr Oberoi’s voluminous research shows no evidence of a contemplative mind. While many thousands of words are devoted to pre-Nanak social and religious practices in Punjab, little attempt is made to look at the Guru’s teachings. It was the Gurus themselves that mapped out the nature and extent of Sikh belief. It was the Gurus themselves who gave us the Sikh path through life. It was a path through the jungle of ritual, superstition and bigotry that passed for religion in India before the advent of Guru Nanak.
Dr Oberoi describes some of these superstitious and socially cruel practices in great detail. Inexplicably and paradoxically, however, he regrets their passing and the emergence of a distinct, egalitarian and enlightened approach to life based on the teachings of Guru Nanak.
If Dr Oberoi was simply ill-informed, the best response would be to ignore him; to wink owl-like at his professed learning. But Dr Oberoi holds the Chair of a reputable university. It is a Chair resourced in part by donations from the Sikh community. He was appointed to promote a wider understanding of Sikhism in the Western world. He has singularly failed to do so and as such, should go, or be asked to go to enable someone more loyal to the terms of appointment to do what he was appointed to do.
This criticism of Dr Oberoi has nothing to do with freedom of speech. No public or private company would look benignly on an employee who having been appointed to promote a particular product, misuses his position to denigrate It.
Having said that, it is right to recognise that Or Oberoi has de a lot of work in his research. His thesis provides us with a fascinating insight into the background, culture, rituals and practices in Punjab before the birth of Guru Nanak. We learn of the prevalence of witchcraft, idol worship, the worship of humans with supposedly godly powers. We read of widespread infanticide and the cruel sub- jugation of women.
If Or Oberoi had restricted his thesis to an academic account of this background there would be little cause for complaint. In its way it gives us a better understanding of the measure of Guru Nanak’s achievement in freeing the people of Punjab from the morass of superstitious practices. Instead, ignoring his own research, the author sees Sikhism as an unwelcome intruder into an idyllic scene of what he lumps together as “Sanatan Dhanna.”
Dr Oberoi devotes many pages of his thesis to describe periodic Sikh lapses from the teachings of Guru Nanak. Yet he sees this blurring of the Guru’s teachings as a good thing - a move back to the bliss of Sanatan Dhanna. Surprisingly, for someone who claims to be a practicing Sikh, Or Oberoi is critical of the Tat Khalsa and Singh Sabha revival movements for their work of reminding us of the purity and high ideals of Sikh teachings.
Where, when and how did Dr Oberoi get things so wrong? We can speculate on outside influences, particularly from those in India, who would like to see Sikhism disappear into Sanatan Dhanna, Hinduism or whatever. A more charitable explanation is, that like the owl-critic at the commencement of this review, Or Oberoi is mes-merised by his learning and intellectual ability to the exclusion of common sense and a recognition of the obvious. Even when the author makes an excursion to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, it is in a superior, academic and slighting way. For example, he refers to Guru Arjun Dev’s shabad commencing with the line; “I keep neither the Hindu fast nor the Muslim Ramadan,” and says that a similar sentiment was expressed by sant Kabir. Precisely Dr Oberoi! Guru Arjun Dev, as the compiler of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, could easily have excluded Kabir’s contnbution, but he wanted to show that people from different faith backgrounds could share similar understandings. While Sikhism delineates its own beliefs, the Gurus emphasized that religious truth is not exclusive to Sikhism. Dr Oberoi uses the word “boundaries,” in the title of his thesis, as a synonym for “barriers.” A moment’s reflection would show that the Gurus removed barriers to dialogue by including compositions from Hindu and Muslim saints in Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
Sikhism is critical of the principle of exclusivity found in many faiths that teach that theirs is the only path to God. If Dr Oberoi were to study Sri Guru Granth Sahib, he would see different faiths as mountain paths to the summit of an understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. We can start from different points and still meet as we approach the summit. This does not mean that all paths are equally viable. Nor does it mean that they are mutually exclusive. Some are more tortuous than others, and there are also “short cuts” that can set us back on our journey. Some would also see pointless academic research as an unrewarding diversion on our journey.
The Guru’s path is concerned with practicalities. It stresses tolerance and respect for other faiths. It teaches the oneness of the human race; the dignity and full equality of women; to earn by our own efforts and share what we have with others. It teaches us responsibility for the less fortunate in society. This is the Sikh path to an under-standing of God and the wonder of His creation. It is the clarity of these teachings that Dr Oberoi wishes to lose in the vague morass of subcontinent practices that he describes as Sanatan Dhanna.
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