‘Construction of Religious Boundaries’
Dr Bhagat Singh
Dr Harjot Oberoi’s work, ‘The Construction of Religious Boundaries,’ is mainly based on a very wrong assumption that “A pseudo-synthetic historiography comforts contemporary practitioners of the (Sikh) 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… I argue for a series of highly complex ruptures, rapprochements and transitions which eventually resulted in what we recognize as the modern Sikh com- munity”(p.47).
Here we mean to tell the author that the religious practices enunciated and established by the founders of Sikhism have continued to the present day. It is matter of history that Guru Nanak’s mission has been regarded as the promulgation of a new religion that remains distinct and complete in itself. The pattern of religious life produced by him endured unaffected over the centuries. The Guru did not identify himself with the existing forms of religion. He condemned and discarded the contemporary forms of religious belief and ritualistic practices of the Hindus altogether, and he was convinced that he had something more valuable to offer. He adopted for himself and for his followers his own revealed composition. This clearly meant the rejection of the old Hindu scriptural authority and also Hindu deities and the scriptures of the contemporary religions. Wherever Guru Nanak went during his missionary travels he established sangat with instruc-tion to his followers to build dharamsalas where they could regularly meet and sing the Lord’s praises and remember the Guru’s teachings. The centres of his missionary activities included those established in Kamrup (Assam), Bihar, Cuttack, Sur at, Nanakmata (in the Kumaon Hills), Khatmandu, Jallalabad and Kabul.
The Guru’s Sangat and Pangat aimed at levelling the invidious distinctions between man and man. Guru Nanak outright rejected caste system on which the structure of social and religious life of the Hindus Was based. The religious doctrine and practices introduced by Guru Nanak and his successors came down to us with the same undiminished emphasis against the thinking of Dr Oberoi.
The author Oberoi wrongly remarks that, “just as there is no fixed Guru Nanak in the Janam Sakhis there is no fixed Sikh identity in the early Sikh period” (p. 56). ‘Fixed Guru Nanak’ must be searched in his bani (spiritual composition) and not in his Janam Sakhis. Sikh identity was enshrined in Guru Nanak’s challenge to the use of various Hindu rituals and in the introduction of many practices that raistd the dignity of man and status of woman. Dabistan informs us that “the disciples of Nanak do not read the mantras of the Hindus. They do not venerate their temples or idols nor do they esteem their avtars. They have no regard for the Sanskrit language which according to the Hindus is the speech of gods”.1
In Sikhism, rituals do not so much defme Sikh identity as the ideology and the deeds practised. When doctrinal factors of a religion are avoided or ignored and only sociological factors are emphasised, the religion is the casualty. Oberoi failed to notice the development of Sikhism under Guru Nanak’s successors. During the two centuries under the Gurus, the Sikh institutions were mainly the interpretation or extension of Guru Nanak’s ideals with no let-up in the following period. In the words of Dr Gokal Chand Narang, “Guru Gobind Singh himself, in fact, as well as his work, was the natural product of the process of evolution that had been going on ever since the foundation of Sikhism. The harvest which ripened in the time of Guru Gobind Singh had been sown by Guru Nanak and watered by his successors. The sword which carved the Khalsa’s way to glory was undoubtedly, forged by Guru Gobind Singh, but the steel had been provided by Guru Nanak”.2
Guru Angad condemned ascetism, popularised Gurmukhi letters and preserved the spiritual compositions of Guru Nanak. Guru Angad and Guru Amar Das enthusiastically pursued and promoted the institution of langar. Under the third Guru, sangats spread far and wide. He divided his spiritual domain into twenty two manjis or bishoprics or dioceses under the charge of devoted Sikhs who preached the mission of the Sikh Gurus. Guru Amar Das initiated the Sikhs into new ceremonies regarding birth, marriage and death and forbade the Hindu practices of sati, purdah. According to Indubhusan Banerjee, “Guru Angad had, no doubt, done something to give the Sikhs an individuality of their own but it was under Guru Amar Das that the difference between a Hindu and a Sikh became more pronounced and the Sikhs began gradually to drift away from the orthodox Hindu society and form a class, a sort of new brotherhood by themselves”. 3
Guru Ram Das gave the Sikhs a rallying centre at Amritsar where they could occasionally meet and maintain closer relationship with their brothers in faith. Guru Arjun, the fIfth Guru, gave the Sikh scripture in the form of the Adi Granth, which embodies, in addition to his own writings, the compositions of his predecessors and a number of Indian saints.
The author Oberoi perversely observes that, “its (Adi Granth’s) heterodox textuality and diverse contributors were far more the manifestation of a fluid Sikh identity than a signifier of exclusivity”
The author’s charge regarding ‘heterodox textuality’ and ‘diverse contributors’is preposterous. He does not seem to know that the compositions of the outside contributors were not accepted haphazardly. Guru Arjun kept certain spiritual ideology in mind. For him the esssential thing was the expression of fundamental truth and…the harmonious unity of spiritual emotion and thought. And thus only those compositions that agreed with his religious doctrine and came up to his standard were incorporated in it without any other consideration than that the contributor must be an enlightened soul.
