Upholders of the five K's


April 24, 1998

At a rough estimate, there are 15 million Sikhs in the world. About 14 million live in India; the rest are scattered over the globe with sizeable colonies in England, Canada, the United States, East Africa and Southeast Asia. Small communities are also found in Australia, New Zealand and other countries. Though they form barely 2 per cent of the population of India, they count for far more in the political, economic and social life of the country than their numbers would warrant.

In recent years a lot of literature on the religion and history of the Sikhs has been published. Most of it follows the pattern set out by earlier writers, chiefly Joseph Davy Cunningham's History of the Sikhs, first published in 1849, and Max Arthur Macauliffe's The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors in six volumes, published in 1907. Cunningham was of view that the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak (1469-1539) drew inspiration both from Hinduism, in which he was born, and from Sufi Islam, which had a strong following in the Punjab of his time. He preached a pacifist faith of love and tolerance. As the number of his disciples, or shisyas (from which word Sikh is derived) grew under the succeeding nine gurus, they invited persecution at the hands of the Mughal rulers and their governors. First, Arjun (1563-1606), the fifth guru, who compiled the sacred scripture, the Adi Granth, was tortured to death; then Tegh Bahadur, the ninth guru, was executed in 1675. Tegh Bahadur's son, Guru Gobind Singh, took to arms and in 1699 established the Khalsa (the "pure").

Most historians followed Cunningham in describing Sikhism as a syncretic faith, part Hindu, part Islamic and the Khalsa as the sword arm of Hinduism. Macauliffe was commissioned to write on the lives and teachings of the ten gurus. He relied entirely on the Janam Sakhis (life stories) ascribed to one of Guru Nanak's companions whose identity has been questioned and who wrote them many years after the guru's death. Macauliffe also accepted verbatim whatever was accepted by the community and passed down the generations. These narrations are full of miracles ascribed to the gurus and therefore not taken seriously by scholars. However, the traditional interpretations got the better of the sceptics. And it was the same with the genesis of the Khalsa. Most Sikhs believe that on April 13 1699 Guru Gobind Singh assembled his followers at Anandpur and baptised the first five of the Khalsa, gave them the surname Singh ("lion") and laid down a strict code of conduct (rahit maryaada) summarised in the five K's: kesh (unshorn hair and beards), kangha (comb), kada (steel bracelet), kachcha (soldier's breeches) and kirpan (sword). To question the authenticity of Guru Nanak's travels or Guru Gobind Singh's ordinances was regarded as blasphemy.

Hew McLeod, a New Zealander, having got his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, arrived in the Punjab and spent nine years studying Sikh religion and history. He dug into original sources and came to the conclusion that the Janam Sakhis on which Guru Nanak's life had been constructed were not reliable historical material. Orthodox Sikhs condemned his Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (1968) but were not able to fault McLeod on his facts. Since then McLeod has published half-a-dozen other books on different facets of Sikhism. This latest book, Sikhism, questions the authenticity of the rahitnamas ascribed to Guru Gobind Singh and is thus bound to rouse another storm of protest.

But there is a lot more in Sikhism than rahitnamas. It is in fact a mini-encyclopaedia and a dictionary on the Sikh religion and the many sub-sects that sprang out of it. Its only shortcoming is that McLeod has not paid sufficient attention to the resurgence of fundamentalism in the community, which started in British times with the Singh Sabha and the Akali movement and gathered enough force after partition of the Punjab and India's independence in 1947 to give birth to demands for an independent Sikh state, Khalistan. The motivating force is the Sikhs' fear of being re-absorbed into the Hindu fold from which their forefathers came.

McLeod's Sikhism deserves serious attention from scholars and laymen alike. It is handy, well-informed and very readable.

Khushwant Singh is a novelist and author of works on Sikh history and religion.


Author - Hew McLeod
ISBN - 0 14 025260 6
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £8.99
Pages - 334

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