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

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM




Continued From Last Week ...



Part XV

Q   You have referred to charges being made against you by a few individuals, of blasphemy? What exactly are the accusations?

A   Let me say first of all that there are two levels at which these charges of ‘blasphemy’ operate.

First, as I explained in the previous post, ‘blasphemy’ is nothing more than a tool used by unscrupulous ‘politicians’ who disguise themselves as ‘defenders of the faith’ to discredit the person or work of someone whose ideas may be a threat to them. It is usually the case that these politicians don’t have the ability to actually conduct, let alone sustain, a debate in the normal fashion, so they resort to such cheap tricks.

Secondly, there are those folks who are gullible and excitable enough to be fooled by mere charges of ‘blasphemy’, even when they are bald and unsupported.

What I’m trying to say is that the very mention of ‘blasphemy’ is cynically used as a trigger by these politicians to excite emotions in gullible people.

For example, a friend of mine told me of the following incident.

He had gone to a relative’s Akhand Path. After langar was over, he decided to go to the gurdwara common area where people were reading the Punjabi papers on display. One of these folks was reading an online article about me. Suddenly this chap starts cussing against “scholars in western universities who are undermining Sikh principles.” In his tirade, he mentioned my name loudly.

My friend tried to suggest that this was not the case at all, but the other chap wouldn’t have any of it. If it was printed in a Punjabi paper, it had to be true … no matter how trivial or fly-by-night that paper might be.

Now, the word ‘blasphemy’ is in itself interesting. Meanings that correspond to it in modern standard Punjabi include “to speak like an infidel”, “to speak against God,” etc., etc… And if you speak against God, you are an atheist.

It strikes me as rather odd why these excitable folks should be so worried about defending God! Is their God so weak that he can’t defend himself? Against a mere interpretation by a mortal?

Q  Can you give me an example of such a charge against you? And what is your response to it.

A   Sure. Here's one such allegation made against me by this retired ‘scholar’ in Chandigarh.

From the outset let me apologize to your readers for having to go through this boring and rather basic exercise of explaining terms which they may already be familiar with. But I think they need to see for themselves how this 'scholar' and his ilk present their misinterpretations.

The following example is taken from its very source -- a Punjabi newspaper - called “Amritsar Times“.

First, I produce here my English translation of the allegations made against me (originally in Punjabi), followed by my rebuttal. It relates to the Mool Mantar:


On page 229 [of the Specter book] Mandair has isolated the word akal murat and connected Sikhi to murti puja. Is there murti puja in gurmat? To isolate akal murat from the rest of the mool mantar, is that not simply a ploy to lead people astray? How can you connect the words nirbhau, nirvair and ajuni saibhang with an idol (murti)? These terms are all about the attributes of One God.

Mandair’s deeper motive is to take the term akaal (timelessness) out of Sikhi and to bring it into the ambit of kaal (time). He seems to have forgotten that if you replace akaal with kaal in this dharam then this will change its foundations.

Discerning readers will immediately understand how dangerous it is to take akaal out of dharam.


First of all, here I am NOT commenting on the Guru Granth Sahib itself. I am actually carrying out an analysis of what Bhai Vir Singh and other Singh Sabha theologians have said in regard to the Mool Mantar, and specifically the term ‘akaal murat’.

Before I go on, let me briefly clarify that I am not in any way opposed to Bhai Vir Singh, or suggesting that all of Bhai Vir Singh’s work is like this. Not in the slightest. I hold Bhai Vir Singh’s poetry almost beyond reproach, and to be quite anti-metaphysical. It reminds me of what was also best about the early Singh Sabha.

The problem arises, however, when Bhai Vir Singh (and some others, as well) leave the domain of poetics and indulge in specifically onto-theological or metaphysical argumentation which we find in their exegetical commentaries (i.e., arguments to do with defining the nature of God’s existence, etc) which brings him into direct contact with other cultural frames, forcing him to imbibe foreign frameworks and concepts that his poetry and poetic idiom otherwise resists.

One such foreign concept is the Christian metaphysical ideology of transcendence.

The real pitfall for Sikhi in it is precisely this: that in trying to defend Sikhi from the dangers of an emerging political Hinduism, they (the Singh Sabha leaders) ended up absorbing a foreign metaphysical or onto-theological framework (borrowed from Christian missionaries). It is this framework that is dangerous because it forced the Singh Sabha ideologues to effective change the meanings of key words of gurbani by fixing them in a static conception of God as time-less and eternal (which means a God that is outside of time, outside of this world, a deity that has nothing to do with our human time).

