ORIENTALISM, CRITICAL SCHOLARSHIP
AND THE SIKH RELIGION
NOEL Q. KING
This paper has been hurriedly written during intensive travelling on field research in India. I will have left India before final editing. I apologise for not giving detailed references and for dealing with so great a theme haphazardly, but something, however halting, has to be said. Western critical scholarship has got itself into a morass and minefield, we, its exponents are playing hop-scotch therein. In this paper I attempt to sound a note of warning, call for a re-consideration of where we are and a more wholistic approach. My specialization is History of Religion Relionsgeschichte) a subject which is still at an early stage of development. The reader should also be aware that I am a follower of a religious dharma, I accept the truth of the message of the Sri Adi Granth Sahib, but I am not a Sikh.
For around two centuries now European Scholars and their colleagues in their outer world in North America and latterly in the Antipodes, have been subjecting the great religions of the world to various canons of “Criticism”. The Greek etymology implies balanced judgement but the word has come in common usage to mean a weighing in balances and an almost inevitable decision that the religious tradition is found wanting. One of the first religious books to be subjected to criticism was the Jewish Law, Prophets and Writings which the Christians call the Old Testament. Just as the Christians had come to turn their back on the traditional Jewish exegesis, so the critics ignored the thinking of their predecessors over the previous centuries,
trusting rather to their own “Scientific” understanding of etymology, situation in life, source criticism, and redactor interpretation. Findings and methods from other sciences were applied. Among others the theory from Nordic studies of how myths developed, the hunt for sources and redactors in the Greek epics, Darwin’s theory of evolution, were all applied to the Old Testament. Archaeologists in Palestine, Egypt and Mesopotamia were hard at work. Many parallels to the Old Testament were dug up. MyoId teacher Professor S.H. Hooke of London who had added the study of tribal anthropology and Jungian psychology to all the academic equipment just enumerated, was at one point dismissed from his post at Toronto in a kind of witch-hunt. He remained throughout a sincere believer and follower of Old Testament teaching as accepted by Christianity.
His views expressed, when he was well over eighty, are worth repeating. He said the equipment the critic brings is as yet very crude. Nonetheless God has given us intellect and asks us to use it whatever the cost and as far as it will go. It may be the individual’s tragedy in the process that he loses his faith. He must be humble and remember the limitations of the human mind, respect the common beliefs and loyally remain under the discipline of his religious body even if that discipline turns against him personally. Obscurantists who too easily cry “The faith in danger” must remember the need that reasonable religion has of the critics.
I studied New Testament under Professor R.H. Lightfoot at Oxford. He had carefully sifted German and modernist thought and brought it to the English speaking world. He had to conclude that in the book “We hear but the whisper of (God’s) voice and the outskirts of his way.” Being personally profoundly devout, if one spoke to him, one understood that he meant that God is so great, that the human mind, especially at this point in the development of critical scholarship, cannot by itself get far in knowing Him. My other teacher of New Testament, Professor Geoffrey Lampe, who recently made a good death in the bosom of his mother, the Church, once to his own surprise found himself one Easter morning on National television being understood as telling five million people that Jesus had not risen from the dead. In fact, he had said that first and last belief in Jesus and the Resurrection is a response in faith. Sources which gave details of empty tombs, etc., are not of importance as compared with the testimony of the universal Church, and especially the love shown to all the cosmos by the believer. These men were believers, struggling to think out the problems and opportunities provided by faith and scholarship. But there are many others, post-Christian, post-Jewish, who work in a somewhat different way. There are also those who having been at one time fanatically Christian, who sought to be in the forefront by becoming nuns or missionaries, came to lose faith in all religion, especially their own. An extreme case is that of an ex-nun in the United States, who a few years ago published a book carefully worked out in the most traditions of modern critical scholarship to show that footbinding in China, sutee in India, female genital mutilation in Africa and the male domination of gynaecology in modern America were to be linked with the male Christian ministry as a massive plot by males in religion to oppress women. But quite common to-day is the formerly convinced Christian who has become disillusioned and turns to critical scholarship as a kind of worship of the human intellect and a “workacolcism” to dull his or her disappointment and frustration by hours and hours of drudgery over minute points of scholarship.
