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Religion Library: Sikhism

Historical Perspectives

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One of these informants, Kahn Singh (1861-1938), became a giant in Sikh history in his own right. A student and activist during the Singh Sabha reform movement (the modernist reforms in Sikhism starting in the late 1800s), Kahn Singh received patronage to tutor the heir of the princely state of Nabha in Southeast Punjab. In 1930 he published the Mahan Kosh, an encyclopedic work of history and life, in addition to his several tracts and theological books. Kahn Singh was just one of the early 20th century's indigenously-trained scholars who forwarded the cause of Sikh historiography. Karam Singh (1884-1930) was another trailblazer in applying historical methodology to Sikh texts. He dedicated his early career to recording oral histories and travelled extensively to research material sources as well. That he is better known by the surname "Historian" than by his Dhillon clan identity testifies to the renown of his craft.

Among the other Sikhs who contributed to Sikh historical perspectives were the Singh Sabha activist Vir Singh (1872-1957), the exegete Jodh Singh (1882-1982), Professor Sahib Singh (1892-1977), Professor Teja Singh (1894-1958). The last of these collaborated with Ganda Singh (1900-1987), a major archivalist of the Punjab, on a monumental work titled A Short History of the Sikhs in 1950. Several of these scholars were affiliated in some way with the Khalsa College in Amritsar, which was started in the last decade of the 19th century to advance Sikh heritage. Shamsher Singh Ashok (1903-1986), Fauja Singh (1918-1983), Piara Singh Padam (1923-2001), and Harbans Singh (1923-1995) carried the torch of their forbearers into the middle and later part of the 20th century.

After the Partition of South Asia in 1947, one branch of Lahore's Punjab University eventually found a home in the eastern Punjabi city of Chandigarh. In the 1960s, the establishment of Punjabi University in Patiala and Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar rounded out the major centers of learning in Punjab. Archives and scholarly departments at each of these schools contributed to understanding history, language, and literature of the Sikhs. The presses of these academic institutions published primary sources important for Sikh historiography.

Western-trained scholars, both Sikhs and non-Sikhs, influence Sikh historiography today in great part. Controversies about the roots of Sikh identity, the lives of the Gurus, and history of Sikh scripture emerged in late 20th-century Sikh studies. These controversies may have stemmed from what was considered foreign critical encroachment on Sikh tradition, and were compounded by the political instability in Northern India between the 1970s and 1990s in which sizable numbers of Sikhs were in strong tension with the state and deeply suspicious of discourse on identity, power, and tradition.

New waves of scholars, who belong to the Punjab but were trained in the West, are read by audiences worldwide. The main figure among these is the historian J. S. Grewal. Gurinder Singh Mann and Pashaura Singh  have both done work on Sikh scripture and hold prestigious endowed chairs in the University of California system. Nikki-Guninder Kaur Singh brings a feminist perspective to Sikh thought and exegesis of scripture.

Today, a major challenge facing scholars of Sikh tradition is the continued sifting of sources for dates and improved reconstruction of history of the tradition. Basic chronology resulting from text-critical scholarship will be responsible for reevaluating Sikh historiography. More scholarly work needs to be done to understand indigenous Sikh intellectual movements, including the contributions of groups like the Udasis, Nirmalas, and Taksalis on Sikh scholarship.

Study Questions:
1.     What kinds of works are attributed to the tradition's own scholars in the period before the 19th century?
2.     What major changes took place in 19th-century scholarship in Sikh tradition?
3.     What have been the major institutions (colleges and universities) for Sikh learning?
4.     What kinds of issues are contemporary scholars working on?