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Talking Stick

Whither Scholarship
The Talking Stick Colloquium # 52





Please be short and concise in your comments.

Please stay focused on the issues(s) being addressed in the discussion.

Please provide accurate translations in English for all quotations from gurbani.

Each gurbani quotation should be accompanied by page and line citation - e.g., [GGS:1215.6] - that is, Line 6 of page 1215 of the Guru Granth Sahib.

Please do not repeat points made in earlier comments.

Please avoid capitalizing words and passages, unless ABSOLUTELY necessary.




The previous colloquium around the Christian practice of Lectio Divina - which is not dissimilar to how devout Sikhs relate to gurbani - generated a very welcome and spirited discussion.

It got me thinking about different but related lines of thought, which I hereby share for your consideration.

There is, first, the matter of approach and method.

Gurbani itself instructs a Sikh to adopt a holistic model - that includes inquiry, thought, contemplation and discernment - for the study, understanding and experience of gurbani.

The following verse, which I nced upon and leave as already translated, attests to this fact:

har paṛ har likẖ har jap har gāo har bẖaojal pār uṯārī
Read, write, chant and sing and you shall be ferried across.

man bacẖan riḏai ḏẖiāe har hoe sanṯusat iv bẖaṇ har nām murārī ||1||
In thought, word and deed - meditate on the Name

man japīai har jagḏīs.
And with your mind, remain fixed in mediation

mil sangaṯ sāḏẖū mīṯ.
Seek the right company of a sadhu

saḏā anand hovai ḏin rāṯī har kīraṯ kar banvārī II Rahāo.
In this way, remain in the state of Anand (spiritual bliss)

har har karī ḏarisat ṯab bẖaio man uḏam har har nām japio gaṯ bẖaī hamārī.
Your glance stirs me to spiritual effort - thus I find emancipation

jan nānak kī paṯ rākẖ mere suāmī har āe pario hai saraṇ ṯumārī. ||2||3||9||
Nanak has placed himself at Your feet, please favor me.

Raag Vadhans [GGS:669]

The point to be noted in this verse - as well as many similar verses - is that despite emphasizing a rounded and comprehensive self-effort, the Guru unfailingly reminds us that ultimately it is nadar (Grace, not self effort) that will cure us of our affliction.

The difficulty with us is that we are much like the ambitious trainee who apprentices himself to an expert blacksmith, masters all the functions with alacrity and obtains a position in the royal forge - only to discover that he had forgotten to
learn how to light the fire.

Metaphorically speaking, we need to learn how to light the fire of naam to cure ourselves of the virus that afflicts us and fogs our vision - haumai.

I wondered why the Guru always trumps self-effort with nadar. Perhaps because a distinction is being made between empirical knowledge and mystical knowledge (bhram gyan) which must come from above.

This brings me to the subject of Sikh scholarship in general and Sikh Studies in particular as it relates to the diaspora.

This thought was triggered by a reader’s remark that Sikh scholarship is “sloppy,” and that many Sikh scholars (not all!) lack spiritual experience to be able to provide any real insight into gurbani.

Speaking of North America, where I live, there is a perceived gap (perhaps real in some ways) and a disconnect between Sikh scholars and their work and the concerns of the wider Sikh community. There is a feeling that the few scholars we have working in North American Universities are cut off (deliberately, perhaps) from the issues that interest or preoccupy the Sikh community.

In fairness to the scholars, we must concede that academic work is highly specialized, meant for consumption by experts in the field and not addressed to the llay public. What we lack, perhaps, is the public intellectual who can step outside the bounds of the narrow, specialized world of academia and be able to interpret and speak to a lay audience.

The public intellectual, though, is a rare phenomenon, and in the Sikh world, rarer still.

But there appears to be a divide even amongst scholars – between those who are deemed to be “traditionalists” and others who approach Sikhi from a strictly secular (phenomenological) perspective. Not surprisingly, the latter are to be found in the West.

Part of the difficulty stems from the very nature of gurmat and its expression in the Guru Granth Sahib. Although the Guru Granth contains the philosophic principles of gurmat, they are not readily discernable. The Gurus chose to deliver
their message in poetry and not as philosophy.

