It is a welcome sign that in the last few decades interest in the study of Sikh religion, its institutions and history has grown both in India and abroad, both among Sikh and non-Sikh scholars. It is indeed a healthy development. But, partly because of the variant background from which scholars are drawn and partly because of the methodologies of study followed by them, a few problems have to be faced and solved. In this brief article we shall consider a few of them.

The first problem that has arisen concerns the methodology adopted in the study of Sikhism. This issue relates not only to the study of Sikhism, but also to the study of other religions, or of religion as such. In fact, the problem is ontological in nature. It is basic to almost every religion that there is a Spiritual Reality that is different from the empirical reality we perceive with our senses. Irrespective of the fact whether or not the phenomenal reality is considered to be real or not, the Spiritual Reality is regarded as more real or true. It is the description and definition of this Reality by a religion that form the very basis of the study of that religion. Answers to questions whether that Reality is creative, attributive or otherwise, determine the structure of a religion and furnish valid clues to its study and classification. For example, no student of the Guru Granth Sahib can fail to understand that for the Gurus, God is not only Creative and Attributive but He is also Immanent, reveals Himself to man, and operates in history with His Will. The Gurus have repeatedly emphasized these aspects of God. Guru Nanak says, “O Lalo, I say what the Lord commands me to convey.”[1]

Similarly, the scriptures and the basic doctrines of every religion define Reality in their own way and no study of any religion would be true or even valid unless that definition is kept in view. It is, therefore, axiomatic to say that the study of the ontology or the spiritual base of a religion is essential to the proper understanding of it and its development. Yet it is this very issue that raises the first problem.

Since the advent of science and more particularly since the last century, materialistic philosophies have gained considerable relevance. In fact, in the fields of sociology, economics, political science, psychology and history, it is the materialistic interpretations that are by and large accepted as valid. Each of these social sciences has developed its own particular discipline and methodology of study. As all these studies relate to the phenomena of the empirical world, either taking little account of or denying the transcendent world, their worldviews are from the point of view of religion, partial or lopsided. Seen from the angle of social sciences, there is substance in the argument of these scholars of phenomenology that the acceptance of the existence of transcendence is an uncalled for assumption that would knock off what they consider to be their scientific basis. The argument has validity in the field from which it emanates. But, the confusion and the fallacy arise when this argument is carried to the field of religion. For, by its very definition, the study of religion involves the study of the transcendent or the spiritual. Therefore, in the study of religion it would be an equally uncalled for assumption to accept that there is no transcendent element. For many a religion believes that the transcendent is also immanent and operates in history. Accordingly, religion has developed its own methodology and principles of study leading to a world-view which is holistic and comprehensive instead of being limited and narrow. In fact, the denial of the spiritual element would not only vitiate the study of religion, but would also rule out the very meaning or need of such a study. It is in this context that we quote Dr. Hannad Arenett who after invoking the age old view of Parmenides and Plato about the existence of the supra-sensual world writes, “Meanwhile, in increasingly strident voices, the few defenders of metaphysics have warned us of the danger of nihilism inherent in the development; and although they themselves seldom invoke it, they have an important argument in their favour; it is indeed true that once the super sensual realm is discarded, its opposite the world of appearances as understood for so many centuries, is also annihilated.

The sensual, as still understood by positivists, cannot survive the death of the super sensual. No one knew this better than Nietzsche who, with his poetic and metaphoric description of the assassination of God in Zarathustra, has caused so much confusion in these matters. In a significant passage in The Twilight of Idols, he clarifies what the word God meant in Zarathustra. It was merely a symbol for the super sensual realm as understood by metaphysics; he now uses instead of God the word true world and says: “We have abolished the true world. What has remained? The apparent one perhaps? Oh no! with the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”[2] It is obvious that the study of religion, its institutions and history cannot be kept limited to the study of its phenomena because such a study in order to be complete must essentially embrace the study both of its spiritual and empirical aspects. In this context Dr. Huston Smith writes, “Ninian (Smart) approaches religion from the angle of phenomenology and the social sciences, whereas, a philosopher, find phenomenology confining. Ontology is too central to be bracketed.”[3]

