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date: 29 June 2022


Abstract and Keywords

This introduction begins with the changing dynamics of the field of Sikh Studies in recent times, passing through ‘growing pains’ and finally getting academic acclaim with the establishment of eight Endowed Chairs of Sikh and Punjabi Studies in North American universities. The main theme around which the Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies revolves is ‘expressing Sikhness’ (Sikhi), an inclusivistic tactic which allows the multiplicity of Sikh voices throughout the Sikh world today and throughout the history of the Sikh community (Panth) to be heard without privileging any singular one. Finally, it provides a clear and coherent outline of the volume, putting into context the range and diversity of material covered in various essays.

Keywords: Gurmat, gurbāṇī, Khalsa, Panth, Sikhi, Sikh Studies, Golden Temple Complex, Operation Blue Star, Truth and Reconciliation Commission

As young students of South Asian History during the last millennium it was a rather routine procedure to approach the study of the Sikh tradition as if the image of the tradition conveyed in the very few textbooks dedicated to the so-called World Religions, which deigned to include a mention or two of Sikhism, was a normative one. That is to say, a singular standard Sikhism whose ideal embodiment was observed in the male or female Sikh of the Khalsa, the martial order of Sikhs inaugurated by the tenth Sikh Master, Guru Gobind Singh in 1699 ce, who is ‘complete’ (tiār-bar-tiār) with the Five Ks (pañj kakke), rejects all forms of caste and gender discrimination, has been administered the initiatory elixir (amrit) through the ceremony of the double-edged sword (khaṇḍe kī pahul), and who observes the many other sartorial, behavioural, ritual, and dietary restrictions and obligations laid down in the modern ‘code of conduct’, finally settled upon by Sikh intellectuals in 1950 and known as the Sikh Rahit Maryādā.

The sheer hegemony of this image of Sikh identity has been so commonplace since the late nineteenth century that even for many Sikhs themselves such a view of the Sikh tradition and Sikh identity tended and continues to prevail. One hundred years of constant, ubiquitous snapshots of this sole picture of apparent Sikh orthodoxy with little challenge from within has reified just this vision, an image which predominates if one is to judge from the many virtual Sikh representations on the World Wide Web and actual representation in Sikh organizations: accordingly, this exclusive Sikhism equals the solitary revelation of the Sikh Gurus and this, in turn, is the equivalent of Khalsa Sikhism. Case closed. The same may be said for the history of the Sikhs and their tradition, and the way in which Sikhs have constructed their pasts over the centuries (Murphy 2007; Dhavan 2007), both of which have been collapsed into a singular triumphalist narrative in which all Sikh roads ultimately merge and lead to the construction and subsequent glory of the Sikh Khalsa. After all, was the Khalsa not destined to rule according to Guru Gobind Singh (rāj karegā khālsā) and was Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom (1799–1849 (p. 2) ce) not subsequently proclaimed to be that of the Khalsa (sarkār khālsā jī)? Alternative narratives, instantiated in relics and landscapes (Murphy 2012), or oral and written and the manuscripts in which these were consigned to posterity were, twentieth-century Sikh ideologues opined, the production of ignorant Sikhs or blatant attempts to malign true Sikh history for nefarious ends.

Little were we thus prepared for the great diversity and multiple Sikh narratives that confronted us as we engaged the many, many Sikhs across the world who practised and lived this tradition, or better yet these traditions they often called Sikhism, demonstrating vibrancy, a stunning vitality not often recognized by textbooks and rarely seen by those non-Sikhs (and Sikhs themselves) who merely lumped together as one the entire Sikh community, a public whose members collectively and generally refer to themselves as the panth or Panth (pronounced ‘punt’). Indeed, judging alone by both textbooks, the authors of which constructed knowledge about religions predominantly upon written texts deemed scriptural (an Enlightenment legacy to be sure), and by outside and some inside observers whose knowledge of everyday Sikh life overall was meagre, a large number of Sikhs were to be best understood as Sikhs who miserably failed at being Sikh! The power and persuasiveness of that remarkable image and its narrative was such, put another way, that Sikhs and others simply ignored the very evidence of their eyes and ears, suspicious of all the plurality exhibited and exercised in the lives of their many fellow Sikhs and the multiple alternative Sikh narratives that informed their understanding of being over time and their notions of the Sikh community. It was a pity that few people took to heart some of the most beautiful examples of the Sikh tradition’s commitment to plurality and diversity as found within the sacred Sikh scriptures.

The Sikh Gurus speak to this plurality by repeatedly emphasizing the inexhaustible potentiality of the meaning contained in gurbāṇī, the ‘utterances of the Gurus’. No matter how much one studies and interprets these sacred utterances, the Gurus often proclaim, an infinity of meaning remains yet to be fathomed. In this context, the fourth Sikh Guru, Guru Ram Das asserts:

ratanā ratan padārath bahu sāgaru bhariā rām / bāṇī gurbāṇī lāgge tinha hathi chaṛiā rām

The vast ocean is filled with treasuries containing jewels and pearls. This is attainable by such [people] as are devoted to gurbāṇī.

