MISREPRESENTATION OF SIKH TRADITION IN
WORLD RELIGIOUS TEXTBOOKS
by Prof. James R Lewis*
[*Prof. of Philosophy and Religion, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, (U.S.A.) in 1997 when the article was published.]
[Reproduced from Sikhism: Its Philosophy and History; Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1997]
(Genuine) knowledge of another culture is possible (but) the student must feel he or she is answerable to and in uncoercive contact with the culture and the people being studied. (In the past), most of what the West knew about the non-Western world it knew in the framework of colonialism; the European scholar therefore approached his subject from a general position of dominance, and what he said about this subject was said with little reference to what anyone but other European scholars had said.
Over the course of the past few decades, academics have invested increasing amounts of energy into analysing the scholarly discourse of previous eras, particularly the scholarship that was carried out by colonialist nations with respect to subject peoples. The focus of most of this relatively recent work has been to point out how the images of non-European peoples presented in such discourse were shaped by the (often unconscious) presuppositions of European scholars, as well as how this scholarship ultimately fed back into, and helped to legitimize imperialistic attitudes. Within Sikh studies, a fair amount of analysis along these lines has been carried out with respect to the semi-scholarly works produced by British officials during the period of time leading up to the annexation of the Punjab.
As someone professionally involved in teaching of general courses on world religions, I became interested in examining how non-Western people were presented in contemporary survey treatments of world religions, especially the representations found in world religion textbooks. What follows is a short report of my findings in this area with respect to the Sikh community. The focus of the discussion will be on the misrepresentations of Sikhism that are present in survey treatments of world religions, as well as an analysis of the factors responsible for such misrepresentations.
The paper has been divided into three major sections. The first section looks at simple errors of fact. The second and third sections examine two themes that surface over and over again in Western treatments of Sikhism: Sikh “syncretism,” and the contrast between the supposed “pacificism” of early Sikhism and the militancy of later Sikhism.
Unlike the first set of errors, which are due largely to carelessness, the second two misrepresentations ultimately have their roots in the less objective scholarship of the British Raj. Hence, we will find that, despite the good intentions of present-day scholars, discussions of these latter two themes often subtly slander the Sikh tradition.
Errors of Fact
If one just glances through a half dozen or so world religion textbooks at random, the first thing that strikes one about their treatment of Sikhism is the wide diversity in the amount of space devoted to the Sikh religious tradition. This diversity ranges from whole chapters on the Sikh religion to complete absence in some texts. More often than not, Guru Nanak is at least mentioned, although usually in the form of a passing reference to the “impact” of Islam on Hinduism. The incidence of misrepresentations seems to bear no relationship either to date of publication or to length of treatment. In other words, contrary to what one might anticipate, lengthier or more recent treatments of the Sikh religion do not appear to contain fewer mistakes than shorter or older treatments. For example, in the 1987 edition of Many Peoples, Many Faiths, Robert Ellwood mistakenly asserts not only that Guru Nanak spent the entire later part of his life as an “itinerant poet and minstrel” but he also remarks that Guru Gobind Singh was “killed in battle.” Another curious error is when Ellwood says that the Tenth Master slew a chicken rather than a goat on the occasion of the formation of the Khalsa. Hence, proximity in time to the present is no guarantee of accuracy.
As for more extended recent treatments of Sikhism, in the 1987 edition of Religions of the World, Lewis M. Hopfe asserts that Guru Gobind Singh “introduced into Sikhism the worship of the terrible Hindu goddess of death, Durga.” Hopfe appears to have fallen into this error by taking an item of historical fact, the Tenth Guru’s employment of the martial symbolism associated with the Hindu goddess, and misconstruing it so that (at least in Hopfe’s statement) it appears that the Sikh community as a whole actually adopted the ritual worship of Durga — a portrayal that is manifestly false. Hence, extended treatment of the Sikh religion (i.e., devoting an entire chapter to Sikhism) is no more a guarantee of accuracy than a recent publication date.
