Macauliffe and his Contribution to Sikh Studies by Dr. Harnam Singh Shan

Macauliffe and his Contribution to Sikh StudiesMax Arthur Macauliffe (1837-1913)

By Dr. Harnam Singh Shan

Max Arthur Macauliffe (1837-1913), who justly claimed to have "brought from the East what is (was then) practically an unknown religion", was a noble, highly learned and eminently placed British civil servant in India hailing from Ireland.

He became interested in the study of Sikh religion, its culture and literature, shortly after his posting in its homeland, viz, Punjab, in 1864. He published his early findings and observations during 1880-81 in the form of the following significant essays in the Calcutta Review:

1. The Diwali at Amritsar
2. The Rise of Amritsar and the Alterations of Sikhism.
3. The Sikh Religion under Banda and its Present Condition.

While summing up the prevalent situation and the danger then facing Sikh religion, he observed in the last essay: "Hinduism is like the boa constrictor of the Indian forests. When an enemy appears to worry it, it winds around its opponent, crushes it in its folds, and finally causes it to disappear in its capacious interior. Sikhism may go this way."

Macauliffe and his Contribution to Sikh Studies

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In this news clipping Macauliffe goes on at length to explain the ins and outs of the edition of the Nanak Janam Sakhis he had translated and published. The difficulties he describes are considerable. Photo: Amardeep Singh

Sympathy: His concern developed, in due course, into "a sympathy for an identification with Sikhism" which grew later to such an extent that in order to cultivate and promote it, he resigned his lucrative post of a Divisional Judge in 1893 and "set forth to present to the world an accurate representation of the true nature of Sikhism". He undertook, thereafter, as a lifelong mission, a comprehensive study of Sikh religion, translation of its scriptures, interpretation of its tenets, compilation of its history, projection of its true image and presentation of its excellence through the medium of English to the world at large. His growing interest in Sikhism and his efforts to know more and more about it, brought him in contact with the intellectual leaders of the Singh Sahba Movement, zealously engaged in rejuvenating the Sikh faith; asserting its separate entity and self-identity; and reversing strong moves for its absorption into Hinduism and conversion to Christianity. While locating sources of information regarding its early history and tradition, Macauliffe obtained (through Bhai Gurmukh Singh, a leading light of that movement) a rare and hitherto unknown manuscript of the traditional biography, called Janamsakhi, of Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith. He edited and published it in 1885 under the subtitle The Most Ancient Biography of Baba Nanak.

After going through the Holy Book of the Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib, Macauliffe began to translate some parts of its text into English. A portion of it was already translated and published in 1877 under a misleading title, The Adi Granth, by Dr. Ernst Trumpp (1828-1885), a German missionary, at the expense and under the auspices of the then India Office, London, It was neither complete nor correct, nor reliable.

Macauliffe and his Contribution to Sikh StudiesPublished in 1877 under a misleading title, The Adi Granth, by Dr. Ernst Trumpp (1828-1885)

The tendentious observations derogatory comments, wrong statement and provocative pronouncements made therein caused grave injury and insult to the Sikhs and their faith. It was universally disapproved and condemned by the community as well as the scholarly world "because of Trumpp’s hostile bias; he took every opportunity to misrepresent and to belittle the Sikh Gurus and the Sikh religion". Its publication evoked a fierce and large-scale protest; and representative Sikh societies approached Macauliffe to undertake a complete and trustworthy translation of their sacred scripture. He was already seized of the situation and had since been making consistent "endeavours", as he stated later in 1909, "to make some reparation to the Sikhs for the insults which Trumpp offered to their Gurus and their religion". At the same time, he was convinced about the utility and justifiability of his endeavours, when he, while presenting his paper on The Holy Writings of the Sikhs, earlier in 1897, at the Paris Session of the International Congress of Orientalists and explaining his "motives and objects" in rendering the same into English, had stated: "I myself also thought that a translation of the sacred writings of the Sikhs was necessary in all interests. I had often been asked even by the intelligent persons in Europe, America, Australia and India itself, what the Sikh religion was and whether the Sikhs were Hindu idolaters or Mohammedans; and I thought it was not good even for the Sikhs themselves that this ignorance regarding their religion should be allowed to continue. The British Government and all persons of discrimination set a high value on the Sikhs, but I thought that a knowledge throughout the world of the excellence of their religion would enhance even the present regard with which they are entertained. In my translation and in the lives of the Gurus which I propose to write: I hope to refute several statements made by European writers disparaging to the Gurus." Moreover, "My translation will practically introduce a new religion to the world which may derive an advantage from highly ethical principles of the Sikh Gurus."

