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The Sikhs – History, Religion and Society

by W.H. McLeod
Published by: Columbia University Press, New York, 1989
Pages: 119; Price: Unknown

Review by Daljeet Singh, published in the Punjab, Past and Present, Punjabi University, Patiala; Journal of Sikh Studies, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar; Nanak Parkash Patrika, Punjabi University, Patiala; The Sikh Review, Calcutta.

This small volume of 119 pages has seven chapters: The Sikhs, The Origins of the Sikh Tradition, Four Centuries of Sikh History, Sikh Doctrine, The Literature of the Sikhs, and Sikhism in the Modern World. The treatment of subjects is casual since references to original sources are scanty. For example, in the fifteen pages of the chapter on the Sikhs are cramped vague and general statements, many even incorrect, about Guru Nanak, the Janam Sakhis, Adi Granth, Sikh Religion, developments during the Guru period, Mughal hostility towards the Sikhs, the arming of the Panth, the creation of the Khalsa, the Sikh struggle and the rule of Ranjit Singh, the British Rule, ending with the partition of Punjab, the struggle for Punjabi Suba and provincial autonomy after Independence, the appearance of Bhindranwale and his death in the Blue Star Operation, the assassination of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Rajiv-Longowal accord, Hindu-Sikh tensions, etc. Similarly, the 12-page chapter on Sikh Doctrine is too sketchy and lopsided to be reliable. Even out of the 12 pages hardly half are devoted to the Sikh religion. This summary account lacks authenticity because in the whole book there is not a single couplet quoted from the 1430 pages of the Guru Granth, excepting one from the book of Shackle, which is there only to show Islamic loan-words in the hymns of Guru Nanak.

Obviously, even a bare outline of facts and events, much less an in-depth study, of such diverse subjects as Sikh theology, its comparative study with Naths, Sufis, Vaishnavas and Sants, 490 years of Sikh history, Sikh Literature, current Punjab political problems cannot be made within a space of 119 pages. But McLeod has no inhibition in making dogmatic and incorrect assertions, with hardly any reference to available sources, a substitute of rational analysis even in areas where his knowledge seems casual or minimal.

A major drawback of the book is that the author has chosen not to rise above the journalistic level.

Another failing of the book is that it is merely a rehash of McLeod’s earlier work, The Evolution of the Sikh Community, with hardly anything new by way of facts or arguments. In 1975, McLeod brought out a small volume of 104 pages dealing with a large variety of subjects making therein erroneous or conjectural statements about accepted facts of Sikh Religion, Sikh History and Sikh Institutions. Practically, all the formulations of McLeod became in 1986 the subject of a study (The Sikh Tradition, edited by Justice Gurdev Singh), by six specialists like, Ganda Singh, Hari Ram Gupta, Noel Q King, Harbans Singh and others. Each of them found, regarding his respective field, McLeod’s formulations to be without any basis. In July 1987, the Punjabi University, Patiala, published Commemoration Lectures holding that McLeod’s observations about the authenticity of the Kartarpuri Bir were ‘unfounded and misleading.’ The present publication is a disappointment because instead of responding to their criticism of Mcleod and of continuing the academic debate, he has stopped it by omitting altogether any reference to those two related books or their contents. The book, can, thus, serve no academic purpose, because mere reiteration of exploded assertions cannot constitute a piece of research.

One could write a volume while pointing out faults in the book, but for paucity of space we shall indicate only a few of them, and his altogether erroneous perception.