Other mistakes that occasionally crop up are the long-refuted position that the First Master was a “disciple of Kabir,” and the rather unusual item of misinformation that the Sikh community made an abortive attempt to form a country of its own during the 1947 partition of India. One will also occasionally find statements to the effect that Guru Nanak “accepted the gods of the Hindu pantheon,” without adding the important qualification that the First Master regarded the deities of Hindu mythology as demi-gods unworthy of religious devotion.
It is all too apparent that the source of every one of these misrepresentations is superficial acquaintance with the Sikh tradition. In the bibliographies of these works, one rarely finds more than one or two book-length references on Sikhism. While one can sympathize with the difficult position of an author who takes on the Herculean task of writing a world religious text, and can understand the temptation to consult as few references as absolutely necessary, there are enough Sikhs in the English speaking world that, with relatively little expenditure of energy, an author could at least have sent a draft of his or her chapter on the Sikh religion to a responsible member of the Sikh community for comment and correction.
Although one might justifiably be irritated with the sloppy scholarship of these various authors, their mistakes pale in comparison with the lamentable tendency of some academics who are irresponsible enough to make negative, evaluative remarks about a religious tradition that they have all too obviously neglected to study with care. Thus, for instance, in A Guide to the World’s Religions, David G. Bradley remarks, in language that seems to heap ridicule on the Sikh community, that the Guru Granth Sahib is “not comprehensive to most Sikhs; despite that fact, they hold it sacred.” Similarly, in a multi-authored work, The Religious World, Hyla S. Converse asserts that, “with the intention of achieving religious unity, the Sikhs, in their fight for survival against Islam, became instead a symbol of religious intransigence and hatred.” And lastly, in a statement made by an otherwise reputable contemporary scholar (in the context of an edited work, Religion and Man), Robert D. Baird asserts that “Whereas for Nanak, the ultimate matter was devotion to the True Name, for the present community, self-preservation appears to be somewhat more important.” When contrasted with statements such as these, which constitute errors of judgement as well as errors of fact, the non-evaluative mistakes of other authors appear more forgivable.
Before leaving this section of the paper, it should be noted that not all surveys of world religions misrepresent Sikhism. There are, in fact, at least six texts containing a full chapter on the Sikh religion that appear to be free from misrepresentations. Not by coincidence, all of these general works are multi-authored volumes, ¾ an approach which, although, by no means capable of guaranteeing accuracy (as we have already noted with respect to the books in which Converse’s and Baird’s remarks appear), at least guarantees that the people composing individual chapters have adequate opportunity to read more than one or two books on Sikhism. Three of the acceptable treatments that I found were composed by recognized scholars of the Sikh tradition: Christopher Shackle, W. Owen Cole, and W. H. McLeod. (Although Sikhs have often criticized McLeod’s more specialized studies, they will find nothing objectionable in his chapter in Parrinder’s Man and His Gods). Hilda Wierum Boulter, who authored the chapter on Sikhism in the comparatively old 1961’s Living Schools of Religion, was able to construct an accurate picture by consulting a learned Sikh (Dr Anup Singh) about his own tradition. Niels C. Nielsen, Jr., who authored the Sikhism chapter in Religions of the World, appears to have avoided error by sticking rather closely to the presentation of the Sikh religion found in Cole and Sambhi’s The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. And finally, S. Vernon McCasland, who authored the Sikhism chapter in an older survey of religion that was also entitled Religions of the World, managed to portray the Sikh faith accurately. He seems to have accomplished this by following the sympathetic treatments of Sikhism found in such works as Max Arthur Macauliffe’s The Sikh Religion.
