Macauliffe, Max Arthur
English translator of Sikh Scriptures & Historian of Sikhism (1841-1913)
Was born on 10 September 1841 at Newcastle West, County Limerick, Ireland. He was educated at Newcastle School, Limerick, and at Springfield College and Queen’s College, Galway. He received a broad humanistic education that allowed him to read the Greek and Latin classics in the original. He could also read French and Italian. In 1862, he was appointed to the Indian Civil Service and was assigned to the Punjab. He arrived in the Punjab in February 1864. After eighteen years of service, he was appointed a Deputy Commissioner in 1882. Two years later, he became a Divisional judge. Throughout his life Macauliffe maintained a personal reserve that made him reluctant to speak of himself or his own aspirations and struggles save in a few scattered places in his writings. His career in the Indian Civil Service has received no special historical note. Although his deep understanding and sympathy for the people of the Punjab and their religious traditions doubtless made him an able and just civil servant, it also brought him into conflict with his fellow Englishmen in India.
The focus of his life is in his work as a translator and interpreter of Sikhism to the English-speaking world. His interest in Sikhism was sparked by attending a Mali celebration in Amritsar shortly after arriving in the Punjab. In order to understand ceremonies and the importance of the Golden Temple, he undertook a study of Sikhism and especially of the hymns of the Gurus. He found himself deeply engaged by what he studied because, in his words, “the sublimity of their style and the high standard of ethics which they inculcated were unmatched.”
His studies of Sikhism first appeared in the Calcutta Review in articles published between 1875 and 1881. It became increasingly evident to Macauliffe that the massive work of translating the Guru Granth Sahib and writing a definitive history of Sikhism could not be combined with his responsibilities as a full-time civil servant. When, in 1893, the Khalsa Diwan offered him financial assistance to carry on his work, he retired from the Indian Civil Service. However, long before his retirement, he had established deep and continuing contact with leading Sikh scholars and had mastered the necessary linguistic tools. He studied a number of Indian and related languages in order to master the linguistic complexities of the Guru Granth Sahib; among these he mentions Sanskrit, Prakrit, Arabic, Persian, Turki, Marathi, Gujarati and Punjabi in its various dialects.
While in India, Macauliffe made his home at Amritsar on Cantonment Road. He also lived in Nabha, where he was assisted in his work by Bhai Kahn Singh whose services were made available by Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha. Macauliffe spent time in Mussoorie and Dehra Dun as well. His extensive works of translation and historical research were brought together in his magnum opus, The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacret Writings and Authors in 1909. In order to make this work ready for the press, he returned to England with Bhai Kahn Singh. The work was published in six volumes by the Clarendon Press in Oxford. After this Macauliffe contributed the articles on Sikhism to the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and continued to interpret Sikhism to both popular and scholarly audiences by lectures and articles. He died on 15 March 1913 in his London home, Sinclair Gardens, West Kensington. He was attended to the end of his life by a Punjabi servant, called Muhammad, who reported that Macauliffe recited the Japu(ji), the Sikh morning prayer, shortly before he died.
The antagonism of Anglo-Indian officialdom towards Macauliffe grew, particularly after his retirement. This was a major factor in denying him the official government patronage he needed to support his work. It is estimated that he spent two lakhs of rupees out of his personal funds for the work of preparing The Sikh Religion. Financial assistance came from a number of Indians, including H.H. Sir Hira Singh, Malvendar Bahadur, the Raja of Nabha; H.H. Sir Rajinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala; H.H. Raja Ranbir Singh, Raja of Jind; the Tikka Sahib of Nabha; Sardar Ranjit Singh of Chhachhrauli and H.H. the Gaekwar, of Baroda. Leading scholars and statesmen recommended The Sikh Religion for the patronage of the Indian government. In addition, a special committee of learned Sikhs, called together by Col. Jawala Singh, Superintendent of the Golden Temple, carefully examined Macauliffe’s translations of the hymns of the Guru Granth Sahib and commended them as accurate and faithful to the Sikh religion. The Punjab Government recommended a grant of Rs 15,000 as advance payment for copies of the translation. Some in the government, following the lead of Sir Mackworth Young, opposed the grant on the grounds of government’s religious neutrality.
Finally, Lord Morley, the Secretary of State, ordered the sum reduced to Rs 5,000. Macauliffe felt slighted by the insignificance of the grant and declined it.
The coolness of the British government towards Macauliffe’s work ultimately influenced even some Sikhs. In 1911, the Sikh Educational Conference in Rawalpindi rejected a resolution commending his work. However, after his death, a resolution of condolence was passed by this group. The Sikhs of Rawalpindi established a Macauliffe Memorial Society and tried to raise money for a library. Their efforts brought only Rs 3,245. This money was to be used for a Macauliffe Medal to be awarded by the University of the Punjab in Lahore. Because the competition was limited to Sikhs, the University rejected the offer. Finally, the fund went to the Khalsa College in Amritsar where a medal is awarded each year for the best essay on an historical topic. However, this meagre outcome is an inadequate measure of the high esteem in which Macauliffe is held by the Sikh community.
Macauliffe undertook his work of translating the Guru Granth Sahib and writing the history of Sikhism with a sense of urgency. He believed that the moral and religious purity of original Sikhism was in danger of being lost. The Punjabi language was going through extensive change that was rapidly rendering the language of the original hymns unintelligible to many people. The older gianis, the professional interpreters of the Scriptures, were dying out and not being replaced by younger men able to keep the voice of tradition alive. Educated Sikhs were losing not only the linguistic skills, but also the religious motivation to understand their own traditions. Sikhism was threatened, in Macauliffe’s estimation, by religious syncretism that drained it of its unique moral and spiritual power. He believed that by rendering a competent translation the history of Sikhism could be preserved not only for the historian, but also as a creative religious force. No adequate dictionary existed, at that time, of the language of the Guru Granth Sahib, although the foundations for one had been laid in the work of Pandit Tara Singh Narotam. Macauliffe wanted to catch the living tradition as the guide through the linguistic complexities of the Scriptures before it was lost. The availability of the Guru Granth Sahib to modern understanding is in no small part due to his work.
