The U.B.C. Sikh Chair - A Review
S. Iqbal Singh Sara
After three attempts earlier, at the Nehru University, New Delhi, and at Canberra, through Master’s seminar papers and doctoral dissertation, respectively, and 14 years later, HARJOT OBEROI, has just finished yet another tirade against the success of the Sikh people and the Sikh religion, in all its socio-political aspects, in emerging since the Sikh Raj, as a redoubtable world community and a stateless nation.
“The Construction of Religious Boundaries, (Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition)” is an eminent and impressive exercise in destructive scholarship published by the Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1994.
Not content with the earlier “Ritual to Counter-Ritual, Re-thinking of Hindu Sikh Relations”, the Canberra dissertation, and a subsequent assault executed at Berkeley, California, in 1987, “Popular Saints, Goddesses and Village Sacred Sites: Re-Reading Sikh Experience in the Nineteenth Century”, the author has displayed remark-able perseverance in furthering his favourite pursuit, of unmaking the Sikhs.
As the author confides in the Preface,his object in bringing forth his new book focuses on taking a thriving Sikh nation back to its beginnings. The book is devoted to the premise, “What did it mean to be a Sikh in the nineteenth-century?” as the Preface declares. And again, he contests, “Why did an influential set of Sikh leaders seek to purge established practices and establish a homogeneous religious community?”
Obviously, the author does not approve of the prevailing status of the Sikh people and their faith. Why, else, would he then, with all the literary and institutional resources at his disposal, through the governments in India and universities in America, expend 14 years to keep battering at the existing composition of the Sikhs and their institutions?
He seems also to have exclusive and secret proprietary rights to some mythological and mysterious attacking tool, he continuously employs. This is his elusive weapon, “Sikh Tradition”. For, whatever cannot be substantiated in fact or reality of the matter, he frequently falls back upon this illusory argument. This, in fact, is the strength of the caluminous propositions ludicrously advanced in the essays couched in scholastic pomposity. The characterizations and terminology and vocabulary are awesome, if not intimidating. But that is about all there is no substance or usefullness in any sense whatsoever. The grain of Sikh reality is left untouched under the chaff.
The author persists in reviving and continuing an imaginary conflict supposed to prevail between two segments amongst Sikhs, which he identifies as “Tat Khalsa” and “Sanatan Sikhs”. His thesis aims at resurrecting the evolutionary and natural episodes that culminated, way back, in formalising and structuring the present Sikh nation. He fights it, again and again. At page 396, he ascribes to the “Sanatan Sikhs” (read, Un-Khalsa), what he calls, the “Sikh Tradition” (read, anti-Khalsa). His Sanatan Sikhs are mouthing the argument, “If the Sikh Gurus had been keen on making Sikhs a separate religious community, they would have endowed its adherents with beliefs, lifecycle rituals, festivals and symbols radically different from those of Hinduism. Since they had not, it seemed logical that their only intention in initiating Sikh tradition was to remove tile social and moral evils which had seeped into the fabric of Hindu society… This was a position diametrically opposed to Tat Khalsa thinking. It further polarized Sikhs into two hostile camps, and this estrangment was to work itself out fully during the Akali movement in the 1920s. In denying the original and distinctive nature of the Sikh faith, Sanatan Sikhs became the worst enemies of the neo-Sikhs. They also came to be viewed as a part of the Arya Samaj and other Hindu bodies that refused to accept Sikhs as an autonomous religious community.” Author Oberoi then argues that the Sikh peasantry (he calls them ‘non-elites’) also resisted the newly evolved Sikh norms of the Khalsa quality. He acknowledges, however, that the village or rural population (the non--elites), the peasants, were unlettered. But the point he misses is that it was the Singh Sabha Movement and the Chief Khalsa Diwan, as its corollary, that initiated and carried on a steady campaign of educating the Sikh masses. They started innumerable Sikh schools, Colleges and other literary institutions, which all helped to make the ‘non-elite’ literate and amenable to the enlightened Sikhism in the current 20th century. The Sikh movements were all dynamic, and yielded positive results over many decades.
Then, in his conclusion, on page 416, while he concedes that religion is a ‘cohesive social force’, he still somehow makes a lame argument that the Sikh peasantry were not responsive to the Khalsa spirit instilled by Sikhism. He forgets that a large body of all protagonists in the struggle for Sikh pre-eminence, in the modern sense, was contributed by the peasantry. He admits finally, however that the Sikh endeavors in social and educational reform, spurred by the spirit of the Khalsa, matured into a cultural identity, which both the formal and non-formal Sikhs visualized and identified with, and made Sikhs a distinct group. This cultural reality had now come to be articulated at the level of everyday life.
