Dr Oberoi’s Work: Academics or Imagination?
Dr Gurnam Kaur
On July 22, 1994 Dr Harjot Oberoi (he does not write ‘Singh’ with his name, perhaps to influence Western scholars or because he does not believe in the Gurus) arranged a meeting with some scholars from the U.S.A. and Canada as well as the Chairman of Guru Nanak Studies in the Punjab University, Chandigarh, Professor and Head, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Studies Department, Punjabi University, Patiala, a Reader from the same department and a Professor, Political Science Department, Punjabi University, Patiala, at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. We participated in this meeting at the request of the Sikh community in order to give our opinion whether the occupant of the Chair fulfilled the objectives for which he was hired. The real issue before the community is not academic freedom, but whether they got what they paid for, and whether the objectives, as outlined in the agreement between UBC and the Sikh community, have been honoured or not. In the meeting, time and again Dr Oberoi was reminded of the fact that the Chair was established with the money contributed by the Sikh community to fulfill its academic aspirations for objectives and ideals, laid down in the agreement. These terms very clearly indicate that the chairperson would engage in research on Sikh religion, Sikh philosophy and Sikh doctrines, Punjabi language and Punjabi literature which unfortunately, during the last seven years, were not carried out properly. For example, there was no qualifIed teacher to teach Punjabi language and literature. We have prepared a special report after reviewing the work done by the occupant of the chair during the last seven years.
Similarly, there is no one qualified to teach Sikh doctrines, religion and philosophy. Dr Harjot Oberoi is only qualifIed in history. When asked questions about this, Dr Oberoi admitted that he is not well acquainted with the Sikh Scripture and Sikh doctrines, although he is teaching it. While discussing the terms laid down in the agreement of the Chair, he time and again pressed the point that his newly published book “The Construction of Religious Boundaries” be discussed, although the meeting had been convened to discuss how far the objectives of the Chair had been achieved, and not his book.
However, some observations concerning his book, especially the methodology used by him, may not be out of place. I have been in the field of religion for twenty-five years, studying the Indian tradition, especially the Sikh Scripture. My field of research is the philosophy of religion, mainly Sikh philosophy. Dr Oberoi has started from the wrong angle, and used wrong assumptions, and that is why he has reached wrong conclusions. As far as I have gone through his book, he seems to be ignorant about the Indian traditions, their scriptures, the philosophy given by them, their religious practices, and the impact of a particular religious practice, or thought on the culture of its adherents. He is also apparently unaware of the difference between the concept of revelation in Indian traditions, particularly Sikhism, and the Semitic religions, i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is recognised that the models, the tools, and the methods which are used to study the Semitic traditions, cannot be blindly applied to the Indian traditions. If we do so, the results are bound to be negative, wrong and dangerous, as has been the case with Dr Oberoi’s book. To make it more clear I would like to make some general observations before coming to Sikhism.
The idea of revelation found in Indian traditions earlier to Sikhism is considered generally of four kinds :
1. The world at large is a revelation of Supreme Reality. God is the central principle of the individual soul and the physical world.
2. The Vedic Revelation: The Vedas are considered as revealed. The knowledge contained in them is considered iRdestruetiblc. The Veda is promulgated at the beginning of each world cycle by Ishvara.
3. God incarnated through avtars. According to all the schools of Vedic thought, whenever there is decline of dharma, to reveal the way of dharma and restore righteousness, God incarnates Himself in human form or any other form, e.g., as Krishna, the son of Devki.
4. Revelation in anubhati or meditation: anubhav is that state of knowledge in which distinction between subject and object does not remain any more, and the truth of the Supreme self is realized. This is the direct experience of Brahman (or God).
We know that in Jainism and Buddhism, the revelation is in the form of enlightenment. Gautama Buddha and the Jaina Tir- thankaras, especially Mahanvira Varadhmana got enlightenment after long and deep meditation.
