Dr Oberoi’s Journey into Obscurity’
Dr Darshan Singh
Dr Harjot Oberoi’s book “The Construction of Religious Boundaries” is a comparatively new adventure in the realm of Sikh Studies. Its sub-title “Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition”, prefaces the contents of the book. It suggests the nature of material collected, analysed and presented in it. To me it appears that the sub-title of the book and the contents of the book are mutually contradictory.Because the sub-title suggests the positive angle of the Sikh identity whereas its treatment throughout the book belies this sense.
This book begins with a sense conveyed by two quotations from; Lucin Febvre, “Religion? What a crude word you are using there! Are you going to get tangled up in faith, belief and all that?”1 and Victor Turner “Otherwise we must all perish, for behind specific historical and cultural developments, East versus West, hierarchical versus egalitarian systems, individualism versus communism, lies the simple fact that man is, both a structural and an anti-structural entity, who grows through anti-structure and conserves through structure”. These words seem to be his source of inspiration. Therefore, these two quotations sufficiently reveal the mind of the author. They also foreshow the things which he is likely to discuss in the subsequent pages of the book.
All that he wants to suggest is that no religion has its boundaries well-constructed. Second, all religions have some kin of loose-ness in their approach. For him, boundaries are often illusory and, therefore, not sustainable. Going a step further, he suggests that, religious boundaries should not be strict and unalterable, meaning thereby that they should be adjustable. Mutual acceptance, tolerance and sharing of the same experience should be fundamental to every religion. This kind of thinking, left to itself, deserves praise. Actually, problem does not arise with the theme but with the product of “scholar’s imagination”. He continues to be unmindful of the empirical reality, even unfair to every religion, and, therefore, feels no hesitation in twisting, misinterpreting and distorting the factual position. Thus, the approach becomes purely unacademic, sometimes motivated and un-related to the actual reality.
This book deals with the historical reality of Sikh religion during the 19th century. Dr Oberoi has taken special pains to prove that Sikh religion, during this period, did not have any well constructed boundaries. It had no central place for worship, and in the process, it had no well defined identity. It had un-specified ideology and philosophy, un-identifiable identity and un-fuced response of its followers to the idea of being a Sikh. The followers of Sikhism, that is the Sikhs, were found to have a casual approach towards their deity, they were abundantly found joining the religious rites of Hindus, Muslims and a number of their sub-sects.
This kind of approach to the actual reality of Sikhism is not only casual in itself but well thought out distortion. First, there is no religious institution, worth the name, in the world, which does not have well defined boundaries. Then, Sikhism is more identifiable than any other religion in terms of its ideological and philosophical frame-work and visible identity of its followers. Second, if some ignorant Sikhs or some members of the census staff commit a mistake, it cannot be made basis for the conclusion that the boundaries of a religious community are ‘fluid’.
Boundaries are a part of life. Every institution has constructed these around itself. They are mainly for the purpose of management, identification and self-satisfaction. Therefore, the real question should not be addressed to the boundaries of an institution, it should rather be addressed to the objectives of a religion, particularly, in terms of its ability to conceive and capacity to achieve them. But Dr Oberoi has no such specified goal. He, on the other hand, tries to build his above said thesis on the following points:
1. He quotes an elderly respected man Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni. According to the author Mr. Sahni used to go through the Sikh religious code (Nit Nem) as well as worship Hindu gods. At the same time, he would not mind visiting a Muslim shrine.
2. He takes up the case of a bearded coolie who smokes tobacco which is strictly prohibited in Sikhism.(Having an unshaven beard does not necessarily mean a Sikh.)
3. He refers to the tribe of Meharata Rajputs who were not clearly identifiable in terms of their being Muslim or Hindus or members of any other religion.
4. He draws his conclusions from the details of census conducted by British Government from time to time. 5. Dr Oberoi is of the opinion that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs would not mind undertaking pilgrimage and participating in religious functions conducted by each other, suggesting that even Islam has no demarcated religious boundaries. Let us see if the audacious author, who prefers to take undue liberty in making unwarranted observations regarding Sikhism, dares to do so in the case of Islam also.