While it should be self-evident that every emergent religion relies on prior religious traditions as points of reference for a new vision of spiritual reality, the relationship between early Sikhism and its religious environment appears to have captured the attention of observers of the Sikh religion more so than other religions. In particular, the question of the relative impact of Hinduism and Islam, and more especially the notion of a “syncretism” of these two traditions, has constituted almost an obsession in Western treatments of the Sikh religion. One of the most peculiar aspects of this phenomenon is that although the majority of authors of world religion texts are willing to rely on the syncretism category in their interpretation of the Sikh religion, there is widespread disagreement as to the precise nature of this blend of Hinduism and Islam. For example, while some authors confidently portray Sikhism as being more of a “reformed Hindu religion”, other authors assert, with apparently equal confidence, that in Sikhism “there is little doubt that the Muslim source predominates.” Similarly, whereas some scholars argue that “Nanak’s doctrine is more a reform of Hinduism,” one can find other scholars who see no difficulty in asserting that Guru Nanak “leaned rather more to Islam than to Hinduism.” Yet other writers appear to argue for an equal admixture of Islam and Hinduism.” Finally, while some advocates of the syncretism interpretation are willing to go so far as to assert that the Sikh religion “is not in any absolute sense new” (i.e., that everything in Sikhism can be traced to a source in either Hinduism or Islam), other scholars, particularly those who criticize the syncretism interpretation, have stressed “originality of Guru Nanak.” Thus Hindu/Muslim syncretism, which the majority of authors of general surveys of world religions seem to accept uncritically as the starting point for their interpretation of Sikhism, turns out to be far more ambiguous that one might at first assume. This peculiar state of affairs should lead the careful observer to ask broader sorts of questions about the syncretism interpretation, such as, why has so much scholarly energy been invested in this particular question? And what ultimately does it mean for one religion to be a “syncretism” and another not?
The answers to this line of questioning are complex because there is more than one factor at work here. The widespread influence of the syncretism interpretation is partially attributable to the writings of certain Sikhs who advocate the idea in order to portray Sikhism as an inherently ecumenical religion. Another factor contributing to the pre-eminence of the idea in surveys of world religions is the tendency of authors to over-emphasize Sikhism’s syncretic character “due to the attractiveness of a syncretistic religion in a textbook on the great world religions.” There is, however, an often unrecognized problem with the label “syncretism,” which is that the term was traditionally utilized to denounce groups that had deviated from the dominant religion, and who were consequently portrayed as having polluted the true faith by “grafting on foreign elements.” From this perspective, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the syncretism appellation probably originated with English missionaries or some other group of colonial officials who regarded (or wished to brand) the Sikh religion as spurious.
If someone were to argue that “syncretism” has lost its negative, judgemental connotations, we can ask, why, then, are the major religions of the West never described as “syncretisms” ? In other words, there is basically nothing wrong with the observation that both Muslim and Hindu influences are evident in the Sikh religion, as long as one does not fail to note that the same state of affairs exists in other religious traditions.
Christianity, for example, was shaped by Judaism, Mithraism, Neoplatonis, and other Hellenistic religions. And, not just during the period of their birth, but also over the course of later contact with other peoples, all of the major world traditions have been influenced, to some extent, by other religions. Why, then, is it appropriate to refer to Sikhism as a “syncretism,” but not appropriate to thus refer to other religions? In other words, if a faith like Christianity cannot appropriately be called a “syncretism,” then what term would apply to Christianity’s particular blend of influences that could not apply to Sikhism?
With a little reflection, it should be apparent that there is no clear criterion for distinguishing Sikhism from other religious traditions on this point. The covert judgement, and here we are finally in a position to state the evaluation implicit in this seemingly neutral term, is that Sikhism can be understood entirely in terms of its constituent religions, whereas other traditions are somehow “more,” or that they somehow “transcend,” the religions from which their constituents are derived. To restate this value-judgement as bluntly as possible, the founders of other traditions were somehow able to provide a special (creative? revealed? ) element to their new spiritual synthesis that was somehow missing in the case of Guru Nanak.