(GGS: 442)

Guru Ram Das thus compares the meaning of gurbāṇī to an immeasurable ocean of jewels. Those individuals who dive deeply into that ocean through reflection and meditation find within themselves, and see within others, a treasure trove of gems and realize the true spiritual status of both themselves and additional people. Others who remain on the surface level of that ocean may be dealing only with the literal sense of the sacred utterance, without having any deeper understanding of its meaning. Bhai Gurdas, the predominant seventeenth-century Sikh interpreter of gurbāṇī, likewise echoes a similar (p. 3) understanding of the depth and richness of the meaning of the utterances of the Gurus and by extension the variety which permeates the Sikh tradition:

taise gurbāṇī bikhai sakal padārath hai joī joī khojai soī soī nipjāvahī

In the same way [that the ocean is filled with riches], all treasures are contained in gurbāṇī. Whatever one seeks from it, the same will one attain.

(Kabitt 546).

Singular normative constructions such as those implicitly critiqued in the bāṇī (‘utterances’) of Guru Ram Das and Bhai Gurdas are by no means applied to the Sikhs and Sikhism alone of course, but plague virtually all ideological and (dare we say it) mystical constructs of Indic and of Islamicate origin, constructs fashioned and perpetuated today by both Indians and Europeans and also by people across what we refer to today as the Middle East (particularly when we realize that the fantastical image of India is one also readily discovered within early Islamicate, Arabic, and Persian literature; for example, within Abuʾl Qasim Ferdausi’s famous Persian epic, the Shāh-nāmah). Inevitably, like the members of these other Indic/Islamicate traditions, the Sikh world has had throughout its history and continues to have a fair number of dominant, institutional, regional, national, and local expressions of faith and practice in a constant dynamic, fluid relationship with one another, continually influencing each other and defining and redefining what it has meant and continues to mean to be a Sikh and a member of the Sikh community in different places around the globe. It is worth noting that at no time in the history of the Sikh people have any of these identities or histories or imaginaries understood as Sikh been seen as ‘in the making’ or ‘fuzzy’ by their constituents. These were serious claims and understandings that galvanized and, more importantly, solidified an individual’s sense of self; one’s impressions of personhood and belonging, of community and other, diachronically and synchronically.

There have to this end been instances, many, in the history of the Sikhs during which Sikh authors and groups have attempted to convey Sikh ideologies and practices and histories in genres, formats, and languages and, indeed, as Anne Murphy has made clear, in relics and other materials (Murphy 2012) that, unlike the physical text of the Sikh scripture(s), or Santbhasha and Punjabi and the predominant styles utilized by authors who write in these two languages, are not often associated with the Sikh tradition; a variety of formats and languages, let us add, that Sikh authors felt in no way uncomfortable or awkward employing: the use of Persian and the Persian ghazal (poem with specific metre) and maṡnavī (genre of lengthy poem) to cite but one example of many, styles that both Guru Gobind Singh himself employed to remarkable ends and, too, utilized by certain poets within his literary darbār (‘court’) such as the famous Bhai Nand Lal Goya (Fenech 2008: 199–276)—a format and language, incidentally, that was also disparaged in some eighteenth-century Sikh literature as the language of those peoples who persecuted the Sikhs (Padam 1991: 77). To this we may also add eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ‘augmented Sikh histories’ in Hindi and Brajbhasha (the latter of (p. 4) which was another Mughal literary language, like Persian, though associated with devotion to the Hindu deity Lord Krishna (Busch 2011)) such as the texts of the gur-bilās (‘splendor of the Guru’) genre attributed to Koer Singh, Sukkha Singh, and Ratan Singh Bhangu and, too, those Sikh histories in Persian, the authors of which would adopt the style of the well-established Islamicate tārīkh or ‘history’, which as Purnima Dhavan notes was in some cases itself adapted to the more standard Sikh gur-bilās ‘history’ to form a style of recording the past that was unique for its time, a representative example of which is Khushwaqt Rai’s 1811 Tārīkh-i Aḥvāl-i Sikhān (Dhavan 2007). Alongside these histories are Sikh exegetical and commentarial works in Sanskrit and further scriptural commentaries (polemical in some cases) in Brajbhasha such as those by the Udasi Sikh intellectual Anandghan and the Nirmala scholar Santokh Singh (Nripinder Singh 1990: 244–52). Also included is the case of the great twentieth-century Sikh intellectual Puran Singh, who wrote many of his works in what became Modern Standard Punjabi, but reserved his most famous Sikh works in English for a Sikh audience that was more attuned to the intellectual climate and assumptions of British imperialism and colonialism, and the definitions of religion well situated within and perpetuated by these (Puran Singh 1980).

