Challenges for Sikh Studies in the Academia by Ajeet Cour

* Read the Introduction to this Feature

A Chair of Sikh Studies in any University will have to be designed as a catalyst of scholarly investigation, and not mere basking in the glory of Sikh history and the triumphs of Sikhs over the last five centuries. In fact, all of us are so intoxicated by the new celestial light shown to the humanity by Guru Nanak and other nine Gurus who followed, by the great poetry of the Holy Book: Guru Granth Sahib, by all our valor and victories, by the great glory of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire, that we hardly do any introspection about our more recent history and our social milieu. If we succeed in establishing such Chairs of scholarly research in Sikh Studies, shall we be able to investigate some uneasy, thought-provoking questions too?

Guru Nanak - painting by Arpana CaurTeachings of Guru Nanak & His Philosophy of Social Revolution:

The corner-stone of Guru Nanak’s philosophy was the launch of a social revolution against the inhuman tyranny of the sanctified upper castes: the Brahmins, leashed against the lower castes: the Shudras: the cobblers, the weavers, the dyers, the tailors, the scavengers, the water-carriers, , the potters, the washer men, the sweepers, the carpenters, the chamaars- those who remove the hides of dead animals and those who work in the cremation grounds. The untouchables! The apartheid! He decided to change the social fabric of society by raising his voice against the caste system which was the most degenerated social system, which had divided human beings into the superior most Brahmins and the lower caste ‘shudras’. He believed that Shudras are the genuine workers who kept the wheels of society moving with their labor. He laid the foundation of Sikhism on the basic principle of erasing the class-divide, treating all human beings as equals, children of One God proclaiming that all human beings are equal, the children of the same Creator. Upper castes and lower castes, Hindus and Muslims, all belong to one single family. Guru Nanak gave a new orientation to the social fabric! Making ‘sangat’, the congregation of pure-hearted followers of the Guru, and ‘pangat’, the community kitchen where everybody was supposed to sit in a row, on the floor, cross-legged, without distinction of caste or creed or religion, and eat together!

These were made the foundation stones of his philosophy. He gave extraordinary respect to the lower castes by saying loud and clear that those who work with their hands do honest labor and are closer to God. It required great courage and valor to launch such a movement challenging the Brahminical hierarchy, because one such previous attempt by Gautam Buddha had been crushed by Adi Shankaracharya, whose resolve to revive the supremacy of Brahmins pushed Buddhism out of India. Their monasteries were destroyed, and several of them were killed. He taught the respect of honest labor, and sharing one’s earnings with the needy! Helping those who are trampled over by the high and mighty. Negating all rituals which enabled the Brahmins to become “special species”, Nanak launched this great revolution and took his message, in his long travels spread over several years, not only all over India, but also to Tibet, Samarkand, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, in those times, about five hundred years back, when there were no trains, jeeps or airplanes. Nanak’s ideology was based on direct, deep and passionate love with God who was not someone to be afraid of, because He is a beloved friend, a lover. Before Nanak, during eleventh century, Sufism had also brought in their liberal philosophy against the fundamentalism of Islam. The Bhakti Movement had also been launched around the thirteenth century by those who revolted against the Brahminical supremacy like Basava and Akka Mahadevi in the South of India, but was crushed by the Brahmins. Basava was murdered for uttering his ‘vachanas’ in his own mother-tongue, Kannada.

Baptism “Guru Gobind Singh” Principals of Equality of All Mankind, Taken to Their Zenith by Guru Gobind Singh:

The same principles of equality of mankind were taken to its zenith by the Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh who created the Khalsa by baptizing the Five Chosen Ones who had offered their heads to their Guru. Out of these five, three were from the lower castes: Bhai Mohkam Chand was a washer man from Dwarka, Bhai Sahib Chand was a barber, and Bhai Himmat Rai was a ‘bhishti,’ a water carrier. So it was a casteless brotherhood of inspired people, who were saints at heart and fearless soldiers against all kinds of tyranny in their conduct. Those who were treated as untouchables were touched with divine light. Guru Gobind Singh bowed before them, and drank the holy water, ‘Amrit’ (nectar), from the same bowel from which they had taken it, in a gesture of supreme brotherhood. That was the ultimate declaration of the equality and brotherhood of Khalsa – The Guru initiated the Khalsa, and the five Khalsa’s then served the nectar to their Guru, initiating Guru Gobind Singh in the Khalsa brotherhood. It was not only a beautiful gesture; it was the final proclamation that Sikhs, the Khalsa, will be one single family, without any caste hierarchy. And he ordered that Sikhs won’t mention their castes with their names: “all Sikh men will be Singh’s, the lions, and all Sikh women Kaur’s (Cours), the princesses.” These are the fearless ones, the lion-hearted, who showed their valor in great battles, resulting in the golden period of Sikh history, culminating in the great glory of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s great empire, the zenith of Sikh history.

