LIONS IN THE PUNJAB: An Introduction to the Sikh Religion
By Andrea Grace Diem, Ph.D.
THE NEED FOR SIKH SCHOLARSHIP
In the summer of 1998 while teaching an honors world religions course in London to American students I ventured on several field trips with my class. One of our excursions was to a Sikh gurdwara on the outskirts of London. When twenty-three Americans entered the temple all eyes were on us. We must have looked a bit out of place with our backpacks and blue jeans on. Upon entry a Sikh gentleman (with the traditional name of Singh, meaning "lion," referring to courage and strength) requested that we cover our heads without delay. Choosing from a selection of scarves, students nervously tied their headpieces in what looked like a cross between a pirate and a Russian peasant look. We were then escorted to the lunch line, where we were served a Punjabi style meal, including dahl, rice, and chapatis. Afterward we were led upstairs to the heart of the gurdwara where one finds the holy scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib (or Adi Granth), a book literally viewed as the living Guru. Since it was "Ladies Day," Sikh women were engaged in kirtan (singing praises) in front of the sacred writings. The guide who brought us upstairs asked us to bow in front of the holy book giving a small offering. He generously volunteered change from his own pocket, placing in my hand a pence (worth about two pennies) and saying that the amount did not matter just the thought. Before we left the temple we were taken to a back room where a Sikh pundit was melodically reading from another copy of the Guru Granth, a recitation that would continue until the entire holy book was read cover to cover taking over forty-eight hours. Reasonably, the assignment was done in shifts to accomplish this. Before we left the gurdwara our guide taught us the Sikh saluation "Sat Sri Akal" (the true timeless Lord), a greeting often following the cry "Jo bole so nihal" (the one who speaks this will be blessed). With that final lesson we bid our farewells and thank yous and ventured back to the train station to return to the heart of London.
While our day trip was quite memorable, prior to it few students knew anything about Sikhism. In fact, some had never even heard of it. I would have to mention the wearing of turbans and beards before I would get an "oh yes, them." This has never surprised me since Sikhism receives very little attention in world religions textbooks. And when it is covered the presentation is often fraught with historical inaccuracies. All too often religion teachers, if they even cover Sikhism, perpetuate the misrepresentation as they draw their lectures from this material.
Why is Sikhism, a religion founded by Guru Nanak and with a larger following than Judaism (approximately twenty million Sikhs compared to approximately fifteen to sixteen million Jews), too often ignored in world religions textbooks? Mark Juergensmeyer, a well-known scholar of religions, refers to Sikhism as the "forgotten tradition," contending it is a victim of two prejudices: a preference for ancient religions and non-regional ones. (Sikhism is only five hundred years old and found primarily in Northern India in the Punjab.)
When Sikhism is included in world religions books, it is usually sandwiched in between Hinduism and Islam and described as a syncretism of the two. But as we shall see this is incorrect. Many of the historical inaccuracies are from the work of nineteenth century British writers who present only the "orthodox" view of Sikh history. These writers gathered their material from a nineteenth century revivalist movement, the Singh Sabha, whose objective was to establish normative orthodoxy in order to reassert Sikh identity. Members of the Singh Sabha feared that Sikhism was dwindling in the larger Hindu society. To combat this, Sikhism was presented as a non-evolving coherent tradition (an "ism") with rituals, dress codes, and behavioral norms supposedly dating back to Guru Nanak himself. Sikhs were then expected to adhere to them with fervor. What was lost was the understanding of how Sikhism evolved in the course of five centuries.
Many Sikh scholars today are Sikhs themselves and defend the Singh Sabha interpretation. While some of their research is valuable in that it has given us insight into Sikh literature and customs, what is needed is a more objective academic scholarship. One such scholar who has succeeded in illustrating the evolution of Sikhism is W.H. McLeod. He contends that Sikhism developed out of a much larger Indian tradition, the Sant tradition. Sikh philosophy, mysticism and social patterns are directly tied to this parent movement. Not only does McLeod's research offer a historically viable view of Sikhism, he gives us an understanding of the overall dynamic structure of religion in general.
Drawing from McLeod's work, my goal in this book is to scrutinize the Singh Sabha interpretation and to provide a more accurate view of this religion by discussing its origins and illustrating its evolution in the past centuries. In chapter one I will investigate the historical connection between Sikhism and the Sant tradition of Northern India. In chapter two I will cover the major events in the evolution of Sikh history from Guru Nanak until the tenth Guru. In chapter three I will illustrate how certain events in the nineteenth and twentieth century allowed Sikhism to become a world religion. In chapter four the diversity within the Sikh and Sant traditions will be discussed. And in the final section, I will examine the Sikhs' fight for the Punjab to become an independent state known as Khalistan.
As for gathering my research, on several occasions I have visited Sikh gurdwaras and attended Sant services. I have also traveled to India twice, including the Punjab. Besides these hands-on experiences, I have employed socio-historical/textual analysis. In analyzing the data collected from written sources, my primary interest has been to ground religion in material culture, utilizing the methods of sociology of religion, sociology of knowledge and sociology of culture, though being sensitive not to simply reduce it down to materialistic underpinnings. My hope is that this work can serve as a case study how religions in general evolve, as they integrate core concepts and transform others to fit more properly into their new social milieu.