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CONTESTING INTERPRETATIONS OF THE SIKH TRADITION
Author: J. S. GREWAL
Published by: Manohar Publishers, 2/6, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi
Pages: 315

Reviewed by Dr Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon

The book under review is divided into three parts. The first part deals with the origin and development of the Sikh Studies from the last quarter of the eighteenth century to the third quarter of the twentieth. The second part takes up the issues raised in the ’Perspectives on the Sikh Tradition’, a book on Sikh Studies, edited by Justice Gurdev Singh. Third part of the book deals with more recent controversies and current debate going on in the field of Sikh Studies.

The writer believes that a ‘dispassionate discussion may lead to mutual understanding between the contestants for a more fruitful dialogue in Sikh Studies’. He professes to be neutral between the contestants and tries to ‘narrow the gap’ between them and thinks that the debate may lead to a new agenda in Sikh Studies. The book takes up the issue of Western methodology as applied to Eastern religions especially Sikhism. Grewal believes that Sikh Studies by European writers in the late 18th century are characterised by empirical approach. These writers rejected all spiritual and mythical elements to formulate rational interpretation of the evidence at their disposal. He has drawn the conclusion that the cardinal assumption of the western writers was that rational cognition of the past was possible only in terms of the human and the natural as opposed to the suprahuman and the supranatural. Grewal thinks that J.D. Cunningham was rather exceptional in postulating co-relations between ideology, Sikh polity, Sikh social order and Sikh identity.

It is noteworthy that early Western writings on the Sikh history and on other aspects of Sikh life were motivated by political and evangelistic considerations. Some of these writings were taken up at the behest of the British East India Company which looked upon the Sikhs as a potent threat to the political ambitions of the Britishers in India. The first encounter of the British with the Sikhs was as a political power not as a religious community. A careful survey of the writings of Colonel A.L. Polier, Major James Browne, Charles Wilkins, George Forster and John Malcolm reveals that they all took due notice of the role and inspiration of Sikh ideology in the development of Sikh community as a political power. Although they were aware of the history making potential of the Sikh ideology, they were equally conscious of the close relationship between religion and politics of the Sikhs. But the work of these early western writers was hampered because of the lack of knowledge of the living, unbroken and reliable Sikh tradition. Limitations of these writers also arose from the absence of personal contacts with the Sikhs and lack of knowledge of their language. They gathered scraps of information and as a consequence of which their accounts remained partial, patchy and superficial. These writings were not systematic and these writers were far from being custodians of abstract ideas like reason, justice and truth as has been made out by Grewal. Most of them could not set high standards of scholarship and could not produce objective, integrated and impartial accounts. Forster writes, ”My knowledge of the subject does not permit me to deduce, on substantial authority, their history from the period in which Nanak their first institutor and law-giver lived, or mark with an order of dates the progress which these people have made, and the varying gradations of their power, until their attainment of their present state of national importance.” (Vol. I, p. 291)

It was reserved for J.D. Cunningham to put the record straight. He stood on the pedestal of his own individual independence and was able to analyze the truth of the moment in terms of higher and wider truth. He became familiar with the mainsprings of Sikh inspiration, studied them profoundly, explored them in all their bearings till his mind was pervaded with them. His quest for truth led him to fathom more significant currents below the surface of events. He fully appreciated the role of Sikh ideology in shaping Sikh history. As Grewal has rightly said, ‘Cunningham’s work proved to be a source of inspiration for quite a few Indian historians of the Sikhs during the twentieth century.’

What was it that made Cunningham’s work of such lasting value? Had it been based on purely empirical evidence his understanding of Sikhism would not have been complete. Had he formed purely rational interpretation of the evidence at his disposal, his book would not have been so much appreciated. Had he adopted ‘methodological atheism’, a term frequently used in Grewal’s book, he would have narrowed the scope of his study.

