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Our Best Friends

W. Hew McLeod 1932 - 2009
Reflections of The Sikh Studies Community



Pashaura Singh and Baljeet Kaur

At this time of rich loss and deep memory I pay my humble tribute to Professor Hew McLeod. For the last twenty-two years, it has always been a privilege to work with him.

As my mentor, he taught me skills of scientific inquiry and guided me with gentle care. Right from the beginning of my association with him, he encouraged me to become my own person in the field of Sikh studies. That is what I cherish the most from my experience with him. I still remember the day when it was heavily snowing in Toronto. During the class I had expressed the desire to see his forthcoming book from Columbia University. In that cold and heavy snow, he walked to my apartment and knocked at the door. When I opened the door, he offered me the galley proofs of his book.

This was the compassionate side of a gentleman who had always cared for his students. As my gratitude merges with my grief, I am still wondering at his tenacity to continue his scholarship as a moral practice to pursue the search for truth and understanding.

Undoubtedly, an era of Sikh scholarship has ended with him. My prayers and thoughts go to Professor McLeod's wife, Margaret, and the whole family. The Sikh world has lost a pioneer in the field of Sikh studies.

With deep condolences.

Lou Fenech

Reading through all of our reminiscences about Hew, I was quick to smile. Certainly, Hew was a pioneering and extraordinary scholar combining passion and humility in his approach to Sikh history in a way rarely seen amongst academics. I, like Pashaura, can also attest to his thoughtfulness in guiding us and his pride in our own scholarship and accomplishments: we are his academic children and he cared for us dearly. A comforting sentiment at this painful time.

But what I personally loved most about Hew was his sense of humour and how he delivered his dry jibes with that characteristic mischievous twinkle in his eye which we all know and will all sorely miss.

So long Hew; goodbye from Lou.

Himadri Banerjee

The other members of the Sikh studies community all met Hew McLeod on many occasions and possibly shared numerous experiences of life emerging out of the expanding frontiers of Sikh Studies. You are fortunate to have met him personally. I was always missing meeting him, since coming into contact with Hew in the early 1980s. I had one occasion of talking over the telephone. That is all I have of his voice. I have with me a few of his letters, hand written and typed and emails exchanged over a number of years.

Like you all, I feel this as a loss because I used to write him at least once in a month, whenever I had felt that it was needed. He used to respond quickly to that part of my mail which needed an immediate answer and would silently ignore the parts that were not relevant to my work. He was as good as my answering machine in the domain of Sikh Studies.

I saw his photograph for the first time in a Sikh Review issue, possibly in 1995. Had I seen it earlier, I could not have missed him in the seminar of 1989 in Toronto. I also missed him later on: that missing remained till the end.

I was deeply indebted to Hew for many, many reasons. It was Hew who had kindly introduced me to Joseph T. O'Connell on the eve of Toronto Seminar of 1987. That introduction made my journeying to Toronto possible. He must have recommended my name to others that have introduced me to the wider scholarship in Sikh Studies.

In 2006, I had just completed my first draft on the second volume of The Other Sikhs. I forwarded him its copy for his comments. Within a fortnight came his specific suggestions for improvements, even though he was travelling away from home.

I had the privilege of knowing Hew McLeod more intimately when he had been facing bitter criticisms from a section of the Diasporic Sikhs. I had the opportunity of listening to a few of those unfortunate criticisms levelled against him. I could feel how deeply those observations had shocked him, but I had not heard any comment from him.

These were hurled against a man who, in the words of Mark Juergensmeyer, gave Sikh Studies a greater academic credibility on many international platforms. He suffered silently, but these sufferings continued to encourage him to enrich Sikh Studies with greater sincerity and deeper commitment. He remained true to his scholarship and taught us how to remain truthful, calm and carry on research, in the midst of many sufferings and humiliations.

I regard Hew as a martyr for the cause of Sikh Studies. His life vindicates that how a true Sikh of the eighteenth century or during the Akali Movement of the 1920s had suffered at Nanakana Sahib and other places for his cause. He has shown the way that true scholarship means in Sikh Studies. He left before us a model by his daily living in the midst of engagement in Sikh Studies.

His absence would certainly be missed by many of us in innumerable ways. But he would continue to be with us in our critical times of lives, when we would be having few friends around us and then Hew would perhaps encourage us: "Don't be afraid of what is happening around you, please go ahead, because you have to walk many a mile before you sleep." In that sense, he would continue to live with me and give me that courage which I miss in my life.

Jerry Barrier

I have been thinking about Hew, Margaret and the family for days now; memories keeps popping up.

I think Dr. Ganda Singh suggested that I go up and see Hew in Batala. I remember him meeting me on the Amritsar railway platform and guiding me to the scooter. We had a problem halfway to Batala. It stopped cold, and finally we loaded on the back of a truck and got home late. Margaret was waiting with a happy face and a warm meal.

I did not know much about Sikhism at that point, and followed Hew around like an enthusiastic little puppy. I went through his lecture notes, scrounged books, and talked too much. But it was fun. Hew and Margaret already had made the decision to leave the mission and pursue an academic route. The book had just come out, I think. Ganda Singh said, great book, but there will be trouble. There was.

We remained in contact as I made my U-turn from Punjab history and communalism to the Singh Sabhas and Sikh revival. I remember his encouragement on my work, but much of that was blurred.

Our first conference together was Mark's initial Sikh conference at Berkeley. Such fun, with all of the now old guys there - Ainslie, Mark, Kapany, among others. An exciting exchange gee, with several members of the Sikh community actively participating.

Our real engagement occurred during his trips to Canada. Hew, Margaret and I spent time together, and we discussed the ongoing issues and disturbances in the Punjab. That had really impacted the Sikh reaction to Hew's work.

The World Sikh News kept up a drumbeat against Hew, and gradually several of us were seen as agents of the Indian government. At the least, we were a threat to Sikhism and a full understanding of Sikh tradition.

In that period, Harjot Singh Oberoi, Hew, and I were on a panel at the American Academy of Religion in LA. In order to attend, Sikhs had to join the Association and pay the registration, about $250 a person. They did that for at least 30-40 individuals, who crowded in and tried to disrupt. They failed. Obviously there was a disconnect between how we approached history and their stance. Harjot handled a variety of challenges.

My most memorable was a hostile question about how I could use newspapers and tracts to discuss the Singh Sabhas and revival. Why did I not use ancient documents and refer to the Guru Granth Sahib. We had dinner at the home of one of Hew's most aggressive critics. Actually it was a booby-trap, despite our being picked up in a very long stretch limousine. After drinks (yes, those amritdharis drank!), they closed in.

Hew was still recovering from his stroke, and did quite well, but he could not pull up information as quickly as they demanded. Margaret jumped in and gave them hell for attacking Hew when it was obvious he still was in recovery. Harjot got several in another room and chewed them out in choice Panjabi. An interesting evening.

Our second major conference together was the Sikh Diaspora conference at Ann Arbor. There was mobilization in the local community and a lot of militant Sikhs poured in from Canada. Tension was high, but generally discussion proceeded with a minimum of disruption. Then in one session, Hew was chairing and the disruptive Sikhs got their head and started really being obnoxious. Hew was ready. He pounded on the table, got them quiet, and said if they did not act like gentlemen, he would end the session. That worked, and we went on to successful discussions and eventually a successful published collection of essays.

Hew and I kept in close touch, and by the mid 90s, with email, that took a new turn. In the last ten years or so, we have written back and forth several times a week. I deluged him with material I found on the internet. He was polite. Some was of interest, other stuff was more in my area of contemporary politics and Sikh in-fighting, which was not Hew's cup of tea. I shall miss that exchange and the quality and tone of our writing back and forth.

Joanne and I visited Hew and Margaret in Oxford, and later three times in New Zealand. Dunedin became almost a second or third home. The illness stabilized, and we all gathered for the Otago conference. A wonderful encounter of old and new friends, an almost magical time.

The last time I saw Hew and Margaret was approximately three years ago. He was a little older and more feeble, but heck, I was no spring chicken. We had delightful talks and the daily walk through the gardens. Margaret and I enjoyed talking "gardens" and "flowers" and of course, we made our regular pilgrimage to see the albatross.

I valued Hew's scholarship and friendship greatly and wake up aching, knowing that I cannot email a question or share an idea. Perhaps we can salvage some of the essays on caste that he was working into a book. I have been in contact with Yoda Press and will write a short introduction to his revised volume (the original was Penguin), Sikhism.

I study primarily modern Sikhism, and while much of Hew's work helps give me a framework for my research, my real McLeod Bible is Sikhs of the Khalsa. His work on the rahitnamas and the nature of the debate is the most fundamental collection of documents and informed analysis ever produced on the evolution of the Sikh Rahit Maryada.

That work, in turn, is at the center of almost every contemporary debate among Sikhs today. Thank you, Hew, for your mentoring, your counsel, and your friendship.

Van Dusenbery

It is hard to imagine that Hew won't be with us forever. Many of us in Sikh studies felt his wise, sympathetic, and encouraging presence in our lives. And, I for one, just assumed that he'd be there for the rest of my working life, responding to my queries and suggesting new lines of inquiry.

As others have noted, Hew was the epitome of "a scholar and a gentleman" -- not only an intellectual force in our field of study, but also a personal inspiration to many young scholars and a respectful interlocutor with friend and foe alike.

I appreciate so many things that Hew did that did not necessarily further his own immediate interests, but that helped nurture us novices in the field.

I especially appreciate the encouragement that he gave to Rashmere Bhatti and me when we were working on our book about the Sikh community in Woolgoolga. Rashmere venerated Hew as a truly selfless sevadar. And that's as good a description as any of what he has meant to the Sikh studies community.

So, Hew, you've set an impossibly high standard for the subsequent generations of Sikh studies folks. We'll miss you.

Ainslee Embree

The first time I met Hew was memorable enough. I was in Delhi, probably in 1968-69, staying at the Vikram hotel. He sent word through a mutual friend at Batala Christian College that he would like to come talk with me, as we shared a rather similar background. During a long evening's talk, he told me that he was confronting a difficult moral situation in his personal life. He had come to teach at Batala as a representative of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, but he no longer held the religious beliefs he had held at the time of his appointment.

An immediate issue was that because of this lack of belief, he would not be able to attend the local church, which, in Presbyterian discourse, would be a scandal, causing the weaker brethren to stumble. I suggested that this was not a real problem; he needn't make to public statement, but could continue to attend services until he left Batala. I reminded him that many faithful church-goers, including some clergymen, went through the motions of conformity for years.

But since there is no firmer commitment to truth than that of a lapsed Presbyterian, he found this suggestion to be hypocritical play-acting. Through the years, as I got to know him better, I realized that my advice, while expedient, was contrary to everything he stood for as a person and a scholar.

That was at the heart of his greatness, a commitment to truth, and why I so greatly valued his friendship.

In the acknowledgements to his fine little book, The Sikhs: History, Religion, and Society, he thanks Mark Juergensmeyer, Jack Hawley, and me for our help on a very specific date, February 2, 1987. He had come to Columbia to give a lecture at noon in a series arranged by ACLS, but he didn't show up, although we knew he was on campus.

I think it was Mark who found him on the floor of his room, unable to speak. We rushed him to the emergency room of St. Luke's, once a great hospital. At 6 PM, he was still on a gurney in the hall, and one the medics said that our friend was delirious, babbling incomprehensibly. He was aware he was lying on a dirty floor in some sort of public place and dark people were stepping over him; where else could he be but a village clinic in Panjab, and he was trying to get them to send for his wife and they didn't understand him for some reason. The happy ending of those grim hours was that Margaret came, and as always, brightened his life and he made a remarkable recovery.

A very different time and place. I was working in the American Embassy, it must have been 1994, and I was invited to meet officials at the Akal Takht in Amritsar. When I went in there was a copy of Sources of Indian Tradition that I had edited on the table. One of the leaders complimented me or my chapter on Sikhism; unlike Dr. McLeod, I had given a true and accurate picture of Sikhism.