The Gurus whose compositions were incorporated in the holy Granth could not be considered as ‘diverse contributors’. They were the same in spirit though different in body. This fact has been again and again impressed upon. The Guru continued to be the central unifying personality and in spite of change in succession he was held to be one and the same as his predecessor. Satta and Balwand, the
Guru’s bards, sang: “Lenha, the scion of Guru Nanak exchanged bodywith him and took possession of his throne Lehna had the same light, the same method, the master merely changed body. The wise being, Guru Nanak, descended in the form of Amar Das Thou Ram Das art Nanak; thou art Lehna, thou art Amar Das, so I deem them”.4
Bhai Gurads (the amanuensis of Guru Arjun) also wrote about the oneness of the Sikh Gurus known to him.
Zulfiqar Ardistani Maubid (popularly known as Mohsin Fani), the author of Dabistan-i-Mazahib, completed in 1645, and a close acquaintance of Guru Hargobind, the sixth Nanak, very correctly understands the fact that “the succeeding Sikh Guru inherits the spirit of his predecessor. When Nanak left his body he absorbed himself in Guru Angad who was his most devoted disciple and Guru Angad entered the body of Amar Das, and Ram Das in the same way got united withArjun Dev. And people said that whoever does not acknow-ledge or believe in Guru Arjun to be the very self of Guru Nanak becomes manmukh or a non-beleiver. The Sikhs beleived that all the Gurus are identical with Nanak”.6
In the holy Guru Granth Sahib, we read all Gurus writing themselves as Nanak. The author of Dabistan informs us that Guru Hargobind in his letters to him always signed himself as Nanak. The author says that he was in correspondence with Guru Hargobind. Similarly, Guru Gobind Singh wrote about his predecessors, “Know Guru Angad to be Nanak, Guru Amar Das to be Angad, Guru Ram Das to be Amar Das, Guru Arjun to be Ram Das, and Guru Hargobind to be Arjun”.7-8 Guru Nanak’s spirit was believed to be working in all his successors. So to talk of heterodox textuality and diverse contributors in respect of the Guru contributors is irrelevant.
It is enlightening to note that the compositions of Bhai Gur-das, a savant or saint Paul of Sikhs whose vars were evaluated by the Guru as the key to Guru Granth Sahib were not incorporated in the holy Granth, perhaps being not fully in tune with the spirit of holy compilation. Similarly, the compositions of some Bhagats as Kanha, Chhaju, Shah Husain and Peelu were not accepted by the complier.
The tenets enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib were final and inviolable fundamental laws of Sikhism, to be in no case altered by any Sikh people singly or collectively.
Dr Oberoi argues that, “although in the present state of re-searchit is hard to specify the factors that rompted the fifth Guru of theSikhs to collate an anthology of devotional literature (The Adi Qranth), it is easier to discuss its impact” (p. 49). These remarks exhibit the lack of the researcher’s knowledge of Sikh history and Sikh religion. According to Macauliffe, Guru Arjun strongly felt the need of compil-ing the holy Granth for the spiritual guidance of the Sikhs and for the unity of their faith.9 Secondly, he realised that it was absolutely necessary to secure the revealed compositions of the Gurus from adulteration which was easily possible to happen due to the oral recitation of the same. And thirdly, to grow as an independent community and a distinct religion, the Sikhs needed a scripture of their own.
Author Oberoi continuing his tirade against the sacred scrip-ture of the Sikhs writes, “While propagandists of modern Sikhism see in the collation of the Adi Granth in 1603-04 under Guru Arjun a powerful public declaration of the separation of the Sikh Panth from other religious traditions, historically it isto admit such an interpretation” (p. 54). Guru Arjun did not need to care about the other religious traditions or make any public declaration as referred to by Oberoi. He was exclusively concerned with what Sikh doctrine was. He compiled the holy Granth not as a challenge to other religions but as a sacred anthology of Sikh scriptural compositions whose appeal did not change with the passage of time. The sublime truth embodied in the Adi Granth is eternal which elevates the reader and the listener spiritually and morally.
Guru Gobind Singh formally bifuracted the Guruship, vesting the spiritual part of it in the Adi Granth as finalised by him and the secular one in the Khalsa. The former was to be the Guru Granth and the latter to be the Guru Panth. The bani had been given the status of the Guru earlier by Guru Ram Das who had said that there was no difference between the Guru and his revealed word. The Sikhs had already been told emphatically that the bani (spiritual composition) is the Guru and the Guru is the bani (his word), and the bani contains all the virtues of righteousness. (Bani Guru, Guru hai bani, with bani amrit sare).