The scholars working on Sikh Studies should be investigating through their research program’s how Sikhism has digressed and where those principles have vanished today!
Mata Khivi distributing Langar
Who has been responsible to bring back the caste system with vulgar vengeance in the liberal Sikhism for which the Ten Gurus worked so hard to liberate the society, for which the Fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev and Ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur sacrificed their lives, for which the Tenth Guru sacrificed his four sons, his family, and ultimately his own life ?
Where has the beautiful philosophy of equality of mankind vanished?
Where have the democratic principles of ‘Sangat’, the congregation of the seekers and enlightened ones, and ‘pangat’, eating together as a family, and ‘Gurmata’s’, the unanimous decisions which the congregation arrived at for the future actions of the Sikh Community, disappeared ?

What was the reason that one of the active members of Ghadar Party, Lala Hardyal, who was living in San Francisco, had to send his comrade Babu Mangoo Ram to India, around early 1920s, to work for the upliftment of the lower castes, which had been pushed to the fringes of Sikh Society? He said, “We will get independence from the British, but we should concentrate on getting independence from the tyranny of upper castes.” Babu Mangoo Ram went around Punjab, with confirmation from every village, every town, every city, that the lower castes among Sikhs did not have any respect in their own religion, Sikhism. Why did the lower castes gradually feel so degraded and unwanted in Sikh gurudwaras, with their entry forbidden in most cases, that they had to do their ‘akhand paath’, the continuous, 48-hours reading of the Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib, under the trees ? Something must have gone terribly wrong in the social fabric of Sikh Society that the ugly caste system again started crushing the lower castes into vulgar, inhuman conditions, against which they reacted and revolted, not politically, but by creating their own space: their separate gurudwara. Gradually these lower-caste Sikhs, called ‘Mazhabi Sikhs’ by upper-caste Sikhs, remaining within the Sikh fold and following Sikh ideology, selected Sant Ravidas as their spiritual Guru, whose 40 shalokas, and one couplet, have been included in the Holy Guru Granth Sahib, along with several other Bhakti poets from all over India, mostly from the lower castes, including the Muslim weaver Kabir, and the first Sufi poet of twelfth century, Baba Sheikh Farid, making the Holy Book a unique example of brotherhood of the blessed ones, touched with divine light. They chose Sant Ravidas, a cobbler, as their Guru, and started building their separate gurudwaras, sometimes on graveyards and cremation grounds even, called ‘Ravidas Gurudwaras’. These Ravidas Gurudwaras came up all over Punjab, in mid-1920s and 30s.

Bhagat Ravidass jiThey place a painting of Guru Ravidas along with the Guru Granth Sahib, and they bow in front of both. As their children went abroad, to several countries around the globe, Ravidas Gurudwaras, have come up all over the world, several in United States, U.K. and Europe. The recent happenings in one such place of worship in Vienna have been viewed on TV Channels with awe all over the world. It was one such newly-built grand Ravidas Gurudwara in Vienna to which the head priest from a Punjab village, Ballan, was visiting along with his secretary, where the recent shooting incident happened. The elder priest died, the other sustained serious bullet wounds. This brought out thousands of lower caste people in protest on the streets of Punjab. After all, they are a little more than 28 per cent of the whole Sikh population in Punjab. The incident telecast by TV Channels across the world, should be very disturbing not only for the ordinary, true Sikhs, but for all sensitive people, and should call for serious deliberations by Sikh Scholars.

I wish the Sikh Scholars working on Sikh Studies would try to decipher the reasons and dissect the history behind this unrest. Such explosive situations can happen anywhere, unless an assimilation process begins sooner than soon!

Rioting in PunjabA Brief Historical Introspection:

As elaborated above, the movement for Ravidas Gurudwaras was launched in 1920s. That was the time when Bhagat Singh’s ideas had ignited the imagination of sensitive minds. That was also the time of the revival of Sikh identity, in retaliation of the onslaught of Arya Samaj which said Sikhs were only a sect of Hindus. ‘Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan’ was the slogan. The Sikh community, in retaliation to this big blow and cultural shock, established Chief Khalsa Diwan, Singh Sabha in 1920s, and later Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, to re-establish and proclaim their distinct identity. That was the time to give the lower-caste and neglected Sikhs, positions of social and political importance in gurudwaras and in the Sikh political party, rather than, several years later, towards the end of the same twentieth century, form a coalition government with the communalist Hindu RSS and BJP, forgetting their past record of humiliating Sikhism and Guru Nanak, demolition of Babri Mosque, and genocide of Muslims in Gujarat, making Akalis and BJP co-fundamentalists. Research scholars of Sikh Studies can definitely be of great help to not only find answers to these awkward questions, but also hammer in some sense in the high-and-mighty who control Sikh destiny in Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee and in Punjab Government.

