The Sikhs
Reviewed by Dr Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon*

by: W.H. McLeod
Published by: Columbia University Press, New York
Pages: p. 119+

[* Review published in the Journal of Sikh Studies, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar and in the Nanak Parkash Patrika, Punjabi University, Patiala.This version reproduced from Some Recent Publications on Sikhism — An Evaluation, Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh, 1990]

The book is one in a series purporting to make a systematic study of Sikhism, its basic beliefs, ideals, institutions and history. By misrepresenting the Sikh doctrine, Dr. McLeod seems to have tried to cast doubts on the well-established and long-cherished Sikh traditions and thus erode the very foundations of Sikh identity. His approach leaves much to be desired regarding the authorial bias, lopsided selection of reference material and negative interpretation of everything mainstream Sikhs believe in. Even a casual reader cannot fail to discern the unmistakable trend, in his sweeping generalisations to undermine the Sikh faith and denigrate the mission of the Sikh Gurus. He interprets Sikhism as an inward looking mystical faith concerned merely with other-worldly salvation of the soul and finds it difficult to reconcile ‘exterior symbols and explicit militancy with Guru Nanak’s stress on inward devotion.’ (Page 5)

McLeod has failed to take note of the inherent dynamism, extroversion and the socio-political vitality of the activistic and life-affirming faith founded by Guru Nanak. He contends that the first Guru was a pacifist, who sought inspiration from the earlier sant tradition and that he laid emphasis on interiority or Nam Simran as a means of attaining salvation. [Page 23]

Apart from the defective nature of the evidence furnished by McLeod, it is so difficult to reconcile his observations with several explicit utterances of the Guru on this subject. There is little doubt that the true import of the Guru’s teachings has not been understood by him. Sikh movement was not an ordinary movement. What Guru Nanak preached, was not a mere set of meta-physical abstractions. He attacked such pillars of traditional order as polytheism, cognitive obsecurantism, untouchability, priest-craft, ritualism and male chauvinism. The first Guru laid the foundation of a socio-political revolution – a revolution which captured the imagination of the people all over the country. Both through precept and practice the Guru put the seal of his sanction on secular or wordly pursuits and brought about a far reaching transformation in the outlook of the people. He advocated a healthy blend of the two realms — the sacred and the empirical. According to it a Sikh must lead a life of activity and action, moral and just, and not of mere contemplation. The Guru looked upon God as truth and His worship as truthfulness and that man’s spiritual assessment depended on his deeds. He believed that the way of religion consisted of the practice of Nam Simran and seva, aiming at improvement of society and the world.

Religion thus viewed could be an effective vehicle for promoting the values of social harmony, love, equality, freedom, human rights, justice and brotherhood of man. This implied that the religious life in the true sense had to be lived and practised in the socio-political context.

McLeod either does not understand the full richness of the meaning and connotation or he deliberately distorts its meaning, when he says that Seva ‘designates service to a Gurdwara’. This is a clear denial of a fundamental feature of Guru Nanak’s teachings. In spite of the Guru’s stress on Nam Simran, he had an activistic approach to the problems of life. In the words of John Clark Archer “there was something positive and realistic in his (Guru’s) life — something which Punjab, at any rate, could utilise and make permanent in religious and political reconstruction”. Sir Mohammad Iqbal paid the most befitting tribute to the Guru, when he said, “A man of perfection woke India from its world of dreams.”

One of the basic shortcomings of McLeod is his refusal to accept Sikhism as a revelatory religion and all his commentary regarding the orginality and independence of the Sikh doctrine and tradition is coloured by this refusal. (Pp 17-18)

McLeod tries to analyse the Sikh doctrine in isolation from the general Sikh world-view. A clear perception of the doctrine can be found only in the light of total framework of the Sikh faith. Through an assortment of misplaced observations and disjointed opinions, McLeod seeks to undermine the essential unity, coherence and sequence of Sikh thought both in the Guru period and afterwards. He ventures upon an analysis of the Sikh theology without being fully conversant with its basic postulates. His knowledge is too superficial to make an indepth study. This is evident from the fact that he does not quote a single line from the Guru Granth to authenticate his statements. The result is bound to be far from reality. In order to lend credence to his preposterous proposition, McLeod interprets the word ‘Akal Purakh’ as denoting the conception of God in Sikhism. In Jap ji, Guru Nanak calls God, “Karta Purakh” or Creator Being (this word is repeated in Guru Granth Sahib over thirty times) and lays down man’s spiritual path through activity i.e. ‘Carrying out the Will of God’. Sikh scripture abounds in positive attributes of God but McLeod selects a single negative attribute of God ‘Akal Purakh’, a word which appears in the Guru Granth only once to denote the timeless aspects of God. He does not want to acknowledge the life affirming character of Sikh religion. Rather he calls it an uncreative and life-negating religion.
McLeod’s repeated assertion that the growth of militancy under the last five Gurus was a deviation from the pacifist faith of the first Guru is also erroneous and misleading. He maintains that the people who believed in Nanak’s interior practice of Nam Simran became a militant community and proclaimed their identity under later Gurus by means of prominently displayed exterior symbols. The Sikhs stand apart from the rest not only in their distinctive physical appearance but also in terms of their distinctive ideology, history, tradition, ethos, enterprise and outlook. Their doctrines and their historico-political position have bestowed upon them a dynamism and vitality not found in other communities. They have had traditions of heroism, sacrifice and martyrdom for the cause of righteousness, handed down to them by the Gurus. Their heroic role in the socio-political life of the country is unparalleled. This is what clearly distinguishes them from the others. Somehow, McLeod has failed to take note of these marks of distinction. His lopsided approach makes him blind to the distinguishing features of Sikh ideology which can be summed up as under:

Belief in the one true God, rejection of idolatory, rejection of asceticism, rejection of  the worship of intermediary agency between God and man, rejection of caste; equality of status for women; the practice of righteousness and rectitude; fatherhood of God and universal brotherhood of man.