And this is the challenge for scholars and laypersons alike. The thought process that informs the Gurus' experience has to be “churned” into an intelligible Sikh theology.

The development and emergence of a Sikh theology can be seen in Sikh history right from the time of the Gurus to the 1920’s - from Bhai Gurdas’ expository works to the Nirmala and Udasi traditions to the intellectuals of the Singh Sabha movement like Bhai Vir Singh and Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha.

Viewed from a post-modern perspective, this collective heritage - important and valuable as it is - lacked the formality, rigor and methodology that academic disciplines require.

Although scholars like Bhai Jodh Singh, Principal Teja Singh, Bawa Harkishan Singh, Dr. Ganda Singh - and of course Sirdar Kapur Singh - brought the rigor and discipline of modern methodology to Sikh studies, much remains to be done and re-visited.

This is a challenge that today’s Sikh scholarship must take on.

It is the genius of the Sikh Gurus to have created a unique scripture – the Guru Granth Sahib. At once a literary achievement of the highest order, a fount of sublime poetry and song, a repository of languages and an interfaith document, Gurbani is also and essentially Guru.

It offers a spectrum of experiences: to the devout and faithful, it offers succor and guidance; to the intellectual and scholar, it offers a rich source of inquiry.

Where does Sikh scholarship stand today - in terms of refining and enhancing Sikh theology? What role does Sikh theology play in shaping a distinctive Sikh ideology and Sikh identity? What challenges does Sikh scholarship face? Does a Sikh scholar require spiritual experience?

These are all questions for us to reflect on.


May 23, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Devinder Singh (India), May 23, 2011, 8:55 AM.

"What role does Sikh theology play in shaping a distinctive Sikh ideology and Sikh identity?" My answer is a question. What is your allegiance to? 'Ideology'? 'Identity'? In either case, you are moving away from the message of the bani, which vide the verse quoted, belongs rightly to Truth.

2: Harinder (Delhi, India), May 23, 2011, 1:13 PM.

The uniqueness of Sikhi is its acceptance of all ways to worship God.

3: Harpreet Singh (Cambridge, MA, U.S.A.), May 23, 2011, 9:04 PM.

It is worth noting that the opening verse from Rag Dhanasari by Guru Ram Das speaks of literacy (har par, har likh) as an prerequisite to advancement in the path of Sikhi. This, of course, does not mean that literacy is a magic pill that will result in liberation. Instead, it can frequently lead to delusion known as haumai in Sikh parlance (par par gaddi ladiye, as Guru Nanak so eloquently reminds us in his Asa ki Vaar). The larger point that I would like to make is that intellection is not the prerogative of the Sikh scholar of the university. Instead, it is incumbent upon every Sikh to read, write and contribute in the public sphere. In the context of academic work, the real problem that we face as a community is that we lack critical mass of Sikh scholars in Euro-American universities, and the study of religion is no longer viable in Punjabi universities, whose agendas have been shaped by Marxism, a hostile state apparatus and economic forces in the past decades. So my questions to you is: where are the scholars? Instead of building multi-million dollar gurdwaras with golden domes, do we have the will to build elementary and secondary schools that will make the study of Rattan Singh Bhangu and Sainapati fashionable? Do we have the will to part from some of our wealth to build seminaries in which our granthis will critique Hegel, Nietzsche and Foucault with the same ease as writing English and French commentaries on the Guru Granth Sahib? Until we take practical steps to create new institutions and curricula that are going to train a new generation of young Sikhs and prepare them to enter Euro-American universities to pursue rigorous scholarship that speaks to our current issues, the goal of finding a public intellectual will remain a fantasy.

4: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 24, 2011, 6:10 AM.