In content the basic failing of the book is that McLeod displays a complete lack of knowledge of the Sikh theology, and consequently, his statements about Sikh Doctrine and the Sikh Movement remain fundamentally faulty. In making a comparative study of religious doctrines of Nathism, Vaishnavism, Sants and Islam with those of Sikhism, McLeod follows no standard or analytical methodology of identifying the metaphysical position, the goal, the religious practices, the overall world view of a system; or whcther it is life-negating or life-affirming. Nor does he use available sources for the purpose. Accordingly, his description or assessmcnt of different religions remains patchy and erroneous and in the case of Sikhism it is exactly contrary to what Sikhism really is. He calls Sikhism a religion of interiority, of the practice of Nam simran which “ranges from the repeating of a word or mantra (One which summarily expresses the divine reality) to the singing of devotional songs and beyond that to mystical concentration of the most sophisticated kind” (pages 2-3). We are not aware of any hymn in the Guru Granth prescribing any particular system of mcditation or use of any word or mantra for repetition, and McLeod has not cited any hymn in support of his claim. Except Prophet Muhammad, Guru Nanak is the only man of God who preached a religion of the deed, involving an inalienable combination between the spiritual life and the empirical life of man. McLeod quite ignores the contrast between the life negation of Sants who avoid social responsibility, deem woman to be temptress and accept ahimsa, and, the life-affirming system of Guru Nanak who completely rejected monasticism, celibacy, and ahimsa and accepted full social participation and responsibility. It is common knowledge that, almost invariably, ahimsa, celibacy, monasticism and life-negation go together; and it is Guru Nanak who rejected all four of them and organised a society with new faith and motivations. Bcsides, Kabir’s cosmology is entirely different from the cosmology of Guru Granth.

It is amaziug that McLeod has used the negative word ‘Akal Purakh’ (Timeless Being), and has omitted fundamental statements of Guru Nanak defining his God and system. In the Japuji, starting on the first page of the Guru Granth, Guru Nanak calls God ‘Karta Purakh’ or ‘Creator Being,’ ‘Ever Creative and watching His creation with a Gracious Eye,’ and the sole spiritual path he prescribes is of activity, namely, of “carrying out the will of God,” which Will he calls ‘Altruistic’ and ‘the Ocean of virtues and values.’ The Guru Granth describes God, thus; “Friends ask me what is the mark of the Lord. He is All Love, rest He is ineffable.” And God of Love has clear implications. For, love can be expressed only in a real world, love being both dynamic and the foundation of all values and virtues. Accordingly, the call Guru Nanak gave to the spiritual seeker was, “If you want to play the game of love, come with your head on your palm.” His emphasis on deeds is epitomised in his hymn, “Truth is higher than every thing, but higher still is truthful living,” and that man’s ‘spiritual assessment depends on his deeds.’ It is unfortunate that either out of ignorance or out of design McLeod has omitted all the above hymns defining Sikhism and has quoted nothing from the Guru Granth in support of his view prescribing ‘the repetition of a mantra or sophisticated meditation.’ Even the couplet quoted from Shackle’s book, in a way, controverts McLeod’s idea of “repetitive remembrance or use of a ‘Mantra’”. For, the Guru says, “Make good actions your Kaaba, take truth as your Pir, and compassion as your creed and your prayer.” Thus the Guru recommends good deed and compassion in place of prayer. In fact, the Guru says, “ever one repeats God’s name but by such repetition one gets not to God.” For, “Love, contentment, truth, humility and other virtues enable the seed of naam to sprout.” Significantly, it is Guru Nanak who in his Babur Bani condemns ‘oppression of the weak by the strong’, he calls God ‘the destroyer of the devils or tyrants,’ and “slayer by the sword of the villians.” Where God is the destroyer of the tyrant, the seeker has to carry out His Will, and Guru Nanak rejected ahimsa, and put on his society the social responsibility of resisting oppression and tyranny.

It seems McLeod’s lapse in omitting all the positive attributes of God in Sikhism and the life-affirming character of Sikh theology and instead of selecting a single negative attribute of God, ‘Akalpurkh’, a word which hardly appears in the Guru Granth, is intended to suggest that Sikhism is an un-creative, life-negating, salvation religion. And this view he does appear to express when he says, after quoting God’s ‘Timelessness’ or ‘Ineffability’, “many more are words which designate his attributes, commonly as negatives which attempt in the traditional style to define reality in terms of what it is not. Indeed the term akal or ‘timeless’ is a conspicuous example” (p 49). Considering the emphatically positive aspects of Guru Granth, the Sikh Scripture, and the Sikh Movement, it is not easy for us to resist the inference that McLeod’s compulsion in making serious mis-representations indicated above are that unless he did that all his interpretation about Sikh history being without clear objectives and internal drive and direction, and being determined principally by the environment would fall to pieces. Whatever be the factual position, the book clearly suffers from many serious omissions, some of them being calculated. McLeod’s statements regarding the Sikh religion are at best naive, in fact a misrepresentation, since his work lacks the rudimentary method of first identifying the chief elements of a system from its original texts, and then of comparing them with those of other systems. Mere dogmatic assertions or statements cannot be a substitute of methodical work.

