Opportunities and Challenges, Sikh Studies by Doris R. Jakobsh

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LogosI am delighted to join the august chorus of voices contributing to this series on Sikhs and the study of Sikhism in North America. First and foremost, I must applaud the vision and tenacity of Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany. Sikh Studies in North American universities is thriving and a great deal of the credit for this is directly attributable to Dr. Kapany, not only because of his financial incentives, but also due to his sincere desire to make Sikh Studies a legitimate, viable and successful academic enterprise. So, let me begin by saying ‘thank you Dr. Kapany’ for all you have done for not only the Sikh community at large, but also for students interested in the Sikh tradition and those of us who have chosen to do research on Sikhism.

Pluralism Project FlyerA number of weeks ago I was at a conference in Sweden entitled Sikhs in Europe, where Dr. Gurinder Singh Mann gave the keynote address. While we were having breakfast one morning, Dr. Mann asked me if I remembered our first meeting – it was at Harvard University in 1991. I was working on my Master’s degree there and he was visiting from Columbia University and contributing to a panel on religious diversity in the USA through the Pluralism Project. I had the opportunity to take part in the Pluralism Project (then in its infancy stage – the Project has now celebrated its 20th anniversary) under the direction of Dr. Diana Eck and was doing research on Islam in the American prison system for the Project. Through the Pluralism Project I had the opportunity to visit the 3HO gurdwara in Medford and which had sparked an interest in the Sikh tradition with all its variances. It was thus that I asked Dr. Mann about the possibilities of furthering my interest in Sikhism. We chatted about the limited possibilities available for graduate work focusing on the Sikh tradition at that time. How things have changed!

Humanities Doris JakobshI began my doctoral work at the University of British Columbia in 1992, with a 1 year old son in tow and a new baby on its way. Needless to say, it was a wonderful opportunity, but a complicated and at times difficult path that I had chosen. I had the great privilege of working with Dr. Harjot Oberoi whose rigorous standards were not always easy to attain, given the juggling act of pregnancy, parenting a toddler and the reading and writing schedule set up for me by Dr. Oberoi. I must say I am grateful for his insistence on academic excellence; it has helped me set my own standards with my students today.

While I began my PhD work expecting to focus on Sikh women’s experiences in Canada, building on my earlier work with the Pluralism Project, it was the extent of the Singh Sabha movement’s indelible imprint on modern Sikhism and Sikh identity that caught my fascination, particularly when I began to view the period through the lens of gender construction. I eventually made the decision to switch topics and focus instead on a gendered analysis of the Singh Sabha movement. I also determined that I would use contemporary media sources from the early twentieth century, though not exclusively, to gain a sense of the pulse of the time. When my family and I (our children were 3 and 5 years old) went to Punjab, a great many hours were spent pouring over the Khalsa Advocate, Samachar and other papers and journals in Punjabi University library. There is something magical about having newspapers that are 100 years old at one’s fingertips. They say a tremendous amount about society in general, societal ideals, and particularly, in my case, gendered ideals. I also had the opportunity to meet, sit at the feet of and learn from some truly remarkable individuals within Punjab’s academic milieu, particularly Dr. Harbans Singh and Dr. Surjit Singh Hans. Both willingly gave up their time and energy to this ever-questioning PhD candidate. I was also granted an audience with Satguru Jagjit Singh at Bhaini Sahib and Dr. Nirankari in Amritsar; the insights and deep learning of both leaders impressed me greatly.

Sikhism and Women Cover Two years after completing my PhD, my thesis was published with Oxford University Press. This past year, I edited a new book, Sikhism and Women: History, Texts and Experience, also with OUP. This last book was an exciting project for me. I invited scholars from a number of disciplines, from across the globe – historians, scholars of religion, urban geography, sociology, among others, to contribute to this project. Given this rather vast array of academic disciplines, each allowed for a new lens to be through which ‘women in Sikhism’ are explored.

In terms of Sikh Studies, and the challenges and opportunities it offers, the future above all is exciting. There are numerous new scholars doing ground-breaking research around the globe. One of the important roles of the North American Chairs is, in my opinion, to bring together people who are taking part in this research worldwide. Those of us on this side of ‘the pond’ tend to be rather narrow-minded about our own roles within the North American context, with the possible exception of the work going on in the UK, often forgetting about scholarship emerging in other contexts. Research on the Sikh diaspora is taking place in Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland, Scandinavian countries, Germany and Singapore, just to name a few, where emerging and seasoned researchers are slowly gathering ethnographic information, alongside other foci, on the histories, migration patterns and kinship networks of the seemingly endless Sikh diaspora. Interestingly, this type of hands-on ethnographic work has largely been neglected with the North American milieu (with the exception of research in the 70s and 80s –Bruce La Brack, Karen Leonard, Hugh Johnstson – from the West coast of the US and Canada) but offers essential insights, when methodologically sound, into the development of a living, fluid and dynamic Sikh tradition.