Christianity may expect to have its back flayed for some years to come with studies connected with Nag Hammadi. At that Egyptian village the library of a fifth or later century Coptic monastic group was dug up. The monks obviously kept suspect heretical and gnostic works hidden in a separate place and it was this cache which has been found. But now as scholars cash in, they will accuse the Church of suppressing early authentic material, though none of this material can be definitely proven to be really early and though the Church had no machinery for effectively suppressing anything till quite late in its history. Even so the Church must be grateful to all critical scholarship and not surrender to conservative diehards.
But to turn back to the early days of my critical studies in the late nineteen forties, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to spend a little time listening to Dr. Rudolf Bultmann, the archpriest of critical scholarship in religion. He had been advocating the de-mythologization of religion. For instance, we must remove the myth from Christianity that Christ came down from heaven, became incarnate by Virgin Mary, ascended into Heaven. We must eliminate Godout-there myth and re-clothe the existential truth in language more fit for modern, scientific man. He winced, whether from the brashness of my question or from the arthritis which was painfully coming over him, when I asked what he thought would be the effect of his teaching pastorally, that is, for people whose task was to tend souls. He said he had originally thought these things out when giving pastoral care to young men who were facing National Socialism in its prime. I deeply respected his reply but I remain puzzled as to how it helped people sinking in the myth of Hitler to ask them to turn to a mythless Christ. Myth has to be met on its own terms and understood as such. Considerations of space restrain
me from discussing the thinking of the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer who asked for a “religionless” Christianity while in a Nazi jail, and was hanged by them with a piano wire just before the Allied victory. He said man must come of age, stand on his own feet and love God as God, not as a prop for his religiosity.
To conclude these scattered remarks on critical study and Christianity, the two have come to a modus vivendi. The broad middle streams of Christianity gratefully accept many things won for them by the Critics. The background and meaning of the Bible is better understood, text criticism has given us a text we know is closer to the autograph than that of the great fourth century codices. Fundamentalists and diehards are free at the same time to go their own way and refuse the new freedoms offered. In the dialectic between the two groups and the alternating currents generated, the truth is to be found.
It is apparent from all this that critical scholarship is a native growth in Judaism and Christianity. Every species of critic is more dangerous when it turns the weapons developed in one religion onto another. In addition, if the critics themselves have departed from their own belief, their remarks on other people’s sacred things are liable to be affected thereby. If they are disappointed in their own faith, often their bitterness will be expressed in what they say of the faith of others. If they think their own old religion is based on irrationality and nonsense, they will hardly be able to refrain from extending the same courtesies to other people’s religions.
With all this in mind, let us turn to listen to what many educated Muslims are saying about western critical scholarship directed towards Islam. Theirs are bitter words and painful to repeat, but, true or false they have to be considered. These Muslims point out that a good number of the leading western Islamists were of Jewish background. They suggest that since they could do little to speak their minds about their own Jewish establishment and the Christianity of the ruling class in their host country, perhaps Islam, under colonial yoke from West Africa to the Philippines, was an easier target. These Muslims also point out that Jewishness aside, the western study of Islam was frequently connected with Imperialism. For example Snouck Hugronje’s works on Acheh was directly related to the successful resistance of that part of Sumatra to the Dutch. French Islamists in many parts of Africa and in Syria fall in a similar category.
Among the Christian missionaries who studied Islam, Muslims freely give honour to those who from Raymond Lull to Temple Gairdner and Kenneth Cragg have heard the truth
of the call of the minaret and left their sandals at the mosque gate, but they also remember those who studied so as to deride the authority of the Quran or to bring forward infamous allegations about the life of the Prophet. Laterly, these Muslims note, the critics have begun to use Marxist criteria to study Islam. Muslim history is being interpreted along dialectical materialist lines: class struggle and economics have priority over the Will of God as major springs of History.
Many Hindus welcomed the critical approach. They joined in to try to cleanse their religion of post-Vedic accretions like Sutee and the pernicious system of caste. They realized the missionaries were intending to blow up Hinduism by a new land mine — western critical education. They accepted that education and re-embraced a revived, re-invigorated Hinduism. To-day nearly every Hindu reformer will pay elaborate lip-service to the scientific method of evolution. In the meantime, the Hinduism the western scholar of the high summit of European scholarship studied was that of the great books, he did not try to see Hinduism in its context in the life of millions of ordinary people who do not know the Shastras. There is something infinitely pathetic in the remark of Max Mueller, the great nineteenth century Indologist of Germany and Oxford. He said his great regret was he had never visited India. Perhaps seeing Hinduism as it is, would have confused his scholarly notion of what it was.