Macauliffe’s work built upon over a century of modern Indological studies by western scholars. The footnotes of his writings reveal his discerning use of such earlier students of Sikhism as Henry Colebrooke, John Malcolm and Joseph Davey Cunningham. He utilized the linguistic and historical studies of Horace Hayman Wilson, Monier Williams, and Friedrich Max Muller. But in all his work, Macauliffe had the linguistic skills to come to independent judgements rather than simply to repeat others’ research. No matter how important modern Indological studies were, Macauliffe realized that by themselves they could mislead if not related to the learning of the religious community being studied. This realization came to Macauliffe early in his work on Sikhism when he sought help from the translation of the Guru Granth Sahib and some of the Janam Sakhis made by Ernest Trumpp.
Trumpp, a German missionary linguist, had been retained by the India Office to translate the Sikh Scriptures. His work, which appeared in 1877, was widely repudiated by the Sikh community as inaccurate and misleading. In part, this repudiation stemmed from Trumpp’s slanders of the Sikh tradition. But the problem with Trumpp’s translation, as Macauliffe and later Max Muffler and other scholars realized, was basically linguistic. Trumpp disregarded the traditional interpretations. Instead, he read the Punjabi of the Scriptures in the light of its relation to Sanskrit. This tended to obscure the complex interplay of languages and dialects that characterize the sacred writings of the Sikhs. Trumpp’s translation was further impaired because its English was awkward. Macauliffe’s basic decision was to seek a fresh approach to the language of the Scriptures through the assistance of professional interpreters of the Sikh community.
Macauliffe’s approach was fraught with great difficulties. He had to retain a number of Gianis. The chief one was Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha along with Bhais Nihal Singh and Sant Singh of Sialkot; Bhais Ditt Singh, Gurmukh Singh, Rajindar Singh and Nihal Singh of Lahore; Bhais Sardul Singh Giani, Prem Singh, Fateh Singh and Darbard Singh of Amritsar; Bhai Sant Singh of Kapurthala; Bhai Bhagvan Singh of Patiala and Bhal Dasaundha Singh of Firozpur. While Macauliffe took care to find pious and learned men for the work, he found their opinions often widely at odds with one another. At times, he felt himself driven to vexation. He had to make difficult decisions among various translations and often placed second and third interpretations in footnotes when differences were irresolvable. Yet even after his work had been widely acclaimed by the Sikh community, he realized that there were other gianis who could call the whole thing into question. “I have met so-called gianis who could perform tours de force with their sacred work, and give different interpretations of almost every line of it.” Finally he was guided by how an interpretation was related to its context and whether it was harmonious with the whole of Sikh doctrine.
The work of translation was not ended with consultations with the gianis. They communicated with Macauliffe in various Punjabi dialects. The task of rendering their interpretation into English still remained. Yet even in this, he sought the counsel of the Sikh community. After completing a part of his translation, he would circulate it in proof-sheets to Sikh scholars for correction. From 1901 to 1903, his proofs were read by Bhai Kahn Singh, Diwdn Lila Ram, Bhai Shankar Daydl, Bhai Hazard Singh, Bhai Sardul Singh, Bhai Ditt Singh, Bhai Bhagvan Singh and others. As the work of translation neared completion, Macauliffe faced the question of how to present it to the English-speaking world.
To print the translation of the Guru Granth Sahib in its original order would make it difficult to understand for those who were unfamiliar with its historical setting. Also some of Macauliffe’s older, orthodox Sikh friends feared that the Scripture would not be shown the reverence due it when placed in the hands of those unfamiliar with Sikh piety. Macauliffe found a happy alternative that dealt with both these problems in the final form of The Sikh Religion. He interspersed the history of the Gurus with passages of Scripture. The unfolding life of the Gurus and the Sikh community became the context for understanding the Scriptures. Vol. I deals with Guru Nanak and the originating events of the Sikh religion. Vol. II deals with Guru Angad, Guru Amar Das and Guru Ram Das. Vol. III is given over to Guru Arjan, while Vol. IV tells of Guru Hargobind, Guru Har Rai, Guru Har Krishan and Guru Tegh Bahddur. Vol. V is devoted to Guru Gobind Singh. Vol. VI departs from this chronological order to present the earlier Bhagats (Bhaktas) whose hymns help make up the Guru Granth Sahib.
Macauliffe undertook his work with the realization that Sikhism was virtually an unknown religion. The measure of his success is that this is no longer true. The Sikh Religion placed before the world a comprehensive picture of Sikhism and its Scriptures. Macauliffe not only gathered together but went beyond what had been done before. His work made possible the modern scholarship that has followed. He correctly identified the linguistic context within which the Guru Granth Sahib was formed. Later scholars have gone beyond him and corrected his work at points as knowledge of the ancient language has increased.
The literary style of his translations has been much debated. Macauliffe wrote in a simple, direct style. He did this not only in the interest of clarity but also because he believed it reflected more accurately the style of the hymns themselves. They were not high-blown literary creations built on classical models but expressions of a piety for the common man. The complexities of the problems of translation have yet to be finally solved. Until a work of equal comprehensiveness integrates the results of more recent scholarship, Macauliffe’s translation will remain a basic witness to the meaning of the Guru Granth Sahib.