Moreover, the majority of research within Sikh Studies in North America has tended to be heavily focused on historical and textual study, albeit with an emerging emphasis on more philosophical (also within the realm of the textual) approaches to Sikhism. In a recent study, Richard King addresses this seemingly inherent focus on ‘the text’ within the wider study of religion as stemming from a Western literary bias (or, to use Breckenridge and van der Veer’s term “textual imperialism” (1993, 7). King notes that western presuppositions about the role of sacred texts in ‘religion’ predisposed Orientalists toward focusing upon such texts as the essential basis for understanding religion, particularly with regard to the Hindu tradition. He notes that in the establishment of what was considered to be foundational to Hinduism, and, in the subsequent construction of a “myth of homogeneity” (King 1999, 161) the “oral and ‘popular’ aspects of Indian religious tradition were either ignored or decried as evidence of the degradation of contemporary Hindu religion into superstitious practices on the grounds that they bear little or no resemblance to ‘their own’ texts” (ibid 167).

King’s observations can be easily transposed to Sikhs as well. Perhaps it is also important to begin moving Sikh Studies into new directions in line with a growing number of current and ‘fresh’ approaches within the study of religion (Kippenberg 221). As scholars of Sikhism, and I speak particularly for those of us working within departments of religious studies, we must ask ourselves how much we are contributing to new ways of ‘knowing’ about the Sikh tradition and its teaching, beyond, for instance, the standard history-of-religions analytical and interpretive approaches. For many methodologies utilized within traditional approaches in religious studies stem directly from Christian scholarship within nineteenth to the mid-to-late twentieth centuries, which included at their core processes of compartmentalization, systematization and categorization of traditions into divisions that simply did not then, nor do they today, reflect the everyday practices and beliefs of many Sikhs.

While I do not wish to imply that traditional approaches to the study of religion are not important, it is equally important to include approaches that go beyond the textual. This is particularly essential with regard to the training of new scholars. Quite simply put, a continued and largely exclusive focus on ‘the text’ will lead to other important disciplines and methods not being advanced. One important element of this change in focus is moving from the primarily historical, philosophical and largely textual approaches within the study of religion toward an examination of Sikhism as a fluid and changing, organic tradition as it exists today. This includes an acknowledgement that Sikh identity or practice are not nearly as neat and tidy as they are generally presented. And certainly from anthropological or sociological disciplinary lenses, in examining the everyday realities and practices of ordinary adherents, a truer picture of ‘lived’ Sikhism emerges. These lived practices or belief patterns may well fly in the face of the rather comfortable categorizations and systematizations that, for the most part, are the purview of religious specialists (both secular academic and religious authorities). Yet, as scholar Richard Geaves insists, “religious conviction is messy and idiosyncratic” particularly if viewed through the beliefs and practices of everyday believers (Geaves 2007, 23).

panj_piyare_courtesy_sddharmaMy own research interests have increasingly turned toward issues of diversity, boundaries and/or fluidity of boundaries with regard to religious identity within the broad Sikhism’s spectrum of belief and practice. I am particularly interested in notions of representation and the inclusion/ exclusion of ‘groups’ within particular religious communities. However, foundational to this approach is first coming to an understanding of what or who constitutes a religious community. And certainly, within traditional categorizations, there is relative ease in coming to the conclusion that the Sikh community consists of followers of the ten living Gurus and the last living ‘text as Guru’, the Guru Granth Sahib, as the ultimate authority. However, this neat and tidy answer simply does not suffice in terms of a number of groups, firmly ensconced within Sikh history and practice, who continue to follow living guru lineages. Neither does it account for the highly esteemed position held within specific Takhts, the very pinnacle of Sikh authoritative structure, of the Dasam Granth alongside the Guru Granth Sahib.