Macauliffe and his Contribution to Sikh StudiesPublic Library of Cleveland, USA

Call of Conscience: The request of the Sikh representatives, therefore, came to Macauliffe as a call of his conscience, a call to the performance of the self-assigned duty. He resolved to devote himself wholeheartedly and entirely to the execution of that arduous and monumental project. In order to see it through satisfactorily, he settled at the holy city of Amritsar, the seat of Sikh art and learning, and remained fully occupied with it for the next sixteen years. Instead of rushing his work through the printing press, he submitted every line to the scorching criticism of learned Sikhs and non-Sikh scholars, in and outside India, by providing them with typed copies or rough proofs some of which I, in 1966, found preserved in the Public Library of Cleveland, USA. On the conclusion of such a thorough vetting. Macauliffe presented the entire manuscript to a special committee of Sikh experts who after revising and adjudging its correctness and conformity to the tenets of Sikh religion, recommended its publication. The custodians of the Golden Temple invited him, in 1899, to speak about the Translation of Sikh Scriptures and honoured him in an exceptional and unprecedented way. The intelligentsia, the press and the public also admired his earnest efforts, tremendous labour and valuable contribution. But the Government of India which was expected to finance its publication’ as it had done earlier in the case of Trumpp’s work, refused to sponsor it mostly on account of his exposure of the failure of its own aforesaid project which had resulted in a lot of protest and resentment in official quarters. Macauliffe, however, continued his efforts with added zeal. He attended the next session of the Orientalists’ Congress held in 1899 at Rome. His paper on the Life and Teachings of Guru Gobind Singh earned him further appreciation, recognition and support at an international level. Its President wrote a detailed letter to the Secretary of State for India at London, recommending its publication by the Government of India. The President of the Royal Asiatic Society of London sent a similar letter to the Governor of Punjab, urging him to sponsor and finance it. But no one came forward to undertake the publication of that monumental, meritorious and useful work.

Devotion: Undeterred by such a hostile and discriminating treatment, Macauliffe started the printing process of his voluminous manuscript, bit by bit. He began with the publication, in 1897, of the English version of the first and the most important hymn of the Holy Book, viz. Japji, and circulated it widely both at home and abroad. It was so well received at all quarters that it was followed soon by the production, during 1900-1901, of the translations of some other texts of the sacred scriptures in various journals and in the form of separate books of various sizes, e.g.

1. The Asa Di Var, a Morning Prayer of the Sikhs.
2. The Rahiras, or Evening Prayer of the Sikhs.
3. The Anand of Guru Amar Das.
4. The Sukhmani of Guru Arjun.
5. The Hymns of Bhagat Kabeer.
6. The Hymns and Slokas of Guru Tegh Bahadur.
7. The Slokas of Guru Angad Dev.
8. The Bawan Akhri or Guru Arjun’s Alphabet.
9. The Hymns of Jaidev, Ramanand, Trilochan, Pipa, Bhikan, Beni, Parmanand, Sadhana, Dhana, Surdas, Miran Bai contained in the Granth Sahib of the Sikhs.
10. The Hazare De Shabad.

