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Item Code: NAU472
Author: Hew Mcleod
Publisher: Yoda Press, Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9788190666879
Pages: 336
Other Details 8.50 X 5.50 inch
Weight 330 gm
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Hew McLeod mailed the final proofs for this volume just before he went into the hospital and died 20 June 2009. It is fitting that the reissue of Sikhism was Hew’s last publication because that volume summarized much of his research and understanding of the Sikhs and their religion. The book has three major sections on History, Religion, and Society. Each contains valuable and highly readable information on innumerable topics. Hew also wrote an extensive introduction that explored his methodology and approach to Sikhism, as well as a glossary and appended documents that enhanced the value of the book. Except for minor corrections, this edition remains unaltered in terms of argument and presentation of facts.

The original book aroused less controversy than some of his earlier works, probably for two reasons. First, Hew already had published a monograph, collections of lectures, and documents that drew fire from a variety of scholars and activists. His revised dissertation, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (Clarendon Press, 1968) examined the hagiography surrounding the life of Guru Nanak. Hew specifically analysed the Janam-sakhi accounts that served as the basis for various popular biographies that incorporated anecdotes concerning Nanak’s birth, childhood, manhood, and death. Since many of those stories had come to be accepted as historical facts, especially in the work of Max Macauliffe’s monumental work, The Sikh Religion (Oxford University Press, 1909), Hew quickly came to be portrayed as a western scholar intent on undermining basic tenets of Sikhism. The negative responses grew louder with the release of three shorter works: The Evolution of the Sikh Community (1975), The Sikhs: Sikh History, Religion and Society (1989), and Who is a Sikh: The Problem of Sikh Identity (1989). Full bibliographic information on these and other important books by Hew McLeod are appended to this Foreword. Individual Sikhs and groups of like-minded Sikhs organized loosely or in institutes challenged Hew on literally hundreds of facts, interpretations, and often material taken out of context or deliberately distorted. Hew’s autobiography, Discovering the Sikhs (2004) summarizes the disputes and assesses the validity of critics’ charges.

The attacks prior to 1997 also reflected intense struggles among Sikhs over identity, control of institutions, and the militant responses to the attack on the Golden Temple and ensuing Delhi massacres in 1984. The rhetoric and sometimes angry responses to Hew’s work, and to a lesser extent, to Western academics in panels and conferences, were colored by a widespread sense of ‘Sikhism in Danger.’ ‘The ongoing atrocities in the Punjab and the demands for a separate ‘Khalistani1’ Punjab that prevailed in the decade after the brutal killings in Amritsar and Delhi created movements and alliances that affected Sikh public life in the diaspora. Although the fights over who controls gurdwaras and public discourse still continue, Sikhs have regained a sense of confidence and generally spend more time and funds on projects relating to supporting community institutions than focusing on the implications of growing academic interest in Sikhs and Sikhism throughout the world.

In fact, Hew McLeod’s lifelong interest and sympathy for Sikhism became apparent to all when he served as an expert witness supporting the centrality of the turban for Sikhs in a Royal Canadian Mounted Police hearing on that topic. ‘The decision that Sikhs could wear turbans and not traditional ROMP headgear was largely influenced by the arguments of McLeod and other specialists concerning Sikh tradition and customs. In 1999, Hew again gave extensive evidence at a Canadian Human Rights Commission hearing on the carrying of kirpans on aircrafts. Although that hearing supported the ban of kirpans by one airline, the proceedings and final report clearly showed that Hew had proven the centrality of the Aupan for Sikh identity. While accepting his arguments, the committee based its decision primarily on technical legal grounds. As the many Sikhs who knew Hew McLeod personally and in professional settings almost unanimously acclaim, despite disputes of specific interpretations, Sikhism had no better friend and well-wisher than Hew McLeod. This was particularly true in New Zealand, where Hew’s detailed research produced a book on Punjabis in the country and also stimulated further study and collection of data. Again, just before his death, a New Zealand TV program highlighted his life and contribution to Sikhs in New Zealand. Copies of that program are found in several venues including YouTube and other sites.

Sikhism is a synthesis of what Hew had learned since the 1960s. His Introduction sets out his arguments and presuppositions in clear fashion. From his perspective, that of a historian, there are three problems that should be addressed at the outset. First, the historian must evaluate sources, often untrustworthy or at least questionable in origin and intent. Second, sources must be interpreted. Third, as with all religious traditions, some material is held sacred by devout believers. In the case of the Sikhs, re-examining the historical context in which a religion grows and evolves is important. Also the scholar must reach at least tentative conclusions about major events that are seen as fact from traditional perspectives but which may require careful documentation. Hew then follows his discussion of religious belief and history with a clear statement of his basic assumptions for the book. The seventeen points are set forth in typically straightforward fashion. They range from the separate nature of Sikhism, the role of its founders and Gurus, and the importance of reformulation and strengthening of core ideas in a modern context, to observations about caste and the place of women in Sikhism.

Since the publication of Sikhism in 1997, Hew made fresh scholarly contributions to Sikh Studies on a regular basis while struggling with an illness that eventually ended his life. Some of the themes in the book were elaborated and served as the basis for three major works. In 2003 Oxford University Press published his Sikhs of the Khalsa: A History of the Khalsa Rahit. From my perspective, that tome is the most important McLeod volume except for his initial study of Guru Nanak and his subsequent autobiography. The basic arguments about how Sikh views of rahit (the Sikh code of belief and practice) evolved over time were already summarized in the first edition of this volume. What Hew accomplished six years later was to pull together a lifetime of research and translation into one magnificent volume that will continue to be invaluable for Sikhs and scholars alike. The arguments are further elaborated in a separate translation of a controversial document, the Prem Sumarag (2006).