The appropriation of such genres and languages as noted in the case of Khushwaqt Rai’s text have in themselves affected the ways by which Sikhs reveal and understand their tradition, their past, and their ideologies; working within alternative frameworks, which as one may expect, predictably enhanced and augmented aspects of the Sikh tradition by and with ideas and standards which permeate the traditions within which such alternative frameworks (different for Sikh authors) are normative and standard. The appropriation of the Persian genres earlier mentioned, for example, could not help but further underscore the affinities between the mystical dimension of Islam, Sufism, the ideology of which was primarily conveyed not only through the charismatic Sufi mystic him or herself, through Persian music and painting, but also through Persian ghazals and maṡnavī. (the ghazals of Hafez Shirazi, for example, or Maulana Rumi’s extraordinary Sufi treatise, the Maṡnavī-ye Maṡnavī both of which were very well known in India) and the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, laying stress, for instance, on the unity of the divine, his/her/its presence within all hearts, and the committed dedication to the remembrance of the divine (often involving the repetition of divine names) in an attempt to purify the corruptible human self, among others. This in turn marked the Sikh tradition in some less-trained eyes as derivative of, or influenced by, Islam or Sufi ways of being. Actually, in Mughal-period Persian texts Guru Nanak is often noted as Shāh Nanak, Shah a title not only bestowed upon actual rulers themselves but also often associated with Sufi spiritual masters in India. More exercised faculties, however, would see the appropriation of these non-traditional genres (indeed, of all genres and styles and languages and, also relics as Murphy makes clear) as intended to accentuate the universal, non-exclusive dimension of Sikh tradition and ideology that we regularly discover in the writings of the Gurus and clearly observe in both the structure of the Guru Granth Sahib as well as Sikh architecture and, also as suggestive of the nature of the (p. 5) divine in Sikh thought. As Guru Gobind Singh so incisively tells us in Brajbhasha, in his Akāl Ustati (‘In Praise of the Timeless One’):

Kahūn ārabī torkī pārsī ho kahūn pahalavī pasatavī sanskritī ho kahūn des bhākhiā kahūn dev bānī (116)

In some cases (kahūn) [You are] Arabic, Torki, and Persian; in others [You are] Pahlavi, Pashto, and Sanskrit. Sometimes human speech; sometimes divine (116).

(DG: 22)

Note that the tenth Guru is not simply here claiming that the divine is described or praised in Arabic, Persian, and by other languages (although that implication is most definitely present), but most significantly that the divine is these languages, both beyond all language and at the same time within and actualized by all languages. Such words as those in Akāl Ustati not only sanctify the use of any and all languages, genres, and styles in singing, speaking, or reflecting upon the praise of the divine but, all together, underscore the divine’s unmitigated omnipresence (sarab viāpak) and immanence (jah jah dekhā tah tah tum hai ‘Wherever I look, there You are’ according to Guru Nanak (GGS: 25)) throughout all creation and within and throughout all sound and languages, the spoken forms of which are collections of specific sounds: the divine is thus nād the ‘primal sound [of all language]’ (GGS: 2), as well as the articulated bāṇī or ‘utterance’ (GGS: 32), and the anhad-bāṇī ‘the mystical unsaid’, the ‘un-struck melody’ one ‘hears’ at the height of the spiritual discipline when one achieves the ‘balance’ (sahaj) that is tantamount to the liberated state (mokhu); and the divine is all of these simultaneously (GGS: 21), both saguṇ and nirguṇ: ‘qualified’ and ‘quality-less’ (GGS: 287) respectively in the Sikh imaginary. There is, too, the implication in the Akāl Ustāti passage above that the divine is both beyond time and space and that time and space are effectively collapsed within and by the divine as the repetition of the adverb kahūn—which may mean both ‘some time’ and ‘some place’—suggests. This focus on the omnipresence of the divine in language and sound likely occupied a number of poets within the tenth Guru’s court (dārbār) as it appears to be at the very heart of the ʿArżulalfāẓ, the ‘Exposition of Words’ (and grammar) intriguingly prepared in Persian by Guru Gobind Singh’s predominant court poet (darbārī kavī), Nand Lal Goya.

az har lafẓ shod chand māʿnī padīd / az kutab-i lu ghāt-i qadīm-i jadīd

Every word has numerous meanings all of which are discovered in books old and new (Ganda Singh 1963: 206).

In their more mundane adoption and appreciation of languages and genres that are not traditional, moreover, Sikh authors are, once again, not unique: one is, for example, reminded of the beautiful Sufi romances in classical Hindi (Hindavi) and Brajbhasha which expressed general Muslim and more specifically Sufi ideas through the lens of Hindu yogic traditions, a facet excavated in the intriguingly charming works and (p. 6) translations of Aditya Behl (Behl and Weightman 2000; Behl 2012). And as well we may point to Buddhist thought uttered in Sanskrit, Classical Chinese, Japanese, and Thai and the genres that are more traditional to each of these languages.

To fully give substance to this extraordinary diversity and its various nuances, the multiple ways of being Sikh, of constructing the Sikh community over time, and of reflecting this tradition and its long history through numerous fluid media, we have chosen to structure our critical approach in this Handbook around the theme of ‘Expressing “Sikhness”’ and to organize this Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies by a handful of the individual expressions of this vast experience, many of which have interacted and coalesced in highly nuanced fashions over the centuries. What we understand by ‘Sikhness’ goes beyond understanding and refracting the world as the creation of Akāl Purakh (the ‘Timeless Being’, or the divine) through the lens of gurmat or the ‘Guru’s doctrine’ of course, but entails the many ways of being Sikh, ideologically, ritually, practically, and so on, whether actively or with hindsight.

