Dialogues with(in) Sikh Studies: Texts, Practices, and Performances
Third Sikh Studies Conference at the University of California, Riverside
Conference Report by the Organizing Committee (Pashaura Singh, Toby Braden Johnson and Charles M. Townsend)
On May 10 -12, Dr. Pashaura Singh, the Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies, and the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside hosted the third conference focused on the study of Sikh traditions. Over thirty scholars from three continents participated by presenting papers in panel discussions. This conference, titled Dialogues with(in) Sikh Studies: Texts, Practices, and Performances, differed from the first two conferences (Sikhism in Global Context, 2008, and Re-Imagining South Asian Religions, 2011) by opening its doors to the Sikh community to engage with the assembled scholars in the field of Sikh Studies not simply as audience members, but as participating members of the conference panels.
Efforts to bring the local Sikh community and the assembled scholars together were led by Drs. Pashaura Singh and Vivian-Lee Nyitray, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Their work brought in not only many local Sikhs and friends of the Department, it also drew the attention of the University’s administration, with both UCR’s Interim Chancellor, Jane Close Conoley, and Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Stephen Cullenberg, attending the conference reception. Dean Cullenberg was also on hand to open the conference proceedings with a welcome statement on the first morning of the conference.
The conference reception on the first night was a focal point for bringing the academic side of the field into conversation with the community. Dr. Pashaura Singh used that opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of two great men to the field of Sikh Studies: Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany (Chair of the Sikh Foundation) and Dr. Christopher Shackle (Professor Emeritus, SOAS University of London) were presented with Lifetime Achievement Awards in recognition of their work, which has been instrumental in fostering the growth of the field of Sikh Studies. Dr. Kapany’s diligent work helped establish three Chairs of Sikh Studies in the University of California system (at the Riverside, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz campuses) and one at California State University, East Bay. These Chairs are in addition to those Dr. Kapany established in sciences related to his development of fiber-optics and have created noteworthy centers for academic investigation into Sikh Studies via a variety of academic disciplines. Dr. Kapany continues to support the field of Sikh Studies through his work with the Sikh Foundation.
Dr. Christopher Shackle’s groundbreaking research into Punjabi/Gurmukhi language was the key to bringing the academy a means to learn how to read classical Sikh texts in their original language. Used in conjunction, two of his publications, A Guru Nanak Glossary (1981) and An Introduction to the Sacred Language of the Sikhs (1983), provided the first systematic study of classical Punjabi. This is in addition to his studies of Urdu and Saraiki, and numerous studies and translations of poetry ranging from those of Farid al-Din Attar to Khawaja Farid. Dr. Shackle was named a Fellow of the British Academy in 1990, received the Award of the Royal Asiatic Society in 2004, and in 2005 was awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s highest honor for the study of the arts. He is also a great teacher, which was attested to by the fact that some of his former doctoral students were in attendance at the conference, now as professors themselves. Dr. Shackle also delivered a keynote address on the first day of the conference, discussing his forty-five year involvement in the field of Sikh Studies and opening the conference with remarks on its theme of “Dialogues with/in Sikh Studies.”
The scholarly presentations made at the conference lived up to the standards set by its honored guests. In a significant first, all eight Sikh Studies Chairs from North American universities participated in the conference. The papers presented focused on a variety of topics to engage the conference themes of “Texts, Practices, and Performances” and represented a variety of disciplinary approaches to these themes, including anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, musicology, history, textual studies, and more.
The first panel started the conference’s discussions under the theme of “Mapping Sikh Categories and Frameworks.” Dr. Arvind-pal Singh Mandair’s (S.C.S.B. Professor in Sikh Studies at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) paper explored “Sikh Philosophy” as a “new mode of inquiry within Sikh Studies” that aims to overcome the “religious”/“secular” and “belief”/“practice” binaries of ‘Western’ Religious Studies. Dr. Balbinder Singh Bhogal (Sardarni Kuljit Kaur Bindra Chair in Sikh Studies, Hofstra University) emphasized the need for new modes of discourse within Sikh Studies that avoid imposing categories developed from the study of other religious traditions, particularly as they represent a racialized and “coercive dialogue with European colonial modernity.”