How did we dare – and at what point of time – to forget the orders of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, and pushed the lower castes back into the abyss? How did we dare to forget that Guru Nanak had ordered his Sikhs to respect only those who worked with their hands? He had emphasized on ‘Dasan nahuaan di kirat kamai’, proving it with squeezing out milk from the rotis of Bhai Lalo, a poor carpenter, and blood from the fried ‘puris’ of Malik Bhago, the rich landlord? How did we become Malik Bhago’s, treating Bhai Lalo’s with the age-old Brahminical hatred and discrimination? That is the precise reason why I appreciate the idea of Chairs of Sikh Studies in American Universities, and for that matter, in any university in the world.

Shaheed Bhagat Singh

Sikhs in the Indian Freedom Struggle:

An important era of Sikh valor shines like a jewel during the freedom struggle. It is a history of supreme sacrifices. Out of 2175 Indian martyrs for freedom, 1557 or 75 per cent were Sikhs. Out of 2646 Indians sent to the dreaded Andaman Islands, called ‘Kaala Paani’ or ‘black waters’, for life imprisonment, 2147, or 80 per cent were Sikhs. Out of 127 Indians who were hanged, 92 were Sikhs. And we can go on and on with examples.Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh are the icons of that valor. But Sikhs ended up paying the highest price for Independence when in the hurry for their chairs, the leaders decided to let the British cut the country like a cake resulting in a sort of holocaust, the bloodiest and most ruthless division of their beloved Punjab, with the sixth river of blood flowing through their beloved Punjab: ‘panj aab’: the land of five rivers. Because of the Sikh valor and power, the British ruled over the rest of India for 200 years, but they couldn’t set foot in Punjab during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s lifetime, so they could rule over Punjab for just 98 years. After almost two decades, and after great struggle for the Punjab State on the basis of Punjabi, the language of both Hindus and Sikhs inhabiting Punjab, because the other states had been re-carved according to their mother-tongues after Independence, the Indian Punjab was again sliced into three parts: Punjab, Haryana and Himachal. And Chandigarh, which was created as the capital of Punjab after Lahore was lost, was again sliced into three parts: Punjab, Haryana and Union Territory of Chandigarh.What did Sikhs get in return for all their sacrifices? Images of tanks rolling into the hallowed environs of the Golden Temple in June 1984 is engraved in the minds and hearts of all Sikhs and the pain of genocide of Sikhs initiated on October 31, 1984, continuing into half of November.

The students and researchers of Sikh Studies will have to explore the tale of tyranny against their language and culture in not only the Indian Punjab but also in the Punjab which is part of Pakistan now, and the valor of the people on both sides of Punjab who are keeping their language and their cultural heritage alive, against all odds.

Bhai MardanaGradual Talibanisation of Sikh Community:

My other worry is gradual talibanisation of Sikh community. The recent incident of a brilliant girl student denied admission in a professional university course is a case in point. Asked if she plucked her eyebrows, she said, “As a Sikh I cannot tell a lie. Yes, I do pluck my eyebrows”. Evidently, she was denied admission. Was it more important as a Sikh to tell the truth as ordered by the Guru, or was plucking the eyebrows a more serious and unforgivable issue, questioning and reducing her identity as a true Sikh? Successors of Guru Nanak’s dear friend Bhai Mardana, the musician who played ‘rabaab’ when Guru Nanak sang his celestial poetry to its tune, had been singing gurbani in the Harimandir, the Golden Temple. After Partition, Bhai Chand was asked to leave. His family is virtually starving in Pakistani Punjab, because nobody needs them. Only one lover of Gurbani, a rare Punjabi poet and scholar, Najam Hussain Syed Sahib, calls them every week, for his weekly ‘sangat’ that he organizes at his own house on the Mall, in Lahore. Why couldn’t the successors of Bhai Mardana keep singing in the Golden Temple? Bhai Mardana, a Muslim, and Bhai Bala, a Hindu, life-long companions and closest friends of Guru Nanak! Similarly, Sehajdhari Sikhs have no place in the ‘pious’ gurudwaras!

Sikhism, unlike the Brahminical philosophy of exclusion of all others, and feeling proud of being the ‘purest of the pure’, believes in embracing the whole humanity. Pure is the one whose ‘conduct’ is pure. Pious is the one who the Creator, the Beloved embraces! Personally speaking, and risking being branded as a questionable Sikh, I will like to pay my compliments and regards to the clean-shaven Dr. Mohinder Singh Randhawa, who was a better Sikh than many of us. For the first time, he commissioned (never done before!) three Sikh artists: Sobha Singh, Jaswant Singh and Kirpal Singh to paint the lives of Sikh Gurus, even of Bhai Budha jee, and constructed Sikh Museums (of Sikh Gurus, Sikh History, Sikh Wars) at Anandpur Sahib, Chandigarh, and various other places, where these paintings are displayed in all their glory.

