Book Review - Early Sikh Scriptural Tradition Myth and Reality
Posted by Preet Mohan S Ahluwalia on Friday, 11/24/2000 4:06 PM MST
| A Review of Early Sikh Scriptural Tradition |
Dr. Jaswinder Kaur
Dean, Humanities and Religious Studies,
Guru Nanak Dev University
Early Sikh Scriptural Tradition Myth and Reality by Dr. Balwant Singh Dhillon,
Published by Singh Brothers, Amritsar 1999, pp. 308, Price Rs. 395.
The beauty of research and reasoning in Dr. Balwant Singh Dhillon's book, Early Sikh Scriptural Tradition Myth and Reality, has prompted me to write this review. The book claims to address the issues that cropped up from textual studies, of the Adi Granth conducted by Western scholars. It also looks into the validity of Biblical methods of textual criticism that have been applied to the Sikh texts without any scholarly testing and experimentation. The study seeks to reiterate that before using the evidence of a manuscript of Gurbani, its authenticity, antiquity and authority need to be established in an analytical and surgical manner.
The author of this book has surprised me by producing such a well researched and well reasoned work on this sensitive matter. It has not only vital new information but the various issues about Sikh scriptures have also been discussed in a perspective that was totally missing in the earlier studies. I had expected it to be a hard hitting rejoinder but Dr. Dhillon has risen to the occasion bravely, from the ordinary rustic, ruralistic academician described by his friend and philosopher Professor Noel Q. King in the foreword. I have been happily following the flowering of a true scholar. The research projects he is now working on are very promising and the effort he is putting in them would gladden all hearts, I am certain.
Without saying it in so many words, this tome is an apt and well argued rejoinder to the controversial conclusions drawn in the studies by Pashaura Singh in the University of Toronto in 1991, by Professor Piar Singh at the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, in 1992, and Gurinder Singh Mann at the University of Columbia in 1993. The studies had made liberal use of the now lost Guru Har Sahai pothi, the two extant Goindwal pothis, and manuscript 1245 (of dubious origin) obtained by the Guru Nanak Dev University.
Their controversial conclusions had come at a sensitive time when Sikhs were experiencing great turmoil. Thus, every comment on the Sikhs or Sikhism was suspect. The Sikh scholars were already feeling resentful of some uncharitable comments made by some Western scholars, especially W.H. McLeod, in his essays and triology on Sikhism, since published in one volume by Penguin. Sikh scholars expectedly presumed that McLeod had misled and instigated Sikh scholars based in North America to prove his contrived thesis through their doctoral dissertations.
Revelations that a microfilm copy of manuscript 1245 had been smuggled out of India to North America with the direct or indirect involvement of then Vice Chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University, had further created doubts that McLeod had some hidden agenda in relation to the studies on the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. Indications were that Professor Piar Singh might have actually palmed off the manuscript for profiteering in connivance with the actual sellers, who had made unsubstantiated claims about the importance of the manuscript but were evasive about the source from which they had procured it.
Textual analysis of the Adi Granth faces the problem that an authentic version of its text is not available nor irrefutable historical sources. In pursuit to establish the actual text of the Guru Granth Sahib, the scholars have identified three sources, namely the Guru Har Sahai pothi, the two extant Goindwal pothis and MS # 1245. The Guru Har Sahai pothi was characterized as the original pothi of gurbani compiled by Guru Nanak. The Goindwal pothis were claimed as the pothis compiled by Guru Amar Das and which were once possessed by his elder son, Mohan. Common feature of these pothis was that a larger number of Sikhs had traditionally believed in their veracity and paid obeisance to them whenever custodians displayed them ceremoniously. However, these custodians had always avoided academic and scientific study of these pothis. Scholars have also claimed that these pothis were the chief sources for the compilation of Adi Granth by Guru Arjan Dev. Now, a similar claim was being made about manuscript 1245.
In fact some scholars stated that it was an early draft of the Adi Granth. On the basis of these pothis and the manuscript 1245, therefore, the three studies mentioned in the beginning of this review concluded that the Sikh Gurus had often manipulated and revised their own as well as their predecessors'bani. These studies also claimed that the format of these pothis and the Adi Granth compiled from them had also undergone similar, frequent revisions. Similarly, the studies suggested that the credal hymn of the Sikhs, the Mulmantra, too had undergone frequent changes.