Finally, he laments, that when the spirit of the Khalsa achieved aggrandizement, and “When this process finally reached a climax, it resulted in either the subordination of all other identities within the Sikh tradition or their complete estrangement from it”.
About the suggestion of “Sanatan Sikhism” there are obvious omissions and lapses in the argument. Author Oberoi puts the words in the mouth of the ‘Sanatan Sikhs’ about Sanatan Sikhism. It is suggested that the
Gurus did not set the Sikhs apart as a distinct group. It is stated that the only purpose of Sikh propagation must have been social reform and liberation of Hinduism from archaic practices. All this, of course, is utter non-sense.
The Sikh Gurus, even prior to the visible transformation of Sikhism into the Khalsa Panth, evinced every purpose and intention of consolidating the adherents into a distinct social, cultural and religious body. The regimens of daily life were illustrative. The “pangat” and “sangat” traditions were propitious and suggestive of what was coming. The missionary adventures into far flung places - quite untypical of the Hindu passivity - were forebodings of the impending upheaval. The first four Gurus gave every evidence of the organizational program for the Sikhs. The Fifth Guru, of course, carried the process a great deal further. At the same time, a large body of Punjab peasantry, the foreign-blood from Central Asia, the Jats and other invaders, embraced Sikhism. This is the main mass of the neo- Sikh Khalsa today. The process did not distinguish, however, between them and the Kshatrya or other castes who came into the Sikh fold. Great and chivalrous martial heroes sprang from non-Jat classes, for the edifica-tion of the Sikh’ nation. Again, in the 20th century, non-Jat leaders of the Sikh movements and historical episodes, such as Nankana Sahib saga, (won by Kartar Singh Jhabbar), made history. They are part of the “Constructed Religion” that so occupies author Oberoi.
The 6th, 9th and the 10th Gurus have made what Sikhism is finally today, in the context of author Oberoi’s contrariness, and his publications assailing the fact.
If the author must still maintain an argument for “Sanatan Sikhism” of which he seems uniquely conscious, then it must be some-thing quite against the grain of the Sikh polity.
The author concludes that the reality of the Sikh Khalsa today is the result of history. This is the Sikh Khalsa people. The term “Tat” (Khalsa) is a misnomer, denoting only an episode in past history, and inapplicable to the modern Sikh nation. The Sahajdharis (clean shaven) are still within this fold and part of it, on the merit of religious, social, cultural and political identification. “They also serve who only stand and wait”. Sikhs and Sikhism are dynamic forces.
No amount of nihilism and undermining of Sikhs, evident from the publication of “The Construction of Religious Boundaries”, authored by Harjot Oberoi, is going to make any difference to the resurgence of Sikhism and Sikhs.
The professed objectives of the Sikh Chair, at UBC, as covenanted in the Chair-formation Agreements starting from 16 March, 1985, are dealt a nasty blow, by the “research” of Oberoi as exemplified in his new thesis: “The Construction of Religious Boundaries”.
One clear objective for which the University acquired some $700,000.00 of public and private funds, donated by Sikhs and Multi-culture Canada, was:
“… and research shall be in keeping with the established academic standards and every possible effort shall be made to present the teachings and practices of Sikhism in an accurate manner.”
But, Oberoi, hired by the University, for the carriage of these objectives presumably, has an entirely different agenda of his own. What is it? Turn to page 47 of his nefarious book. Ensconced in his UBC Sikh Chair comfortably, Oberoi chants the death Mantra on the Sikhs and the Sikh community, as it is today, by this declaration:
“As a point of departure, this book in general and this chapter in particular dispute this oversimplified linear growth model. I argue for a series of highly complex ruptures, rapprochements and transitions which eventually resulted in what we recognize as the modern Sikh Community.”
This extraordinary assignment occurs following the contents preceding it, on the same page, which are as follows:
EARLY SIKH TRADITION
In conventional histories of the evolution of Sikh tradition it is common to treat the rise, spread and consolidation of Sikhism as a single unitary whole.
Such a narration, like much else in academic discourse, seeks to dispel disturbing contradictions and synthesises Sikh experience in order to give it coherence.
By this means the Sikh past, to use Nietzsche’s illuminating term, is made ‘painless’ for the minds of those who seek to live by it.
A pseudo-synthetic historiography comforts contemporary practitioners of the faith that their present vision of the world and their religious practices simply continue all that was enunciated and established by the founders of the Sikh tradition.
