Orientalism, Critical Scholarship and the Sikh Religion

[Excerpted from Perspectives on the Sikh Tradition, Ed. Justice Gurdev Singh, 1996, Amritsar, ISBN 81-7205-178-6]

(From pages 70 to 73)

…..Whatever Dr. McLeod intended many readers will ask his books the wrong questions and get the wrong answers. The books to an uninitiated reader seem to reiterate the notion that a great amount of Sikh belief appears to be based on uncritical religiosity. The reader seeking the well-springs of what Sikhism is will not be assisted. The only successful opponent to thousands of years of passing conquerors must have something that “makes him tick”. Nowhere in these books is there an attempt to tell us what it is. The reader wishing to know about the heart of Sikhism will turn to these books and be offered meticulously and exhaustively carried out drills in certain methods of western criticism. Such reader’s desires and the purpose of the books differ. The reader will hardly be able to understand the true import of what is being said unless he or she possesses a background knowledge of the history of criticism. Thus the statements that Guru Nanak was not the founder of Sikhism and that the Janam-Sakhis are not biography but hagiology, if understood against Dr. McLeod’s background in the quest of the Historical Jesus and other such pursuits, is trying to enunciate the basic tenet of critical scholarship. “If you ask an ancient source a question and it gives a nonsense reply, re-think your question.” It is an elementary critical statement to say a Gospel is a Gospel not a biography. Technically, it is Heilsgeschichte (Salvation-happening) not History. (English is poverty stricken here, it has only one word for History). But to say this is not to lessen its historicity, its part in the whole historical future. Now, baldly to re-apply these instruments of study without any explanation to a totally different subject is demanding nonsense replies. A Janam-Sakhi is a genre of literature which is sui generis and it must be treated as such, according to its own Sitz im Leben (Situation in life). Again, when Dr. McLeod says that the Tenth Nanak could not have said and done what Sikh tradition says he said and did at the founding of the Khalsa in 1699 he is using critical techniques developed originally by critics of the speeches in Thucydides and in the book of Acts. He is trying to get down to the type of “historical bedrock” which American historians are supposed to enjoy with, for instance, what it is alleged Abraham Lincolin said at Gettysburg (anyone knowing American democracy will tell you what historically “government by the people of the people” etc. really means). At one side Dr. McLeod ignores the whole religion-history context. History of this kind can only be asked its own kind of questions but even in his own field of “Secular” history (if there can be such a thing) he ignores the whole findings of the Scandanavian school concerning narratives connected with Holy places and the findings of the Oral Historians in Africa and Papua-New Guinea. There is a living unbroken reliable tradition of the sayings and doings of 1699 quite apart from writing, still alive in the Punjab, which was even more alive five generations ago when western observers came on the scene.

I had intended to leave detailed examples to indigenous scholars. Perhaps they will allow me to treat of one specimen. On pages 92 and 93 of Early Sikh Tradition in passing Dr. McLeod dismisses the tradition of the Panja Sahib at Hasan Abdal as an “aetiological legend”. That is, a story which has grown up to answer the “what is the cause of” (Greek aitios) question, like, “Why has the elephant a long nose”, Dr. McLeod has industriously gathered the scraps of information given by European travellers in the last century and on the basis of one written in 1866 he takes it that the narrative of Guru’s hand on the rock was invented by a faqir to save himself from being beaten up by Ranjit Singh’s troops. He makes much of the varying remarks by observers as to whether the hand-mark was etched upon or into the rock. A few chance-written remarks by passers-by and the reports of later visitors is enough to produce the label “invention by tradition.” The story of 1866 on which Dr. McLeod depends, rather than being an “aetiological legend” , should be classified as a “Sirdarjee Joke.” This is a genus of story invented by people wishing to show “Sikhs-are-as-stupid-or-obstinate-as-their-own-water-buffaloes”. It is a type of narrative greatly cherished by Anglo-Indian, and “Sophisticated Sikhs”. We may compare “Jew-boy”, “Pole-ak” and “Paddy” jokes in the U.S.A. It is patently not to be seriously considered as a statement of what was actually said and done. Dr. McLeod who is so outstanding for his exhaustive fieldwork does not seem to have tried to collect oral evidence from the many living Sikhs who have visited Punja-Sahib and indeed possess detailed photographs. In addition, Pakistan welcomes New Zealanders and though Sikh shrines are carefully sealed off to prevent fanatics damaging them, scholars with persistence and adroit use of resources can get access to most things. It has to be admitted that critical scholarship has here performed less than its best with regard to one of the sacred things for which Sikhs are willing to lay down their lives.

This and other examples lead one to the conclusion that Dr. McLeod’s attitude is not confined to Sikhs or any feature of Sikhism but is for religion and religious phenomena as a whole. Applying his own method of judging by the internal evidence only, it has to be objectively noted and allowed for in any appreciation of his work, that he has absolute faith in the intellectual critical method as he understands it and has passed beyond treating religious criteria on any wider or larger basis. This is not to imply on my side that reason and religion are opposed or that one takes over from another. For me they go hand in hand, but finally the intellect and its methods, as we presently know them, are not perfect nor absolute nor infallible nor do they see things in focus or whole.

In conclusion, I would like to point out that I am not calling for a moratorium on critical scholarship. I have merely tried to point out the bluntness of the critical bludgeon, the need to be humble, considerate and courteous. I have asked that it be put in a context of the wholeness of the study and of the group being studied. As part of this I would ask that due place be given to the desi home-grown production of critical scholarship. Imports should not prevent the development of the natural product. I must equally emphasize on the other hand that Sikhism like all the great religions needs critical scholarship if it is to meet the intellectual needs of its increasingly highly educated followers. Perhaps, Dr. McLeod’s works stand out so much in this respect because the leading Sikh Scholars writing in English in the Punjab need to keep in the good books of the Establishment and therefore studiously avoid “sticking their necks out”. They, as much as Dr. McLeod, have produced the present situation. The young Sikh critical scholar is in no enviable position and he must be helped and encouraged soon at all costs. For the rest, if I have been unfair personally or have hurt anybody’s feelings, I beg pardon and apologize in advance. To quote Dr. Hew McLeod, I ask for “sympathetic understanding” .


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