My Unforgettable Experiences Related to the Field of Sikh Studies by Prof. Pashaura Singh

Professor Pashaura Singh is the Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair at UC. Riverside,
California. He combines a command of classical and colloquial Punjabi and Hindi languages
(including a working knowledge of Sanskrit) and a sound knowledge of traditional Sikh
learning, manuscripts in archaic forms of Gurmukhi script and Indian religious traditions, with
a mastery of contemporary issues in textual studies, canonicity, hermeneutics, literary theory,
and history of religions.

* Read the Introduction to this Feature
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logoThis personal narrative owes its inspiration to Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany who is internationally acclaimed as “the father of fiber optics.” Being the Chairman of Sikh Foundation he is the moving force behind the endowment of Chairs in Sikh and Punjabi Studies at various campuses in the University of California system. He encouraged me to pen down my experiences while working in the newly emerging field of Sikh Studies in the western academia. He raised the following questions: What motivated you to undertake research/teaching on Sikh matters? What do you expect to come out of your activities? What problems have you encountered? What kind of courses you have taught in the past and what new courses you are thinking of designing in the future? What do you think of past researches and what are the future plans? Do you have any problems with the students? What are the new opportunities in the field of Sikh Studies? What can we know about your involvement in research seminars and conferences, visits to Sikh organizations, and visits to Punjab? What are your long term plans? By asking these direct questions Dr. Kapany has made me go down the memory lane related to the span of about four decades.

I was drawn to Sikh Studies by the magnetism of Professor Harbans Singh, the celebrated editor-in-chief of The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, when I visited him in 1971 at his Punjabi University residence in Patiala, along with my school teacher Master Jaswant Singh. Although I was doing MA in Mathematics at Government College (Ludhiana) at that time, Professor Harbans Singh inspired me to join Guru Nanak Institute, Gurmat College, Patiala, to pursue my interests in the area of Sikh Studies. It is no wonder that the two years spent at Gurmat College were the most productive period of my graduate work with the unique opportunity to listen to the views of such distinguished scholars as Dr. Taran Singh, Professor Harbans Singh, Dr. Ganda Singh, Principal Satbir Singh, Giani Lal Singh, Piara Singh Padam, Dr. Avtar Singh, Professor Gurbachan Singh Talib, Dr. L. M. Joshi (Buddhism), Dr. M. P. Christanand (Christianity) and some others. Frequently, we will have visiting-scholars from other universities. One such visitor was Dr. W. H. McLeod who gave us a talk on the historical approach he adopted in his work Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (1968) in 1973. At that time we were more fascinated in his interest in the area of Sikh Studies than his critique of the janam-sakhis (“birth narratives”).

After completing my Master’s degree in Religious Studies in 1973 I joined Guru Harkrishan Public School, New Delhi as the Head of Divinity Department. This school was the most prestigious Sikh institution in the capital of India. It was here that I met a Canadian Sikh visitor, Dr. Gurcharanjit Singh Attariwala, an ophthalmologist and eminent member of the Board of Trustees of Sikh Society, Calgary, in December 1979. The Calgary Sikh community had built their first beautiful gurdwara, Guru Nanak Centre, by that time. The Sikh Society invited Dr. W. H. McLeod to inaugurate the gurdwara on Baisakhi Day 1979. Their aim in inviting a western scholar of Sikh Studies from New Zealand was to build a positive image of the Sikhs in the host society. Dr. McLeod inspired the Sikh community to work for the establishment of a Chair of Sikh Studies at a Canadian University. He assured them that this kind of program would give academic respectability to the Sikh tradition in the academy and remove the prevailing ignorance about the Sikhs in the larger society.

The Sikh community of Calgary was looking for an educated Sikh Granthi (“Reader”) and teacher. Dr. Attariwala approached me through a personal friend and made the proposal to accept the following position: “We need an educated Granthi who is well versed in Sikh scriptures. We will help him study at the University of Calgary in addition to his priestly responsibilities at Guru Nanak Centre. As part of his duties he will teach Punjabi language and Sikh religion at Guru Nanak School, organize Sikh Youth camps in the summer to pass on Sikh heritage to the new generation of Canadian-born Sikhs, visit hospitals to see Sikh patients and participate in interfaith dialogues. Occasionally, he will also visit the Police Academy in Calgary to teach the Police officers about Sikh traditions and culture.” I accepted the position and laid down my own conditions. The Sikh Society of Calgary invited me on the Baisakhi of 1980 with my wife and two children. I had multifarious duties and activities at Guru Nanak Center.

Mrs. Gurdev K. Attariwala took me to the University of Calgary and introduced me to Dr. Harold G. Coward, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Dr. Coward immediately encouraged me to start taking up courses in religious studies on the part-time basis. I was exposed to both eastern and western religious traditions, including various methods in the study of religion. Eventually, I was accepted in the new graduate program of the department and schooled in the application of modern historical and literary critical methodologies. I wrote a Master’s thesis on the Bhagat Bani (“Utterances of the Saints”) under the direct supervision of Dr. Ronald W. Neufeldt. Indeed, it was a great privilege to have him as my first mentor at the University of Calgary. Being a superb teacher he, carefully and with great sensitivity, guided me through every phase of that project. Earlier, Professor Harbans Singh had read the thesis proposal very carefully and provided great encouragement in the initial stage of the project: “As far I know, the Bhagat Bani has not been studied by anyone in the frame you have set yourself. Relating the study to the issue of Sikh self-definition was, I thought, a very original idea…I am quite convinced that this should prove a very interesting piece of work and an original contribution to Sikh literature” (Personal communication, 3 December 1985). It is pertinent to note that the Department of Religious Studies approached Dr. W. H. McLeod who was the visiting professor at the University of Toronto at that time to be the external marker of my thesis. The enlarged and highly revised version of my thesis was later on published as The Bhagats of the Guru Granth Sahib: Sikh Self-Definition and the Bhagat Bani (2003) by the Oxford University Press.

My three mentors: Dr. Harold G. Coward, Dr. W.H. McLeod and Dr. Ronald W. Neufeldt at Calgary on January 14, 1987

I should mention here that the Sikh Society of Calgary provided me with the opportunity of studying at the University of Calgary along with my multifarious duties at Guru Nanak Centre. I still remember that cold winter day in November of 1980 (with a temperature of –37 degree Celsius below freezing point) when I received a phone call from Mrs. Gurdev K. Attariwala, urging me not to walk outside in that weather to catch the bus to the University. Instead, she came and gave me a ride in her car so that I could attend my class on time. She stayed at the University for more than two hours and gave me ride back home at the end of my class. When I graduated from the University of Calgary, she celebrated my achievement by inviting my professors, some of my class fellows, some dignitaries, including Professor William Warden (Canadian Ambassador to India), to dinner at her home. It was one of the most unforgettable days of my life. In fact, the Sikh Society gave me a very touching farewell when I joined the University of Toronto in 1987 for my doctoral program. I still miss those good old days that I spent at Calgary.

