New Avenues and Directions for Sikh Studies by Gurveen Khurana
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Thinking about why I got involved with Sikh studies and what I know and understand of the field, I realized that this was not the first time I was asked to think of the field at large—as an entity of its own, a field of academics that did not exist three or four decades ago and as a new development. For this sort of reflexive exercise I would like to thank Professor Pashaura Singh who has, as a mentor, continuously stressed the need to understand the field, how it has changed over the years and the struggles Sikh scholars have had to encounter to create an open environment for the students interested in studying Sikhs and Sikhism. Without the struggles of scholars in the past two to three decades, we would have no Sikh Studies to think and write of. And so, my first vote of appreciation goes to great scholars like W.H. McLeod, Pashaura Singh, Louis Fenech, Doris Jakobsh and many others, who continued to research and write about Sikhism despite staunch resistance from various quarters. I would also like to thank Sikh Foundation for asking me to contribute whatever little knowledge I have about the field of Sikh Studies.
At first, I must declare that I stumbled upon the field of Sikh Studies, knowing in my earlier research work that I wanted to work on some aspect of Punjabi history and the issues of identity formation. As a student of history, I was well aware that regional histories were on a rise, however, Punjabi history, or the history of Punjab had somewhere been lost in the retellings of nationalist history and the prominence of certain figures and areas of India as prime movers during the colonial period. Punjab, it seemed was to remain in the backdrop of Indian history despite its overwhelming contribution to India and Indian history. My brief and only foray into a history of Sikhs was during my Masters program in Dilip Menon’s class on Social History of India where we were asked to read Harjot Oberoi’s Construction of Religious Boundaries. While this introduced me to the area of history of religions and of the Sikhs in particular, both areas that I was interested in, I still felt that there were further aspects of Sikh history and Sikh religion that needed to be highlighted. With this initial experience of a short stint with Punjabi history in mind I was determined to work on some aspect of Punjabi history, not sure of what this was going to be.
Once I started looking for areas that interested me in pursuing further research work, I realized that there was much work that had been done on Punjab and the Punjabi people, both under colonial and pre-colonial periods. That Punjab was not removed to the lacunae of historical works as I had imagined, on the contrary, there was a world of prolific research work that needed to be uncovered and circulated amongst interested students and researchers. However, till then I was to zero down upon my area of interest and present a research topic for my M. Phil degree. Upon entering the ranks of a research student I realized that there was much to be learnt, and the move from reading great literature on Indian history to attempts to produce such literature was going to be hard and long drawn. Once again, before I proceed any further on my narrative on how and why I find myself here, as a Ph.D student in Sikh studies, I would like to thank my mentors in Delhi—Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya and Professor Dilip Menon, for talking and walking me through the transformation process of a student to a research student.
I began my M.Phil with a research paper on Singh Sabha reforms in the domain of women’s lives and education. While Sikhism as a religion and philosophy granted great merits and position to Sikh women in the society, social practices were much harder to challenge and change. Women continued to be perceived as the weaker sex and social mal-practices like foeticide and dowry-murders continued into the late nineteenth-early twentieth century (as they do now). In the hopes to find British policy against these practices and the reformers reactions to these policies, I undertook my first independent field trip into Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha library in Patiala. This proved to be a great learning experience, where I read and engaged with primary materials written by the reformers of the Singh Sabha, collected and maintained by the library in Punjabi University, which houses a large series of collections of Singh Sabha members/reformers themselves.
After completing my first research paper on Singh Sabha’s reforms directed towards women I had decided that I would focus on the Singh Sabha period of reforms in Modern Indian history, though parts of my research required me to study the periods before the rise and growth of Singh Sabha within Punjab. The rest of the dissertation was a series of exploratory and experimental papers that allowed me to learn a lot about Sikhs and Sikhism. I got to see Sikhism through an academic perspective, which was a different world from what I had known and understood of Sikhi from my upbringing. These experiences fuelled my interest and excitement about studying Sikhism as a religion and more importantly a religion highly revered, with a mass outreach that I only understood once I reached my next destination—California.