Here is another instance of a misstatement. McLeod writes, “the impact of Nath influence can presumably be observed in the characteristic Sant stress on the irrelevance of caste status as a means of deliverance, the folly of sacred languages and scriptures, the futility of temple worship and pilgrimage” (p. 26). Little does McLeod know that not only do the Naths observe caste prejudices but they also believe in the utility of pilgrimage to sacred Hindu plaecs and the worship of images of Hindu gods at their monastries! McLeod’s failure to consult proper sources remains his chief disability.

Another untenable observation of McLeod is about the authenticity of the Adi Granth compiled by the fifth Guru in 1604 A.D. In 1975 McLeod wrote, “The conclusion which seems to be emerging with increasing assurance was that the widely disseminated Banno version must represent the original text; and that the Kartarpur manuscript must be a shortened version of the same text. A few portions, must have been deleted because they could not be reconciled with beliefs, subsequently accepted by the Panth. This much appeared to be well established.” “Later still portions of the Kartarpur manuscript (the original manuscript written by Bhai Gurdas) were rather ineptly obliterated in order to bring the two versions in line.” Early in 1980s the University team of scholars from Amritsar, Principal Harbhajan Singh and Prof. Pritam Singh all separately examined the Banno Bir at Kanpur and found that it had been written in Samvat 1699 (A.D. 1642), since the Bir bore that date. Prof. Pritam Singh actually read a paper abroad and later published it in the University Journal of Sikh Studies in 1984. We examined the Kartarpuri Bir and early in 1987 delivered Commemoration lectures published in July 1987 concluding, as had earlier been done by Dr. Jodh Singh and Mahan Singh, that Kartarpuri Bir was the original one and suffered from no “inept obliteration” as suggested by McLeod whose statements at Cambridge and Berkley were found to be incorrect. And in his present book of 1989 McLeod repeats his earlier assertion: “A textual problem of considerable significance is indicated by a comparison of the Banno recension with reports concerning the actual contents of the Kartarpur manuscript. This comparison suggests that the Banno recension may actually represent the original text inscribed by Bhai Gurdas,” “but adds that if this is indeed the case the original version has subsequently been amended by obliterating occasional portions of the text” (p. 88). Without reference to the preponderant and long standing published evidence to the contrary regarding the two Birs and without his ever having examined any of them, McLeod’s repeated statement wrongly casting doubts on the authenticity of the scripture of another religion, seems to suggest both the poverty of his scholarly awareness and the lack of a sense of propriety.

Apart from the above, McLeod’s pet nostrum that it was Jat entry into the Sikh society that led to militancy is also an equally unfounded conjecture. He concedes that the decision to arm the Panth was of Guru Hargobind. Even the record in the Dabistan-i-Mazahib contradicts McLeod’s view and suggests that while peasants and traders were in equally small numbers, the multitude of Guru’s followers were service men (p. 69, The Panjab Past and Present, Vol. III, 1969). Besides, the available evidence about participants in the armies of the Tenth Guru and Banda being against the view of McLood, his mere repetition of his stand hardly makes for “historical” evidence.

