Evolution of The Sikh Community

by W.H. McLeod
Published by Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1975
Pages: 118; Price: Rs. 35/-

Review by Daljeet Singh, published in the Journal of Sikh Studies, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.

The book comprises five short essays – ‘The Evolution of Sikh Community’, ‘The Janam-sakhis’, ‘Cohesive Ideals and Institutions in the History of the Sikh Panth’, ‘The Sikh Scriptures’ and ‘Caste in the Sikh Panth’. In the short space of 104 pages the author attempts to cover the background, origin and growth of the ideology and all the institutions of the Sikhs and naturally the method adopted is journalistic and speculative rather than comprehensive and academic.

Virtually, the entire structure of the book is constructed on the premises that Sikhism had no new religious thesis. In a few cryptic sentences the author says that the Sant tradition of Northern India was an amalgam of Nathism of Yogis and Vaishnava Bhakti, and that Guru Nanak’s doctrines were a part of that Sant tradition. After having made that assertion, the author is in haste to proceed to other issues without caring to substantiate his dogmas or to explain: (a) why for almost two millennia the obviously heterodox dualism of Yoga, with its co-eternal Purusha and Prakriti, existed side by side with the worship of Narayana and Vishnu, with its implicit faith in the theory of Avatarhood, the religious sanction of hierarchical caste and the mystic origin and authority of the Vedas without producing any amalgam whatsoever; (b) whether the Yogic dualism, with its ascetic method for the isolation of the Purusha, entirely opposed in all its essentials to the emotional Vaishnava Bhakti, with its emphatic belief in caste and sanctity of Vedas, could at all produce a synthesis like the Sant tradition which virtually repudiated the above mentioned fundamentals of both the merging systems; and (c) why this so-called synthesis appeared only after the advent of Islam and Sufism in India in which also, as in the case of Sant tradition, caste, dualism, asceticism, authority of Vedas and A vatarhood were denied and instead the theistic approach of love of God commended. McLeod is unmindful of the writings of Bergson, Iqbal and Zaehner indicating the role of Prophetic or Activity Mysticism like that of Christ and Mohammad in whom, to use the phrase of Bergson, their love of God “is transformed into God’s love for all men” and make use of body and blood for raising the level of human affairs and who guiding the destiny of men.

Again, McLeod does not attempt to answer: (a) how the quietist mysticism of Sant Tradition suddenly transformed itself into prophetic Mysticism of Guru Nanak the chief distinguishing feature of which was the use of ‘body and blood, and (b) how the quietist ideal of salvation changed into the call of Guru Nank that ‘whosoever, wants to play the game of love of God should come with his head on his palm’, the goal of life being ‘to carry out the will of God’ and to live truth, the same being higher than truth itself.’ Students of mysticism know that prophetic mysticism of Christ gave rise _ to Christian quietist mystics and similarly mysticism of Mohammad gave rise to quietist sufism, but never has the vice versa happened. Nor does McLeod explain: (a) why the Mughal Emperors, who took no notice of any bhakta of the Sant tradition, felt seriously concerned over the political potential of the activities of the Sikh Gurus, involving the direct confrontation of four of them with the Delhi Empreror, and (b) why at the very time of his being installed as the 6th Guru, he used two swords as part of his dress and raised two flags at the Amritsar Temple, one sword (and not a rosary) and flag being the symbol of his spiritual mission and the second sword and the flag being the symbol of his socio-political organisation.

No serious student of Indian religions, ideology and Sikhism could afford to skip over these and other important issues as McLeod has done. He completely ignores the role of ideas and ideology in Sikh history. Instead of finding the basis for new developments amonst the Sikhs in the thesis of the Gurus, he attributes the socio-political and military activities of the Sikh Gurus to the influence of Jat culture and the presence of Jat elements amongst Sikh ranks.

As a historian, he could not be unaware that in Indian history the Jats who were present in large numbers in Sind, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan areas have shown a singular lack of political ambition and capacity for organisation and leadership and that it was, indeed, Baba Budda, the most prominent Jat Sikh and a savant, who first objected to the 6th Guru taking up military training for the Sikhs. Though McLeod has based the entire development of the Sikh movement on the rising influence of Jat elements amongst the Sikh ranks, yet he has not given any data whatsoever that the rise of Jat percentage, amongst the Sikhs synchronised with change in Sikh ambitions and their religious, social and political policies. In fact, available evidence on the point controverts him because the authentic writing of Bhai Gurdas, a contemporary of the Sixth Guru, says that among the approximately two hundred most prominent Sikhs of his time only about half a dozen were Jats, about fifteen of low castes and the rest Khatries and others.

The author also indicates that the military confrontation of the Sikhs against the Muslim rule was partly due to the influence of Shakti cult on them during their casual visits to the Guru in the Shivalik hills without showing why the age old acceptance of the same cult by the hill people never inspired them to throw off the Muslim yoke.

Unfortunately, one of McLeod’s major lapses is that he has not tried to tap the existing primary, contemporary and near contemporary sources like Sri Gur Sobha , Gurbilas Patshahee 10, Vaaran Bhai Gurdas, Prem Sumaarag, etc. and has instead relied on sources that are secondary and tertiary.

In order to prove his point he is often tempted to rely more on conjecture than on facts. For example, he writes :
(a) according to Jahangir, Guru Arjan had blessed Khusro. In his autobiography he clearly says that his reason for executing Guru Arjan Dev was that he had been becoming a source of influence which misled both Hindus and Muslims.
Inexplicably, McLeod wants us not to trust the writing and assessment of Jahangir and instead presses us to believe his guess that Jahangir and his men must actualIy have apprehended the activities of the Sikhs not because of the Guru but because of the Jat infiltration.
(b) He asserts that the Five K’s were Jat symbols which were accepted in due course as a must for all Sikhs. He neither shows that these K’s were Jat symbols in the region before their adoption by the Sikhs, nor explains why those disappeared from among all the Jats of the neighbouring regions of Haryana, Rajasthan, Pakistan, etc., and yet incongruously he also concedes that in practice it is generally the Jats and not Khatri and Arora Sikhs who violate the observance of these symbols.

The chief drawback of the author’s thesis is that he has ignored the evident explanation of the Sikh struggle and growth in the religious thesis and lives of the Gurus. His difficulty and problems are that having made the simplistic assumption that Guru Nanak’s mission was the same as that of other Bhaktas, he finds the exteriority, the organisation and the socio-political objectives and struggle of the Sikh Gurus quite unexplained. But having been confronted by the problem, he, instead of reconsidering his premises, defiantly proceeds to find props, like the Jat element, the Shakti cult, etc. and thereby to build a fragile structure. McLeod’s attempt to explain the Sikh movement purely by external factors is like one trying to explain the growth of Christianity without reference to the life and teachings of Christ and attributing his deep concern for the poor and his criticism of the rich to many of his followers being poor fishermen destined to a miserable lot.

It is the common failing of persons with mechanistic views to ignore the role of ideas and ideology as a cementing and directive force in human history and to overstretch and overestimate the significance of ordinary facts and routine events which otherwise in similar circumstances have never shown any like potential.

If oddity is originality and conjectural assertions and assumptions pieces of historical evidence, the book abounds in them.


(This version reproduced from Some Recent Publications On Sikhism – An Evaluation, published by the Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh in September 1990)

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