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Misrepresenting Sikhism as Vedantic Philosophy


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Its good to know what people out there are thinking and propogating - to one - challenge our own beliefs, two - reinforce our own beliefs or 3 - fine tune/adjust our own beliefs. If we don't agree, it forces us understand why - the key is to understand why logically and intelligently, rather than defensively or in a narrow minded fashion.

Misrepresenting Sikhism as Vedantic Philosophy

Devinder Singh Chahal

In literature Sikhism is usually represented as syncretism (Islam and Hinduism) and lately it is being represented as sect of Hinduism based on Vedantic philosophy. My analysis of various interpretations of the Aad Guru Granth Sahib (AGGS) [1], in English and Punjabi available in the market, shows that these are mainly literal translations without any consideration to interpret the original theme or philosophy in the Sabd. Moreover, Gurbani has been interpreted in the past and is being interpreted now in such a way to show that the Gurbani is based mainly on Vedantic philosophy [2].

Guru Nanak (1469-1539) laid the foundation of Sikhi (Sikhism) during the 15th century, the Period of Renaissance (between 14th century and 17th century) when scientists were challenging some of the concepts of the church in Europe. During this period Guru Nanak was busy challenging ancient mythology and rituals in which the peoples of South Asia were shackled for centuries and were unable to express their free will in any aspect of their lives because their lives were controlled by their religious mentors. Guru Nanak promulgated a unique philosophy that is scientifically and logically very sound and thus has universal acceptability. His philosophy is termed as Nanakian Philosophy [3]. It was strengthened, enriched and preached by the nine succeeding Gurus to the House of Nanak called Nanakian School. The follower of this philosophy is known as a 'Sikh' meaning ‘learner’. The word ‘Sikhi’ gave rise to the modern anglicized word called 'Sikhism'.

After the death of Guru Gobind Singh, due to historical circumstances, there was systematic annihilation of the Sikh population by Mughal rulers and their collaborators, the proponents of caste ideology. In the first quarter of the 18th century there were not many Sikhs left who could read or write Gurbani, not to speak of exegete it. It was during this period when spurious literature (mentioned below) was produced and Sikh places of worship fell under the control of Udasis and Nirmalas, who created their own version of Sikhi by representing it as a military wing of Hinduism and alienating Sikhs from the teaching of AGGS. Their ironclad control over Gurdwaras was further strengthened by the British conquest of Punjab.

The Sikhs liberated Gurdwaras after a bloody struggle in the 1920s against these Mahants/ Nirmalas and Udasis, but unfortunately Nanakian philosophy continued to be interpreted in terms of Vedanta by Sikh writers/ scholars trained in the British education system, in spite of the warning by Professor Puran Singh [10] and later by Mehboob [4]. Currently, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that at conferences and seminars on Sikhism even some Sikh academicians vie with some non-Sikh scholars to distort Sikhism.

Now Sikhism is represented in such a way that many Sikh and non-Sikh scholars are labeling it as a sect of Hinduism. Misinterpretation of Gurbani and misrepresentation of Sikhism had started during during the time of the Gurus'. Misinterpretation of Gurbani is going on either intentionally [2] or due to an improper understanding of its originality or entirety because of strong Vedantic influence on the interpretor. Misrepresentation is also due to the fact that the literature that appeared during 18th and 19th century is full of controversial, inauthentic, unscientific, and illogical information. The irony is that modern scholars have taken such information as true. Some of these questionable writings are:

Dasam Granth, (1721 CE). Supposed to be compiled by Bhai Mani Singh after collecting various Banis ascribed to Guru Gobind Singh;

Sri Gur Subha, (1711 CE), by Sainapat;

Gur Bilas Patshahi 6, (1751 CE), Anonymous;

Bansavelinama, (1769 CE), by Kesar Singh Chibber;

Gur Bilas Patshahi 10, (1797 CE), by Sukha Singh;

Parchia Pathshayan Das, early 18th century;

Panth Parkash, (1809 CE), by Rattan Singh;

Sarbloh Granth, by Sukha Singh?;

Mehma Parkash;

Prem Sumarg;

Janam Sakhis and Chamatkars of Sikh Gurus by various authors,

Rehit Namae by various authors;

Hukmnamae issued by the Sikh Gurus at various times; etc.