Cunningham marshalled his facts and formulated his arguments without fear or favour. He had a superb and almost intuitive grasp of the dynamics of the Sikh struggle and was able to eloquently bring out the valour of the Sikhs during the Anglo-Sikh Wars. He tried to explain Ranjit Singh’s rise to power as the fulfilment of the mission of the Gurus. He did not interpret history in terms of personality. His assessment was that in case the Sikhs were free from overwhelming odds, the polity, which threw up a man like Ranjit Singh, would be able to tackle the crisis following his death. Cunningham was dismissed from service and had to face humiliation at the hands of the British because of the honest and truthful comment on Sikhism and Sikh history. Cunningham’s work is remarkable for its command of source material, sound historical judgement and intuitive grasp of the situation which illumined the past in all its complexity.

During the colonial rule some striking developments could be seen in the field of Sikh Studies. Grewal notes that Cunningham’s interpretation of the Sikh past could not suit the purposes of the new rulers. The Western scholars undertook the study of Sikh religion. What is Sikhism and how is it related to the earlier religious traditions of Hinduism and Islam? Is it a distinct religion or a sect of Hinduism? These and a whole series of other questions relating to the origin of Sikhism were also raised. Divergence of views on these issues among the Western scholars can be attributed to several factors. Primarily it was lack of deep study and ignorance of Sikh tradition.

Dr. Trumpp, a German missionary, was paid by the India Office and then by the colonial government to bring out a translation of the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib. His bias against non-Christian religions and his ignorance of language crippled his understanding of the Sikh scripture. Grewal points out that Trumpp raised the question of discovering the historical Guru Nanak, interpreting his evidence completely in human terms. Had Trumpp applied the same parameters for the understanding of Christianity and had he raised the question of discovering the historical Christ, there would have been some justification for his assessment of Guru Nanak, stripped of his divinity.

Surprisingly Grewal has not taken any note of Trumpp’s bias against Sikhism. Trumpp wrote, “The Sikh Granth is incoherent and shallow in the extreme, and couched at the same time in dark and perplexing language in order to cover these defects.” Sikhism in his opinion was “a waning religion that will soon belong to history.” The Sikhs lodged a strong protest with Lord Curzon: “Dr. Trumpp has cruelly misrepresented our Granth Sahib, our holy Gurus and our religion, which we so prize. He has spoken of the language of our sacred Volume in very offensive terms.” Instead of condemning the biased and unacademic approach of a mercenary scholar like Trumpp, Grewal tries to reinforce the notion that it was a rational cognition of the Sikh past which added a major item to the agenda of Sikh Studies in the future. How could Trumpp’s biased interpretation of Sikh scripture be made a basis for the agenda of Sikh Studies?

Another western scholar M.A. Macauliffe took due note of the biased attitude of Dr. Trumpp. One of the main objects of his voluminous work on Sikhism was to endeavour to make some reparation to the Sikhs for the insults which he (Trumpp) offered to their Gurus and their religion. His six volume work not only contains translation of the major portions of the Sikh scripture but also includes brief biographies of Sikh Gurus, their followers and contemporaries. Macauliffe recognised that Sikhism was a divinely instituted faith. He perceived Sikhism as an original dispensation and refuted Trumpp’s contention that it was a “reformed sect of Hinduism”. Dorothy Field also agreed with Macauliffe that “Sikhism should be regarded as a new and separate world religion rather than a sect of Hindus.” Trumpp’s onslaught on Sikhism was also sought to be confronted by many Sikh scholars culminating in Bhai Kahn Singh’s famous treatise Hum Hindu Nahin.

The eighteenth century was a tumultuous period when the Sikhs could not turn their attention to their history and religion. It was left to the Singh Sabha leaders of the 19th century to undertake the onerous task of rectifying the biased and erroneous interpretations of Sikh history and religion. Grewal’s contention that none of the Sikh writers, mentioned by him, was inclined to make Sikh identity the basis of Sikh politics and much less of Sikh nationalism is not tenable. There is ample evidence to prove that the assertion of distinct and separate Sikh identity did form the basis of Sikh politics. It was this assertion that led to the recognition of the religio-political identity of the Sikhs in the passing of the Anand Marriage Act (1909) and the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms (1919).