I am, of course, exaggerating the point, but it needs to be made perfectly clear that the characterization of the Sikh tradition as a “syncretism” is a holdover from the days when all of the other world religions were compared with Christianity for the purpose of demonstrating Christianity’s superiority. Although I recognize that present-day scholars do not consciously intend to pronounce such a judgement against Sikhism, the fact that “syncretism” continues to be used differentially — to describe some religions but not others — indicates that this judgement has not ceased to shape interpretations of the Sikh tradition.
Pacificism / Militancy
Next to Hindu/Muslim syncretism, the most frequent misinterpretation of the Sikh religion to appear in world religion textbooks is the contrast between the supposed “pacificism” of Guru Nanak and the militancy of Guru Gobind Singh. Although a few authors of general surveys have recognized that the difference between the First Master and the Tenth Master on this point lay more in the circumstances of the time during which they lived rather than in their basic orientations (the First Nanak’s attitude was no more “passive” than the Tenth Nanak’s was “violent” — both forcefully preached the truth and asserted the rights of the oppressed), more often than not such authors have seen it fit to exaggerate the contrast until it appears that there is an actual contradiction between early and later Sikhism. To cite just a few such misrepresentations :
“Another element in the religion of Nanak was his pacificism. This man, in all his travels and with all the rejection that he received, maintained the stance of a pacificist. He never struck out at his enemies, and apparently he taught his disciples to follow this pattern. In contrast to the teachings of Nanak, Sikhs, in their later history, became known as the most militant of warriors.”
“Although the teachings of Nanak himself set forth a quietistic religion that laid stress upon the individual and his relationship to God, the religion, which developed after Nanak, became highly political, leading to a religious state in the Punjab. Also, the original emphasis on individual virtues and piety became in time a faith that emphasized strength, combativeness, and even militarism.”
“Guru Gobind Singh built up Sikh fighting strength, and what had begun as a group of believers in brotherly love turned into a formidable military brotherhood which waged war against Muslims, and which believed, as Muslims did, that death in battle was a passport to paradise.”
These negative judgements constitute only the most recent manifestations of a biased interpretation of Sikhism that was first articulated by some of the British scholar-administrators of the Nineteenth Century. W. L. McGregor, for example, in a book originally published in 1846, observed that, “Nanak, as the founder of the Sikhs, is greatly venerated by that nation, though they appear to have entirely forgotten his tenets of peace.”[28 ] In a more sharply worded statement, H. H. Wilson, in an article first published in 1848, asserted that:
“(Guru Gobind Singh) changed the whole character of the community, and converted the Sikhs of Nanak, the disciples of a religion of spirituality and benevolence, and professors of a faith of peace and goodwill, into an armed confederacy, a military republic. The worship of “steel” was combined with that of the “book”, and instead of attempting to unite Muhammadans and Hindus into one family fraternity, he made his disciples vow implacable hatred to the followers of Mohammed.”
Although we might be inclined to be somewhat forgiving toward these Nineteenth Century figures, who were, after all, writing around the period of the Anglo-Sikh wars as well as engaged in the difficult task of legitimating British imperialism, we have to wonder what issue is at stake behind the very similar statements of contemporary scholars. Rather than tackle this problem directly, let us ask the same type of question about the early pacificism/later militancy contrast that we asked about Hindu/Muslim syncretism — the question of differential treatment. In the case at hand, the proper way to pose the question is; Are there other religious traditions in which the founder preached (or at least appeared to preach) a pacificist message that later followers disregarded?
Of the established world religions, Jainism has been the most faithful to its founder’s pacificism, whereas Buddhism’s historical record is somewhat uneven. However, indisputably the religion with the worst history of violence — a violence totally at odds with the teachings of its founder — is Christianity. Hence, while all of the above citations are more or less inaccurate evaluations of Sikhism, in many instances a little substitution of terms would transform them into highly accurate evaluations of Christianity. For example, if one substitutes relevant Christian terms for a few of the corresponding terms in McGregor’s statement cited earlier, one obtains an entirely appropriate description of the Christian tradition:
“Jesus, as the founder of Christianity, is greatly venerated by the members of that religion, though they appear to have entirely forgotten his tenets of peace.”