Oberoi talks of numerous gutkas and pothis (p.54) prevalent in medieval India. Whatever their intent - sectarian or otherwise – the Sikh scripture - the Adi Granth-has nothing to do with that or the motives of their compilation. About the Adi Granth Oberoi says, “It was certainly neither the first nor the last such collection” (p. 54). How does this observation affect the spiritual glory and eternal spiritual appeal of this holy Granth? Does the author mean to place it among the gutkas or the pothis or he aims at an attempt to assail its noble status? The Adi Granth was always the same to the Sikhs, unchanged and sublime in appeal forever.
Arnold Toynbee, an eminent British historian, believes that, “ the Sikh religion and its scripture, the Guru Granth, will have some-thing special of value to say to the rest of the world”. It seems, in all probability that Oberoi has not studied the Sikh holy scripture at all. That is why he never quotes froni it. It is a pity that he makes a lot of Comments about the Guru Granth Sahib without knowing as to what it contains.
Oberoi writes that while “the Adi Granth has 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” (p. 55). Does it mean that this holy Granth had different levels of guidance and message for the Sikhs or with the passage of time its contents and meanings underwent changes or alterations that consequently affected its appeal and its status in the eyes of the Sikhs. The author’s observation is absurd and totally irrelevant and betrays his lack of insight into the predominantly stable ethos of the holy Sikh scripture over a long period of time. His comments on the holy Granth, at places, border on blasphemy in which the young researcher, intentionally or unintention-ally, indulges. We clearly see that the first five Gurus gave their followers a well defined religious doctrine, religious and social practices, their own places of pilgrimage and holy scripture.
Under Guru Hargobind, the Sikhs assumed additional responibilities of self-defence. The Guru had to play a dual role of a mir (an army leader) and a pir (a Guru). The Sikhs called the Guru the Sacha patshah, the true king as against the temporal king, who ruled only by the force of arms and concerned himself with the worldly actions of the people.10 He introduced congregational prayers which added further religious fervour and social cohesion among the Sikhs and strengtheqed unity and co-operation between them.11
Guru Tegh Bahadur registered his peaceful resistance against the policy of forcible conversion. Guru Gobind Singh felt that the Sikhs needed further internal cohesion and external defence. Retaining the basic ideas of administering pahul to the Sikhs, a new ceremony of giving the nectar of the double-edged sword as introduced in place of the old practice. Guru Gobind Singh strengthened the organization of the community by making steel an integral limb of a Sikh to fight tyranny and injustice. He invested the panth with his personality, or in other words, the Khalsa panth was to be the Guru in future. The Guru said, “I have bestowed the Guruship on the Khalsa the Khalsa is my very self and I shall always live in the Khalsa”. As told earlier the spiritual Guruship was invested in the Adi Granth.
Oberoi’s contradictions again and again leave a sickening effect upon the indulgent reader’s mind. Relating to the late 18th century, he observes that “fmally the Adi Granth had not become the exclusive focus of Sikh religiosity (p.90). It is a reckless statement indeed and again he argues that “in the unsettled conditions of the eighteenth century Khalsa Sikhs were in desperate need of cohesive principle that would replace the institution ofliving Gurus … An older principle of Guru Granth or scriptural Guru was successfully put into service by Khalsa Sikhs… In the absence of any clear leadership within the Sikh ranks, the doctrine of Guru Granth served as a useful sub-stitute for the line of Sikh Gurus by providing much needed cohesion for a panth faced with political turmoil and serious internal dissentions… For a social historian it is unimportant whether or not Gobind Singh formally declared the Adi Granth a Guru”. (pp. 69-70). The author, sadly enough, ignores and belittles the role of Guru Gobind Singh. To him the need of the Guru was just for political purposes and for the unity of the Sikhs. He considers the Guru Granth Sahib just a useful substitute for the line of Sikh Gurus and thus lowers its position as a Guru.
Oberoi writes that the Sikh peasantry also resisted the mainly evolved Sikh norms of the Khalsa quality. The author seems to be ignorant of the marvellous contribution made by the Sikh peasantry to the cause of Sikhism throughout the span of five centuries of Sikh history. Guru Arjun converted almost the entire peasantry of the Majha tract of the Punjab, and by the time of Guru Hargobind they had become deeply devoted Sikhs. They fought the battles which the Guru was forced to fight against the Mughals. Soon thereafter, the Malwa and Doaba peasantry also embraced Sikhism. When after return from the Eastern India, Guru Tegh Bahadur went to the Malwa villages to meet the Sikhs, crowds after crowds came to see him wherever he went. According to Ghulam Husain, the author of ‘Siyar ul-Mutakherin’ (1781), the official news-writer, conveyed to Delhi about 1673, that the Guru was inciting the Malwa peasantry to revolt against the govern-ment.12 Though the report was a total lie, at least it proves that the peasantry was the staunch follower of the Sikh Gurus. Later the Punjab peasantry predominantly participated in the battles of Guru Gobind Singh.
