Investing in Sikh Studies: Rewards and Challenges for a New Generation of Scholars by Dr. Purnima Dhavan, Ph.D.

* Read the Introduction to this Feature
Note-Mouse over images for description

University of Washington

It gives me great pleasure to be asked to participate in this series, “Opportunities and Challenges for Sikh Academics,” particularly since I represent the first cohort of students who have benefitted directly from the Sikh Studies programs created with the community’s investment in the early 1990s. I can find no better way of voicing my gratitude than to express my thanks for the support I have already received, often from Sikh donors whom I shall never meet face to face, than to detail the ways in which community investment in the Sikh Studies programs in North America have helped to create a fledgling but vital scholarly community.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I first encountered this new academic field in the classes offered by Dr. Pashaura Singh. Until that point I had been deeply immersed in the history of the golden age of Spain, taking multiple courses in Spanish literature, culture, and history. I had always had a love for history and language and was particularly attracted to the compositions of the mystic poets of Spain. Yet, sitting in Prof. Singh’s class I began to feel the first tugs of interest in the academic study of Sikh history. I soon realized that Sikh Studies could encompass a rich offering of pursuits—history, literary studies, art history, and religious studies—to name a few.

1984 riotsAs is always the case, there were deeply personal reasons that motivated me to take Dr. Singh’s classes. My initial schooling in India had occurred amidst the tumult of many of the events that Dr. Singh’s syllabus examined. I have disturbing memories of watching smoke rising from the commercial areas of my hometown during the 1984 riots, when Sikh businesses were looted and Sikhs attacked. The discussion of these horrific events in the media and of the political events in Punjab in the years that followed seemed both reductive and superficial. Despite the considerable human toll of these events in the next decade, my school texts and teachers offered no satisfactory explanation for why our community was engulfed in such violence and why the institutions created for safeguarding the rights of citizens could do so little to ameliorate the situation. Coming from a family who had experienced the partition of 1947 I was well aware of the fact that official histories rarely chronicle the complexities of such events; there is often much that is silenced or marginalized.

It was only a decade after, sitting in Prof. Singh’s class that I finally had the opportunity to participate in a discussion of these events that offered a more complex and nuanced understanding of religious and political conflict in South Asia. Unlike my teachers in India, Prof. Singh never imposed his own views in a dogmatic fashion. Instead he assigned challenging texts and encouraged students to navigate the complex issues that arose in each discussion. His penetrating questions would often force us to confront our own intellectual complacency and dig further into the material. Each week I found a new aspect to our studies that engaged my attention and had me running to the library to find more books—whether it was the enchanting poetry of Medieval Punjabi, a scholarly dispute about the dating of a manuscript, or the ways in which so many of the themes we discussed had a deep resonance with social and religious conflicts of our own period.

At the same time, however, I was deeply aware of the challenges of embarking on a career in Sikh Studies. I knew that should I want to continue on this track I would need many more years of language training and funding opportunities in new fields were slim. Also, in asking many established scholars of South Asian studies in numerous institutions for advice, I was frequently counseled that Sikh Studies was to narrow a field to specialize in and that the controversies associated with it could easily curtail a young scholar’s career, and that I would never find employment with this focus. This bleak perspective, while dimming my new found enthusiasm to some degree, could not repress my continued fascination for Sikh history and culture.

I was fortunate enough to enroll in a PhD program in South Asian History at the University of Virginia under the guidance of Dr. Richard Barnett, a noted scholar of the eighteenth century. With his encouragement and support I was able to secure funding for further study in Punjabi and Persian, as well as the means to finish my doctoral research on the Eighteenth-century Khalsa. While support at my home institution was critical to acquiring the basic foundations for research, as I began to write my dissertation, once again the critical feedback I received from scholars at the University of British Columbia, the University of Michigan, Columbia, and the University of California, Santa Barbara was immensely helpful in clarifying my arguments, locating additional sources, and engaging with emerging scholarship in Sikh Studies. No scholar works in a vacuum, and although I have also benefitted from the advice of a number of scholars of the Mughal Empire and Early Modern Period, the intellectual and material support provided to me by these established programs in Sikh and Punjabi studies has been crucial to completing my dissertation and first book. This kind of generosity is not limited to academia. During my research in Punjab, time and again when I ran into problems—whether it was a research issue related to accessing manuscripts, or a pragmatic one such as locating housing or medical care—strangers stepped in to help. Truly, the tradition of Punjabi hospitality and community service is alive and well.
The nature of my research has deepened my appreciation for the long-term merits of this kind of social investment. My book, When Sparrows Became Hawks: The Making of the Khalsa Martial Tradition, 1699-1799 (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, New York), explores the critical role of such community institutions in shaping and preserving Sikh tradition. The history of the Khalsa has understandably been dominated by studies of its founder, Guru Gobind Singh, and it most famous political leader, Maharajah Ranjit Singh. Not surprisingly, comparatively little scholarly attention has been paid to the history of the critical period that separates the lives of these important figures. As my research indicates, the intervening decades between the untimely death of the last Guru and the creation of a stable Sikh empire in the nineteenth century were the crucial period during which many of the cultural and political institutions now associated with the Khalsa emerged.