The next panel was organized under the title of “Sikh Ethics and Lived Practice.” Dr. Nirvikar Singh (Sarbjit Singh Aurora Chair of Sikh Studies, UCSC) gave an analysis of Sikh ethical thought and action in modern economic life, discussing his interviews with Sikh American entrepreneurs. Dr. Susan Prill’s (Associate Professor at Juniata College) paper examined the basis/es within the Guru Granth Sahib for a Sikh ecological ethics and some examples of Sikh ecological concern in practice. Dr. Anne Muphy (Chair of Punjabi and Sikh Studies, University of British Columbia) spoke via skype, rounding out the panel with a discussion of Sikh ethical practice/s and the “formation of the Sikh ethical subject” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The two afternoon panels of the first day offered new perspectives on the study of Sikh sacred music and art. Dr. Francesca Cassio (Sardarni Harbans Kaur Chair in Sikh Musicology, Hofstra University) surveyed the location and historical development of Gurbani Sangit among other genres of Indian devotional music. Similarly placing Sikh kirtan in comparative perspective, Dr. Bob van der Linden’s (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands) paper compared Rabindra Sangit with Sikh kirtan and explored issues of ‘authenticity’ and change that arose as both traditions carried on through the “imperial encounter” and into the modern era. Inderjit Kaur (Advisor, Sikh and Punjabi Studies, Humanities Division, UCSC) discussed the guidelines for performing kirtan found within the Guru Granth Sahib and differing ways that these guidelines are interpreted and put into play in modern kirtan performances. Charles Townsend (Doctoral Candidate in Religious Studies, UCR) discussed his ethnographic interviews with people teaching Gurbani kirtan to Sikh Americans and the role of teachers and young kirtaniyas in an emerging “American Sikhism.” Nirinjan Khalsa (Doctoral Candidate, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) topped off the discussions of Sikh music through tracing the questions posed by the commodification and rapid technological dissemination of Gurbani in multiple formats and musical styles. Focusing on an exhibition of nineteenth century paintings of Janamsakhi stories in the Asian Arts Museum (San Francisco), Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh (Professor and Crawford Family Chair, Colby College) explored the “theological and ethical message conveyed in the pictorial representation of Guru Nanak” as well as the reception of such images in an art museum context in the ‘West’.
The first panel of the second day discussed one of the issues in Sikh Studies that is currently most controversial, the “Text of the Dasam Granth.” Dr. Pashaura Singh’s (Dr. J.S. Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies, UCR) paper sought to contextualize the Dasam Granth debate and place the text within its historical context. Dr. Singh spoke of the “urgent need to reframe the academic study of the Dasam Granth beyond polemics” and avoid “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” in understanding the complexities of the debates about the Dasam Granth’s authorship and content. Dr. Gurinder Singh Mann’s (Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies, UCSB) paper described the Anandpuri Bir (‘recension’), a compilation at the Sikh court at Anandpur Sahib. Dr. Jasbir Singh Mann (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Foundation, Anaheim, CA) argued for dismissing the authenticity of the Anandpuri Bir and Patna Bir as “recensions” of the Dasam Granth, and establishing the “authenticity of the standard version of the Dasam Granth.” Dr. Kamalroop Singh’s paper (who could not attend the conference due to unavoidable circumstances) was read by Dr. Robin Rinehart. This panel generated lively debate among conference attendees and participants regarding not only the processes each of these texts underwent in their composition, compilation, and final standardization, but also whether it is reasonable to assert such processes even occurred with these sacred texts.
The next panel was the most diverse, with papers on Sikh “Textiles, Wedding Practices, and Janam-sakhis.” Dr. Louis E. Fenech (Professor, University of Iowa) discussed the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the shawl of the maharaja as “easily as intricate component of the cultural technology of rule as the humility the maharaja so cultivated.” Dr. Shinder Thandi (Head of Department of Economics, Finances, Accounting, Faculty of Business, Environment and Society, Coventry University) explored “What is Sikh in a ‘Sikh Wedding’?”, by discussing differences in wedding practices between Amritdhari, Keshadhari and Sahejdhari Sikhs observed during participant observation at Sikh weddings in the U.K. Toby Johnson’s (Doctoral Candidate in Religious Studies, UCR) paper examined the participatory nature of janam-sakhi narratives from the perspective of cognitive science of religion.
The third panel of the second day focused on understandings of Sikh identity, including some that differ from the Khalsa identity often taken as normative. In an exploration of the Kundalini Yoga/3HO community in Calgary Canada, Dr. Michael Hawley (Associate Professor, Mount Royal University, Calgary) discussed how the practices he observed during his fieldwork in the community are disparate and confound understandings of ‘3HO’ as a group organized around the authority of Yogi Bhajan. Dr. Robin Rinehart’s (Professor, Lafayette College) paper sought to “map Sikh irreligiosity” among “those Sikhs who retain some degree of Sikh identity, but also self-identify as ‘agnostic,’ ‘atheist,’ ‘irreligious,’ or ‘culturally Sikh’,” through an exploration of the writings of Bhagat Singh and Khushwant Singh. Sean Sagan (Doctoral Student in Religious Studies, UCR) brought the Vaisakhi moment of Guru Gobind Singh’s initiation of the Khalsa into comparison with the revelation of Jewish Mosaic Law at Mount Sinai, discussing the implications of both events in the conceptions of Sikh and Jewish senses of identity and ‘nationhood’.