This observation is particularly valid in the case of the study of a religion like Sikhism in which the Gurus establish an inalienable link between the spiritual life and the empirical life of man. In fact, transcendence is fundamental. Every couplet in the over fourteen hundred pages in the Guru Granth Sahib stresses that there is a higher level of Reality than the physical reality we perceive with our senses, and, unless we work in tune with that Reality, our problems of conflict, disharmony and war will not be solved. The Guru clearly envisages three stages of the progress of life, after God had expressed Himself. “First, He manifested Himself; second, He created the individuality; third, He created multifarious entities; and fourth is the highest level of the God-conscious being who always lives truthfully.”[4] And, it is this destiny of man, the Guru exhorts him to fulfil. “O man, you are supreme in God’s creation, now is your opportunity, you may fulfil or not fulfil your destiny.”[5] This is Guru’s thesis in the Guru Granth According to it, real knowledge comes from the area of the transcendent. He is the Teacher who enlivens man’s spiritual dimension and gives him a universal consciousness and a discriminatory vision. This realm is noetic. It was the knowledge thus gained that made Guru Nanak change radically almost every religious doctrine that stood accepted in the earlier three thousand years of Indian history. Against the world being illusory, delusive (Mithya, Maya) or a place of suffering or misery, he called it real and meaningful; against asceticism, monasticism and Sanyasa, he accepted the householder’s life and full social participation and responsibility; against celibacy and woman being sin-born, he gave religious sanctity to marriage and equality to women; against the rigidity of Varn Ashram Dhanna and the institution of caste and pollution, he stated that yoga lies not in one-point meditation but in treating all men as one’s equal; against withdrawal from life and taking to renunciation and Sanyasa, he stressed that he knows the way who works and shares his earnings with others. There was nothing new in the social milieu to warrant this radical thesis. And, yet, scholars employing the methodology and tools of social sciences say: Guru Nanak contributed no new religious thought; Sikhism is hardly a religion; it is a combination of Vaisnavism and Nathism, two cults recommending celibacy and withdrawal from life, and accepting caste discrimination or that it is a peasant faith. For the Guru, God is the source of truth, knowledge and energy; that way alone we can explain the revolutionary activities of Muhammad and Guru Nanak. That is why in Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism God is given the symbol of Light and in Islam and Sikhism he is called “Truth”. For the man of faith the door to truth is through the spiritual dimension of man. For the social sciences the only reality is the physical world and science constitutes the exclusive door to its secrets, the mystic world being just unexplored area of darkness. But, for Guru Nanak, unless man wakens his spiritual dimension, he cannot know reality nor live a truthful and harmonious life in this world; for, spirituality forms the base of all moral life. Schweitzer, while surveying the entire field of western thought, comes to the dismal conclusion that there is no trace of the ethical in the reflective thought of man. That is why for the social sciences morality is just a defense mechanism or a reaction formation in response to environmental impacts, religion too being a similar behavioural phenomenon without any separate or independent roots.

It is in this context that William Nicholls feels that the culture and consciousness of the modem secular universities are unsuitable to interpret the culture and consciousness of the authors of scriptures, “In so far as we adopt the culture of the secular university, we are systematically in opposition to the texts we are studying. In so far as we take our texts seriously, and are successful in interpreting the intention of their writers, we are in opposition to the university and its culture.”[6] Nicholls cites the following typical case of distortion by Morton Smith who is blind to the colossal spiritual energies generated by Christ and the phenomenal response he had over the centuries in shaping history and men. “A striking example of this limitation may be observed in the work of one of the most brilliant and respected present-day scholars, Morton Smith. His recent book, The Secret Gospel, begins as a piece of literary detection which compels admiration, but it takes a startling nose dive at the point that it comes to the historical substance of the matter. On the basis of a second century source of doubtful provenance, which he prefers to more central sources on no other apparent ground than that it was secret, Smith believes he has unmasked the truth about Jesus-he was really a magician, and perhaps one who used homosexual practices in his rites of initiation. The fact that this theory is shocking to the susceptibilities of the believer is not an argument against its truth. After all, many simple Christians will be almost as disturbed by the growing consensus of scholarship that Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and had no thought of founding a new religion. What is more to the point is the total inability of such a theory to explain how such a person could also have been the originator of the lofty spiritual teachings to which both the Gnostic and ecclesiastical traditions bear witness.”[7]