Further, he says, “Indian languages do not possess a noun for religion as signifying a single uniform and centralized community of believers.” As a result of these arguments he comes to the conclusion, “there was much interpenetration and overlapping of communal identities.”12 These and such like other arguments cannot be sustained, in substance, when they are academically scrutinised. For this purpose, these arguments can be divided into two sections: First, some of the arguments relate to mutual policy of give and take (Lokachar) adopted by different religious communities, living in a neighbourhood. There is no doubt that sometimes, within the parameters of above said be -haviour, the number of immediate gains also determines such steps of an individual of a particular religion. The case of Mr. Sahni, of having equal interest in all the three religions falls in this category. The second category is the one of aberrants who, due to ignorance, casualness and the social or political pressure, commit aberrations. The case of tobac-co- chewing or addicting oneself to any such intoxicant, prohibited in Sikhism, falls in this category. Sikhs are no exception so far as the existence of these categories are concerned. But, I feel, this parameter should not be applied in order to determine the religious boundarics of a particular religion. Like many other things in life, many a time, such things are committed out of habit, ignorance or for some greed. They are not sanctioned by the religious scriptures. The interesting point is that he wants that the identity of a religious group should have been established from outside the realms of religious texts, say: Islam without Quran Sharif, Christianity without Bible and Sikhism without Guru Granth Sahib. In this context he says, “Historically, it is hard to build a correspondence between the Veda and Hinduism, for at no point do the Vedas make the claim that they represent Hindus”. If Vedas and Hinduism do not correspond to each other, then he assumes a similar lack of congruence between practice and religious text in other religions also. Can there be a more irrelevant argument? Religion, actually originates from the text and grows in the history of its followers. In order to understand a religious structure we have to go a little deep into a given perception of a religion. For example, let us take the case of a follower of Islam. A Muslim believes in one God (no idol-worship), observance of Shariat and a distinguishable physical identity. He does not worship in the way a Hindu or Sikh does. His mode of prayer and conduct is entirely different. When he enters the doors of Islam, circumcision has to be performed. The difference between a Hindu and a Muslim, particularly in India, existed to the extent that if a Muslim touched the food and water of a Hindu, it was considered polluted and unfit for consumption. The mutual distinction, sometimes led to the mutual hatred and to subsequent clash. In this context, Hindus would call the language of Muslims malecch bhasha, which meant the speaker of that language was a Malechh (impure). Similarly, a Muslim would call a Hindu Kafir i.e., non-believer. A Hindu would not go to the mosque. He would not conduct Narnaz etc. and also he would not go through the rituals a Muslim had to. In this way a Hindu has his own concept of God, of worship, of character, of language and of ritualism. May I know how many Hindus observe fast, like Muslims in the month of Ramzan?
Dr Oberoi draws his conclusions mainly from the gatherings on the monuments oflocal heroes like smadh (tomb) of Guga Pir, Sakhi Sarvar, etc. These gatherings can never be called religious gatherings.Instead, they are cultural gatherings. Such people were never religious heroes. They were cultural heroes. Ignorant people, in pain and dis-tress, prostrate before them for help (little realising that their heroes had themselves suffered the same). No Hindu or Muslim or a Sikh while attending to such functions abandons his earlier religious connections.
As far as the Sikhs are concerned, their identity is well established since the Jays of Guru Nanak. He discarded both the churches i.e., Hindu and Muslim.
When Guru Tegh Bahadur learnt about Aurangzeb’s intention of building India into an Islamic state, he decided to assert the existence of another religious identity, that is Sikhism, in addition to Islam and Hinduism. Sikhism believes in a plural society. Therefore, diversity is an obvious and respectable phenomenon. God has created his kingdom of living beings in multiple names, forms and colours. This multiplicity is the beauty and grandeur of nature and is created by God himself. Therefore, it must be maintained. No individual, however high he may be, on earth, has the right to dictate anyone else to follow his way of life. Freedom and equality for all, is the fundamental principle of Sikhism. In this context, the existing churches had exhausted their possibilities. Therefore, an alternative was an obvious and urgent need of the time. This decision to work for promoting freedom and equality, invited the wrath of the State. This in turn promoted the assertion of a separate identity of those who supported the above said values. The Sikhs had to undergo persecution for upholding these ideals, distinct and unique. For example:
1. If a Hindu boy embraced Sikhism, he was declared to be as good as dead by his family.
2. When during the later Mughal rulers Sikhs suffered persecution, everytime a Sikh was asked to declare himself a non-Sikh i.e., Hindu or Muslim, so that his life could be spared. Besides the numerous other examples, the two events related to the Haveli of Meer Manu and thepersecution of the army of Banda Singh Bahadur are clear evidences of this fact. If Sikhs were not committed to their identity, how come they were massacred by the state? Their single declaration that they belonged to a faith other than Sikhism could easily save their life.