The final panel of the second day was organized around the theme of “Sikh Sacred Spaces: Real and Virtual.” Dr. Kashmir Singh (Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar) utilized his extensive background in law to provide a “critique of the Sikh Gurdwaras Act of 1925,” including suggestions for amending and improving the Act for the better management of India’s gurdwaras. Dr. Kulwinder Singh Bajwa (Punjabi University, Patiala) discussed the historic importance of Takhat Damdama Sahib as a place where important literary, liturgical, and military training activities were initiated by Guru Gobind Singh. Moving the discussion of ‘sacred space’ from the ‘real’ to the ‘virtual’ realm, Dr. Doris Jakobsh’s (Associate Professor, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) paper examined “processes of negotiation of Sikh female identity” among fluid ‘authoritative’ claims about Sikh identity on the internet.
The first panel of the third day of the conference focused on the Guru Granth Sahib as “living scripture and secular text.” Taking an approach informed by linguistic anthropology, Punnu Jaitla (Doctoral Candidate, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) explored the interpretation of Guru Granth Sahib as an ‘interactive’ process through examining the ‘performative’ and ‘interpretive’ modes of Sikh kathaa (“oral commentary on Sikh scripture”). Jeremy Guida (Doctoral Student in Religious Studies, UCR) analyzed the concept of Guru Granth Sahib as a “living text” in comparison with texts said to be ‘alive’ in some sense in other traditions and contexts (the U.S. Constitution, the Jewish Torah, and the Confucian/Taoist I Ching). Cori Knight (Doctoral Student in Religious Studies, UCR) completed the panel by bringing teachings of the Sikh Gurus on gender equality into conversation with two popular novels: Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
The final panel of the conference provided a forum for debate about “early Sikh texts.” Dr. Balwant Singh Dhillon (Director, Centre for Studies in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar) and Dr. Amar Singh of Punjabi University, Patiala (Dr. Jasbir Singh Mann read his paper on his behalf) gave papers that sought to present textual evidence debating the authenticity of manuscripts that other scholars of Sikh Studies have used as sources for studying the early formation, recension, and canonization of Sikh scripture.
Dr. Pashaura Singh gave closing remarks at the end of the conference, thanking the co-organizers (graduate students, administrative staff, and undergraduate volunteers) within UCR’s Department of Religious Studies. He gave personal thanks to all of the conference attendees for participating in open, collegial dialogues with/in Sikh Studies throughout the conference and expressed hope that the dialogues between scholars of Sikh Studies and Sikh communities have and will continue to move “beyond the state of confrontation, to cooperation.”
All of the conference panels prompted open, lively discussions involving the panelists; professors, graduate and undergraduate students from UCR and other universities; members of Sikh communities in Riverside and other areas; and others. The most spirited discussions were generated around the the Dasam Granth controversy, and possible objections to the use of “Western” academic categories and theories and the application of scientific modes of examination to Sikh beliefs. While disagreeing parties may not have come to resolution, their various positions were explored by the assembled scholars and attendees and evaluated based on a variety of criteria. The organizers of the conference hope that the conversations may have affected the future direction these topics take in the future in positive ways.
One feature of this conference that stood out was the participation of graduate students from UCR who do not specifically focus their research in the field of Sikh Studies, but who are open to expanding their horizons to engage Sikhism in comparative studies. Three of such papers were given by graduate students in the Department of Religious Studies (Jeremy Guida, Cori Knight, and Sean Sagan), demonstrating their work with Dr. Pashaura Singh in classes at UC Riverside. Each demonstrated how investigations of Sikh traditions can open new research avenues for other areas of interest, such as comparative history and literature. Their contributions demonstrated the need for Sikh Studies to expand and move into dialogue with other fields in the academy.
Altogether, the weekend was everything we hoped for as we worked to organize the conference. Dr. Pashaura Singh’s efforts to reach out to the Sikh community were well received and appreciated. The hard work of our organizing committee, as well as that of various university staff members who worked just as hard (possibly more so), paid off. The support of our undergraduate and graduate student volunteers helped things run smoothly each day. We learn more and more as we continue to organize these conferences. This was our third, and we join many others in looking forward to the fourth conference on Sikh Studies here at the University of California, Riverside.