Paraphrased in simple terms, Oberoi is challenging the Sikh community, “Look, I do not care what your history and strengths are, you Sikhs and Sikh community, I will unravel all you believe in, I will destroy your belief systems (as part of my academic research, of course). I will show that you, almost 20 million Sikhs, are nothing but an off-shoot of Hinduism, that you are shreds of the enveloping vast ‘Indic cultural thinking’ of the predominant Hindu culture and Hinduism. You will not be recognized as a ‘pan-Indian community’. You do not exist in the international community. I am going to carry on what Swami Dayanand at the turn of the century had undertaken to do - to assail Sikhism, its Gurus, its beliefs, Granth and the Sikhs themselves. It is not yet over. The Sikh Chair, well, I am the academic who knows what to do with Sikhs and Sikhism. All of you there,go to hell:”
Oberoi then faces the fact of vast “Sikh Empire” first, to begin his demolition. This is what he says:-
“The dramatic political triumph of the Sikh movement in the second half of the eighteenth century gave the Sikhs a vast empire, but ironically the attainment of power and the process of state formation stalled the crystallization of a uniform Sikh identity.1
For much of its early history the Sikh movement, in line with indigenous religious thinking and practices - with the exception of an understandable emphasis on the soteriological2 teachings of Guru Nanak - had shown little enthusiasm for distinguishing its constituents from members of other religious traditions, or for establishing a pan-- Indian community.”
Oberoi, then, as in his previous dissertations, revels in repeating the inane assertions that “Sikh notions of time, space, corporeality, etc. etc., were firmly rooted in Indic cultural thinking”. He also discovers, and tells his audience, that “The territories in which the Sikhs lived, the languages they spoke, etc., were shared by numerous other communities in Punjab.”
To what purpose are these absurd statements?So what, if the Sikhs developed in a land that is the cradle of Western or Central Asian foreign invasions of “India, that is, Bharat”? The Muslims are as much a part of the Indian landscape as any other so called “Indian” community. Sikhs, in particular, emerged from the racial and spiritual synthesis that was always ongoing for centuries, from the earliest Buddhist times, 4th and 5th century B.C. How do all these events and history detract from the supreme fact of the ascendance of Sikhs as a people, and Sikhism as a religion?
Oberoi, of course, does not seem to believe, as do Sikhs, “who seek to live by it”. Even so, his specious and contrary exegesis falls far short of veracity. The arguments are misleading and un-factual. The thesis against Sikhism, as it exists and as it was, is a blend of prejudice and scorn. The urge to dismember Sikhism is the driving impulse of the entire anti-Sikhism “research”. Irrelevance is the only relevance.
Q. One has to ask, what then was the “Sikh Chair” at U.B.C. contracted for?
The antecedents of the occupant of the Chair, his training and associations, are overwhelmingly suggestive of the probability that it is, in fact, not a SIKH CHAIR at all. The works, the products, coming out of 4t in the past 6 years, since its inception in September, 1987, are indicative of this inference. There is a manifest ongoing agenda to undo the Sikhs and Sikhism, as best as can be achieved.
To advance his argument, Oberoi, attempts to differentiate between the alleged definitive ‘demarcations’ of Christianity from the very start of it, and the “early Sikh tradition”. He reasons that while Christian “church leaders”, soon after Christ, started “excommunicating” those “within the church who transgressed its systematized beliefs”, publicizing the boundaries of belief and practice “were quit alien to early Sikh tradition”.
What “early Sikh tradition”? If Oberoi is controverting the essential fact that, starting with the very first Guru, Guru Nanak, the teaching of Sikhism remained constant and logical, and its followers constantly sure-footed about their beliefs from the very start, then Oberoi is misstating or obfuscating the truths. Any analytical research would have confirmed that the “Khalsa Sikhs” (as Oberoi, labels them) were, in their beliefs as Sikhs, no different from the “Sikh tradition” Sikhs, (presumably meant to be pre-10th Guru period Sikhs).
The suppositions of author Oberoi, about the “early Sikh tradition” are his whole hypothesis. This hypothesis is arbitrary. The “early Sikh tradition” phraseology is perfectly vague. Yet he uses it as his authority for all the abrasive and “non-traditional” formulations of the Sikh history and the Sikh past. This is not only academically unfair, but also inflammatory to a mass of people.
Author Oberoi has to be reminded what he has obscured from the readers’ view.
