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19th Century Western Perspective of Sikhs & their Script


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19th Century Western Perspective of Sikhs and their Scripture

Dr. Kulvinder Singh Bajwa

Head, Sikh History Research Department

Khalsa College, Amritsar


19th century British writings on the Sikhs and their past synchronize with the politics of British imperialistic in the Indian sub-continent. This is obvious from the synchronization of a large number of important events. However, their main concern was to know the strength of the Sikh people, for they were important as allies and enemy prior to the annexation of the Punjab. However, the nature of Western interest in the Sikhs changed after 1850s. Now their main concern was how to handle them as subject people and to use their support and services for the extension and perpetuation of British Raj. Since, religion was considered as the only source of inspiration and strength of the Sikh Nation, the imperialistic turned to their beliefs and practices through the study of their scripture. Resultantly E Trump a trained Christian theologian was commissioned in 1869 by the Punjab government to translate Guru Granth, the fountain head of the Sikhs beliefs and practices.

To determine the nature of these writings we may place, though roughly into four categories: (i) Travel literature; the significance of this genre is that is based on personal observations and not on hearsay; (ii) John Malcom, Prinsep, Steinback, M’Gregor and Cunningham’s work falls in the category of those works which make general survey of the Sikh history and treat Sikh beliefs and practices a part of the Sikh history; (iii) accounts of William Ward, H.H Wilson, Robers Needum Cust falls in the category of those works which primarily deals with Indian Religions and treat Sikhism in a brief and sketchy manner; (iv) Ernest Trumpps Adi Granth is the only work which deals with Sikh theology through o the pattern of Christian theology. Since, these scholars belong to different cultural and religious traditions and could not grasp Sikh movement and Sikhism in its proper form their inadequate understanding of Sikhism led to misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the Sikh tradition. For examples, majority of these writers have presented Sikhism as a response to the prevailing disorderly and chaotic religious condition in India: they emphasized the reformatory character of Sikhism. However in their endeavor to elucidate the historical role of Sikhism, they have striven to determine the place and role of Sikhism among the Indian religions. The main issues which came to be discussed and elaborated in this context are the historical orgin of the Sikh tradition, life history of the founder of the faith, relation of Sikhism to its historical background, evolution of Sikh tradition, place of Sikhism among the religion of the world and analysis of the Sikh beliefs and practices in relation to the doctrines and practices of the proceeding religious traditions. Sikh belief and practices which have been discussed and deliberated in these writings are: the recitation of the name of the god, reverence to Guru Granth Sahib, emphasis on the active social life, service of the humanity, equality of the status of women, absence of untouchablity, mode of initiation, dress and symbol of the community etc. Besides Sikh institutions like Sarbat Khalsa, Gurmatta, Dal Khalsa. The Sikh rejection of the doctrine of avatar, caste system, the practice of idolatry, practice of sat, sacrificial rituals, priests craft, ritualistic bathing at places of pilgrimages, have also been noticed by these scholar. Above all the status, role, message and use of the Sikh scripture has also been mentioned.

However, the present study reveals that Guru Granth Sahib is the only object of veneration for the Sikhs. These writers do not observe any preference to Dasam Granth over Guru Granth as purposely been done by Malcom and later on accepted by McLeod and Grewal. The Sikhs admit none else than Guru Granth Sahib into their places of worship (Gurdwaras). They venerate it as an none else than Guru Granth Sahib into their places of worship (Gurdwaras). They venerate it as n Emperor, for it embodies the precepts of their Gurus. Each word of it is considered as an order from the Guru. It is the only guide in spiritual as well as temporal matters. The Sikhs firmly believe in its teaching, for their application can transform human lives and thereby can create a better social order. Its role in the transformation of the Sikh social world and perpetuation of Sikh identity has been amply noted by these writers. For example, higher veneration for truth, universal philanthropy, equality amongst human beings, tolerations towards other religion, non-existence of forceful conversion, conspicuous absence of the practice of sati, encouragement to widow-remarriage, observance of chastity etc have been described as the major traits of the ideology of Guru Granth Sahib. It also become clear that khandai-di-Pahul was the only means to enter into fold of Sikhism and five banis were recited while preparing amrit. Also, we find mention of five k’s in one way or the other rather than five weapons as has wrongly been mentioned by Malcolm and popularized by McLeod and Grewal. However, women too were baptized in the same manner as men. Come what may, these writings shed much light on the status and role of the Sikh scriptures in the advancement and transformation of Sikh society. For example, observations of Prinsep, Burnes, Hugel, Emily Eden etc suggest that the authority of Guru Granth Sahib was recognized by the Sikhs in every sphere of life. Also, general character of Sikhs and Sikh priests as described in these writings speaks of the higher spiritual advancement of the Sikhs. Above all, Schonberg’s description of the Sikh priest gives us to understand that the Sikh Identity was not created and established during the Singh Samba but it was very much intact prior to the annexation of the Land of the Five Rivers.

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Guest Javanmard

The tragedy with SIkh studies is that if you're in India you will have to write pro-Singh Sabha stuff and that in the West everyone expects you to have the McLeod "SIkhs as a tribe" attitude.

When someone tries to find a third way (puratan SIkh studies) that soemone gets serious problems from both Tat Khalsa and Mcleodians!!!

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Guest Javanmard

1. The author bases his arguments on foriegn sources only for his proof that only Adi Guru Granth Sahib is Guru Granth: he fails to mention puratan sources

2.One fails to see what his problematic is

3. Foreign sources are not considered in their socio-cultural context and are just taken for granted. The fact that Chritisan missionaries viewed Sikhism as a reformist movement has more to do with the fact that they were Reformed (Protestant) Christians rather than anything else. It is the speciality of Christian missionaries to constantly view other religions in terms of similarity or dissimilarity in order to elaborate strategies of conversion.

The reformist agenda cannot be applied to Sikhi as Guru Nanak was NOT the "reformer of Hinduism" (at least that's what they would say) but the founder of a new religious movement.

4. The article does not use any theoretical framework of discussion

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