Misconstruction of Religious Boundaries

Charnjit Singh Bal

Harjot Singh Oberoi, History Professor at UBC got his Ph. D from the Australian National University under the tutelage of his associate supervisor William Hewat McLeod, who got his Ph. D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, UK for a Joke. (See his ‘Discovering the Sikhs, Autobiography of a Historian’, p 40

Note: Excerpts and quotes from Harjot Singh Oberoi’s thesis are italicized.


Harjot Oberoi’s title of his published doctoral thesis ‘Construction of Religious Boundaries Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition’ is a misnomer because this thesis is in fact a pack of ‘Misconstruction of Religious Boundaries Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition’ and concoction of cult followings, witchcraft, wizardry, superstitions, grapevine traditions customs carnival and festivals of the Hindu and Muslim dominated multi-socio-cultural and religious societies of Punjab and India of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Dr. Oberoi’s own word,

‘The territories in which the Sikhs lived, the language they spoke, the agrarian festivals in which they participated, the ritual personnel they patronized and the symbolic universe of their rites of passage-all these were shared by numerous other communities in Punjab.’ (P. 48)

‘By their very nature melas (festivals, carnivals) as a motley assemblage of people from different neighbourhoods, villages and regions diluted the codes of class, caste and religious differences. In these an individual could not stand apart, he had to blend into the crowd.’ Pp. 189-190

‘The shrines catered not only to the spiritual needs of a Muslim population, but provided cures to invalids from different denominations---.’ P. 156

‘This book, ‘Construction of Religious Boundaries’, has endeavoured to rethink the whole concept of religious communities as applied to Indian society.’ P. 418

Despite his expressed awareness, that in the contemporary diverse society of Punjab, the Sikh minority’s credulous element was susceptible to the dominant Hindu and Muslim majorities’ social customs, cultural festivities, idiosyncratic religious rites and folklore practices, yet Harjot Oberoi impertinently concocts his thesis; ‘Construction of Religious Boundaries culture, Identity and diversity in Sikh tradition.’

Sanatan Sikhism

‘Sanatan Sikhism was primarily a ‘priestly’ religion. P. 137

‘Sardar Gulab Singh, in a public lecture at the Guru ka Bagh in Amritsar, announced ‘Sikh faith is the true Sanatan religion. The four Vedas (Hindu scriptures) are also the religious books of the Sikhs-----. Khalsa Akhbar, 17 July 1886’ P. 102

‘Avatar Singh Vahiria, the most articulate exponent of Sanatan thinking later in the century, counted Guru Nanak among a long line of Avatars, Ram and Krishna. Sikh Khalsa Dharm Sidhant, pp 27-9’ P. 103

‘Guru Nanak was one such avatar, born to save people from the perils of ignorance and reveal once again the Sanatan faith that had been lost in an age of darkness-or so the Sanatan Sikhs believed.’ P. 103

‘In return they would receive instructions special instruction in meditation, Yoga and study of the Adi Granth, the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Puranans and Sastras.’ Page 124

‘All those associated with Sanatan Sikhism-its patrons, cultural mediators and practitioners, lived in a society sustained by the labours of an extensive peasant and artisan class.’ P.138

‘My argument is that the Sanatanists recognized the existence of several traditions within the Sikh Panth and accepted multiple sources of authority. This view of the world made it possible for Sikh tradition both, to accommodate conflicting beliefs of folk Sikhism and to coexist with diverse elements from popular culture.’ Pp. 254, 255

Sanskrit word Sanatan means original, perpetual, etc. We have heard of Hinduism’s Sanatan Dharma, but never Sanatan Sikhism. This term is coined and used by H. W. McLeod founded literary fraternity. The motley clique (mixed Group), that Harjot Singh Oberoi terms Sanatan Sikhs were anything but worthy Sikhs. They were cultist guru-pretenders, Idolatrous Mahants, Pujaris (High priest, priests) or mythology-oriented Nirmala literati, who were more akin to Hinduism than Sikhism. Ironically, they acquired ascendancy in the Sikh spiritual and temporal hierarchy and monopoly soon after Guru-period, in mid-eighteenth century when the Sikh Panth (Nation) was engaged in the struggle, for its survival, against the Muslim Jihad and imperialism. Vestiges of this cartel continue to contaminate Sikh creed, and practice with what Dr. Oberoi terms ‘Enchanted Universe’ or ‘Popular Religion’.