Grewal notices that with the passage of time Christian-Sikh dialogue in the Punjab came to be marked by sobriety. He says, “Archer and Loehlin were writing more than half a century after Trumpp. By then, Christian attitudes towards Indian religions had changed a great deal. Denunciation was replaced by serious effort to understand.” (p. 114)

Here Grewal entangles himself in a web of self-contradiction. In the earlier part of the book he takes no note of the denunciatory approach of Trumpp towards Sikhism. Now he admits that serious effort to understand Sikhism started half a century later. He argues at length to prove that Archer emphasized the need of a historical biography of Guru Nanak, posing the problem deliberately in terms of the “Nanak of faith” and the “Nanak of history”, carrying the implication of a thorough analysis of the Janamsakhis. The true import of Archer’s rationale cannot be understood in terms of the two categories coined by Grewal, i.e. the “Nanak of faith” and the “Nanak of history”. According to Archer’s interpretation there is no dichotomy between the two Nanaks. Archer writes, “He (Nanak) is what India and the world in general think he is; he is also what Sikhs think of him – he is historico-theological to them… the two Nanaks are not always to be distinguished from each other. They are two in one, both in practice and in theory.” (p. 57)

Archer’s remarks are twisted and torn out of context by Grewal. No historical biography of Guru Nanak can ever overlook his status and role as a prophet.

Grewal links the current debate in Sikh Studies to the publication in 1986 of ‘Perspectives on the Sikh Tradition’, a book edited by Justice Gurdev Singh and published by the Academy of Sikh Religion and Culture from Patiala.

The book is primarily a refutation of the works of W.H. McLeod. In his foreword to the book, Khushwant Singh states that McLeod was on weak ground and some of his conclusions erroneous. Grewal in the introduction to his book states that McLeod’s position was ‘not always fully and fairly presented’. ‘Perspectives on the Sikh Tradition’ includes evaluation of McLeod’s controversial works by highly regarded academicians Noel Q.King, Justice Gurdev Singh, Daljeet Singh and Jagjit Singh. The issues raised by these scholars have not been properly answered by Grewal. In his book ‘Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion’ (1968), McLeod has clearly tried to undermine Guru Nanak’s status as a prophet. In its preface, he states that it is a ‘study of the man Guru Nanak’.

As noted by Daljeet Singh, McLeod’s perception of Guru Nanak stems from his inadequate understanding of the Guru’s worldview, which does not permit any dichotomy between the spiritual and the secular realms of human existence. Grewal too has overlooked Daljeet Singh’s argument, in his anxiety to defend McLeod. Grewal has criticised Justice Gurdev Singh for attributing extra academic or infra-academic motives to McLeod and for looking upon him as a Christian missionary trying to undermine non-Christian traditions. There is no doubt that with his selective use of source material and unbalanced approach McLoeod betrays a lack of academic integrity. He often lets predisposition get the better of his scholarly perception and makes himself open to the charge of extraneous considerations. There is no sufficient justification for what he includes, represses, censors, abstracts, marks or conceals.

McLeod interprets Sikhism as a religion of interiority and does not acknowledge its life-affirming and revolutionary character. He does not take cognisance of the extroversion, dynamism and socio-political vitality of the faith founded by Guru Nanak. He fails to note that a religion based mainly on interiority and passivity could not have such a powerful hold on the minds of the people. He turns a blind eye to the eventful Sikh history full of sacrifices and martyrdoms. Most of McLeod’s so-called reasoning consists of finding arguments to prove that there was no originality in the teachings of Guru Nanak and that his (Guru Nanak’s) religious experience was not revelatory. How could McLeod measure the spiritual and mystical heights of the Guru with his rational-empirical tools? He has no yardstick to judge the nature of a prophet. How can he cast doubts on the status of the Guru as a prophet? Would he venture to judge the founders of Christianity and Islam with the same empirical standards with which he has judged the founder of Sikhism? It is in the fitness of things that scholars should compare, analyse and sympathise. This approach can narrow the distance between divergent views. Grewal does concede that rational-empirical method has its limitations but still he uses all manner of excuses to defend McLeod.