Even otherwise, Sikhism had its own ideological and philosophical base, its own social structure and its own religious ceremonies and identities. It had its own life-style.
Sikhism is one religion which is marked by a continuing process of spiritual advancement. Unlike other religions, it has no concept or ritual for conversion. A person who joins the Caravan of Sikhism has to continue the process till fulfillment. It is in this context that Guru Gobind Singh defines Khalsa as one who is constantly engaged in struggle. When a person joins Sikhism, he is Sahajdhari. In the course of his progress he transforms himself into a Kesadhari and ultimately, he has to reach the stage of an Arnritdhari. Sahajdhari is a beginner and the Arnritdhari stage is the goal. Arnritdharis are those few who are completely committed to the Guru’s cause. All the three stages are of a Sikh. Therefore, the theory of replacing (p. 25) is not applicable to Sikhism. In fact, no paradigm related to Sikhism was ever replaced.
The founding principles of Sikhism, which were laid down by Guru Nanak, in his bani, have remained intact throughout history. All Sikh institutions were developed on these principles. Guru Gobind Singh gave fmal touches to these institutions, like in consonance with the concept of Guruship of the Granth and Panth, ‘Administration of Amrit’, ‘Panj Pyaras’ ‘Meeri and Peeri’ or Badshah Darvesh or Sant Sipahi, etc.
The working of Dr Oberoi’s mind can very well be understood from his definitions of different stages. For example, when he defines Sahajdhari, he says, “A Sikh who neither accepts baptism into the Khalsa nor observes its code of discipline”. Does this definition not look funny?
The question arises then how such a Sahajdhari is a Sikh? Similarly, he defines a Khalsa, “The Sikh order or brotherhood instituted by Guru Gobind Singh”. Perhaps Dr Oberoi does not know that the concept of Khalsa is in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. This word is used by Guru Hargobind and Guru Tegh Bahadur in their prescripts to the Sikh sangats and also by Guru Gobind Singh before he instituted the Khalsa with the Amrit, in 1699 A.D.
As stated earlier, Sikhism is a continuing process, a march towards ‘gurmukh’ stage. The first entrants of Sikhism were Sahajdharis. Therefore, this section of the Sahajdhari continues till today. In fact, Sahajdharis are the source material for the Kesadharis, and similarly, Kesadharis are the source material for Amritdharis. The fundamental principles, laid down by Guru Nanak in his bani and manifested through a number of institutions constructed by Guru Nanak and his successors are accepted by all the three sections of Sikhs alike. The principles are the same and a must for a Sahajdhari, Am-ritdhari and Kesadhari. Some of them are:
1. God for every Sikh is one and formless.Therefore, omnipresent and omnipotent.
2. Because He is formless, he does not take birth, therefore, the theory of messengers and Avtaras finds no place in the fundamental principles of Sikhism.
3. Therefore, no Sikh is expected to worship any idol of a god or goddess.
4. Sikhism believes that God is the Guru. He has revealed himself through Shabad (word). Therefore, Shabad is their real Guru. Guru Granth Sahib contains Shabad and, therefore, Guru Granth Sahib is the Guru of Sikhs.
5. A Sikh will have no faith in superstitions like good and bad omens, spirits, auspicious or unauspicious days, etc.
6. Adultery and smoking constitute a grave breach of discipline (bajr kurahit) in Sikhism.
7. Institutions like langar, sangat and pangat are same for all.This is irrespective of the category to which one belongs.
Therefore, when these principles are translated into social structure, every Sikh has to believe in the freedom and equality of mankind. No distinction of caste, class, colour, race or sex would find place in this structure “One Father (God) and everyone else is His child”, is the underlying principle of Sikhism.
The meaningless and pretentious structure of rituals which throughout the history had become a part of the narrow religious considerations was completely discarded by the founder of Sikhism. The real meditation is the awakening of a soul through another soul. Therefore Sikhism has laid special emphasis on the moral development of an individual. A Sikh must be a morally sound person.
