“Sikhs and Sikh studies professors share a common goal. Most agree that Sikhi is a major world religion and Sikhi should be part of the curriculum of comparative religion – elementary through graduate schools – in the West and worldwide.”
In Search of a New Understanding of Sikhs’ Responses to Academic Research
Kamalla Rose Kaur
You may read and read loads of books;
You may read and study vast multitudes of books.
You may read and read boat-loads of books;
You may read and read and fill pits with them.
You may read them year after year;
You may read them as many months are there are.
You may read them all your life;
You may read them with every breath.
O Nanak, only One thing is of any account:
Everything else is just useless babbling and idle talk in ego.
(Guru Nanak “Asa Di Vaar”, Guru Granth Sahib, 467) 1
Many Sikhs treat Sikh studies academics with open hostility, protesting with signs, writing copious articles, denouncing Sikh scholars across internet websites and forums, petitioning universities to fire Sikh studies professors, waging email attacks, calling them before high councils, and death threats have been reported. W. H. McLeod, emeritus professor at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, warns scholars, “it must not be thought that the religious wars of such periods as the Reformation are behind us” (McLeod, “Discord in the Sikh Panth” 389).
Writing for Sikh newspapers and magazines, while participating in discussions and debates on Sikh internet forums for close to a decade, I can attest to the fact that Sikhs are quick to fight when they feel called to defend their Guru/scripture. And they will also defend their Guruji’s absolute authority to define Sikhi and what it means to be a True Sikh. McLeod reports that the cry “the Granth is in danger” can ignite a “whole-heartedly” popular cause which “ordinary members of the Panth” (ordinary members of the community) can “easily approve and support” (387). Ready to manipulate simple Sikh’s devotion for their Guruji/scripture, certain Sikhs and Sikh sects are attacking specific scholars (McLeod, “Discord”). While this is true, what W. H. McLeod and other Sikh studies academics consistently overlook is that the Sikh Guru/scripture also commands Sikhs to fight Western dualistic reality. 2 Later in this discussion, the Guru Granth’s viewpoint on duality and non-duality will be further elaborated.
Non-Sikh scholars can and should simply present Sikh teachings and beliefs without believing or practicing them. But failing to mention that the Sikh Guru Granth insists that non-dualistic consciousness is the first step to solving every problem – personal, Sikh and global – misses the most basic and primal teaching of Sikhi. The first words of the Guru Granth remain Ek On Kaar – the Creator and the Creation are One.
Arguably no religion is more devoted to its scripture than Sikhi. All Sikhs revere the Guru Granth Sahib as their living and breathing guide and teacher. Many Sikhs bow and submit to no other authority. In a 1992 article, Verne Dusenbery, an anthropologist at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, notes that Sikhs take their scripture “to be their eternal Guru, the source of divine benefits and the central focus of Sikh worship” (386). Sikhs open the Guru Granth in the morning and put it to bed each night. It is kept wrapped in beautiful fabrics. Sikhs ask their Guruji questions and receive guidance from the Guru Granth Sahib each day. It is carried on the head, and placed on a throne/altar, and kept fanned. Sikhs keep feet bare and heads covered when around the Sikh Guru/scripture (N. Singh, 35).
“Sikhs seek its presence for all their rites and ceremonies” asserts Nikky Gurinder Kaur Singh (Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Colby College in Maine, USA), yet she wonders that, “for whatever reasons then, be it their personal proclivities, religious ideologies, or academic methods, non-Sikh scholars have been unable to surrender themselves completely to ‘the special call’ of the Sikh text” (35). Non-Sikh scholars, particularly historians and anthropologists, often ignore scriptural studies simply because it is not their department. Yet considering the volume of attention given to the study of other scriptures, Dusenbery remarks, “it is surprising that so little attention has yet been paid to the main Sikh scripture…especially to its use in Sikh worship in India and in the diaspora” (386).
1. The Guru Granth Sahib can only fully be experienced and appreciated in Gurmukhi, the language of the Sikh Guru. All translations of the Sikh scripture are interpretations only. The Guru Granth interpretations offered here are my own, based on the Sant Singh Khalsa English translation.
2 Western dualism and the mind/body split can be traced to the Greeks, but it was René Descartes (1596-1650), French mathematician, philosopher, and physiologist, who best formulated the theory and announced, “I think therefore I am.”
Dr. Doris Jakobsh and Authority Within Sikhi
In her 2006 article, “Authority in the Virtual Sangat: Sikhism. Ritual and Identity in the Twenty-First Century”, Doris Jakobsh (Harvard trained religious studies professor at University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada) wonders where students wishing to learn about Sikhi should turn. Jakobsh explores who is an ‘authority’ on Sikhi. She artfully, quickly and accurately, maps the rough terrain of modern global Sikhi, pointing out its many places of tremendous confusion. For instance, Jakobsh briefly mentions the problems with the traditional seats of Sikh authority in India: “Sikhs in the Diaspora seem to view both the SGPC and the offices of jathedars with suspicion, given the scandals that have rocked both institutions in recent years.” Jakobsh adds, “in terms of logistics, the authority of the SGPC does not legally extend beyond Punjab.”