In my work I explore the many challenges encountered by Sikhs—peasants and the elite—in translating the Gurus’ teachings into living social institutions. As can be expected, this complex process did not occur in a smooth, linear fashion, contrary to the popular mythology of this period. Competing ideologies, political agendas, and cultural preferences frequently emerged as Sikh rulers, authors, and peasant soldiers attempted to come to terms with how Khalsa identity would be formalized and who in the community would have influence over directing its affairs. This process was made even more difficult since it occurred during a period in which the remnants of Mughal power in Punjab were actively hostile to the Sikh community and Ahmad Shah Abdali’s attempts to extend his Afghan empire into Punjab unleashed multiple campaigns into that province.

Map Despite these challenges and the fragmented political leadership of the misal rulers, there is ample proof of community’s success in preserving Khalsa texts and rituals. Through a century of civil war, Khalsa Sikhs managed to marshal their joint resources into creating new states, extending patronage to scholars to preserve and extend the new Khalsa forms, and to preserve the existing material heritage of their community. The fiercely independent personalities of the prominent Khalsa leaders of the time negated any attempt to create a unified rule, but this characteristic also ensured that unlike other peasant warrior communities of that era, such as the Marathas, the Sikhs would not come to be dominated by high-caste Brahmins. Community control over resources continued to be the norm throughout the eighteenth century, and even prominent misal rulers such as Jassa Singh Ramgarhia and Alha Singh of Patiala acknowledged the right of the community’s leaders to control resources and enforce compliance.

Contemporary Challenges for Sikh Studies

Today the need to continue this rich tradition of community support to preserve Sikh cultural heritage and increase public awareness of its importance is greater than ever. While the blessings of Punjab’s rapid economic expansion and global reach have created many opportunities, they have also inevitably generated new conflicts. Quite a few individuals in this series have voiced concerns about the difficulties of transmitting Sikh culture to a new generation in the diaspora, and the failure of scholars in academia to address this. Academics, however, often focus on a very different set of issues from the community when we turn to questions of cultural preservation, from our publications and public lectures it would often seem that we are more concerned about the survival of texts, dialects, material artifacts, and architecture. There may also seem to be a preoccupation with engaging arguments that few outside of the specialist’s narrow circle find compelling. In spite of this seeming divide, I will argue, however, that the interests of the community and academic scholars are inevitably linked if both sets of concerns are to be addressed. There is already considerable ground for optimism that viable networks of mutual support are in place, although at this point they are small in scale and quite isolated at individual sites. It is only through a joint effort by both, those in the Sikh community and in academe, that these issues can be addressed, but it does require that both groups understand each other’s contributions and perspectives. Let me offer a few concrete examples in which collaborative work might bear fruit.

The long history of Sikh immigration has resulted in the creation of many thriving Sikh communities around the world, yet Sikhs often find themselves the target of much cultural misunderstanding and even hostility. As is painfully evident from some of the scholars profiled in this series, this kind of discrimination and hostility is particularly marked among school-age children. My own Sikh students have often mentioned their struggles to come to terms with this kind of overt hostility and exclusion at a very vulnerable point in their young lives. Community leaders and academic scholars both have an important role to play in disseminating awareness of Sikh cultural practices and resisting such discriminatory and violent behavior, but the lack of vital contacts between the community and the academics who study Sikh history and culture often makes this mediation difficult. This series has once again given me a chance to reflect on what kinds of fruitful collaborations might be possible.

Prof. Dhavan leading discussion in workshop on south asian religions for K-12 educatorsMany of us in academia frequently volunteer to work in workshops and training seminars with K-12 educators for including content for world religions and world history in their curriculum. Collaborating with Sikh community members in developing such programs and developing curricular material is one way in which such contacts can create useful public outreach. In the past the South Asia Center at the University of Washington, for example, has hosted such workshops. In my own presentation I focused on using the verses of figures such as Guru Nanak and Kabir to explain the important themes and historical context of South Asian religions. Such programs work best when K-12 educators interact not only with academics, but also with community members. Often, teachers have commented on how the visits to local places of worship, such as Gurudwaras have been immensely helpful in providing information about the lived experience of a faith tradition. Also, it gives educators in public schools personal connections with groups to which they would normally have little access. Such contacts often linger in the memory of participants longer than the details of the curricular material they carry away in their folders. Funding for such outreach programs, however, can often only be accessed if academics can successfully compete for grants on the basis of their academic rigor and merits. While it may often seem that the work of scholars whose primary focus is on seemingly obscure subjects and the production of publication few persons outside of academia will read, it is this specialist knowledge that makes many of the other outreach programs possible. Increased focus for this kind of outreach community in K-12 schools with a significant Sikh and Punjabi enrollment is critically needed.

