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Hew McLeod Passes Away:
The End of an Era
in Sikh Scholarship



EDITOR:  World renowned Sikh historian, W. Hew McLeod, passed away peacefully at 11.00 pm, Monday, July 20, 2009 - (New Zealand time) - in Dunedin, New Zealand, after a lengthy illness. We join Sikhs around the globe in mourning his passing, and in celebrating an extraordinary life, rich in scholarship and wisdom and lived to the highest ideals of Sikhi. Our deepest condolences to Margaret, his wife of 54 years, and his loving family. We are grateful for the blessings he brought to Sikhdom and pray for his eternal peace. 



What are the defining landmarks of a well-lived life?

To me, a minimal but universal definition, devoid of any religious overtones, would be a purpose-driven existence that transcends the self, a cause greater than the person, along with transparent honesty of effort in its pursuit.

To the short list of those that I have met and dealt with that I believe fill that bill, I would add without an iota of reservation another - Hew McLeod.

Hew McLeod went to Punjab almost fifty years ago as a Christian missionary, to do what missionaries do best - convert others to their truth.

Apparently, he fell in love with Punjab and Sikhs and lost his missionary zeal and purpose. By his own admission, he became agnostic, if not an atheist.

Instead, he became a historian of Sikhs and Sikhism, and this agnostic spent a lifetime researching and exploring Sikhs - a minority even in India - and their little known religion.

He became an international authority on the religion, perhaps the best known outside Punjab and India, and the man who has done more to introduce Sikhism to the world outside India than anyone else. It is because of a few writers, and Hew McLeod above all, that the world has any inkling of Sikhism as an independent religion, with a unique, universal and timeless worldview. He brought Sikhism to Western academia.

Of course, to many Sikhs, it appears incredibly odd that an agnostic should have spent a lifetime on their religion. Ergo, many Sikhs look askance at his writings with disbelief and a jaundiced eye. In their eyes, his being an ex-missionary doesn't help.

Hew was a historian. This means that he first wrote off and immediately dismissed hagiographic accounts that cannot be logically and reasonably parsed and proven. That offends many Sikhs, for that is being analytical in matters that need a touch of faith.

But what else is a historian or a scholar to do?

I, for example, may have the greatest respect for Jesus Christ and Christianity, the movement that bears his name, but if I were a historian of Christianity, I would not consider the account of "virgin birth" and the matter of "both bodily and spiritual ascension to heaven, by both Jesus and his mother Mary" as evidentiary material. Yet, both remain matters of dogma and faith for a Christian.

Furthermore, in the Indian tradition, linear history has never been much valued. In the accounting of a revered or saintly life, it is almost a requirement that the facts of his or her life be inseparably leavened, intertwined and mixed with mythology and magical markers. It is well nigh impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff, even in the routine history of two-bit kings and satraps. These are cultural traps in studying India that are the nightmares of historians.

And this is what Hew McLeod faced.

There are places where good scholars disagree with how Hew interpreted his data. Some may even be right - completely or in part.

To me, that is a compliment to the man and his work. To a scholar, disagreement and debate over one's work is a measure of the importance of his effort; it is fodder for further research.

Others - scholars of Sikhism, I am sure - will continue to explore his work in academic and non-academic space and for years to come.

I wish to share some of my recollections of the man very briefly.

My first contact with him occurred over my early writings and the first book of essays on Sikhs and Sikhism that I published 15 years ago. He was very kind and generously encouraging.

I met him in New York when he and his wife, Margaret, were on their way to Toronto, where he was an expert witness in the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) case over the right of Sikhs to serve with turbans and long, unshorn hair.

We talked about the fact that, irrespective of how or in what circumstances, the turban and long hair became integral to Sikh practice; nevertheless, it was true beyond doubt that Sikhs have been known for over an unbroken span of more than three centuries as people who wear long hair, beards and turbans. He agreed and said that he would develop and posit that line of argument.

Of course, he did what he said he would do and wrote me a note about it. We know now that the hearing turned on his testimony. This is now settled law and practice in Canada.

Margaret and Hew stayed at our house overnight, and I invited about 25 Sikhs from the local Sikh community to meet him over dinner. That was a time of great ferment in our community over the writings of Hew McLeod.

Some Sikhs protested the idea of a dinner, but most showed up. One or two brought a list of questions and tried to pummel Hew with them. I had to remind them - more than once - that this was not an interrogation, but a conversation amongst friends and, if they could not follow that simple instruction, I would have to show them the door.

Days later, if not then, Sikhs called to tell me that it was a useful meeting and that they forgave me for arranging it.

What I saw and admired was a man under siege, but calm as in the eye of the storm. I thought the rendering of the event would make a good essay on the meaning of sehaj but never got around to writing about it.