There is also something infinitely pathetic in seeing some Hindu scholars ignoring the continuity of their own great institutions of exegesis and learning. They are turning always to receive back their own religion at western hands. Some of the finest of their scholars till recent times have been at pains always to show that their religion and philosophy has been equal to or surpassing that of the west. Truth to tell Hinduism is incomparable. There is no need to find Darwin’s theory or space travel in the Vedas, or to prove Hinduism is monotheist.
Traditional Religions such as African traditional Religion or the religion of “primal” groups in India or Australia or the islands of Pacific have in a way suffered most. While western “civilization” in its various forms has destroyed their ecology, scholars trained in western critical method have written up their religion, looking in it for the noble savage, primordial thought, the primeval basis of all religion – this is to name the nobler elements in the search. Yet basically homo religious has maintained the same steady principles and it is unlikely that these will change. The situation at the receiving end of this kind of western scholarship was exemplified for me by a Swahili Mzee (Elder). He said that an American scholar had visited him and said that he (the scholar) was not a follower of any dini (religion) and he wanted to investigate the dini of the Elder to see whether he could separate the Islamic element in it from the African. The Elder had tried to explain that dini could not be separated from milia (custom, dharma), that religion could only be understood by a man of religion, (Mtu Za dini). It was not necessary to have the same religion and way of life but only renegades could pretend they were without these things. The old man had done his best to answer the questions and trusted that those who read the scholar’s account would judge for themselves whether the questioner or the answerer was a lunatic.
One general conclusion which I draw from a long study of the critics, of which the above is a sketch, is that it is most important to remember the personality and circumstance of the critic. In a Natural Science like Chemistry it may not be necessary to know anything about the human being who is writing. In any subject which entails human subjects, the work must be put into a personal context. Accordingly, one feels every work of critical scholarship should have a government statutory warning that its consumption may be deleterious to the soul’s health. If it is to do with religion it should also have a statement of ingredients, including the religious standing of the writer. If he or she is a believer it is necessary to know this, so that the critical reader can allow for bias. If he or she is not a believer, we should have some indication of that too, lest the disillusionment or enlightenment of a post-Christian, a post-Jew or a postwhatever should give the critic rosy-coloured spectacles or a jaundiced outlook. The Victorians prescribed remarks to do with sex or religion in polite conversation. In academic circles any remarks on persons are taken to be bad taste. It is considered shocking manners to suggest that a scholar’s motives can come from anything lower than his or her rational intellectuality. Once when writing to Sirdar Khushwant Singh about “blasphemous critical remarks” he replied concerning the word “blasphemous” “in the academic world there are no holds barred.” When speaking of God and other people’s beliefs there are apparently no holds barred, but any personal remark about a critic, however true, is considered a hit below the belt. In turning at last to foreign critical scholarship and Sikhism, any apparently personal remarks are not intended personally. They are given critically and objectively and based on the internal evidence of the texts and writings themselves, not on personal knowledge of the scholars themselves.
Turning at last to Sikhism not many Western critically trained scholars have turned their attention to a first-hand study of this religion. Probably the major reason was that in their view the reward of the outcome could hardly repay the investment of time required by learning a regional language. Even when Punjabi had been mastered, it did not mean a scholar could be confident that he or she understood the varied languages and dialects used in the scriptures and related literature. Again, till recently efficient instruments for the study of Punjabi were not available abroad. The study of Sikhism demanded years of residence. While pointing out the difficulties, it is important to emphasize that Sikhism is one of the most open of religions in the world. Outsiders who. conform to a few reasonable requirements of good taste and custom are made welcome, everything is put before them without reserve. Having said these things, it remains to remark that it is still a puzzle why so few foreign scholars have devoted themselves to a study of Sikhism. This is a question Sikhs must answer, especially if they desire to have their religion interpreted to wider world.
Over against officials who were interested in Sikh history or the Sikh utility for colonial purposes, fully equipped foreign critical scholars of religion of an international calibre in effect number but a handful. Dr. Ernst Trumpp of Munich was paid by the India office and then by the colonial government to produce a translation of the Sri Adi Granth Sahib. After many years of labour his work was recognised by Max Mueller as being unsuitable for inclusion in his great Sacred Scriptures of the East Series. Dr. Trumpp’s general bitterness and disappointment is expressed in his vicious remarks about Sikhism in his Preface. While others in Europe and America had become great names by the exploitation of academic gold-mines which could be worked by graduate slave labor, while the great Professor supervised in the comfort of Berlin or Leipzig or Oxford or Harvard; poor Trumpp had little to show for his years of residence and study. Trumpp also apparently suffered from some racist views and despised his local informants to the extent of insisting on smoking a cigar while reading their scriptures.