I joined the University of Toronto for my doctoral work at the inspiration of Professor Joseph T. O’Connell who was quite optimistic that with the support of the Sikh community the University will be able to include Sikh Studies in its graduate and undergraduate programs. During the course of my studies, I had the good fortune of working with two eminent historians of the Sikh tradition: Dr. J. S. Grewal (ex-Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla) and Dr. W. H. (Hew) McLeod (University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand), both of whom were visiting Professors at the Centre for Religious Studies, University of Toronto. Earlier in 1986 Dr. McLeod was the Canadian Commonwealth Fellow at the Centre for Religious Studies, when he introduced the study of the Sikh tradition to the North American academic mainstream. This was the crucial time when after the events of 1984 the Sikhs had become the focus of worldwide attention. Not surprisingly, Hew McLeod was chosen from an international pool of scholars to give the nationwide lectures on the history of religions in 1986 sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies. This was indeed a rare distinction that no other scholar of Sikhism, and few other scholars of South Asian studies, had ever achieved. This was not only an honor for Hew McLeod, but also an indication that the study of the Sikh tradition had finally achieved its rightful place in the Western academic establishment. During this tour of hectic lecture series Hew suffered a severe stroke on February 2, 1987 at New York that prevented him attending an international conference on “Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century” on February 13-15, 1987 at the University of Toronto.

Farewell to me and my family by the Sikh Society, Calgary, in August 1987Fortunately, the constant support of Margaret McLeod was crucial to her husband’s dramatic recovery from the stroke. In less than a year and a half Hew McLeod resumed his writing, editing, teaching, chairing his department at the University of Otago, and in September 1988 returned to Toronto as visiting professor of Sikh history and religion, serving for five years at the University of Toronto (1988-92). These years coincided with my preparation for the Ph. D. degree and I had the rare privilege to have him as my supervisor. Arguably the foremost academic in the field of Sikh Studies, Professor McLeod taught me skills of scientific inquiry. Passing muster with this meticulous scholar was a highlight of my professional life. He guided me with gentle care and much sternness.

Meanwhile, on February 11, 1989 I met with Professor Harbans Singh at the residence of his son, Nripinder Singh, in Reston, Virginia, to seek his blessings. Being my role model he had been constantly inspiring me through beautiful letters to earn the doctoral degree in the area of Sikh Studies (“Now Ph. D. should be the target,” he wrote when I completed my second Master’s degree at the University of Calgary). He was indeed the symbol of culture, courtesy, and creativity. He was delighted to see me and my family along with our friends. Each word that he spoke during that meeting carried the source of inspiration for me. He felt immensely proud of my scholastic progress at the University of Toronto and was pleased to know that I will be working on my doctoral dissertation under the guidance of three eminent scholars — Dr. W. H. McLeod, Dr. Joseph T. O’Connell and Dr. Willard G. Oxtoby. At the time of our taking leave Professor Harbans Singh gave me a signed copy of his recent work, Sri Guru Granth Sahib: Guru Eternal for the Sikhs (1988) that became a precious possession in my personal library. He gave his blessings with much affection and wished me luck in my forthcoming comprehensive examination.

In his first communication with me after setting my paper for comprehensive examination, Hew McLeod wrote to me from New Zealand on 28 February 1989:In the company of Professor Harbans Singh (second from left) and his family at Reston, Virginia, February 11, 1989

I have just dispatched your examination paper to Ron Sweet. I am writing to you to say that you must not answer the questions in a particular way merely because you think that I shall approve of the answers. You are not going to be marked down because you disagree with me. You will be marked down only if you fail to give adequate reasons for your opinion (where opinion is called for) and I am well aware that there is more than one opinion available on several subjects. Answer truly and truthfully, and do so with reasons, and you will receive full credit for your answers, even if they disagree with my own.

Thus right from the beginning Professor McLeod allowed me to even have disagreements with his own views and encouraged me to become my own person. That is what I cherish the most from my experience with him. I still remember the day when it was heavily snowing in Toronto. During the class I had expressed the desire to see his forthcoming book from Columbia University. During that cold and heavy snow he walked to my apartment and knocked the door. When I opened the door he offered me the galley proofs of his book. This is the human side of a compassionate gentleman who always cared for his students. As a footnote, it gives me further satisfaction that I was the first Sikh to receive a Ph. D. degree in 1991 with specialization in the area of Sikh Studies from a Canadian university.

After completing my doctoral degree I undertook the research project on the “Life and Work of Guru Arjan” as part of a prestigious two-year postdoctoral fellowship offered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC) at the University of Toronto in 1991. After a year’s work on my postdoctoral project, however, I joined the University of Michigan in September 1992 on a non-tenure track position for five years and kept this unfinished project as part of my ongoing research. At Michigan the Sikh Studies Association had been raising funds for the endowment drive for the Program in Sikh Studies. They assumed that once a person actually had begun teaching courses at the University of Michigan, student feedback and community interest would energize potential donors. In addition to the professional duties incumbent upon me, it was hoped that the position would bear fruit; that Punjabi teaching would draw students, and also that the broader Sikh Studies would grow out of this initiative. Moreover, it was hoped that I would help, in a number of ways, those who were soliciting funds for an endowed Chair for Sikh Studies. In spite of the worldwide controversy over my doctoral thesis (which began in October 1992 when I had just begun my career at Michigan) fund-raising had gone up during the five years of my initial contract (1992-1997). By that time the Sikh Studies Association had achieved its goal of 1.2 million dollars for a Chair in Sikh Studies on a permanent basis.

Let me now take this opportunity to provide a brief description of my teaching, scholarship and service at the University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor and the University of California, Riverside (UCR) during the last seventeen academic years and my future plans for research and teaching.

Teaching:

During thirteen years at UM, I took new initiatives in undergraduate teaching, building on fifteen years of previous teaching experience. I developed new courses in Sikhism, Religion in Modern India and the Punjabi Language, including the Sacred Language of the Sikhs (Classical Punjabi). The experience at UM exposed me to alternative perspectives that seek to redefine the notions of “religion” and “secularization” in the modern Indian context. It helped me to reframe the study of the Sikh tradition in the complexity of India’s total cultural life, particularly the Punjab crisis of yester years. My efforts at exploring new pathways to arrive at new truths, objectively, in a scholarly fashion, did not go without notice. To my great satisfaction, the Director of the Honors Program at UM, invited me to offer a Sophomore Seminar for Honors students that proved to be a great success. My Pioneer Class of 1992-3 at the University of Michigan

During the last four years at UCR I have taught the following undergraduate and graduate courses:

 

 