What needs to be emphasized is that religious phenomena or history is intimately related to, if not the product and expression of, its spiritual base. Both components have to be studied together one cannot be fruitfully studied in isolation of the other. No wonder Nicholls writes, “Thus, it can seem somewhat ludicrous to watch scholars in religious studies abdicating a function they alone can perform and bowing down to the latest theories in anthropology, which seem unable to recognize in religion anything beyond a highly abstract code for ordering data and uniting and separating bits of information. Even if it has to be acknowledged that religions may perform such functions, to suppose that this exhausts their role is to betray a crass failure to enter the outlook of other human beings, for whom religion was and perhaps still is a living reality, opening doors on to the spiritual dimension and raising their existence to a higher level.”[8]

We do not say that an anthropologist or sociologist should not study religion, but it would only be an anthropologist’s or sociologist’s view of religion by the use of his own methodology. Whereas the anthropologist is entitled to express his point of view about a religion, the reader is also equally entitled to know that the study is by an anthropologist by the use of an anthropologist’s methodology. Because, from the point of view of the man of religion, such studies would be limited in their scope, partial in their vision and inadequate as a study of man in the totality of his being and functioning, i.e., of his spiritual and empirical life.

There is also another related point. In the study of religion it is not only necessary to know the methodology the author is using, but it is important to know who the writer is and what is his own faith or training. Unlike as in science, religion is also the study of the inner life of man. It is, therefore, relevant and necessary to know about the religious belief and background of the writer, i.e., whether or not he accepts the existence of the transcendent or the supra-sensual elements. It is in this context that Dr. Noel Q. King writes, “One general conclusion which I draw from a long study of the critics, of which the above is a sketch, is that it is most important to remember the personality and circumstance of the critic. In a Natural Science like chemistry it may not be necessary to know anything about the human being who is writing. In any subject which entails human subjects, the work must be put into a personal context. Accordingly, one feels every work of critical scholarship should have a government statutory warning that its consumption may be deleterious to the soul’s health. If it is to do with religion, it should also have a statement of ingredients, including the religious standing of the writer. If he or she is a believer, it is necessary to know this, so that the critical reader can allow for bias. If he or she is not a believer, we should have some indication of that too, lest the disillusionment or enlightenment of a post-Christian, a post-Jew or a post-whatever should give the critic rosy-coloured spectacles or a jaundiced outlook.”[9] Let us quote C.G. Jung about objectivity of Sigmund Freud, “There was no mistaking the fact that Freud was emotionally involved in his sexual theory to an extraordinary degree. When he spoke of it, his tone became urgent, almost anxious, and all signs of his normally critical and skeptical manner vanished. A strange, deeply moved expression came over his face, the cause of which I was at a loss to understand. I had a strong intuition that for him sexuality was a sort of numinosum. This was confirmed by a conversation, which took place some three years later (in 1910), again in Vienna. I can still recall vividly how Freud said to me, ‘My dear Jung, promise me never to abandon the sexual theory. That is the most essential thing of all. You see, we must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark.’ He said that to me with great emotion, in the tone of a father saying, ‘And promise me this one thing, my dear son, that you will go to church every Sunday.’ ”[10] It is strange that Freud, who was basing his theories on and interpreting the dreams of others, including those of Jung, was curiously enough anxious to conceal his own and his private life. The motive for such concealment could hardly be academic or scientific. Jung writes, “Freud had a dream-I would not think it right to air the problem it involved. I interpreted it as best I could but added that a great deal more could be said about it if he would supply me with some additional details from his private life. Freud’s response to these words was a curious look – a look of the utmost suspicion. Then he said, ‘But I cannot risk my authority.’ At that moment he lost it altogether. That sentence burned itself into my memory; and in it the end of our relationship was already foreshadowed. Freud was placing personal authority above truth.”[11]

