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On Being A Sikh


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
On Being a Sikh by Nirvikar Singh


As a schoolboy, I remember being very impressed that the word “Sikh” means “student” or “disciple.” The idea that we were Sikhs of the Guru, and that the Guru’s word was an essential guide to living, to be studied and understood, was very strong in my household, as in those of a multitude of Sikhs. There was always a space set aside in our house for the Guru Granth Sahib, and my parents, Ardaman Singh and Daljit Kaur, read from it every day. On special occasions, like Guru Nanak’s gurpurab, we went to join the Sikh sangat at a more public gathering (this happened whatever continent we were on, this public space being created if it did not otherwise exist). But there were many family occasions where we simply prayed together at home, and took the guidance of the Guru before embarking on a journey or endeavor. My father, in particular, loved to quote from the Guru Granth Sahib, and to explain and draw lessons from various passages or verses.

My parents had grown up in Punjab, steeped in the history and tradition of Sikhi. My father, in particular, came from Tarn Taran, founded by Guru Arjan Dev just a few kilometers away from the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. Our visits there were not frequent during my childhood, but I remember the deep spiritual peace of the pool and parikarma at Tarn Taran, and the sense of unbroken and powerful tradition. Later, as an adolescent, our parents took us on a tour of Punjab’s historical gurdwaras. It was the height of summer, and our car was not air conditioned, but I remember no physical discomfort, only the intense sense of Sikh history and tradition that permeated the river plains of Punjab.

I cannot pretend that I was an ideal Sikh growing up. Indeed, being a keshadhari Sikh in Delhi in the 1960s was not at all cool. Sikhs, still recovering from the trauma of partition and trying to make a new beginning in the capital, were often stereotyped and ridiculed, and I endured my share of that. Punjabi was also not a cool language in that time and place – at school we were required to learn Hindi and Sanskrit, and mostly spoke English, but my mother tongue stayed on the periphery of life. It was really my parents’ deep love of their tradition, their own adherence to the ethical and spiritual precepts of Sikhi, which provided a rock and anchor.
Gurudwara Tarn Taran Sahib

Life took me with my family, temporarily, to England after high school, and that brought another set of challenges. Sikhs were among the largest immigrant community from South Asia, and they were clearly struggling again, as they did after partition, now as part of a larger minority trying to find its feet in a new land. It was another example of their resilience, through hard work, while holding on to the essence of the faith and tradition. These were background thoughts, however, to a teenager trying to make his way academically on a global playing field.

Soon after, coming to UC Berkeley as a doctoral student gave me a chance to take stock of my identity. Sikhs had been an early presence in California, but there were none that I came across at that time in academia, or in the surrounding town. I was essentially the only turbaned Sikh around, sharpening awareness of my identity. Meanwhile, my sister and her husband, knowing my love of history, and wanting me to have a reminder of my roots, had given me A.L. Basham’s The Wonder That Was India when I left India for California. I read it closely, always looking for references to Sikhism, which tend to be quite compressed and fleeting in such histories of an old and large civilization like India’s. Meanwhile, the expansive nature of a doctoral program and the breadth of a large university allowed me to sit in on classes on Indian history and classical music, along with my required courses in economics.

Much to my surprise and delight, there was also a class on Sikhism at Berkeley. It was being taught by a visiting professor, W.H. McLeod, as a one-time offering. I had never heard of him before, but was excited about sitting in on the class – it seemed to me that Sikhs were too much at the margins of academic study, and here was an exception. It was a small class, and I was the only Sikh in it. Some of the material was familiar of course, though presented in a more formal academic manner than my previous knowledge through family and tradition. Other aspects of the course raised questions, though, because what I was hearing did not always match my understanding of the Sikh tradition. (As a coincidental aside, A.L. Basham was McLeod’s PhD supervisor, but I doubt if he knew much in detail about Sikhism or Sikhs.)

I revealed in some class discussion that my father’s father was Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid, a noted Sikh reformer of the early 20th century. He was part of the Singh Sabha movement, which I had always understood to be a reform movement, bringing Sikh social and religious practice back to its roots in the Gurus’ teachings, while emphasizing the benefits of modernity with respect to education, science and technology. For McLeod, this connection seemed to stereotype me in his eyes – my view and practice of Sikhism was because of my Singh Sabha roots, and was, indeed, just one variant of Sikhism, among many. If I argued that Sikhs are not Hindus (a proposition that McLeod had us debate), it was because I represented the Singh Sabha view. This was all quite disconcerting.