I was astonished because on the first page of the chapter, I had acknowledged that the explanations and translations were wholly due to Professor W. H. McLeod, who had given me permission to use his work. Hew was not surprised; he said that many who were critical of his work had not read it.

He must have resented this, but it seems only to have deepened his devotion to true scholarship.

Jack Hawley

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 stoke 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.

Doris Jakobsh

One would think it would be an easy task to write about a fellow colleague who I didn't see very often because he lived on the other side of the world - connected on a professional level, one would think - simply by the subject matter that we both worked within, Sikh Studies.

But Hew, for so many of us, was more than that distant colleague from far away that we met on occasion at conferences. I turned to Hew on a regular basis when I simply could not find information anywhere else - he was a walking encyclopedia. And he never seemed to mind my endless queries.

Moreover, I rarely wrote a paper than I didn't send to Hew for comment - and the comments always came - supportive, gently corrective when necessary, with a humorous edge - within a day or two of my having sent it to Hew. His generosity of spirit was humbling; his support of my work meant more to me than he could ever know.

Hew was an example for those of us who tend to jump first and think later. On occasion I would get an email from him urging quiet, restraint - something that never did come easily to me. His quiet graciousness toward those who called him "foe" was startling. Moreover, it never wavered. He was and will continue to be in my eyes, the finest gentleman scholar I have ever met.

And, where would Sikh Studies in the twenty-first century be without Dr. McLeod? His meticulous research, his unceasing questioning of "truth" or "fact" has inspired and laid the groundwork for so many aspiring scholars. Through the ups and downs of the study of Sikhism over the past 50 years, Hew's work has stood the test of time as the standard by which virtually all other scholarship has been evaluated. It will continue to be that standard.

So, today we grieve the loss of a friend, a mentor, a scholar par excellence, a "Mensch" of the finest quality. And we grieve the loss to his family - especially Margaret - having lost her constant companion and husband. We remember, too, his children and grandchildren. How proud he was of all of you! Know we grieve with you.

How we will miss Hew.

Amrit & Rabindra Kaur Singh

We are so sorry to hear the sad news.

Hew was a great support and source of inspiration for us when, as PhD students in Sikh art, there were very few people we could turn to for guidance. We have lost a dear friend and the academic world, a great scholar who was a pioneer in his field. We shall always cherish our fond memories of Hew - especially our time at his home in Dunedin.

Our deepest sympathies and prayers are with Margaret and the family.

Narinder Singh Kapany

Hew McLeod, a scholar, teacher, author, mentor, speaker and a great family man, is gone and we will all miss him. Hew worked hard in India, UK, Canada and USA and helped the world understand the beauty and culture of the Sikhs. There is no doubt that he inspired a number of persons and heralded the study of the Sikhs in the Western world.

Karen Leonard

I can only wish I had known Hew better; in my limited experience, especially that one Michigan conference when I first met him, I saw a gentle man who listened carefully and was open to the work of others.

His own standards were clearly firm and rigorous, and his meticulous work led him to convictions which he then had to maintain and defend against attacks no scholar should have had to anticipate and answer, repeatedly ... I do not have any anecdotes, only a strong and very warm personal memory of a man whose written work commands my great admiration.


Mark Juergensmeyer

When I first met Hew in 1966 - when I was searching the Punjab for a research project and stumbled on him at Baring College - I learned an important lesson in integrity.

He and Margaret were agonizing over whether they could morally assent to being supported by church funds after they no longer believed. As an Episcopalian, it had never occurred to me that this might be an obstacle, and I found the line of thinking to be quite curious. But they were moral people, and such things mattered.

Later that year, up in the mountains, I learned from Hew what true scholarship meant, and it involved a motor scooter.

I was studying language in the hills above Mussoorie where Hew and Margaret had a summer home, and he invited me to go on a research trip to Rishikesh. What I didn't know was that this would involve a day of bumpy riding perched on the back of his motor scooter and fighting with busses and lorries along the narrow twisting gravel roads. The point was to visit the pundits at Hardwar and Rishikesh who might have kept family records pertaining to the life of the first guru.

