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The Passing of Hew McLeod

Discussion in 'Sikh Personalities' started by Admin Singh, Aug 7, 2009.

  1. Admin Singh

    Admin Singh
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    Jun 1, 2004
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    Having battled courageously with cancer for seven years, W.H. McLeod had a fall and succumbed to his injuries on July 20, 2009. Known to be a caring family person, a generous teacher, and an outstanding scholar of the Sikh tradition, McLeod will be missed by family and friends spread around the globe.

    New Zealander by birth, Hew McLeod and his wife Margaret arrived in the Punjab under the auspices of their church in the late 1950s, underwent a transformation to turn into self-proclaimed atheists, developed a special affection for the Sikhs, and McLeod went onto to dedicate the rest of his life toward studying the Sikh community.

    His scholarly career began with Guru Nanak and Sikh Religion (Clarendon Press, 1968) and the extensive work that followed this can be placed under the broad categories of Sikh history, translations of early Sikh texts, and critical discussions of early Sikh literature. His seminal studies in these three areas include The Evolution of the Sikh Community (Clarendon Press, 1975) and Who is a Sikh? The Problem of Sikh Identity (Clarendon Press, 1989); The B-40 Janam Sakhi (Guru Nanak Dev University, 1980) and The Chaupa Singh Rahit-Nama (University of Otago, 1987); Early Sikh Tradition (Clarendon Press, 1980) and Sikhs of the Khalsa Rahit (Oxford University Press, 2003), respectively. In terms of range, depth, and usefulness for teaching the Sikh tradition, McLeod’s writings constitute a class by themselves.

    McLeod’s contribution to Sikh Studies also includes mentoring students who now hold positions of prominence within the field. Tony Ballantyne (University of Otago, New Zealand), Louis Fenech (University of Northern Iowa, U.S.A.), and Pashaura Singh (University of California, Riverside) worked under his direct guidance, while many others—myself included—had the benefit of his advice at crucial junctures of their academic careers. In this role, McLeod was generous with his time and did whatever he could to help younger scholars find their own paths.

    Furthermore, McLeod took upon himself the responsibility of helping the Western world become aware of the importance of the Sikh community and its traditions. At the invitation of the American Council of Learned Societies, he delivered a series of lectures at North American universities during 1986-1987, and later appeared as ‘expert witness’ in the Canadian courts on issues ranging from the nature and importance of the Sikh turban to the understanding of the Sikh sword (kirpan) as a religious symbol. Until 2002, when his health began to deteriorate, one cannot think of any major academic event concerning Sikhism in North America in which he was not present.

    McLeod’s career, however, was not without bumps. From the very outset, controversies dogged his research, and scholarly opinion remained split on the nature of his work. Some scholars were critical of his argument developed in Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion and as a result he was not invited to the international conference held at Punjabi University, Patiala, to celebrate the fifth centennial of Guru Nanak’s birth in 1969. Simultaneously, there were others who supported the publication of a Punjabi translation of the section on the Guru’s teachings in the same book by Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, in 1974.

    With his subsequent writings, these tensions turned into noisy public denunciations of McLeod’s scholarship at Sikh forums both in the Punjab and overseas in the late 1980s. The publication of his provocatively entitled Who is a Sikh? The Problem of Sikh Identity, in 1989, did not help this situation. McLeod was, however, fortunate to have the support of Margaret, a very special human being in her own right, and he stoically made his way forward through this period of agony and stress. He provides his reflection on this phase of his life in his book Discovering the Sikhs (Permanent Black, 2004).

    The precise nature of McLeod’s scholarly legacy will be sorted out in the months and years ahead. As I write, there are some scholars who consider his formulations on various issues of Sikh history as sacrosanct, and there are others who so profoundly dislike what he has written that they are not able to discuss it in a calm manner. No matter what shade of opinion one may hold between these extremes, there is no question about the fact that McLeod’s writings have remained at the center of Sikh scholarship during the past four decades. His imprint on the field stands unmatched by any other scholar of his generation.

    Professor McLeod at UC Santa Barbara in 2001

    It is hard for me to miss this opportunity to publically acknowledge my gratitude for his role in my own scholarly growth. The fact that I hold different positions than those of Professor McLeod on a wide variety of issues ranging from the origin of the Sikh community to the dating of many early Sikh texts did not effect his support for my work and affection for my family. I salute this beautiful human being and outstanding scholar for his unquestionable integrity!

    For me, the best homage to the memory of Professor McLeod lies in the continuation of his legacy of asking difficult questions, stating one’s research results with candor, and defending them to the best of one’s ability, if need be. While coming to terms with the hard fact of his departure from the scene, I believe his admirers, critics, and others alike need to begin a more nuanced discussion about the future of Sikh Studies in the post-McLeod era. Nothing would please him more than seeing our concerted effort towards encouraging the growth of responsible scholarship and the coexistence of a wide variety of ideas in the field he so caringly nurtured for over four decades!