The earlier Indian religious thought is divided into two categories, viz., Vedic and non-Vedic. The Jainism, Buddhism and Charvaka systems of religious thought are non- Vedic, also called the nastika (atheistic), because they do not believe in the authority of the Vedas. All other earlier systems of Indian religious thought were known as theistic (astika), because they believed in the authority of the Vedas, i.e., they consider the Vedas as the verbal testimony or Shabad Paymana, or the highest source of religious knowledge. The theistic literature is divided into two categories: the sruti (from sur, to hear) is the revealed knowledge in which are included Vedas and Upanishads. The smriti is the remembered word, and includes the Puranas, Itihasas, the Shastras and the epics. What is dhamza and what should be the dharma are described in the sruti as well as in the smriti. The important thing to be noted is that Varan-Ashram dharma is the axle of Vedic religions. Different kinds of dhmma are prescribed for different sections of society and for different stages of life-span. The rules are very strict in the matters concerned with dharma and no deviation is al-lowed. It is so strict that even after concerted efforts made during the last century or so, it has not been possible to erode the system from the Hindu society. The idol-worship was the result of the conception of the revelation through avtars and different gods and goddesses.
Now we can easily understand that Indian religions are not historic religions. To study them one has to evolve a model out of these traditions themselves. To determine how much deviation has taken place, or how they influenced history, culture and life of the people, one has to start from their scripture. In India, even philosophy and religion have not been independent of each other as in the West. Similarly religion and culture have not been separate. Religion has been their way of life, their culture. Everything is determined by religion. So, to study its culture one has to go into its scriptures. There are religious and cultural boundaries which are not easy to cross. Anybody who ignores this factor, cannot produce any worthwhile research in the history of Indian religions.
SOME EARLIER TRADITIONS
Before the Revelation of Sikhism took place, the Shaivism and Vaishnavism were the popular cults in India. They are not independent religions because they have no independent revelation. They are cults within the Yoga system of thought. They are known by many different names, but most popular among them is the Nath Sampradaya. Islam came to India with the Sufis and the Muslim invaders, and, thus, Was an alien religion in India.
The followers of the Vedic religions had no religious mixing up.They were closed religions and strictly kept their boundaries. But in the Yoga cults which developed in the later periods, there were no such restrictions. The Hindus (the common word given by the foreigners to the Indian people, Vedic or non- Vedic traditions, as described earlier) and Muslims could both become members of these cults. These cults also depend upon initiation. They observe restrictions only in matters concerning eating.
If Dr Oberoi had gone into the right sources of Indian religious thought, such as Surindernath Dasgupta or any other popular thinker, he could easily have understood the religious boundaries in their right perspective. The Sakhi Sarvar, Guga Pir or other such legends do not belong to the main tradition. They are not the main personalities. They are minor, local personalities in Yogic cults or Sampradayas belonging to Nathism. Dr Oberoi is very much ignorant of the mysticism, theology and spirituality of the Indian religions, and has not gone deep into the right sources, and his methodology is wrong.
Now let us come to the Sikh religion. To study any aspect of Sikh religion, be it history, mysticism, theology, philosophy or even sociology, it is most important that the researchers have the basic knowledge of Sikh revelation. Without this, one cannot understand any aspect of the Sikh religion as mentioned above, because all of them are deeply rooted in the Revelation.
The idea of Revelation in Sikhism is unique. It is in the form of the bani. According to Sikhism, man can have direct communion with God through meditation on His Naam. The revelation of Truth, the insight to the Guru, is referred to by the Guru himself. The Guru had the direct experience of truth which he expressed through bani. We fmd many references to this effect in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs, which is a record of the revelation, in the Guru’s biographical literature, and in writings of Bhai Gurdas, the first Sikh theologian. The bani is the primal word of God according to the Guru, “ihu akhru tini akhiya jini jagatu upayia.” Guru Amar Das has made distinction between true and false bani in Anand in Rag Ramkali. Guru Ram Das also makes a distinction between the embodiment of truth (sat-sarup bani) which is uttered by the Sat Guru and false prattle (kach-pich) which is uttered by others in imitation. Guru Ram Das has given the status of Guru to the bani. According to him, there is no difference between the Guru and the revelation made by him. It is the unique feature of Sikhism that the Guru is accepted as perfect and permanent in the form of bani, not in his corporeal form; because corporeal form is ephemeral and his bani is eternal. Guru Gobind Singh formally bestowed this status on Sri Guru Granth Sahib. He ordered Sikhs to accept the Granth as Guru after him and to seek guidance from it.
