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18th Century European perspective of Sikhs & their scrip


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Yesterday I went to this International Sikh Conference on 400 Yrs of Siri guroo granth sahib ji. I got this booklet which has lot of articles all though conference was crap. But anyways i ll tell the sangat about my expereince in conference in the other thread.

But anyway here is an interesting article.

18th Century European perspective of the Sikhs and their Scripture

Dr. Balwant Singh Dhillon

Head, Dept of Guru Nanak Studies

G.N.D University, Amritsar.


A cursory glance at the early 18th century medieval India, reveals that the Mughal Empire was on its decline and new powers were emerging on the political horizon. The rise of Sikhs in Punjab was chiefly responsible for the extinction of Mughal authority in North-west India. The stories of Sikh struggle, especially their resistance to the Afghans of Ahmed Shah Abdali, traveled to far away places such as Fort William, the head quarters of British East India Company. The Sikh incursions into gangetic Doab had brought them face to face with the British Forces stationed in the Avadh. Their growing ascendancy in the North-west of India was a potent threat to the hegemonic designs of the British in India. For more than one reason the British were anxious to know about the Sikhs and their religion, obviously to formulate their policy towards them. Besides commissioning the civil servants to get information in a clandestine manner, the British residents with the nawab of avadh and Marathas and those stationed at Delhi were pressed into service to keep a vigil on the Sikhs. They were asked to collect every possible information on the Sikhs. Some of the British residents were friendly with the Sikh Chiefs and were constantly in touch with them.

Besides the British East India Company servants, Europeans of various nationalities and belonging to different strata in society had got attracted to the exotic beauty and diversity of the Indian culture. Their accounts published in quasi-historical form provide significant insights into the 18th Century life of the people of India. While dealing with Indian life in general, these writers have also commented on the Sikhs and their religion.

It is worth noting that Prof. Ganda Singh has done a pioneer work to produce “Early European Accounts of the Sikhs in 1962”. At that time he introduced the writing of nine authors, which have significant bearings on the Sikh history and religion. Since then no scholar has taken interest to carry the work forward. For the last four years I have been following the subject very keenly. For the present study we have indentified about 30 European authors of 18th Century who have commented upon the Sikhs in one or another form. A close reading of the 18th century European writings on the Sikhs reveals that almost all the authors are unanimous in their view that Sikhism owes its origin to Guru Nanak. They have not found any connection- doctrinal or historical between Guru Nanak and the Sant tradition. They underline that the doctrinal on which Sikhism is based were introduced by dispensation. There is no controversy in them with respect to the nature of God in Sikhism. They found that Sikhs are theists and believe in the unity of Divine Being. They remark that Sikhs are pure monotheist. Almost all the European authors observe that 18th century Sikhs admit only one God worthy of adoration and vehemently deny divinity to Hindu Gods such as Brahma, Vishnu and Mahadev. They also inform that the Sikhs have broken free from the yoke of most of the Brahamanical superstitions.

Interestingly most of the authors have taken note of the proselytizing character of Sikhism and its impact on the Indian society. They remark that unlike the Hindus the Sikhs admit proselytes of all religions and castes. Significantly Pahul, the initiation ceremony and the Khalsa code of conduct have also found mention in them. They report that Guru Gobind Singh established a ceremony to be used on the reception of new proselyte which is called Pahul. Though the Khalsa symbols- Kirpan, Kesh, Kanga, Kara and Kachera have not been described in rubric terms yet all of them find mention in one or another source. They are near unanimous to point out that use of tobacco is strictly prohibited.

On the mode and object of worship almost all the authors note that the Sikhs do not admit any images or sculptures. Forester observes, ‘their places of devotion are plain and divested of every ornament and figure’. Modave sums up very beautifully the change that Sikh revolution had ushered in India. He remarks ‘Sikhs are extremely satisfied with the changes occurring in their religion as well as in their government. All those with whom I had superstitions of other Indians. Even the insignificant practices that have been abandoned as soon as the least connection with the religious rites was found. Atleast it is perhaps unprecedented that a community should have given up so easily the laws and customs carried on since so many centuries’. Charles Wilkins who had the opportunity to Visit Takht Patna Sahib observed that the Sikhs places of worship were open to all.