Portions pertaining to the biographical accounts of the Sikh Gurus and non-Sikh Saints whose hymns are included in the Holy Book also began to come out in a similar form during the years 1901-1903. such as:

1. The Life of Guru Nanak.
2. The Life of Guru Tegh Bahadur.
3. Namdeva (1270-1350)

These and other such biographies were not a part of the project as initially planned. It was expanded later to encompass not only the translation of the scriptures but also the lives of all those whose writings were included therein as those were considered "absolutely necessary for a correct interpretation of their writings". That, in turn, required further years of study, consultation and hard labour.

Authenticity: The publication of those books or booklets in such a quick succession created much more interest in the plans and projects of Macauliffe. It also enabled scholars and others concerned in the same to form an idea about the scope and significance of the work and to find ways and means to see it through the press. Consequently, he was invited to deliver public lectures on the subject to the elite audiences in Simla and London. The Sikh Religion and its Advantages to the State was the first of a series of two papers presented by him on 6 July 1903 under the auspices of the United Services Institution of India at Simla, with the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab and the Commander-in-Chief of India, respectively, in the Chair. Explaining its aim and objects at the very outset. Macauliffe said, "What I have to say on this occasion is necessarily fragmentary. It would require many lectures to set forth the beauty and utility of the Sikh religion". Pointing out one of its unique features, he stated. "The Sikh religion differs, as regards the authenticity of its dogmas, from most other great theological systems. Many of the great teachers the world has known have not left a line of their own composition and we only know what they taught through tradition or second hand information but the compositions of the Sikh Gurus are preserved in these volumes (alluding to the Adi Granth and Dasam Granth, laid on the table) and we know at first hand what they taught. They employed the vehicle of verse which is unalterable by copyists and we even become, in time, familiar with their different styles. No spurious compositions or extraneous dogmas can, therefore, be palmed off on us as theirs." Intimating the reasons, which led him to the study of this religion, and pleading for the support of the State for its preservation and promotion, Macauliffe stated in his second paper, viz. How the Sikhs Became a Militant Race: "It is because there is so little known even to professional scholars of Sikhism, because the little that is known is too often tainted with errors, because the sacred books of the Sikhs contain instruction on such a high ethical and literary standard that I have devoted a large portion of my life to their study and elucidation. I am not without hope that when the English people become acquainted with the merits of the Sikh religion, they will not willingly let it perish in the great abyss in which so many creeds have been engulfed. Other circumstances might have occurred which would have made the Sikh religion which has evolved the highest and purest ethical system one of the foremost faiths of the world. “The Sikh Religion” is the title of the last lecture delivered by Macauliffe before the Quest Society at the Kensington Town Hall, London on 12 May 1910. Presuming that the members of the said Society were "in quest of some philosophical or theological system which presents the least difficulties of comprehension and the least anomalies or inconsistencies, he offered to their attention and consideration the excellence of the "Sikh religion which presents", according to him, "no mysteries and which embraces an ethical system such as has never been excelled, if, indeed, it has never been equaled." Hence, while concluding his speech and pleading for State patronage for the maintenance of its purity and identify, Macauliffe observed. "To my mind. Sikhism offers fewer points of attack than any other theological system, and if patronized and cherished, as its religious and political importance deserves, by a powerful government, it might become one of the first religions on the planet."The above papers and lectures were followed by the contribution of an article on The Holy Scriptures of the Sikhs to the October 1910 issue of the Asiatic Quarterly Review and the publication of three essays, entitled “Sikh”, “Sikhism”, “Sikh Wars” in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1911.

Macauliffe and his Contribution to Sikh StudiesThe Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors.