One could do much the same with the passages cited earlier from contemporary world religion textbooks.
Considering the applicability of such statements to the Christian tradition, one might be surprised to learn that the same authors who are willing to pronounce judgement on Sikhism fail to voice similar criticisms of Christianity. Given the peculiarity of this state of affairs, it would not be inappropriate to postulate some kind of unconscious repression-projection mechanism at work that might explain these scholars’ lack of even-handedness. One does not have to be a psychoanalyst to perceive that guilt about the gap between one’s ideals and one’s behaviour can be pushed out of the light of full awareness only to re-emerge as a projection. In lieu of a better explanation of the one-sided treatment of the Sikh religion by Westerners, it appears to the present writer that the relevant scholars are uncomfortable with the contradiction between theory and practice in their own religious tradition, but have repressed the problem and have projected the contradiction onto Sikhism, a tradition that apparently (but not actually) contains the same contradiction. Thus, their condemnation of Sikh militancy is really a projection of their own (unexpressed, repressed) condemnation of the Christian tradition. The point here is not to criticize Christianity, but rather to once again point out the differential treatment that the Sikh religion has received at the hands of Western scholars; these kinds of evaluative statements would have been less objectionable had similar criticism been levelled against other religious traditions as well.
To bring this discussion to a close, I should like to remark that I found it highly distressing that a relative amateur in the field of Sikh studies such as myself could uncover so many errors of fact and judgement in the academic productions of religion scholars — the great majority of whom are my countrymen. While many of the misrepresentations I have indicated result from sloppy scholarship, in these writers’ defense we should take into account that the Sikh religion is one of the most understudied traditions in the American Academy. If one glances at the structure of the American Academy of Religion, for instance, one finds program units devoted to such tiny traditions as alive American Religions, Baha’i and Zoroastrianism, but no unit focusing on the relatively larger Sikh tradition. The poverty of American scholarship on Sikhism is a self-perpetuating situation that prevents an American school of Sikh studies from emerging. For example, to speak from personal experience early in my graduate work, I was discouraged from focusing on the Sikh tradition because, it was said, such a specialty would limit my employment prospects. As a consequence, I set aside my original interest for a different specialty and have only sporadically been able to put my energies into Sikhism.
I know that I have painted an extremely dismal picture of the state of Sikh Studies in the American Religion Academy, but there are indications that this situation could change. Americans as a group, and consequently the American Academy, have become increasingly interested in the Sikh community, although unfortunately, the primary cause of this new interest in Sikhism is the series of tragic events that have taken place in the Punjab during the eighties. It was in the same way that Islam became an important area of study in the wake of upheavals in Islamic countries. We can anticipate the emergence (though on a smaller scale) of Sikhism as a recognized area of study.
1. Edward W. Said: Covering Islam (New York: Pantheon, 1981), p. 155.
2. Much of the basic analysis in the latter two sections repeat the analysis found in certain parts of my earlier paper, “Some Unexamined Assumptions in Western Studies of Sikhism” Journal of Sikh Studies 13:2 (August 1985), although many of the examples in the present paper are new. In the section on the pacificism-militancy contrast, one will also find a few continuities with my “Images of Sikhism in the Writings of Early Orientalists” Studies in Sikhism and Comparative Religion 6:2 (October 1987).
3. Robert St. Ellwood, Jr.: Many Peoples, Many Faiths (Englewood Clffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1987, 3rd ed.), p. 93, p. 102, and pp. 101-102.