The idea of avtarvad or incarnation has been rejected in Sikhism. The avtars are creation of God like all other creation. Their worship as God has not been approved in the bani (the word) in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Whatever is not approved in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is not acceptable to the Sikh faith. According to Sikhism, the Reality is One Universal Being, the Real, the Spirit, the Creator, without restraint and enmity, above generation and cessation. The whole creation is moving towards Him and in the end merges in Him.
The Sikh revelation is independent of the previous traditions in India. The independence of any revelation is judged by the type of personality it creates. It is a continual process from Guru Nanak, the First Guru, to Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth and the last Guru in physical form. It took almost two hundred and forty years to transform the whole psyche of man on Indian land, and only then was the sangat converted into the Khalsa. Khalsa is the brahm-giani or the gurmukh of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. What type of person a Sikh should be, is described in Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the works of Bhai Gurdas and no deviation is allowed in practice from the ideals laid down by the Guru. One has to be capable of being a Sikh, a Khalsa. It is a religion of conversion. The Sikh culture is not different from Sikh religion because Sikhism is a way of life. The Sikh Gurus are very clear and emphatic in their rejection of irrational and superstitious beliefs. These are seen as bondage from which an enlightened person must seek release. This effort would relate man with the Higher Order of Being.
On the basis of the above general discussion, I would like to make some observations about the study done by Dr Oberoi in his book:
a. He is not well acquainted with the original sources of Sikh religion, philosophy and history, and has not used the right methodology to deal with these subjects. Sikh revelation is in the form of bani, not in the form of events in history like Christianity. You have to go from scripture to practices. Whatever is not approved by the scripture, its primary source, i.e. Sri Guru Granth Sahib, cannot be a part of Sikhism. For his studies, he should have gone deep into the question how and why the deviation started from the very beginning, from the time of Guru Nanak, by Baba Sri Chand. Due to this deviation, Sri Chand’s line of thought was not acceptable to Guru Nanak. Asceticism has no place in Sikhism. The theory of Varan- Ashram dhamta was rejected by the Guru very strongly. All the Gurus led a family life, which is stressed time and again in the revelation. Those who are quoted by Dr Oberoi, are themselves not well-acquainted with the tradition and its primary sources, e.g. Dr W.H. McLeod. He depends upon Janam Sakhis which are not the primary sources of Sikhism. Sikhism created history in Indian religions as well as in the world religions. It is not a product of history. Its history should be judged in the light of its Scripture. It transformed the whole psyche of man.
b. Dr Oberoi is ignorant of the fact that categories like Hindu, Muslim and Sikh, not only found expression in the consciousness, actions and cultural performances, but there are categories like Jaina and Boddhi and the different creeds which had clear-cut boundaries. We can find references to this effed as early as in Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the compositions of Bhai Gurdas. It is a different matter that they co-existed with each other. They were not hostile to one an- other, as were Christians and Jews.
c. If anybody violates the teachings of the Gurus, he cannot claim himself to be a Sikh. What a Sikh should be is clearly laid down in Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the Rahatnamas. Sikhs worship the One Supreme Being and nom: else. They do not believe in superstitions. It would have been worthwhile, if Dr Oberoi had understood Asa Di Var in the right perspective. Guga Pir, Sakhi Sarvar and Mata Rani have nothing to do with Sikhism. Sikhism is an independent religion with its own revelation. Its Scripture was compiled and authenticated by the Guru himself, and is the final authority to judge anything related to Sikh religion or culture.