Ravinder Singh ji has himself provided the road map as well as pointed the right direction. It is now a matter of walking that road. Might I quote Bhai Gurdas' vaar: "jaise khand khand kahe mukh nahin meeta hoye/ jab lag jeebh swaad khand nahin khaeyae/ jaise raat andheri mein deepak deepak kahe timar na jayee jab lag naa jalayeeyae/ jaise gyan gyan kahe gyaan hoo na hot kach jab lag gur gyan antar naa paeeyae ..." - "Just as merely uttering the word 'sugar' doesn't sweeten your tongue; just as merely mentioning the word 'light' doesn't dispel darkness; just as merely repeating the word 'knowledge' doesn't make you wise ...!" As a first step, we need to recognize 'khand' (sugar - Naam) before we can buy it. By repeating the Naam, a stage would come when it goes deeper in your tarheel (deep down) and resides in your innermost being. The taste of sugar will then indeed sweeten your tongue. Once three Sikhs from Agra (I forget their names) approached Guru Arjan and complained that that despite their faithful recitation of gurbani and nitnem, they were not making any headway. Guru Arjan smiled and asked: "And you still feel that your recitation was wasted? Before you didn't know that your house was on fire, but now you know it, and will therefore take steps to douse it." Our job is to repeat the naam - the rest is gurparsad - and in His Hands.

5: Devinder Singh (India), May 24, 2011, 6:32 AM.

Agendas have the habit of hijacking scholarship. The reason is scholars get fixated on pet ideas. The study of the nature of God and religious truth - rational inquiry into religious questions "reasoning or discussion concerning the deity" is the subject proper to theology. Ideology has its own agenda - "the ideal concept" of how to live in the world. It encompasses the concept that one's ideals are the best way of being. The Wikipedia definition says: "An ideology is a set of ideas that constitutes one's goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things, or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society (a "received consciousness" or product of socialization). The main purpose behind an ideology is to offer either change in society, or adherence to a set of ideals where conformity already exists, through a normative thought process." If scholarship is employed to this end it is clearly subversive of the goal of Sikhi which is brahm gyan or mystical knowledge. Any seminaries that we build in the new mould, as is suggested by a commentator above, must have the explicit purpose of training the mind in proper reasoning, rather than shaping ideologies with which to bind the faithful, or forging distinct identities.

6: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), May 24, 2011, 6:35 AM.

I am of the view that true Sikh scholarship cannot be acquired from wordly universities. Guru Granth Sahib is in itself a marvelous university. So scholarship can be acquired from this university of the Guru. The need is to develop the skill of understanding the language of the Guru and understand and live gurbani's messages as per the real GURMATi way.

7: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), May 24, 2011, 6:59 AM.

Harpreet: thanks for the correction. It is indeed Raag Dhanasri, not Raag Vadhans. My error. I couldn't agree more with your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

8: Hardev Singh Virk (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), May 24, 2011, 9:32 AM.

I liked the comments of Harpreet Singh (Cambridge). We need to overhaul all Sikh organisations (Khalsa Educational Institutions, SGPC, jathedars, Akal Takht, et al) if we want to project Sikhi and Guru Granth Sahib at the global level. As Harpreet says, our universities in Punjab have failed to impact, despite so many Sikh study chairs and departments, because of Marxian agendas of many Sikh intellectuals who have been ruling the roost. The fate of the new Guru Granth World Sikh University set up by SGPC at Fatehgarh Sahib is not going to be different when you look up to the person holding its reins as Vice-Chancellor - an acclaimed Marxian scholar and not a gursikh.

9: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), May 24, 2011, 10:52 AM.

The problem is related basically to the fact that we all try to see Sikh ideology and identity at the same level, whereas these should be viewed in different ways. I fully advocate for the identity. Secondly, we all try to establish the concept of understanding gurbani from sources other than Guru Granth Sahib. Many times we are getting swayed in the wrong direction but our attitude is such that at any cost we try to match understanding of other books with Guru Granth and this creates further confusion. I agree with the views of Hardev Singh ji.

10: Balbir Singh (Germany), May 24, 2011, 2:42 PM.

Where did "Hari" go from this scholarly translation? "... Read, write, chant and sing and you shall be ferried across ..."

11: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), May 24, 2011, 8:20 PM.

There is a great challenge before Sikh scholars to give a new direction to the understanding of gurbani. To date, our Sikh scholarship is unable to fully explore the significance of the numeral 'One' in the very opening passage of gurbani. I think it is central to the understanding of Sikhi.

12: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), May 25, 2011, 12:43 AM.

