Revival of Elitism in Sikh Academia by Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal

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Ivory Tower sculpture

In an essay entitled, “Ivory Towers or Towers of Learning,” published not long ago (see IJ Singh, 2010, Sikh & Punjabi Language Studies, November 10th, 2009) Dr I.J. Singh deplored the widening gap between Sikh Studies programs (and the Sikh academics who run them) and the Sikh community at large.

Dr Singh, an academic himself, albeit in the biological sciences, writes that Sikh scholars tend to engage in narrow specialization, publishing their work in restricted peer-reviewed journals – effectively cutting off the wider community of academicians as well as the Sikh communities from its benefits. He proposes that Sikh academicians widen their sphere of influence by stepping outside the walls of academia and engaging with the community. This way they could also serve the wider interests of Sikhi by playing the role of public intellectuals.

I fully subscribe to IJ Singh’s analysis and wish to expand on it further in the light of Sikh teachings, particularly the role of our Gurus in spreading and popularizing the vernacular of the common man.

My remarks are limited to Sikh academia in the West.


Not Well Enough

There is a growing urgency for broader dissemination of research work being carried out by Sikh academicians. To the question “How well are the western Sikh scholars progressing in this regard,” the answer, sadly, is “not well enough.” This is especially poignant in view of the fact that the potential to rapidly expedite the dissemination of research information is readily available in the form of the Internet and related social technologies.

One gets the impression that Sikh Scholars are missing the boat in terms of exploiting available technologies for broader socialization of their research and networking with the community. These technologies are readily employed by the non- Sikh academicians in the West .

Beyond the fact that their findings remain unavailable to Sikhs in general, Sikh scholars need to seriously re-think their penchant for publishing only in text and paper technology. While paper journals will no doubt continue to exist, the appearance of electronic media and other forms of exchange and dissemination are fast taking their place alongside in many cases and as a persuasive replacement in others.

The Internet and related technologies are changing the way we acquire information. In addition, there are conferences, symposia, internet, blogs, newsletters, project reports and updates, and many other ways where the information is freely disseminated at the same time as the material first presented at those scholarly outlets. This is not a new suggestion but has been adopted with enthusiasm by other researchers and academicians throughout the Western world.

The lack of response from Sikh scholars is akin to the risk of being too late to resuscitate a dying patient. Let me provide an illustration from my own field of biomedical research by reference to an editorial from Plos Medicine – a peer-reviewed, international open-access journal sponsored by the National Institute of Health.

The editorial chided investigators and journals that were late in publishing their data; for example, data relevant to the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemics in the past decade. The delay may have exacerbated the problem of making appropriate decisions about vaccination for public health physicians and policymakers.

The Plos Medicine editorial was referring to medical data that took 6-12 months to appear in the relevant journals. In contrast, research output from Sikh Studies in the West often takes years and in some cases decades before coming to the attention of the Sikh public.

Bhai SantokhResponse to Crisis

There is an emergency-like situation on many fronts in the West: the crisis of Sikh identity; the role of Sikh traditions and Sikh doctrines in the future of the global village; the authenticity and authority of Sikh scriptures and the marginalization of historic Sikh Institutions. We have yet not engaged other religions in dialogue with the Sikh scholars. We are not even close to defining the place of Sikh Studies among the Academic disciplines in the West.

These concerns should force us to re-think the paradigm of text (paper) publishing that Sikh Studies programs appear to be caught in. In the age of blogs, Twitter, and the 24-hour news cycle, are peer reviewed journals or books – that take years to publish and are limited in availability in any meaningful quantity often on account of high dollar cost to the subscriber – a realistic avenue for rapid publication or dissemination? This urgency was recently illustrated by R.S. Gill (see, Academia and Sikh Tradition: Unique Opportunities, Sikh & Punjabi Language Studies, January 12, 2010).

Might there be a role for data sharing which attracts community support? Above all, in the case of a Sikh, wide dissemination may simply be fidelity to the mission of our Gurus. Let me illustrate by looking at the Guru’s injunction and from Sikh tradition.


Cloud Burst

There is a beautiful story from the Guruship of Guru Amar Das reported by Sikh historian, Bhai Santokh Singh – from which the title of this paper is taken.