Without unfettered facility of access to all concerned records, no historian would normally venture to express views on current conflicts, especially while being far away from the area of crisis. But, inexplicably, McLeod has no hesitation in doing that even though he appears to be quite unaware of the realities of the problems and situation in the Punjab. Because, while he has devoted scores of pages to the topic, he does not even mention, much less discuss its provisions and their validity, the controversial Punjab Reorganisation Act 1966, which was the sole cause that led to the Akuli demands in 1966, a fast and threatened death of Sant Fateh Singh, a fast unto death of Darshan Singh Pheruman, and the Akali Morcha of 1981-82 when Indira Gandhi unilaterally had concluded the river water and hydel power issue and laid the foundation of the disputed S.Y.L. Canal. It is obvious McLeod is quite innocent of the fundamental facts leading to the following chief Akali demands:

  1. That the allotment of 75% of available waters of Punjab rivers to non-riparian states, and proportionate hydel power to Haryana, when Punjab needs every drop of its waters and every unit of hydel power, is violative of the universal riparian principle as embodied in the Indian Constitution, and that such drain of Punjab resources would be ruinous to the economic and industrial future of the State and its people.
  2. That the population formula limiting recruitment to the defence services to the population percentage of a state is violative of Article 15 and 16 of the Indian Constitution prohibiting any discrimination on grounds of one’s place of birth. The allegation has been that this discriminatory policy is unconstitutional and has brought down Sikh percentage in defence services from 23% to about 9%.
  3. That the agreed demarcation between Hindi-speaking and Punjabi-speaking areas had been made in 1949 under the Sachar Formula (and later under the Regional Formula), and since that had stood implemented and accepted by all concerned for over 17 years, it should continue without its being upset by any Government Commission.
  4. That the Government should accept the federal principle and grant state autonomy as promised by the Congress Party in 1946 and as demanded by the Sikhs in 1949, and as also resolved and demanded by Tamil Nadu on the basis of the Rajmannar Report and the West Bengal State.

The Akali demands have been that the two constitutional issues should be placed before the Supreme Court for adjudication and the settled and agreed demarcation should not be undone through a commission and that the Indian Constitution should be, as promised, a federal structure.

It is well known that the Akalis started the morcha only when the Centre decided to withdraw the pending Akali case alleging unconstitutionality of the Punjab Reorganisation Act from the Supreme Court and started construction of the SYL Canal; that these demands are still unmet; and that a moderate person like Parkash Singh Badal has called the Rajiv-Longowal accord a sell out.

In this context, for McLeod to say that in a mood of magnanimity Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi conceded most of the Akali demands or that these are “unacceptable Sikh demands” (p. 12) is to betray an ignorance of the Punjab problem which though gross enough, is partly understandable from a distant outsider. But what is really not understandable is why a person so unaware as McLeod should rush on to a ground which angels would fear to tread.

The unfortunate manner in which McLeod pontificates in the book seems to suggest that he has virtually developed an ‘Oracle Complex’. For where he cannot meet an opposite view, or sustain his own by argument, he tries to dub the variant view as ‘orthodox’, ‘traditional’, or of a ‘devout Sikh’, and in the case of Macauliffe’s monumental work he seeks to decry and down grade it by merely saying, “Macauliffe’s enormously influential, the Sikh Religion, must be intimately associated with the traditional approach, both with regard to the source material value and as a trap for unwary researcher.”(p. 34) McLeod forgets that he himself has been a teacher for about 13 years with a Christian Mission in Punjab and it does not behove him to throw stones at others. Christian missions that started work during the colonial era produced broadly two kinds of missionaries — great persons like Dr. Schweitzer who worked with love, understanding and sympathy for the people among whom they lived, while the second category felt that the poor ignorant natives had to be pulled out of the slum of their superstitious beliefs. It is perhaps in this crusading zeal that McLeod writes, “Although the intellectual achievement of the Singh Sabha has been a truly impressive one its dominance must eventually be lost, a century is long enough for any such movement to remain unchallenged and new approaches must supplant the old if our understanding of the Sikh scripture and Sikh literature is to keep pace with intellectual developments in other parts of the academic world.”(p. 100) The suggestion apparently is that Sikhs have to understand their scripture not from the words of the Guru, and their lives, not from the Sikh thought as in the Guru Granth Sahib, not from the clear statements made by the sixth and tenth Gurus about the unity of the Sikh thought but by what is its interpretation by men like McLeod. No wonder such arrogance is only matched by its ignorance.