We quote the instance of another great man. It is well known that the followers of Ramanuja, a philosopher of Bhakti, are very particular that the food they eat is undefiled. Therefore, the rule had been that if while cooking or eating the food another person cast a glance on it, the entire food was thrown away and the food cooked and eaten again. This being the Vaisnava culture, let us record what Mahatma Gandhi, a protagonist of the Hindu tradition, writes, “………..but for years I have taken nothing but fruit in Mohammedan or Christian household……In my opinion the idea that interdining and intermarrying is necessary for national growth is a superstition borrowed from the West. Eating is a process just as vital as the other sanitary necessities of life. And if mankind had not, much to its harm, made of eating a fetish and an indulgence, we would have performed the operation of eating in private even as we perform other necessary functions of life in private. Indeed the highest culture in Hinduism regards eating in that light and there are thousands of Hindus still living who will not eat their food in the presence of anybody.”[12] It is not our object to deride anyone, but we wish only to show that cultural or personal prejudices die hard, and these consciously or unconsciously colour one’s vision. It cannot, thus, be denied that in the study of religion objectivity of vision can, at best, be only limited. It is, therefore, essential to know of the background, beliefs and predilections of the author in order to enable the reader to assess and appreciate the value of his views and the slant of his vision. In scientific studies the data and facts are mechanical, quantitative and special that are generally measurable by fixed and accepted yardsticks. Even in that field we have come to a stage where the observer’s relative position in space and time affects his measurement and inferences. In the matter of religion the difficulties of unbiased assessment are far too great because here the field of study is primarily the emotional, the moral and the spiritual life of an individual or his society. An illustration would be relevant. Two ideas are intimately connected with the martyrdom of Christ, namely, that of the act of redemption and of the resurrection of Christ. Howsoever one may view these ideas, it would, indeed, be impossible to understand and interpret the moral base and development of Christianity without accepting their validity, the deep faith and response they inspired and the abiding influence they exercised on the early Christian society. In the same way, it is fundamental to the Sikh religion, as stated by Guru Nanak and the other Gurus in their hymns, that God had revealed Himself to them and that their hymns embody the commands of God. Therefore, in spiritual matters the genuineness of an idea is indicated by the spiritual and moral faith it evokes in the hearts of the people concerned. We do not urge that a sociologist or an anthropologist is debarred from evaluating religious matters and developments. But, the man of faith has also the right to know the writer’s belief, i.e., whether he is an atheist, a materialist, an evolutionist, a Marxist or a sociologist. We shall specify our point still further. W.H. McLeod, while evaluating the originality of the religious thesis of Guru Nanak, writes that it is misleading to suggest that he originated a school of thought or a set of teachings.[13] As against it Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, the Muslim philosopher and scholar, finds in the entire panorama of Indian religious history only two tall persons, namely, Lord Buddha and Guru Nanak.[14] These contrasted assessments might be explained by the fact that whereas McLeod has for many years been a part of a local Christian missionary organization in the Punjab, for Muhammad Iqbal, Guru Nanak is the only man of God in India, who like Prophet Muhammad combined the spiritual life and the empirical life of man and started a religion of the ‘deed’, proclaiming and preaching the Oneness of God and the brotherhood of man. Another student of cultural history, H.S. Oberoi, views Islam and Sikhism in altogether a different light. “Sikh religion is first and foremost a peasant faith. Sociologists have often spoken of how Islam is an urban religion, Sikhism may be spoken of as rural religion. When dealing with the beliefs, rituals and practices of the Sikhs – be they religious or political it is always worthwhile to constantly remind ourselves that we are fundamentally dealing with the peasantry and the world-view of this social class has historically always been very different from other social classes. A lot of knotty issues to do with Sikh studies would become easier to solve if we stop applying paradigms that have developed out of the study of urban social groups -merchants, middle-class or city workers-and deploy concepts that relate to the day-to-day life of the peasantry.”[15]

In the above context, two points can hardly be overemphasized, namely, what is the methodology of study a scholar is using and what are his personal belief and background, i.e., whether the study, examination or interpretation is under the discipline of sociology, anthropology or religion.