  • Sikhism (RLST 104) – Upper Division Course (UDC)
  • Religions of India (RLST 101) — UDC
  • Saints and Gurus (RLST 180) — UDC
  • Modern Hinduism (RLST 108) — UDC
  • Introduction to Comparative Scripture (RLST 02) – Lower Division Course
  • From Text To Scripture: Canon, Performance and Reception (RLST 241) – Graduate Seminar
  • Historiography of Sikh Hermeneutics (RLST 263) – Graduate Seminar
  • Representations, Interpretations and Critical Histories (RLST 200B) – Core Graduate Seminar

In addition, I have also taught Classical Punjabi (Sacred Language of the Sikhs) to my doctoral students who are specializing in the field of Sikh Studies. I am planning to introduce a new course on ‘Music and the Sacred’ for undergraduate students. I frequently employ modern technological tools (such as PowerPoint and audio-visual aids) to expose my students to different scholarly perspectives on the issues at hand in my lessons and encourage them to work independently on particular topics to make their individual or group presentations in the class. Thus they actively get involved in the learning process. In the classroom I have constantly reminded my students that in addition to the classic scholarship of discovery there is the scholarship of application and teaching. In my mind, the process involves conflating discovery with application and teaching. I have had an interesting and, in the eyes of an American student, perhaps intriguing life; by integrating the experiences of my life into my teaching, I have contributed much about intercultural understanding, cultural pluralism, and diversity.

Teaching the lower division class of 150 students on Scripture at UCR, Fall 2007

My pedagogy has aimed at inculcating in the student mind an independent faculty of analysis. I have thus tried to foster inquisitiveness about the human condition and accommodation for diverse value systems. This encourages my students to develop an attitude of understanding without an inordinate ethnocentrism, or needlessly disagreeing on academic issues with rancor. In my teaching experience I have observed that non-Sikh students often write good term papers by doing careful research of various sources. Most of the Sikh students, on the other hand, take it for granted that they know everything about Sikhism from their background and hence they do not feel the need to do careful research. They write their term papers in a hurry at the eleventh hour. However, this should not be considered as a negative judgment on all Sikh students. There are always certain exceptional Sikh students who participate enthusiastically in class discussions and write excellent papers.

 

Research

My research is located in the field of Adi Granth studies; I have authored three Oxford monographs, co-edited three conference volumes and contributed articles to academic journals, books and encyclopedias. I have a sound knowledge of traditional Sikh learning, manuscripts in archaic forms of Gurmukhi script and Indian religious traditions, with a mastery of contemporary issues in textual studies, canonicity, hermeneutics, literary theory, and history of religions. My work on the Adi Granth and early Sikh history is widely noted.

A more elaborate version of my Ph. D. thesis entitled The Guru Granth Sahib: Canon, Meaning and Authority appeared from the Oxford University Press in 2000. Its second impression was published in 2001 from Oxford, New York and New Delhi simultaneously, and its paperback edition has been reprinted in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008. In this work I have addressed the basic issue of how the pattern of assimilation, redaction, and canonization in the Sikh scriptural tradition compares with analogous scriptural histories of both Hindu and Islamic traditions. Understanding how the Sikh scriptures emerged, I have argued, tells us about the process of canonization in general, and the dynamics of this process in the Sikh tradition in particular. This study also points out that the text of the Adi Granth has inexhaustible hermeneutic value. Each generation of scholars has drawn out its own meaning and constructed from its reading its own truth. Thus, I have indicated, plurality of interpretations of the Adi Granth has been a quintessential part of the Sikh tradition. Finally, my book examines the role of the Adi Granth as Guru in the personal piety and corporate identity of the Sikh community. Therefore, it addresses the basic issue of how scripture functions as the source of ultimate authority for a religious community.

The release of my first book The Guru Granth Sahib by Congressman David E. Bonior in Michigan in 2000

As a supplement to The Guru Granth Sahib, my second book, The Bhagats of the Guru Granth Sahib: Sikh Self-Definition and the Bhagat Bani, appeared from the Oxford University Press in the beginning of 2003. This study seeks to address three closely related questions in the process of scriptural adaptation in the Adi Granth: How was the Bhagat Bani (“Utterances of the Devotees”) collected and canonized in the Adi Granth? Why did certain hymns of the poet-saints of Sant, Sufi and Bhakti origin receive direct comments from the Sikh Gurus? What is the status of the Bhagat Bani in the Sikh scriptural tradition? In addition to pondering these questions, I have placed the enquiry in the theoretical framework of religious pluralism. In the current climate of interfaith dialogue this book acquires new significance in understanding Sikhism, outside influences, and the impact of religious pluralism on the complex process of self-definition.

My most recent monograph, Life and Work of Guru Arjan: History, Memory and Biography in the Sikh Tradition (Oxford University Press 2006), was on the "Best Sellers List" in India. It is an ambitious study of a highly influential period of Sikh history during which the complex process of crystallization of the Sikh tradition reached a significant milestone. It follows a multidisciplinary paradigm in the reconstruction of Guru Arjan’s life based upon history, memory, tradition and mythic representation. Guru Arjan is so culturally pervasive that writing about him means writing about culture. The reconstruction of his life, therefore, offers a window to look into not only the particular dynamics of Sikh history and culture but also into the larger question of rapidly changing landscape of religion and culture in Mughal India. This study also addresses the issues related to a sacred biography.

Sikhism and History

I have also co-edited with Professor N. Gerald Barrier three conference volumes: (1) The Transmission of Sikh Heritage in the Diaspora (Manohar, 1996); (2) Sikh Identity: Continuity and Change (Manohar, 1999); and (3) Sikhism and History (Oxford University Press, 2004). These works are indeed international in scope and their major contribution lies in addressing broad issues that help frame the field of Sikh Studies.

Besides my obvious centrality in Sikh Studies, the focus of my research during the last seventeen academic years has been on interdisciplinary and comparative perspectives. In 1996 I was invited to attend an international workshop on “Religion, Health and Suffering,” organized jointly by the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London (September 18-20, 1996). For me it was not only an honor to participate in cross-cultural studies offered by eminent scholars from various fields, but also an opportunity to closely look at traditional Sikh theodicy to address the all-important question: “How do believers in a good and powerful God explain the reality of suffering, especially of the innocent?” My contribution is included in the volume Religion, Health and Suffering (Kegan Paul International, 1999) edited by John R. Hinnells and Roy Porter.

In the past, I have done research on the issues of “Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice.” During the summer of 1998 (August 16-25) I attended a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC) sponsored International Summer Institute, at the Anglican Retreat Center, Sorrento, BC, organized by the Center for Studies in Religion and Society, University of Victoria. This gave me an opportunity to work on the Sikh scriptures and tradition to search for resources that could support a Restorative Justice approach. In my contribution to the volume The Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice (State University of New York Press, 2001) emanating from the retreat, I have addressed the question of criminal justice by analyzing and critiquing what the Sikh religion has to say about reconciliation, healing, and forgiveness in the Adi Granth, in Sikh tradition and in Sikh social practice.

