The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 2, 2000

Sikh studies come of age
By Joginder Singh Ahluwalia

A MAJOR conference on Sikh studies was held at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), on December 4-5,1999. A highly successful event, it attracted more than 25 scholars from 12 universities spread in four continents. It was in 1976 that the first International Sikh Studies Conference in North America was held at the University of California, Berkeley. Since then the programmes on Sikh studies in the western world have come a long way, considering the growing interest amongst the scholars and the participants.

The credit for putting together this excellent event goes to Prof. Gurinder Singh Mann, the first holder of the Kapany Chair in Sikh Studies at the UCSB,and Mark Juergensmeyer, Director of Global and International Studies Programme. The event was unique as it involved top scholars in religious studies, doctoral students working in Sikh-Punjab studies, and members of the Sikh community. With the beginning of teaching of Sikh studies in 1999, and the international conference now, Professor Mann has effectively put the University of California on the world map of Sikh studies.

  The programme of the conference was divided into four sessions: i) the life of Guru Gobind Singh, ii) the legacy of Guru Gobind Singh, iii) upcoming voices in Sikh/Punjab studies, and iv) challenges facing Sikhs in the diaspora.

At the conference: (from left to right)
Professors N.G. Barrier, Gurinder S. Mann,
W.H. McLeod, Mark Juergensmeyer,
Ainslie Embree, and J.S. Grewal

The first session was chaired by Prof. Ainslie T. Embree, known in the USA as the Dean of South Asian Studies. Professor J. S. Grewal, a leading historian of the Sikh tradition, started the session with a lucid presentation on the life and mission of Guru Gobind Singh. This was followed by three presentations on the Dasam Granth. Prof. John Stratton Hawley, an expert on the medieval Indian religions, presented an English translation of the Shabad Hazare; Prof. W. H. McLeod, a leading western historian of the Sikhs, discussed the issues pertaining to the translation of the Jap Sahib; and Prof. Christopher Shackle of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, reported his work on the Zafarnama, addressed to Mughal emperor Aurangzeb by Guru Gobind Singh. These three translators described the poetic beauty of the text and highlighted the intricate problems of translation. Prof. McLeod dealt with the authorship of Dasam Granth, a controversial and delicate matter which still remains to be solved. The session ended with Prof. Gurinder Singh Mann’s paper on the Khalsa of Guru Gobind Singh, in which he eloquently brought out the purpose, the nature, and the role of the Khalsa.

The second session was chaired by Prof. Ninian Smart, President of the American Academy of Religion and one of the leading scholars of comparative religion. Prof. Lou Fenech’s lively paper on the concept of martyrdom in the eighteenth century Sikh literature, drew fire from the audience. Lou Fenech in the end offered to reconsider his opinion. Prof. Indu Banga of Panjab University, Chandigarh, presented a fresh interpretation of the role of Sikh ideology in the building of the Khalsa raj under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Prof. N. G. Barrier of the University of Missouri traced the history of Khalsa Diwans between the period 1900 and 1930. His lecture on the role of Babu Teja Singh Bhasaur was illuminating. It was no other than Mark Jurergensmeyer who talked about the delicate subject of Sant Jarnail Singh (Bhindranwale) and the Khalsa ideal. Lastly, Reeta Grewal, a professor of urban history at Punjab University, presented a detailed account of the development of Anandpur, the birthplace of Khalsa, through the last three centuries.

The third session presented a glittering view of the future of Sikh studies in the western world. It was chaired by Arvindpal Singh Mandair of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Other Ph.D. students who participated and reported on their work were: Francisco Luis (Nirmalas), and Christine Moliner (Sikh diaspora), University of Paris, France; Suzanne Evans (Martyrdom), University of Ottawa, Canada; Farina Mir (Punjabi kissa litt.), and Anne Murphy (Sikh relics), Columbia University, New York; Jugdep Singh Cheema (Punjab politics), University of Missouri, USA; ; Virginia VanDyke (Sikh politics ), University of Washington, USA; Rubina Singh (Singh Sabha), University of California, Berkeley; Anna Bigelow (Malerkotla dargah), Gibb Scheffler (Bhangra), Ami Shah (Dasam Granth), Gurdit Singh (Diaspora - Afghan Sikhs in Pakistan), and Varun Soni (Udasis), all at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Bubbling with energy, each one of them made a brilliant presentation. None in the audience could imagine that there were so many young scholars out there interested in Sikhism or Punjab. It was a very impressive and heartening show put together by Professor Mann. The field of Sikh/Punjab studies seem to have come of age.

The last session on the challenges facing Sikhs in the diaspora, was chaired by Dr Narinder Singh Kapany, a scientist, entrepreneur, art lover and philanthropist. The community leaders who participated were Rabinder Singh Bhamra from New York, Dr Satnam Singh Bhugra from Michigan, Dr Avtar Singh Dhaliwal from Tennessee, and Dr Jasbir Singh Mann from south California.