News & Views




  I S C

  Research Projects

  About Us


Gur Panth Parkash

Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Translated by
Prof Kulwant Singh



Interpreting Sri Guru Granth Sahib in a Hindu Context: A Few Preliminary Remarks

N. Muthu Mohan

Even a sporadic reading of the secondary literatures on Sikhism, all along and intermittently from the earliest exegeses to the most recent expositions of Sikhism, evidences that the Sikh writings have always been influenced by certain non-Sikh ideologies. In other words, Sikhism has come into existence from certain pre-Sikh thoughts, however, continued to influence it. To enumerate them in very broad terms one can name Hinduism and Islam historically prior and the Western influences during the colonial era. Punjab, the oldest land known in Indian history is the land of Sikhism, had also been the land of Indus civilization, accommodated for a while the Aryans who entered into India, allowed itself the Buddhist and Tantric cultures to flourish, then had deep openings to the Persian-Arabic and Islamic cultures, had innumerable cultural traits at its body, giving elaborate opportunities for influences. The present paper addresses only the Hindu context among them, possibly, the biggest and critical of them all. The term "Hindu context" itself is a complex one and full of ambiguities. Starting from the linguistic usage of the term, its geographical, political, cultural and religious connotations have contesting meanings. Historically and spatially, vertically and horizontally, the so-called Hindu context has endless discontinuities. The indeterminateness of the Hindu context itself, if not political ambitions, tempts the Hindu scholars to attribute Hindu paradigms to any other newly emerging religion around. Although there are clear statements in Sri Guru Granth Sahib that Sikhism was a new path different from the then existing traditions namely Islam and Hinduism, it has happened so that again and again our understanding of Sikhism is pulled towards the Hindu paradigms that are existing around. At times it is claimed that Hinduism is the cultural background of Sikhism and some other times it is claimed that Hinduism is the source from which Sikhism has emerged. Looking at the historical conditions and cultural context of the birth of Sikhism, these claims may be treated as natural, however, on the other hand, the claims cannot be taken as innocent and free from political and cultural dominance. Some of the claims often go to the extreme of encroaching into the originality of the Sikh thought.

The following are the words of Suniti Kumar Chatterji, the then President of Sahitya Akademy of India in his Foreword to Sardar Trilochan Singh's book titled "Guru Nanak: Founder of Sikhism" published by the Delhi Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee in the year 1969, during the 500th year celebrations of the Birth of Guru Nanak Dev: "The faith preached by Guru Nanak was nothing new for India, it was basically the old monotheistic creed of the ancient Hindus as propounded in the Vedas and the Upanishads- the Vedanta with its insistence upon jnana or knowledge of the One Supreme Reality. And the monotheistic basis was fortified, so to say, to put the matter in simple form by Bhakti or faith as inculcated in later Puranic Hinduism. The Sikh Panth was nothing but a reformed and simplified Sanatan Dharma of medieval times."(1). Again S. Radhakrishnan, a leading philosopher and former President of India maintains that, "Sikh Gurus do not claim to teach a new doctrine but only renew the eternal wisdom. Nanak elaborated the views of Vaishnava Saints"(2). These are the worst examples of the 'Hindu context'. Apart from the indecency involved in writing such self-centered forewords, there are certain other things explicitly mixed up in the words of the writers. They show that the two writers rush to reduce Sikhism to Hinduism, particularly to two of its mainstreams, namely the Vedanta and the Bhakti thoughts.

We are not at all inclined to assert that Hinduism had nothing to do with the birth of Sikhism. I quote Sardar Daljeet Singh, a distinguished Sikh scholar of yester years, "No understanding and appreciation of Sikhism is possible unless one has a clear and proper picture of the religious doctrines and thought that had been accepted, and the traditions and trends that had been established in the country, before Guru Nanak appeared on the scene."(3). The scholar himself undertakes a comparative scrutiny of variety of differing religious and philosophical trends of India in the book quoted. They all together can make only the context in which Sikhism has come into existence. What is pertinent here is to identify and recognize, above all, that Sikhism is a new Word, a new Path and a new Panth, and it is necessary to focus and interpret what is new in Sikhism.

Two Notable Historical Periods
We know very well that there are innumerable concepts and terms from Vedanta and Bhakti (also Islam and Sufism, Yoga and Buddhism) available in Sri Guru Grath Sahib. Equally we know that there were long periods in the history of Sikhism when very conscious attempts were vested to interact with the Vedic thought structures and make them help (!) interpret Sikhism. Sikh historians retrospectively evaluate that these were periods of massive intrusion of Vedantic concepts into Sikh thought. H.S. Virk explores the situation in clear words, "During the eighteenth century and up into the early part of the nineteenth century, the task of interpreting and preaching the message of the Guru Granth Sahib primarily rested with the Udasi and Nirmala teachers.The first exegete of this period was Anandghana. His interpretations are saturated with Upanishadic lore and are densely Vedantic rather than the Sikh, and are apparently a conscious re-incubation of Hindu ideology in Sikh thinking. The Nirmala scholars generally echoed the Udasi trend of interpreting the Sikh scriptural texts in the inflated style prescribed by the Hindu commentators on Upanishadic and Vedic texts. Bhai Santokh Singh (1788-1843), the most prominent among the Nirmalas..too was writing from within the Hindu framework and reflected a deep Brahmanic influence."(4) Dharam Singh agreeing with the ideas of the previous author elaborates the nuances of the Vedic influences in interpreting Sikhism. "..there was among the earlier exegetes a tendency to see the Sikh Scripture as a continuation of the revelatory literature in India, an extension of the Vedic tradition. The exegetes in the Udasi and the Nirmala schools, who had come to the field of Sikh exegies after having made a deep study of Indian sacred literature, generally equated the Guru Granth Sahib with the Vedas and explained and interpreted its hymns in the Vedic perspective. To them, Vedas were the norm, and they interpreted each hymn from the Guru Granth Sahib with evidence from the Vedas." (5).

We identify in broad terms that there were two significant periods when Sikhism and the interpretation of Guru Granth Sahib underwent the intrusion of alien ideologies into its corpus, namely the period (Late 18th and early 19th centuries) when the Udasis and Nirmalas were influential in Sikh exegetical practice and another period, that is the period (Late 19th and early 20th centuries) of colonial rule when the European Orientalists and Nationalist Hindus were immensely and systematically active in interpreting the religious scriptures and philosophical texts of India. We also notice that there are certain very important differences between the two varieties of scholars, especially in their posing of Hinduism towards Sikhism.

The Udasis and the Nirmalas
We find that the Udasis were the earliest exegetes of Sikhism and its scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The Udasi sect was founded by Sri Chand, the elder son of Guru Nanak Dev who took to an ascetic way of life, however, did not explicitly claim any separate way deviating from the Guru's path. One can observe at least three strands of Hinduism loosely linked among themselves popularly influencing the Udasi readings of Sikhism. They are firstly, the Vedantic thought, secondly, the Bhakti traditions and thirdly, the Yoga practices. These were the three important blocks of thought-practices that were typically intruding into the readings of Sikhism through the Udasis and the Nirmalas. These three blocks of Hindu thought patterns very fluently find similarities in Sikh thought. One is tempted to say that these three similar blocks are historically over-determined. Madanjit Kaur writes,"..the Udasis preferred more enthusiastically the approach of Gyan marg (path of knowledge) although they acknowledged all the three Hindu methods of attaining mukti (viz. karm marg, bhakti marg and gyan marg). The object of the Udasi bhakti is to catch the light of the Supreme Reality and merger in God."(6).

The overlapping of Vedantic gyan, bhakti, karma and yoga is characteristic of the spirit of the times which gave birth to the Sant tradition and the Nath Yogis. Even some Sufi saints were impressed by this combination. "The Matra Shastra of Baba Sri Chand is composed after heuristic method and is an example of medieval Indian religious text of the Sant Parampara of Northern India. Its cultural pattern is exactly after that of the Nath and Yogic cults with some specific distinctions as marks of Udasi identity" (7). The Udasi saints address the Vedas, Upanishads, the Puranas and Shastras without any discrimination, in a very diffused manner. It appears that the Hinduized Udasis and Nirmalas were not conceptually very strong to differentiate Vedanta from bhakti, and Bhakti from Karma or Yoga. In the absence of conceptual clarity, their attitude to Hinduism remained dominantly ritualistic. At times, it seems that the Udasis and Nirmalas were desirous to include Sikhism as one another marga, namely the Naam Marga, along with the other three already existing in Hinduism. Otherwise they would like to dissolve the Sikh doctrine of Naam into the already existing Bhakti marga.

The philosophy of Vedanta was not very privileged in the traditional Udasi understanding. Vedanta was one among many philosophies popular in the late medieval period. It is not difficult to locate and identify certain parallels between the Hindu corpus of Vedanta, Bhakti and Yoga on the one hand and and the Sikh concepts and practices. The Udasis and Nirmalas were inclined to associate the Sikh ideas of Ik Onkar and Shabad to the Vedantic thought, the Sikh love and devotion to the Personal God to medieval bhakti and the Naam Simran with meditation on Naam. These are the classical associations implied between Sikhism and Hinduism by the Udasis and Nirmalas. These associations do not limit themselves with the Udasi and Nirmala period but continue to leave their impression even well after the period mentioned. These associations inform us where the Sikh hermeneutics ought to be vigilant against the epistemological traps if it really wants to keep its originality.

The Orientalists and the Nationalist Hindus
We are inclined to name the Udasi and Nirmala course of interpretation of the Sikh Scripture as Pre Modern, because during the second historical period the European Orientalists and Nationalist Hindus massively introduced and made use of so many modern tools to interpret the religious literatures and practices of India. The making of modern Hinduism, for example, is a very complex phenomenon, a big story of its own specific features which needs its own specialized study.

During the period of colonial rule, Hinduism went out of the boundaries of Indian subcontinent, became a religion of comparative studies, particularly in the hands of the Orientalists. It seems that the German orientalists had a special interest in promoting Hinduism, particularly its Vedantic mode into a philosophy and religion of universal dimensions. From among so many other philosophies of ancient India such as Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisesika or Buddhism which have more cosmological and nature-philosophical, logical, sociological and ethical concepts and values, the orientalists opted for the more abstract and pale Vedantic philosophy due to many reasons. The Germans had, above all, a racial inclination to identify the Vedas as the earliest of all religious literatures of the world, produced by the Aryan people living in ancient India. They succeeded in making use of Linguistics, a more rigorous and scientific discipline, for this purpose. Susanne Marchand informs that, "It was the queen of the nineteenth century sciences, philology, that gave scholars access to the revered cultures of antiquity..Orientalist philology, once freed from theological constrains, contributed heavily to Aryanophilia." The author continues to say that the "Aryan Industry..juxtaposed the German and oriental Geist."(8). The juxtaposing of German and Oriental Geist played a specific role in the civilizational politics of the Germans in Europe.

The study of Sanskrit language in the German institutes led them to argue that Sanskrit was the first language in which the revelations of the Divine Word occurred. By making the Vedas as the oldest of all scriptures of the antiquity, the Germans replaced the Jewish privilege to the ancient religious literatures as well as they replaced the Greek access to the most ancient philosophical texts. The Germans, possibly, had a grand plan to produce another renaissance that was necessarily different from the Italian renaissance, more religious and more Aryan in its content. It is interesting to examine how this grand design did not reach its ultimate success and what were the forces which contributed to the defeat of this attempt. One cannot miss the role of the Sikhs, the Tamils, the Dalits and other federal-democratic forces in this regard.

The German scholars, Max Muller and Paul Deussen, spent much of their erudite energy to establish that the Vedas were the first religious literatures and the Upanishads were the first philosophical texts, both internally related to represent the philosophical system called Vedanta, and Vedanta having an elite form in Sankara's Advaita and an emotional mass expression in Bhakti movements of medieval India philosophically depicted in Vishistadvaita and Dvaita of Ramanuja and Madhva respectively. Starting from the Vedas as if coherently moving through Upanishads and Vedanta, and the variations of Vedanta, makes the Vedic Aryan thought the Universal system of religion and philosophy. In the medieval history of India, we find that the abstract Advaita philosophy was theoretically and practically overcome by the bhakti movements of different sorts and their corresponding philosophies. However, Paul Deussen links Advaita and Bhakti in a special way. He makes them into two layers of Vedanta. "Cankara constructs out of the materials of the Upanishads two systems, one esoteric, philosophical (called by him nirguna vidya, sometimes Paramarthika Avastha), containing the metaphysical truth for the few, rare in all times and countries, who are able to understand it; and another exoteric, theological (saguna vidya, vyavakarika avastha), for the general public, who want images, not abstract truth; -worship, not meditation"(9). Deussen sees the sociological implications of the layers of Vedanta dividing the people into elite and laymen. Lance E. Nelson, a researcher of recent times, associates the reconciliation of paramarthika and Vyavakarika or Vedanta and bhakti to the infamous accommodation of castes in India. "Sankara attempts to accommodate both theism and an impersonal, trans-theistic non-dualism. He accomplishes this by providing two interrelated but non-continuous views of the world. Ranked hierarchically, these two ways of thought assume as their counterparts two distinct and unequal spiritual paths with two separate and again unequal, spiritual goals. Graded linkages to the Hindu system of hereditary social class give these two spiritualities concrete sociological manifestations." (10). It appears that Deussen very well understood the caste implications of the Vedantic layers and he considered it a contribution of the ancient Aryans to world thought.

William Jones, another celebrated Orientalist "started the tendency of characterizing Indian thought as spiritual and in contrasting it with Greek thought" (11). The term "spiritual" as an initial moment in history was introduced by certain Orientalists to do away with the Greek philosophical substratum that was standing behind the European enlightenment. Deussen had clear Christian (Protestant) connotations in his appreciations of Vedanta. "The Upanishads are for the Veda, what the New Testament is for the Bible, [an analogy] not merely external and accidental, but is fundamental and based upon a universal law of development of the religious life" (12).

It is also interesting to notice that some of the Western Orientalists themselves linked the discovery of Vedic spiritualism with the emergence of Nationalist fervor. In that case, Nationalism too acquires a mystic flavor. It is another interesting question that may be studied in comparison to the makings of European nationalisms, for example. "Max Muller was quick to connect this [Vedanta] with such essentialist ideas like national character not only their religion, but their philosophy also was connected with the national character of the inhabitants of India..." writes Muralidharan, an exponent in Upanishads, quoting the words of Paul Deussen (13).

The second part of the present discussion on Colonial Vedanta is how the orientalist views were received or responded by the emerging Nationalist elite of India. Again there are differing views about the reception. Questions are raised on what was common between the Germans and the Indian elite? A big number of books have started coming out in recent times in the Postcolonial genre that Hinduism was an invention of the Westerners that there was no such religion before the Orientalists. Even Kanchi Kamakoti Aacharya, the head of the famous South Indian Smarta Brahmin mutt, once mentioned that thanks to the Britishers we had got a more or less coherent religious entity called Hinduism. However, a few other scholars indicate the existence of a scholarship of hybrid nature that was enthusiastic about the orientalist discovery of Aryan and Sanskrit antiquity. Richard King writes that "Western influence was a necessary but not a sufficient causal factor in the rise of this particular social construction. To argue otherwise would be to ignore the crucial role played by Indigenous Brahmanical ideology in the formation of early Orientalist representations of Hindu religiosity" (14).

A recent book titled "Bourgeois Hinduism or The Faith of the Modern Vedantists" by Debarban Ghosh says that the modern Vedanta is designed to legitimize the caste and class interests of the Bengali badralok population of late 19th and early 20th century. A similar statement can be made about the making of Arya Samaj in the North Western part of India. The Hindu elite nourished the western terminology it received. The nationalist elite multiplied the mystic terminology attributed by the Orientalists to Indian philosophy. The following are the words of S. Radhakrishnan on Indian philosophy, "The dominant character of the Indian mind which has colored all its culture and moulded all its thoughts is the spiritual tendency. Spiritual experience is the foundation of India's rich cultural history. It is mysticism, not in the sense of involving the exercise of any mysterious power, but only as insisting on a discipline of human nature, leading to a realization of spiritual. While the sacred scripture of the Hebrews and the Christians are more religious and ethical, those of the Hindus are more spiritual and contemplative. The one fact of life in India is the Eternal Being of God." (15). One is astounded by the affluent and careless usage of so many western terms by the celebrated philosopher.

Radhakrishnan made Vedanta the core system of all Indian philosophies. "..every form of Hinduism and every stage of its growth is related to the common background of the Vedanta. Though Hindu religious thought has traversed many revolutions and made many great conquests, the essential ideas have continued the same for four or five millenniums. The germinal conceptions are contained in the Vedanta standard..It is said that other scriptures sink into silence when the Vedanta appears, even as foxes do not raise their voices in the forest when the lion appears. All sects of Hinduism attempts to interpret the Vedanta texts in accordance with their own religious views. The Vedanta is not a religion, but religion itself in its most universal and deepest significance." (16). This is the classical example of a nationalist violently dissolving the multifarious heritage of Indian peoples into one Vedanta and making everything else meaningless. The quoted words illustrate that Vedanta Nationalism is the aggressive disciplining mode of thought in relation to the regional and subaltern cultures. It disciplines all the systems of Indian philosophy to fall in line under the hierarchical leadership of Vedanta. All the ways lead to Vedanta, is the slogan of the nationalist philosopher. Vedanta absorbs, assimilates, eats away and digests everything non-vedantic. A moderate position on the issue tells that the emerging nationalist elite of India "made use of the Orientalist views" to counter the colonialists and to energize the Indian masses for freedom.

The scholars of Subaltern school of history are very much critical of the nationalist elite, for example, one among them, Partha Chatterjee maintains that their nationalism itself is a mirror image of the colonial ideology of their European masters. He characterizes the Indian nationalism as a "Derivative Nationalism". Following the Gramscian terminology, Ranajit Guha asserts that it is "dominance without hegemony", by hegemony he means the consent that must be reached among the various inner layers of the people.