These principles are common to all the three sections of the Sikhs as stated above. It is true that some Sahajdharis do not keep hair unshorn like an Arnritdhari, and do not wear the five Ks. But, his identity as a Sikh manifests through adherence to the above said fundamental principles, and a firm belief and conviction that his final goal is that of being an Adrnritdhari Sikh.
Dr Oberoi is of the opinion, “Early-period Sikh tradition did not show much concern for establishing distinct religious boundaries”. Further he says, “However, a dramatic change came about with the rise of the Khalsa in the eighteenth century; sections of the Sikh population now consciously began to push for a distinct and separate religious culture”. Dr Oberoi’s ignorance about the subject is well established by this definition. It seems that he has not gone through the bani of Guru Nanak, and the subsequent developments in the Sikh history. For example, the bani of Guru Nanak and, particular-ly, Asa Di Var and Majh Di Var are very clear in demarcating the distinctiveness of his faith. He has elaborately dealt with the existing two great, rich traditions, i.e. Hinduism and Islam. And at the same time, he initiates a new religious tradition which he himself defines in Asa Di Var, “Sikhi consist in learning and giving thought to whatever is learnt”. This religious faith is absolutely distinctive, not similar to Hinduism or Islam. So much so that Guru Nanak deliberates upon the new definitions of a deity, a devotee, his cultural breeding and psychological make up. A Sikh was forbidden to follow the life-style advocated by the other contemporary religions. Then Guru Arjun Dev very clearly asserts that the followers of his faith were neither Hindus nor Muslims. Bhai Gurdas has clearly and abundantly narrated the fundamental principles of Sikhism, the distinct Sikh way of life, the Sikh character and the duties of a Sikh. I do not understand which ‘early - period Sikh Tradition’ Mr. Oberoi is referring to.
Another surprising feature of Mr. Oberoi’s writings is that he contradicts himself at every step. For example, “Above all, what kindof a spatial and temporal boundaries did they establish to create panlocal communities, and how exactly were these defined, perceived and activated?” Look at the absurdity of Oberoi’s observation who thinks of different boundaries for the Sikhs residing in other parts of the globe. In these lines, at least one fact which he clearly accepts is that boundaries were established. In fact, the construction and the attempt to demolish boundaries are never new. They are attempted at for the purpose of identification, management and self-satisfaction and sometimes for immediate gains too. My point here is only to bring out the inherent contradiction between the title of the book, the objective laid down by the author and the meaning of the above said words. In this connection, three points need our attention:
1. Sikh and Khalsa are mutually identifiable since the days of Guru Nanak. It is only in the process of history that Khalsa gained precedence.
2. The issue of separate identity and the construction of its boundaries was settled by Guru Nanak himself. The subsequent history only made it more visible and functional.
3. Therefore, ‘Nanak-Panthis’ and ‘Khalsa’ are neither mutually separate nor contradictory. The name and bani identify the follower of Guru Nanak’s faith and thus he is Kesadhari and his name is Sikh. Sahajdhari is a step behind and Arnritdhari is a step ahead. An Amritdhari Sikh represents the humanly possible perfection in the model of a human-being. This, in fact, is the unique beauty of Sikhism that its creation is secured by committing it to the ever continuing process.
But the alienated mind of Dr Oberoi is unable to align itself with the mixed principle of Sikhism. Therefore, in the same context, he continues to say, “Unlike Nanak panthis, the Khalsa wished to be viewed as a separate religious identity”. Viewed closely, this obser-vation of Dr Oberoi would make us believe that the Khalsa made a conscious departure from the Sikhs of Guru Nanak. This view is erroneous and is borne out of the stubbornness of the author to insist that Guru Nanak is different from Guru Gobind Singh.
His observation about Singh Sabha Movement is also self-con-tradictory. He says, “A new cultural elite aggressively usurped the right to represent others within this singular tradition”. Writing in the same vein, he further observes, “It gained currency because its dominant characteristics represented an unchanging idiom in a period of flux and change”. 25
In the late 19th century, Dr Oberoi’s myopic vision sees the usurpation of others’ religious rights, forgetting completely that the Singh Sabha Movement was not the crusade by the ‘cultural elite’ as the learned author would like us to believe. It was, instead, a movement of the Sikh masses aimed at hammering the pristine tradition of Sikh identity into the consciousness of the Sikh people. It gained currency because it bore the stamp of the Guru and was not the result of its happening during a period of ‘flux and change’. The terminology used by the author matches the vagueness of his conception of reality regarding the Sikh tradition. Needless to say that the Sikhs were disheartened after the loss of political power in the middle of nineteenth century and the Singh Sabha made an earnest effort to help them come to terms with themselves.
