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

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM





Time flies, they say, when you’re having fun.

It’s been almost six months since we started this series of interviews and I can unabashedly say that it has been a delight, at least on my part.

My introduction to the inaugural segment had presented our subject as follows:

The Sikh community today is blessed with an ever-growing front-line of thinkers and teachers who diligently carry on this constant prodding and probing, questioning and answering, on our behalf. They are a pleasant change from their fossilized counterparts of the dusty past. They are young, smart, courageous, daring, informed, trained, skilled, articulate … and committed.

… Prof Arvind Pal Singh Mandair, Associate Professor and holder of the Chair in Sikh Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, is one of our bright lights … in fact, amongst the best of them. His ideas challenge us always to rise to new heights. 

In introducing us to his book, “Religion and The Specter of The West,” he has exceeded all expectations.

I had said in my introduction:

Academic work is slow and plodding, at times dense and elusive. Not surprisingly, it confuses many. Some are wary of it, suspecting it of nefarious intentions. Some misunderstand and misinterpret things to fit them into their own world-view, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes not.
Arvind has not only introduced us to a new and more meaningful way of looking at Sikh Studies, but also made it alluringly interesting to the point that he has had so many of us seek out this and other books of his and encouraged us to delve deeper into an enlightened understanding of Sikhi.

I personally had the good fortune of not only participating in our weekly exchanges, but also, mid-way through the process, visiting him in his natural habitat -- University of Michigan in Ann Arbor -- and actually sitting through a lecture he delivered to a non-academic crowd one afternoon. The subject was Vaisakhi.

I saw him enthral a few dozen attendees -- men and women, young and old -- and answer their questions with aplomb and erudition, accompanied by an endless supply of charm and patience.

To the point that I am further enforced in my belief that Sikh Studies has indeed entered a golden era through the arrival on the world scene these past few decades of a fresh and extraordinary burst of energy, under the leadership of Arvind and a number of men and women, Sikh and non-Sikh, of his ilk.

As we conclude this 24-part series today, I’m heartened by the knowledge that we at will be able to continue to learn from Arvind through a new weekly series which is scheduled to commence at the end of this month.

The promise and the challenge of the series concluding today, as spelled out six months ago, will continue in these pages. This is what I had mused then:

Somewhat removed from all the daily goings-on in the world around us is a kind of a parallel universe -- connected with us, yet removed from us through a self-imposed isolation.

It is the world of academia.

It is where ideas are tossed around, cut and sliced and mixed, to create salads of thought and opinion, of new ideas and novel perspectives. So that we better understand ourselves -- our past and present -- in order to better equip ourselves to take ownership of our future. 

I can’t think of anyone better than Dr Arvind Pal Singh Mandair to lead us through this brave new world as our chef, forever doling out a cornucopia of sumptuous food for thought. 


[Continued from last week …]

Q:   What do you think you’ve achieved with this book?

A:   Well, as I mentioned a few months back, Religion and the Specter of the West was not the original project I had set out to do. It only came about because I found the current space of Sikh and South Asian studies too ideologically constrained by state or communal forces of all kinds, even when it pretends to be a ‘neutral’, ‘disinterested’ space.

I wanted to create a space that could allow me to think outside of the box, while retaining academic rigor and subjective integrity.

What I think I have also ended up doing is to create my own idiom. It is an idiom which allows me to move fluidly between the spaces of different fields of thought and practice.

Basically I didn’t want to remain beholden to one or two disciplines. I did not want to be disciplined by the disciplines as they say.

So the Specter book can be considered a rigorous attempt at interdisciplinary practice. But the real purpose of interdisciplinary practice is not only to show how things and states of affairs become assembled by all sorts of forces. At the same time it enables us to make alternative connections and re-assemble these states of affairs differently to bring about different social and political and spiritual results.

So this kind of practice goes well beyond conventional academic practice which very often doesn’t go beyond a simple analysis and commentary on states of affairs, and ends up reproducing conventional forms of state and social coercion.

So if I had to pin down the main achievement of the book, I would say that it opens up an array of new connections, new formations, that reflect the rapidly changing world in which we live.

Although for me, that rapidly changing world doesn’t just consist in macropolitical processes (globalization, transnational movements, new migrations, etc.) but just as importantly in microcosmic changes to established forms of subjectivity or selfhood.

In short, Sikhs stand at a new juncture, a new cross-roads. They can either realize a form of subjectivity that is genuinely plural and in consonance with the message of the Sikh Gurus and thus encounter the coming waves of global uncertainty with confidence and optimism.

Or they can retreat into the usual kind of romantic self-emulation.

Many of these new connections remain implicit in the Specter book because of the primarily experimental nature of the chapters.

Q:   What is the next project for you? Where does your research go from here?

A:   The next set of book projects will continue to experiment but will focus more on actually bringing these new connections and encounters to the surface and exploring them in more detail.

Thus, I have at least three projects that I am currently working on.

One is a book on comparative philosophy focusing on bringing Sikh concepts into fruitful encounter with Western thought.

A second project will look at the question of time in the Sikh literature.

A third book continues my earlier work on the nature of sovereignty, in relation to a variety of Sikh sources.

Then there will be one or two spin-off projects from these.

So … plenty to keep me busy over the next few years!


July 4, 2014


Conversation about this article

1: Irvinderpal Singh Babra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), July 04, 2014, 6:40 AM.

Modern Sikh Studies were triggered and ignited in Toronto almost three decades ago. By Dr Hew McLeod and a number of others, including Dr. Pashaura Singh. The new crop of scholars has given new insights. A few fine non-Sikh scholars have also emerged in Canada and the USA justifying their Sikh studies and findings and observations. And it is hoped that the number of new scholars and students will be more out there. On the lighter side, should you send their scholarly stuff to the custodians of the gurdwara committees and dals and jathedars, they will be received and stored, not read!

2: Ravinder Singh (Mumbai, India), July 06, 2014, 8:40 AM.

As a Sikh commoner, I feel the Guru formalized the community of the Sikhs into the Khalsa. He turned the Guru's sangat into the Khalsa. He got rid of the priestly class. He freed us from all divisions, customs, rituals and superstitions. He gave us the simplest of rehats. It was the sum total of the teachings of gurbani. But over a period of time we have turned ourselves into a divided community which is governed by customs, rituals superstitions and the priestly class.

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

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