Another book titled "Vedanta: Heart of Hinduism" authored by Hans Torwestern informs that, "There are numerous contemporary attempts at popularization that see Vedanta as the sum-total of all religions and philosophical systems, a perennial philosophy in its simplest and most concentrated form of universal religion as such…The Vedantin can often be quite patronizing because he is convinced that his Vedanta includes all other religions while at the same time transcending them. This attitude sometimes turns into arrogance…seeing everything only through Vedantic spectacles, the zealot wants to reduce everything to a common denominator. Thus what is unique to other religions – something one cannot simply appropriate to oneself – is all too often completely overlooked." (17).

Conclusion: The Sikh Articulation as a Hermeneutic Problem
The above exercise about the travel of Hinduism in 19th and 20th centuries brings to focus the difficulties encountered by the Sikhs in articulating their philosophy and practice in their own terms. By the end of 19th century and beginning of 20th century, when the Sikhs were going through the Singh Sabha and Gurdwara Reform movement, they could at least partially, but in main, overcome the influences of the Udasis and the Nimalas. But, by then, starts from an another end the intrusion of western tools and the derivative nationalist Hindu elite influences. Although there are direct western readings of Sikhism and Sri Guru Granth Sahib well early, I consider that the making of Hinduism by the Orientalists is a significant phenomenon, and its presence as an ideology of Nationalist elite is more thrusting and propulsive upon Sikhism. Western tools have become a challenge to Sikhism particularly through the western making of Hinduism in modern times. Sikh experience and encounter of western tools occur above all and immediately through the hegemonic Hindu thrust. It was a very ticklish and trapping situation. Consequently, the Sikh scholars had to work out their hermeneutic strategies to face the situation. One can presuppose that in conditions of pan-Indian dominance of Hinduism and its pretentious global presence, the Sikhs would be compelled to produce a resistant identity and a resistant hermeneutics escaping the traps laid down by the Hinduized interpretations of Sikh concepts and practices. It would be a kind of internal decolonizing more difficult and more intimate due to the innumerable overlapping concepts that are existing between Sikhism and Hinduism historically conditioned. A type of hermeneutic or epistemological vigilance becomes inevitable for the successful decolonizing in Indian context and writing Sikh philosophy in its own terms.

1. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Foreword in Trilochan Singh, Guru Nanak: Founder of Sikhism, Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Delhi, 1969

2. S. Radhakrishnan in Trilochan Singh et.al, Selections from the Sacred Writings of the Sikhs, Samuel Weiser, Inc., Newyork, 1973

3. Daljeet Singh, Sikhism: A Comparative Study of Its Theology and Mysticism, Singh Brothers, Amritsar, 1994, P. 320

4. Hardev Singh Virk, Approaches to the Exegies of Sri Guru Granth Sahib in Perpectives on Guru Granth Sahib, Vol. 7, 2009-12, P. 62

5. Dharam Singh, Sikh Exegeses: Contribution of Prof. Sahib Singh, in Perspectives on Guru Granth Sahib, Vol. 7, 2009-12, P. 68

6. Madanjit Kaur, Udasi Matras in the Book: Seminar Papers on Baba Sri Chand, Gobind Sadan, New Delhi, 1989, P. 41. For more detailed study of Udasis, see the Book: Sulakhan Singh, Heterodoxy in the Sikh Tradition, ABS Publications, Jalandhar, 1999

7. Madanjit Kaur, opp.cit., P. 33-34

8. Susanne Marchand, German Orientalism and the Decline of the West, Proceedings of the American Anthropological Society, Vol. 145, No. 4, December 2001, P. 466

9. Paul Deussen, Elements of Metaphysics, Macmillan, London, 1894, P. 325

10. Lance E. Nelson, Theism for the Masses, Non-Dualism for the Manastic Elite: A Fresh Look at Sankara's Transtheistic Spirituality in the book: The Struggle over the Past: Fundamentalism in the Modern World, Ed. By William M. Shea University Press of America, 1989, P. 63

11. M. Muralidharan. The Discursive Geography of Upanishads, D. C. Books, Kottayam, 2003, P. 16

12. Ibid., P. 24

13. Ibid., P. 19

14. Richard King, Orientalism and the Modern Myth of "Hinduism", Numen, Vol. 46, No. 2, 1999, P. 148

15. S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, Vol. I, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1977, Pp. 41-42

16. S. Radhakrishnan, A Hindu View of Life, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1954, Pp. 22-23

17. Hans Torwestern, Vedanta: Heart of Hinduism, Grove Press, New York, 1985, P. 3, 13-14


ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2019, All rights reserved.