Early in this century Macauliffe did much to set right the balance by the respect he showed for Sikhism and the felicity of his work. It remains one of the maingates through which foreigners enter the study of Sikhism. With Dr. C.H. Loehlin we are coming nearer to our own times. He is a Christian missionary of the type which has never been lacking and which does something to make up for the other kind. His deep respect for the Sikh people, his complete lack of any trace of European racism, his total self-giving in love to Sikh religion while he remains loyally Christian, together with his knowledge of the languages and cultures involved, enable him to go deep and reveal to the outside world the importance of Sikh religion to all humankind.
Noticeable is his refusal to discuss anything which might be understood by outsiders in a way derogatory to Sikhism. For him silence at our present stage of understanding is part of scholarship. In my studies of Sikhism, mostly carried out under difficulties in places like Uganda and California, since I left the Punjab in 1945 and have only been able to stay short terms (through regular visits since, 1965), I have been assisted beyond measure by the publication of Dr. Hew McLeod. Taking just the major four, Gum Nanak and the Sikh Religion, 1968, The Evolution of the Sikh Community, 1975, Early Sikh Tradition, 1980 (all published by Oxford University Press who also patronized Macauliffe) and The B40 Janam-Sakhi, 1980, published by Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, they place Dr. McLeod easily in the lead among foreign scholars, past or present. It is unlikely that his ability in language, especially in deciphering the meaning of a manuscript and archaic works will be surpassed. The work is meticulously carried out and based on a careful use of the text-critical, form-critical and othercritical methods developed in the West during the last two centuries. No doubt many studies by highly qualified local scholars will answer the points raised by Dr. McLeod in detail. I am concerned with relating them to a wider world and human context. In the middle Ages, scholars in Europe communicated in Latin and the mass of believers did not know what was being said. Much European critical scholarship to this day remains the small talk of one academic Mandarin to another till, for instance, a Cambridge Don, become Bishop, write a small book entitled “The Death of God” and it is taken up by the media. We cannot suppose that because some Punjabi farmers have taken to “English” beer they read scholarly works in English. The mass of Sikhs will go on as before. But in the United States Canada New Zealand Australia and Britain, there are many people who want to learn about Sikhism. Oxford University Press commands a world market and world publicity. Any educated person in the Englishspeaking world including India wanting to learn about Sikhism must turn to Dr. McLeod’s books.
Whatever Dr. McLeod intended many readers will ask his books the wrong questions and get the wrong answers. The books to an uninitiated reader seem to reiterate the notion that a great amount of Sikh belief appears to be based on uncritical religiosity. The reader seeking the well-springs of what Sikhism is will not be assisted. The only successful opponent to thousands of years of passing conquerors must have something that “makes him tick”. Nowhere in these books is there an attempt to tell us what it is. The reader wishing to know
about the heart of Sikhism will turn to these books and be offered meticulously and exhaustively carried out drills in certain methods of western criticism. Such reader’s desires and the purpose of the books differ. The reader will hardly be able to understand the true import of what is being said unless he or she possesses a background knowledge of the history of criticism. Thus the statements that Guru Nanak was not the founder of Sikhism and that the Janam-Sakhis are not biography but hagiology, if understood against Dr. McLeod’s background in the
quest of the Historical Jesus and other such pursuits, is trying to enunciate the basic tenet of critical scholarship. “If you ask an ancient source a question and it gives a nonsense reply, re-think your question.” It is an elementary critical statement to say a Gospel is a Gospel not a biography. Technically, it is Heilsgeschichte (Salvation-happening) not History. (English is poverty stricken here, it has only one word for History). But to say this is not to lessen its historicity, its part in the whole historical future. Now, baldly to re-apply these instruments of study without any explanation to a totally different subject is demanding nonsense replies. A .fanam-Sakhi is a genre of literature which is sui generis and it must be treated as such, according to its own Sitz im Leben (Situation in life). Again, when Dr. McLeod says that the Tenth Nanak could not have said and done what Sikh tradition says he said and did at the founding of the Khalsa in 1699 he is using critical techniques developed originally by critics of the speeches in Thucydides and in the book of Acts. He is trying to get down to the type of “historical bedrock” which American historians are supposed to enjoy with, for instance, what it is alleged Abraham Lincolin said at Gettys-burg, (Anyone knowing American democracy will tell you what historically “government by the people of the people” etc. really means). At one side Dr. McLeod ignores the whole religion history context. History of this kind can only be asked its own kind of questions but even in his own field of “Secular” history (if there can be such a thing) he ignores the whole findings of the Scandanavian school concerning narratives connected with Holy places and the findings of the Oral Historians in Africa and Papua-New Guinea. There is a living unbroken reliable tradition of the sayings and doings of 1699 quite apart from writing, still alive in the Punjab, which was
even more alive five generations ago when western observers came on the scene.