There was nothing to be found, as it turned out, but it gave me new meaning to the idea that thorough research should leave no stone unturned.

Ten years later, I was able to be the host for him, this time at Berkeley, for our first conference on Sikh studies, and then later as a guest professor.

Hew and Margaret settled into Berkeley, enjoying such rare American amenities as fitted sheets. But what would he teach, he asked? Sikh studies, I said, as if we would want him to teach anything else. But this struck him as odd. Though by this time Hew had published Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion and become one of the most prominent scholars in the field around the world, he had never until then had a chance to actually teach a course on the subject.

He went at the assignment with delight. And of course, he eventually turned his lectures into a book.

At another conference, years later, at Columbia University in New York City, I had arranged with Hew to have breakfast before the morning sessions. He didn't show up. This was not like Hew, I thought, so I went directly up to his room and pounded on his door. Finally he managed feebly to open it and his slumped expression and slurred speech alerted me that that there was something seriously wrong. Jack Hawley, Ainsie Embree, and I managed to get Hew to a nearby hospital, where he was diagnosed as having a stroke, and it took the efforts of all three of us to manoeuvre him through the medical bureaucracy.

"What's your social security number?" the lady barked at Hew as he lay semiconscious on the gurney. "He doesn't have a social security number," Ainslie interceded, "he's a New Zealander." "I don't care about that," the lady insisted, "I just need to have his social security number." Somehow, though, he survived both the bureaucracy and the stroke, and eventually almost completely recovered from this earlier bout with death.

It was at Toronto that Hew was able to work with graduate students and be a part of a faculty that knew and appreciated what he was doing. I remember visiting Hew at the time and thinking that he was in his element in such a place. In my reckoning, Hew was one of the great Indologists of his generation, and it always puzzled me why he wasn't teaching at Cambridge or Columbia or Toronto.

Then again, Sikh studies as a field was - before Hew - hardly a subject for serious scholarship in Western universities. The irony is that he helped to give it the scholarly reputation that today would probably earn him a more significant appointment.

Yet when I visited him on a couple of occasions in Dunedin, I began to understand the charm of Otago. Yes, this was the university he graduated from, and it was almost literally at the far corner of the world, but it was such a comforting and sensible place to be. It seemed very Hew.

I remember when Sucheng and I visited Hew and Margaret in their woodsy home and when we met with his university colleagues, who could remember all the years that he had given in caring for that institution, I began to understand the power of home. He lived a full life, as it turned out, one in which the trajectory moved simultaneously inward to his past, as well as outward to the community of scholarship around the world that he so deeply influenced.

So Hew has left, but he has left much behind. He leaves not only an amazing shelf of books and an admiring circle of colleagues, but a field of studies that he had helped to create.

How many of us could complete our time on earth with such a sense of personal and professional satisfaction? So Hew, if there is a God in the universe, I am sure long ago He has forgiven your indiscretion in not believing in Him, since it is so abundantly clear that in so many ways He believed in you.


Bruce La Brack

I am very, very sad at Hew's passing, but I feel equally honored to have known him for over three decades. He was an amazing, indefatigable scholar and researcher on most things Sikh, but he was much more to those who were privileged to know him personally.

He was equal parts academic role model, mentor, friend, incisive critic, supportive colleague, and fearless advocate for those causes and cases where he felt justice could be better served by his involvement. His was a turbulent career in an area of inquiry where emotions often run high, but he never lost his strong commitment to seeking the truth, regardless of where it led and always meticulously provided the proper linguistic, textual, political or social setting context of an event or a document.

His was a long (but not nearly long enough) career and eventful life. He will be missed by many, but I suspect that those of us who first knew him when they were young graduate students will remember especially his openness, willingness to listen and welcoming, gentle manner. It was deeply appreciated and provided a fine example of how to guide, inspire and motivate several generations of academic scholars to pursue the endlessly fascinating, frequently complex and often surprising field of Sikh Studies.