A delegation of Hindu religious leaders and scholars known then as leaders of Brahminical tradition or Pundits came to see the Guru. Their mission was to express their concern with the language and mode of propagation he was using to so freely spread Gurmat message to the people.

Sant KabirThey loudly expressed their concern and attempted to persuade the Guru to use the language of the religious elite, the Sanskrit, in order to impart Guru Nanak’s doctrines. The same elites should be given charge to further impart the knowledge.

The Guru is reported to rebuke the suggestion and used a metaphor to make his point forcefully.
Divine message, the Guru said, was like water to a thirsty person. Divine knowledge in Sanskrit or Arabic is like water in deep well: it takes effort to draw it and then irrigate crops of only those who possessed the means of taking out water in this manner. No sharing was possible as the quantity thus drawn was sufficient only to satisfy the appetite of the holder of the bucket.

In contrast, the Guru’s Wisdom, gurmat, was manifested in Gurbani (Guru’s repository of knowledge and findings) in a language which served like a cloud burst. It turned the crops of every one and in every field green; it reaches mountains and valleys alike, birds and mammals alike, animals and human alike, educated and uneducated alike, poor and rich alike. (See Santokh Singh, Sri Gur Partap Suraj Granth, Raas 1, Part 46, p. 1518. Reprinted Amritsar, Khalsa Samachar, 1954.)

The Guru’s verdict was akin to a biblical parabola.

Jesus is known to say that when you light a lamp place it at a higher pedestal so that the light can reach every one.
Countering the Brahmanic Elitism
The message of Sikhi was meant to break down walls of Brahminical exclusivity that manifested itself in the elitism of a few – scholars of religious studies who claimed that they alone would dispense the religious knowledge and in their restricted way.

Kabir who was himself marginalized by the pundits rebelled against the system and Guru Arjan incorporated his relevant verse in the Sikh Scripture as:

quote 1

Let me also quote from the verse that I elaborated in my recent paper published in Sikh & Punjabi Language Studies, May 19th, 2010.

The famous scholars of Guru Arjan’s era whose verses had the approval of Guru Arjan who considered them worthy of inclusion in the Guru Granth believed that the exegeses of the Guru hymns were always meant to be shared freely. When shared and spread without limitations it would not deplete but continue to swell. They wrote:

quote 2

Sikh academics should re-visit their role, not just as scholars in exclusive possession of specialized knowledge but also as missionaries for the spread of the Sikh message. They should follow in the footsteps of our Gurus who dislodged the Brahmanism system by making available divine knowledge in an open way.

However, a certain fear psychology or the lure of exclusiveness is reviving the ancient system of exclusivity again – with its well-tried and well-oiled machinery intact and once again at the helm. The slogan is to keep the civil society and scholars in other fields at bay and ignorant of Sikh Studies in the West. That is our misfortune.

This is especially disturbing when we realize that this is not the norm. In the West, for instance, scholars in all research fields are using every means available to spread their word. They are proud if the society comes to know of what they are searching sooner than later. They feel rewarded when their work is cited as soon as it is done.

Western scholars submit citations of their work by other scholars as a measure of merit for any promotion and tenure consideration. During my professional career as the Chair of a large department and often as member of the university promotion committees, I often presided over promotion of faculty in my own department, and played key roles in the promotion processes of the university at large. In most cases, the citations of applicant’s work by the academic community were one of the criteria. It was an index of the impact of the faculty’s scholarly activities on the academia as a whole.


In conclusion, I join Dr. IJ Sigh to sound the bugle of coming jeopardy that is in sight if we continue to build ivory towers and begin resuscitating the dead elite system of Pundits. This would amount to resurrecting Brahaminsim that our Gurus had so skillfully destroyed.

In contrast, our Gurus gave us the flame and the steel to lead and be ahead of others in serving the cause we commit to. Let us not ignore needs of our new generations and ever- spreading new congregations who are hungry to learn as well as to acquire tools to defend them in the new world.

Our Gurus invented the institutions of freely distributing religious knowledge and its open study by scholars. To impede the processes thus instituted is to reduce Sikh reformation to the status of just another “ism” that is as outdated for the Age of Aquarius as its predecessors.

For Correspondence, write to:
Harbans Lal,
6415 Amicable Drive
Arlington, TX 76016
Ph: 817-446-8757


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