Next is the issue of breaking the dichotomy between the spiritual life and the empirical life of man. In most religions for one reason or the other, this dichotomy exists; and it is more so in the Indian religions in which asceticism, monasticism, celibacy and ahimsa are almost the essential features of the religious life. In India, Guru Nanak was the first person to break this dichotomy, and proclaim a religion of life-affirmation, with emphasis on moral life of man. Monasticism, asceticism and celibacy had become such essential symbols of the religious life that the Naths questioned Guru Nanak how he was claiming to follow the religious path while living the life of a householder. Similar doubt was expressed by Sant Ram Dass of Maharashtra when he found the Sixth Guru riding a horse armed like a Warrior. The Guru’s reply was clear and categoric. He said that Guru Nanak had given up mammon but had not withdrawn from the world, and that his sword was for the defence of the weak and the destruction of the tyrant. In short, it is the Sikh doctrine of Miri and Piri which looks odd to votaries of pacifist religions. Outside India Moses and Prophet Muhammad broke this dichotomy and each created a religious society that not only sought to tackle the socio-political problems of man but also sanctioned the use of force for a moral purpose. On account of this difference between the pacifist and non-pacifist religions and the consequent differences in conditioning by the respective traditions, persons like Toynbee are critical of the sociopolitical activities of Prophet Muhammad and Indians like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindra Nath Tagore and Jadunath Sircar are critical of the militancy of Guru Gobind Singh. In contrast we have already quoted the eulogy of Muhammad Iqbal in admiration of the lofty religious proclamation Guru Nanak made in India. Similarly, it was Pir Buddhu Shah, a Muslim Sufi saint, who was so inspired by Guru Gobind Singh that he not only sent his followers and sons to fight for the cause of the Guru, but two of his sons actually sacrificed their lives while fighting in the army of the Guru. The annals of man hardly record another instance of this kind where a saint of a living religion should sacrifice his sons for the cause of a man of God of a different religious faith, especially while his co-religionist should be the ruling emperor of the day. We, therefore, wish to emphasize that scholars drawn from the pacifist cultural background so often fail to understand the Guru Nanak-Guru Gobind Singh combination, or the doctrine of Miri and Piri and the saint-soldier, logically following from the ideology of Guru Nanak that combines the spiritual life and the empirical life of man. This is exactly the reason that despite the ideological basis explained by the sixth Guru himself, scholars with the pacifist background try to find extraneous but fantastic reasons for militancy on the part of the Sikh Gurus while pursuing a righteous cause. This is what some western scholars write. “The indigenous elements in Sikhism are largely those customs of the tribes of Jats, who made Sikhism their own, and the marginal elements are those of the Nath Yogi tradition, which with Vaisnava Bhakti was primarily responsible for the Sant synthesis.”[16] “The teachings of Nanak do not have a direct causal connection with the later growth…… which should be understood largely in terms of the historical events of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”[17] Little do these scholars realize that tribal traits of character have never given rise to new religious ideologies. It is a significant fact of modern scholarship that whereas not a single Muslim scholar finds the least discontinuity between the ideology of first Gurus and the later Gurus, it is only some scholars drawn from the pacifist traditions that discern any discordance between the ideology of Guru Nanak and that of Guru Gobind Singh. And, since both in India and the West most of the scholars are drawn from the pacifist background and traditions, this is the second problem concerning Sikh studies.

Partly related to the first two problems is the third issue arising from the increasing secularization of modem life. For the last over two centuries religion has been virtually excluded from the sociopolitical life of the Western countries. The position in the Communist countries is also the same. Keeping the danger of secularism in view the representatives of North American Churches suggested: “The American view was that there are three realities: Christianity, other religions, and secularism, and that these three realities can be either allies or enemies. It was argued that Christians had to choose whether they were to ally themselves with the other religions against secularism. The Americans, especially the Boston Personalists who were leading the debate at that time, took the view that secularism is a common danger for all religions and, therefore, there must be an alliance of all religions to fight secularism. European theologians, particularly Barth, Brunner, and Kramer took a totally different view. They maintained that secularization, not secularism, is the primary process. It is a process in which some of the values of Christian faith have been put into a secular framework, bringing about a powerful force which is destroying all old ideas.”[18]