These writings contain some useful historical information, but from theological point of view, they are contrary to Nanakian philosophy. I would like to add here views of some scholars about the old Sikh literature. According to Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha [5], Sikh literature of the 18th and 19th centuries has been written according to the level of intelligence and beliefs of the writers. Although some information we get from these sources is useful there is other information that runs contrary to Gurmat. Bhai Kahan Singh also emphasized the absence of research scholars within the community and the actions of those who oppose research labeling the former as the enemies of Gurmat.

About the Rehit Namae, Piara Singh Padam [7] said, “It is a mistake to accept information, given in every Rehit Nama, is according to Gurmat. Many authors have written according to their own level of intelligence or under the influence of manmat (under the influence of Vedantic philosophy, ritualism, etc.), that are not right.â€

Similarly, Harinder Singh Mehboob [4] has reported that 85 out of 87 Hukmnamae recorded in the book, Hukmnamae, of Ganda Singh are not authentic.

On the misinterpretation of Gurbani, Prof Puran Singh [10] wrote in the 1920s that

“It is to be regretted that Sikh and Hindu scholars are interpreting Guru Nanak in the futile terms of the colour he used, the brush he took; are analyzing the skin and flesh of his words and dissecting texts to find the Guru’s meaning to be the same as of the Vedas and Upanishad! This indicates enslavement to the power of Brahmanical tradition. Dead words are used to interpret the fire of the Master’s soul! The results are always grotesque and clumsy translations which have no meaning at all.â€

Critical analysis of the following observation of Dr Gopal Singh [8] clearly indicates that due to improper understanding of the Guru's Word, the Granth started to be worshipped more than read, uttered as a magical formula or a Mantram for secular benefits:

"The confusion of interpretation has occurred because the Sikhs themselves, for historical and other reasons, have never seriously attempted a scientific and cogent exposition of the doctrines of their faith, based on the Word of the GURU-GRANTH and related to the historical lives of the Gurus who uttered it. Without reference either to one or the other, casual attempts made at the interpretation of small portions of the Granth have resulted in such interpretations being incoherent, lop-sided, and therefore unreliable. During the present (now last) century, several attempts were made by the Sikhs to translate into Punjabi the Word of the Guru, but all such attempts ended in an all-too-literal translation, leaving the seeker as uninitiated to the Guru's Word as he was before. And the word of the GURU-GRANTH became as involved and distant for an average reader as the Word of the Vedas, and it started to be worshipped more than read, uttered as magic formula or a Mantram for secular benefit than as a disciple of spiritual life for the achievement of ideals higher and beyond the world of sense and for the integrity of mind and soul in the world of the living."

Parma Nand [6] undermined the originality in the philosophy of Guru Nanak by declaring that Oankaar is not a new word coined by Guru Nanak but he borrowed it from Upanishads because 'Oankaar' or 'Omkaar' has been used in various Upanishads. The only thing Guru Nanak did was to add numeral '1' to confirm the 'Oneness' of God, which is also found in the Upanishads.

Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterji, President, Sahitya Akademi has belittled Nanakian philosophy in the Foreword to the book Guru Nanak: Founder of Sikhism written by Dr Trilochan Singh, who is held in high esteem as a scholar and the book was published by Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Delhi [11].This book was written on the eve of the celebration of the Fifth Birth Centenary of Guru Nanak. It is ironic that Trilochan Singh failed to notice Chatterji’s following statement belittling the Guru:

"The people of the Punjab (and along with them those of the rest of India) became immediately conscious of the value of Guru Nanak's advent and his teachings after he began to preach to them; and Guru Nanak built up and organised during his life time a very important religious persuasion which was broad-based on the foundations of Vedatic Monotheistic Jnana and Puranic Bhakti. The faith preached by Guru Nanak was nothing new for India, it was basically the old monotheistic creed of the ancient Hindus as propounded in the Vedas and the Upanishads - the Vedanta with its insistence upon Jnana or Knowledge of the One Supreme Reality. And this monotheistic basis was fortified, so to say, to put the matter in a simple form by Bhakti or faith as inculcated in later Puranic Hinduism. The Sikh Panth was nothing but a reformed and simplified Sanatana Dharma of medieval times."