Seminar participant in the langar  of gurudwaraThis is also the case with another form of service scholars often participate in—serving as expert witnesses and translators for Sikhs facing legal problems with cases involving immigration, including amnesty cases, domestic violence, or job discrimination. It is the academic credentials of the scholar that makes their testimony powerful. Unfortunately, many such cases never come to the attention of scholars who may be willing to help. Defended in many cases by lawyers and public defenders working pro bono, who do not have the time or resources to contact experts in the field, Sikhs founder in the complexities of the American and European legal system. A step to ameliorate this situation would be to create a list of scholars willing to volunteer their time to review such legal briefs and host it on a website. In the era of the internet such a step would require only a modest amount of organization and effort. To make it fully functional, however, there has to be outreach to community groups and their social networks to ensure that there is an awareness of the services such volunteer associations can provide.

If we turn to the concerns many academics, and indeed community members, have about preserving the material heritage of Punjab, we too can find common ground. One of my most disheartening experiences of field research was finding important buildings, manuscripts, and sites in a state of disrepair. In some cases, as in the Qila Mubarak complex in Patiala, several attempts had been made to repair and preserve the murals and buildings of that site, but funds and expertise were short. It is also not uncommon to find important Sikh artifacts such as paintings, manuscripts, and arms appear in auctions around the world and rapidly disappear into the hands of private collectors. While such artifacts might indeed survive longer in the care of motivated private collectors, public and scholarly access to these objects often becomes limited. The continued survival of such collections also depends on wider appreciation for the historical importance of such objects beyond the lifetime of a single appreciative connoisseur.

Patiala, Qila Mubarak complex--damaged murals about to be renovatedPreserving and disseminating knowledge about such material heritage, however, requires a truly staggering investment—one must have trained preservationists, donors willing to supply funds, art collectors willing to temporarily loan pieces for public exhibitions, and—most importantly—demonstrated public interest in supporting these activities. This is not the work of a few months, but of decades. Currently many of those involved in such projects have considerable enthusiasm, but their efforts are limited by the lack of funds and lack of access to the best preservation methods. Many preservation projects in fact have the potential to do more harm than good when inappropriate methods of repair and refurbishment are used. Well meaning attempts to bind or digitize old manuscripts, “repair” murals and paintings with modern pigments, using cement as a binding material in old brick and limestone construction all have unfortunate results. Unfortunately, of the many disciplines that are now represented in Sikh Studies programs globally, archival and preservation training is conspicuously absent, even though many of our disciplines ultimately rely on this source base. For the community the loss of such material culture is also tragic, for it permanently erases sources for understanding Sikh heritage at a time when our modern lives have already weakened the chains of human transmission of such knowledge.
Fortunately there are many enthusiastic and motivated students in our colleges and programs who are committed to this goal and community members who have privately initiated their own small attempts to remedy the situation.

There are grants for initiating projects that could begin this work, but they are unlikely to be successful if pursued by a lone scholar or institution. Now that we have a critical number of Sikh Studies programs across the country with a number of students with the necessary language skills, the time is ripe to consider multi-program collaboration to apply for grants that would make it possible to systematically approach this work in some critical areas: digitalization of fragile manuscripts, rare books, and newspapers, or a planed catalog and exhibition of artifacts and paintings in private collections. The recent success of many Sikh art exhibitions have already paved the way for this kind of work and are indicative of what the best forms of collaboration between community and academia can accomplish. There are many community members who have the necessary contacts in India and abroad to make these kinds of projects feasible, and many scholars and students with an interest in pursuing this activity. Now is an opportune time to pursue funding for these kinds of programs.

Jadavpur UniversityNor is this kind of activity limited to material objects. As the comments of our South Asia Librarian at the University of Washington, Deepa Bannerjee, recently reminded me, a considerable wealth of information also lies in the memories and experiences of our communities. She recently has begun the final round of work on the South Asia Oral History Project, a multi-phase, multi-generational project that documents the memories of South Asian immigrants to the Pacific Northwest. All oral histories collected by this project are digitized and made available to scholars and the public. What is extremely significant about this project is its success in training students in doing professional-level work in interviewing, transcribing, and digitalizing oral histories collected from the South Asian Immigrant community in our region. Such projects provide a successful model for extending this kind of community-university collaboration. These projects are particularly critical as the generation of immigrants who came to the states in the wake of horrific events such as partition is aging. We have a wealth of experience and wisdom in our communities, however, their significance is often overlooked or marginalized. Most importantly, by involving students in documenting their lives we simultaneously achieve multiple goals—the documentation of the individual experiences that our communities value, the transmission of these unique lived experiences to a new generation, and the creation of a permanent oral archive that will be a rich sources of information for generations of scholars to come.