Although the Sikh Rahit Maryādā tends to represent the Sikh tradition as a single coherent orthodoxy, as we have implied, the actual situation at the popular, lived level of Sikhs themselves, shows the existence of a colourful diversity within the Sikh Panth. The basis of all of these diverse expressions, however, remains the articulation of Sikhness that is described by the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, as follows: sikhī sikhiā gur vīchāri// nadarī karami langhāe pāri//, ‘I have realized the teachings of sikhī through contemplating the Eternal Guru who grants his gracious glance, and by so doing, ferries his servants across [the ocean of existence]’ (GGS: 465). This state of being Sikh cannot be defined explicitly, although the term ‘discipleship’ (sikhī) was internally given in the early Sikh tradition. To use Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s terminology, to manifest the ‘teachings of sikhī’ is to follow the Guru’s teaching, signifying ‘a transcendent personalist ideal’ of discipleship. Over the centuries the original idea of gurmat evolved into ‘the counterpart of the Western (outsiders’) concept “Sikhism” as the total complex of Sikh religious practices and rites, scriptures and doctrines, history and institutions’ (Smith 1978 [1962]: 67). To unpack the essentialist notion of ‘Sikhism’ we will try to look closely at the various expressions of Sikhness within the Sikh Panth.

Such a phenomenon will therefore be reflected throughout this volume not by the word Sikhness, but by the regular use of the more appropriate (and less inelegant) term coined by Guru Nanak for what is generally (mis)understood both within and outside of India, as Sikhism, namely sikhī (also sikkhī since the ‘kh’ sound is generally elongated in its pronunciation, a fact noted by the addhak character in the original Gurmukhi script) and its resistive and very recent hybrid construction sikhī(sm)/Sikhi(sm), the latter of which reflects a relatively fresh, post-colonial way of underscoring this diversity which purposefully defies the epistemological binders of Eurocentric categories and their weighty corollaries, in this case Orientalist constructs such as the aforementioned Sikhism. Such an amalgam term both literally and, indeed, visually, disturbs the stillness by which we understand conveniently fashioned labels like Sikhism in a way similar to that were we to employ a combined Roman/Gurmukhi (the script in which Punjabi is usually written) ligature of this phenomenon, for example, the very awkward ‘ਿਸੱਖੀ’. (p. 7) Certainly the Sikh tradition’s encounter with Europe and facets of European thought, mainland and otherwise, has had a profound effect on its recent development, almost as significant as its encounter with both Hindu and Muslim traditions no less, shaping the way that Sikhs (and others concerned with the tradition) understand such concepts as monotheism, violence, history, and martyrdom amongst numerous others (Bhogal 2007). But privileging only this dimension of the Sikh past, as so many contemporary sources unwittingly do, does an injustice to the total diachronic experience of the Sikh individual, the Sikh Panth, and the Sikh tradition.

At this point the adage ‘A Rose By Any Other Name’ may be here suggested, but the simple fact that has been demonstrated time and again in our postmodern world is that names and labels matter as these, especially when dealing with constructs which are predominantly ideological, immediately make that idea or practice which they are attempting to elicit vulnerable to misunderstandings and misrepresentations. Put another way, ideas and terms fashioned at other times and in other places and languages, in this case fabricated during the particular historical and cultural trajectory stimulated by the European Enlightenment with its very conflicted approaches to dealing with factors uniquely European (definitions of ‘religion’ and ‘secularity’ for example and, too, the more tricky distinctions, if any, between them (Mandair 2009)), are very often not well translated onto Indic, or in this case Indo-Islamic phenomena like sikhī and will thus often imply features that are not necessarily present within Indo-Islamic conceptual spaces or alter approximations that are.

This critical approach of ‘Expressing sikhī’ not only allows us to envision a tradition that eludes its sometimes benign European captivity but in so doing also acts as an inclusivistic tactic, which allows the multiplicity of Sikh voices throughout the Sikh World today and throughout the history of the Sikhs and their many interrelated traditions to be heard without privileging any singular one. Such an approach allows us to view the extraordinary diversity and fluidity that is the Sikh tradition and to thus excavate a total field of Sikh expression, both masculine and feminine gendered dimensions of the Sikh tradition, effortlessly integrating male and female, text with practice (Nikky Singh 2005; Jakobsh 2003); Sikh narrative traditions with equally significant Sikh landscapes, objects, relics, and other forms of material and popular culture that Sikhs form and with which Sikhs regularly interact individually and collectively (Murphy 2012); the importance of Sikh music with the tradition’s ideology as noted in the teachings of the Sikh Gurus; the principal Sikh scripture, the Ādi Granth or Gurū Granth Sāhib (AG or GGS)—and in certain cases, its ‘secondary’ scripture the Dasam Granth (DG) attributed to the tenth Guru—with the Sikh tradition’s many supplementary (often overlapping) sources of authority, that is to say the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC)—the organization of Khalsa Sikhs that manages Sikh gurdwaras throughout the Punjab and elsewhere—and the Akali Dal (the predominant Sikh political party in the Punjab), the Akal Takhat (Throne of the Timeless), and/or living Sikh saints (sants), bābās, bībīs, and gurus and ascetics (udāsīs); the diachronic with the synchronic; the historical reverence for the Sikh Gurus, bhagats, bhais, bhatts, and sants with the important role that Sikh ḍerās (lit., ‘camps’ to which disciples come to (p. 8) hear and see a revered Sikh figure) today play throughout the Punjab countryside and beyond, an importance which has taken a violent turn within the last few years (Baixis and Simone 2008; Lal 2009). As well this approach allows us all the while to keep in mind the role of the Sikh diaspora in all of the above interrelated facets, not so much in the construction and promotion of the Sikh tradition’s grand diversity and multiple narratives—although there are certainly many examples of this such as the returning Punjabi migrants noted by Tony Ballantyne (Ballantyne 2006: 66–79) and, perhaps the most readily observable, the Khalsa Dharma in the Western Hemisphere or the 3HO (Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization) variety of Sikh tradition predominantly comprising ‘Western’ converts to sikhī—but rather the oft-vocal denial of this variety on the part of at least some influential diasporic Sikhs and Sikh organizations, often a denunciation that is in part coloured by both contemporary world, national, and regional politics.

The functions performed by the Sikh diaspora, not just in remitting monies back to the Punjab for philanthropic purposes (Dusenbery and Tatla 2009), but particularly in the management and broadcast of both Sikh identity and a specific Sikh historical narrative both abroad and in the Punjab (a role also well perceived in the diaspora’s influence in promoting a separate Sikh state as noted by Axel 2001) also gives us pause to examine both our own role—as university-based scholars who too play a part in the production of Sikhness through the perpetuation and teaching (that is, knowledge-construction) of traditions we refer to as Sikh—and that of the state, whether India or the many other nations in which Sikhs have found themselves since the late nineteenth century. As scholars of a tradition in which historical narrative and memory and their interplay perform such an essential role in the construction of Sikh personhood, community, and the Sikh imaginary, a part as profound as that of the teachings of the Gurus (which have modified these narratives and memories and in turn been adjusted by them), it is always good form to keep in mind that what academics write and say about Sikh tradition matters to the Sikh world generally and may find itself within discourses that verge well beyond the academic, especially for a community which today understands itself to express a (now-deterritorialized) sovereignty (Shani 2008) gifted by the tenth Sikh Master, an interpretation that precipitates the claim that Sikhs are indeed a nation living within other nations.

The cold reception given to certain critical academics and their research in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, for example, was partly a spillover from turmoil occasioned by internal dissension among Akali Dal and Congress Sikh politicians in the 1960s and 1970s and the subsequent secessionist struggles and ethnonationalist violence within the Punjab itself in the 1980s and 1990s. And this, in turn, had its roots in earlier disaffection amongst certain groups of Punjabi Sikhs. These critical academics included such luminaries as Fauja Singh whose article on the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadar (d. 1675 ce) was expunged, post-publication, from the February 1974 issue of the Journal of Sikh Studies printed at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, and as W. H. McLeod (McLeod 1994), Harjot Oberoi (Oberoi 2001), Piar Singh (Piar Singh 1996), and Pashaura Singh (Pashaura Singh 2000), all of whom respectfully questioned the (p. 9) traditional interpretation regarding the development of the Sikh tradition, hegemonic narratives of Guru Nanak’s life, and the gradual production of the text of the Adi Granth respectively. The volume of the vitriolic attacks this scholarship engendered, both in India and abroad, cautioned and silenced many academic Sikh voices forcing them to follow more established and well-known interpretations of Sikh history and tradition in their research and writing. Scholars who failed to fall in line with generally accepted wisdom, especially those academics who were also practising Sikhs, often found themselves picketed and placarded at their place of work or at academic conferences (specialized Sikh conferences such as those at the University of Michigan in the mid to late 1990s and more general ones like the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference in 1995 held in that year in Philadelphia) by Sikh groups, groups many of whose members were motivated in part by selfless aims such as ‘protecting Sikhism’ to be sure, but some of whose leaders may have been encouraged by less altruistic goals, a dichotomy that gradually develops between movements and their leaders that is relatively common worldwide.

This Sikh estrangement from the Indian state which likely prompted, and stood in stark relief as a result of, the harsh criticism levelled against academics originated in response to a number of interrelated factors: promises initially given to ensure Sikh self-determination before Indian Independence in 1947 that were not honoured by the Congress government (Sarasfield 1946), and which were in turn exacerbated in the Sikh struggle for Punjabi Sūba (‘Province’) in the 1950s and early 1960s, in which Punjabi Sikhs took umbrage at the fact that all state boundaries in the new Indian union apart from those of the Punjab were redrawn based on the mother tongue of the majority of residents (Sarhadi 1970); the Indian government’s failure to meet Sikh demands after the 1966 grant of Punjabi statehood; and the dismissal of the very legitimate Sikh requests written into the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973 along with the failures incurred by the Green Revolution (Purewal 2000: 52–72), the latter of which helped mobilize the Sikh peasantry most affected by the Punjab’s diminishing water table, climate change, and the sustained use of harmful fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides that allowed initially for much higher crop yields. And, of course, we add to this mix the ill-treatment of Sikhs by the central Congress government up to and during the Asian Games of 1982 held in New Delhi (organized in large part by the Prime Minister’s son, Rajiv Gandhi) and the subsequent horrific tragedy of June 1984 codenamed Operation Blue Star, during which the Golden Temple complex and thirty-six other historical gurdwaras in Punjab were invaded by the Indian army, resulting in the death of many militants and army personnel as well as those deaths of the over 600 innocent Sikh pilgrims who were present at the Golden Temple to honour the śahīdī diwas or Martyrdom Day of Guru Arjan and were unfortunately caught in the crossfire. The ensuing Sikh pogroms following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984 in retaliation for Operation Blue Star and also the lengthy period of President’s Rule throughout the state of Punjab likewise enhanced Sikh antipathy towards the government (an aversion that may have resulted in the destruction of Air India flight 182 from Toronto to Delhi in 1985), which still partially remains as the many well-established (p. 10) politicians and Congress workers who helped engineer the pogroms have not yet been brought to justice, nor have the many widowed or orphaned as a result of the riots yet been as well settled as was initially promised. These are but a few of the many, many tragic events which occurred throughout the Punjab well into the late 1990s. Thus there is an urgent need to start a healing process and adopt measures that provide transparency in terms of what happened and justice in regard to the victims and perpetuators. As a matter of fact ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ (TRCs) have been constituted in over twenty countries around the world so as to achieve these purposes. India has yet to convene a TRC or comparable process in order to achieve a closure to the Punjab crisis.