My contention is that this is dangerous because it devalues the time and the world we live in. The time of this world becomes godless.

What the Singh Sabha scholars did in their commentaries, probably without realizing it, is to introduce a Christian hatred of the world, a hatred of human time we live in, in the form of a binary opposition between the time of God (timelessness as the negation of time) and human time.

By introducing this opposition between timeless and time, Christian theologians laid the basis for the doctrine of atheistic secularism. That is why it is only Christianity that gave rise to atheistic secularism as an opposition to the religious.

It does not exist in other cultures, at least not in this form.

Unfortunately this metaphysical opposition has crept into and pervaded the modern Sikh mindset. So, without realizing it, modern Sikhs repeat this binary opposition, just as this unfortunate fellow is repeating it in the allegations of blasphemy he makes against me. He is stuck in a cycle of repetition in which he mouths Christian doctrine without realizing it.

If you read gurbani (minus the Christian-Western lens), it is so obviously clear that there is no opposition between ‘God’ and man. If there is divinity, then this divinity has to be totally immanent within the time we live. And therefore immanent within life itself. Because the time that we live in is also the time of our lives. And the time we live in has to be also the time of ‘God’.

The question is how to realize that time, how to experience it. It can only be experienced through the poetic or artistic idiom (music, for example) which helps to more easily shatter the ego.

So pages 229 to 232 in my book are basically a commentary on Bhai Vir Singh’s exegetical commentary on akaal murat. What I am showing is how Bhai Vir Singh interprets akaal murat through a metaphysical lens. In other words, how Bhai Vir Singh constructs a transcendentalization of the term akaal murat. And he performs this transcendentalization by showing that the term ‘murat’ in the Guru Granth Sahib does not correspond to the Hindu understanding of ‘idol’ or idol worship (murti puja).

By doing so Bhai Vir Singh is trying to show that the nature of ‘God” as the Sikh sees Him differs from the nature of the Hindu deity in the sense that Waheguru is eternal and therefore formless and beyond representation as an image, whereas the Hindus represent their deity as images or idols stuck in time.

Now, when you read the words of Bhai Vir Singh’s commentary very closely, what becomes immediately obvious is that his attempt to overcome the form of Hindu idol(atry) is itself dependent on the operations of the human faculty of the imagination. And the faculty of the imagination can only work by deploying sensual metaphors grounded in sense and form – which means they are subject to time.

In other words, in order to prove with words and concepts that the concept of Waheguru is superior to the Hindu deity (because Waheguru is transcendent), Bhai Vir Singh has to rely on his faculties of imagination which in turn can only operate by synthesizing metaphors of sense, i.e., sensual metaphors whose essence is form and therefore time.

This is precisely how metaphysics works.

Or, as I say on page 232:

Ironically, then, attempts by the Singh Sabha writers to overcome idolatry and idolatrous notions of God by means of the elevated concept have to admit the ‘tiniest residue’ of idolatry into the process of cleansing gurmat (and therefore Sikhism) from any contamination by Hinduism. All along it seems, the Singh Sabha reformists were doing in their exegetical practices precisely what they accused Hindus of doing in practice …”

As I have said in a previous post, the purpose of my commentary on Bhai Vir Singh was to show its limits.

I am not alone in arguing this. The late Professor Harinder Singh Mahboob touched on something similar in his classic work ‘Sahaje Rachio Khalsa.’ He was also arguing that the modernist reformers were deploying concepts in such a way that they become idols – i.e., fixed in time.

The Singh Sabha reformers tried to capture words and concepts from gurbani and fix them within a metaphysical framework. I would go one step further. By conceptualizing akal (and therefore the nature of God) as absolutely immobile or absolutely static (which is what an eternity opposed to time really means!) the Singh Sabha proponents make God into a conceptual idol – which is not much better than a physical idol. And they do this by adopting notions of time that are anti-thetical to the way that the Sikh Gurus encourage us to experience time in gurbani, to realize its potential here and now.

The tone and logic of the arguments by the Singh Sabha to prove the superiority of the concept of Waheguru are actually borrowed from Christianity. As early as the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, we find the doctors of the early Christian church, such as Origen, trying to prove the superiority of the Christian God over pagan deities in precisely the same way.

Over the centuries, Christian thinkers refined this technique into a form of metaphysical logic until it became part of Christian missionary philosophy which reached its apex in the work of G.W.F. Hegel. It was used by Christian missionaries to convert people to Christianity.

Incidentally, that is why my book is so opposed to Hegel!

