Sikh identity involves intermeshing of several historical and present strands of consciousness. As in other religious the situation of Sikh women and their experience are conditioned by multiple factors including identity socio-economic status and the political context.
The collection focuses on three distinct themes texts, condition of Sikh women in India and woman in diastolic contexts dealing with women’s lives and religious experiences. The essays discuss the way aesthetics and religion merges in the unitary experience of the sacred in Sikh tradition. They also explore gender in Sikh theology and society.
One of the first works of its kind to bring together women and being Sikh this volume engages with issues like religion, rituals literature, sexuality and nationalism and their link with identity formation of Sikh women. It analyses significant issues of gender and religion and provides an empirical as well as theoretical structure to the debate.
In their introduction Doris Jakobsh and Eleanor Nesbit explore the myriad themes of studies on Sikh women – and emerging area for historians’ sociologist and anthropologists alike. They outline major developments and also break new ground with empirical evidence from their research. A unique interdisciplinary collection of meticulous research and originality this book will interest scholars teachers and students of Sikhism women’s studies history religion and sociology
Doris R. Jakobsh is associate Prof. Religious Studies University of Waterloo Canada.
At first glance it would appear that the topic at hand namely Sikhism and women is a straightforward categorization. Moreover the raison d’etre of this volume too seems almost simplistically clear it is an exploration of Sikh women’s social and religious lives and experiences. A casual reader may expect within its pages a finely tuned capturing of the essence of Sikh womanhood. If only it were so simple for the terms Sikhism and women in and of themselves are highly complex constructions questions of who is a Sikh and what constitutes Sikh behavior and identity have long perplexed the Sikh community as well as scholars of Sikhism religion according to Elizabeth castelli is not an innocent category. It is rather a mediated discursive space particularly when looking at religious discourse and practice these two realms oscillate endlessly back and forth each reflecting and rein scribing the other’s claims this issues becomes all the more problematic in light of the emergence of modern perceptions of religion stemming largely from debates within Christian communities and European colonizers encountering other cultural forms rituals practices and texts in the contact zone of the imperial frontier further the ethos of the age of enlightenment played a significant in the formulation of what was perceived to be religion and what was understood to be religious.
Moreover as Harjot Oberoi’s seminal work on Sikh identity formation during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has shown British and Sikh increasing preoccupation with texts and scriptures and definitions played no small part in the heightened and politicized communal dynamic of colonical Punjab. For even the idea of religion as a systematized sociological unit claiming unbridled loyalty form its adherents and opposing an amorphous religious imagination is a relatively recent development in the history of the Indian peoples ibbetson the commissioner of the 1881 census in Punjab had earlier noted:
The British penchant for classification is here shown as utterly challenged by the fluid understandings of religiosity of the Punjab masses. Only terms like superstition which are highly pejorative within the linear and rational worldview espoused by the British colonizers and which refer to alternate or non Sikh practices that have crept into what was perceived as true Sikhism could account for the vast array of the practices that simply evades the classificatory needs of the British administration.
The British gaze toward the last state of the Indian subcontinent to be conquered particularly is relation to the Sikhas and Sikhism found a great deal that was familiar. Through what Jakobsh has termed elsewhere the politics of similarity the British imagined and actively promoted kinship ties to the Sikhs for they saw in them a reflection likeness what was especially disturbing to the colonizers was the variance of what constituted the Sikh. This translated into censure when variations of Sikh identity did not fit into British attempts to create a powerful Sikh military machine. When the Singh Sabha reform movement was inaugurated by Sikhs in the late nineteenth century to return Sikhism to what they considered to be the pristine purity of the age of the Sikh gurus and to conclusively establish what was true Sikhims the British were highly supportive of their efforts. As a result what Ballantyne has called the reformation trope of Sikh ad British endeavors set in motion a tendency to abstract religion from the complex set of kinship economic and political relationships that were central to Punjabi life.
The question of Sikh identity plagued the reformers particularly given Sikh minority status in Hind dominated India and the fluidity of boundaries at times merging at times separating religious affiliation in Punjab. Swami Dayanand the founder of the reformist Arya Samaj movement in the nineteenth century among many other simply considered Sikhism as part and parcel of the larger Hindu milieu. Finding ways to counter this perception became the dominant focus of the Sikh reformers. It was to the order of the Khalsa that the Singh Sabha reformers uniqueness within the wider milieu as well as rejuvenate what was understood to be a degenerate Sikh tradition. The reasons for this are not difficult to understand namely increasingly many Sikhs were rejecting the Khalsa identity as normative reforms made colossal attempts to stem the tide of those unwilling to undergo initiation into the Khalsa citing that this state of affairs was responsible for the degeneration of the Sikh community.