He forgets the fact that Jesus was the only prophet after whom Christianity is founded. Sikhism had ten prophets. That is why his argument about Christianity and Sikhism is invalid. That is why it took Sikhism over 200 years, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Sikh Guru, to reach its visible culmination. The Sikh Chair ignores the fact that there never, at any time, was any divergence from the core precepts and beliefs of Sikhism. Guru Nanak preached exactly what Guru Gobind Singh, the last and Tenth prophet idolized. The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak - and his period, confusingly characterized by Oberoi as “early Sikh tradition”- reverberated the later verbalizations of the Tenth Guru Gobind Singh.
You just have to refer to the text of the Guru Granth, wherein Guru Nanak’s ‘Babarvani’ is included. Nanak was the first classic heralded, as a Sikh Guru, of protection of human rights. Provoke by the carnage of Punjab by the Moghal invader, Babar, in early sixteenth century, it was Nariak, who proclaimed:
je jeevay, pat lathi jae,
Sabh haraam, jeta kich khai:
If a man can compromise his honourable living, all sustenance to keep him alive ought to be “haraam”- illicit. Nanak was, therefore, preaching the necessity for upkeeping the human dignity; to have the will and strength to resist aggression, and to be able to repel it. This is exactly what the last Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, institutionalized as an article of faith for the followers of Sikhism. It is easy to see, thus, how the “Khalsa” or what Oberoi distinguishes as “Khalsa Sikhs”, became a visible and corporeal reality. The fundamental precepts and principles of Sikhism, thus, were carried on. They had never changed. Sikhs are what they always were. Not-withstanding the highly damaging and subversive mission of Oberoi’s “research”, the -reality is totally different from Oberoi’s mischievous propositions about Sikhism, belaboured in his publications.
Oberoi also does a disservice to what he calls the “Sahajdhari” Sikhs, as he distinguishes them from whom he calls, “Khalsa Sikhs”. His drive for “diversity” amongst Sikhs and Sikhism, seems to be intense as well as blind. For one thing, he accuses “Sehajdhari” Sikhs, as follows:
“Khalsa Sikhs were prohibited the use of tobacco, Sahajdhari Sikhs smoked. Khalsa Sikhs accepted a line of nine successors of Guru Nanak, Sahajdhari Sikhs often had a radically different version of the line of succession;
“Khalsa Sikhs began to recognize the Adi Granth as guru, Sahajdhari Sikhs were not given to accept a text as a guru and favoured living human gurus.”3
It would be hard to imagine a more callous mis-statement of facts. Yet Oberoi, as the occupant of the Sikh Chair, at the University of British Columbia, seems to be immune from ensure by the employing university. The accusations are intolerable, and are a gross insult to, and defamation of thousands of Canadian Sahajdhari Sikhs – some of whom even operate Sikh temples, with Guru Granth Sahib as the presiding deity as usual. Where is the ministry of state, responsible for Multiculturalism, Canada? Is this why the Canadian government provided Endowment assistance funds to the University? To hire a man, as destructive of the Sikh organization and social structure, as Oberoi’s writings illustrate him to be? Is this the “research” in Sikh Studies,that the Sikh masses in Canada envisioned?
Oberoi does not seem to have accepted the reality that being a “KHALSA SIKH” is not merely the outward form of “initiated Sikhs, who are thus baptized to appear as Khalsa Sikhs. Being a Khalsa Sikh, is also a state of mind and consciousness. The Sahajdhari Sikhs are, in point of fact, as Khalsa Sikh as Oberoi could imagine. The activity of the Sahajdhari (so-called) Sikhs is indeed eloquent in what has been taking place over the past few decades, all over the world. In many instances they are the spearhead of Sikh progress and achievement. It is utterly miserable for Oberoi to conceive, as an academic and an author, and describe Sahajdhari Sikhs in the manner that he has done. It demonstrates the sole motivation of propagating divisions and dissension amongst the Sikh community. But it is being done through a public institution, the University. It must stop.
Author Oberoi has abundantly established that what we have at the U.B.C. is not a “Sikh Chair” in Sikh Studies, at all. What the Chair is achieving is the dissemination of propaganda against the unity and cohesion and viability of the thriving world Sikh community. What the Chair is after, appears to be the tendentious literature calculated to disparage and malign Sikhs and their future; to shake and jolt their belief pattern, and to subvert their programs for future development and progress. It is a planned part of the promotion of the “Indic culture” by repression of the Sikh religion and history.
What a difference it could have made, if in pursuit of the intended objectives and the hopes of Multiculturalism, Canada, the Chair had undertaken appropriate studies to highlight the uniqueness of Sikhs and Sikhism in the protection and safeguarding of human rights. Some one in this Sikh Chair could have emphasized, through research, for instance, that the martyrdom of the 9th Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur, was the direct consequence of the Sikh Panth extending protection to Kashmiri Brahmins from forcible conversion to Islam. Sikhs have always laid down their lives, so that the oppressed, and the weak could have a chance to live. But that will have to be for the research of somebody other than Oberoi.