When Banda Singh Bahadur, after having been duly baptized at the hands of Guru Gobind Singh, came to the Punjab from the Deccan he carved out a strong social base in the villages to fight against the repression of the Mughals and to make a determined bid for the liberation of the land from the oppressive masters. We find a marked role of the peasants and the zamindars in the activities of Banda Singh who moved almost unchecked in the major parts of the Punjab. When he was captured in 1715 and taken to Delhi, all of his 740 companions, who were mostly peasants, refused reprieve contemptuously whenever offered. They were deeply attached to Sikhism.
Sikh movement during the times of Zakariya Khan, Mir Mannu and Ahmad Shah Durrani was mainly manned by the Sikh peasantry. Most of the members of the daIs and the Dal Khalsa were the Sikh peasants, who were along with their leaders, amritdhari Sikhs. None could join their derahs without having been duly initiated to Sikhism. All the Sardars (rulers) of the Sikh Misls, including Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s predecessors, belonged to peasantry.
At no stage of Sikh history we find the Sikh peasantry faltering in their faith in Sikhism. To argue arbitrarily that after rising to the top by a ladder of religious faith and distinct identity the Sikh peasantry kicked the ladder down is historically unacceptable.
Oberoi suggests that there were vague and unclear identities of the Sikhs till the closing years of the 19th century. One feels sad to note that this author is always desperately in search of an opportunity to make a pronouncement that is anything but the truth. There could be nothing more unhistorical than the author’s above comment. As it has already been observed, the Sikh identity had absolutely become clear during the time of the earlier Sikh Gurus. The Khalsa rahit was promulgated among the Sikhs by Guru Gobind Singh and it was strictly adhered to after him. The Mughal government knew it for sure that the order of the Khalsa was the direct consequence of Guru Nanak’s teachings. The Sikhs had the same unbedimmed identity under all the Gurus and in the following period.
If the Sikhs had no clear identity then to whom Emperor Bahadur Shah referred when he gave his edict:
Nanak prastan ra har ja kih ba-qatl rasanand.13
[An edict ordering a wholesale genocide of the Sikhs (the worshippers of Nanak) wherever found]. The same order was repeated a few years later by Emperor Farrukh Siyar.
Who were these people, who under Banda Singh’s leadership, shook one of the mightiest empires in the world to its very foundation with such terrible force that it was never able to re-establish its authority as firmly as before? Who were these people for whose heads, prices had been fixed under Zakariya Khan (1726-45)? For whom did the punitive parties of Zakariya Khan comb the villages and forests and who were the people brought in chains every day, batches after batches and publicly beheaded at Lahore at Nakhas (horse market) now called Shahidganj? And who were these people about whom once Zakariya Khan said, “By God, they live on grass and claim kingship.”14 Who were these people before whose religious zeal and determination, the tact and skill of the greatest military genius of the time in Asia Ahmad Shah Durrani, 1748-67) gave way and at whose hands, meeting his Waterloo in the Punjab, the Durrani bowed out of the province in abject humilia-tion? Who were these people who expelled from the Punjab its three masters: the Mughals, the Afghans and the Marathas and established their principalities, and later under Ranjit Singh a kingdom as big as that of France? Did these people have vague and unclear identities or it was just the figment of author Oberoi’s imagination?
Oberoi writes that, “the history of Sikh tradition, radically different from, say, Christianity, which from the very beginning had a dominant concern with demarcating believers and non-believers. Christian church leaders had begun to excommunicate those within the church who transgressed its systematized beliefs. Such modes of ex-clusion, of publicizing the boundaries of belief and practice, were quite alien to early Sikh tradition.” (p. 48).
Let Oberoi be informed that in Sikhism also, transgression in belief was not tolerated. A few examples would not be out of place here. Guru Har Rai’s elder son, Ram Rai, was deprived of his position at the Guru darbar for intentionally giving a wrong interpretation of a verse from Guru Nanak’s bani at Delhi when he attended Emperor Aurangzeb’s court to answer his questions about Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Har Rai never permitted Ram Rai to see him for the rest of his life for want of truth and courage.
Guru Arjun’s elder brother Pirthia and Guru Har Rai’s elder brother Dhirmal, were deprived of their privileges because of their anti-Sikh stances.
According to Senapat, a poet at Guru Gobind Singh’s darbar,the Sikhsangats played an important part in the life of a Sikh in keeping him to the right path. It was fully competent to punish or forgive his faults and lapses.15 Even ordinary breaches of the rules of conduct could be taken up for action in the local sangats and no person, however highly placed he might be, was considered above the jurisdiction of these conclaves. When a guilty person presented himself before an assembly for punishment, he stood with folded hands at a place where shoes were put off. His case was referred to a commission of five, who reported their decision to the congregation for the confirmation of their verdict. Guru Gobind Singh punished the Sikh masands who indulged in anti-Sikh and corrupt practices.
Jassa Singh, ruler of the Ramgarhia Misl, was charged with killing his new-born daughter. He was excommunicated. But later, on his expressing remorse, he was excused and readmitted into the fold of Sikhism.