Scope of history should not be restricted. History is all-inclusive and multi-dimensional. It is comprehensive. Operation of history is not confined to the plane of practical work-a-day life. It is an investigation of the entire past in all its areas and by all means. Historical methodology, adopted by McLeod and Harjot Oberoi needs to come out of the narrow grooves of woefully inadequate rationalism and widen its horizons. Kant in his famous treatise ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ asserts that in any comprehensive system of thought pure reason alone cannot suffice. Comte, one of the giants who shaped the modern mind, considers the atheist ‘the most irrational of all theologians’. The atheist while essaying to speak of God begins by ‘denying the very things of which he is speaking’. This is exactly what McLeod has done in relation to Sikh Studies. He denies that Guru Nanak gave tangible shape to his ideals through institutions which played a decisive role in shaping the course of Sikh history. He has tried to reduce Sikhism to a set of abstract ideas and ideals. His work is marked by self-righteousness, rhetorical over-statements and self-serving conclusions. In a move more subtle than Dr. Trumpp’s, McLeod seems to have turned from an active Christian propagandist to a stark atheist, in order to legitimise his assault on Sikhism. He seems to have put on the garb of an academician to conceal his motive.

Justice Gurdev Singh, Daljeet Singh and Jagjit Singh very lucidly expose the fallacy of McLeod’s contention that the achievement of the Sikh Gurus was restricted to the ideological plane. The Sikh movement gave a clear socio-political orientation to the Sikh society and established a separate identity for the Sikhs. Grewal is silent on the issue of identity.

Grewal has also failed to note that McLeod has cast doubts on the authenticity of the Sikh scripture, omitting reference to half a dozen books specifically dealing with the subject. McLeod has not cared to examine the Kartarpuri Bir, nor has he taken cognisance of the observations of scholars who have made a page-by-page and line-by-line in-depth study of the Bir. Bhai Jodh Singh, Mahan Singh and Daljeet Singh have given ample evidence to prove the authenticity of the Kartarpuri Bir. But Dr McLeod dismisses this evidence without offering any counter-evidence to support this dismissal. This rules out assigning academic status to much of Dr McLeod’s work.

A scholar should tread his path with utmost caution and propriety. Selective use of material is bound to lead to partisan conclusions and misrepresentation.

Grewal believes that the ongoing debate degenerates into a question of the subjective status of the contestants, insider versus outsider or believer versus non-believer. Such analysis presupposes lack of critical standards and irrational involvement on the part of believers and criticism on the part of non-believers. Grewal tries to bridge the gap between the contestants by playing the role of a mediator but does not succeed. What kind of middle way does he suggest between believers and non-believers?

A community’s self-image cannot be overlooked by the non-believers and outsiders. The present is historically as significant as the past. E.H.Carr describes history, “as a continous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, and unending dialogue between the present and the past.” Nietzche believes that the best explanation of the past can be in the prespective of the present and by those who are engaged in the building of the future and who, by the very task they are engaged in, have the right to judge the past.” Nietzche is of the opinion that the past in its pure rational form does not exist at all. It is multi-dimensional. Grewal believes that the controversy would lead to a new agenda in Sikh Studies. But he has not been able to define this new agenda. We believe that the central issue that has come to the fore is that of research methodology but it relates to the religious studies in general and not to the Sikh Studies in the particular. If at all a new agenda has to be evolved it should apply to the study of all religions. Edward Gibbon in ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, one of the great histories of all times, points out that every age has had unbelievers to convince and heretics to confute but, “the duty of the historian does not call upon him to interpose his private judgement in this nice and important controversy; he ought not to dissemble the difficulty of adopting such a theory as may reconcile the interest of religion with that of reason, of making a proper application of that theory.” Rational scientific enquiry has dominated the Western world but the West is still far from having developed the real temper of science. It has still to bring the spiritual and the empirical realms of life into creative harmony.