Scholarship, which was critically questioning popular Sikh understandings of Sikh history and literature was, in the light of these frustrations, anxieties, and tragedies thus taken (by many but not all Sikhs) to be a questioning of the Sikhs themselves, of their value as people and citizens, their heroic history and uniqueness, and their place in both India and the world collectively and individually. Academic research that contested long-held understandings was furthermore seen by some quarters as part of a sustained effort by the Indian government to destabilize Sikh society and, in certain extreme post-1984 readings, to thoroughly destroy Sikhism and the ‘Sikh Way of Life’ itself and eradicate it worldwide, once again heralding the cry that regularly echoed in early twentieth-century Punjab, Panth khatre vich, ‘The Panth is in danger’. Indeed, for many individual Sikhs such academic questioning was seen as particularly reprehensible and dangerous given the ubiquity of Sikh memory sites throughout northern India, especially within the Punjab and Delhi, and could not help but rally large numbers of Sikhs familiar with traditional narratives of Sikh persecution and ultimate Sikh victory over all oppressors. Needless to say certain individual Sikh organizers were motivated to act against this ‘academic onslaught’ by what they felt was a genuine threat to their tradition and thus to themselves and their families. Other particularly interested parties within the Punjab (and elsewhere), however, nascent and experienced, saw in championing a critique of academics and attempting to force them to publicly recant or face punishment, a relatively safe opportunity to locally and perhaps nationally enhance group and individual prestige and reputation; after all, most academics were ‘easy targets’ who could rarely respond to criticism of their research and their oft-alleged ties to the much pilloried Indian government (justly denounced in some cases) especially those scholars who were either elderly or living abroad—the criticisms against, and the responses of, Piar Singh, Pashaura Singh, and Harjot Oberoi to such censure from ‘concerned Sikh bodies’, for example, were particularly well known, appearing regularly in vernacular newspapers in the Punjab and Punjabi publications abroad. It is likely moreover that the most vociferous critics in India would have been aware of the fact that their reproach of scholarship would not have been as harshly repressed by local and national politicians as would have a severe critique of governmental action and excess. At the same time, a critique in whatever direction would have ensured that such a vocal contingent would not have generally come under militant notice.

(p. 11) Such fears of retaliation were generally not experienced by Sikhs outside of India. In this regard, therefore, Sikhs and Sikh organizations across the globe who and which were horrified and deeply saddened by contemporary Indian events such as the desecration of the Golden Temple, at times in conjunction with Sikhs in the Punjab (especially since Sikh global networks were particularly well established, with nearly 100 years of Sikh migration to North America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Oceania), launched numerous strategies within their respective countries, many successful, in order to press and secure their claims to self-determination in the light of this conflicted state of affairs (Dusenbery 1997). In some cases, Sikh organizations abroad took up the challenge that they believed critical academics offered, and convened conferences of their own to examine ‘spurious’ historical claims, strongly reaffirm more traditional assertions, and to further condemn both the academics and the North American universities that housed them and in some cases to cast further remonstrations on the Indian government. In other instances, however, different strategies were formulated in the hope that international pressure on India would either get that state to alter what was perceived as its draconian stance towards the Sikhs and human rights or force India to accede to the claim of an independent Sikh country generally referred to as Khalistan (‘Country of the Pure’) and carved out from within India itself. In the United States, for example, Sikh groups had successfully secured the support of Senator Daniel Burton, Republican Congressman of Indiana, to press certain Sikh claims regarding the creation of Khalistan in the American Congress (and to press these even further on a 2005 visit to India). Also, some diaspora Sikhs began to collect and remit money to certain organizations in the Punjab to likewise pursue these goals. Inevitably, this period in the history of Sikh Studies has also had an effect on the very production and understanding of the field and of the Sikh tradition and its people, which has in turn prompted a more keen interest in studies relating to the Sikhs. Such a set of circumstances was profoundly compounded by recent tragedies such as the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11, which ultimately led to the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi in Arizona, who was mistaken as an al-Qaeda operative, and, as well, the horrific massacre at the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in August 2012 by a white supremacist. The need to broadcast and inform the world over about the Sikhs and Sikhism is now, within the context of increasing globalization and its unfortunate corollary, the escalating and interrelated pathologies of ‘White Anxiety’ and ‘White Privilege’ especially within the industrialized world, more urgent than ever before and so the papers collected within, and the appearance of, this Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. Today, such urgency notwithstanding, the situation in India is less anxious politically for the Sikhs, particularly since the prime minister of India as this Introduction is being written happens to be a Sikh, Dr Manmohan Singh, and the Punjab is being ruled by the Akali-BJP government led by Parkash Singh Badal. But it is also much more exciting for those of us involved with Sikh Studies as the current number of endowed Chairs in Sikh and Punjabi Studies in North American universities stands, at the moment, at eight, easily the most prominent field of South Asian focus within the Western academy.