The study conducted by Dr Joginder Singh [9] indicates that almost all early interpretations of Jap (Sodhi Meharban, Swami Aanad Ghan, Santokh Singh, Pandit Tara Singh, and many more belonging to various schools of thought) are dominated by Vedantic and Puranic philosophy. Even today many modern scholars are not free from Vedantic and Puranic influence.

It is apparent from the above discussion that custodians of Sikhism and some Sikh scholars have equated the philosophy of Sikhism to that of Vedanta making it easy for scholars like Prof Perma Nand and Dr Suniti Kumar Chatterji and others to deny Sikhism its originality and uniqueness. Under these circumstances it is imperative for all concerned Sikh men and women to counter this absurdity and malicious propaganda that attempst to base Sikhism on Vedanta? Anybody seeking to refute this malicious attempt need not go any further than the AGGS, which categorically and unequivocally rejects not only all the essentials of Hinduism, but also all earlier religious traditions. Sikh scholars and writers must emphasize what is written in the AGGS, not what others have written about Sikhism.

The Institute for Understanding Sikhism (IUS) has taken up the cudgels for projecting Sikhism as a unique religion based on the philosophy of Guru Nanak enshrined in the AGGS. Although it is an expensive project requiring large financial resources, the IUS has made a determined start with its limited resources. The abundant moral support from some devout Sikh scholars, expert in various sciences, languages, history, philosophy, psychology, theology, and other disciplines who are keen to bring forth the uniqueness, originality and the true perspective of Nanakian philosophy is our constant encouragement. From January 2006 issue a Mini-symposium – Uniqueness of Sikhism – has been initiated.

Scholars, who are interested in this project, are requested to join the IUS by contributing their articles that represent Gurbani and Sikhism in its real perspective. Besides, those who can financialy assist us in making this long awaited endevor a success are requested to kindly provide the necessary assistance.


1 AGGS = Aad Guru Granth Sahib. 1983 (reprint). Publishers: Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar.

2 Chahal, D. S. 2001. Causes of Misinterpretation of Gurbani and Misrepresentation of Sikhism and the Solution. Understanding Sikhism Res. J. 3 (1): 12-23, 39.

3 Chahal, D. S. 2002. Nanakian Philosophy – The Term Defined. Understanding Sikhism Res. J. 4 (2): 17-22.

4 Mehboob, Harinder Singh. 1988. Sehjae Rachio Khalsa (Punjabi). Published by the Author. Khalsa College, Garhdiwala, Hoshiarpur.

5 Nabha, Bhai Sahib Bhai Kahn Singh. 1996 (5th ed.). Gurmat Martand (Punjabi). Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar.

6 Nand, Parma. 1985. Ek - Oamkar. In: Sikh Concept of Divine. Pritam Singh, Editor. Pp 32-55. Guru Nanak Dev University Press, Amritsar.

7 Padam, Piara Singh. 1984 (3rd ed.). Rehit Namae (Punjabi). Kalam Mandar, Lower Mall, Patiala.

8 Singh, (Dr) Gopal. 1987. Sri Guru Granth Sahib (English Version). Vols. 4. World Sikh Centre Inc. New Delhi, London, New York.

9 Singh, (Dr) Joginder. 1981. Japji de Teeke: Samikhyatmak Adhyan. (Punjabi). Pub. Srimati Mohinder Kaur, 24 Green View, Patiala, India.

10 Singh, (Prof) Puran. 1981. Spirit of the Sikh. Part II Volume Two. Punjabi University, Patiala.

10 Singh, Trilochan. 1969. Guru Nanak: Founder of Sikhism. Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Delhi.

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