I hope these modest suggestions for further collaboration will spark further discussion. There is much in the complex relationship between Sikh Studies scholars and the communities which funded these programs that is fodder for misunderstanding or disappointment when the varying goals of these two groups diverge. There is however, plenty of room for collaborative work and growth. Recently, at a Sikh Studies Program at the University of California in Santa Barbara, I was inspired by the presence and exuberant participation of three generations of scholars. The pace of scholarly production might be slow, but the initial investment in Sikh Studies programs is already bearing fruit. There are many more students from diverse backgrounds who have become attracted to this field and combine their enthusiasm for study with a corresponding commitment to service. None of this would have been possible without the initial hard work and unflinching commitment of that first generation of scholars and donors. As one whose professional life has been shaped by their vision, I am deeply appreciative of their investment and hope to be able to add my own endeavors to continue this tradition of scholarship and service.

Purnima Dhavan,
Assistant Professor,
History Department,
University of Washington, Seattle

You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. Julia Inden says:

    Professor Dhavan,

    It is wonderful to read about your background. As someone interested in the 18th century, I came across your PhD dissertation. I was perplexed to read your introduction in which you state:

    “This study will show that while the Khalsa panth was indeed a new entity in 1699, the martial culture, identity
    markers, and foundational texts of the Khalsa panth developed long after the death of its founder, as the Khalsa Sikhs faced many competing claimants to the panth’ s leadership. It was only after a particularly bloody agrarian revolt in 1709-1715, during which a Hindu monk, Banda, laid claim to the leadership of the Khalsa panth, that the Khalsa community began to give serious attention to defining the nature of the Khalsa and preserving the legacy of the last Guru, a project that lasted for several more generations.”

    I have some questions, which I am sharing with the wider community.

    1. Why do you call Banda a “Hindu monk”? Hasn’t Ganda Singh’s extensive work shown, using more than one contemporary Persian record, that Banda was baptized by Guru Gobind Singh and he became Gurbakhsh Singh?

    2. How was Banda Singh’s fight against the Mughals an “agrarian revolt”? Aren’t you belittling the accomplishments of the great Sikh general ? Your assertion is hardly supported by contemporary sources, including the new Rajput sources that have surfaced.

    I am open to revisionist accounts of Sikh history but my the issue here is that you don’t cite any sources for your assertions. You provide a footnote (number 2), which cites Prachin Panth Prakash and Bansavalinama but neither source can be marshaled to defend the claims you make. Isn’t it better to rely on contemporary Persian sources provided by Ganda Singh than Gurbilas literature, which is hardly reliable? I think you are building a strawman exclusively based on some very questionable texts and this is hardly a wise thing to do in the scholarly context.

    I wish you all the best in the future.


    Julia Inden

  2. Purnima Dhavan says:

    Dear Julia,
    I would suggest that you not read that one sentence out of context. In the next chapter of the dissertation, I go on to detail the many problems with the 18th and 19th century gurbilas about Banda and use contemporary Persian chronicles and Akhbarat, as well as Banda’s own hukumnamas to discuss his historical impact.
    As even Ganda Singhji noted, sources about the origins of Banda are murky, but most report that he was a monk of the Bairagi order prior to his initiation into the Khalsa. Primary sources, as well as subsequent research by scholars such as Muzaffar Alam, indicate that the majority of Khalsa Sikhs at the time of this uprising were Jat peasants, but also that Banda was supported by groups such as banjaras and Jat zamindars in the rural areas. I don’t think it diminishes Banda Bahadur’s legacy to say that his charismatic leadership appealed to a wide variety of groups. To the contrary. If you have not read Prof. Alam’s work, I would recommend it, it is one of the finest, close readings of the contemporary sources of the time.

    Finally, this dissertation was written seven years ago, since then I have substantially revised my ms. for publication. All the same, it would be nice if readers read the piece as a whole, and not just one sentence. As a professional historian I have no desire to either villify or aggrandize any individual or group. Rather, I hope to understand the social and historical contexts in which events unfolded, based on primary research. Complex arguments cannot be presented in one sentence, so it does place demands on the reader to exercise some patience. I thank you for your interest and hope that you will get a chance to read both Prof. Alam’s work and my own forthcoming book.
    Purnima Dhavan

  3. Kirpal Singh says:

    Dear Prof. Dhavan,
    Your article is a nice reading & I want to thank you regarding your suggestions as how to create a comlementary relationship between academia & sikh community for mutual benefits.I hope many sikhs & their institutions will read this article & discuss ways to implement those suggestions to preserve sikh heritage & good relations with our host communities wherever we may live in this world.