Upon entering a new site and field of studies I also came across 3 HO Sikhs on a field trip and got a chance to talk to some members of this commune. Talking about Sikh rahit and the rigors of observing them, engaging with Sikhs from a different background and experience showed me the truly global message of Sikhism that can be adopted by people outside of Punjab as well. I began to study Sikhism not through historical method alone but as a routine concern of people, something that people invested themselves in and created their lives around. Till now I had been interested in understanding how Sikhs and Sikhism transformed through a historical period—social reform movements of late nineteenth to early twentieth century that were occurring simultaneously in other parts of India and within different communities and sects of the same region. The Singh Sabha movement in this sense was nothing unusual or stark in comparison to other similar reform movements but there were a few things that made the Singh Sabha a spectacular development for Sikhs and Sikhism, especially in early twentieth century. The migration of Sikhs through various colonial institutions and bodies, like the colonial army, police and indentured labor meant that Sikhs took some form and part of their religious identity with them. In this form and manner, Singh Sabhas came to be organized in overseas areas like Shanghai, Singapore and Nigeria etc., which continue to have Singh Sabha Gurdwaras till date. The reformist movement though created through an intervention of the British colonial annexation of Punjab and other parts of India, led to different trends and mediums of reforms. Different communities responded differently to socio-religious reforms. The impact of Singh Sabhas in Punjab as well as across the world still needs to be uncovered through an extensive and intensive research on what methods the reformist body used to keep the Sikh community intact, despite the large waves of migrations, what kind of Sikh identity could be carried and created in these foreign shores as well as what and how were the Sikhs within India responding to the reformers means of reviving Sikhi and what was the role of the British officials in the reform movement, if any at all?
While it may seem that Singh Sabhas are a thing of the past, which have been long forgotten by the Sikhs, Singh Sabha has left an indelible imprint and influenced the community in various ways. The Sikh penchant to understand Sikhism through various methods of discussions, discourses and publications as witnessed in the recently burgeoning Internet (chat) sites devoted to Sikh issues and gurdwara organized debates and extempore contests for children ranging from 7-8 years to much senior levels (in the US in particular) are markedly influenced by the Singh Sabha’s drive and methods for similar involvement in understanding Sikhism—through debates and discussions. It is from the period of Singh Sabha reforms that this tradition of seeking knowledge about Sikhism can be traced to. From the earliest moment one is taught that a Sikh is a sishya, a student, then how can they ever stop questioning or challenging? Sikhism by definition means to learn, adapt and grow and it is this feature that interests me most about the religion, whether in the form of Singh Sabha attempts to understand and disseminate Sikhi or through different ways of practicing Sikhi in present times.
Through different projects and exploring different methodologies, I moved away from a strictly historical concern with a socio-reformist body to one of understanding Sikhism and studying the ways in which the followers believe and practice their beliefs. From a strictly historical narrative, I am now interested in the hermeneutics of Sikhism and Sikhs’ practices.
Coming back to my journeys in the academic field of Sikh Studies. I had read the works of Professor Pashaura Singh during my M.Phil research work and was looking to work with some one from within the field of Sikh Studies to pursue my interest further. I wrote to Professor Pashaura Singh, who showed keen interest in my work and welcomed me aboard with his other Ph.D students to Riverside, California as a Dean’s Distinguished Fellow and a generous grant. In my first year of course work I did a variety of courses, on lived religions, public sphere and religions, textual studies of religious scriptures, material cultures and such. Through each course I read the assigned readings and wrote papers concerned with the theme, though related to Sikhism. Thus, my explorations into the field of Sikh Studies has widened further, both theoretically and methodologically, and I have learnt much from my experience of working with different kinds of instructors, with different interests in different communities, regions, religions and methods. Upon entering the field of Religious Studies I have come to understand and learn more about the treatment of religions and the study of those who follow these religions.
