The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 8, 2002

Telling Sikh history
Review by Surjit Hans

Historical Dictionary of Sikhism
by W.H. McLeod. OUP, New Delhi. Pages 349. Rs 395.

I must declare my interest before the readers. My name figures in the acknowledgements. The first edition of this book was published in 1995 by the Scarecrow Press, London. The Oxford University Press’ second edition would make the book accessible to readers in India.

"Only two additions have been made to the second edition. The Chronology of Sikh History has been brought up to date and English language books published since 1994 have been added on an Addendum to the Bibliography."

The book is, in fact, one in the series of Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies and Movements edited by Jon Woronoff. The series editor writes that the book will help "imparting knowledge that can be useful even to Sikhs who know their religion well" on the basis of my nodding acquaintance with
Sikhism can reasonably support the above claim.

"The world is slowly being made aware of the Sikh religion as a distinctive faith. This is a result both of the total number of Sikhs and the fact that they comprise a highly mobile community. They number approximately 160 lakh worldwide. Of this number, approximately one million live outside India, constituting a significant minority in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States."


Less fortunately, the Sikh community has in recent years been the object of considerable interest to the outside world as a result of political differences with the Government of India. This led in 1984 to an assault by the Indian Army on the Golden Temple and to several years of serious disturbance in Punjab. The situation has now quietened, but for many persons the memory still remains, and not all those who still remember it are Sikhs. A consequence of what was then called the Punjab problem is that the Sikhs and their religion caught the attention of the world.

According to the Greek proverb pathe mathe suffering leads to knowledge. The Sikhs are their brethren in other religious have to build a future on this foundation.

McLeod is, in fact, the discoverer of Janamsakhi traditions of Sikhism. His insight later led to an understanding of the meaning, function and political orientation of the Janamsakhi. Prof S.S. Sagar’s Janamsakhi Samvad to Mulankan is a definitive exposition of the Janamsakhi literary genre. They are hagiographical no doubt. But to call them just hagiographical prevents us from seeing their inner mechanism and historical contribution.

I may also add that an understanding of the Janamsakhi narrative led to insights into the technique of Sikh painting in the 18th century i.e. B-40 Janamsakhi Paintings of Guru Nanak, conveying Sikh ideology. We owe this much to W H McLeod. I wish his entry on Janamsakhis had been more forthcoming.

Narratives are culture specific. Many Hindu stories have lost their impact with their entry into the Arabian Nights. Sikh ‘narrative’ can be found only in the Janamsakhis, not in the secular Punjabi novel of the modern times.

Gurbilas as a literary genre is unique in Sikhism. The genre tries to explicate the political programme of the community in terms of Sikh theology. It is a challenge to Sikh politics of today and its exponents. We can define our politics either theologically or rationally. To do it in neither of the ways leads what is "less fortunate". I hope the third edition of the book would be more illuminating about this aspect.

On Adi Granth structure McLeod writes: finally there is the bhagat bani, the works of various sants whose compositions were in harmony with the message of the Gurus. This is both inaccurate and inadequate even though it repeats what is ‘generally’ said about the holy book. The statement does not really cover the contributions of Mardana and Farid.

On the introduction of miri-piri by Guru Hargobind, McLeod writes: "as Guru he still maintained the emphasis on spiritual matters of his five predecessors (piri). The new element was (1) willingness to engage in worldly affairs and to (2) physically fight for the Panthi preservation (miri). Less fortunately, it has been maintained in recent times that the miri of the Guru, having developed on the Guru Panth, (3) enjoins a creation of Sikh state. The three things may or may not follow from the idea of miri. Demonstration, not declaration, is in order. Historical explanations can be ignored at peril, academic and social.

Bhai Santokh Singh attributes miri piri to Dara Shukoh. On the very first page, line 15 of Heer Waris Shah says jehre pir di mehar manzor hoe, ghar tinhan de pirian merian ni i.e. those who have the grace of the pir (the successor of Sheikh Farid at Pakpattan) enjoy piri and miri in their homes.

I have no hesitation in saying that McLeod has done the most for Sikh studies in India and world. I plead guilty to owing everything, minus my errors to him. Both scholar and students of Sikh history would find the book usefully handy.

I was, unexpectedly but pleasantly surprised to find the names of my friends Gulzar Sandhu and Amarjit Chandan in the bibliography — a pointer to its openness.