UC Santa CruzWhen I visited home, I strove to learn from my father whatever I could, to reconcile what I took to be the traditional and the academic perspectives. My father reinforced the understanding of Sikhi that I had grown up with. But I had to dig deeper, and gradually I read more and more about Sikhism, its history, its battles, its evolution. Over the years, I also began to gain a deeper appreciation of the Guru Granth Sahib, and to understand it more, albeit still imperfectly. For me, this was in keeping with being a Sikh – studying and learning about my own heritage and faith in the spirit of Sikhi.

A central contributor to this process was being lucky enough to find a life partner who was herself deeply immersed in Sikhi – indeed, more knowledgeable than I was. Understanding our tradition and heritage came from living it more fully, and this is what I gained through her. I also got the chance to learn from her in imparting our tradition to two wonderful sons, so that they could understand and live this special path as well.

In reading, I found much more scholarship about aspects of Sikhism than was contained in McLeod’s work, writings by other Western scholars and colonial-era observers, as well as Sikh scholars such as Harbans Singh, Ganda Singh, and J.S. Grewal. Occasionally, I would also read excerpts of Mughal-era Persian writings in translation. It became clear to me that contemporary historians of the Sikhs and Sikhism did not have it easy, with fragmentary and sometimes unreliable sources, and multiple languages and perspectives to sift through. The interpretive role of scholars in this field became clearer to me, and most of all the importance of understanding the core elements of the Sikh tradition.

One thing that struck me along the way was that India-based scholars sometimes received less credit than they deserved, because their presentation was less appealingly written or seemingly less rigorous than Western scholars. At the same time, Western scholars sometimes relied on other scholars, Indian or Western, for arguments and perspectives. In some cases, repetition would create an aura of certainty where there was none. In other cases, the Indian source itself proved to be suspect. This was a problem for the study of Sikhism in Western academia, because of the shallowness and narrowness of knowledge of the tradition. Western and Indian scholars would write about Sikhism while knowing nothing directly about its core beliefs and traditions. This is partly a legacy of colonialism and Orientalism, but it manifests in new ways, even affecting supposedly more self-aware post-modern approaches to the subject.

Meanwhile, I was continuing with establishing my career as an academic economist. That was indeed my main concern. Along the way, I recall getting to know Dr. Kapany, and in 1992, he invited me to present a paper on my grandfather at a Sikh Foundation conference on Sikh Art and Literature, held at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I enlisted my father as a co-author, and learned more from him of my grandfather’s life and times, his contributions to the Sikh panth, and his writings. At the conference, I particularly remember a dazzling talk by Nikky Guninder Kaur, and a mesmerizing presentation on Sikh music by Gobind Singh Mansukhani. It was then also that I met Gurinder Singh Mann, and learned of his work on the making of the Sikh scripture. Already, there were battles brewing with respect to the proper scope of scholarship with respect to Sikh sacred texts, and I recall well Gurinder Mann’s argument for the need to have the best, most painstaking scholarship possible.

Later, I came to appreciate this perspective more completely. It is important for Sikhs to understand their heritage as deeply as possible. We have to be fearless in this. My own researches convinced me of the need for this work. To give an example, I had always understood that Guru Nanak founded a new religion, with well-defined, distinctive features. This was a given for me as a Sikh. Then I read work by McLeod claiming that Guru Nanak was really part of an older “sant” tradition, which was a distinctive sub movement of the broad bhakti movement. Bhakti was familiar to me, as was the presence of the writings of the bhagats in the Guru Granth Sahib. McLeod’s claim was quite different from previous historians, and was being repeated quite widely, but it matched not at all with my own understanding of Sikhism and its founding.

As I read through the scholarly literature, it became clear that there were serious logical and historical flaws in McLeod’s reasoning and argument. Others had challenged McLeod, but often by assertion, rather than detailed refutation of his claims. It turned out that the “sant” tradition was a completely ahistorical construct. It had been dreamed up by the leader of a Hindu reformist movement in the late 19th century, and given credence by a couple of Hindu ideologues thereafter. Just as they had co-opted Guru Nanak for their purposes, McLeod had co-opted them in his desire to have a grand new scholarly theory. My point is not so much that he was wrong, but that demonstrating this error required careful research and analysis of the historical record, including previous historical narratives. As Sikhs we should support this process of understanding, without falling into the trap of appealing to faith or belief to refute poor scholarship. Furthermore, when Sikhs criticized McLeod on the basis of faith or religious belief, they allowed him to frame the debate as one of scholarship vs. belief, and even to imply that that his Sikh critics could not be scholars because they were believers. I challenged this claim as well (see my article, “Guru Nanak and the ‘Sants’: A Reappraisal”. International Journal of Punjab Studies, 2001, 8 (1), pp. 1-34), but backed it up with whatever scholarship I could muster.

