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Above: Three of the Singh Sabha Movement stalwarts: Tarlochan Singh, Bhai Vir Singh & Sundar Singh Majithia.


Let Us Talk About Your Book:
Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West"
Part X

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM




Continued from last week ...

[Previous segments of this series can be found in the BOOKS Section of]



Q   You argue that the Sikh world unknowingly imported this kind of metaphysics through its encounter with European imperialism? Can you elaborate on that, please?

A    Basically the world that the Sikhs had known prior to their encounter with the West – the Sikh life world - the world in which Sikhs had the freedom to create their own meanings (which is one of the markers of what we call sovereignty) - that world was forced into subjugation to a new world, a new era that we call modernity.

For South Asians, the era of modernity was ushered in by a combination of British imperialism and global capitalism. Now, scholars of modern South Asian history tell us that there were many consequences, both negative and positive, of entering into this new era, this new or modern world.

But a particularly important consequence that scholars rarely talk about, was that the ability of South Asians (especially Sikhs) to make sense of their world, their ability to create their own meanings could not escape even a minimal reference to the new world in which they now lived. And this ability to create one’s own meaning is linked to the function of sovereignty.

Of course, some scholars might try to minimize the function and importance of meaning-making by simply saying that through the process of colonization of the relatively localized world of Punjabi, Sikhs became absorbed into the much bigger world that the West was rapidly creating through its imperial activities.

But this was more than just a simple absorption of the local into the global. This process had psychological and epistemological effects for the colonized. It ruptured and at the same time expanded their traditional world view. Through the various processes of colonization, the new world, the modern Western world had now become intrinsically linked to the psychic space of the Sikhs.

The new presence of the modern West couldn’t just be filtered out by escaping into a Punjabi world, because even that Punjabi world now existed within a more dominant structural framework. True colonization means the colonization of psychic space and that is how hegemony works.

Now, its well known that Sikhs in the late 19th and 20th century did respond to the new situation, and over time they developed a history of these responses, but these responses were largely uncritical (with a few notable exceptions). They did not fully understand the intricate ideological mechanisms at work in the language of the colonizer (especially the role of metaphysics and the relationship between religion and the secular which is foundational to the workings of that language), and so they tended to simply replicate the new modern world with all of its structures of domination.

And this replication happened not only when they used English language but also when they wrote in Punjabi!

Why? Because the material REALITY to which our linguistic operations refer (whether in Punjabi or English), that reality is modernity. You cannot easily avoid referencing the presence of modernity even if you write and think in Punjabi.

And why was this a challenge or a hurdle?

A   The problem was staring me in the face when I began to work on my original project of interpreting the teachings of the Sikh Gurus. It was a real dilemma.

On the one hand I wanted my interpretive project to pose resistance to the negative media projections and for this resistance to be noticeable beyond the extremely narrow Sikh domain, it needed to be conducted in English, in the language of the Western academy.

On the other hand, the language of the Western academy is not only the language of the ex-colonizer, it continues to trap us in its almost invisible ideological webs.

So that’s why I couldn’t do the “Philosophy of the Sikh Gurus” project at that moment in time. I needed to find ways to counteract the disease of Western metaphysics which spreads its tentacles through the invisible process of translation.

And that’s why I ended up writing the book called “Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality and the Politics of Translation“. It is about the process of encountering the West and about the processes of translation.

This book gives insights into why Sikhs need to open their eyes when they translate their concepts into an Anglophone categories.

Why? Because this process of translating Sikh concepts re-enacts the surrender of sovereignty to a dominant Western symbolic order. In the process of translating, we exchange one word for another, believing nothing has happened, that we simply transfer meanings into a new domain. But it is not as simple as this … Exchange is just a metaphysical illusion … It is what capitalism wants us to believe.

Q   OK, there seems to be a lot going on in what you’ve said above. Maybe we can step back a bit and elaborate on some of the key issues that your book deals with, one by one. Let’s start with your focus -- in part 2 of the book (chapters 3 and 4) -- on the Singh Sabha. You stated earlier in this interview that therein you attempt to “re-examine the Singh Sabha legacy with a view to reformulating a new Singh Sabha movement (Singh Sabha 2?) which is more able to resist the flows of dominant global consciousness even as it learns to live with these flows”.

Perhaps you could explain what you mean by this statement. And why is the Singh Sabha so important to you? And what do you mean by “Singh Sabha 2”?

A   Well, it’s fairly common knowledge that the British imperialist policies and the structures of colonial rule in India (and elsewhere) did not go uncontested by the native elites. For example, the British introduced a political and legal framework for ruling the country based on the Public/Private distinction that was secular in name only.