Dr Oberoi has made another astounding reference about the Sikh faith. He says, “In the absence of a centralized church and an attendant religious hierarchy, heterogeneity in religious beliefs, plurality of rituals, and diversity of lifestyles were freely acknowledged “. He has brought out three points. One, that diversity of life-style was an acknowledged fact in Sikhism. Second, that Sikhism pleads for plurality of rituals, and third, that this was because there was no centralised church. About the first point, if we examine carefully the Gurbani is clearly for a plural society. Therefore, Sikhism does not interfere in the diversity of life-styles. About the second point, Sikhism completely and strongly forbids ritualism. Therefore, the question of plurality of rituals does not arise. The third suggestion that there was no centralized church, is rather ridiculous. Sikhlsm believes, as a fundamental principle, that everything seemingly good or bad originates from God. He is the central point and any institution which placed Him in the centre cannot be without a centralised church, Sikhism does so, and this view is manifest through the construction of Harmandir Sahib (popularly known as Golden Temple). It is one religious place which is central to Sikhs and open to everyone from every corner, signifying the centralism as a core principle (of one God, one religion, one sacred scripture, one central place of pilgrimage) in the midst of diversity of life-style as a manifesting principle. I do not know whether there can be a more magnificent and systematic argument. Equally magnificent is Dr Oberoi’s ignorance about this well settled fact of history. Then Dr Oberoi himself contradicts this point. He says, “One of the early anecdotes in the Janam-Sakhi tradition tells of how Nanak was commissioned by God to launch his own distinct religious community in the world.”52
The central theme of this book is the diversity of behaviour in a religion. He asserts that this diversity was not limited to one religion. It was in all the three prevailing religions, that is, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism. But, at the same time, he would not mind saying, “Historical texts are virtually silent about religious diversity”. I fail to understand then wherefrom he has got the central theme of his book. This is surely a self-defeating mission. Second, wherever Dr Oberoi has found diver-sity, it is not a religious diversity. Actually this diversity is of religions and in the cultural patterns of the people living in the same area.
Quoting Senapat, an 18th century poet, Dr Oberoi writes, “On one side stands Khalsa, and on the other, the world.” On the next page, he concludes, “Khalsa identity only becomes dominant in the late nineteenth century under British sponsorship”, by which he means through the Singh Sabha Movement. This movement came in nineteenth century. He refers to a number of points through which he agrees that Khalsa identity was clearly codifted and promoted in eighteenth century. Then, the book deals with the religious diversities in the nineteenth century. That is how, he has created a mess for himself by accepting the distinct Sikh identity through Senapat in 18th century and. through Singh Sabha Movement in the 19th century. Then what about his main thesis? Clearly it has no ground to stand upon.
Above all, he refers to the rise of Singh Sabha Movement as one sponsored and nourished by the British Government whereas the fact of the history is, and this has amply borne out in British records, that British Government feared only the Sikh revolutionaries, the product of Singh Sabha Movement. Then Singh Sabha Movement had attempted at reinforcing the religious code, which was the product of Gurbani. Their fault is that they did not deviate.
Dr Oberoi again contradicts himself in his remarks on 25th, 26th and 63rd pages. First he says, “No other (than Singh Sabha Movement) re-working of the Sikh movement has been so enduring and successful as the one worked out in the late 19th century”. The suggestion is preposterous as it tends to suggest that the Sikh identity was ‘worked out’ and did not exist previously. On another page he says, “But in the18th century the Khalsa Sikhs became keenly aware of the absence of the distinct life-style rituals and took urgent steps to rectify the situation by introducing new rites particularly to mark birth”.