No Sikh could ever consider himself above the Panth. The supreme example of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s surrender to the verdict of the sangat is provided, as the tradition goes, by his readiness to receive punishment at Akal Takht for a moral lapse on his part. He confessed his guilt, and punishment ‘of flogging was announced. At the last moment, he was spared the punishment in view of his honouring the authority of the congregation. Many more examples of such punish-ment in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries can be given. In the 20th century some top-ranking leaders of the Sikh community, Sikh mini-sters, chief ministers, central ministers, Sikh scholars and eminent writers were called to the dock by the Sikh sangats at Akal Takht for their anti-Sikh activities and were punished with excommunication or voluntary community service as cleaning the utensils in the Gurdwara langars and dusting the shoes of the Sikh votaries in conformity with old traditions. None could ever flout the verdict of the Panth. The main object of the punishment was to reform the guilty rather than condemning him or permanently throwing him out of the community.
So, it is wrong to believe that transgressors in Sikh faith could get away with it.
It is amusing to note that Oberoi contradicts himself within a space of 24 pages of his work. He writes, “The dramatic political triumph of the social movement in the second half of the 18th 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.”(p. 47)
He writes again, “The increasing political power of the Khalsa allowed it to begin recasting Sikh society after its own image. During the course of the 18th century, tens of thousands of Sikhs took to the Khalsa identity, some in pursuit of worldly power and others out of religious conviction.” (p. 71).
According to the first statement, the attainment of power, by the Sikhs in the 18th century, obstructed the emergence of a uniform Sikh identity. And according to the second, due to the rise of the Sikh political power in the 18th century, alarge number of people assumed the uniform Khalsa Sikh Identity.
In these two statements, the author alone can better tell us as to where he actually stands.
What is ‘dramatic’, as Oberoi notices above, about the ultimate success of the long-drawn Sikh war for their independence from the foreign masters? It was the inevitable consequence of the life and death struggle of nearly half a century under the stewardship of a galaxy of valiant and competent Sikh leaders. But, for the Sikh victory the credit should legitimately be given to the entire community, not to any individual. That would be against the spirit of the whole enterprise. This struggle brought out the internal strength of the community which not only survived half a century of persecution and war, it created a state.
By introducing Sakhi Sarvar,Gugga and goddesses among the Sikhs. The author is unmeritedly adulterating and profusely cor-rupting the pure Sikh religious practices as prescribed by the Gurus. Those who followed the practices of the non - Sikh cults could not be Sikhs. It is a fact-plain and simple. The following example would suffice to drive home the point.
Macauliffe writes that Manj, a follower of Sakhi Sarvar (a Muslim saint), prayed to Guru Arjun to make him a Sikh. The Guru told Manj that Sakhi Sarvar’s way was easy and that of Sikhism was difficult to practise. He could not sail in two boats at the same time. Either he should continue to worship the shrine of the saint or accept Sikhism. Manj demolished the niche appropriated to Sakhi Sarvar’s worship in his house and returned to the Guru and became a Sikh.16
H.A. Rose tells in his ‘Glossary of Castes and Tribes in the Punjab’ that the Sikhs in the villages were not favourably disposed towards the Hindu worshippers of Sakhi Sarvar.
Surprisingly enough, Oberoi devotes hardly a couple of pages to Guru Nanak and his teachings in his book but devotes fourteen pages to Sakhi Sarvar (pp. 147-160). This reflects his tilted and lop-sided approach to the subject in hand. He also links Gugga Pir, a person known for overpowering snakes or curing his worshippers of snake and scorpion bites. Gugga was worshipped in the form of a snake. The Sikhs had absolutely nothing to do with Gugga who preached non-Sikh practices. The Gurus Granth strongly rejected the worship of the Pirs and Devis. We have repeated references of such rejections in the Guru Granth Sahib.
Oberoi names Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Raja Fateh Singh Ahluwalia as having undertaken pilgrimage to Jawalamukhi in the Kangra district to worship at the Devi’s shrine. And the Maharaja gifted large amounts of money to the shrine and had its roof gilded (pp.202-03). The district of Kangra was under Ranjit Singh. He showed respect and regards to other religions and their shrines,’ and donated funds to identify himself with his subjects. He had some Hindu and Muslim ladies also in his harem whv had been allowed to retain their faiths. He got constructed, at state expense, temples and mosques for their use. Earlier Guru Hargobind had built a mosque at Hargobindpur for the use of Muslims at his own expense. This showed toleration and regard for the religion of others and not that the Maharaja had departed from his own faith.