Dr Oberoi is as confused about the Vedas as about Sikhism. He is ignorant of the fact that once the Vedas were systematized, even though they were not committed to writing, slightest change was not made even in the pronunciation, while passing from teacher to disciple. Rishi Vyas compiled the Vedas into written form. Vyas’s period is considered the period of Mahan Bharata. If there were no printing techniques, this does not mean that the Vedas were not available in the written form. Scripture and Religion, both these words belong to Western languages. But again this does not mean that the concepts like Dhanna and Dhanna- Grantha did not exist in Indian religions. Both these words Dhanna and Dhanna-Grantha have deeper meanings. The Western scholars hold a general view that the Indian religions are the religions of the basket, and that the Western or Semitic religions are the religions of the book. It is a wrong conception, based on ignorance regarding Indian religions. The Vedas are called the srnti which means revealed knowledge. They are the recorded revelation. Similarly Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism have their own revelations, and their scriptures or Granthas are the record of their revelations. As opposed to this, the Semitic religions were revealed in the form of historical events, especially Judaism and Christianity, and their scriptures are the record of those events and stories. They were recorded many years after the passing away of their prophets. Dr Oberoi has committed blunders, because he is following the Western thinkers and their line of thought, not applicable to Indian religions.
While talking about some cults or clans as Meherats, he forgets that Islam was the religion of the invaders, and that many people from different religions were converted into Islam by force by the rulers. The new religion was adopted under compulsion and many came into the fold of Islam. But to know about Quran, one would have to know its language i.e. Arabic. The new converts were not well versed in Arabic language. The Vedic religion had been so strict that once a man got converted into some other religion, it was not possible for him to come back to the Vedic religion. It had been very strict in its following; and no relaxation in the rules, or code of conduct was allowed.
f. Dr Oberoi’s discipline is history. How has he ignored the facts mentioned in the compositions of Bhai Gurdas, while writing about Sikhism? We find in the writings of Bhai Gurdas how different sections of Indian society, viz., the Hindus, Muslim, Buddhists, different cults of yogis, interacted with each other. At the same time, we come to know how a gursikh was taking a unique position, following the path of the Guru. He is missing the fact that a Sikh was recognizable very easily even in the late 17th and 18th century. A price was fixed on the head of a Sikh in those periods by the Muslim rulers. Why has he not gone into the original sources of Sikh history?
g. Sri Guru Granth Sahib, compiled by the Guru himself, is a revealed scripture. In this scripture the Guru time and again reminds us that we should try to understand the shabad through vichar (reason), and imbibe it in our mind. He does not ask for a blind faith. There is no place for a man without brains in this scripture, and Dr Oberoi brands it as an amorphous religious text. It seems to me that he has some preconceived notions in mind, and is trying to prove them by imposing models from here and there.
h. Dr Oberoi has clearly suppressed historical facts well recorded by Sikh, Muslim, Persian, Hindu and European sources. Dr Oberoi, as a Sikh, should have been very clear about the fact (which has been established by historical documentation) that after Guru Gobind Singh, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the shabad, is the Guru for the Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh himself bestowed guruship on the shabad in the traditional way of the Gurus. Why has Dr Oberoi concealed this historical fact? Does he have any special interest or group compulsion hide this fact? Even Dr McLeod has accepted this historical fact in his personal communications, because all the historians are unanimous on this point. Any creed or cult may appear important to Dr Oberoi, but he must keep in mind that no creed or cult which grants a line of Guruship to living persons after Guru Gobind Singh, and not to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, cannot claim to be part of Sikhism, even though they recite gurbani.
Every student of Sikhism clearly understands how deterioration crept into Sikhism after the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Under the English rule, many people, especially young students, started coming into the fold of Christianity under the influence of Christian missionaries while studying in the missionary schools and colleges This was the reason for the start of the Singh Sabha movement by conscious Sikh intelligentsia. It is a sheer academic dishonesty on the part of a scholar to distort facts just to support his preconceived notions. If he has done it under ignorance, then it must be regretted. He should have gone into the authentic primary sources before writing such a book, because he is holding a very important Chair in the Western world, and the Sikh community worked very hard to establish this Chair. Academic freedom demands academic responsibility, academic humility and academic honesty at the same time. To write a book on any religion or its history and culture demands that the researcher must review the primary sources and become familiar with its doctrines. It is not fiction writing where you can depend purely on imagination. The review of Dr Oberoi’s book shows that it is not an academic work but an imaginative writing primarily focused to fulfil interests alien to Sikhism.
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