On page 76, Dr Oberoi has referred in detail to the difference betweenSahijdhari and Khalsa Sikhs. He emphasises the fact that both did not see eye to eye on any issue whether philosophical, social or those relating to code of conduct. This seems to be another fantasy.Because, his subject is the contradiction, not between the Sahajdhari and Khalsa, but between the Sikh and non-Sikh. The tragedy with Mr. Oberoi is that he starts with the assumption that Sahajdhari is a non- Sikh. His description in the second para on page 77, confirms this stand. His misinformation is further confirmed by his statement about the role of the Udasi sect. Udasi signify “renunciation of or indifference to worldly concerns, 78. It is a well recorded fact of Sikh history that Udasi played a significant role in the history of north- India, particularly, the struggle of the Sikhs. Baba Sri Chand himself was very active in the worldly affairs, sometimes even in political affairs of that time. When the Rajput hero Maharana Pratap was disheartened by his mostly unsuccessful and futile hostilities with the Mughals, he was given solace by him and inspired to continue his struggle abandoning his despondency. Baba Gurditta, a heir-designate of Baba Sri Chand, himself was a warrior. During the battles fought by Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh a number of Udasis participated in it. Probably, Dr Oberoi is transplanting the image of a Hindu Udasi, to fit in the image of a Sikh Udasi.
Referring to almost every kind of source-material related to Sikhism, Dr Oberoi’s standard explanation is that this does not tell us a great deal about popwar religion. Then from where has he got the material for his insistence upon this kind of religion. To me it appears that there is no such thing as ‘popular religion’, ‘village religion’, ‘religion of the elite’, etc. Religion as such can never be divided into such categories. Every religion has its following in villages, in cities, among rich and poor, educated and uneducated. Then, he himself says that no source informs about such kind of religions available during this period. Then why is he making an issue out of non-issue?
If, as pleaded by Dr Oberoi, no religion has definite boundaries, then, does according to him, a village religion or a popular religion hasit? Such formulations only speak of the weak edifice that Dr Oberoi has built for himself.
In order to arri’ve at a solution of the riddle of Sikh identity, Dr Oberoi elaborately seeks support from the Census reports. The fourth chapter of the book begins with this objective. But, at one place he himself concludes, “Since no separate data on Hindu ‘sects’ were included in the 1881 census report, one cannot easily correct the distorted nature of the Sikh returns.” This means the source material, which he is using, represents a distorted picture of Sikh identity. Then how can it be dependable?
Dr Oberoi has committed a number of mistakes in his book, which ordinarily are not expected of a student of Sikhism, much less of history and an occupant of a Sikh chair ina university. For example, while referring to the Arnrit ceremony, he says, “All this was done to the recitation of five quatrains from the writings of Guru Gobind Singh”. It is a well known fact that all the five banis (compositions) were notfrom Guru Gobind Singh’s writings. They are JapuJi (of Guru Nanak), Anand Shaib (of Guru Amar Dass), Jaap, Swaye and Chaupai (of Guru Gobind Singh).
At another place, he says, “Most of them lived in the Doaoa, where Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur was traditionally regarded as their headquarters”. Dera Baba Nanak and Gurdaspur are not part of Doaba, they are in Majha.
Referring to Baba Budha Ji, he says, “He was contemforary of seven Sikh Gurus and installed four of them to Guruship”. This statement carries two historical mistakes. One, Baba was contemporary of six Sikh Gurus and second, he installed five of them to Guruship.
A cursory look at the way he translates the phrases again reveals the mind of the author. He translates ‘Vahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Vahe Guru Ji Ke Fateh’ into”Hail to the Guru’s Khalsa! Hail the victory of the Guru”. The correct translation should be, “Khalsa is of the Guru/ God. Victory (of the Khalsa) also belongs to Guru.” Similarly, at another place he translates Gurmat as “The view of Guru”, whereas it should be the philosophy of Guru’. A Sikh is translated as ‘disciple’s whereas it should be a ‘student’ or a ‘learner’. This speaks of the casualness towards or the lack of understanding of the Gurbani vocabulary or Sikh tradition.
Dr Oberoi’s attitude towards basic principle of Sikhism is very casual. This tendency is well-reflected in the choice of his words. For example, he would say, “The greatest taboos with Sikh Tradition”. Not only this, he uses the word ‘categories, for Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, apparently it is in place of religion.
He says, “Singh Sabha, a wide-ranging religious movement, began to view the multiplicity in Sikh identity with great suspicion and hostility” . Probably the gentleman has not cared to see an entry on page 103 and a photo on page 519 of Mahan Kosh (1960), written by Bhai Kahan Singh, a great exponent of Sikhism. He refers to nine forms of Sikhs. Suspicion and hostility are the product of the writer’s own mind.
