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Noel Q. King:
Scholar, Teacher, Friend



He Himself bestows life and death.

He is with us, within and beyond.

Nanak seeks Sanctuary of The One

The Ruler of all hearts.

        [Guru Granth Sahib]


Noel Quinton King, Educator. Born December 8, 1922 in Taxila; Died February 1, 2009 at Corralitos, California.

Dr. Noel Q. King, a towering academician, scholar, historian, and a saintly person who illuminated academic and literary circles alike for almost half a century, quietly passed away on February 1, 2009 at his home in Corralitos, California.

Noel was the fifth son of Mary and William King.

Relations between his family and Sikhs span almost two centuries.

His great-grandfather worked for the Khalsa Army in Punjab during the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the first part of the 19th century as a horse doctor.

His father, William King, was an engineer with the Indian Postal and Telegraphs department who laid telegraph lines throughout northern India and up into Tibet. Dr. King's family stayed in India until the 1940s.

The young Noel King moved with family from place to place, experiencing true multi-cultural living. Like his elder brothers, he was sent at an early age to the Bishop Cotton School in Simla (then in Punjab) at the foothills of the Himalayas. He grew up virtually bilingual in English and Hindustani (a mixture of Urdu and Hindi), the lingua franca of the British Raj. He frequently spoke with me in Hindustani.

He was commissioned into the British Army as a Second Lieutenant and was already in uniform when he married Evelyn in December 1943. After qualifying as a parachutist and being entitled to wear the coveted red beret of the Parachute Regiment, he spent the rest of the time in the war with the 56th Airborne Division Development Unit, analyzing enemy air-drop methods, devising defences against it and researching methods of supplying ground troops from the air.

As the war in Europe drew to a conclusion, he was posted to the Indian Army in Manipur (Assam, India) and then at Chaklala Aerodrome which eventually became Rawalpindi's International Airport in Pakistani Punjab.

As an army officer in India, he was also in charge of security of certain passenger trains for some time that moved from Punjab and other parts of Northern India. He told me that, at one time, he provided security to the Sikh leader Master Tara Singh while he was travelling on a train.

Noel King served in India, Burma and Europe. He was part of the British Indian Army unit that gave the first ground defeat to the Japanese Army in Burma in WWII.

He was also present at the ceremony of surrender in Rangoon (Burma).

Noel finished his first degree in History and then a degree in Theology. He graduated with First Class Honors, specializing in Early Church History. He received an M.A. degree in History from Oxford University.

In 1954, he got his Ph.D. in late Roman Early-Byzantine History and Patristic Theology from the University of Nottingham.

Dr. King taught in several universities all over the world including Punjabi University in Patiala, Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, University of Ghana, University of Nottingham, Oxford University, Makerere University (Uganda), University of Papua/New Guinea, University of California at Santa Cruz, and Senior University International.

He was one of the most sought after speakers in Sikh academic conferences across the diaspora.

In 1957, he moved with his family to Ghana for seven years, where he set up a program of Religious Studies at the University in Accra. In 1964, he accepted the post of Professor and Head of Religious Studies at Makerere University in Uganda.

Dr. King was one of the very few scholars belonging to the old school of learning with a deep knowledge of Christianity, Islam, Jainism and Sikhism, among others. He wrote eleven books and contributed chapters to many other books. He also wrote dozens of scholarly articles in various Sikh and other academic journals and encyclopaedias.

He was a Patron of The Sikh Review, the oldest Sikh Journal in English, published from Calcutta.

Dr. King joined the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) in 1967, where he started a Department of the History of Religion and taught history and comparative religion until his retirement in 1991.

On his retirement, the Noel Q. King Lecture was established in 1992 to honor the popular teacher and respected scholar. This annual lecture is presented by the Committee for the Advancement of Religious Studies at UCSC.

Dr. King was instrumental in providing foundation courses and a comparative framework for those interested in majoring in religious studies, as well as those students who just wanted to learn about religion in an academic setting. He inspired many young scholars throughout his academic career. Even after his retirement, he continued to write and encourage young scholars to do the same.

He guided many students in their research on Sikh history and supervised theses and dissertations on topics related to Sikh history. He was one of a few Western scholars who stood with the Sikhs through thick and thin and fearlessly wrote against those who tried to distort Sikh history in the name of academic research.

He was honored for his services to the Panth at the Vishav Sikh Samelan (World Sikh Convention) in Amritsar in 1995, organized by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (known as the mini parliament of the Sikhs) at the Golden Temple complex. There, he also received recognition from the Jathedar of the Akal Takht, the head caretaker of the highest seat of Sikh temporal authority.

He personally guided two Sikh students (the author of this piece and Dr. Raghbir Singh Bains) who received doctorate degrees in Sikhism in North America. Both these students of his have also been honoured by the Akal Takht - which ultimately reflect on Dr. King himself.

I met with Dr. King for the first time in 1992 in San Francisco at an academic conference. I was impressed by his scholarship and deep understanding of history and theology and realized that he was not an ordinary scholar. He was a soft-spoken person. Scholarly terms and Latin phrases describing deep theological concepts and unique historical events came out of his mouth effortlessly and both his demeanour and presence created a unique aura that was both uplifting and captivating.

I have never seen any scholar who, in an instant, using his vast knowledge of world history and comparative religious studies, could bring out historical gems related to Sikh history which are even unknown to most Sikh scholars. Yet, he was always humble and respectful of others. He never forced his ideas on anyone.

We celebrate the life of this great teacher, scholar and friend of the Khalsa who held the Sikhs and the Khalsa in very high esteem. He regularly donated money to the Sikh Gurdwara at San Jose and other Sikh institutions. He also helped Sikhs in many other ways. He genuinely supported academic and historical search till the very end.

About four years ago, a young Sikh professor from Amritsar wanted to go to France and Canada to study French in order to better understand Franco-Sikh relations. She did not have the financial resources to pay for the trip. Somehow, the news made it to Dr. King. He generously donated money for that cause, even though, unfortunately, her trip did not materialize due to university bureaucracy.

During my research work on Miri and Piri and the Sikh struggle, I visited him on an average of about once a month for three years. Later, I met with him three or four times a year. I was always treated like a family member in his home.

In October 2008, I received an e-mail from his assistant Michael Harrington indicating that Dr. King's health was rapidly failing and he urged his friends to see him because his doctor did not give him much time. The message was honest to the core, but it hit me like a thunderbolt.

I went to see him the next day. He was quite weak. I spent couple of hours with him, took some notes and updated him on my book project. I visited him again a month later and he looked a bit better.

My last visit to him was only three weeks before he passed away. By this time he was quite frail, but he was still as graceful as ever in his manners and conversation. He asked me about my family, my book project, job and other Panthic matters.

I told him that my book was in print and the draft would be out in a matter of some weeks. He was elated and as supportive as ever.

During my last visit to Dr. King, I also had the opportunity to meet with his eldest son, Francis King, who was visiting him from England. This made my trip even more worthwhile. Francis King is a former Diplomat in the British government who served in various countries, including India.

Being a former diplomat, he has a deep understanding of many political and other issues around the world. Like his father, he, too, has had a close relationship with Sikhs in several countries.

Francis told me that he was a British diplomat in New Delhi when Indira Gandhi was killed in October 1984. Tens of thousands of innocent Sikhs were massacred in the aftermath in Delhi alone and the women violated, in a government sponsored carnage which continued for several days.

A Sikh family lived next door to his residence. They came to Francis and told him that their life and honour was in danger and they needed his help. They wanted him and his wife to give shelter to their women-folk for a few days until things cooled down. He gladly agreed to their request and thus helped in saving Sikh lives and honour for the afflicted family.

I was most touched by this story and thanked him on behalf of the community. I hope this relationship continues for many more generations.

Dr. King had a very high regard for Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh Gurus and often quoted Gurbani.

Before leaving for a world safari some six years ago, he asked me to bring along a Nitnem Gutka (Daily Sikh Prayer book) so he could read it. He used to travel every year and visited several countries until about three years ago when his health did not allow him to travel anymore. His first preference was always to stay with a Sikh family, whether it was in the US, India, Africa, Canada or some other country, because he trusted them greatly and always felt comfortable in their company.

He also had friends all over the globe among all religious communities. He spoke several languages including Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and Latin.

His first wife, Evelyn, died in April 1972 at age 49 due to a brain tumor. Some time later, he married Laurie, who is a well-known novelist.

Noel is survived by four children from his first marriage, Francis and Jerome (sons) and Clare and Naomi (daughters), who between them have produced Noel's 11 grandchildren. They, in turn, have given him four great-grandchildren.

From his second marriage to Laurie King, he has two children - Nathan and Zoe.


February 7, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: Harbans Lal (Arlington, Texas, U.S.A.), February 07, 2009, 3:14 PM.

I wish to ditto Dr. Nahal's account of our dear friend and colleague, Dr. Noel King, and join the Sikh world in celebrating his life. I had many an occasion to meet Dr. King and sometimes work with him on Sikhism seminars and conferences. Throughout his life, Dr. King remained engaged in the study of Sikh religion and history. His love for Sikhi was not limited to his interest in Sikh studies as a scholar, but more so as his earnest wish to practice the Guru's wisdom. He made numerous visits to India and Pakistan to follow up his research and study of Sikhism, and to pay homage to the Sikh holy shrines. Those of us who knew him closely considered him a sehajdhari Sikh who took pride in identifying himself as a member of the Khalsa tradition. He always met me with the Sikh greeting and often confided that he had not cut his hair any more to honor the sentiments of his Khalsa friends. A few years ago, a number of us were invited to participate in the Vishwa Sikh Samelan organized in Amritsar by the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and organize a Sehajdhari Sikh Session. For some unavoidable circumstances, I could not make it there. I requested Dr. King to represent us, which he did. He participated in the Sehajdhari Sikh session along with Bhai Lakshman Chela Ram. They were both honored by the Panth for their services. On his return, Dr. King told me that while accepting the honor, he mentioned that he was accepting that recognition on behalf of all of us who could not be present there. I thanked him for being so considerate. Like a true Sikh activist, Dr. King was thoroughly concerned with the future of the community. As quoted recently by The Tribune (Chandigarh, Punjab), he once wrote that unless the Sikhs themselves determined on a way ahead, produced suitable leadership and carried out total reconstruction and reform, they were doomed to the classical fate mentioned by Macauliffe of getting an insider's view of how the great Boa constrictor of the Indian jungle dealt with its prey. To honor, Dr. King we must take his advice to heart.

2: H. Singh (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), February 07, 2009, 4:27 PM.

An excellent scholar, who made palmary contributions to Sikh Studies. Sikhs will miss him dearly. God bless his soul.

3: Doris Jakobsh (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), February 08, 2009, 1:58 PM.

I too wanted to write a few words on the passing of Dr. King. I did not know him well, but have always been impressed with the depth and breadth of his knowledge of all things 'Sikh'. He was also a kind, caring individual. I would receive e-mails, out of the blue, from Dr. King, always supportive, always eager to encourage anyone involved in the study of Sikhs and Sikhism. His 'voice' within Sikh Studies will be missed.

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