(p. 12) Let us now turn to the Handbook itself. As mentioned, throughout this Handbook the studies are organized according to various interrelated and overlapping expressions of Sikhi, historical, literary, ideological, institutional, artistic, diasporic, and gender and caste specific. It should be noted that these expressions appear in no specific order at all although within each individual section we begin with a more substantial introductory paper followed by more focused analyses. In most instances we have allowed the authors liberty to pursue their ideas without dramatic editorial intervention, a fact which accounts for some of the divergent views both within individual papers and from our own distinctive stances as scholars of Sikh tradition. Our reason for doing so is to make clear the plurality that is well in keeping with the ‘ocean of [interpretive] jewels’ to which Guru Ram Das and Bhai Gurdas amongst others give voice above. And to this end, furthermore, we have made accommodations within the text for scholars who are also practitioners and can easily operate in both capacities. Gurnam Singh is for example a respected Sikh musicologist as well as a musician while Kamalroop Singh not only explores the intricacies of the tenth Guru’s Dasam Granth in his research but is also an expert Sikh martial artist, promoting a resurgence of Sikh gatkā (‘swordplay’) specifically and śastar vidyā or martial arts (lit., ‘knowledge of weaponry’) generally that is currently being debated and taught within the United Kingdom and elsewhere and attracting young Sikhs and others across the globe.

The volume opens with a section on ‘historical expressions’ of the Sikh tradition. The first essay by Pashaura Singh provides an overview of the first 500 years of Sikh history, stressing the need to explore new ways of knowing the past and to complement historical data with ethnographic study that can illuminate the lived experience of the Sikh Panth. It is followed by Louis E. Fenech’s essay on the evolution of the Sikh tradition during the canonical period of the ten Sikh Gurus and Purnima Dhavan’s exploration of the growth of the Khalsa Sikh community from its inception to the foundation of several independent misal states in the mid to late eighteenth century. The Sikh kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh is taken up by Sunit Singh while the next two overlapping periods of colonial and post-colonial representations of the Sikh past are the focus of Navdeep Singh Mandair and Joginder Singh respectively. The section ends with a highly nuanced consideration and excavation of the very concerns which guided and continue to guide Sikh and other authors who attempt to uncover the Sikh past by Anne Murphy.

The next section on ‘Sikh literary expressions’ begins with Christopher Shackle’s masterly essay on the topic, which offers a survey of Sikh literature from the time of the Gurus until the late twentieth century. The remaining portion of this section focuses on texts deemed seminal in Sikh traditions such as the Guru Granth Sahib and the Dasam Granth excavated by Pashaura Singh and Robin Rinehart in their respective essays. It also includes papers dealing with the works of famous Sikh authors such as Bhai Gurdas Bhalla and Bhai Nand Lal Goya by Rahuldeep Singh and Louis E. Fenech respectively. Both Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Nand Lal Goya are the only two Sikh ideologues apart from the poets whose works we discover within the Guru Granth Sahib and the Dasam Granth whose poetry is assigned the status of bāṇī and may be thus sung and read alongside the compositions of the Gurus whenever Sikhs gather to perform kīrtan, the congregational (p. 13) singing of hymns that often takes place in a seminal Sikh space such as the gurdwara. This portion also includes an examination of unorthodox ‘Sectarian Works’ by Hardip Singh Syan, followed by standard pre-colonial Sikh works of the janam-sākhī (‘birth-narrative’), rāhit-nāmā (‘manual of code of conduct’), and gurbilās (‘splendour of the Guru’) genres by Toby B. Johnson. Colonial and post-colonial works of Sikh literature are discussed by Tejwant Singh Gill, while Harpreet Singh offers an examination of Western writers who have engaged the Sikh tradition since the eighteenth century. The section concludes with an adroit essay of Michael C. Shapiro who highlights the linguistic and philological elements of Sikh texts, underscoring in some instances usages which are uniquely Sikh and how these convey ideas that are characteristically so.

The section dealing with the ‘ideological expressions’ of the Sikh tradition begins with a new assessment and description of the collective teachings of the Sikh Gurus by Pashaura Singh. The position of the tenth Sikh Guru is also included within this assessment while the predominant contribution to the Sikh tradition attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, the Khalsa and the Rahit (‘Code of Conduct’), is singled out in an independent chapter by Louis E. Fenech. Within this paper we discover elements that are further unearthed in subsequent chapters, namely the interaction and intersection of Sikh traditions with other traditions and peoples. W. Owen Cole, for example, explores this interaction in recent times; Virinder Kalra hones the focus with a discussion about religion and politics; while Giorgio Shani sharpens this focus even more so in his paper on contemporary Sikh nationalism. The section comes to a close with two skilful essays articulating a fresh perspective on the Sikh tradition philosophically, the first by Balbinder Singh Bhogal and the second by Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair refracting Sikh ideas through a more Continental philosophical lens.