Though language was the major problem yet 18th century European authors have remarked on the origin, role, status and teachings of the Sikh Scripture in a very significant manners. Most of them observe that its genesis lies with Guru Nanak. The European authors had also noted that the Sikh Scriptural writings are recorded in Gurmukhi or Punjabi Script. Charles Wilkins writing in 1781 hold that Guru Nanak himself the Gurmukhi script. According to him Guru Nanak “left behind him a book, composed by himself in verse and the language of the Punjab but a character partly of his own invention, which teaches the doctrines of the faith he had established. That they called his character, in honor of their founder, Goaroo-Mookhe: from the mouth of the preceptor”. Similarly, Crauford reiterates that the Sikh Scripture is writing in the Punjabi Dialect but in a particular character called Gurmukhi. He holds that credit goes to Guru Angad for producing the first redaction of Guru Nanak’s bani, which is quite in consonance with the Sikh tradition. He holds that Guru Nanak “entrusted to Guru Angad the care of collecting his percepts which he accordingly did in a pothi”. Out 18th century European authors hold that Guru Granth Sahib, the sikh scripture had been fully installed in Gurdwaras. Charles Wilkins, who had an opportunity to join the Sikh congregation in Patna Sahib, provides a graphic account of the Sikh Liturgy which was wholly based and centered on Guru Granth Sahib. Nota Manus, another European who had a chance to visit a Gurdwara also subscribes to the above point of view. In the eyes of these European the Sikhs mode of worship comprised singing and reading of hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib. The object of worship and veneration was nothing else but the sole scripture i.e. Guru Granth Sahib. George Forester who traveled through Punjabi remarks that “A book entitled Granth, which contains the civil and religious institutes of Nanak, is the only typical object which the sisques have admitted into their places of worship”.

Conclusion: An analysis of all these writings reveals that 18th century European authors have offered their comments on almost all the important features of the 18th century Sikh Panth. One can easily note that in one or another manner origin and development of Sikhism, Sikh beliefs and practices, composition of Sikh society, social and religious institutions, dress and diet, mode and object of worship, the origin, role and status of Guru Granth sahib have found treatment in these works. In their opinion the theoretical, practical and sociological boundaries of Sikhism were well defined. These sources throw immense light on the lesser known facets of Sikh religious life. Though their description of the eighteen century Sikhs lacks in details yet it is sufficiently equipped to rein scribe the “clean slate”.

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Wahe guru ji ka khalsa wahe guru ji ki fateh,

Here are some thoughts about sikhism from some well known philosophers and historians:

Rev. H. L. Bradshaw

After thoroughly studying the philosophy of Sikhism, Rev. H. L. Bradshaw observed:

Sikhism is a Universal world Faith, a message for all men. This is amply illustrated in the writings of the Gurus. Sikhs must cease to think of their faith as just another good religion and must begin to think in terms of Sikhism being the religion for this New Age … It completely supplants and fulfils all the former dispensations of older religions. Books must be written proving this. The other religions contain the truth, but Sikhism contains the fullness of truth.

Bradshaw also writes:

The Guru Granth Sahib of all the world religious scriptures, alone states that there are innumerable worlds and universes other than our own. The previous scriptures were all concerned only with this world and its spiritual counterpart. To imply that they spoke of other worlds, as does the Guru Granth Sahib, is to stretch their obvious meanings out of context. The Sikh religion is truly the answer to the problems of the modern man.


Archer, in his book on the Sikh faith comments:

The religion of the Guru Granth is a universal and practical religion … Due to ancient prejudices of the Sikhs it could not spread in the world. The world needs today its message of peace and love.

Dorothy Field

Another scholar, Dorothy Field in her book, "The Sikh Religion," writes:

Pure Sikhism is far above dependence on Hindu rituals and is capable of a distinct position as a world religion so long as Sikhs maintain their distinctiveness. The religion is also one which should appeal to the occidental mind. It is essentially a practical religion. If judged from the pragmatical standpoint which is a favorite point of view in some quarters, IT WOULD RANK ALMOST FIRST IN THE WORLD. (Emphasis by the author). Of no other religion can it be said that it has made a nation in so short a time.


In his book, "The Sikh Religion," Macauliffe writes:

Unlike the scriptures of other creeds, they do not contain love stories or accounts of wars waged for selfish considerations. They contain sublime truths, the study of which cannot but elevate the reader spiritually, morally, and socially. There is not the least tinge of sectarianism in them. They teach the highest and purest principle that serve to bind man to man and inspire the believer with an ambition to serve his fellow men, to sacrifice all and die for their sake.

Macauliffe deems it necessary to draw the reader's attention to another significant feature of Sikhism which distinguishes it and separates it from other philosophical and religious systems of thought:

The Sikh religion differs as regards the authenticity of its dogmas from most other great theological systems. Many of the great teachers the world has known, have not left a line of their own composition, and we only know what they taught through tradition or second-hand information. If Pythagoras wrote any of tenets, his writings have not descended to us. We know the teachings of Socrates only through the writings of Plato and Xenophon. Buddha has left no written memorials of his teaching. Kungfu-tze, known to Europeans as Confucious, left no documents in which he detailed the principles of his moral and social systems. The Founder of Christianity did not reduce his doctrines to writing, and for them we are obliged to trust to the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark. Luke, and John.