    Gurinder Singh Mann
    University of California, Santa Barbara


    We are gathered to remember our good friend Hew McLeod. Hew and Margaret asked me to say a few words. These will reflect the massive upswell of emotion and grief among Hew's many friends across the globe. My wife Joanne and I had the privilege of being with Hew and Margaret several times over the last decade. Hew and I go back a long way, with our first meeting in Batala in 1969. He was one of my two closest friends, and as he would say about his relationship with JS Grewal, I am his younger brother. I appreciate Tony sharing these thoughts, both personal and a reflection of how a community of friends and scholars has experienced Hew McLeod.

    Two events accidently coincided with Hew's fall a couple of weeks ago. Just a day or so before being hospitalized, he mailed the final proofs of a revised Penguin volume on Sikhism. A little earlier, New Zealand TV ran that wonderful documentary on his life, family, and contributions to Sikhs abroad and in New Zealand.

    I laughed and cried when I heard Hew described as a New Zealand Success Story and an International Superstar. That he was, but I would have given much to see his face when those superlatives hit the screen. Although Hew had a much more modest view of himself, I am sure he enjoyed the discussions of his contributions and the story of his life and family. I personally learned many things from the documentary, ranging from a book he wrote , Punjab to Aoteara, and never mentioned to me, to the poignant story about Ruthie's adoption and the letter promising to raise her in a sectarian way.

    For me, particular themes also stood out in the half hour presentation. Hew ventured beyond his comfort zone as a historian working with documents to become an ethnographer and anthropologist gathering oral material and working in great detail with the memories of individual New Zealand Sikhs. Hew also appeared as a scribe copying a rare document in Amritsar, soon to be destroyed in the attack on the Golden Temple. Hew frankly straddled the old and new in technology. I remember his old decrepit computer and software, finally evolving into the use of a modern machine with a flat screen. Still, the documents that he collected and which were digitized by Harpret Singh originally were in Hew's careful handwriting.

    In a broader sense, Hew was an accidental scholar. He had the training and personality to carry out great work, but not until the opportunity came to go to India, where he discovered the Sikhs, did he integrate those skills into a valuable lifetime pursuit of Sikh history. There he and Margaret explored their own values, and Hew made a dramatic pivot from activities relating to the pulpit to the University lectern. Ainslie Embree's account of their discussions about whether to attend church services when he no longer believed dogma is illuminating. Ainslie counseled " hold on" for awhile, but Hew found that to be "hypocritical play-acting." As Ainslie notes, " as I got to know him better, I realized that my advice while expedient was contrary to everything he stood for as a person and a scholar. That was at the heart of his greatness, a commitment to truth, and why I so greatly valued his friendship."

    There of course was nothing accidental about what Hew brought to the table once he began serious research on Sikhism. He had a unique intelligence coupled with a commitment to history, finding the truth, and getting every piece of evidence, small and large, from documents. He pulled no punches when examining Sikh tradition, although characteristically, he frequently interjected phrases such as "it is possible" or "the evidence seems to suggest" so as to open up dialogue with others who might have different perspectives and use different documents.

    The products? A lifetime of unbroken scholarship, books, articles, and conference papers. Hew wrote or edited almost twenty books. He addressed most of the major issues concerning modern Sikhism. As numerous associates note in their reflections on Hew's life, he helped define Sikh studies. He also trained a new generation of scholars and taught many students who built upon their experiences to move in a variety of directions.

    His oldest and most renowned student, Professor Pashaura Singh, holder of the Sikh Chair at the University of California Riverside, captures that experience: "As my mentor he taught me skills of scientific inquiry and guided me with gentle care. Right from the beginning of my association with him he encouraged me to become my own person in the field of Sikh studies. That is what I cherish the most from my experience with him. I still remember that day when it was heavily snowing in Toronto. During the class I had expressed the desire to see his forthcoming book from Columbia University. In that cold and heavy show he walked to my apartment and knocked at the door. When I opened the door, he offered me the galley proofs of his book."

    Questioning documents and re-examining traditions necessarily generates opposition, and Hew's whole life henceforth was filled with controversy. He narrates the issues beautifully in his intellectual autobiography, Discovering the Sikhs. Often politics, academic jealousy, and a sense of "Sikhism in danger" lay behind the attacks. Specific groups and networks of Sikhs mobilized, publishing books, holding numerous conferences, and at one juncture, spending approximately $10,000 in memberships and fees to get a lot of supporters into an academic seminar for the purpose to challenging Hew and his associates. No problem, Hew and those of us on the panel held our own. Fighting Hew McLeod turned out to be a very expensive proposition for some Sikhs. Even so, many of his critics have admitted that, as one puts it, "his writings have done a lot toward furthering the systematic study of Sikh history at the international level..Sikhs have lost a good friend."