It is not understandable as to what Oberoi aims to infer from a visit to Jawalamukhi by Ranjit Singh who in the words of Osborne (who visited the Maharaja in 1839)” was a devout believer in the doctrines and punctual observer of the ceremonies of his religion (Sikhism). The Granth, the sacred book of the Sikhs, was constantly read to him and he must have been familiar with the moral precepts it inculcated.”17
The Maharaja referred to his government as Sarkar-i-Khalsa. All correspondence was carried in the name of the Khalsa and all ceremonies were performed in the presence of the Holy Book-The Guru Granth Sahib. He issued coins in the name of the Guru and visited Harmandir Sahib (Amritsar) at short intervals tp pay homage. The princes were addressed as Khalsa Kharak Singh, Khalsa Sher Singh, Khalsa Naunehal Singh, etc.
Feteh Singh Ahluwalia was a staunch Sikh and performed his nit-nem (daily prayer) even in the battlefield. He got all his undertak-ings endorsed by the Guru Granth Sahib.
Does Oberoi, in the heart of his hearts, believe these rulers to be the worshippers of Devi?If he does, 1have every reason to deeply pity him.
The Hindu Sanatanists have never been accepted as Sikhs by the Sikh Community. The Sanatanists did not believe in Sikhism because of their Hindu practices and beliefs. Oberoi’s considering these Sanatanists among the Sikhs is misconceived. The Sanatanists, according to the author, gave the same status to the Dasam Granth which Guru Gobind Singh gave to the Adi Granth. These Sanatamsts “paid the same attention to Puranic literature as they would to the Adi Granth.” Could, by any stretch of imagination, Gulab Singh Sanatani be considered a Sikh who believes, “Sikh faith is the true Sanatan religion. The four Vedas are also the religious books of the Sikhs”. (p.102). A Sanatanist author of ‘Gurbilas Chhevin Patshahi’ portrays Guru Hargobind “as the twenty-fourth reincarnation of Vishnu”. Koer Singh, author of “Gurbilas Patshahi Dasvin” also views the Guru “as a reincarnation of Vishnu”. (pp.102-03). These Sanatani authors were Hindus trying their hands at Sikhism in a bid to counteract the Sikh identity.
“The Dasam Granth becomes paradigmatic for the entire religious culture of Sanatan Sikhs” (pp.98), observes Oberoi. For holding such views the Sanatanists seek support from the Dasam Granth’s mythical narratives like those of the goddesses known by the names of Chandi, Durga, Bhavani and Kalka, who helped the gods fight battle against demons and ultimately emerged victorious. Some stirring stories from Ramayan, Mahabharat and Puranic literature have also been given in the Dasam Granth. But the author himself wrote.
“I have no other object behind this composition except to infuse war-like spirit and inspire people to fight a holy war against the eneInies of righteousness and goodness.”
Dasam Katha bhagaut ki bhakha kari banai Aver vasna naha dharam yudh ko chai
To quote Malcolm, “Guru Gobind Singh wrote an account of his own in terms more calculated to inflame the courage of his fol-lowers than to inform the historian.”18
To talk of the Sanatanists and to use the term ‘Sikh’ with them is just losing a judicious sense required to differentiate between a Hindu and a Sikh. Let Oberoi hear Guru Gobind Singh say:
“I do not invoke the name of Ganesh
1 never worship Krishan or Vishnu” (Krishna Avtar)
“Ram and Rahim, the Puran and Quran express various opinions but 1 accept none of them. The simritis, the Shastras and the Vedas speak of many mysteries, but I recognise none of them”. (Rama Avtar- 863).
These Sanatanists, who had taken possesion of the Sikh shrines to the extent of barring the entry of the Rahitia Sikhs into the Golden Temple and other Gurdwaras, could not be the Sikhs but the enemies of Sikhism.
Oberoi wrongly suggests that “the Khalsa/Sahajdhari duality became fIrmly enshrined within the great tradition.” (p.137). There were never two Sikhisms as Sahajdhari or Sanatan Sikhism and Khalsa Sikhism.
Oberoi says that “Sanatan tradition, however, was primarily the religious universe of the Sikh elites. We could even call it an official religion, for it was closely aligned to the Sikh kingdom of Lahore and its elites.” (p.138)
How ridiculously the author argues that Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s offIcial religion was Sanatanism. He shows utter ignorance of the fact that Ranjit Singh liked to be addressed as Singh Sahib. He always referred to his government as Sarkar-i-Khalsa. His offIcial salutation in the state was Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru ji Ki Fateh. His courtiers and offIcials: Hindus, Muslims and Europeans, had full grown and unshorn long flowing beards, tied turbans and tried to be as close to the Sikh form and code of conduct as possible. He ruled in the name of the Gurus, wielded power in the name of the Khalsa, all diplomatic correspondence carried in the name of the Khalsa. He called himself the drum (Ranjit nigara) of Guru Gobind Singh. Ignorantly enough, Oberoi brands him and his courtiers as Sanatanists.
The author Oberoi writes that to the Sanatanists even in the late 19th century, “The Khalsa doctrine of Adi Granth being the Guru of the Panth was still far from fully subscribed” (p.104). Still Oberoi calls these Sanatanists as Sikhs and not stark enemies of Sikhism. We should dismiss these Sanatanists with no attention at all.