Oberoi has not spared from indignity and trivialization the Sikh sacred scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, either. In his cocoon of “research”, he attempts to scandalize the Guru Granth, the God- In-spired scripture, believed in by the Sikhs, as follows:
“Although in the present state of research it is hard to specify the factors that prompted the Fifth Guru of the Sikhs to collate an anthology of devotional literature, it is easier to discuss its impact.”
(Page 49, ‘The Construction of Religious Boundaries,)4
Which other world religion has been made to suffer mutely such vile attack upon its divine scripture? Its gospel, universally so acknowledged? Is the Sikh Chair so ideal a spot to choose to mount an “open season” on Sikhs and Sikhism?
Then again5, Oberoi, continues his treatment of the Sikh Sacred scripture, as follows:
“While propagandists of modern Sikhism see in the collation of the Adi Granth in 1603-4 under Guru Arjan a powerful public declaration of the separation of the Sikh Panth from other religious traditions, historically it is difficult to admit such an interpretation.
“It was scarcely uncommon, in medieval India, to compile anthologies of devotional literature called gutkas or pothis. Their compilers and readers did not perceive these texts as essentially statements of sectarian intent.
“While the Adi Granth is the most voluminous and structured of the early seventeenth-century devotional anthologies - features that can be explained by the institutional successes of the Sikh movement and its growing secular resources - it was certainly neither the first nor the last such collection.”
There may be a thousand Gutkas, but there is only one Adi Granth. At this point, Oberoi resorts to some mysterious “manuscripts” and mentions Gopal Narayan Bahura’s “Surdas Ka Pada”, and says this anthology was compiled in Rajasthan 21 years before the Adi Granth. He acknowledges that bulk of it occupies the compositions of the “saint-poet Surdas”, and other poets, and it is identified as “the Fatehpur manuscript of 1639 V.S. (1582 AD.)” There may be a host of Hindu subcultures and sects, but only one Sikhism. Oberoi draws a distinction. He says while the Adi Granth may have now become “a key cultural marker of Sikh ethnicity, it would be a gross misinterpretation to view it in the same vein for the early seventeenth century”. Why? one may ask him. The Adi Granth was always the same to Sikhs. He charges that:
“Its heterodox textuality and diverse contributors were far more the manifestation of a fluid Sikh identity than a signifier exclusivity”6
His slander and calumny attacking the Sikh belief in their sacred scripture, draws upon almost surgical dexterity to achieve attempted expose of the facies underlying the research “object” (the Granth). Because, he says about his technique:
“If our object is to understand the complex nature of modern Sikh identity, it will not do to mix modern Sikh understandings and practices with past patterns: it is critically important to disaggegate the two and locate the precise period of their origins.” (p. 55).
What, one may ask, is the Sikh Chair trying or hoping to achieve by Granth’, as one volume, is equally unknown. As we said in the beginning, if the foundation becomes questionable, the superstruc-ture built upon it automatically losses its validity.
There is no historical evidence for linking the Dasam Granth in its present form, either with the Tenth Master, or with the literature thrown or lost, or with the name of Bhai Mani Singh, or with any known or tangible material existing for over a century before it. The recent story of a granth presented by the Tenth Master and its existence is also of the same brand. For, it has been now introduced three centuries after the alleged event.
In any case, is this the kind of “research” and work that the objectives of the Sikh Chair Agreements had intended? The Sikh community never contracted for beings subjects to such abuse of the Sikh Chair’s activity. Nor could the Ministry of Multiculturalism have bargained for such strong-arming of a monority ethnic community, with state funds.
Is the Endowment Trust fund at U.B.C. now a perennial disinformation resource for the victimization of Sikhs in Canada and elsewhere?
In defies credulity that the University of British Columbia could choose to become a privy to the commission of such outrage against Sikhs and Sikhism. The stock argument of “academic freedom would not go anywhere, in this instance. Acedemic freedom can never be unlimited and abusive of facts and reality. No research chair could ever be conceived as the centre of dehumanization of a faith. Yet this is exactly, what the Sikh Chair at UBC is engaged in accomplishing.
The Sikhs in North America have their task all cut out for them. The activity of Oberoi as the Sikh chair, nor or the other “researchers” of the MacLeod agenda, can be stomacted. The University campuses must decline to become the breeding grounds for the planned agenda of disinformation against the Sikh community here and abroad.
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