Sikh Studies: My Past, Our Future – By Prof. Van Dusenbery
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It is indeed an honor to have been asked by the Sikh Foundation to write about my experiences in Sikh studies and my hopes for its future. This is especially so because I do not hold a chair in Sikh studies. In fact, teaching as I do at a small, liberal arts institution, I do not even have the opportunity to teach courses devoted exclusively to Sikhs or Sikhism. Nevertheless, I have had the privilege of working, for several decades and in many places, with Sikhs and Sikh studies scholars. And I welcome the opportunity to share my own history in and perspectives on the field.
My entry into Sikh studies was entirely serendipitous. As an undergraduate anthropology major at Stanford University interested in utopian communities and new religious movements, I ended up spending the summer of 1972 conducting participant observation fieldwork in a Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (3HO) ashram in my hometown. My subsequent honors essay (“Why would anybody join? A Study of Recruitment and the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization”) focused on the means through which 3HO was then recruiting its predominately young, North American followers. And this, notably, did not include much explicit reference either to Yogi Bhajan’s Sikh heritage or to Sikhism.
However, when I did follow up fieldwork in the summer of 1974, aspects of the “healthy, happy, holy way of life” that previously had been given a primarily yogic rationale were now being explained as orthodox Sikh practices. The Sikh Dharma Brotherhood had already been incorporated as a religious organization, and 3HO members were now being encouraged to participate in Sikh “conversion,” “initiation,” and “minister ordination” ceremonies. And, as discussed in my subsequent master’s thesis in Anthropology at The University of Chicago (“Straight → Freak → Yogi → Sikh: A ‘Search for Meaning’ in American Culture”), most 3HO/Sikh Dharma members accepted a collective narrative of their shared personal journey to Sikhism.
In 1974, Yogi Bhajan, now using the title Siri Singh Sahib (which he rendered as “Chief Religious and Administrative Authority for the Sikh Dharma in the Western Hemisphere”), had brought Sikh dignitaries from India to show off his thousands of new Gora Sikhs. During my fieldwork that summer, I happened to be in Vancouver, British Columbia, when an altercation broke out at the Ross Street Temple (Khalsa Diwan Society gurdwara) between longtime resident Punjabi Sikhs and the new Gora Sikh converts over gurdwara protocol, with the Gora Sikhs attempting to impose their understanding of Sikh orthopraxy. This incident provoked my interest in the increasing interactions and resulting tensions arising between the new Gora Sikhs and the existing Punjabi Sikh communities in North America. Consequently, I made plans to return to Vancouver to conduct research for my Ph.D. dissertation.
This is where the limitations on Sikh studies at the time came into play. In the 1970s, there was no university in North America offering Punjabi language courses! All I could do was piece together some Teach Yourself Punjabi tapes that a fellow grad student had made in Lahore and the Punjabi grammar lessons that I got from the Hindi/Urdu teacher at the University of Chicago. And, when I got to Vancouver, I took the Punjabi language class offered at a local community college, which was oriented mostly toward heritage language speakers wanting to learn gurmukhi! We are certainly blessed that over the past three decades Punjabi language instruction has become more readily available, of noticeably higher quality, and oriented toward various types of learners.
It was during my dissertation research in Vancouver in 1978-79 that I was introduced in a more systematic manner to Punjabi Sikhs, as I went about investigating the mutual misunderstandings that seemed to be affecting Punjabi Sikh-Gora Sikh relations in North America at the time. My subsequent Ph.D. dissertation in Anthropology at The University of Chicago (“Sikh Persons and Practices: A Comparative Ethnosociology”) analyzed how Punjabi Sikhs and Gora Sikhs, in their early interactions, were bringing quite different cultural assumptions to bear in their understandings of what it means to be a Sikh.
In 1981, on my way to visit Sikh friends in Punjab, I had the opportunity to visit Sikh communities in Southeast Asia. This opened my eyes to be very different experience and positionings of Sikhs in Southeast Asia. It also helped me to reflect more broadly on Sikh lives in the diaspora and set me off on a path of investigating Sikh experiences in different settings. As a consequence, Jerry Barrier and I, who had been speakers at the first Sikh studies gathering held at the University of Michigan in 1985, organized a follow up conference in 1986 on the Sikh diaspora. This early Sikh studies gathering led to our co-edited 1989 volume, The Sikh Diaspora: Migration and the Experience Beyond Punjab.
In 1992-93, courtesy of Fulbright and SSRC/ACLS fellowships, I returned to Southeast Asia for what was to have been a collaborative research project on Sikh communities in the region. Kernial Singh Sandhu, a Malaysian born Sikh and the preeminent historian of Indian migration to Southeast Asia, was then the director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. He and I had planned to work collaboratively; but, tragically, he passed away before my arrival. My own subsequent research with Sikh communities in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia was itself interrupted by back surgeries and recuperation, but it did lead to some contributions to the literature on Sikhs in Southeast Asia.