I had intended to leave detailed examples to indigenous scholars. Perhaps they will allow me to treat of one specimen. On pages 92 and 93 of Early Sikh Tradition in passing Dr. McLeod dismisses the tradition of the Panja Sahib at Hasan Abdal as an “aetiological legend”. That is, a story which has grown up to answer the “what is the cause of” (Greek aitios) question, like, “Why has the elephant a long nose”, Dr. McLeod has industriously gathered the scraps of information given by European travellers in the last century and on the basis of one written in 1866 he takes it that the narrative of Guru’s hand on the rock was invented by a faqir to save himself from being beaten up by Ranjit Singh’s troops. He makes much of the varying remarks by observers as to whether the hand-mark was etched upon or into the rock. A few chance-written remarks by passers-by and the reports of later visitors is enough to produce the label “invention by tradition.” The story of 1866 on which Dr. McLeod depends, rather than being an “aetiological legend”, should be classified as a “Sirdarjee Joke.” This is a genus of story invented by people wishing to show Sikhs are as stupid or obstinate as their own water-buffaloes. It is a type of narrative greatly cherished by Anglo-Indian, and Sophisticated Sikhs. We may compare “Jew-boy”, “Pole-ak” and “Paddy” jokes in the U.S.A. It is patently not to be seriously considered as a statement of what was actually said and done. Dr. McLeod who is so outstanding for his exhaustive fieldwork does not seem to have tried to collect oral evidence from the many living Sikhs who have visited Punja-Sahib and indeed possess detailed photographs. In addition, Pakistan welcomes New Zealanders and though Sikh shrines are carefully sealed off to prevent fanatics damaging them, scholars with persistence and adroit use of resources can get access to most things. It has to be admitted that critical scholarship has here performed less than its best with regard to one of the sacred things for which Sikhs are willing to lay down their lives.
This and other examples lead one to the conclusion that Dr. McLeod’s attitude is not confined to Sikhs or any feature of Sikhism but is for religion and religious phenomena as a whole. Applying his own method of judging by the internal evidence only, it has to be objectively noted and allowed for in any appreciation of his work, that he has absolute faith in the intellectual critical method as he understands it and has passed beyond treating religious criteria on any wider or larger basis. This is not to imply on my side that reason and religion are opposed or that one takes over from another. For me they go hand in hand, but finally the intellect and its methods, as we presently know them, are not perfect nor absolute nor infallible nor do they see things in focus or whole.
In conclusion, I would like to point out that I am not calling for a moratorium on critical scholarship. I have merely tried to point out the bluntness of the critical bludgeon, the need to be humble, considerate and courteous. I have asked that it be put in a context of the wholeness of the study and of the group being studied. As part of this I would ask that due place be given to the deshi home-grown production of critical scholarship. Imports should not prevent the development of the natural product. I must equally emphasize on the other hand that Sikh ism like all the great religions needs critical scholarship if it is to meet the intellectual needs of its increasingly highly educated followers. Perhaps, Dr. McLeod’s works stand out so much in this respect because the leading Sikh Scholars writing in English in the Punjab need to keep in the good books of the Establishment and therefore studiously avoid “sticking their necks out”. They, as much as Dr. McLeod, have produced the present situation. The young Sikh critical scholar is in no enviable position and he must be helped and encouraged soon at all costs.
For the rest, if I have been unfair personally or have hurt any body’s feelings, I beg pardon and apologize in advance. To quote Dr. Hew McLeod, I ask for “sympathetic understanding”..