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
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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