He says, “A new cultural elite aggressively usurped the right to represent others within this singular traditions”. Can, in such an age and also in such an area of work, anyone aggressively usurp the right of any group?
Similarly, the definition of Khalsa is wrong. Dr Oberoi, quoting Dr J.S. Grewal, believes that it is derived from the concept of “lands that were under the direct supervision of Crown”. Khalsa means pure, and as stated above in Sikh literature, a Sikh was known as Khalsa much before the Vaisakhi of 1699. Second, a large majority of those Sikhs, who did not go for Amrit were also under the direct supervison of Guru. No one was appointed to look after them or supervise them, like the lands, which were not directly in the supervision of Crown.
He says, “While the Sikhs in their recent history, have tended to treat Punjab as their home-land, they did not belong exclusively to Punjab; they were settled all across India”. Mr. Oberoi does not know the difference between the home-land and land of settlement. Home-land of the Sikhs means, the native land, the land of birth of Sikhs, or Sikhism. Therefore, if he is now settled in Canada, it does mean that Canada is the home-land of Sikhs. Similarly, on the next page, he tries to identify the importance of Majha region on the basis of the Sikh population living in this area. The concentration of Sikh population in Majha is not more than in Malwa. But even if it were so, the importance of Majha was not simply because of the concentration of Sikh popula-tion. It was important for the Sikhs, because the Central place of the Sikhs (which is dearer to them even than their life) is located in this region.
Comrades in arms, fellow soldiers or workmen of Baba Banda Bahadur are mentioned as “his major collaborators.” Gurmata is described, “The ritual”, Arnritdhari Sikhs are described as, “Initiated Sikhs”.
Similarly, the use of words; Paradox, duality, allies, alliance, worship before Guru Granth, Corpus of Sikh myth, Sect, Cult, and many more speak about the author’s lack of grip over the culture of words. Oberoi should be questioned regarding the use of such terminology.
Dr Oberoi is in the habit of delivering perfunctory judgments even on serious matters. For example, he says, “The new print culture brought Sikhs together as never before”. It is debatable whether the so called ‘Print Culture’ has really any bearing on bringing ‘the Sikhs together’. It may well be argued that the opposite has happened. Many forces inimical to Sikh culture have benefited more from this culture, as is evident, especially after the loss of state power after the death of the legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Then by implication this means the Sikhs were never together before the arrival of the ‘Print Culture’. The author is here ignoring all known historical facts relating to the origin and growth of Sikhism. Their very survival through the ever hostile process of history is in itself a proof of their unity and solidarity.
Again on the same page, he says, “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 synthesizes 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”. By implication this means that Dr Oberoi, while ignoring the factual position, is again trying to make the Sikh experience ‘painful’. Probably it gives him pleasure.
While quoting Dr S. S. Hans, he says, “Increasingly, the word Gurmukh came to be identified with Sikhs alone, and non-Sikhs were called Manmukh (self-oriented)”. Throughout the Sikh period, nowhere a non- Sikh is called Manmukh. In fact, Gurmukh and Man-mukh are two terms, giving the contrasting meaning, relevant only in the fold of Sikh studies. Therefore, this is the product of the imagination of a particular category of scholars; in the past and present.
Dr Oberoi says, “Janam-Sakhi is the name given to mythical narratives on the life of Guru Nanak”. Janam- Sakhis are not a piece of mythical narratives. On the other hand, they are a piece of literary work. Guru Nanak, throughout his bani, has tried to de-mythify human consciousness.
Similarly, again referring to the Janam Sakhi literature, he says, “As a consequence, there is no fixity to Nanak’s image in the Janam- Sakhi stories: mnch like Puranic gods and goddesses, he is always transforming and wandering”. In fact, each word of the whole Janam- Sakhi literature moves around the image of Guru Nanak. He is the only central figure,that is hero of the entire Punjabi Janam-Sakhi literature. Second, his movements are not similar to those of Puranic gods and goddesses. He, throughout his life, keeps his feet placed in the culture of the soil. Third, his attempt at transforming and wandering does not take away the fixity of the image of Guru Nanak.
Again, he repeats his figment of imagination in the words, “Just as there is no fixed Guru Nanak in the Janam-Sakhis, there is no fixed Sikh identity in the early-Guru period”. Yes, there is no fixed Nanak for those who stubbornly refuse to see the reality or go by argument.