So the Singh Sabha were using a technique that was used 1600 years before by Christian theologians. It worked temporarily for the Singh Sabha. But it now past its “sell-by” date. It is not going to work now except in a very negative fashion.

Why? Because (i) in the late 19th century the Arya Samaj founder, Dayanand Saraswati, used exactly this Christian technique against Christian missionaries to outwit them; (ii) today, Hindu nationalists are using the same technique to spread Hinduism in the name of their monotheistic deity, Ram.

And we have seen the human consequences of that in places like Ayodhya. In fact the most hardcore Hindu nationalists are basically Christians masquerading as Indians.

So, coming back to the question of this fellow’s charge against me … He continues the modernist practice of interpreting ‘akaal’ from a totally metaphysical Christian perspective as transcendent and timeless. The term ‘akaal’ defies such encapsulation within a static meaning, especially in English. It does not mean time-less. That simplistic translation is extremely problematic and detrimental.

‘Akaal’ refers to an infinite potential that is already there in the time that we are living, in the time of life itself.

What the Christian metaphysicians (and Singh Sabha scholars) do is to kill the time of life itself and replace it with timelessness, a kind of static, immobile eternity – which is no different from the stasis of death or the stasis of a cold stone idol. ‘Akaal’ cannot be represented as a static entity for the simple reason that it resists representation. It can only be realized as a force that can be felt in this world, not in another, supposedly better, world. If it refers at all to an attribute of divinity, then that divinity is in this life, not in another world.

Akaal cannot be represented as a simple negation of time. It is a term that points to a deeper potential that is immanent within and as time itself. If we are to continue to use the term ‘transcendence’ then it needs to point to the innate ability of time to negate itself (which, if we look at it from a theistic standpoint is the power normally attributed to divinity).

This ability of time to negate itself is exactly what we mean by the action of self-overcoming, or self-surrender, or as I term it, ego-loss. That is also a definition of the innermost potential of life.

In short, the meaning of akaal cannot be determined or fixed from the limited standpoint of an ego.

The very nature of the word akaal points to this: that if you wish to know what akaal is, then lose your self first, lose your ego.

All of this is plainly obvious in what I am saying throughout the Specter book. Almost every chapter of the book attests to this explanation.

As I thumb through the pages of the Specter book right now (especially pages 212 to 217), I note that I forgot to mention that the conceptual moves I am making, draw their inspiration from gurbani itself, not from an external source.

In fact my reading of Bhai Vir Singh’s commentary is prefaced by 5 pages of a very clear explanation drawn from passages in Guru Nanak’s Siddh Gosht which support my contention that the Singh Sabha scholars missed the distinction between (i) the transcendental nature of time, and (ii) the concept of a transcendent God.

The figure of the gurmukh is the figure that embodies the mysterious force of time – its transcendental (as opposed to transcendent) nature. Time already transcends itself in the figure of the gurmukh who lets go of his or her ego and becomes absorbed in the embrace of the Beloved.

Furthermore, I’d like to add that my interpretations are neither atheistic nor theistic. Instead, they avoid this very distinction, which is entirely the product of metaphysics, and is nowhere present in gurbani.

The irony with the Singh Sabha literature is that their poetry (especially Bhai Vir Singh’s) avoids precisely this conundrum that is introduced through the prose commentaries. If their poetry avoids metaphysics, then why does metaphysics enter so easily through their prose exegeses?

That is the real question that needs to be answered.

I could go on and on here but hopefully I have made some clarification here.

In any case, let me say it one more time. Akaal and kaal are not logical opposites. The only difference between akaal and kaal is the standpoint from which each is known. Kaal is ordinary time represented through the faculty of ego. Akaal is force of time experienced through ego-loss. They are both connected in the same way that ego is connected to ego-loss. This understanding is evident in gurbani – and evident in the elusive figure of the gurmukh.

In contrast the neo-Singh Sabha types simply mimic an old style Christian theology which worked by trying to OWN definitions of God. They tried to OWN God by defining God (for example, by defining akaal as ‘timelessness’).

And by defining God they sought to define what people are allowed to say and think, and what they are not allowed to say and think. Basically they became a religious thought-police.

When you challenge their authority they resort to inquisitions, charges of blasphemy, etc.

Again, as far as this unfortunate fellow is concerned, one has to wonder whether his grasp of English is so basic that he can simply mistake black for white? I fear, however, that it’s more likely that he is up to some mischief, that his ’errors’ are intentional for the sake of spreading malicious lies and rumors to an unsuspecting Sikh public.

To Be Continued Next Week …

April 29, 2014

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

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