These conclusions sought to undermine the very basis of the Sikh belief that the preachings of their Gurus enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib was dhur-ki-bani (Divine Word). There was expected reaction - at least Pashaura Singh, an experienced granthi and Professor Piar Singh, a very mature academician steeped in religious knowledge, should have anticipated the controversy. A number of Sikh scholars, led by the Chandigarh-based Institute of Sikh Studies-run by retired civil servants, including the late S. Daljeet Singh, S. Gurtej Singh, and S. Kharak Singh Mann, forcefully challenged these unfortunate conclusions.
Dr. Balwant Singh Dhillon, author of the book in hand, in 1992 had examined manuscript 1245 and published his observations. He was among some Sikh scholars who were invited to NorthAmerica to give lectures at different universities for their perspective. Sikh communities in these countries and in India took due notice of the issue, and Professor Piar Singh and Pashaura Singh had to tender apology before the Akal Takht and undergo traditional cleansing penances. The highest religious authority of the Sikh Panth was kind, charitable, and forgiving as per the Sikh tradition. Notably, the Christian Church, in Middle Ages, by Pashaura Singh in Toronto, Canada. One might praise his method as overkill-but he has amply achieved his aim.
We should remember only through the machinations of the Minas that Guru Arjan Dev had suffered martyrdom. The persistent collusion of the Minas, led by Pirthi Chand and his son Miharban, with the Mughal rulers eventually forced the succeeding Sikh Gurus to withdraw to the Shivalik Foothills. For the next century, the Minas ruled the roost, enjoying gurudom in central Punjab. They did not even permit the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur to pay obeisance at Harmandir soon after his investiture. In this circumstance, most of the religious establishments in Punjab would enshrine the Mina version of the Sikh scripture - and production of such granths would abound. Similarly, the scribes belonging to different traditions were producing pothis for different purposes. Dr. Dhillon has aptly remarked that the role of scribes in the transmission of bani, which was quite significant, has not been adequately considered by scholars. In the epilogue of his
burnt people at tile stake for lesser liberties. Had these offending scholars been Muslims, they would have been facing terminal fatwas, like Salman Rushdie.
In his book, Dr. Dhillon very exhaustively traced the ways, means, and traditions for the transmission of bani that were prevalent in the Panth, as well as the rival traditions that came to compete with the Sikh Gurus. The study under review underscores the role of the Udasis, the Bhallas, the Minas, and the Handalias who prepared their own pothis simply to usurp the guruship of the Sikhs.
Dr. Dhillon recounted the efforts of these phoney pretenders to gurudom to add non-original bani to the Sikh scripture. He conclusively shows that all the pothis of gurbani produced in the pre-Adi Granth period could not be authentic mainstream Sikh texts because they reflect many features of rival traditions. This type of treatment is totally missing in the earlier studies on the Adi Granth that Dr. Dhillon rightly claims is fundamental to the identifications and appreciation of the real Sikh scripture. He analysed the three controversial studies and their contents in a very systematic manner. Instead of the claims of scriptural custodians or the statements of the earlier scholars, Dr. Dhillon has rightly relied upon the internal evidence for truth. He has systematically demolished the aura of authenticity woven around these so-called earlier sources of the Adi Granth. He has conclusively shown that the documents that had been characterized as the earlier sources of the Adi Granth represent different traditi
ons/lineage, and could never have been the source for the compilation of the Adi Granth, the first recension of the Sikh scripture scribed/compiled by Bhai Gurdas under the supervision of Guru Arjan Dev.
Dr. Dhillon has patiently proven his point by rigorously applying Biblical or Western methods of textual criticism. He analyzes all possible aspects of studying the physiognomy, orthography, poetic genres, dating, colophony, scribing tidbits, textual, as well as musicological variants. His methods can not be found lacking by Western scholars, or he be branded as partisan and sectarian. He has been over-conscious of the Biblical canons of critical studies such as 'proclivi lectioni praestat ardue. 'brevior liectio praeferenda verbosiri,' (etc.) employed
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