Dr Oberoi on pp. 54-55, has tried to argue that Adi Granth was not the first attempt of its kind. Another manuscript, which he names Fatehpur manscript, was edited about 21 years before the compilation of Adi Granth. He has not produced any evidence to this effect. But it seems, even here, he could not contain his impulse for passing on unauthentic judgement unworthy of a scholar.
Dr Oberoi says,“while there is no denying the fact that the Adi Granth has become a key cultural marker of Sikh authenticity, it would be a gross mis-interpretation to view it in the same vein for the early seventeenth century. Its heterodox textuality and diverse con-tributors were far more the manifestation of a fluid Sikh identity than a signifier of exclusivity”. According to him, because there are ‘diverse contributors’, therefore, it impaired the exclusivity of Sikh identity. Diversity is a fundamental principle of nature. Sri Guru Granth Sahib has not only exemplified it, but preached it, knowing full well that ultimately every diverse element of nature is not only con-nected, but placed in its base which is always unified single Being. Basing on this model, Guru Arjun Oev compiled the bani of the contributors of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Therefore, the visible diversity springs out of the single unified base and in the process returns to it. Thus, it seems to be the argument of a person who knows very little about the core of the issues.
Dr Oberoi while quoting a Janam-Sakhi says, “One Janam-Sakhi episode relates the story of a highly impoverished Sikh who, in his efforts to buy food for Guru Nanak and his companion, cuts and sells his long hair”. He, like his mentor Mr. W. H. McLeod, has misunderstood the real purport of the Sakhi. It absolutely does not mean that Sakhi is giving relaxation for cutting the hair. Sakhi means, serving the guest is dearer to a Sikh than everything else, which is dear to him. Therefore, for serving a guest, a Sikh can sacrifice the dearest of his possessions. In this context it is hair. It may be remembered that the Gurus have been subjecting the Sikhs to various tests to ascertain their unflinching faith in the religion of Guru Nanak. Guru Angad, before being offered the Guruship, was once asked by Guru Nanak to eat a corpse. Only an ignoramus would have us believe that it amounts to Guru Nanak asking the Sikhs to eat dead bodies.
Dr Oberoi says, “Taking the last line as the key to this hymn, many have argued that Guru Arjun is proclaiming here that Sikhs are neither Hindus nor Muslims, and therefore form a distinct religious community. There are several textual problems with this reasoning. As pointed out by Sahib Singh, the most eminent Sikh exegete of this century, Guru Arjun wrote its hymn in a’ definite context; he was responding to an older verse by Kabir, included in the Adi Granth”.
First, Oberoi is trying to distort the meaning of this line, ‘I am neither Hindu nor Muslim’. Second, if it was written in a given context while responding to an older verse of Kabir, it makes the proclamation all the more meaningful. This means he was making the things abundantly clear. Third, where is the need to prove otherwise?
Dr Oberoi says, “Just as in traditional Indian thought each vama is supposed to perform its dharma or moral duty, the Khalsa brought forth its own dharma”.
First, Khalsa does not believe in Vama-Ashram. Second, it does not believe in fIxing the duty according to varna. Third, Khalsa is brought in by bringing the people of different vamas into one single unit, thereby attempting at demolishing the caste in society. But, Oberoi insists that the institution of traditional vama ashram and that of K!halsa are similar.
The above stated are only a few examples. Otherwise, this tendency of passing judgement is frequent throughout the text of this book.
Similarly, Dr Oberoi is hardly conversant with the basic issues in Sikhism. For example, he inter-mixes Sikh and Punjabi on page 33. He has taken special trouble to contradict Dr G.S.Dhillon’s four points on pages 33-34, though his attempt to contradict him is baseless and unconvincing. So much so, that he himself commits the mistake for which he criticises Dr Dhillon. He expects Dr Dhillon to deal with the issues according to the model given by him!
The ego of the writer is so inflated that in the end of his introduction, he says, “Sikh studies needs to be fully open up to the cage of history”, as if before and after Dr Oberoi nobody has done it. Whereas the fact of the matter is that most of the material found in this book is found in earlier treatises on Sikh studies, particularly, written by Dr J. S. Grewal and W.H. McLeod. Dr Oberoi has only collected their unfounded formulations and put them together in the form of this book. Thus, this book is only a collection of material, unoriginal and of course unintelligently arranged, aimed at serving a particular end, and a pre- conceived motive.
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