Maharaja Ranjit SinghUtter Neglect of Punjabi Language:

Another issue for serious research is the gradual neglect and downfall of Punjabi Language and Literature. Guru Nanak wrote his great poetry in the language of common people, which required great courage at that point of time. The upper-caste language was Sanskrit, and the language of common people was looked down upon! Basava, just 300 years before Nanak, had been killed for his Bhakti ‘vachana’s’ in the local language, Kannada, his mother-tongue! Nanak knew that if Sikhs had to have a distinct cultural identity, it was essential to give them the divine message, through his poetry, in the language of the common man, Punjabi. Moreover some spiritual poetry had been written earlier in Punjabi by the twelfth century Sufi poet Baba Sheikh Farid, which was included in the Holy Book of the Sikhs: Guru Granth Singh. Punjabi language created a distinct cultural space for not only the Sikhs, but also Hindus and Muslims living in Punjab, and it flourished under all the Sikh Gurus! Then it saw a gloomy period under the Mughals, the British, and even under Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

During the greatest moment in Sikh history – when Maharaja Ranjit Singh ruled over not only Punjab but the Khalsa flag fluttered at the top of Kabul Fort also, in retaliation to the attacks of Abdali on Harimandar Sahib – why didn’t he use Punjabi as the court language? Why didn’t the great political renaissance of Sikh history get reflected in any cultural renaissance? It was only a non-Sikh Chief Minister of Punjab, Bhim Sen Sachar, who realized that the Sikh Community and all Punjabis for that matter can retain and take Punjab’s glory to its cultural zenith only through Punjabi language and literature. The Sachar Formula made sure that right from Wagah, the Indo-Pakistan border in Punjab, up to the boundary of Delhi, every child had to study Punjabi right from Class I in school, as the first language or the second language. Punjabi books were being printed in thousands, and large editions vanished in just a few months time. A golden period for the expansion of Punjabi language and literature! Ultimately when a tiny bit of a measly little Punjabi Suba was created, the Punjabi publishing, printing and reading of Punjabi books got a big blow, from which I can see no way of recovering unless the authorities are shaken hard to wake up from their slumber and create provisions to buy Punjabi books in bulk and get then across to the thirteen thousand and odd panchayat libraries in Punjab. Mohinder Singh Randhawa, the clean-shaven, ‘patit’ according to the ‘Commander-in-Chiefs’ of Sikh faith, tried with several Chief Ministers to work on this formula. But power-intoxicated Punjab Governments, of whatever hue and color, have been ignoring this most important issue. By ignoring the potential of making Punjabi books reach the common man living in the rural areas they have been unknowingly, throttling the Punjabi language and literature.

The governments of the ‘Punjabi Suba’, created in the name of Punjabi language, have been wallowing in their power and wealth, ignoring PUNJABI. Even today, the Government of Punjab, a mixture of Sikhs and fundamental Anti-Punjabi Communal Hindi party, is striking at the roots of Sikh identity by ignoring Punjabi, Punjabi literature, Punjabi Art, Punjabi Intellectuals. I know for sure that if anyone wants to crush any community, they don’t have to guillotine every individual belonging to that community. They have simply to crush its language and literature, its culture and its folk heritage, and the community will gradually lose its identity. That was also the ideology of Hitler. He launched his crusade of crushing the Jews by the same process.


These are questions the researchers should deal with. Sikh Studies in any university will evidently be designed as a catalyst of scholarly investigation of the history of the evolution of Sikh philosophy, launched as a social revolution by Guru Nanak, trying to create a cultural space for the Sikhs by singing his poetry in Punjabi. But I am an incorrigible optimist. We stand firm and committed, and keep writing in Punjabi, keep painting, trying to keep our cultural heritage alive, and keeping the legacy and dreams of Guru Nanak alive! And I believe in what Pash, the Punjabi poet, once wrote:

Death is not the most frightening thing!
More frightening is the death of dreams!

We must introspect, and try educating the new generation of young Sikhs, through Sikh Studies in universities, about our glorious heritage, and its well-planned erosion! We have to cure the cancer within! Let us dare to keep the dream of a better future for Punjab alive! Better future for the Sikhs, Sikh Culture, Punjabi language and literature! More Museums of Art in Punjab, and Punjabi Art all over the world! And more Punjabi Books published and reaching people! More creative translations of Gurbani in all languages of the world, the way Khushwant Singh has been translating the beautiful Poetry (Gurbani) of the Sikh Gurus! More concentrated, objective research in all the above-mentioned issues which disturb all sensitive Sikh minds! And, let us hope for an ‘awakening’ of our leaders in Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee and in the Government of Punjab from their slumber, and look reality in the face!


Ajeet Cour
The South Asian Literary Recordings Project
Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature



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