Currently, I am examining the musical dimensions of the Adi Granth. Sikhism is the only world religion in which the founder was a musician who preached his message primarily through song and music, and thus is a poignant example of the combination of religion and music. The recent focus on sacred music at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) panels highlights the importance of this topic. In fact, I was invited to present a paper on “Gurmat Sangit: Sacred Music of the Sikhs” as part of a Distinguished Lecture Series organized by the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, University of Victoria, Canada, on February 11, 2001. It was published in the volume Sacred Sound: Experiencing Music in World Religions (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2006) edited by Guy L. Beck. The positive response to my presentation and performance encouraged me to develop this topic further in the form of a book. Being a musician myself, I can make a solid contribution through my research on the project on Sacred Melodies: History, Theory and the Performance of Sikh Kirtan.

Finally, I am also working on a research project, Sikh Symbols & Religious Practices: Origin, Meaning and Significance, for the purpose of removing certain misconceptions about Sikh traditions in the western world where more than a million diasporan Sikhs have settled. My broad interests in symbols, rituals and music help me in the discussion of historical context, relevance of appropriate understanding of tradition and key issues to modern Sikhism in the diaspora. It is pertinent to note here that my chapter on “Sikh Traditions” is now included in the important textbook on World Religions: Eastern Traditions, 3rd edition (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2009) edited by Willard G. Oxtoby and Roy Amore. For me it is a unique honor to be invited for this contribution. This textbook is widely used in North American universities and colleges for undergraduate education.

ServiceSikh Studies Association of Michigan signing the “Restatement of Endowment Agreement” with the Interim Dean Patricia Y. Gurin of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, on November 13, 1998

During the thirteen years at UM, I organized four major international conferences that proved resoundingly successful. In addition, I organized one symposium under the Community Outreach Program. I also established Michigan Sikh Students Circle (MSSC) which provided the students opportunities to organize youth conferences, study forums, annual Baisakhi celebrations, Sikh Awareness Weeks, and interfaith and intercultural meetings. All these initiatives promoted Sikh Studies and, I daresay, enhanced the University’s reputation as a center for area studies. In particular, these academic enterprises contributed to expanding the University's teaching and research activities in South Asian traditions. Those who came into contact with me in these exercises might say that I was well organized, persuasive, and diligent; and those who were concerned with the development of Sikh Studies Program might even have found me to be quite innovative and enterprising. In fact, I used the Sikh Studies Program at UM as a base for continuing work with the Sikh community and worked as a foot soldier in the long and painstaking endowment drive.

The transition of my career from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1992-2005), to the University of California, Riverside in 2005, has brought new meaning to my academic life. I cannot forget the warmth with which my colleagues welcomed me to the department. My place in the newly emerging field of Sikh Studies within the larger framework of Religious Studies has become secure with the publication of my three Oxford monographs and three co-edited volumes. As the Saini Chair holder of Sikh and Punjabi Studies I organized the first major 3-day international research seminar on “Sikhism in Global Context” on December 4-6, 2008 at the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, where twenty-two scholars from four continents presented their papers. The participants focused on Sikh life and thought as a global community. The plenary session was attended by seventy people. It was a great success. Currently I am working in the editorial process to prepare the volume on “Sikhism in Global Context” for publication by an academic press.

Dr. Mark Juergensmeyer, Dr. June O’Connor, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany, Dean Stephan Cullenberg, author and Dr. N. Gerald Barrier at International Seminar on “Sikhism in Global Context” at Mission Inn, Riverside, on December 4, 2008

As a member of the Steering Committee of Sikh Studies Consultation Group of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), I was instrumental in putting the field of Sikh Studies at the prestigious academic forum in the world. Two doctoral students working in the area of Sikh Studies, Toby Johnson and Charles Townsend, made presentations at the AAR meeting in Chicago (October/November 2008) as well as at the research seminar at the Mission Inn. The third doctoral student, Gurveen Kaur Khurana, has recently joined our graduate program in the current academic year from Fall 2009 to specialize in the area of Sikh Studies. She has done M. Phil degree from Jawahar Lal Nehru University in New Delhi and will provide a much-needed balance between Sikh and non-Sikh students. As an international student she has won the Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship to work in the area of Sikh Studies.

 

 

 

Conclusion

Although the beginning of my career in 1992 was marked by a worldwide controversy within the Sikh community over my doctoral thesis, the ensuing personal challenge has made me more circumspect and resolute in my academic endeavors. In addition, it has sensitized me to the fact that what we write as scholars is not only intended for a small group of other scholars in the field but for the world audience at large. For me, academic freedom is not free; it comes with heavy cost. The main focus of my research has been to understand topics related to Sikhism within the broader study of South Asia, and to link them with theories and methodologies of various humanistic disciplines, particularly hermeneutics and textual studies within the history of religion. Thus far, my work has been related to the major themes of canon formation, text in context, inter-textuality, scripture as a cross-cultural phenomenon, and religious biography. I do approach my subject from different angles. Recently, I have moved away from my official ‘province’ of textual studies to an investigation of classical and folk traditions of North Indian music. My current research project seeks to explore a whole range of questions about the interconnectedness between music and the sacred – the relationship between music and religion, or spirituality.

Instead of sitting in the ivory tower of academics I perceive myself to be a public intellectual. I have delivered lectures in the public forums at the invitation of various Sikh organizations, including interfaith and volunteer institutions in North America, UK and India. Whenever I get the opportunity to participate in outreach programs I do so enthusiastically, since these programs are essential for understanding diaspora and also building an informal base among the diaspora Sikhs. In the end, I would like to extend a personal invitation to the members of the Sikh community, particularly Sikh organizations of California, to work together in the discipline-based training of a new generation of promising young scholars in the area of Sikh Studies. This will open up a wide range of academic appointment options for the young man or woman contemplating commitment to a lifetime of scholarship in the field. Let us set aside confrontation in pursuit of a win-win strategy that will help usher in a new era of cooperation and understanding.

 

UCR Website of the Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh & Punjabi Studies

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

logoThis personal narrative owes its inspiration to Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany who is internationally acclaimed as “the father of fiber optics.” Being the Chairman of Sikh Foundation he is the moving force behind the endowment of Chairs in Sikh and Punjabi Studies at various campuses in the University of California system. He encouraged me to pen down my experiences while working in the newly emerging field of Sikh Studies in the western academia. He raised the following questions: What motivated you to undertake research/teaching on Sikh matters? What do you expect to come out of your activities? What problems have you encountered? What kind of courses you have taught in the past and what new courses you are thinking of designing in the future? What do you think of past researches and what are the future plans? Do you have any problems with the students? What are the new opportunities in the field of Sikh Studies? What can we know about your involvement in research seminars and conferences, visits to Sikh organizations, and visits to Punjab? What are your long term plans? By asking these direct questions Dr. Kapany has made me go down the memory lane related to the span of about four decades.

