FUNDAMENTALISM, MODERNITY AND SIKHISM : A TERTIUM QUID
by Dr NOEL Q. King*
[*Prof. Emeritus, University of California, Santa Cruz (U.S.A.)]
[Reproduced from Sikhism: Its Philosophy and History; Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1997]
“Fundamentalism” in its strictest technical use refers to a movement within American Protestant Evangelicalism of fairly recent origin. The word has come to be linked with various literalist, evangelical and charismatic groups and televangelists. Thence it has been applied to religious extremists who claim to be returning to fundamentals. We find the media and some scholars using it of the Pire pinis cargo cultists of yesterday in Sepik River, New Guinea, onwards to the Babri masjid/Ram janam bhoomi folk in today’s India. Recently in his Defenders of God, the Fundamentalist Revolt against the Modern Age, Bruce B. Lawrence with great scholarly care and erudition defines terms and deals mainly with what he considers prime examples — American-style Protestant Fundamentalists, the Ithna-ashariya Shia of Iran and such defenders of “The Jewish collectivity” as Gush Emunim. He refers the movements back to some of the major concepts of modern world history as it has developed since World War 1. We will turn back to this shortly.
“Modernity” and “Modernism” refer to a tendency among religions to update themselves by accepting concepts and techniques from the modern secular world around them. The words are sometimes used as a kind of second part in a dichotomy- “Fundamentalism versus Modernity/Modernism.” They easily fit into the academic discussion on the “Modernization” of religions like Islam or the influence of modern America or the Third Republic in France on their own Roman Catholicism early in the century. But, easily the concepts elide towards association with Western dominance and the Great Western Transmutation (abbreviated to GWT) by which the world was transformed between 1492 and 1947.
Here it is necessary for our purposes to interject that the word “fundamentalist” has been applied to Sikhism too by both media and scholars especially in the time leading up to and since the tragic Operation Blue Star. Recent examples include Angela Dietrich’s “The Khalsa Resurrected : Sikh Fundamentalism in the Punjab.” In this article which struggles to be sympathetic and respectful, the essay on the Sikhs rubs shoulders with those on Fundamentalist Muslims in West Africa, Iran and Egypt, Secularists in Turky, Sri Lankan Hindus in Britian, Protestant Tamils in Madras, as well as the American Moral Majority. Again, late in 1989 at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion at Anaheim in California, a panel discussed these issues in connection with Sikhism. A paper which has not to date been published and which requests it be not quoted for it had not been finalized, was read by Professor Harjot Oberoi of Vancouver. It was entitled “Sikh Fundamentalism : Ways of Turning Things Over?”
In the discussion generated, it became clear that though a religion which used a Mul Mantra and was given to mulvad obviously got down to fundamentals, the word “Fundamentalist” could hardly be used in the same way as it was of American Fundamentalists. There was also considerable objection to the way in which by the use of social science and Marxist historical methods it was to be supposed that Sikhs were mainly peasants who were led along by a few people who drew them out from the main body of Hinduistic Indians. The idea was also hotly contested that deep changes in Sikh History from 1699 onwards came in response to outer stimuli on the part of a body in which it was alleged increasingly Jats had taken over leadership from Khatris. If we reject such explanations of evolution into modernity and other similarly based arguments and hypotheses, what better propositions can we put forward to explain the Sikh situation today? In answering it, it is necessary to note that modernizing thought since the so-called Enlightenment, a European movement especially reflected in philosophy of the eighteenth century, has tended to discount any use of hypotheses of explanations which include the supernatural or that which passes human understanding. Recently some cracks in this carapace have begun to show.
It is now possible to tune back and take up our consideration of the position of Fundamentalism, Modernity and Sikhism against their background in some major trends of thinking about World History. World History is not a modern western invention. In the eighth century before the Common Era strata of the Jewish Torah, building on much older West Asian and Egyptian ideas, and the Jewish Scriptures as a whole give us a schema of how the nations came to be and how they interact and the plan of their history. In the Puranas, Indic thinkers give us concepts of world ages and world movements. In the eighth/fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun gives us in his Muqaddimah a pattern which looks back to the earlier thinking of Arabs and Jews.
It is impressive how many older Sikhs of my generation read at High School H.G. Wells’ Short History of the World, which originally came out in 1924. I have also met a good number who had read Toynbee. Although Karl Jaspers wrote in German, many of his ideas have come to be known to users of English. Thus a number of us take it almost for granted that there is a kind of intellectual spirit of the age (Zeitgeist) which seems mysteriously to affect thinkers across the world with the same kind of ideas just as it is said, new bird songs will spread from bird to bird across an island. Jaspers especially juxtaposes the Athenian philosophers, the Hebrew prophets, the Upanishadic seers and the Chinese sages in an Axial Age.
Joseph Needham in his eighty-eighth year remarked that if he had time to carry the implications of his History of Science and Technology in China into World History, he would very much desire to trace Taoist ideas and techniques, for instance, with regard to chemistry and the use of gun powder in their influence upon Muslim scientists such as the alchemists. One could follow this up to try to postulate a transmission of thinking even in a perverted way between the original Chinese invention of gunpowder and the Portuguese floating fortress. There are many such transmissions which suggest themselves but lack of sound historical evidence interdicts even their formulation. We turn back to trying to trace some factors in History of Religion which, if not transmitted, naturally overtake or take place in an ecclesiastical body or corpus at a certain point in her life.
