Saturday, July 21, 2007

W. H. McLeod's "Exploring Sikhism"

I decided I need to know more about Sikhism in order to refer to it in my "Book of the Body" sequence. (Perhaps I should change the title now that I know Frank Bidart has a collection and a poem with the same name. The ass-pain of being johnny-come-lately.) Started reading McLeod's collection of essays on Sikhism, while sunbathing on the grass patch on Christopher Street pier this afternoon.

Contrary to the older idea of Sikhism as a hybrid of Islam and Hinduism, McLeod argues that the Islamic contribution is not fundamental nor direct. Many of the ideas that seem most Islamic--such as the unity of God, the role of the religious preceptor--could also have been derived from the Sant tradition (a devotional tradition of North India which stressed the need for internal spirituality as opposed to external observance), with important secondary contribution from the Nath tradition (a yogic sect).

McLeod also takes issue with the supposed "syncretism" of Sikhism. He argues that there is little evidence that Guru Nanak, or the other Sikh gurus, consciously and deliberately took the best from Sufi Islam and "Hinduism" in order to meld them into a system. Instead, McLeod prefers the use of "influence" and "assimilation" to describe the partly conscious, partly unconscious, partly individual, partly social process.

Very interesting is the form of the janam-sakhis, a collection of hagiographic biographies of Guru Nanak. Though they protray Guru Nanak besting his Sufi opponents in religious debate-- in Islamic centers such as Mecca, Medina and Baghdad no less--they do so using the anecdotal literary form of the Sufi tazkiras (collections of biographical anecdotes). Talk about using your enemy's weapon to beat him.

I especially enjoy the chapters "The Nanak of Faith and the Nanak of History" and "The Development of Sikh Panth." The first gives a few stories of Nanak from the janam-sakhis. After submerging himself in the Vein river for three days, Guru Nanak emerged to proclaim, "There is no Hindu; there is no Mussulman." His idea is that the spiritual seeker must transcend conventional Hinduism and Islam in order to reach the truth.

The other chapter describes the evolving features of the Panth, a word which can mean "a 'path' or 'way'; system of religious belief or practice" or "community observing a particular system of belief or practice." Spelled with a capital letter, the Panth refers to the Sikh community. I can't help remembering the Tao, which can also mean "way," besides "communication."

Three things about Guru Nanak's religion attract me: its emphasis on internal spiritual change and quest as opposed to external observance, its renunication of caste in favor of spiritual egalitarianism, and its provision of spiritual songs--poetry, really-- for communal singing (kirtan).

The chapter also refers to the ninth guru Tegh Bahadur, whom I referred to in my poem. His execution by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi was interpreted as martyrdom, and rewakened hostilities between the Panth and the imperial authorities. This tension, in turn, led to the arming of the Panth, and the breakout of fighting. The Panth ideal became the sant sipahi, the servant of the Guru who combines devotion with valor. This, for me, explains the Sikhs' reputation for martial prowess. McLeod adds another dimension to the explanation. He suggests that the social constituency of the Panth included large numbers of Jats (rural lower caste in Punjab) very early in the development of the community. These Jats could have also contributed to the Panth their own warlike tradition, so at odds with the mercantile class members.


refractor said...

Spiritual egalitarian means nothing when actual gross despicable social and material inequalities prevail.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Dear refractor,
I think I understand the force of your point. So often, talk of spiritual equality not only does not eradicate gross socio-economic inequities, but it can even provide a cover for the continuation of injustice. But an egalitarian spiritual discourse always has the potential of motivating followers to do something about those injustices. In some instances, the discourse has done just that. William Wilberforce is an example from the West.