I was drawn to Sikh Studies by the magnetism of Professor Harbans Singh, the celebrated editor-in-chief of The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, when I visited him in 1971 at his Punjabi University residence in Patiala, along with my school teacher Master Jaswant Singh. Although I was doing MA in Mathematics at Government College (Ludhiana) at that time, Professor Harbans Singh inspired me to join Guru Nanak Institute, Gurmat College, Patiala, to pursue my interests in the area of Sikh Studies. It is no wonder that the two years spent at Gurmat College were the most productive period of my graduate work with the unique opportunity to listen to the views of such distinguished scholars as Dr. Taran Singh, Professor Harbans Singh, Dr. Ganda Singh, Principal Satbir Singh, Giani Lal Singh, Piara Singh Padam, Dr. Avtar Singh, Professor Gurbachan Singh Talib, Dr. L. M. Joshi (Buddhism), Dr. M. P. Christanand (Christianity) and some others. Frequently, we will have visiting-scholars from other universities. One such visitor was Dr. W. H. McLeod who gave us a talk on the historical approach he adopted in his work Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (1968) in 1973. At that time we were more fascinated in his interest in the area of Sikh Studies than his critique of the janam-sakhis (“birth narratives”).

After completing my Master’s degree in Religious Studies in 1973 I joined Guru Harkrishan Public School, New Delhi as the Head of Divinity Department. This school was the most prestigious Sikh institution in the capital of India. It was here that I met a Canadian Sikh visitor, Dr. Gurcharanjit Singh Attariwala, an ophthalmologist and eminent member of the Board of Trustees of Sikh Society, Calgary, in December 1979. The Calgary Sikh community had built their first beautiful gurdwara, Guru Nanak Centre, by that time. The Sikh Society invited Dr. W. H. McLeod to inaugurate the gurdwara on Baisakhi Day 1979. Their aim in inviting a western scholar of Sikh Studies from New Zealand was to build a positive image of the Sikhs in the host society. Dr. McLeod inspired the Sikh community to work for the establishment of a Chair of Sikh Studies at a Canadian University. He assured them that this kind of program would give academic respectability to the Sikh tradition in the academy and remove the prevailing ignorance about the Sikhs in the larger society.

The Sikh community of Calgary was looking for an educated Sikh Granthi (“Reader”) and teacher. Dr. Attariwala approached me through a personal friend and made the proposal to accept the following position: “We need an educated Granthi who is well versed in Sikh scriptures. We will help him study at the University of Calgary in addition to his priestly responsibilities at Guru Nanak Centre. As part of his duties he will teach Punjabi language and Sikh religion at Guru Nanak School, organize Sikh Youth camps in the summer to pass on Sikh heritage to the new generation of Canadian-born Sikhs, visit hospitals to see Sikh patients and participate in interfaith dialogues. Occasionally, he will also visit the Police Academy in Calgary to teach the Police officers about Sikh traditions and culture.” I accepted the position and laid down my own conditions. The Sikh Society of Calgary invited me on the Baisakhi of 1980 with my wife and two children. I had multifarious duties and activities at Guru Nanak Center.

Mrs. Gurdev K. Attariwala took me to the University of Calgary and introduced me to Dr. Harold G. Coward, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Dr. Coward immediately encouraged me to start taking up courses in religious studies on the part-time basis. I was exposed to both eastern and western religious traditions, including various methods in the study of religion. Eventually, I was accepted in the new graduate program of the department and schooled in the application of modern historical and literary critical methodologies. I wrote a Master’s thesis on the Bhagat Bani (“Utterances of the Saints”) under the direct supervision of Dr. Ronald W. Neufeldt. Indeed, it was a great privilege to have him as my first mentor at the University of Calgary. Being a superb teacher he, carefully and with great sensitivity, guided me through every phase of that project. Earlier, Professor Harbans Singh had read the thesis proposal very carefully and provided great encouragement in the initial stage of the project: “As far I know, the Bhagat Bani has not been studied by anyone in the frame you have set yourself. Relating the study to the issue of Sikh self-definition was, I thought, a very original idea…I am quite convinced that this should prove a very interesting piece of work and an original contribution to Sikh literature” (Personal communication, 3 December 1985). It is pertinent to note that the Department of Religious Studies approached Dr. W. H. McLeod who was the visiting professor at the University of Toronto at that time to be the external marker of my thesis. The enlarged and highly revised version of my thesis was later on published as The Bhagats of the Guru Granth Sahib: Sikh Self-Definition and the Bhagat Bani (2003) by the Oxford University Press.

My three mentors: Dr. Harold G. Coward, Dr. W.H. McLeod and Dr. Ronald W. Neufeldt at Calgary on January 14, 1987

I should mention here that the Sikh Society of Calgary provided me with the opportunity of studying at the University of Calgary along with my multifarious duties at Guru Nanak Centre. I still remember that cold winter day in November of 1980 (with a temperature of –37 degree Celsius below freezing point) when I received a phone call from Mrs. Gurdev K. Attariwala, urging me not to walk outside in that weather to catch the bus to the University. Instead, she came and gave me a ride in her car so that I could attend my class on time. She stayed at the University for more than two hours and gave me ride back home at the end of my class. When I graduated from the University of Calgary, she celebrated my achievement by inviting my professors, some of my class fellows, some dignitaries, including Professor William Warden (Canadian Ambassador to India), to dinner at her home. It was one of the most unforgettable days of my life. In fact, the Sikh Society gave me a very touching farewell when I joined the University of Toronto in 1987 for my doctoral program. I still miss those good old days that I spent at Calgary.

I joined the University of Toronto for my doctoral work at the inspiration of Professor Joseph T. O’Connell who was quite optimistic that with the support of the Sikh community the University will be able to include Sikh Studies in its graduate and undergraduate programs. During the course of my studies, I had the good fortune of working with two eminent historians of the Sikh tradition: Dr. J. S. Grewal (ex-Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla) and Dr. W. H. (Hew) McLeod (University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand), both of whom were visiting Professors at the Centre for Religious Studies, University of Toronto. Earlier in 1986 Dr. McLeod was the Canadian Commonwealth Fellow at the Centre for Religious Studies, when he introduced the study of the Sikh tradition to the North American academic mainstream. This was the crucial time when after the events of 1984 the Sikhs had become the focus of worldwide attention. Not surprisingly, Hew McLeod was chosen from an international pool of scholars to give the nationwide lectures on the history of religions in 1986 sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies. This was indeed a rare distinction that no other scholar of Sikhism, and few other scholars of South Asian studies, had ever achieved. This was not only an honor for Hew McLeod, but also an indication that the study of the Sikh tradition had finally achieved its rightful place in the Western academic establishment. During this tour of hectic lecture series Hew suffered a severe stroke on February 2, 1987 at New York that prevented him attending an international conference on “Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century” on February 13-15, 1987 at the University of Toronto.