His family was his bedrock, Margaret at the core. We shall all miss his integrity, humanity, humor and restless intellect.

Thank you, Hew, for the gift of your mind, your spirit and your friendship. Rest, you have earned it.

Joseph O'Connell

Professor W.H. "Hew" McLeod was a visiting scholar in Canada for several years with the University of Toronto's Department and Centre for Religious Studies, Department of History, and Centre for South Asian Studies. For those of us fortunate enough to know and work with him, Hew was a model of scholarly excellence and a gracious human presence.

He and his devoted and very able wife, Margaret, became dear friends to many of us here in Toronto, as they did wherever they labored - for many years in the Punjab and at Otago University in New Zealand and as invited guests worldwide.

It is to Margaret indeed that much credit must go for challenging Hew through his remarkable recovery from a nearly fatal stroke in 1987 and facilitating the comparably remarkable productivity of his post-retirement scholarship done at home during a multi-year duel with cancer.

Hew McLeod came to Toronto first as a Commonwealth Fellow for the fall term in 1986. He quickly impressed academic colleagues, students and Toronto-area Sikhs with his knowledge, gracious wit and deep commitment to Sikh studies.

His presence was the catalyst for a major conference on "Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century" in February 1987. This event gave rise to a large volume of the same title, with an editorial team of Hew, Jagtar Singh Grewal, Milton Israel, the late Willard Oxtoby and myself.

Just prior to the conference, however, a severe stroke while in New York for a prestigious series of lectures delayed Hew's return to us until 1988. Then he began five consecutive annual fall term appointments as Visiting Professor in Sikh History and Religion. The bulk of the financial support for these visits came from Canadian Sikh donors, thanks especially to the efforts of Mr. Gary Singh and Mr. Suresh Singh Bhalla of Toronto.

Two of our graduate students, Pashaura Singh and Louis Fenech, did their Ph.D. research under Hew's supervision and both have had their revised theses published and are now professors in American universities, the former the incumbent of an endowed chair.

Hew also served on several other graduate students' supervisory committees, offered graduate seminars and taught many undergraduates in courses on the Sikh religious tradition and Sikh history.

Hew McLeod was the author of numerous scholarly books beginning with the ground-breaking Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion and Early Sikh Tradition. His meticulous historical research was widely appreciated by scholars of Indian and world religions, including some of the most prominent Sikh scholars. But it also drew criticism from other Sikhs wedded more to traditional legends than to rigorous textual research.

Unfortunately, some of the criticism took a nasty ad hominem turn against Hew, as well as Pashaura Singh and Harjot Oberoi, and did much to erode Canadian Sikh community support for promising initiatives in both the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia.

In a special conference at Toronto held midway in Hew's period as visiting professor, critics were given the opportunity to discuss the issues directly with Hew and Pashaura and other scholars. In a later autobiographic book (which incidentally touches on experiences during his Toronto years), Hew has, in his urbane way, set the record straight as to who he is and how and why he does his academically rigorous but respectful research on Sikh religion, culture and history.

That little book and a very recent video, "A Kiwi Historian of Sikh Religion" in You Tube's "Asia Down Under" section, provide engaging introductions to one of the finest of modern-day scholarly human beings.

We in Toronto owe him much and have missed him and Margaret greatly since their definitive return to New Zealand. We offer our condolences to the entire McLeod family, all of whom meant so much to the Hew we knew.

Harbans Singh

Dr. Hew McLeod has been ailing for quite sometime, and finally the end has come, peacefully.

We will miss him.

He read my book, Connecting the Dots in Sikh History, early in 2005, and said in part: "It presents a most attractive picture for the intelligent reader who is not one who insists on the format of a thoroughgoing historian such as Professor Grewal. As such, it performs the task very well and I congratulate the author on his achievement."

As I said, we will miss him in person, but will continue to give his work credit where credit is due.

I. J. Singh

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.

Jaggi Singh

Hew McLeod's passing truly saddens me.

I have never met the man, however, I have read some of his work, have talked to people for and against him, and his work. The detractors to me are "my minds is made up, you can not change it" types. I am honoured to have received a few emails from him.