Jakobsh describes the generation gap, particularly among Sikhs in the west. Elderly Sikh men run most Gurdwaras and lawsuits flourish (25). Jakobsh discusses the dated ineffectiveness of the current edition of the Sikh Reht Maryada (SRM, the Sikh code of conduct). Though formulated in 1951, Jakobsh insists that the SRM is “based on the concerns and worldview of the 18th and 19th centuries” and that it fails to address modern issues, “particularly those outside of the Punjab”. Jakobsh further reports that “the Maryada is intricately intertwined with the needs and concerns of the British-inspired reform movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” and thus “needs to be questioned with respect to its very presuppositions, at least in terms of today’s society.” (28).
Jakobsh particularly focuses in her article on the pros and cons of the vast global internet community known as the Sikh cyber-sangat. There are thousands of Sikh websites competing to teach True Sikhi to the English-speaking world. Obviously those with the best technicians and biggest budgets define Sikhi faster and slicker. Jakobsh observes that “it is on the WWW that questions of caste, gender, abortion, Sikh ritual identity, premarital sex, homosexuality, to name only a few, can be found almost on a daily basis. The anonymity of the Web is particularly conducive for stances taken on these often controversial issues.” (Jakobsh, 29).
As insightful and helpful as Jakobsh’s overview of these various authorities on Sikhi proves, when she considers the Guru Granth Sahib as the ultimate authority on Sikhs and Sikhi, she simply doesn’t see it: “Notwithstanding the spectacular beauty and timeless truths embodied within these hymns, it is nonetheless difficult to find specific answers to …very difficult questions.” (27).
Yet, mysteriously, many Sikhs insist that the Guru Granth is, in fact, the only authority they submit to, and no other. Sikhs seek and receive their marching orders (vak laina or hukam laina) every single day from the Guru Granth. Sikhs soldiers carry the Guru Granth into war so that they may ask questions and receive comfort and up-to-the-moment directions from their Guruji. Historically, crowds of Sikhs have presented a single question to the Sikh Guru Granth and they have, as one, agreed and acted on the Sikh Guru’s instructions regarding their query (P. Singh 271).
Jakobsh acknowledges that the writers of the Guru Granth were, “great poet-saints” who “criticized many of the evils in society” but she insists that “ they did it within the context of religious life…These poets were not attempting to reform the social order per se, but had as their focus devotional practices of the day.” (27).
Except that the Sikh Guru Granth teaches that the spiritual and the earthly are One and the same. There is no distinction between devotional practices and attempting to reform oppressive societies within Sikhi. Praying and singing and communion with the Sikh Guru/scripture, doing service, defending human rights, going to work, eating, grooming, paying your bills, fighting a battle, shopping, relaxing, are equal and harmonious daily Sikh devotional practices. Guidance from the Guru Granth is obtained by praying and opening the book at random (invoking synchronicity) to receive instructions. The Guru Granth Sahib advises some to slow down and some to speed up, some to go within and others to step out boldly this day.
Jakobsh also discusses “the great poet-saints” and the historic context of their lives and missions without acknowledging that Sikhs also experience their Guru’s Voice as timeless, and timely, profoundly relevant right now. Pashaura Singh (Chair of Sikh Studies, University of California at Riverside) notes that the Guru Granth is, “a living Guru who always speaks with truth and power on the subject at hand” (P. Singh, 275). The Sikh Guru’s concern with politics has not changed, nor have the core issues behind human politics changed. When asked about the bomb, the Guru Granth might easily speak of tyrants deploying drunk elephants as weapons of mass destruction. The political scenes the Guru Granth paints, easily and significantly remind today’s readers of modern world rulers and situations.
Jakobsh is not a Sikh nor is she required to be. Yet I suggest to all Sikh studies professors that it would prove polite, positive and politically effective to explain to each other and to students that Sikhs claim that the dualisms between past and present, between the poet-sants who wrote the Guru Granth Sahib, and the active Voice of the living and opinionated Sikh Guruji, blur and merge for students of the Guru Granth. Dualisms between being warriors and being saints, between spiritual activities and practical ones, between mind and body, between Creator and the Creation, tend to evaporate upon engagement with the Sikh Guru – or so the Guru Granth preaches and Sikhs profess.
The Guru Granth Sahib’s Teachings on the Intellect and Intellectuals
While academics overlook the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Guru does not ignore them back. What follows is a brief summary of the Guru Granth Sahib’s teachings on the intellect and intellectuals. The Sikh Guruji speaks a great deal about the human mind and also about scholars and teachers. Using the online search engine of the Sant Singh Khalsa translation of the Guru Granth Sahib1, I discovered the word scholar is used 115 times in the text. Intellect appears 185 times. Cynics and cynicism are discussed 155 times, and words derived from the word ego appear 1078 times.
More copious yet are the Guru Granth’s references to gurmukhs and manmukhs, the two categories into which the Sikh Guru, with characteristic humor and droll irony, bifurcates humanity. Manmukhs are people who divide people, and everything else, into categories. Gurmukhs are people who don’t.
Gurmukhs maintain constant awareness that the Creator/Creation is One Being (EkOnKaar). Gurmukhs believe that the Beloved One is awake and living among us, and through us. Gurmukhs leave the planet a better place than they found it. Gurmukhs speak and act like the Sikh Guru/scripture:
Duality dwells in the consciousness of the people of the world.
Humans destroy by sexual obsessions, rage, violence and egotism.
Whom should I call the second, when there is only the One?
The One Immaculate Reality is pervading all.
(Pause and reflect on this)
Our dual-minded evil intellect speaks of a second.
Those who harbor duality come and go and die.
In the earth and in the sky, I do not see any second.
Among all the women and the men, the Light is shining.
In the lamps of the sun and the moon, I see Light.
Dwelling among all is my ever-youthful Beloved One.
Mercifully, Creator/Creation has tuned my consciousness to One.
Guruji has led me to understand the Infinity of One.
A Gurmukh experiences only the One.
Subduing duality, we come to realize the Word of the Shabad
(we experience the true teachings).
The Divine Command prevails throughout all worlds.
From the One, all have arisen.
(Guru Nanak, Guru Granth Sahib, 223)
Manmukhs, in comparison, are at best intelligent people who act out of egotism and promote dualism. Manmukhs navigate from selfish goals and self-centeredness; they leave the planet a worse place than they found it:
The manmukhs stand there and dry up;
They do not bear any fruit,
And they do not provide any shade.
Don’t even bother to sit near them-they have no home or village.
They are cut down and burnt each day;
They have neither the Shabad (the teachings)
Nor the Naam (non-dualistic consciousness)
(Guru Amar Das, Guru Granth Sahib, 66)
The Sikh Guru Granth teaches that manmukhs become gurmukhs by union, which involves experiencing the One Reality or life-itself, as the waheguru or Wondrous Teacher. While Sikhs believe that the Wondrous Teacher is a universal force within all and accessible to all, for them, the writings of the Guru Granth Sahib are considered the very voice of that Wondrous Teacher.
The Sikh Teacher also divides intellectual pursuits into these same two categories. We can use our intellect to experience and teach non-dualistic awareness, love, integrity, tolerance, and union, or we use our intellect for ego gratification, to impress, for status and career advancement, for money, glamour, for the sake of arguing and debating, or out of the very love of dualism:
The intellect is a bird;
Depending on its actions,
It is sometimes high,
And sometimes low.
Sometimes it is perched on the sandalwood tree,
And sometimes it is on the branch of the poisonous swallow-wort.
Sometimes, it soars through the heavens.
O Nanak, our Only Master leads us on,
According to the Hukam (command) of the Creator/Creation’s Way.
(Guru Nanak, Guru Granth Sahib, 147)
The Sikh Guru Granth instructs Sikhs to shun egotism and egotists, and to denounce cynics. Sikh egotists and cynics abound, of course, but it may be easier for Sikhs to protest against the perceived greater source of cynicism, that heartless battlefield of brains, Western academia:
Turn away, O my mind, turn away.
Turn away from the cynic.
False is the love of the false.
Break the ties, O my mind, so your bondage shall be broken.
Break your ties with cynics.
(Pause and reflect)
One who enters a house filled with soot is blackened.
Run far away from such people!
When they meet the Guru
They escape the bondage of the three dispositions. 3
(Guru Arjan, Guru Granth Sahib, 535)
3. Bondage of the three dispositions or “gunas” - tamas, rajas, sattwa. Refers to the tendency to. 1. be lazy, 2. be constantly busy, and/or 3. the need to be high.
Sikhs and Sikh studies professors share a common goal. Most agree that Sikhi is a major world religion and Sikhi should be part of the curriculum of comparative religion – elementary through graduate schools – in the West and worldwide. Humans prosper and flourish through education and world citizens should understand the basic principles and teachings of Buddhism, Judaism, Humanism, Christianity, Hinduism, Secular Materialism, Shamanism, Islam, and Sikhi too.
Yet Sikhs do not want Sikh studies professors defining Sikhi and/or directly impacting Sikh politics, history and autonomy. And Sikhs studies professors do not wish to experience hate campaigns directed at them. And no one likes the Western media coverage of these unholy wars except, presumably, the Sikhs and Sikh sects who send out the press releases.