Since I had missed a thorough “beginner’s” training into Sikh Studies, as it does not exist in Indian universities, Professor Singh suggested that I could benefit from his Undergraduate level courses in Sikhism at the University as an extra sit-in. These certainly proved to be very interesting and valuable experiences as I read through the basics of Sikhism, once again as an academic exercise where other students questions prompted conversations to much deeper contents and engagements than expected from a 100-level course. Also, the experience taught me methods to deal with basic questions on Sikhism directed towards me in graduate courses that are difficult to explain and translate in a culturally different environment. These classes forced me to think about translating the basics for people who did not come from the same cultural, regional and social background. From all of these experiences, of moving from a student to a research student and from a student of history to a student of religions, I have observed a few challenges that continue within the field of Sikh Studies.
There has been much resistance to works on Sikhs and Sikhism. While some of the bridges are being built, there continues to be a suspicion amongst people towards scholars and academicians studying Sikhs and Sikhism. Having spent some time on the Singh Sabha reform movement, it is evident that Sikhs turned to academic and philosophical ways to answer questions that changing times and trends threw up in the air. For instance, coming into contact with the British rule opened a series of challenges and adversities for Sikhs. Singh Sabha was created in face of these challenges, to resolve such challenges and organize the community in some form. Sikhs have always been open to studies, possible hypothesis and debates and conversations about Sikhi and Sikh practices. Not being an orthodox or orthopraxy based religion; it is surprising that the community itself is opposed to well-intentioned academic studies and surveys into Sikh past. The first challenge that needs to be surmounted then is to continue scholarly attempts to open the minds of those who question the intentions of academics.
Second, as I said earlier, while Sikh contribution to Punjabi history and Indian history cannot be questioned, it continues to be marginal in the curriculums of Indian Universities. Some efforts should be made to incorporate parts of Sikh history into the larger themes of Indian history like migration, subaltern classes and movements within the Sikhs, women’s movements and organizations, in the form of kirtani jathas and other organizations and other aspects of Punjabi and Sikh history that were contributive to Indian history and the Indian nation. More importantly, focus should be laid on Sikh migrations overseas as army men, police officials and laborers. Pioneer works on Sikh diaspora has already been undertaken in the past decades, but there continues to be a lag in disseminating such works in India and amongst Indian universities. On the whole, there is a schism in understanding the Sikhs in India and those based abroad. While they largely believe in the same principles, their experiences and lives are different. It is this difference that needs to be translated as opposed to forgotten or blocked. The struggles of these diaspora Sikhs needs to be brought to light, vis-à-vis settling in another country and culture as well as in being transient, in search of another home and in creating other memories.
Finally, the field of Sikh studies needs to expand and could gain from entering different and wider arenas such as the Asian Studies fields and other Diaspora oriented scholarly associations. Alongwith these associations, more conferences and classes should be offered for students interested in Sikh studies. There remain large avenues to be explored, which would shed light on the present condition of things. For instance, the Gurmat Sangeet Vibhag at Punjabi University is undertaking a project that has been long awaited. Their attempt to collect and preserve Sikh musical forms by also collecting Punjabi folk forms of music and performance is a stellar attempt to capture traditions and practices that are almost forgotten and nearly lost to us. There are many other projects that are very important to gain a wholesome understanding of Sikhi and Punjab. For instance more work needs to be done on the handicrafts of Punjab, on the art form of Phulkari and other forms of handloom practices and cultures of Punjab, whether specifically Sikh or not. Also, more sociological and economic studies need to be undertaken, especially on issues of substance abuse, attitudes towards girl child and women, traditions of soldiery and martial concerns amongst Punjabi men and many more.
The field is in no way exhausted; this is just the beginning, though a very promising one. More resources should be made available for such future projects and more students should be encouraged to join the field by supporting them and their work. There are many students within Delhi and India who are interested in various aspects of Sikh Studies but find many roadblocks to pursue their interests. The present scholars and students need to invite these scholars from India to share their works and findings with students in the United States and expand and break boundaries.