Historical Perspectives

Written by: Rahuldeep Singh Gill

While some scholarship today has cast the Sikh tradition as a hybrid of Hindu and Muslim beliefs, the tradition's own scholars contended for Sikhism's unique development as a religion that stood against the rigid practices of both dominant religions of the time. The tradition itself has had an immense impact in documenting, and shaping, Sikh history through the centuries.

Bhai Gurdas (d. 1636) remains until today the chief interpreter of Sikh life; he provided data of great significance for the lives of the first Sikh Gurus, early Sikh life, and the locations of the first Sikh congregations throughout South Asia. Like Bhai Gurdas, Bhai Mani Singh (d. 1738) was a scribe who was also known for his leadership in the Panth (the community). Guru Gobind Singh had sent him to oversee the affairs in Amritsar around 1700. Attributed to him are works of great historical significance, a Janam Sakhi and the Sikhan Di Bhagatmala—both interpretations of Bhai Gurdas's poems, called vars. An important contemporaneous chronicle of Guru Gobind Singh's life is the Sri Guru Sobha, attributed to a poet named Sainapati. Rattan Singh Bhangu's Panth Prakash was a landmark text from the early 19th century, detailing the lives of the ten Gurus and a decade and a half of the Khalsa's history. Santokh Singh (1787-1843) was a scholar trained in Amritsar who found patronage just North and West of Delhi. He composed and translated verse and prose in Hindi and Sanskrit, but his magnum opus was a Braj Bhasha work known as Guru Pratap Suraj Granth, a highly-stylized history of the Sikh Gurus and their families.

A new trend that emerged in the 19th century was the scholarly interest that Sikhs received from European civil servants and administrators under the auspices of British colonialism. Several British agents-cum-historians impacted Sikh historiography of the period. One of these was John Malcolm (1769-1833), whose Sketch of the Sikhs was first published in 1812. Joseph Davey Cunningham (1812-1851) published his History of the Sikhs in 1849, the same year that the British Army annexed Maharaja Ranjit Singh's kingdom. This account has generally been regarded as sympathetic to the Sikh religion and was controversial in London, resulting in Cunningham's censure by his British superiors for sympathizing too deeply with the natives.

German linguist Ernest Trumpp's (1821-85) translation of parts of the Sikh scripture, which he published under the title The Adi Granth, has been received less favorably by members of the community. This is due to Trumpp's dismissive editorial remarks offering less-than-favorable opinions of the Sikh future, and the translator's perceived disregard for Sikh etiquette when dealing with scripture. Max Arthur Macauliffe (1841-1913) was the British civil servant who published articles on the Sikhs in the 1870s. In 1893 he received Sikh institutional support to write a history of the Sikhs along with translations of sacred texts. The result was the six-volume Sikh Religion published in 1909. Macauliffe has been lauded, in Sikh circles, for his reliance on orthodox informants.

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?

Back to Religion Library