The section on ‘institutional expressions’ begins with Michael Hawley’s general examination of Sikh institutions after which we shift to focused studies of the best-known Sikh institutional expressions, that is, the premier Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) by Kashmir Singh and the powerful Akali Dal by Amarjit Singh Narang. Opinderjit Kaur Takhar and Eleanor Nesbitt describe Sikh sects and ḍerās (‘establishments’) of Sikh Sants, in particular the Ravidasias and others in the United Kingdom, both of which offer unique glimpses into intra and international Sikh perceptions of others who claim to be Sikhs. One issue which Takhar confronts that we have seen in regard to Punjabi Radha Saomis is the inclusion of certain groups as ‘Sikh’ who refuse to acknowledge themselves as such and the issues to which such denials or affirmations give rise. Paramjit Singh Judge shifts the discussion to within India itself examining the many ḍerās and their leaders which have of late become a very vocal and visible segment of Punjabi Sikh society. We end with Mark Juergensmeyer’s dexterous essay which underscores the global expression of sikhī and its many nuances.

The next section is focused on ‘artistic expressions’ within the Sikh tradition. Although there is no unique Sikh art per se Sikhs have taken to the arts and excelled at these dramatically throughout their history. This is particularly so within the fields of music and musicology, a subject analysed at length in Gurnam Singh’s paper on Sikh Music. Although best known for its unique styles of kīrtan, congregational singing, (p. 14) there is a more folk and martial dimension to Sikh musicality which we witness in the Punjabi phenomenon of ḍhāḍhī (‘singer of martial ballads’), the topic of Michael Nijhawan’s essay. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh takes up the topic of Sikh art proper, of the janam-sakhi paintings and those portraits of the Gurus during the eighteenth and nineteenth century while the history and ritual life of the central Sikh shrine at which many contemporary Sikh paintings are today displayed, the Darbar Sahib (‘Golden Temple’), is the subject of Charles Townsend’s essay. Sikh architecture is described and analysed in Will Glover’s essay which has as its central focus the new, recently opened to the public Khalsa Heritage Complex in Anandpur Sahib. The general materiality of Sikh culture forms the substance of Anne Murphy’s article after which we switch to a detailed discussion of Sikh martial arts by Kamalroop Singh and Sikh visual arts, particularly digital Sikh representations by Susan E. Prill. We end our section with the arguments of a co-authored essay by Pritam Singh and Meena Dhanda on the relationship between S̄īkhī and Punjabi Culture, Punjābiyāt.

The section on ‘diasporic expression’ reflects on the global presence of the Sikhs. Darshan Singh Tatla’s masterful survey of the Sikh diaspora which extends worldwide today continues the work he so beautifully prepared earlier in his scholarly career. From this we shift to individual areas of Sikh exploration in mainland Europe, USA, and the UK. Kristina Myrvold offers an examination of striking differences and similarities between different Sikh communities by focusing on such issues as identity processes, general patterns of settlement, institutional building, cultural assimilation and transmission among European Sikhs. Jaideep Singh skilfully contextualizes the history of racial and religious discrimination against Sikh Americans in USA, tracing manifestation of such intolerance from the early twentieth century to the current time. Himadri Banerjee closely looks at another Sikh diaspora of scattered Sikh settlements beyond Punjab within India’s territorial limits. Shinder Singh Thandi competently examines the patterns of migration and settlement in the UK and explores the multi-layered transnational practices of British Sikhs, particularly diaspora–homeland financial relations given their growing importance to Punjabi livelihoods. Verne A. Dusenbery skilfully examines the phenomenon of the 3HO (Healthy Happy Holy Organization) movement, focusing on the frequently contesting assertions of identity by Punjabi Sikhs and Gora (‘White’) Sikhs in North America. The section ends with Cynthia K. Mahmood’s adroit reflections upon ‘Khalistan as a political critique’ of Indian democracy.

The penultimate section of the volume deals with ‘expressions of caste and gender in the Panth’. Caste has been a tricky issue within the Sikh Panth since likely the time of the Sikh Gurus. While ideally Sikh ideology profoundly underscores the casteless nature of the Sikh Panth and as well the uselessness of caste status in matters of liberation from the cycle of existence, only the moribund would claim that forms of caste are not observed amongst the Sikhs. Surinder Singh Jodhka confronts these issues squarely in his essay. While caste continues to be a controversial issue within the Sikh Panth our second issue of gender, surprisingly, is generally not. And this is so because Sikh ideology, particularly as expressed in the hymns of Guru Nanak, makes a point of underscoring the belief that the divine is characterized as both feminine and masculine and by extension, therefore, (p. 15) that women have equal access to liberating knowledge. The reality here also differs from the textual evidence. However, there are within Sikh Studies today a number of potent feminine voices which have intervened in domains not generally reserved for such expressions. We find today for example female ḍhāḍhīs (‘singers of martial ballads’) and other musicians, female members of the Pañj Piāre (‘Cherished Five’), and female granthīs (‘readers’ of the Guru Granth Sahib), and so on. Scholarship has kept abreast of these relatively new trends. Our two authors, Doris R. Jakobsh and Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, belong to the frontline in this well-overdue examination of the feminist dimension of Sikh ideology and new gendered readings of Sikh historical narratives.

The volume ends with a comprehensive essay by Pashaura Singh on new trajectories in the field of Sikh Studies. It makes the case for interdisciplinary approach by adopting a range of methodological perspectives including history, philosophy, hermeneutics, migration and diaspora studies, ethnography, performance studies, lived religion approaches, and aesthetics. It recommends a balance of theory and substantive content that can offer alternative and novel ‘readings’ of Sikh ways of knowing and being. This volume represents the scholastic experience of three generations of academics working in the field of Sikh studies. It is presented to a wider audience for critical appraisal so that new ways of understanding the Sikh subjects are developed in the future.


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