McLeod reiterates his favourite theory that the Sikh militancy under the sixth Guru was the outcome of a large influx of jats in the Sikh fold and not really the result of any explicit decision on the part of the Guru. In the same fashion, he links the adoption of five K’s by the tenth Guru to the influence of Jat cultural patterns, especially to the alleged custom of the Jats in keeping their hair uncut. He cites no references to substantiate these claims. His entire effort is directed to prove his oft repeated contention that the Gurus had no clear cut goals before them. It does not seem plausible that the so-called Jat patterns were so powerful as to submerge all ideological consideration of the Gurus.

McLeod finds it very difficult to reconcile exterior symbols and explicit militancy of the Khalsa with Guru Nanak’s stress on inward devotion. (P. 5) Perhaps what he fails to notice is that the tenth Guru’s founding of the Khalsa was the natural and inevitable corollary of Guru Nanak’s integrated vision in which the inward and the outward, the sacred and the empirical are inextricably linked. The Guru stressed that the external order must be preserved by moral values and ethical imperatives which are derived from religion. The inseperability of religion and politics is implicit in the basic postulates of Sikhism and must be viewed in their true perspective.

Without a careful examination of the Sikh scripture and the spiritual thesis of the Gurus, McLeod has taken it upon himself to arrive at preconceived conclusions. Without any clear historical evidence, he has questioned the validity of time honoured Sikh practices and traditions which distinguish Sikhism from the earlier religious traditions. His far-fetched interpretations of Sikh theology (without quoting from the scripture) are intended to prove that there is no basic difference between Sikhism and Hinduism and that the assertion of separate Sikh identity started with the Singh Sabha Movement. It must be understood that the Singh Sabha was essentially a revivalist movement, its foremost aim was to restore Sikhism to its pristine purity. McLeod believes that there were several Sikh identities during the period following the 1849 annexation but the Khalsa identity was promoted by the British in order to serve their vested interest. Therefore, the Singh Sabha version of the Khalsa identity should be regarded as a British creation. McLeod ignores the fact that the Sikhs were engaged in protracted warfare during the 18th century. When Ranjit Singh came on the scene he had to spend most of his time in conquering and consolidating territories. The result was that the Sikhs had no time to set their house in order. Many infirmities crept into their ranks. The period after annexation was marked by peace and stability. It was but natural for the Sikhs like other communities to pay attention to their religious and cultural affairs. It is well known that Singh Sabha luminaries like Bhai Ditt Singh, Prof. Gurmukh Singh, Bhai Mayya Singh, Bhai Jawahar Singh and Bhagat Lakshman Singh, who were primarily concerned with the promoting of the Khalsa identity, were ordinary men with humble means. They did not belong to the elite class, promoted by the British. The loyal group represented by Sir Khem Singh Bedi, Raja Bikram Singh of Faridkot, Sir Gurbaksh Singh Bedi and Avtar Singh Vihiria offered their stiff opposition to the Khalsa identity.

McLeod has taken it upon himself to make unwarranted attacks on the Khalsa identity and to challenge and dislodge it without any supporting evidence.

McLeod’s assault on the distinctive identity of Sikhism, either the result of shallow scholarship or some other ulterior promptings, has become the focus of attention not only of the Sikh scholars but also of Sikhs in general, whose religious sensibilities have been hurt. This has touched a very deep chord in the Sikh psyche especially in the context of the prevailing crisis in the Punjab and the anti-Sikh propoganda being conducted by Government controlled media, both in India and abroad. One wonders if McLeod’s writings could be a part of the campaign started by vested interests to strike at the very roots of Sikhism to facilitate its gradual absorption into Hinduism, the fate that has already befallen Buddhism and Jainism in India. Whatever might be his motives, it is obvious that McLeod cannot be included in the category of genuine and objective researchers. Lacking in academic integrity, he indulges in the un-academic practice of selecting or rejecting any opinion or evidence without assigning any reason. He has turned into an intellectual intriguer, who has arbitrarily and ruthlessly rejected the overwhelmingly sound historical evidence supporting the Sikh tradition.

This misguided historian again applies the same lopsided approach when dealing with the present crisis in Punjab. What are the roots of the crisis? How and by whom has the crisis been aggravated? He makes no serious effort to probe these questions. Once again, he lets pre-disposition get the better of his scholarly perception. To cite an example, he exonerates the Rajiv Government of any role in deepening the Punjab crisis by completely ignoring its (Rajiv-led government’s) deceitful politics and short sighted policies aimed at electoral gains. His partisan approach makes him blind not only to the distinguishing features of Sikhism but also to the distinctive role played by the Sikhs, out of all proportion to their small numbers, in liberating the country from the shackles of slavery.

Academic freedom should not be stretched beyond limits. For a fair and balanced assessment of the issues, it is imperative that this freedom be combined with honesty and sincerity of purpose. Surprisingly, McLeod has been referred to as the “unchallenged expert in Sikhism” on the jacket of the book, this despite his known faulty publications that have been challenged at all levels.


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