Farewell to me and my family by the Sikh Society, Calgary, in August 1987Fortunately, the constant support of Margaret McLeod was crucial to her husband’s dramatic recovery from the stroke. In less than a year and a half Hew McLeod resumed his writing, editing, teaching, chairing his department at the University of Otago, and in September 1988 returned to Toronto as visiting professor of Sikh history and religion, serving for five years at the University of Toronto (1988-92). These years coincided with my preparation for the Ph. D. degree and I had the rare privilege to have him as my supervisor. Arguably the foremost academic in the field of Sikh Studies, Professor McLeod taught me skills of scientific inquiry. Passing muster with this meticulous scholar was a highlight of my professional life. He guided me with gentle care and much sternness.

Meanwhile, on February 11, 1989 I met with Professor Harbans Singh at the residence of his son, Nripinder Singh, in Reston, Virginia, to seek his blessings. Being my role model he had been constantly inspiring me through beautiful letters to earn the doctoral degree in the area of Sikh Studies (“Now Ph. D. should be the target,” he wrote when I completed my second Master’s degree at the University of Calgary). He was indeed the symbol of culture, courtesy, and creativity. He was delighted to see me and my family along with our friends. Each word that he spoke during that meeting carried the source of inspiration for me. He felt immensely proud of my scholastic progress at the University of Toronto and was pleased to know that I will be working on my doctoral dissertation under the guidance of three eminent scholars — Dr. W. H. McLeod, Dr. Joseph T. O’Connell and Dr. Willard G. Oxtoby. At the time of our taking leave Professor Harbans Singh gave me a signed copy of his recent work, Sri Guru Granth Sahib: Guru Eternal for the Sikhs (1988) that became a precious possession in my personal library. He gave his blessings with much affection and wished me luck in my forthcoming comprehensive examination.

In his first communication with me after setting my paper for comprehensive examination, Hew McLeod wrote to me from New Zealand on 28 February 1989:In the company of Professor Harbans Singh (second from left) and his family at Reston, Virginia, February 11, 1989

I have just dispatched your examination paper to Ron Sweet. I am writing to you to say that you must not answer the questions in a particular way merely because you think that I shall approve of the answers. You are not going to be marked down because you disagree with me. You will be marked down only if you fail to give adequate reasons for your opinion (where opinion is called for) and I am well aware that there is more than one opinion available on several subjects. Answer truly and truthfully, and do so with reasons, and you will receive full credit for your answers, even if they disagree with my own.

Thus right from the beginning Professor McLeod allowed me to even have disagreements with his own views and encouraged me to become my own person. That is what I cherish the most from my experience with him. I still remember the day when it was heavily snowing in Toronto. During the class I had expressed the desire to see his forthcoming book from Columbia University. During that cold and heavy snow he walked to my apartment and knocked the door. When I opened the door he offered me the galley proofs of his book. This is the human side of a compassionate gentleman who always cared for his students. As a footnote, it gives me further satisfaction that I was the first Sikh to receive a Ph. D. degree in 1991 with specialization in the area of Sikh Studies from a Canadian university.

After completing my doctoral degree I undertook the research project on the “Life and Work of Guru Arjan” as part of a prestigious two-year postdoctoral fellowship offered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC) at the University of Toronto in 1991. After a year’s work on my postdoctoral project, however, I joined the University of Michigan in September 1992 on a non-tenure track position for five years and kept this unfinished project as part of my ongoing research. At Michigan the Sikh Studies Association had been raising funds for the endowment drive for the Program in Sikh Studies. They assumed that once a person actually had begun teaching courses at the University of Michigan, student feedback and community interest would energize potential donors. In addition to the professional duties incumbent upon me, it was hoped that the position would bear fruit; that Punjabi teaching would draw students, and also that the broader Sikh Studies would grow out of this initiative. Moreover, it was hoped that I would help, in a number of ways, those who were soliciting funds for an endowed Chair for Sikh Studies. In spite of the worldwide controversy over my doctoral thesis (which began in October 1992 when I had just begun my career at Michigan) fund-raising had gone up during the five years of my initial contract (1992-1997). By that time the Sikh Studies Association had achieved its goal of 1.2 million dollars for a Chair in Sikh Studies on a permanent basis.

Let me now take this opportunity to provide a brief description of my teaching, scholarship and service at the University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor and the University of California, Riverside (UCR) during the last seventeen academic years and my future plans for research and teaching.

Teaching:

During thirteen years at UM, I took new initiatives in undergraduate teaching, building on fifteen years of previous teaching experience. I developed new courses in Sikhism, Religion in Modern India and the Punjabi Language, including the Sacred Language of the Sikhs (Classical Punjabi). The experience at UM exposed me to alternative perspectives that seek to redefine the notions of “religion” and “secularization” in the modern Indian context. It helped me to reframe the study of the Sikh tradition in the complexity of India’s total cultural life, particularly the Punjab crisis of yester years. My efforts at exploring new pathways to arrive at new truths, objectively, in a scholarly fashion, did not go without notice. To my great satisfaction, the Director of the Honors Program at UM, invited me to offer a Sophomore Seminar for Honors students that proved to be a great success. My Pioneer Class of 1992-3 at the University of Michigan

During the last four years at UCR I have taught the following undergraduate and graduate courses:

 

 

  • Sikhism (RLST 104) – Upper Division Course (UDC)
  • Religions of India (RLST 101) — UDC
  • Saints and Gurus (RLST 180) — UDC
  • Modern Hinduism (RLST 108) — UDC
  • Introduction to Comparative Scripture (RLST 02) – Lower Division Course
  • From Text To Scripture: Canon, Performance and Reception (RLST 241) – Graduate Seminar
  • Historiography of Sikh Hermeneutics (RLST 263) – Graduate Seminar
  • Representations, Interpretations and Critical Histories (RLST 200B) – Core Graduate Seminar

In addition, I have also taught Classical Punjabi (Sacred Language of the Sikhs) to my doctoral students who are specializing in the field of Sikh Studies. I am planning to introduce a new course on ‘Music and the Sacred’ for undergraduate students. I frequently employ modern technological tools (such as PowerPoint and audio-visual aids) to expose my students to different scholarly perspectives on the issues at hand in my lessons and encourage them to work independently on particular topics to make their individual or group presentations in the class. Thus they actively get involved in the learning process. In the classroom I have constantly reminded my students that in addition to the classic scholarship of discovery there is the scholarship of application and teaching. In my mind, the process involves conflating discovery with application and teaching. I have had an interesting and, in the eyes of an American student, perhaps intriguing life; by integrating the experiences of my life into my teaching, I have contributed much about intercultural understanding, cultural pluralism, and diversity.

Teaching the lower division class of 150 students on Scripture at UCR, Fall 2007

My pedagogy has aimed at inculcating in the student mind an independent faculty of analysis. I have thus tried to foster inquisitiveness about the human condition and accommodation for diverse value systems. This encourages my students to develop an attitude of understanding without an inordinate ethnocentrism, or needlessly disagreeing on academic issues with rancor. In my teaching experience I have observed that non-Sikh students often write good term papers by doing careful research of various sources. Most of the Sikh students, on the other hand, take it for granted that they know everything about Sikhism from their background and hence they do not feel the need to do careful research. They write their term papers in a hurry at the eleventh hour. However, this should not be considered as a negative judgment on all Sikh students. There are always certain exceptional Sikh students who participate enthusiastically in class discussions and write excellent papers.