Balbir Singh ji: , This is a great problem with our preachers and scholars that anything which they find difficult to explain, they put it aside, or bury it ... so, nobody gets the opportunity to explore or question.

13: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), May 25, 2011, 8:54 AM.

We have had good scholars such as Prof. Sahib Singh and Joginder Singh Talwara who have done commendable work in providing the guiding principles for gurbani understanding as per grammar of the bani. Surprisingly even these scholars could not do interpretations the way it should have been for reasons best known to them. We can certainly take the guidance from the work of these scholars just to take it further.

14: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), May 25, 2011, 10:41 AM.

Devinder Singh ji, I am not sure I understand your question ( in #1) or the thrust of your argument ( in #5). Nonetheless, let me clarify my own thought-process - erroneous as it could be. To me, a faithful representation/ interpretation of gurmat as expressed in the Guru Granth Sahib constitutes Sikh theology. I am assuming here that some methodology is at work here. Theology does not exist in a vacuum or an ivory tower; whether we know it or not, it intrudes into our lives and shapes our sense of self, individually and socially - which to me is the process of identity formation.

15: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), May 25, 2011, 6:01 PM.

Balbir Singh ji: thanks for pointing out the omission of Hari from the translation. My miss. It should have read, "Read, write, chant and sing to the One Hari." Quite apart from the inadvertent omission, the aim was not to translate but to render it in English, only to make a point and establish this dialogue. Translations into English are difficult and never quite convey exactly - only as an approximation.

16: Devinder Singh (India), May 25, 2011, 8:37 PM.

Ravinder Singh ji: Theology is grappling with the unknown. It is a vacuum for all practical purposes and for the vast majority of us the question never intrudes in our lives. We are content to simply be. Refer to the fervent prayer of admiral Sir Francis Drake elsewhere in this magazine ("Disturb Us, Lord"). The faithful representation/ interpretation you refer to is the search for ideology. You can get lost there, stopped in your forward march to understanding in a very personal way, unfettered by considerations of identity, the contemplation of the true nature of God.

17: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), May 25, 2011, 9:50 PM.

Ravinder Singh ji, please note the words HARi, HARI, HARiHARi and HARIHARI. All of these words have different meanings.

18: Balbir Singh (Germany), May 25, 2011, 11:26 PM.

Guru Granth is God's jewelry to human beings through the true Gurus. All words in it are unique gems.

19: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), May 26, 2011, 12:02 AM.

Ravinder Singh ji, I appreciate your practical views on formation of identity (#13). But there is always a risk of ideology being distorted to satisfy the requirement of identity. So we should work on how to prevent the wonderful teachings of Guru Granth Sahib from being distorted.

20: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), May 27, 2011, 7:30 AM.

Prakash Singh ji: appreciate your attention to the nuanced difference between "HARi, HARI, HARiHARi and HARIHARI." To me, however, these are simply variations - driven by grammatical and poetic considerations - used for Naam/ Akal Purakh. The usage for HARi/HARI/HAR HAREY/HAR HAR HAR HAREY or whatever, does not fundamentally alter its meaning - it is still pointing to Naam/ Akal Purakh. For all practical purposes, it is the same. I don't dispute the fact that understanding the refinements implied in grammatical usage can only deepen one's understanding. That is the bailiwick of scholars, grammarians and linguists.

21: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), May 27, 2011, 9:26 AM.

Ravinder Singh ji: I disagree with your last line - "That is the Bailiwick of scholars, grammarians and linguists."

22: Prakash Singh Bagga (India), May 29, 2011, 12:20 PM.

Our Sikh preachers and scholars need to properly understand the unique message of Guru Granth Sahib. In India, our "scholars" are put off track by mistaken notions of Hindu strains in Sikhi. In the West, by interpreting Sikhi through the lens of the Christian concept of God. Until and unless our scholars go to the source - Guru Granth Sahib - they will be misled and will mislead.

23: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), May 31, 2011, 7:32 AM.

Prakash Singh ji: this is indeed an important dialogue that requires a broader and sustained effort from the community. I hope we can continue to have this conversation.

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The Talking Stick Colloquium # 52 "

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