The Arabian Prophet did not himself reduce to writing the chapters of the Quran. They were written or compiled by his adherents and followers. But the compositions of the Sikh Gurus are preserved and we know first hand what they taught. They employed the vehicle of verse, which is generally unalterable by copyist, and we even become in time familiar with their different styles. No spurious compositions or extraneous dogmas, can therefore be represented as theirs.

The author of the 'Vie de Jesus' was a great admirer of Jesus Christ. Greatly impressed as he was of the spiritual message delivered by Christ and those of the Semitic thinkers that preceded him, he posed the question: "Whether great originality will again arise or the world be content to follow the paths opened by the daring creators of the ancient ages?" Bearing Sikhism in mind, Macauliffe answers the above question in the following words:

Now there is here presented a religion totally unaffected by Semitic or Christian influences. Based on the concept of the unity of God, it rejected Hindu formalities and adopted an independent ethical system, ritual, and standards, which were totally opposed to the theological beliefs of Guru Nanak's age and country. As we shall see hereafter, it would be difficult to point to a religion of greater originality or to a more comprehensive ethical system

Macauliffe continues:

Guru Nanak was not a priest either by birth or education, but a man who soared to the loftiest heights of divine emotionalism, and exalted his mental vision to an ethical ideal beyond the concept of Hinduism or Mohammadanism.

Dr. W.O. Cole

Dr. W.O. Cole, of the U.K. wrote more than half a dozen books on Sikhism. In 1985, he visited India where communal disturbances had created a virtual turmoil and thousands of people were killed. In a key note lecture by him on the Mission and Message of Guru Nanak Dev, he gave a message to the Sangat there and through them to all of humanity:

Remember the tenets of Guru Nanak, his concepts of oneness of God and Universal Brotherhood of man. If any community holds the key to national integration of India, it is the Sikhs all the way.

After the lecture, he was asked what drew him to the study of Sikhism, he replied:

Theologically, I cannot answer the question what drew me to the study of Sikhism. You may call it, the purpose of God. But to be more specific, the unique concept of universality and the system of Langar (free community meal) in Sikhism are the two features that attract me towards the study of Sikhism. Langar is the exclusive feature of Sikhism and found nowhere else in the world. Sikhism is the only religion which welcomes each and everyone to its Langar without any discrimination of caste, creed, color, or sex.

Swami Nitya Nand

The opinions of some Hindu mystics also should be quoted to understand their experiences with the Sikh faith. Swami Nitya Nand (expired at the age of 135 years) writes in his book "Gur Gian":

I, in the company of my guru, Brahma Nand Ji, went to Mathra ... While on pilgrimage tour, we reached Panjab and there we met Swami Satya Nand Udasi. He explained the philosophy and religious practices of Nanak in such a way that Swami Brahma Nand Ji enjoyed a mystic lore. During the visit to the Harimandar Sahib, Amritsar, his soul was so much affected, that he became a devotee of the Guru. After spending some time in Panjab he went to Hardwar. Though he was hail and hearty, one day I saw tears in his eyes. I asked the reason for that. He replied, "I sifted sand the whole of my life. The Truth was in the House of Nanak. I will have to take one more birth in that house, only then I will attain Kalyan." After saying that the soul left his body.

Swami Nitya Nand also wrote of his own experience:

I also constantly meditate on Waheguru revealed by Nanak. I practiced Yoga Asanas under the guidance of Yogis and did that for many years; the bliss and peace, which I enjoy now, was never obtained earlier.

Spiritual Triage

Finally, here are some excerpts from the proceedings of a seminar on the life of Guru Nanak Dev. It was conducted at Simla, now in Himachal Pardesh, by the Panjab Historical Society Lahore, before World War I. The seminar was presided over by the lieutenant governor of Panjab.

After hearing the lecture by Joginder Singh, Pundit Ramsaran Das, a prominent Hindu intellectual observed that Guru Nanak was a great reformer of the Hindu faith.

Nawab Zulfkar Ali Khan of Malerkotla disagreed with Mr. Das and commented that Guru Nanak was a great Muslim fakir, his best friend was Bhai Mardana, a lowly Muslim. His best devotee was a Muslim, Rai Bular, the village chief.

The governor, in his presidential remarks disagreed with both and said that according to what had been told by the speaker, Guru Nanak was a great Christian.

Guru Nanak, however, states in Gurbani:

"I am neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, I am a human being."


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