When I delved into the extensive and broad range of his work - from translations of a rehatnama by Chaupa Singh (McLeod's command of Punjabi and other Indic languages was enviable), Historical Dictionary of Sikhism, Textual Sources on Sikhism, study of Sikh migration to New Zealand, and parsing the almost impossible Gordian knot of "who is Sikh" - I was and remain impressed.

So, a few years ago, at my suggestion, The Sikh Review (Kolkata) assembled a special issue on "Hew McLeod: The Man & His Work." The reason behind this initiative was simple. No matter what the disagreements that we have on some of his writings (and I, too, have some), by the volume and the quality of his work, Hew McLeod had carved a permanent place in Sikh Letters.

Scholars will continue to mine his work for many a gem for many a year.

In over four decades in academia, I have seen many an academician, and have also encountered academic politics at close quarters. Hew McLeod was always different from the run of the mill scholar. Truly, he reminds me of the adage: a gentleman and a scholar.

One does not spend a lifetime in a mine without developing respect and reverence for the lode that is revealed. Similarly, I submit this ex-missionary was not left untouched by the richness of Sikh teaching and faith.

Like all deaths, most only end a life. A very few end something more profound.

The death of Hew McLeod is the passing of an era in Sikh scholarship.

By his own confession, he was an agnostic; otherwise, I would have happily dubbed him a sehajdhari Sikh. 


July 20, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: T. Sher Singh (Guelph, Ontario, Canada), July 20, 2009, 6:36 PM.

The Sikh nation has lost a giant of the stature of Max Macauliffe, Kahn Singh and Ganda Singh. We were so fortunate to have him and his wife, Margaret, dedicate their lives to the study of things Sikh. Our debt to both of them is endless. Our thoughts and prayers are with Margaret and their family, as Sikhs the world over celebrate his life.

2: Pashaura Singh (Riverside, California, U.S.A.), July 20, 2009, 7:38 PM.

Alas! Alas! Alas! I was shocked to hear the news of the sad demise of my mentor and a world-renownd scholar of Sikh Studies, Professor W.H. McLeod. About two weeks ago, he fell and broke his collar-bone. He was in the intensive care unit after a surgery in the hospital. We had been receiving good reports of his progress for the last few days. But when the final moment came, nothing could help. I am deeply saddened by his departure. I have no words to fully express my sorrow. An era of Sikh scholarship has ended with him. My prayers and thoughts go to Prof. McLeod's wife, Margaret, and the whole family. The Sikh world has lost a pioneer in the field of Sikh studies. May Akal Purakh bless his soul and provide confort to the family. Deepest condolences from my wife and I.

3: Dildeep Singh Dhillon & Nicola Mooney (British Columbia, Canada), July 20, 2009, 10:28 PM.

Hew McLeod strode like a colossus in the field of Sikh studies and made immense contributions. Hew and Margaret faced many obstacles due to Hew's stellar scholarship and his pursuit of knowledge. While he had many detractors, the literature on Sikh Studies is much more richer and well informed due to his pioneering work. He leaves a rich scholarly legacy. Hew inspired many new and emerging scholars in his field. They have lost a father figure. What stuck us the most about Hew was his humble, gentle nature and lack of 'haumay'. We came to know him through personal and professional connections and were inspired by his ideals. We have lost a friend, an advisor and an inspiring figure in our lives. May Waheguru bless his soul. With deepest condolences to his family.

4: Doris Jakobsh (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), July 20, 2009, 11:56 PM.

Thank you, Dr. I.J. Singh, for this wonderful tribute to our friend, the gentleman scholar, Dr. Hew McLeod. He will be missed by many who sought his guidance, insights and unending support.

5: Professor Jack Hawley (Columbia University, New York, U.S.A.), July 21, 2009, 12:00 AM.

At a conference for J.S. Grewal last March, there was - inevitably - much discussion about the remarkable amount Hew had accomplished in the course of his scholarly life, accompanied by plenty of affection and personal admiration from those of us who had had a chance to know him. The old issues connected with Hew's training in biblical scholarship - critical biblical scholarship, higher criticism and lower - arose again; it's an effort that still, occasionally, needs explaining and defense in the context of Sikh studies. For some reason I found myself saying, apropos of who was "really" a Sikh, that it has always struck me as deeply significant that, upon awakening from his stroke at St. Luke's in New York, he began speaking Punjabi (as best he could, given the effects of the stroke). Perhaps it says something about the analogies between a hospital in New York and a hospital in the Punjab. Perhaps also about shared staff. But most of all, I would venture, it says something about the depth of the consciousness to which he returned when indeed he returned to consciousness: a Punjabi consciousness, a Sikh consciousness. There was no one like him.

6: Dr. Mark Juergensmeyer, University of California (Santa Barbara, California, U.S.A.), July 21, 2009, 12:00 AM.