 

Research

My research is located in the field of Adi Granth studies; I have authored three Oxford monographs, co-edited three conference volumes and contributed articles to academic journals, books and encyclopedias. I have a sound knowledge of traditional Sikh learning, manuscripts in archaic forms of Gurmukhi script and Indian religious traditions, with a mastery of contemporary issues in textual studies, canonicity, hermeneutics, literary theory, and history of religions. My work on the Adi Granth and early Sikh history is widely noted.

A more elaborate version of my Ph. D. thesis entitled The Guru Granth Sahib: Canon, Meaning and Authority appeared from the Oxford University Press in 2000. Its second impression was published in 2001 from Oxford, New York and New Delhi simultaneously, and its paperback edition has been reprinted in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008. In this work I have addressed the basic issue of how the pattern of assimilation, redaction, and canonization in the Sikh scriptural tradition compares with analogous scriptural histories of both Hindu and Islamic traditions. Understanding how the Sikh scriptures emerged, I have argued, tells us about the process of canonization in general, and the dynamics of this process in the Sikh tradition in particular. This study also points out that the text of the Adi Granth has inexhaustible hermeneutic value. Each generation of scholars has drawn out its own meaning and constructed from its reading its own truth. Thus, I have indicated, plurality of interpretations of the Adi Granth has been a quintessential part of the Sikh tradition. Finally, my book examines the role of the Adi Granth as Guru in the personal piety and corporate identity of the Sikh community. Therefore, it addresses the basic issue of how scripture functions as the source of ultimate authority for a religious community.

The release of my first book The Guru Granth Sahib by Congressman David E. Bonior in Michigan in 2000

As a supplement to The Guru Granth Sahib, my second book, The Bhagats of the Guru Granth Sahib: Sikh Self-Definition and the Bhagat Bani, appeared from the Oxford University Press in the beginning of 2003. This study seeks to address three closely related questions in the process of scriptural adaptation in the Adi Granth: How was the Bhagat Bani (“Utterances of the Devotees”) collected and canonized in the Adi Granth? Why did certain hymns of the poet-saints of Sant, Sufi and Bhakti origin receive direct comments from the Sikh Gurus? What is the status of the Bhagat Bani in the Sikh scriptural tradition? In addition to pondering these questions, I have placed the enquiry in the theoretical framework of religious pluralism. In the current climate of interfaith dialogue this book acquires new significance in understanding Sikhism, outside influences, and the impact of religious pluralism on the complex process of self-definition.

My most recent monograph, Life and Work of Guru Arjan: History, Memory and Biography in the Sikh Tradition (Oxford University Press 2006), was on the "Best Sellers List" in India. It is an ambitious study of a highly influential period of Sikh history during which the complex process of crystallization of the Sikh tradition reached a significant milestone. It follows a multidisciplinary paradigm in the reconstruction of Guru Arjan’s life based upon history, memory, tradition and mythic representation. Guru Arjan is so culturally pervasive that writing about him means writing about culture. The reconstruction of his life, therefore, offers a window to look into not only the particular dynamics of Sikh history and culture but also into the larger question of rapidly changing landscape of religion and culture in Mughal India. This study also addresses the issues related to a sacred biography.

Sikhism and History

I have also co-edited with Professor N. Gerald Barrier three conference volumes: (1) The Transmission of Sikh Heritage in the Diaspora (Manohar, 1996); (2) Sikh Identity: Continuity and Change (Manohar, 1999); and (3) Sikhism and History (Oxford University Press, 2004). These works are indeed international in scope and their major contribution lies in addressing broad issues that help frame the field of Sikh Studies.

Besides my obvious centrality in Sikh Studies, the focus of my research during the last seventeen academic years has been on interdisciplinary and comparative perspectives. In 1996 I was invited to attend an international workshop on “Religion, Health and Suffering,” organized jointly by the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London (September 18-20, 1996). For me it was not only an honor to participate in cross-cultural studies offered by eminent scholars from various fields, but also an opportunity to closely look at traditional Sikh theodicy to address the all-important question: “How do believers in a good and powerful God explain the reality of suffering, especially of the innocent?” My contribution is included in the volume Religion, Health and Suffering (Kegan Paul International, 1999) edited by John R. Hinnells and Roy Porter.

In the past, I have done research on the issues of “Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice.” During the summer of 1998 (August 16-25) I attended a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC) sponsored International Summer Institute, at the Anglican Retreat Center, Sorrento, BC, organized by the Center for Studies in Religion and Society, University of Victoria. This gave me an opportunity to work on the Sikh scriptures and tradition to search for resources that could support a Restorative Justice approach. In my contribution to the volume The Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice (State University of New York Press, 2001) emanating from the retreat, I have addressed the question of criminal justice by analyzing and critiquing what the Sikh religion has to say about reconciliation, healing, and forgiveness in the Adi Granth, in Sikh tradition and in Sikh social practice.

Currently, I am examining the musical dimensions of the Adi Granth. Sikhism is the only world religion in which the founder was a musician who preached his message primarily through song and music, and thus is a poignant example of the combination of religion and music. The recent focus on sacred music at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) panels highlights the importance of this topic. In fact, I was invited to present a paper on “Gurmat Sangit: Sacred Music of the Sikhs” as part of a Distinguished Lecture Series organized by the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, University of Victoria, Canada, on February 11, 2001. It was published in the volume Sacred Sound: Experiencing Music in World Religions (Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2006) edited by Guy L. Beck. The positive response to my presentation and performance encouraged me to develop this topic further in the form of a book. Being a musician myself, I can make a solid contribution through my research on the project on Sacred Melodies: History, Theory and the Performance of Sikh Kirtan.

Finally, I am also working on a research project, Sikh Symbols & Religious Practices: Origin, Meaning and Significance, for the purpose of removing certain misconceptions about Sikh traditions in the western world where more than a million diasporan Sikhs have settled. My broad interests in symbols, rituals and music help me in the discussion of historical context, relevance of appropriate understanding of tradition and key issues to modern Sikhism in the diaspora. It is pertinent to note here that my chapter on “Sikh Traditions” is now included in the important textbook on World Religions: Eastern Traditions, 3rd edition (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2009) edited by Willard G. Oxtoby and Roy Amore. For me it is a unique honor to be invited for this contribution. This textbook is widely used in North American universities and colleges for undergraduate education.