Joseph T. O’Connell (a professor of Religious studies at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto) assures Sikhs that modern university study of Sikh religion is not a Christian missionary scheme “to undermine the faith of Sikhs” nor are Western universities “in collusion” with the Government of India to suppress Sikhs.
The thrust of such a campaign of misinformation is to encourage a climate of paranoia which tends to alienate Sikhs from the academic community.”(O’Connell, 274-75)
Mistrust of Western colonial mentality and strong resistance to having Oxford Press, or other powerful outsiders, take the role of authority on Sikhi are other concerns that Sikhs express. Thus Sikhs protest Sikh studies, and Sikhs also endow Sikh studies. Sikh studies programs need to attract students and Sikh funding. How to proceed?
Again I advise Sikh studies professors to start afresh by simply reporting and exploring how Sikhs take all questions to the Guru Granth Sahib. For instance, I asked the Sikh Guruji about how peace can be established between Western academics and Sikhs, and received this gem of a message about letting the jewel of the Sikh Guru’s teachings shine:
That which was upside-down has been set upright;
The deadly enemies and adversaries have become friends.
In the darkness, the jewel shines forth,
The impure understanding has become pure.
(Guru Arjan, Guru Granth, 402)
Dusenbery also suggests that, in the pursuit of Sikh studies, “it seems clear that one must recognize some strongly nondualistic aspects of Sikh social thought and ritual practice, especially in relation to the perceived power of the Word.” (390). Dusenbery argues that dualism of language is so entrenched in the West, that it is “commonsensical for Westerners as to make a nondualistic alternative seem like hocus-pocus.” (402). He implies that Western scholars have failed to acknowledge and discuss the importance of non-dualism within Sikhi because they can’t compute it, and/or they can’t believe it, but not because they hate Sikhs and Sikhism, like many Sikhs too quickly assume. Dusenbery advises that Sikh studies academics need to expand their analytic vocabulary “to overcome our conceptual dualisms…challenge analytic approaches growing out of the dominant Western ideology of language.” (389).
Of course, many academics may not agree with the Sikh Guru’s teachings. Sikhs can and do accept, understand, and tolerate diverse viewpoints. Also, quite reasonably, Sikh studies scholars may feel it is enough to simply observe and report that Sikhs find the ultimate authority for their religious beliefs “by turning to the Guru Granth Sahib and accepting it alone as supreme and absolute authority.” (McLeod, Sikhism, 266). McLeod also notes that non-Sikhs “may question its sufficiency” but he pushes that it must be “acknowledged that Sikhs have a better record of harmony and accord than other religious systems claim.” This is correct, and also honest, sincere and high praise.
Yet by refusing to accept the Guru Granth Sahib’s authority, or consider the Sikh Guru’s perceived “aliveness” enough to discuss Sikh teachings about dualism, the mind, human intellect, pundits and scholars, Sikh studies professors – no matter how well-educated they may be by Western standards – can expect to continue to appear ignorant, cowardly, lacking in honor, or just plain wrong, to many Sikhs.
McLeod writes that “by maintaining their trust in their Guru, which is the
Granth, the Sikh people uphold a belief that stands them in abundantly good stead.” (266). Sikhs agree, of course. The Sikh Guru Granth recommends that before we study anything, and certainly before we study Sikhi, that we all,
Sikhs and non-Sikhs, fanatic Sikhs and Sikh studies professors, pause and reflect and invoke Unity. Let us take a moment to question our motivations and agendas, lest we cause a war, or other unholy result.
Give up your pride and stubborn self-conceit;
death, yes, your death,
is always near at hand.
Resonate with the One.
Says Nanak, listen you fool:
without experiencing, and meditating, and dwelling on the One,
your life is uselessly wasting away.
(Guru Arjan, Guru Granth Sahib, 1308 )
Dusenbery, Verne A. “The Word as Guru: Sikh Scripture and the Translation
Controversy”, History of Religions, 31.4, (May, 1992): 385-402
Jakobsh, Doris, “Authority in the Virtual Sangat: Sikhism. Ritual and
Identity in the Twenty-First Century” Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the
Internet 2.1 (2006) 24-40
McLeod, W. H. “Discord in the Sikh Panth “ Journal of the American Oriental
Society, 119. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1999) 81-389
McLeod, W.H. Sikhism, Penguin Press, London (1997)
O’Connell, Joseph T. “The Fate of Sikh studies in North America,” The
Transmission of Sikh Heritage in the Diaspora, ed. Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald
Barrier (New Delhi: Manohar, 1996), 274-75.
Singh, Nikky-Guninder Kaur. “Translating Sikh scripture into English.” Sikh
Formations: 3.1: (June 2007) 33-49
Singh, Pashaura. The Guru Granth Sahib: Canon, Meaning and Authority Oxford
University Press, 2000.
Sri Guru, Search Engine