As oberoi has succinctly noted the Singh Sabha discourse of the regeneration of a fallen tradition was and still continues to be the benchmark of modern Sikhism today continuing to hold a profound fascination for the adherents of the faith the means by which the Singh Sabha divested what was a highly amorphous heterogeneous tradition into an increasingly homogeneous one namely the Khalsa Sikh or Tat Khalsa is important to coming to an understanding of the complexity surrounding issues of Sikh identity today. For Singh Sabha reinterpretation and adaptation of the Sikh tradition had far reaching effects that went far beyond the colonical time frame. The reforms they put in place in their purification process are reflective of what the many Sikhs today understand to be the essence of true Sikhism.
However the notion of a true Sikhism also bears the stamp by its nature of acknowledging that there exists that which is not true Sikhism. And it is this arena that what is often construed as the opposing worlds of religion culture or ethnicity come to the fore (Hall 1996: 297) Paul Bramadat notes that.
Similar to Kamala Nayar’s observations in this volumes Jokobsh’s experience in teaching students in an introductory Sikhism course may shed some light on the issues at hand for it is particularly in the arena’s of caste and gender issues that the culture and religion confusion becomes evident for students. Sikh students often speak of Sikhism as being casteless in its true form yet riddled by caste issues due to cultural norms similarly they proclaim that Sikhism is truly egalitarian when it comes to women and men yet insist that it is due to the negative effects of Punjabi culture that many Sikhs do not live according to Sikh principles in this regard. When asked Punjabi cultural norms end and Sikh principles begin students are at loss. As is evident in the contributions in this volume this loss is not only confined to students many scholars too find themselves in murky territory when attempting to circumscribe these issues. For Jakobsh’s students often when referring to harmful social problems within the Indo Canadian community culture is identified as the perpetrator when positive attributes are being referred to then Sikhism as religion is viewed as being relevant.
At the heart of this issue are the continuing effects of the enlightenment ethos alluded to earlier where religion came to be classified as utterly distinct from cultural practices economics politics and kinship issues in other words religion came to be addressed as abstract theoretical constructs as opposed to being the product of complex acts of translation codification and social reform that outlined core beliefs. Ballantyne calls for a move beyond this chief heritage of the colonical period that is the notion of religion as a self contained field to a richer more textured understanding of the many strands that constitute Sikh identity.
Oberoi has warned that while many historians (and one could add scholars of religion) think speak and write about Islam Hinduism and Sikhism they rarely pause to consider if such clear cut categories actually found expression in the consciousness actions and cultural performances of the human actors they describe (Oberoi 1994:1) this point is driven home in an important essay by Ron Geaves where he notes that his recent fieldwork on the cult of Baba Balaknath indicates that many of the worshippers define themselves as Sikh despite the fact that their primary loyalty is to a Hindu folk deity. Their allegiance stems from historical extended family networks r from the deity’s reputation for healing. While supportive of Oberoi’s findings within the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Geaves notes that the kind of eclecticism Oberoi dismisses as being largely a historical phenomenon is still very much alive in contemporary Punjab. The range of diversity within a larger Sikh identity includes numerous sects many of which are led by living gurus and godmen, Sikh, ascetics, Sanatan, Sikhs, Sikhs as worshippers of miracle saints and other miraculous sites alongside Sikhs who do not perceive their Sikh identity as religious but rather as an ethnic identity. Through fieldwork rather than an exclusive focus on texts an additional focus on the borders of traditions alongside the mainstream is allowed for leading to a richer and more authentic understanding of what constitutes Sikhism here specifically focusing his critique on scholarly religious studies texts he argues.
Fluidity defying clear cut boundaries of religious identity continues strongly not only in Punjab but also in the Punjabi diaspora which similarly provides strong challenges to simplistic notions of Sikh identity. Eleanor Nesbitt’s ethnographic studies over two decades in the Midlands of Britain (Nesbitt 1980,2000, 2004a) have highlighted the role of cross cutting allegiances and influences in Sikhs understandings of what being Sikh means salient among these are caste and the appeal of spiritual master (known as sants or babas) (Tatka 1992). At times these allegiances and influences converge as for example in the largely ramgarhia caste membership of the Namdhari Sikhs followers of a living Guru Satguru Jagjit Singh. In other instances caste tradition affects cultural and so religious practice in ways that differentiate that community from others. This as outlined below was certainly the case with the Bhatra Sikhs of Nesbitt’s fieldwork in Nottingham.
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