The basic failing of McLeod in the book is that he appears stuck in a narrow groove from which he is unable to perceive the radical departure the Sikh Gurus made and the basic premises of their thesis. Consequently, his understanding of the Sikh ideology and the Sikh movement remains inadequate.

In the history of the religious world there have been only two major occasions when the spiritual was combined with the empirical, namely, in the case of Islam by Prophet Muhammad and in the case of Sikhism by Guru Nanak. In each case the combination created an epoch, the epoch of Islam and the epoch of Sikhism. The epoch of Islam is well known but not that of Sikhism. But, it is undeniable that a very small, unknown and lower segment of the people on the head of whose members there had been fixed a price, was successful in once for all repulsing a thousand year wave of invasions from the North-West of India beyond Peshawar. After the annexation of Punjab the first rebellions against the British were the Kuka rebellion and the Ghaddar rebellion, both of them almost wholly manned by the Sikhs. During the entire struggle for Indian Independence against British Imperialism of the 121 persons hanged and 2646 imprisoned for life and 1300 who lost their lives in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre 93, 2145, 799 respectively were Sikhs. In 1975 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency Provision curtailing all human rights, the Sikhs were the only people to sustain an organised struggle against the invasion on all human freedoms, involving the arrest of over 40,000 Sikh volunteers, when in the rest of India not even half that number offered arrest as a protest. Why and how an insignificant segment of the people could produce these results? No amount of sophistry, verbiage, Jat or environmental theory can explain these phenomena and the spirit and motivation that underlie them, except the originality of the ideology of Guru Nanak.

In the last of over 200 years religion has virtually been divorced from the empirical life of man. Communism has been the posthumous child of this divorce, leading to stark confrontation between the two Goliaths armed to the teeth, threatening the annihilation of the planet, with the David of the modern culture nowhere visible to relieve the situation. It is this darkening spectacle that men like Toynbee attribute to the elimination of religion from the empirical life and the revival of the Graeco-Roman worship of the goddess of national state. The authors of the Limits of Growth also diagnose the ego-centrism of man to be the disturbing cause of the growing gap between the rich and the poor nations. Within the rich nations perceptive persons like Galbraith are lamenting the stark greed of the political elite masquerading as morality in the west, thereby widening the rift between the big and the small of those countries. A similar groan of pain and concern is coming from the Churches of America when they want all religions of the world to unite and fight the evils of secularism and individualism that are increasingly corroding the moral and spiritual life of man. And there is the significant and active phenomenon of Liberation Theology seriously struggling to invoke the Bible to rekindle the Christian love for one’s neighbour, and practically to marry man’s spiritual life with his empirical concerns. In India where the dichotomy between the spiritual and the empirical has been complete and saffron robe and sanyasa have been deemed to be the hall mark of its spiritual culture, thinking persons like N.T. Sehgal want a Hindu Liberation Theology to stop the deepening erosion of the moral fibre in the country. Significantly, the era of separation of the spiritual from the empirical and consequently of the materialistic and environmental approach an interpretation appears to be on the wane and is being seriously questioned for its values.

McLeod’s book suffers from a narrowness of vision and the limitations of its approach. He is, perhaps, unable to grasp that in this land of other-worldliness, Guru Nanak created 500 years ago a system intimately and essentially linking the spiritual with the empirical and a society with new motivations, in which the gap between the highest and the lowest was greatly reduced and the focus of the society rests among the masses and not in any elite ideologically divorced from the people at large. It is on this account that both in its moral and material undertakings the society has lagged behind no other section of the Indian peoples. It is the impact of this new unified ideology McLeod fails to understand. There are places where his perception is fair, but that is quite rare. The book remains a disappointment because of its level, perceptions and contents.

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One thought on “Review of W H McLeod’s “The Sikhs – History, Religion and Society”

  1. You would be interested to read my book: SOPHISTRY OF DR. W.H. MCLEOD: A CRITIQUE OF HIS ARGUMENTS ABOUT SIKH HISTORY AND SIKH RELIGION. If interested, please respond at amarjitbal2000@yahoo.com and I will be happy to send you a complimentary copy.

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