What is Sikhism? Assuming it exists, can it be adequately defined or will it defy all such attempts? Surely Sikhism can be defined as a syncretic mixing of Hindu and Muslim beliefs. Is it not a Punjabi version of Hinduism? All Sikhs can be recognized by a refusal to cut their hair. Sikhs are renowned as a militant people.

These are some of the questions and assertions that one commonly hears when discussing the Sikhs and their faith. The general question can be answered in the affirmative. Sikhism does indeed exist and it can be sufficiently defined. The definition will show, however, that our other opening statements must be significantly modified or comprehensively rejected. Sikhism is not a syncretic mixing of Hindu and Muslim beliefs in any meaningful sense. Most Sikhs will reject out of hand any suggestion that their religion is a version of Hinduism, Punjabi or otherwise. Not all Sikhs refrain from cutting their hair. Sikhs have certainly earned a reputation as a militant people, but it is a reputation which applies only to a portion of the community.

Sikhism traces its beginnings to the Punjab, where Guru Nanak was born in 1469 CE. To this day an overwhelming proportion of Sikhs either Jive in the Punjab or belong to Punjabi families. Their number is not insignificant. Although it is difficult to define the edges of the community, it can be claimed that today approximately 14 million Sikhs live in the Punjab or in the immediately adjacent areas of Rajasthan, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Another million are to be found scattered over the rest of India, and a million have settled in other countries. A sizeable group has migrated to the United Kingdom, where their number was estimated to be 269,600 in 1987. Appreciable numbers are found also in Canada and the United States, where the figure is estimated to be roughly 175,000 each.

But the Punjab is the homeland, and it is in the Punjab, on either side of the border between India and Pakistan, that most of their shrines and historic places are to be found. Although many places associated with the Gurus are located on the Pakistan side of the dividing line very few Sikhs actually live there. At the partition of India in 1947 the Sikhs cast in their lot with India and virtually the entire population crossed into Indian territory in the mass migrations that took place at the time.

Most of the migrating Sikhs settled in Indian Punjab, though even. then they were not a majority in the province. Not until 1966, when the Indian government decided to grant Punjabi Suba (the state comprising only people who spoke Punjabi), did they actually reach that majority. It is a majority which is concentrated in the rural areas of the Punjab. Comparatively few Sikhs live in towns, which are, for the most part, predominantly Hindu in population. Even Amritsar, the holiest of holies for the Sikhs, contains only a minority of Sikhs. Farming in the rich grain-growing areas of the Punjab has been the traditional occupation of most Sikhs, an occupation which continues to the present day.

In studying the religion of the Sikh people one is inevitably con- fronted by the same contrast as affects any religious system. To any question, normative Sikhism gives one general answer (at least the orthodox form of Sikhism does). Sikh practice, however, frequently delivers a different one.

Some would hold, of course, that this does not matter when the study concerns the religion of the Sikhs. Just what Sikhs do in practice need not concern us. The religion presents the ideal which all Sikhs should strive to match and there the issue can rest. The failure of many Sikhs to measure up to this ideal is unfortunate (say the defenders of this view) but is scarcely surprising. Every religion has this experience with a large proportion of its nominal adherents, and the fact that Sikhism also has it is entirely predictable. Any study should concern the ideal. An awareness of different social practices by many Sikhs can properly be set aside.

Such an assumption is certainly a practicable possibility, but is it a realistic one? This study is squarely based on the assumption that it would not be realistic, nor would it be worth while. A religion can have meaning only as it is applied in practice, and if we are to understand its practical application we shall inevitably find ourselves dealing directly with a variety of social routines. In other words, a study of religion inevitably involves at least an elementary sociology.

In a study of Sikhism we shall also find ourselves dealing with the historical circumstances which have given rise to the religious system, with the result that History is also involved. Sikhs are strongly conscious of the historical background to their faith and it is very quickly evident that the path leads straight to the historical figure of Guru Nanak. The study soon proves to be sensitive, and it is a sensitivity which continues throughout the period of the ten Gurus and indeed well beyond them.

Three historical problems may be identified. The first is a shortage of trustworthy sources, at least to the professional historian. Whereas the popular view accepts tradition as valid historical evidence, the professional historian regards tradition as an altogether unsatisfactory means of reliably reconstructing the past. In this context ‘tradition’ means that which is handed down within the community (orally or in writing) without being exposed to rigorous historical scrutiny. We shall have more to say about ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional’ shortly.

This leads to the second problem. How is this material (much of it traditional) to be interpreted? Recognition by the strict historian of the importance of tradition for an understanding of the past certainly does nothing to make this problem go away. It is, indeed, a much more difficult problem than might appear at first sight, for the person who upholds the traditional view is not necessarily to be equated with ordinary Sikhs who possess littlé knowledge of historical procedures. What is proclaimed is not the blind faith of the masses but the views of scholars who have been nurtured in the Sikh tradition or have received their information from such sources. Such scholars find it very difficult to comprehend with sympathy findings or interpretations which seriously contest a traditional view.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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