ServiceSikh Studies Association of Michigan signing the “Restatement of Endowment Agreement” with the Interim Dean Patricia Y. Gurin of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, on November 13, 1998

During the thirteen years at UM, I organized four major international conferences that proved resoundingly successful. In addition, I organized one symposium under the Community Outreach Program. I also established Michigan Sikh Students Circle (MSSC) which provided the students opportunities to organize youth conferences, study forums, annual Baisakhi celebrations, Sikh Awareness Weeks, and interfaith and intercultural meetings. All these initiatives promoted Sikh Studies and, I daresay, enhanced the University’s reputation as a center for area studies. In particular, these academic enterprises contributed to expanding the University's teaching and research activities in South Asian traditions. Those who came into contact with me in these exercises might say that I was well organized, persuasive, and diligent; and those who were concerned with the development of Sikh Studies Program might even have found me to be quite innovative and enterprising. In fact, I used the Sikh Studies Program at UM as a base for continuing work with the Sikh community and worked as a foot soldier in the long and painstaking endowment drive.

The transition of my career from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1992-2005), to the University of California, Riverside in 2005, has brought new meaning to my academic life. I cannot forget the warmth with which my colleagues welcomed me to the department. My place in the newly emerging field of Sikh Studies within the larger framework of Religious Studies has become secure with the publication of my three Oxford monographs and three co-edited volumes. As the Saini Chair holder of Sikh and Punjabi Studies I organized the first major 3-day international research seminar on “Sikhism in Global Context” on December 4-6, 2008 at the historic Mission Inn in Riverside, where twenty-two scholars from four continents presented their papers. The participants focused on Sikh life and thought as a global community. The plenary session was attended by seventy people. It was a great success. Currently I am working in the editorial process to prepare the volume on “Sikhism in Global Context” for publication by an academic press.

Dr. Mark Juergensmeyer, Dr. June O’Connor, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany, Dean Stephan Cullenberg, author and Dr. N. Gerald Barrier at International Seminar on “Sikhism in Global Context” at Mission Inn, Riverside, on December 4, 2008

As a member of the Steering Committee of Sikh Studies Consultation Group of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), I was instrumental in putting the field of Sikh Studies at the prestigious academic forum in the world. Two doctoral students working in the area of Sikh Studies, Toby Johnson and Charles Townsend, made presentations at the AAR meeting in Chicago (October/November 2008) as well as at the research seminar at the Mission Inn. The third doctoral student, Gurveen Kaur Khurana, has recently joined our graduate program in the current academic year from Fall 2009 to specialize in the area of Sikh Studies. She has done M. Phil degree from Jawahar Lal Nehru University in New Delhi and will provide a much-needed balance between Sikh and non-Sikh students. As an international student she has won the Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship to work in the area of Sikh Studies.

 

 

 

Conclusion

Although the beginning of my career in 1992 was marked by a worldwide controversy within the Sikh community over my doctoral thesis, the ensuing personal challenge has made me more circumspect and resolute in my academic endeavors. In addition, it has sensitized me to the fact that what we write as scholars is not only intended for a small group of other scholars in the field but for the world audience at large. For me, academic freedom is not free; it comes with heavy cost. The main focus of my research has been to understand topics related to Sikhism within the broader study of South Asia, and to link them with theories and methodologies of various humanistic disciplines, particularly hermeneutics and textual studies within the history of religion. Thus far, my work has been related to the major themes of canon formation, text in context, inter-textuality, scripture as a cross-cultural phenomenon, and religious biography. I do approach my subject from different angles. Recently, I have moved away from my official ‘province’ of textual studies to an investigation of classical and folk traditions of North Indian music. My current research project seeks to explore a whole range of questions about the interconnectedness between music and the sacred – the relationship between music and religion, or spirituality.

Instead of sitting in the ivory tower of academics I perceive myself to be a public intellectual. I have delivered lectures in the public forums at the invitation of various Sikh organizations, including interfaith and volunteer institutions in North America, UK and India. Whenever I get the opportunity to participate in outreach programs I do so enthusiastically, since these programs are essential for understanding diaspora and also building an informal base among the diaspora Sikhs. In the end, I would like to extend a personal invitation to the members of the Sikh community, particularly Sikh organizations of California, to work together in the discipline-based training of a new generation of promising young scholars in the area of Sikh Studies. This will open up a wide range of academic appointment options for the young man or woman contemplating commitment to a lifetime of scholarship in the field. Let us set aside confrontation in pursuit of a win-win strategy that will help usher in a new era of cooperation and understanding.

 

UCR Website of the Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh & Punjabi Studies
UCR Faculty Directory

 

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6 Responses

  1. Gurcharanjit S Attariwala says:

    Delightful story of challenges & accomplishments of Dr Pashaura Singh.Wish him goodluck & success in future.Our Sikh societies in North America should make efforts to produce more scholars like him so as to pass on the universal teachings of our great Gurus to the world.

  2. Virinder S. Grewal says:

    Virinder S. Grewal

    November 23rd, 200 9at 2:53 pm

    I have myself witnessed an exciting and challenging career of Dr. Pashaura Singh because I was involved with him in establishing the Sikh Studies Chair at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. We started the endowment drive in 1982. Dr. Singh has not mentioned the lessons learnt from the community interference in establishing these Sikh Chairs for
    obvious reasons. But I would like to remind the Sikhs living in the Western countries to keep in mind two things:

    1. Universities in USA are autonomous and do not
    appreciate any outside interference from any one in
    their internal affairs of appointments etc.

    2. It is not easy to collect funds from Sikhs at
    large for these chairs unless there is only one donor. Sikhs do give money in establishing the Gurdwaras under the superstition of progress in spirituality or blessings of the Grace from the Guru by doing so, but not for the Sikh Studies chairs. The academic programs are the only way to open up Sikh faith to the west.

    Dr. Pashaura Singh, please keep up the good work and
    stay in touch.

  3. Gurprit says:

    I often feel that Sikhs do not think of numismatics as an important part of their proud historical heritage. I have very rarely witnessed the mention of the coins of the Sikhs whenever there is a mention of Sikh Studies. I still fail to apprehend the reason for keeping our present and future generations unaware of these “Symbols of Sikh Sovereignty”.

    Gurprit

  4. Jagpal SinghTiwana says:

    What an inspiring career!
    We are very proud of your achievements, Sir.
    I have nothing but respect for Calgary Sikhs who had the vision to see a scholar in you.
    I also admire your loyalty to your teacher and mentor, Dr. Hew McLeod. What a fine gentleman he was!

    Looking forward to read your forthcoming books

    Jagpal S Tiwana
    President
    Maritime Sikh Society
    Halifax, Canada

  5. Brittany says:

    And thuis is the main reason I like http://www.sikhfoundation.org. Fascinating posts.

    Edited by Admin: Removed unrelated link. Thank you for the kind words

  6. simran singh says:

    Dr. Pashaura Singh ji,
    Congratulations on your achievements and thank you for your services! We appreciate it.
    It is heart warming to see that you are doing a great job and look forward to attending some of your lectures in the future.

    Simran