So did the Sahajdharis have little to do with the Sikhs. They did not follow the Sikh rahit. The Guru said that only he who adopts the Sikh way of life is his Sikh (Rahni rahai soi Sikh mera). The rahit was prescribed for all Sikhs by the tenth prophet. The author Oberoi does not differentiate between the conformist Sikhs and the non-con-formist Sanatanists and Sehajdharis.
Oberoi observe that “for Sanatan Sikhs the caste system and its taboos had undoubtedly become an integral part of the Sikh faith”. (p.104). The author should have put it like this:
Sanatanists who were wedded to the anti-Sikh practice of caste system and its taboos could never be a part of Sikh faith. A religion does not turn bad because a particular cult or a section of society does not follow its code of conduct. So, let Oberoi keep the non-conformists away from Sikhism and not mess up things to damage the Sikh faith.
Singh Sabha movement could not have been conceived if its leaders had not violently felt the urgent need of restoring the message of the Sikh Gurus. First leaders of a movement are always more determined, more radical, more enthusiastic, more committed and more revolting. But, as usual, Oberoi is a victim of perverse thinking and Sanatan phobia when he argues that “the early leadership of Singh Sabha sought to transmit the Sanatan religious culture and the radical transformation of Sikh consciousness was not on their agenda”.(p.257)
Oberoi has made a very unhistorical and unacceptable obser-vation that “the colonial state and its institutions played a signifIcant role in the emergence of a homogenous Sikh religion” (p.423). Elaborating his point, the author argues that “all Sikhs who sought recruitment to the British army had to undergo Khalsa baptism and uphold the fIve symbols of the Khalsa”. Does the author mean to say that the British were very much interested in promoting the Khalsa rahit? It is awfully funny. Oberoi needs to be informed that during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was essential for every Sikh to take amrit prepared with the double-edged sword and to follow Sikh rahit strictly before joining the Khalsa army. The British realised that the Sikh soldiers were best in their performance when they were in their true form and spirit. Hence, the Sikh form was emphasised by the British.
Sikh religion has been homogenous forever but under the British it received a damaging touch through the government patronage of the Pujaris and Mahants who sacrilegiously controlled Harmandir Sahib (Amritsar) and most of the major gurdwaras, and also through the activities of the Christian missionaries.
Oberoi writes that the Khande Ki Pahul or Amrit ceremony Was performed by the recitation of fIve quatrains from the writings of Guru Gobind Singh (p.640). In fact, the banis recited during the preparation of amrit were: Japji (of Guru Nanak), Anand Sahib (of Guru Amar Das) and Japp Sahib, Das Swayas and Chopai (of Guru Gobind Singh).
A chapter on ‘An Enchanted Universe’ including popular saints, goddesses, village sacred sites, evil spirits, witchcraft, sorcery, magical healings, astrology, festivals and fairs, etc., is irrelevant to this work, Many more superfluous things discussed in the book need to be weeded out.
The author Oberoi has unnecessarily used the unusual terms of Khalsa Sikhs and Tat Khalsa for the Sikhs to bring some un-Sikh and non-Sikh cults into the fold of Sikhism. He wrongly and unwisely considers the religious text of Adi Granth as amorphom. (p.22), that is shapeless, not conforming to normal structural organization and not having any crystalline form.
The use of terms like, religious diversity in Sikhism, religious fluidity in the Sikh tradition, multiple or plural identities in Sikhism is irresponsible and misleading, and awfully blocks the emergence of Sikh identity. How conveniently he forget that “the spiritual composition of Guru Nanak constantly kept alive in the minds of the followers of the Guru, the consciousness that they were distinct from the common mass of the Hindus”.19 How miserably the author fails to understand it when he argues that “in the early Guru period, Sikh as a category was still problematic and empty”. (p.53)
What Oberoi cannot understand about the Sikhs today, Qazi Nur Muhammad understood in 1765 when he was in the Punjab for a short time during Abroad Shah Durrani’s seventh invasion, that “Guru Nanak was not a mere reformer bur the founder of a new religion.The Sikhs are.not from among the Hindus. They have a separate religion of their own”.20
To areader of this work, it clearly seems that the author makes a strenuous bid to disintegrate, disorganize and demolish the distinct Sikh identity, the doctrine enshrined in the Sikh scripture and the glory of Sikh history created by a determined community steeped in its religious direction and inspired by unshaken constancy in Sikh heritage. The self-opinionated propaganda of the author, undoubtedly, damages Sikhism immensely and far from being an addition to the domain of Sikh literature, this work renders unmerited disservice to it.
Despite his profession of being, although, a student and scholar of history, his approach to his subject has been that of a man of sociology and anthropology. The language he uses is neither that of history nor of religion. His language ill-fits the subject in his hand and his verbosity negates his command over it. Sometimes, he tries to hide his irrelevance under the garb of superfluity. To be able to say a thing in a style and language that keeps the reader comfortable is the measure of maturity of ones style.