At Chicago, William McNeill and Marshall Hodgson formulated ideas which have deeply affected Bruce Lawrence, whose book was mentioned above. In her years of Empire, Muslim civilization was, according to this hypothesis breathed through and through by a religion which was its conscience and shaper. But, during the time of “the Great Western Transmutation” of world history, religion was apparently not a predominant controlling factor or an effective conscience. However, when some thinkers in great cultures and civilizations, including Western culture, see their societies disintegrating, their young being lost to them, their best traditions destroyed, they turn desparately to their religions as a means of hope and a way of working for survival, recovery and resurgence. This is a comparatively late movement which of its own nature must come after the modernisers have brought the threatening outside influences into their own most cherished holy of holies. As a movement it too will use the language and methods of the enemy in its attempt to recover the fundamentals as it imagines them. It too will invent tradition. It too will use science and technology and be dependent on them and indeed be transformed by them. Broadly and approximately, Fundamentalism may be considered such a movement or a manifestation of this tendency.
Let us turn back to Sikhism. Sikhism was presented to the world by the first Guru, who lived from 1469 to 1539. The tenth occupied the takht from 1675 to 1708. During those centuries, the Punjab faced yet more of the Muslim invasions which had gone on since the days of Mahmud of Ghazni, and the Europeans arrived and began to weave India into their world web. In the nineteenth century they broke in with full force bringing their world diseases, economics, their philosophical, religious and political ideals and failures. They brought their ways of education, science and technology. Everywhere the local product seemed to be swept away. Even their intellectual history with its tale of revolutions in politics, literary critical method, social and gender structure, its divorce between religion, ethics, philosophy and poltics found local supporters and exponents and some partial acceptance. But the response in Sikhism was not just one of meeting one emergency after another, or the evolution of an overall response by any one person nor of a committee nor of a group of leaders. Rather at base it was the continued unfolding of the enseeded, encoded nature of Sikhism as originally propounded by the first Mahala and the other nine. After the tenth, it was vested in the Book and in the Sangat and the same Spirit held forth the same truths as they applied to that stage of life. Let us give but one brief example. It was not one person, however brilliant, saying Hum Hindu nahin hai late in the nineteenth century, but the First Teacher coming up from the Three Day Waters saying, Hai nain Hindu, Hai nain Mussulman, which is basic. The nineteenth century remark is but a working out of the early teaching. In that dichotomy we find posited a third something (the tertium quid of our title) : Sikhism.
In the debate about Fundamentalism and Modernity, other buzz words are appearing. These include “primitivism,” that is, the seeking for a primitive pure state and the attempt to imitate it under present day conditions. This may be called the restoration ideal or a quest for a return to the primordial, a seeking for a renewal of a primal vision. At the same time many are talking of ours as a post-modern age. There is growing suspicion of western ways just as they penetrate more and more places. A colleague brought back from former East Germany a copy of a poster which shows an attractive young western woman giving a cigarette in a packet labelled “West” to a Russian official who is choking on his own cigarette. The caption in Russian says “Try out the West” or more snappily “Test the West.” A caption in German says “This applies in East Germany too.” On the packet there is a printed warning in English about Life in the West with “its banal culture and brutal extremes of poverty.”
In their day, thinkers both Eastern, Western and from Africa and the Pacific have done their best. We test their best, each time the teachings of Sikhism may seem to be fitted into their categories. Then we find it escaping their fingers and passing on its way. Young Sikh scholars thoroughly grounded in their own inheritance, who are encouraged and enabled to devote the years of detailed and disciplined study to the age-long international debate from China to California via the Punjab and Olduvai Gorge will contribute much to a genuine theory of World History.
1. For dictionary definitions see for instance any recent edition of Webster’s College Dictionary. Compare also handbooks like Roger Scruton’s A Dictionary of Political Thought, London : Pan Books 1982. These works do not really attempt to define so much as to sum up current usage. However, the article on Fundamentalism in edited Mircea Eliade : Encyclopedia of Religions, Free Press and MacMillian : New York 1988 volume gives some definitions and bibliography. (This Encyclopedia is disgracefully inadequate on Sikhism.) The works of James Barr culminating in his Fundamentalism (London, 1977), though written from a British point of view, have an exactness of scholarship and originality which make fascinating reading.
2. Published by Harper and Row : San Franciso, 1989.
3. Again for bibliography see in edited Mircea Eliade : Encyclopedia of Religion, Volume 10, the artticles on Modernism and Modernity.
4. G.W.T. is a term used by Marshall Hodgson whom we mention below which has come into jargon use in American Universities. Like the Ninja Mutant Turtles of present day fame, it is by no means purely Western. The British would not have got far in India in any of their enterprises without widespread and gifted local help and co-operation. The GWT is a world achievement even as it is a world tragedy.
5. Essay number 6 in a collection edited by lionel Caplan : Studies in Religious Fundamentalism, London : Macmillan Press, 1987.
6. With Karl Jaspers it is impossible to pick out few titles but ed. Edith Ehrilch, etc. Basic Philosophical Writings, Selections, Athens : Ohio University Press, 1986 and Man in the Modern Age, London : Routledge and K.Paul, 1959, give an inkling.
7. The writer had the privilege of two visits with Dr Joseph Needham in July 1988. He made the remarks quoted in conversation. When I asked after his middle name “Noel”, he said he was born on the first Christmas of the century. Volumes 1 and 2 of his Science and Civilization in China. Cambridge (England) : University Press, 1956 and 1958, are the most relevant to our purpose.
8. On William Hardy McNeill see his Readings in World History, New York : Oxford University Press, 1968 and A World History, 1967, subsequently re-edited. On Marshall G.S. Hodgson see The Venture of Islam : Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Chicago : University Press, 3 volumes, 1974. Other “display options” as the bibliographical retrieval systems say, include Sir Herbert Butterfield, Christopher Dawson and a host of others.