The Siege Perilous (Hot Seat)
And the Divine Hypothesis
Dr Noel Q. King
(Some remarks on Dr Harjot Oberoi: The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994)
It was with rejoicing the public learned a few years ago that the Sikh community in Canada had fromGurdwara to Gurdwara across the country raised a sum of money, and that the Canadian Government hadmatched it, to set up a chair to be devoted to Sikh studies at Vancouver. The Sikh money was not big donor Rock-efeller/Ford stuff, but included the mites contributed among others by little old pious Sikh ladies who sometimes had difficulty meeting the gas bill. The government money of course was only the taxes paid by the Sikh public recycled “of thine own, give we unto thee,” as the ancient offertory prayer says. It was anoble effort, hopefully signifying a recognition of the need to promote for the good of all the cultural and civilisational gifts migrant communities brought to the larger community. There was good hope that this might also prove an attempt to let the community have an active and on-going partnership and symbiosis in its own University.
Then fell some years of pregnant silence. The kind of stupid mistakes, institutional chicanery, impossibleand arbitrary deadlines, outside interference subtly done, plus the manipulations of the old-boy network which every profession breeds, were probably not better nor worse at the University of British Columbiathan they are at Amritsar, or Delhi or Harvard or Santa Cruz. Equally serendipity and some Larger Planmay have operated.
Into this heritage and onto this siege perilous entered the author of the book before us. (It is the vacant chairin the King Arthur stories reserved for the purest and noblest of the Knights. Birth, bravery or skill in armsare apparently not the most important qualifications.) The book sets before us too the substance of the written material on which his doctoral committee and then in due course his tenure committee based theirdecisions. Quamdiu se bene qesserint, ‘as long as they behave themselves,” the tenured are with us for life.It is a great moment in a scholar’s career. But there is more to come. Every young scholar’s dream is tohave his or her book published by Oxford University Press, bulky enough to have the crest and motto infull printed across the back. For better or for worse, in bookshops from Timbuktu to Tokyo, anyone lookingfor books on Sikhism will be given this book and its kin, coming out of the same parampara (succession). It is a magnificent piece of the book producer’s art. On the dust cover a procession of Sikhs with elephant,arms and banner ascends to a door. On the back cover that door and entrant motif is repeated. The crestdoes not give the motto, Deus, dominus scientarium omnium, “God the Lord of all the sciences(knowledge)”, one of the slogans of the original Oxford, nor even Dominus illuminatio mea “The Lord ismy light”, the quotation from Psalms which appears on many crests of the University. The logo enshrinesan “O” which is a western version of the sign Indian mathematicians gave the world for shunya“nothingness, the void.” Dr. Oberoi’s middle initial is not given. It has presumably joined Dr. McLeod’s“Reverend.” (People who love “needling Sikhs” will forgive this one playful needle from an old friend.)
So far as the University game of critical scholarship is concerned, Dr. Oberoi can certainly do all thenecessary dances and tricks and name the critical names that should be named. Perhaps those of thefeminist hermeneutic and their repentant male chauvinist hangers-on will tell us Sikh Woman is strangelyoverlooked. If this is a legitimate accusation, it is a howling omission when dealing with the only majorreligion which from the beginning has given the feminine her due.
Again, if one has spent some time working in History as it has been enriched by recent thought inAnthropology and Sociology, there appears here to be an apparent lack of systematic consultation of the community’s oral tradition and anything of the spirit of participant observership. Those Victorian censuswriters were collecting religious groups as an entomologist collects beetles. They should not be taken tooseriously; camaraderie and communitas, All-join-in-for-Christmas or for-Muharram do not make Christiansor Muslims of us. Asking Dr. G. S. Mansukhani in his eighties, before his lamented death last year, questions about the old Siraiki festivals and pilgrimages firmly told one that Sikhs around Multan at leastknew what they were doing and who they were certainly from the early days of Maharajah Ranjit onwards.
Sikh voices lodging other criticisms can also be heard. Already one can record the faculty of the NorthAmerican Universities and their friends grunting: “Here those trouble-making Sikhs go again.” It will bedifferent to get them to listen for they are very sensitive and at the same time brilliantly clever with everytrick of argument on how to put down opponents. One has to be very patient and loving and follow thehadith of the Holy Prophet about swallowing one’s own spittle. The hypocrisy is nauseating, coming as itdoes from a world corporate body which accomodated the requests of Hitler, Stalin, Franco and theAmerican Cold-War mongers. “Donor money is given unconditionally, the University cannot be expectedto consult the wishes of the Sikh community.”