Moreover, while many Sikhs truly believe that the Guru Granth Sahib is the ultimate authority, yet in day to day practice, or, for answers to the complex questions within their lives, may turn to a revered Sant or Baba (given that most are in fact male) for guidance. In many cases, directives from a particular Sant or Baba are viewed as sacrosanct. What does this mean? Why is this significant? Is there a gendered component to this phenomenon?
Another answer with regard to what constitutes the Sikh Panth may be that a Sikh is one who follows the Sikh Reht Maryada. Yet, groups have challenged or made changes to the Sikh Reht Maryada and this assertion. A number of these latter groups or movements appear to be highly respected and accepted within the wider Panth, despite their own objections to or changes to at least portions of the Reht Maryada. Are these simply inconsistencies or anomalies, or, marginal practices within marginal Sikh groups? And yet, by most accounts, many of these Sikh groups or movements are flourishing. On the other hand, some may simply be tempted to exclude them as ‘illegitimate’ or even ‘deteriorated’ expressions of Sikh or Punjabi religiosity. Be that as it may, it is clearly not the responsibility nor the mandate of scholars of religions within secular academic institutions to promote or decry any particular expression of a religious tradition, regardless of what is considered to normative or ideal practice or thought within the mainstream. It is in fact our responsibility, mandate and interest to come to better, more sophisticated understandings of the complexities and nuances of a religious tradition, in this case, Sikhism.

It is of immense interest to me as a scholar that while one particular group (or ‘sect’ in common parlance) seems to easily ‘fit’ within a dominant, normative identity, another group that appears to be similar may not. Where are the overlapping identities or practices? Why and when and how have they occurred? To what extent do caste or class and gender contribute to what is considered to be ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ practice and thus lead to potential inclusion or exclusion? Do the vagrancies of time affect what is considered to be ‘within’ a group and ‘without’? How has globalization affected the position of these varied groups? These questions highlight the complexity and fluidity of what constitutes ‘a’ religious tradition.

Doris_Jakobsh_presentationThis then brings me to a very perplexing and natural corollary: who speaks for Sikhism, given its clearly democratic system of authority, namely, the Panth itself guided by the light and wisdom of the Guru Granth, at least for mainstream Sikhs? Perhaps it is the time-honoured authoritative structures in Punjab, the SGPC, the Akal Takht, leaders of Punjabi or diasporic deras (who at least in terms of numbers are highly powerful, influential figures with regard to the daily lives and decision-making processes of their followers) or elected leaders within local sangats? As of late, my own interest and work has turned to the World Wide Web and what I have described as new virtual ‘authority structures’. This phenomenon is of course not unique to Sikhism. As is the case within a number of other religious traditions, contemporary Wicca or Paganism for instance, or, certain Protestant Christian groups that are not built on or within highly structured hierarchies, the medium of the WWW and spokespeople or groups based online have inadvertently become new sites of authority, albeit virtual. Their creators, then, are taking on the role of new religious mediators that adherents or interested individuals turn to in matters of belief, practice, history, scriptural interpretation or advice in some cases.

There is a great deal more to be said about new directions for Sikh Studies. Clearly there is a great need for substantive gendered studies on Sikh scriptures, society and structures of Sikh religious authority. So too is there a pressing need for research into issues of sexuality, including queer studies among Sikhs. Racialization politics and religious identity construction, particularly among disenfranchised (or not) youth also deserves serious attention by scholars. Inter-generational issues, (already begun by Kamalla Nayer in Vancouver) are also an important arena of studies that have largely been neglected.

While there are indeed gaps within Sikh Studies, nonetheless, as I noted earlier, the future is bright. While the numbers are not high, students are being beckoned into graduate studies. Chairs of Sikhism and Punjabi Studies, with the resources that come with their respective roles are in excellent positions to work together to foster a positive, supportive atmosphere for graduate students and for regular gatherings of scholars across disciplines. Through congenial working relationship between scholars and the subsequent sharing of information, methodologies, research topics, and disciplines, it is also likely that the spectrum of research within Sikh and Punjabi Studies will expand and become ever richer in scope.


  • Breckenridge, Carol A., van der Veer, Peter (eds), (1993) Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament , Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  • Geaves, Ron (2007) “The Borders between Religions: A Challenge to the World Religions Approach to Religious Education,” British Journal of Religious Education, 21:1, 20-31.
  • King, Richard (1999) “Orientalism and the Modern Myth of ‘Hinduism’,” Numen 46:2, 146-185.
  • Kippenberg, Hans G. (2000) “Religious History, Displaced by Modernity,” Numen 47:3, 221-243.

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1 Response

  1. tejinder says:

    this is a very well written article, a lot of research has been done on the contemporary state of sikhism. enjoyed reading.