Going back to the role of the Singh Sabha in defining or shaping Sikhism, it seemed to me that McLeod’s views found echoes in the work of Harjot Oberoi, which came more than a decade after my Berkeley encounter with McLeod. Oberoi and McLeod seem to me to share a trait of mixing detailed scholarship with unsupported claims. Thus, careful scholarship is required to untangle reality from rhetoric. In the inaugural Guru Nanak Lecture that I delivered at San Jose State University in 2003, I was able to look at Oberoi’s claim that Sikhism as we know it now was created through the Singh Sabha movement. In studying the claims and the history, I learned that J.S. Grewal, probably Sikhism’s pre-eminent historian, had already found significant flaws in the arguments, because of Oberoi’s neglect and misreading of Sikh history and tradition going back to the founding of the religion. The issue is not Oberoi’s motives or character, but rather the quality of scholarship. The failure of Sikh critics to focus on the scholarly merits diverted attention, and brought Western academics to Oberoi’s defense. I still meet academics who think the work is very impressive. It reads well, it seems to have used source material liberally, and it quotes fashionable post-modern thinkers for conceptual underpinnings. And on top of that Oberoi was attacked personally, which infringed academic freedom, and elicits sympathy. But the work distorts the basic history of the Sikhs, and these Western academics know nothing of that history.

Sikh MusiciansI can give other examples of this problem of quality of scholarship. These include Richard Fox’s work on the influence of the British in creating the modern Sikh identity, Louis Fenech’s interpretation of the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, and J.P.S. Uberoi’s claims about the meaning of the Sikh symbols, the “5 K’s.” In each of these cases, it seems to me that the author’s lack of understanding of the core Sikh tradition and history creates problems for his scholarly analysis. This does not mean that scholarship is valueless, or that difficult questions should not be tackled. Instead, as Sikhs we should take charge of doing the best scholarly work possible on all aspects of our heritage.
In fact, this is beginning to happen in universities all over the world. Some of this work moves away from history and heritage to examine contemporary issues, but here, too, context is important. A scholar who looks at the diversity of current practice among Sikhs, even in a single continent or country or region, can easily fail to draw accurate inferences without depth of knowledge of the Sikh past and Sikhism’s core values. The point is not that there has to be unanimity of perspectives, or that Sikhism or the Sikh community is a monolithic entity, but that good scholarly output requires rigorous scholarship. And there is no conflict between Sikhi and scholarship.

While acknowledging the importance of the Sikhs’ contemporary concerns, I think there also has to be a sense of urgency with respect to some aspects of our heritage. A concern for preserving the Sikh heritage was one driver of the Singh Sabha movement just over a century ago – meeting the challenges of social, political and economic change was another. There are still parts of the Sikh heritage that cry out for greater scholarship, understanding and preservation, and in some cases time is running out. A major example is Sikh sacred music, shabad keertan. The entire Guru Granth Sahib is organized according to raags, the musical modes of the Indian classical music system. After a period where the singing of keertan became overwhelmed by the use of popular music tunes, there are serious attempts underway to recover and instill the historical modes of keertan singing. Careful scholarship is absolutely critical here, since even modern classical styles diverge from the older traditions that formed the basis for the raags of the period in which the Guru Granth Sahib was compiled. In some cases, gaps in our knowledge have already arisen. Bhai Kahan SinghFor example, Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha, in his Gur Shabad Ratnakar Mahan Kosh, an “encyclopedia” of Sikhism published in 1930, lamented that the meaning of the ghar designations used along with those of raags in the Guru Granth Sahib had been forgotten. Intensive, detailed scholarship by Inderjit N. Kaur, combining knowledge of many aspects of the Sikh tradition with knowledge of the Indian classical music system and its evolution, provides a convincing pathway to recovering this lost piece of Sikh heritage Click to see. Good scholarship can have measurable positive impacts.

Being a Sikh has many layers, of social and personal spaces, of thought and action, of faith and intellect. It means being engaged in the world as well as, in a sense, being above it. It means caring for what is right in all things, and defending what is right. Sikhs have sometimes been pigeonholed as people of enterprise and action, rather than of scholarship. But the founder of Sikhism immediately wrote down his words of divine wisdom, and it is those words written down that Sikhs read and sing and reflect on as their fundamental guide to living. Sikhs have a tradition of study and scholarship that survived wars and attempts at genocide. It seems to me that this tradition must be planted in the world’s finest universities, so it grows and bears fruit for the Sikh community and for all future generations.

Harry Haller

Panga Master
Jan 31, 2011
heartwarming to read of the transition from using the SGGS as a talisman, which seems quite common, to actually living it, which does not seem that common, very heartwarming, an excellent article



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