Magnum Opus: These important, though periodical or "fragmentary" contributions were preceded by the publication in 1909 of Macauliffe’s great and monumental work, entitled The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors. It was published by the Oxford University in six excellent volumes and was acclaimed as his magnum opus. Its appearance was hailed in words such as the following recorded later by Duncan Greenlees: "The year 1909 is one which Sikhs and Europeans alike will have cause to bless. An officer of the government had resigned his post some years earlier to give his whole time to a sympathetic study of Sikhism and Sikh history; M.A. Macauliffe published in 1909 his six great volumes which will always be remembered as the real foundation for all later study of Sikhism in Western languages. "Macauliffe seems to have attempted to present to the world, through these, "a magnum opus of Sikhism", describing which he stated in its introductory pages: "The illustrious author of Vic deJesus asks whether great originality will again arise, or the world would be content to follow the paths opened by the daring creators of ancient ages. Now there is here presented a religion totally unaffected by Semitic or Christian influences. Based on the concept of the unity of God. It rejected Hindu formularies and adopted an independent ethical system, rituals and standards which are totally opposed to the theological beliefs of Guru Nanak’s age and country, it would be difficult to point to a religion of greater originality or to a more comprehensive ethical system." The publication of this voluminous and monumental work gave a new turn, in the East as well as in the West, to the proper understanding of Sikhism. It virtually provided a much needed key to the comprehension of the faith, the scriptures and the tradition of the Sikhs, misrepresented and denigrated earlier by Ernst Trumpp in his aforesaid book, The Adi Granth, which was commissioned and produced in 1877 by the British Government of India as its official publication.

Labour of Love: Macauliffe’s laudable and tremendous labour of love made suitable reparation to the Sikh faith for the injury and insult caused by Trumpp’s work because of his polemical approach, unsatisfactory translation, untrustworthy account and controversial judgements. It not only removed the great ignorance about the Sikhs but also earned for it and its adherent’s respect and reputation, goodwill and admiration all over. Being the first work of its kind, it contributed much to the promotion of contacts between Eastern and Western cultures and various religious traditions in an almost unproved field. It also resulted in a highly valuable and indispensable source book as well as a beacon for subsequent efforts on the subject. It inspired the compilation and publication of dictionaries and grammars of Guru Granth Sahib: and a large number of commentaries, translations and studies of its various parts and aspects began to appear soon after its publication. Punjabi, the mother-tongue of the Punjabis, and its indigenous script (Gurmukhi) in which the Holy Granth is recorded, was adopted as the official language and script of the Punjab, as pleaded by Macauliffe in 1909, after its liberation in 1947 from the British yoke. Besides, it made available to the English knowing people important portions of the Holy Granth which, according to Professor Toynbee, "is part of mankind’s common spiritual treasure" and "should be brought within the direct reach of as many people as possible" and which also "deserves close study from the rest of the world". It does so because in the words of Duncan Greenlees, "among the world’s scriptures, few, if any, attain so high a literary level or so constant a height of inspiration. Apart from its great religious importance, it is certainly one of the world’s masterpieces of poetry." Hence while describing her personal experience. Nobel laureate Pearl Buck had observed: "I have studied the scriptures of other great religious, but I do not find elsewhere the same power of appeal to the heart and mind as I find here." Such were the intrinsic merits and remarkable features, the universal scope and power of appeal of this unique scripture which drew the attention and inspired the devotion of Macauliffe who worked unremittingly for about thirty best years of his life to study and understand it, to interpret and translate it, to publicize its contents and their excellence so that its substance and message could reach as many people as possible through the medium of an international language.

Article courtesy: The Sikh Review


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2 Responses

  1. Bhai Harbans Lal says:

    Year 2013 marks the Macauliffe’s Centennial. Only a few days ago it was celebrated as such by the Houston Sikh congregation. Many other organizations are thinking of doing the same. I congratulate the Sikh Foundation for reproducing this paper to begin the Centennial year. Hopefully this will provide momentum for others to do the same and rethink on Macauliffe ’s life and contributions towards promotion of Sikhism.

  2. For those interested, here’s the agenda of a conference in Maculiffe’s honor in Ireland this weekend: