W. H. McLeod has been wrongly painted as the expert on Sikhism and his Ph.D.theses (later published in the form of a book) has been cited by many who choose to adulterate the philosophy of Guru Nanak and confuse the Sikhs. Ever wondered how this person survived to write a thesis full of mistakes and pass his thesis committee and thesis defense? Read the analytical article from Dr. Baldev Singh below keeping the following questions in mind: -
- What should be the qualification of the thesis committee to make it capable of knowing if the research of the student is correct? Specially when the topic is that of religion?
- Who were on the thesis committee of W. H. Mcleod?
- What was the input given by the thesis committee to Mcleod?
- Did they read the thesis?
- ...etc. etc.
How McLeod became “one of the foremost scholars” of Sikh Studies?
Dr. Baldev Singh
While McLeod was studying at the Theological Hall, he had second thoughts about his chosen career as a clergyman and he dreaded the thought of a parish life in New Zealand. He became increasingly worried as the graduation date drew ever nearer. However, after completing his studies in 1957, somehow he managed to get an assignment in Punjab (India) through the Overseas Mission Committee of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in 1958 at a time when the entry of Western missionaries was banned in India. At that time due to the ongoing “Cold War”, Westerners coming to India were suspected as CIA or British intelligence agents, but here was McLeod, a Presbyterian missionary in Punjab, the state which shares border with Pakistan, and the disputed territory of Kashmir.
He obtained his PhD in Sikhism from the University of London. Prof. A.L. Basham, his supervisor, knew hardly anything about Guru Nanak and very little about the Punjabi language. This is what McLeod wrote about his experience with his research supervisor:
Apparently, and as expected he made only three minor changes to the thesis; one of which was his insistence on the use of the plural form “appendices” instead of “appendixes. … Once a month I was required to appear before him and report progress and difficulties. I would outline the difficulties and at each of them he would nod his head wisely and make some such comment as “Yes, that is a problem”, or “That is a difficulty we all have.” After the interview was over I would ask myself what have I gained from it and the answer would be that I had derived nothing. Professor Basham was, however, an experienced supervisor and even if I received no direct guidance concerning my thesis topic I did at least get the understanding noises which at that time I needed.
Moreover, McLeod had very little interaction with the two examiners who did not even read the complete thesis before approving it. Again in McLeod’s own words:
When I presented myself for the viva on July 13th Dr. Allchin, one of the examiners whom I had not previously met, opened the questioning by frowning very severely at me. “Mr. McLeod,” he said, “We have a serious criticism to make of this thesis.” This, needless to say, is just what the nervous candidate does not want to hear. Dr. Allchin paused and then went on: “You did not allow us sufficient time to read it.” It was a joke and he and the other examiner Professor Parrinder, together with Professor Basham, joined in the jolly laughter. It soon became clear, however, that neither examiner had in fact managed to read the complete thesis, and after a single question from each I was dismissed. Fortunately they both agreed to sustain the thesis.
It should not surprise anyone that Prof. Parrinder knew nothing of Guru Nanak and the Sikh religion except what he learned from McLeod’s thesis. In other words, McLeod himself was the supervisor as well as the examiner of his thesis. Then who determined the veracity of the contents of the thesis? And who ascertained its adequacy for the award of a PhD degree? After all, the thesis was not about English literature; it was about Guru Nanak’s authentic teachings enshrined in Aad Guru Granth Sahib (AGGS) as pointed out by McLeod himself:
The Adi Granth contains a substantial number of works by Guru Nanak. These can all be accepted as authentic. It is clear that Guru Arjan compiled the Adi Granth with considerable care and the principal source, which he used, was a collection, which had been recorded at the instance of the third Guru, Amar Das, who was only ten years younger than Guru Nanak.
One may ask why didn’t McLeod pick a thesis supervisor or examiners with expertise in Sikhism? One may even question the University of London for falling short on its academic standards. Was Fauja Singh, “an honest and honorable historian of Punjab”  or Ganda Singh, “certainly an eminent Sikh historian”  or any other Indian scholar not good enough to be his thesis supervisor or examiner? Besides, why were the contents of the thesis kept out of public view until November 19689,  while the University of London had accepted the thesis in July 1965? Why were even his friends, Ganda Singh and Harbans Singh, ,  who had offered assistance in his work, kept in the dark until 1968 when Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion was released upon which McLeod was “widely known as being among the foremost scholars of Sikh studies in the world?”
Generally, scholars spend many years and sometimes their entire research career before being recognized as “being among the foremost scholars in their field” by their peers. But here McLeod was awarded this distinction by R.C. Zaehner (1913-74), Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics at the University of Oxford,,  who reviewed Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion in the Times Literary Supplement in 1968. In other words, McLeod became “one of the foremost scholars of Sikhism” simply through the publication of his PhD thesis which bypassed all the rigors of academic review. Did Zaehner, who was an alcoholic , know anything about Guru Nanak’s teachings? After the publication of Zaehner’s review, McLeod rightly expressed his jubilation: “Professor Zaehner could never have known what joy he created!” From thereon, McLeod has never missed an opportunity to self-promote himself with the mantra: “one of the foremost scholars of Sikhism” persistently and consistently.
Further it is intriguing that in Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, published in 1968, he makes no mention of “School of Oriental and African Studies” where he studied for his PhD degree. He mentions only the name of the University of London in the preface. Moreover, it is Dr. F.R. Allchin , one of the examiners, who is the first one to be acknowledged for assistance and encouragement in the preface to Guru Nanak and Sikh Religion whereas in Discovering the Sikhs: Autobiography of an Historian, McLeod says that he met him first at the time of viva on July 13, 1965.
About his other examiner Dr. Geoffrey Parrinder, McLeod says gleefully:
“Geoffery Parrinder was one such scholar and knowing virtually nothing about either Guru Nanak or the Sikh religion except what he gained as my examiner he depended on Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion as his guide.”
Finally, imagine that Jagpal Singh Tiwana got a PhD on the Bible (written in Latin) under the guidance of J.S. Grewal as his supervisor and Pritam Singh and Khushwant Singh as his thesis examiners and then Jagjit Singh Anand, the editor of Nawan Jamana declared Tiwana as “being among the foremost scholars of Bible studies in the world”.
1. W.H. McLeod. Discovering the Sikhs: Autobiography of a Historian. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004, pp. 22-23.
2. Ibid., pp. 26-28.
3. Ibid., p. 39.
4. Ibid., p. 40.
5. Ibid., p. 63.
6. W.H. McLeod. Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 162.
7. W.H. McLeod. Discovering the Sikhs: Autobiography of a Historian. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004, p. 148.
8. Ibid., p. 137.
9. Ibid., pp. 46-47.
10. Ibid., pp. 62-63.
11. Ibid., pp. 39-40.
12. Ibid., P. 68.
13. Ibid., p. 62.
14. W.H. McLeod. Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996, cover.
15. Ibid., p. ix.
16. W.H. McLeod. Discovering the Sikhs: Autobiography of a Historian. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004, p. 63.