Guru Nanak And The Sikh Religion — A Review by G.B. Singh

by W.H. McLeod
Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford India Paperbacks, 1996
Pages: 259; Price: Unknown
Oxford India Paperback edition of Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion provided me the opportunity to look into McLeod’s first major work on the Sikh religion. This book is actually a revised version of McLeod’s thesis The Life and Doctrine of Guru Nanak completed for his Ph.D. degree at the University of London in 1965 (somewhat similar to that of Sher Singh’s Philosophy of Sikhism). Oxford published the very first edition in 1968 with preface, from a location called Patala in 1967. Subsequent editions have already been published; one in 1976 (with corrections) as the “First Indian Impression”, and the Third Indian Impression in 1988. And now the 1996 edition.

A little more than the first half of this book is devoted to the life of Guru Nanak. Using the on-going drive in the West for the “quest of the historical Jesus”, McLeod is historically the first person to position the approach for the quest of the historical Nanak. In other words, the research methodology used in analysing the Gospel narratives of the New Testament are to be equated with that of Nanak’s Janam-sakhi. This approach has some merits; however, it also has potential for many flaws beyond the scope of this review. It seems to me Dr McLeod utilized Herr A. Harnack’s method for exploring into the hagiographic accounts recorded in the Janam-sakhis, and came up with a cumbersome rating scale of five categories : the established, the probable, the possible, the improbable and the impossible. He analysed a total of 124 sakhis, classified them according to the above scale; although at few places, failed to adhere to his classification; leaving the reader unsure as to which sakhis belong to his “established” category, if any.

Given the hagiographic nature of Janam-sakhis, (Sakhis are not scriptures, Gospels are; both are hagiographic). I am in agreement with his conclusion that there is a paucity of authentic biographical material on Guru Nanak. However, having said that, I must point out at least two instances where McLeod has rushed to conclusion :
i. Nanak’s travel to Mecca and Medina.
ii. Nanak’s visit to Baghdad.

The author seriously doubts Nanak’s excursion, because he was a non-Muslim; and cites the travels of Sir Richard Francis Burton and J.F. Keane under disguise to the forbidden cities of Mecca and Medina as non-Muslims. Burton completed his “holy” venture from June to September 1853. However, Edward Rice speaking for Captain Burton described the strange irony on the non-Muslim “ban” : “Burton would not be the first European to enter the sacred city of Mecca, and in the pilgrimage he was scrupulous about mentioning previous travellers, mostly men who had been captured by the Turks and made them slaves and brought, often against their will, to Mecca, after which they escaped captivity.”(1) So much so for the ban ! Think about it : The Moslems themselves had been violating the “ban”, if there was one. But, does that mean the “ban” also existed during the early part of 1500’s when Nanak is stated to have travelled to the Moslem holy places? McLeod says yes, but, never cites any reference. Analysing Nanak’s visit to Baghdad, the author acquired the help of Dr V.L. Menage, reader in Turkish at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London to read the particular inscription. Dr Menage confessed : “which I cannot understand is the passage” … “ I regret that I am unable to suggest the correct reading.” But anyway, he proceeded to give his conclusion which Dr McLeod gladly accepted. It didn’t surprise me, but gives me a cause for concern.

Recently, a Sikh scholar(2) pointed out rather correctly: Dr V.L. Menage … admits his lack of knowledge of the Turkman language used in the inscription. Nonetheless, he proceeds to translate the same. He concedes that first six or seven syllables in the second line read Baba Nanak Faqir or Baba Nanak-i-Faqir, but says that this does not fit into the meter and should be ignored. That suited very well McLeod’s thesis that Guru Nanak did not travel outside his surroundings. To ignore the inscription, because it does not fit into one’s contrived thesis, amounts to intellectual dishonesty.”

Even more disturbing, years later Bruce B. Lawrence(3), Professor of History of Religions at Duke University (another member of the Bhakti Clique) supported McLeod by refering “facetious Baghdad inscription.” I have noticed a strange habit among the Bhakti Clique members to offer unquestionable support by citing each other’s work quite liberally.

The book section dealing with the teachings of Guru Nanak is undoubtedly the best part of the book. Though incomplete, Dr McLeod’s presentation of Nanak’s teachings is by far the best I have ever read in the English language. However, I must point out an error on page 163 dealing with “The Nature of God” dubbed as Mul Mantra, the basic theological statement with which Guru Granth opens :
“I Oankar sati namu karata purukhu nirabhau niravairu akal
murati ajuni saibhan gur prasadi”

While describing the passage, the author refers to symbol “Om”, which, if you look at it carefully really doesn’t exist in the above passage. Ironically, in Oxford’s first edition (1968), the same passage is quoted as:
“I om sati namu karata purukhu nirabhau niravairu akal
murati ajuni saibhan gur prasadi”

Which of the two is correct ? Neither !

The Sikh religion, historically, has been looked at under the following three “models” if you will : (1) hybridization between Hinduism and Islam, (2) a part of the larger Bhakti movement, and (3) an independent system of its own. One outcome of this book has been that it has given birth to a new “model”: the Sant tradition. By doing so, the author has emphatically rejected the first model: “Conventional Hindu belief and Islam were not regarded as fundamentally right, but as fundamentally wrong.” Dr McLeod’s description of Sant tradition of nothern India (pages 151 to 163) is nothing short of being hodge-podge and wishy-washy stuff. One learns that Sant tradition comprises a synthesis of Vaisnava Bhakti, the hatha-yoga of the Nath yogis, and a bit of Sufism. Then, with no surprise, Dr McLeod meticulously discounts (at times even expels) the hatha-yoga of the Nath yogis and Sufism from Nanak’s version of Sant tradition. What is left then is still called the Sant tradition. One would think that to link Nanak tightly to the Vaisnava Bhakti, Dr McLeod would present a detailed bullet-proof rationale in this book. He didn’t. After intensely reading this book, I was left wondering if the author was aware of the blunder he had committed. It all comes down to this: Sant tradition is another term for the Vaisnava Bhakti when dealing with Guru Nanak. Still, there is no doubt that in McLeod’s mind what Guru Nanak had learned was through the channels (often unknown!) that had infected the northern India which finally promulgated the essential education foundation of “Sant tradition” to Guru Nanak.

Reading this book from cover-to-cover has convinced me that the author is very perceptive and recognises Guru Nanak’s great work : “One of my great regrets will ever be that when dealing with the compositions of Guru Nanak, I can, in no measure, reproduce in English translation the beauty of the original utterance … simple direct hymns of superb poetic quality.” He also recognises that Guru Nanak was highly educated unlike many of the religious figures of his time : “The compositions recorded in the Adi Granth are certainly not the work of an illiterate or semi-literate author.” Now the question arises : Where, when, and how did Guru Nanak get such a high-class education? The author’s answer to this is : “… more likely in one of the small charitable schools which were attached to some of the mosques and temples at this time.” This answer is embarrassing and in likelihood contradicts the author’s own version of “education scenario” espoused in the “Sant tradition model” that he tried earlier to bring forth.

Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion is the first book written in the English language on the Sikh religion that I truly enjoyed reading. The beauty with which Dr McLeod accomplished his work on Guru Nanak’s teachings, although incomplete, is indeed wonderful.


1. Rice, Edward : Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, Harper Perennial, New York, 1990, p. 235.
2. Singh, Sangat : The Sikhs in History, Uncommon Books, New Delhi, 1996, p. 17fn.
3. Schomer, Karine and W.H. McLeod, (Eds.) : The Sants — Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India, Berkeley Religious Studies Series, Berkeley, 1987, Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi, 1987, p. 361.



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