The whole Sikh world should be in mourning; his passing is a huge loss to the quom.

With heartfelt condolences.

Paul Wallace

It is sad to learn that a very special person has passed away. Hew certainly has been the most notable scholar of Punjab and Sikhs of the past several generations. He also served as a role model as a teacher, friend, and as a human being. We will miss him as we continue to celebrate his accomplishments.


T. Sher Singh

The concept of "sehaj" - equipoise - is central to Sikhism: it is the goal that every Sikh is to aspire to in this life, not something to be postponed as a reward in the next.

I never understood the idea until I heard Hew explain it in a course on Sikhi he taught in Toronto in the mid-eighties. He spoke my lingo, and suddenly, an esoteric term made perfect sense: the nirvana that each Sikh seeks in this life constitutes the ability to welcome, receive and accept the good and bad, the highs and the lows, honour and dishonour, luxury and deprivation, pain and joy: all, with equal grace. With equipoise.

But I learnt even more about Sehaj from Hew McLeod, the Man, than Hew McLeod, the Teacher.

Through the few decades I got to know him, I saw him in a variety of situations. I saw him in the classroom and at the podium in gurdwaras. I saw him receiving honour from many, and I saw him challenged and rebuked by a few. I saw him in the witness box as an expert witness in court. I saw him wince while seated in the body of the court, saddened by the testimony of those who he knew knew better. I saw him healthy and energetic, and I saw him weakened by time and by illness. I saw him contemplative and I saw him in the thrust and parry of debate. I saw him accede and admit error, and I saw him dig in his heels, reiterating his findings.

I had the pleasure of seeing him in all these facets, and never, not once, did I see him lose poise or his ability to smile - that lovely, disarming smile of his - or his gentleness or his gentility, or his humility.

There was always grace about him.

Equipoise, Sikhs call it: Sehaj.

Frankly, I learnt about Sehaj not from the teacher or the friend, but from the Man.

To tell you the truth, I do not know many souls who have lived up to the ideals of Sikhi as Hew McLeod did.

When words fail, Will Shakespeare always comes to the rescue. In the final moments of Julius Caesar, Anthony says of Brutus:

His life was gentle; and the elements

So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world, 'This was a man!'


I now know what Brutus must've been really like!


Conversation about this article

1: Harjit Kaur (Patiala, Punjab), July 30, 2009, 8:42 AM.

These tributes are, in addition to be being loving and respectful to the memory of this extraordinary man, most revealing in terms of the kind of person he really was. Thank you for gathering them and sharing them with us.

2: Ajit Singh (Texas, U.S.A.), July 30, 2009, 8:48 AM.

The sheer ambit of what he covered in Sikh subjects speaks volumes on his dedication to Sikh scholarship. I am willing to overlook his mistakes - yes, there are many and they will be corrected inevitably by others whose work, after all, has been instigated by the very attention he brought to the issues - and nevertheless express my gratitude to him for all that he has done for Sikhi. He will always hold a special place in the hearts of Sikhs everywhere. May Waheguru bless his soul and give him eternal peace.

3: Manjit Kaur (Maryland, U.S.A.), July 30, 2009, 12:08 PM.

Hew McLeod's death is a sad loss for Sikh academia. He definitely created a niche in Sikhism research, and left behind reference material for policy makers and reviewers in the Western world which may have not been possible otherwise. I personally have learned a lot through his writings. May Waheguru bless his soul.

4: Meena (Delhi, India), August 23, 2009, 9:17 PM.

Give me a break, people! This man singlehandly did more damage to the study of Sikhism than all the other scholars combined. He is the architect of the concept that Sikhism is a branch of Hinduism in Western literature. It's a shame that he has passed away. Yes, because he can no longer be held to account by genuine Sikh scholars who really know and truly care about the study of Sikhism and its people.

5: N Singh (Christchurch, New Zealand), November 20, 2013, 10:59 PM.

Beware anyone that writes, 'give me a break' (Meena, Delhi). You are certainly outnumbered in your comments and let me work out who is genuine. Some respect is due.

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