We had all hoped and expected that Hew would live forever - at least he seemed capable of that - but alas time has a way of stealing up on all of us. I love the image of Mozart guiding him into the mysteries of the afterlife, and he was comforted by knowing what an impact he had, and what a fine circle of colleagues and friends surrounded him.

7: Parminder Kaur (Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.A.), July 21, 2009, 9:33 AM.

I am saddened to read the news about the passing on of Dr. Hew McLeod. He had communicated with me a couple of times to encourage me to start documenting the History of Sikhs in North Carolina, U.S.A. I did start, but now as a tribute to him, I will pursue this project seriously. Only a few weeks ago, I had seen his interview on the YouTube and was really happy to get a little insight about his life and family. Rest in Peace, Dr. Mcleod, you have done a lot for the Sikh Community. Condolences to his family and the communities he served with his scholarship.

8: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, U.S.A.), July 21, 2009, 12:11 PM.

To pay a tribute to Dr. Mcleod and his service to the Sikh community, may I request to publish reviews of all his books on Sikhism. Similarly, I request Dr. I.J. Singh to write an essay capturing the discussion between Dr. Mcleod and the N.Y. Sikh community during the dinner at Dr. Singh's house.

9: Irvinder Singh Babra (Brantford, Ontario, Canada), July 21, 2009, 6:54 PM.

My heartfelt condolences on the passing away of Prof. Hew McLeod whom I met and interviewed in Toronto in 1989/90. He was way ahead of many other scholars on Sikhism to be found in India today. He singlehandedly introduced Sikh studies in renowned universities around the world. The doors he helped open for many Sikh Chairs and Conferences, especially in Canada and U.S.A., should not be hampered in any way, regardless of his sensitive opinions. Some Sikhs find them anti-Sikh but a new era on Sikh scholarship begins beyond him. Let his students and others take it further. It'll be a difficult act to follow.

10: Dr. Joy Barrow (London, U.K.), July 22, 2009, 5:53 AM.

My memory of Hew McLeod was that of a very generous man. If ever I needed a source of reference or an answer to a query, a detailed answer would always promptly be received. Others will comment on his undoubted contribution to Sikh scholarship, especially to the English speaking world. For myself, he was an immense scholar but someone who was always willing to encourage and support others in their Sikh studies.

11: Dhanwant Singh (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), July 22, 2009, 5:57 AM.

I am saddened to read the news about the passing of Dr. McLeod. The first time I met Dr. McLeod was when he came to Calgary to attend the opening ceremony of our gurdwara. Though a world-renowed Sikh scholar, we were moved by his humility. He will be missed by the Sikhs all over the world, more so in New Zealand. Condolences to his family and friends. May Waheguru bless his soul.

12: Harbans Lal (Arlington, U.S.A.), July 27, 2009, 12:00 AM.

I fully concur with I.J. Singh that the death of Hew McLeod is the passing of an era in Sikh scholarship. The Sikh scholarly circles will remember his era for a long time to come. As is now, his books will remain the major resource for information and research on Sikhism in the Western universities. It will take us a long time to replace them with the published works by the Sikh authors. I met Hew many times in U.S.A. and India. Once, I arranged a dinner reception for him in Delhi; he was there to release his book "Sikhs of the Khalsa: A History of the Khalsa Rahit". Of course, before he left this world he translated and scrutinized all of the major Rehat Naamas, a task none of us could even dare to undertake. Sardar Khushwant Singh, who released his book, expressed the same opinion. Regarding his faith, he Hew McLeod was quoted to be an agnostic and unlike I.J. Singh, some others would refrain from dubbing him as a sehajdhari Sikh. However, one may look at his agnosticism a bit differently. I recall talking to him about it. Although he continued to stick to his assertion, he told me that he was moved by the life and teachings of Guru Nanak. He did not believe in the anthropomorphic god of Christianity but was more comfortable with God as Infinite Wisdom, as celebrated by Guru Nanak. He wanted to take out myths and superstitions from the biography of Guru Nanak; never in any way had he wished to disrespect the Guru or his teachings. A few weeks ago, I called him and chatted with him as I have been doing for a while. At the end, he thanked me as usual and chuckled positively when I said that I was pleased to notice my Sikh friend in Chardi Kala in spite of his cancer. I wish to close my comment with my most sincere Ardaas in gratitude for the gift of his life and his wisdom amongst us. My sincere prayer is for his eternal peace and for strength to his family and friends so that they may abide by the Divine Will.

13: Jasbir Singh Sethi (Houston, Texas, U.S.A.), July 27, 2009, 1:33 PM.