In his preface, the author has given a long list of foreign and Indian scholars to whom he feels indebted for help and guidance in the writing of this book. Generally speaking, the foreigners are ignorant of the spirit of Sikhism, its doctrine and history. Unfortunately, most of the Indian scholars referred to are unfavourably disposed towards the Sikh religion and Sikh history.And from this originated his wrong approach. He does not seem to have benefitted from the scholarship available in the departments of Sikhism and Sikh history at the three universities in the Punjab at Patiala, Amritsar and Chandigarh. There are abundantly informative contemporary Persian sources relating to the period under this study, regarding Sikh history and Sikh religion. Oberoi having not used any of these Persian sources, is apparently considerably disadvantaged by his lack of knowledge of Persian.
The author has used second or third rate sources of informa-tion. On page 31, he mentions besides Max Arthur Macauliffe the names of John Gordon and Ernest Trumpp to have recorded the ideals of Sikh faith. John Gordon’s is a small and an elementary book titled ‘The Sikhs’, Trumpp (a German missionary) was deputed by the India Office (London) to translate the Adi Granth into English. Macauliffe says that, “Trumpp gave mortal offence to the Sikhs. Whenever he saw an opportunity of defaming the Gurus, the sacred book and the religion of the Sikhs he eagerly availed himself of it.”
In the early seventies of the 19th century, when Trumpp, with the help of the English Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, arranged a meeting with some Sikh scholars at Amritsar, he pulled out unreverentially the Adi Granth from his suitcase and placed it on the table before him and lighted his cigarette. The Sikh scholar dispersed in protest. To me it seems that many of the scholars listed in the preface are Trumpps rather than Macauliffes. Through wrong guidance and the use of unproper sources of information, Oberoi has undermined the status and the role of the Sikh Gurus and the Guru Granth sahib in providing direction to the Sikhs. There lies the very sad tragedy of the author’s very negative contribution to the Sikh religion and Sikh history.
In the end, I am pleased to say that Harjot Oberoi is a brilliant scholar but I am displeased to point out that his brilliance and scholarship have been misdirected and have strayed away from the right path. He could try his hand sucessfully on any subject other than Sikh religion and Sikh history. In that case, in the event of disagreement with him I would have said after V oltaire. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend, to the death, your right to say”. But religion does not permit wrong, especially deliberate attempts to trivialize and unmake the image of its scripture, its doctrine, its prophets and its followers. The research should not clash with the religious susceptibilities or senti-ments of millions of people in the name of some novel approach to the subject or just for the fun of it, under the excuse of a licence of freedom of expression, or more correctly, under the licence of mispresentation of religion. Religion is a very sensitive territory, one must cautiously step into it. Beyond a certain limit, one enters into the bounds of blasphemy where one forfeits the very licence.
I would sincerely advise the young scholar to revise his work and make the necessary amendments to be more explicit in regard to the distinct Sikh identity and the true spirit of Sikhism. In its present form, the work fails miserably rather deplorably to stand the test of historical and religious scrutiny.
1 Maubid Ardistani (also ascribed to Mohsin Fani), Dabistan-i- Mazahib (Persian) (1645), Nawal Kishore Press, Cawnpore, 1904, p. 233
2 Gokal Chand Narang, ‘Transformation of Sikhism,’ p.25
3 Indubhusan Banerjee, ‘Evolution of the Khalsa,’ Vol. I, University of Calcutta, 1936, p.183
4 Satta and Balwand, var, Adi Granth, pp.966-68
5 Bhai Gurdas, Var 38, Pauri 20
6 Maubid Ardistani, ‘Dabistan’ (Persian), p. 232
7 Ibid, p.237
8 Vachitra Natak, p.9
9 Max Arthur Macauliffe, ‘The Sikh Religion,’ Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1909, Vol. 3, p.66
10 Dabistan, p.233
11 Ibid, p. 239
12 Ghulam Husain Khan, ‘Siyar-ul-Mutakherin’ (Persian), 1781, Nawal Kishore Press Cawnpore, 1897 (first printed in Calcutta,1836), p. 401
13 ‘Akghar-i-Darbar-i-Mualla’ (Persian), December 10,1710, Dr Ganda Singh Private Collection, Punjabi University, Patiala (India).
14 Miftah-ul- Tawarikh (Persian), p.398
15 Macauliffe, ‘The Sikh Religion,’ Vo1. 3, p.7
16 Macauliffe, ‘The Sikh Religion,’ Vo1. 3, p.7
17 Osborne, ‘The Court and Camp of Ranjit Singh,’ London, 1840, pp. xli-xlii
18 Malcolm, ‘Sketch ofthe Sikhs’, London, 1812, p. 100
19 G.C.Narang, ‘Transformation of Sikhism,’ p.48
20 Qazi Nur Muhammad, ‘Jangnamah’ (Persian), 1765, MS. Ganda Singh Private Collection, Punjabi University, Patiala, p.159
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