The rise of modem national state is something which Toynbee laments: “This transfer of allegiance from the Western Christian Church to parochial Western secular states was given a positive form-borrowed from the Graeco-Roman Civilisation-by the Renaissance……On this political plane the Renaissance revived the Graeco-Roman worship of parochial states as goddesses……This unavowed worship of parochial states was by far the most prevalent religion in the Western World in A.D. 1956.”[19] This has led to a contradiction. For, where there is a war between two national states, the churches of the opposing states pray to God for the victory of their own state, thereby bringing into ridicule the very institution of religion and the Church. We have already stated that in Sikhism the integral combination of the spiritual life and the empirical life of man has led to the doctrine of Miri and Piri. But, an outsider while reading a paper at an academic conference on Hindu and Sikh religions, views the issue quite differently. He says, “Sikh scholars see the miri-piri concept as an inseparable whole in the religious order. Non-Sikhs have come to see a religion-politics linkage in Sikhism and deduct the root cause of the current crisis in Punjab to this.”[20] Another scholar is critical of the Sikhs for their anxiety to maintain a separate religious identity. He writes: “But when it comes to the Indians belonging to religions which originated within India, such as Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, many a Hindu regard them as downright unpatriotic or unspiritual or both, if they wish to maintain their distinct identity from the Hindus.”[21] In a similar strain another scholar questions the relevance and role of religion in the field of social reform or justice. He writes, “Untouchability has been abolished by political legislation.

Government steps are persistently being taken to uplift the castes considered backward so far. As such, the very point against which original Sikhism had reacted no longer remains a point of contention. Moreover, the problem of social inequality and the consequent demand for justice no longer remains a province of religious organization. It is the government agencies who have to look into the problem in order to eradicate social inequality and provide social justice. As such, the problem has shifted its locale from the religious to the political.”[22]

We have given the above examples to indicate that men of religion feel that in view of the growing secularization of modem life and a consequent tendency to encroach on the religious field, it is not only necessary that religion should be studied with the tools of its own discipline, but that the funding and functioning of such academic studies should be kept free from the influences of the modem state and its secular life.

[1] Guru Granth Sahib, p. 722.
[2] Smith, Huston, Paper entitled “Another World to Live in”, published in Religious Studies & Theology, Vol. 7, Number 1, January 87, p. 54.
[3] Smith, Huston, Beyond the Past Modem Mind, pp. 77-79.
[4] Guru Granth Sahib, p. 113.
[5] Ibid., p. 913
[6] Nicholls, William, paper entitled “Spirituality and Criticism in the Hermeneutics of Religion” presented at Annual Meeting of Canadian Society for the study of Religion, Guelph, Ont., May 84, p. 4.
[7] Ibid., p. 32
[8] Ibid., p. 22
[9] King, N.Q. paper contributed to Perspectives on Sikh Tradition, edited by Gurdev Singh, pp. 46-47
[10] Jung, C.G., Memories, Dreams and Reflections, p. 150.
[11] Ibid., p. 158.
[12] Baig, M.R.A., The Muslim Dilemma in India, p. 60.
[13] McLeod, W.H., Evolution of Sikh Community, p. 5.
[14] Muhammad Iqbal, Bang-i-Dara, p. 270.
[15] Oberoi, H.S., “Popular Saints, godesses, village sacred sites: Re-reading Sikh experience in the nineteenth century’’, p. 28. Paper read at Conference at Berkeley in Feb. 87.
[16] McLeod, W.H., Evolution of Sikh Community, p. 67.
[17] Juergensmeyer and Barrier, Sikh Studies, Berkeley, p. 19.
[18] Paulos Marbregorios, Dialogue and Alliance, International Religious ‘Foundation, Vol. I & Il, 1987, p. 95.
[19] Toynbee, A., An Historian’s Approach to Religion, p.210.
[20] Theological and Social Issues in Hindu & Sikh Traditions, Council of World’s Religions-Seminar held at Srinagar in July 88, paper by V.N. Narayanan, p. 5.
[21] Ibid., paper by Ravi Ravinder, p. 7.
[22] Ibid., paper by Basant Kumar Lal, p. 8.


One thought on “An Analysis of Western Academic View of Sikhi & Sikhs

  1. Excellent article…the tools of religion are metaphor and symbol, and myth/story (in the Jungian definition)because finally all the tools can only point at the underlying and overarching palpable reality of that truth, which cannot be explained (or explained away)in the prosaic, linear, unidimensional ways used in most modern approaches to life, including academic life.

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