Interpreting the situation is worse than playing hop-scotch in a minefield. Part of it goes back to the earlydays of the self-styled European Enlightenment. In the mechanistic universe of the eighteenth century Godwas envisaged as detached Totality which wound up the universe like a clock-maker and withdrew. To tellwhy the path of a planet wobbled, one had no need of the God hypothesis. One can be sure that God tooagrees there is no need of such hypop- thesis. So for the sake of human intellectual growth and under suchconditions it was perhaps a service to leave God out. Sadly western philosophers and ethicists could notkeep up, so morals and ethics on a universal scale could not even have such support as religion once gavethem. During these centuries, individualism and the breakdown of the old corporate and family entities alsotook place in the west. Just as dentists and medical people built up a phalanx of weaponry to patch thingsup as our unnatural diseases mount, so critical scholarship assembled tools of greater or lesser utility tohelp our one-sided minds. It is at its weakest when it comes to dealing with the soul of a com- munity, revelation and God.
Sikhism is basically a teaching about God and community. It is not God as envisaged by westerners or indeed by any of the other great religious and pseudo-religious systems. It is not syncretistic but the greatest features of all the other systems are to be found in it and even then Sikhism goes beyond. (This isnot to belittle the others. Each has its own place.) God is immanent in all creation. God is the hukm(ordering, command,fiat) which brought into being and provides those laws of science which we arebeginning to understand. At the same time God is utterly transcendant and unknowable. Yet nam (name, very Being) and rada, bhana (will) are made known. The universe is the place where ttiese things areplayed out. This underlying Being of the Universe made herselflhimself/itself known directly to the tenGurus and the Guruship ‘was vested and lives on in the Book (Sri Adi Guru Granth Sahib) and in thecommunity. If an observer spends time steeped in the life of the Sikh people she or he will find itpermeated, directed, indeed obsessed by the Granth and the spirit of the Panth. Sikhs, from those whocannot read to those giving a lead in world communication, know large portions of it by heart and evenrepeat it continuously by committing portions to the sub-liminal. It is repeated as a Sikh comes to birth,murmured as a Sikh dies, it fills the heart continually. Who and what constructed the boundaries of theSikhs and laid down the fundaments oftheir ways? Who and what shaped their tradition and their ways,constructed the boundaries of their traditions, culture, identity and diversity? It was the belief in Waheguruworking through the Granth and the Panth.
The North American academic community grunts “Here go those Believers again.” We are not askingpeople to become believers, we are asking people who take it in hand to describe a community to take into account the basic factors that constitute the community for believers and we are merely asking whether abook which attempts to tell us what shaped the Sikh community and then in effect ignores the Book and theembodiment and working out of the Teaching in the Khalsa, can be considered adequate. One is not askingthat the author be a believer, we are asking for mere fairness and common decency in service to the Sikhsand the public that a book like this should clearly and without bias somewhat adequately state what theteaching is as it stands in the Book and in the broad consensus of the Sikh community over the generations.If this is not done, the unwary reader is a victim to any hypothesis which might serve as an explanation. Forexample, the suggestion that these things came to be as a result of the pushing and work of certainindividuals or of a group of men whereas it was the outworking of a Scripture through a total community.
These things are difficult to state coherently out of context. Just at this point there has come to hand Dr.Wilfred Cantwel Smith: What is a Scripture? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) which in a way sums upthe work of a series of academic studies by a number of scholars some of whom Dr. Oberoi mentions in hisbibliography. Dr. Smith consistently and brilliantly makes room for non-Muslims and mdeed nonbelieversto appreciate something of the glory of the Quran. He does the same one by one for the other Scriptures and religions he considers in his book. (He certainly accepts Sikh Scripture among the world Scriptures butdoes not in this particular work use it to illustrate the points he is making.) He proves it is possible withinthe strictest application of modern western University usage to make room for full emphasis to be given tothe divine hypothesis as envisaged by believers working itself out as a major element in a Scripture and a community.
There is no higher calling than to be a hermeneutist, someone who tries to explain things to both sides. Dr.Oberoi may wish to make a magnanimous public declaration and turn again to the work. If he wishes, theUniversity may be able by reshuffling to give him general South Asian and Community Studies work andre-appoint to the Sikh chair. But one must beg and beseech the two sides not to disintegrate into stand-offor hostility. The University may refuse to listen to what the Sikhs are trying to say about the divinehypothesis and community. The University may fall back on the narrowest interpretation of the Firstmendment and on University privilege to refuse “outside influence.” But Canada has a living traditioneven higher than that Amendment, and Sikhs include so many University women and men and they are thefirst among those who uphold professional and academic ‘freedom. Let not the Sikhs hive off into lawsuitsand separate institutions. Theirs is a whole-life tradition which participates fully in the life of itssurroundings and tolerates no hierarchy or castes. If they leave us and turn in on themselves, the wholeworld, not only the University, suffers loss. Perhaps even yet the great Game-player (Mahala 1, Shlok Varan te Vadhik page 1412), the Mighty Juggler (Mahala V, Suhi, page 736), can bring some good out ofthis heartbreaking situation.
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