    Something else grew out of the controversies. Hew demonstrated to all of us how to deal with arguments and still preserve one's dignity and balance. IJ Singh, one of his admirers and a lay scholar in his own right, notes " What I saw and admired was a man under siege, but calm as in the eye of the storm. " A close friend in Canada, Sher Singh, has written eloquently about how Hew personified a central Sikh concept, sehaj, or equipoise, solemnity. He had seen Hew honored and rebuked, healthY and weakened by illness, contemplative and energized in debate, acceding to error and defending his findings-He concludes:" I had the pleasure of seeing him in all these facets and never, not once, did I see him lose poise or his ability to smile-that lovely disarming smile of his-or his gentleness or his gentility, or his humanity. There was always grace about him. Frankly I learnt about Sehaj not from the teacher or the friend, but from the Man."

    Hew managed to convey that calm and judgment to many of us who were ready to take up arms against the often personal charges and by extension, those of us close to Hew and sharing much of his worldview and academic approach, Many times I learned to send him a draft of a response to a chatroom challenge and he often talked me down or at least had me revise and temper my hot-headed rhetoric. Doris Jakobsh catches the spirit of such interactions: "Hew was an example for those of us who tend to jump first and think later. On occasion I would get an email from him urging quiet, restraint-something that never did come easily to me. His quiet graciousness towards those who called him "foe" was starling.

    Moreover, it never wavered. He was and will continue to be in my eyes the finest gentleman scholar I have ever met."
    Hew's academic contributions were irreplaceable, but there is the very human side that made us not only respect him but love him.
    First, he was a model for total dedication, often shutting out all seemingly extraneous activities.

    As he noted in the documentary, others have hobbies, Hew had his study. His work ethic was legend. Books and articles rolled out regularly, even as he fought valiantly against a disease that zapped his strength.
    While focused, he seemed to be open to everyone and could share his time with others. He changed the lives of scholars and friends around him. All have their Hew McLeod stories. We would send in papers, and almost immediately get detailed replies, queries, and supportive suggestions. I can think of no better example than the way Himadri Banerjee describes his relationship with Hew. Himadri never met Hew in person, but carried on an extensive correspondence for two decades.

    He describes Hew as "good as my answering machine in the domain of Sikh studies." Hew introduced him to those leading the 1987 Toronto Sikh Conference.. Himadri's participation threw open a whole new area of understanding Sikhism, in India, but in the Bengal and Orissa area, and conversely, that experience introduced him to the wider scholarship of Sikh studies. Hew followed Himadri's rise to international prominence, reading his work, making suggestions, and in general, being a long-range friend. Van Dusenbery also remembers how Hew encouraged Rashmere Bhatti and Van when they were working on a book about the Sikh community in Wollgoolga. Rashmere venerated Hew as a truly selfless Sewadar (one who gives service). Hew gave service to each one of us, and we all are better scholars and human beings because of that sharing and empathy.
    Hew identitied strongly with the Sikh community.

    On numerous occasions he ventured into social settings that potentially could have erupted in calumny and nastiness. At the invitation of IJ Singh in New York, for example, Hew met with a group of Sikhs, many of whom had heard untrue claims about his research and his intentions.

    That event ended in Hew resolving issues, with some Sikhs reporting back to IJ that the meeting was unexpectedly useful and broadened their perspective.He played a major role in defending Sikh interests as an expert witness on kirpans and turbans.

    All now know of Hew's service to the New Zealand Sikh community. The documentary makes clear that his dedication and tedious research helped preserve the record of an evolving Sikh presence and contributed to local Sikhs' sense of community and family. As another summarized Hew's work, "The WHOLE Sikh world should be in mourning, his passing is a he loss to the quom (nation or community)"

    In his last years, Hew became central to the evolution of a new cyber community of scholars.

    He and I exchanged ideas and news almost daily.

    Others recount how Hew served as a "walking encyclopedia," answering endless queries with supportive, gently corrective comments when necessary, and with a humourous edge. Again, a person who never met Hew personally but knew him well through internet exchanges, Himadri Banerjee, sums it up well: "The world is big but for a few moments he could make us feel that we belong to a larger family..It is the invisible deathless Hew who has stimulated us over the years. For more than forty years, he has silently been constructing an invisible human bridge that keeps us together."

    Hew is gone, but his presence remains. Speaking to the Indian nation after Gandhi's assassination, Nehru gave one of the most beautiful eulogies ever delivered: "The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the Father of the Nation, is no more.

    Perhaps I am wrong to say that. Nevertheless we will never see him again as we have seen him for these many years. We will not run to him for advice and seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow." Then Nehru adds, "The Light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years" Hew was no Gandhi, but his light continues to shine. For his friends and fellow scholars throughout the world, he personified serving truth, reminding us of the right path, helping to draw us from error, and establishing a benchmark of honor and trustworthiness. Hew Mcleod lives in our hearts and memory.
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