I had become intrigued over the years by stories I heard about the Sikh communities in Australia, not least because some of the Southeast Asian Sikhs I met talked about Australia as a new migration destination. In 1999, I was able to conduct research in Sydney, Melbourne, and Woolgoolga, while associated with the Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. While in Woolgoolga, I met Rashmere Bhatti, who had recently received a Centenary of Federation grant from the Australian government to tell the story of her own Punjabi Sikh community in Woolgoolga. Rashmere, reminding me that I had previously written that there ought to be more collaboration between scholars and local communities, invited me to help with the project. Our subsequent collaboration, incorporating voices of community members and also reflections from other scholars who had worked in the community, resulted in a multi-vocal social history-cum-ethnography of the local Sikh community, which appeared in 2001 as A Punjabi Sikh Community in Australia: From Indian Sojourners to Australian Citizens.
Ever since my initial fieldwork in Vancouver in the late 1970s, I had been aware of the importance of remittances to Sikh lives in the diaspora and in Punjab. Once Punjab opened up again after the political violence of the 1980s and early 1990s, Darshan S. Tatla and I had begun corresponding about the possibility of studying remittances from the diaspora and their effects on lives in Punjab. In 2005-06, we were able to undertake a collaborative research project on Sikh diaspora philanthropy in Punjab, while I was a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar attached to the Punjab Centre for Migration Studies that Darshan had founded and directed at Lyallpur Khalsa College. During the year, we also organized an international workshop that brought together scholars, philanthropists, journalists, and government officials. This led to the publication in 2009 of our co-edited volume, Sikh Diaspora Philanthropy in Punjab: Global Giving for Local Good.
While in India in 2005-06, I also took the opportunity to pull together various of my articles on Sikhs and Sikhism that had been published over the years in a wide variety of Sikh studies, anthropology, religious studies, ethnic studies, and area studies books and journals. These collected essays were published in 2008 by Oxford University Press as Sikhs at Large: Religion, Culture, and Politics in Global Perspective. My own next major writing project, building on some of my previous work, is to tell the story, as best I can, of Sikh experiences living at the intersection of multiculturalist ideologies and diasporic imaginings in Canada, Singapore, Australia, and the United States.
I continue to be actively involved in Sikh and Punjab studies, and I am excited about the growth of these fields and the new blood and new directions that are invigorating them. I hope that some of the growth pains that Sikh studies has experienced as it has entered the academy in North America will dissipate with time. I know that Sikhs, for good reason, will remain vigilant about how they are being represented, be it in the academic, governmental, or popular imagination. But, presumably, the generation of Canadian and American Sikhs now coming of age in North America will come to better appreciate the academy’s view that applying critical thinking is a sign of respect rather than an effort to undermine one’s faith.
At last fall’s Sikh studies conference at UC-Santa Barbara, I had the opportunity to make a few comments about the kinds of collaborations and conversations that I hoped for Sikh studies in the 21st century. In those spontaneous remarks, I noted that I looked forward to:
(1) transnational conversations among Sikh studies scholars working in different places and coming out of different intellectual traditions, since we can all benefit if Sikhism as a world religion and Sikhs as a global community are the subject of a wide range of intellectual projects;
(2) intergenerational conversations among younger and older Sikh studies scholars, because the elders may have some accumulated wisdom to share and the youngsters may have valuable new perspectives to contribute;
(3) Sikh and non-Sikh scholars continuing to bring various insider and outsider perspectives to the conversation in Sikh studies, so that we may benefit from complementary perspectives that can enrich our collective understandings;
(4) a wider variety of disciplinary approaches in Sikh studies, bridging the social sciences and the arts & humanities and incorporating ethnographic (descriptions of Sikh lived experience) as well as textualist (explication of Sikh texts) methodologies;
(5) attention to contemporary as well as historical experiences of Sikhs and Sikhism, recognizing that Sikh religion and culture are dynamic and continually emergent social phenomena;
(6) diasporic as well as Punjab-centered approaches to the study of Sikh history, religion, and culture, since Sikh religion and culture are being made and remade in the diaspora as well as in the historic homeland;
(7) further collaborations between scholars and community members in telling Sikh stories, since the local knowledge of the community and the social and cultural capital of the scholars can be a powerful combination; and
(8) recognition of Punjabi, English, and whole variety other languages as being relevant to studying the lives of Sikhs, since Sikh lives themselves have been and continue to be lived in many languages.
Fortunately, many of these collaborations and conversations were on display at the conference. And the Sikh studies chairs and Sikh studies journals are well suited to continue pursing them. As a consequence, I cannot help but be optimistic about the future of Sikh studies in the 21st century.