4. Lewis M.Hopfe: Religions of the World (New York: Macmillan, 1987, 4th ed.), p. 184.
5. Ward J. Fellows: Religions East and West (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1979), p. 82.
6. “The Sikhs rose in arms to claim a state of their own, and the Muslims and Hindus retaliated.” Geoffrey Parrinder: The Faiths of Mankind (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1965), p. 60.
7. Kenneth W. Morgan, (ed.): The Religion of the Hindus (New York: Ronald Press, 1953), p. 41.
8. “Nanak says in the Japji that the Hindu gods and goddesses, including Shiva, Brahma, and Devi, adore the True One,” S. Vernon McCasland: Religion of the World (New York: Random House, 1969), p. 506.
9. David G. Bradley: A Guide to the World’s Religions (Englewood Cliefs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 128.
10. Kyle M. Yates, Jr., (ed.): The Religious World : Communities of Faith (New York: Macmillan, 1988, 2nd ed.), p. 98.
11. W. Richard Comstock, (ed.): Religion and Man: An Introduction (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 217.
12. These works are, respectively, Stewart Sutherland et al., (ed.): The World’s Religions (Boston, Mass.: Mass G.K. Hall, 1988), Peter Bishop & Michael Darton, (eds.): The Encyclopaedia of World Faiths (New York: Facts on File, 1988), and Geoffrey Parrinder, (ed.): Man and His Gods (London: Hamlyn, 1971).
13. Vergilius Ferm: Living Schools of Religion (Paterson, New Jersey: Littlefied, Adams & Co., 1961).
14. Neils C. Nielsen, Jr., (ed.): Religions of the World (New York: St. Martin’s, 1983).
15. McCasland : op. cit.
16. Wing-tsit Chan, Ismal’il Ragi al Faruqui, Joseph M. Kitagawa, and P.T. Raju: The Great Asian Religions: An Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1969), p. 5.
17. Johan A. Hutchison: Paths of Faith (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), p. 200.
18. Bradley: op. cit., p. 127.
19. Ninian Smart: The Religious Experience of Mankind (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1976), p. 150.
20. E.g. Denise Lardner Carmody & John Carmody: The Story of World Religions (Mountain View, California: Mayfield, 1988), p. 253; Mithrapuram K. Alexander: World Religions (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown. 1968), p. 78; and Hans-Joachim Schoeps: The Religions of Mankind (Garden City, New York: Anchor, 1968), p. 167.
21. John B. Noss & David S. Noss: Man’s Religions (New York: Macmillan, 1984, 7th ed.), p. 221.
22. McLeod in Parrinder’s: op. cit., p. 212.
23. Mark Juergensmeyer: The Forgotten Tradition: Sikhism in the Study of World Religions, in Mark Juergensmeyer & N. Gerald Barrier, (eds.): Sikh Studies (Berkeley, Graduate Theological Union, 1979), p. 15.
24. Paul B. Courtright: Syncretism and the Formation of the Sikh Tradition, in Harbans Singh & N, Gerald Barrier, (eds.): Panjab Past and Present: Essays in Honour of Dr Ganda Singh (Patiala: Punjabi University, 1976), p. 417.
25. Hopfe: op. cit., p. 183.
26. Herbert Stroup: Founders of Living Religions (Philadelphia: Westminster , 1974), p. 104.
27. Richard Cavendish: The Great Religions (New York: Arco, 1980), p. 49.
28. W.L. McGregor: The History of the Sikhs (Patiala: Languages Dept., Punjabi Univ., 1970; orig. pub. 1946), p. 41.
29. H.H. Wilson: Civil and Religious Institutions of the Sikhs, in M. Macauliffe et. al.: The Sikh Religion: A Symposium (Calcutta: Sushil Gupta, 1958), p. 58. Originally published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1848).
30. A small group of interested scholars recently attempted to form a new program unit of the Sikh tradition. This proposal was rejected. (Letter from James E. Wiggins, Executive Director of the AAR, to James R. Lewis, December 13, 1988, author’s files.)