Grewal wrote this book as a part of the paid project assigned to him by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). It is worth mentioning that the ICHR is an organ of the Government of India.

Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon
Professor of History, Panjab University, Chandigarh
Res. 2059, Sector 15-C, Chandigarh
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6 thoughts on “Review of J S Grewal’s Contesting Interpretations

  1. It is interesting to note that those who term criticism of Dr McLeod’s work as “personal” or “not academic” or “biased” fail to judge Dr McLeod’s work by the same yardstick.
    1. Does Dr McLeod’s work meet academic standards?
    2. Is it written with a Presbyterian Christian missionary bias?

    On question 1, there is evidence for everyone to see in his works that at most places where he dismisses the prevailing view, the only supporting argument/evidence he offers is his “skeptic methodology”. That is to say — “guilty until proven innocent”. The onus to disprove his notions is thus put on the Sikhs while he carries no burden to prove his own contentions.

    On question 2, the answer follows from 1, that he does so with an ulterior motive. If the Sikhs need to prove Dr McLeod wrong about his notions, then Dr McLeod needed to prove the Sikhs wrong about his missionary bias. He sought to do exactly that by claiming to be an “atheist”. But that does not explain why he continues to be on the register of Presbytarian Church’s register as “Rev W H McLeod”. And why he continued to head Church’s History Committee till 2004.

  2. Dear Sir,
    Would you be able to provide me with the Professor J.S. Grewal’s email. I’m an Indian art historian from NY and admire his work very much.
    Thank you
    Frank Ames

  3. Dear Dr. Dhillon,
    I am really impressed with your style of writing in simple and straight forward language and clarity of thought. In these criteria you resemble Ernst Hemingway and Thomas Hardy. Good job of evaluating the book written by Prof. Grewal though I have not yet read it myself, yet your reasoning elucidates that you have done a balanced job of a critic.However, I don’t agree with your point about Mcleod
    “….there was no originality in the teachings of Guru Nanak and that his (Guru Nanak’s) religious experience was not revelatory. How could McLeod measure the spiritual and mystical heights of the Guru with his rational-empirical tools? He has no yardstick to judge the nature of a prophet. How can he cast doubts on the status of the Guru as a prophet? Would he venture to judge the founders of Christianity and Islam with the same empirical standards with which he has judged the founder of Sikhism? It is in the fitness of things that scholars should compare, analyse and sympathise.”
    A critic should be fair and rational in his/her approach, but need not be sympathetic with a community. It is also not odd to call the so-called prophets to be “persons” which they actually were/are. The elevation of these persons to prophethood has been done by the society who feels so about their philosophy and deeds. Sikhs need no certificates from anybody to call themselves a separate entity as a religious community. If McLeod can’t criticise Christianity or Islam in the same way, it is his myopia, but still he could put forth his views about guru Nanak the way he thought. It is up to others to evaluate his thoughts. The British wanted to exploit our community in the best possible way they could. That’s what they did.
    Another point, I think the “spirituality” which is much hyped is nothing else but confusion.

    • You make a valid point regarding McLeod. Whatever the shortcomings (and these are numerous) of his writings on Sikhs and Sikhi, we cannot argue for a “sympathetic” approach. But we can demand academic neutrality, which unfortunately was missing from much of Dr McLeod’s writings (possibly due to his training as a Presbyterian Missionary). It might be that the point Dr Dhillon was trying to make got lost somewhere in his usage of English. It is not only “sympathy” which is problematic. Dr Dhillon’s puts “comparison” before “analysis” which raises its own issues.

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