They pretended to govern through a policy of non-interference in cultural matters but in fact covertly allowed Christian missionaries to do their work unhindered under the protection of secular governance. As a result, the indigenous cultures were not even allowed privacy in the private sphere that was allocated to them.

Over a period of time there arose elite movements of intellectuals and scholars (Sikh, Hindu and Muslim) who began to challenge this sham of secularism by creating voluntary public spheres. These elite movements were the so called ‘reform movements’ whose purpose was to educate their respective constituencies and protect their cultures and traditions from encroachment by Christian missionizing.

The movement created by Sikh elites was called the Singh Sabha (founded 1873) which eventually split into two factions in response to stigmatization from Hindu reformist groups and the rise of political Hinduism.

The Singh Sabha is of great importance because it constitutes the group of people – scholars, activists, educators -- who created a defensive intellectual and grass-roots framework that enabled the authority of Guru Granth Sahib (as shabad-guru) and Khalsa Panth to be retained intact as the key structures of Sikh sovereign consciousness.

These were the very structures that developed during the Guru period and were bequeathed to the Sikhs by the Guru Gobind Singh. Without the centrality of these two structures (shabad-guru and Khalsa), the sovereign Sikh consciousness would have been either thoroughly marginalized or simply absorbed by a newly energized and resurgent political Hinduism whose authority rests on what I have termed in my book as the ‘Vedic Economy’ (which is basically a metaphysical belief system centered on the essential identity of Veda, Sanskrit and dharma … see chapter 5).

There is no doubt in my mind that this is what would have happened. My chapters 3 and 4 in “Religion and the Specter of the West” look at how the Singh Sabha intellectuals went about creating these defensive boundaries and how they forged the tools that allowed them to combat both Christian missionaries, European Orientalism and Hindu proselytization.

Having said that, when you actually look closely at the conceptual strategies that they adopted to combat their opponents, it is obvious that these strategies were largely borrowed from the dominant Western culture.

In order to compete against the vast political forces arraigned against them (modern political Hinduism and the Christian-Secular West), Singh Sabha scholars found it expedient to adopt translations of indigenous terms such as Sikhi, gurmat, panth and dharam by accepting Western terms and concepts, such as ‘religion’, ‘world religion’, ‘nation’, as if they were entirely equivalent to indigenous terms (chapter 3). By making them equivalent, Gurmat becomes Sikh theology; Sikhi becomes Sikhism; Panth becomes Quom which is made equivalent to Nation; Dharam becomes Religion, etc., etc.

I have called this process the practice of ‘religion-making’ which means that Western terms such as ‘religion’ (and its twin, ‘the secular’) may not have had conceptual counterparts in Indic languages, but the process of making-equivalent is tantamount to effectively reconstructing them as if they were native categories.

Which they clearly were not.

Once Sikhi is equated with religion, and once Sikhs started to represent themselves as a ‘religion’ this paved the way for the British to be able to classify them like any other religion. For the British, the sole purpose of doing this was to get indigenous cultures to openly say in their own words that they were religions, and once they said this, they had no option but to accept that as religion they should remain in the private sphere.

From the British point of view, Sikhs had no business in the Public Sphere because once they had begun to represent themselves as a ‘religion’ they could not legitimately also claim access to the political. That right belonged to the nation-state whose guardians in India were the British and British Indian Law. To cede the political to the colonizer was to cede one’s sovereignty…

Now, of course, Sikhs did try to intervene in the public sphere, but only through voluntary bodies that were recognized by the British imperial state. And these voluntary bodies (like the Singh Sabha, the Chief Khalsa Diwan, etc.) were to a large extent controlled by the British administration.

Continued Next Week …
March 24, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: R Singh (Canada), March 24, 2014, 1:35 PM.

Is it possible to access the entire interview in this site? [EDITOR: Currently all the segments are accessible in the BOOKS Section. You'll find the appropriate box near the top of the homepage. If you click on it ...]

2: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), March 24, 2014, 2:44 PM.

There is an emerging clarity in parts IX and X, of thoughts difficult to discern earlier (for me at least) and I am hooked.

3: Aryeh Leib (Israel), March 25, 2014, 4:39 AM.

I am hooked as well. I see a great similarity with the Jewish experience, which is, at once, a religion, a nation, an ethnicity, a format for an entire life experience. Yet, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Arvind ji, I hope our paths cross one day ...

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Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West"
Part X"

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