Dr. McLeod's service to Sikhs of coming generations is invaluable. His selfless efforts created an opportunity to establish a number of Sikh Studies Chairs. They say time is ripe for a dialogue between religions; the good work that will come from these Chairs will help present Guru Nanak's message to the world. While a student under Dr. Prof. Sahib Singh in Khalsa College, Amritsar, one crucial thing that he grilled in us is that Guru Granth is the only authentic scripture that mankind has. Sikh History and other sources do have a mixture of spurious stories and ideolgies, so before accepting any such thing, a test must be performed that it is not against the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib. In fact, Prof. Sahin Singh started this tradition of examining history against the touchstone of Gurbani. Dr. McLeod followed the same tradition, to some extent. He was a great scholar. He was a gentleman as he was courageous enough to admit when he was wrong. The fourth area that goes to his credit is that he came out so boldly and candidly that he woke up many Sikh scholars who needed a jolt.

14: Jasbir Singh Sethi (Houston, Texas, U.S.A.), July 28, 2009, 9:25 AM.

I don't think it is the end of an era. I view it as the dawn of a new era ushered in by Dr. McLeod. Guru Nanak's message has finally a chance to come out of the shackles of Punjab only. Let me quote here Dr. Iqbal from his famous poem on Guru Nanak from his book, "Bange Dara": "Phir utthi toheed ki sadaa Punjab se; Hind ko ek Marad-e-Kamaal nae jagaaya khwaab sae ... Baarish-e-rehmat huae laken zameen kabal na thi". The sapling of Sikhi has been transplanted in the West. I believe, now the future Sikh Scholars will have much to accomplish in weeding out the spurious, un-sikh-like and undesirable weeds, and present to the world, the pristine beauty of Sikhism, for the benefit of humanity; and spread the message of Freedom, Love, Equality with Dignity, without fear and with enmity to none.

15: Balraj Chahal (Fremont, California, U.S.A.), August 02, 2009, 12:13 AM.

Dr. McLeod was a great historian who dedicated his whole life for Sikh studies. I know him from my college times at B.U.C. College, Batala, Punjab. We often had debates with him on history topics. It is a great loss for the Sikh community. We will miss this great historian. My condolences to his wife Margaret and their family.

16: Dr. H.S. Virk (Chandigarh, Punjab), August 04, 2009, 1:52 AM.

I fully agree with the ideas expressed by I.J. Singh in his obituary note. I met McLeod in 1967 at the Punjabi University in Patiala, Punjab, during an international seminar organized by Prof. Harbans Singh in the Guru Gobind Singh Bhawan. He introduced the concept of research in Sikh Studies and annoyed some half-baked scholars of Sikhism!

17: Hardeep Singh (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), August 12, 2009, 12:21 AM.

It is very sad to see the recent demise of two of our pioneerig Sikh historians : Hew Mcleod (20 July) and Sardar Patwant Singh (10 August). The Sikh diaspora is highly indebted to these two community soldiers who, with the power of the pen, each fought in many political, social and judicial battles to ensure justice and self-determination. Their work will keep on inspiring us and help the understanding of the Sikh Faith to the coming generations for many many decades, even centuries. But their depature has left a question for the 25 million Sikhs worldwide: Who will take on their baton? As Parminder Kaur ji said above, let's dedicate some of our time sharing our thoughts via writings and through other academic means about our Faith and community. It is a proven fact that well-produced written materials - books, articles or periodicals - nurture and propagate culture and traditions much longer than any other media. Our younger generation should be encouraged to take up writing, print journalism and the electronic media as carrer options, even as a vocation. Every gurdwara should dedicate some time and monetary resources to start and run Book Clubs, a Library, and academic Seminars for sharing and listening to varied perspectives and thoughts.

18: Sarbdeep Sadana (Hayward, California, U.S.A.), January 02, 2010, 8:52 PM.

Although I never met Dr. McLeod - I am only 14 years old - I believe he was a great historian who dedicated most of his life studying Sikhism. What makes him an even greater person is that he started off as a Christian missionary, and then he became acquainted with Sikhism in Punjab. What I am trying to say is that he was a great individual; he was not even a Sikh, but dedicated his life to our religion! This is something that a majority of us wouldn't do even being Sikhs! We should be ashamed that there are people out there who call them selves Sikhs but don't even know anything about Sikhi, let alone appreciate the very meaning of the word 'Sikh', which is 'to learn'. Our Gurus named our religion 'Sikhi' for a purpose; we are to be learners! Many of the people who call themselves Sikhs appear to have no clue about Sikhi at all. They may have big houses and all the degrees in the world, but if they can study everything else and not about themselves, then what is the use of their living? Don't take me wrong, I am just trying to show my disappointment, though I know my words do not apply to everyone. I am concerned about those who have probably never even touched a gutka or learned the Mool Mantar, for example. Dr. McLeod's passing away was a major loss for Sikhs all over the world as we need more people like him. My condolences to his wife and family.

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