Enchanted Universe or Popular Religion

‘The unlettered peasantry of central Punjab possessed neither the skills nor the inclination to record their religious life.’ P. 140

‘When the Sikh intelligentsia of the last quarter of the nineteenth century launched its project of recasting Sikh tradition into a uniform and supralocal religion, Sikh participation in popular religion was major target. Its prevalence was a disturbing reminder to this new intelligentsia of their brethren who persisted with a universe replete with miracle saints, cultic practices, spirit possession, magic-all the elements that once made Max Weber speak of an ‘enchanted’ universe in which modern rationality had not taken hold. In order to ‘disenchant’ this universe the new Sikh leadership launched a powerful campaign for Sikh withdrawal from popular religion -----. In support of this programme it produced a constant stream of polemical literature; freshly trained itinerant preachers were commissioned to tour the countryside in order to wean people away from popular religion.’ P.141

Enchantment literally means magic, witchcraft, wizardry, sorcery, spell, charm, etc. From Harjot Singh Oberoi’s implied denunciation of ‘Sikh intelligentsia’, Sikh leadership (read reformist Singh Sabha) for weaning gullible Sikhs from the ‘enchanted universe’ that he dubs as popular religion and attributes to Sikh tradition, it is obvious that he is as ignorant of the quintessential Sikh theology and pragmatic religiosity, as the ‘unlettered peasantry’ he describes. The Sikh creed, co-authored by the Gurus and Hindu and Muslim savants, attributes all powers, including, supernatural to the One Absolute divine God.

Harjot Singh Oberoi’s popular religion or ‘enchanted phenomena’ has always been practiced by the spiritually un-kindled elements of many civilizations, religions, cultures, societies and communities. He himself writes,

‘Lewis, who has studied this phenomena, shows that spirit-possession continues to be a wide spread strategy to alleviate the condition among women in much of South and South East Asia, Hong Kong, Japan, North Africa and Middle East.’ P. 159

‘Popular belief in witchcraft in Punjab never evolved into a major institution as it did at certain periods of African or European history.’ P. 171

Oberoi controverts Sikh Scripture’s Consistency, Originality

‘Religious texts like the Adi Granth are so amorphous (inconsistent) that those in favour of the status quo, reformists and insurrectionists, could all with ease quote from chapter and verse in favour of their cause.’ P. 22

‘While propagandists of modern Sikhism see in collation of the Adi Granth in 1603-4 under Guru Arjan a powerful public declaration of the separation of the Sikh Panth from other religious traditions, historically it is difficult to admit such an interpretation. Page 54

‘While the Adi Granth is the most voluminous and structured of the early-seventeenth-century devotional anthologies-features that can be explained by the institutional successes of the Sikh movement and its resources- it was certainly neither the first, nor the last such collection.’ P. 54

‘In this context the history of the Fatehpur manuscript, virtually unknown in Sikh studies, is most instructive. This anthology of devotional poetry was compiled in Rajisthan twenty-one years before the Adi Granth. Although the bulk of it is made up of compositions by the saint-poet Surdas it also contains the works of thirty-five other poets, including such well-known names as Kabir, Namdev, Ravidas, Parmanand, and Kanha. [Footnote: The following description is based on Gopal Narayan Bahura, Surdas Ka Pada: The Fatehpur Manuscript of 1639 V.S. (1582 AD).] P. 54.

He, not only controverts the textual consistency, originality and propagandists’ (read Singh Sabha) interpretation of the sole authentic Sikh scriptural anthology, Guru Granth, but also impertinently corrupts pragmatic Sikh piety and religiosity with the ambiguous tradition, and dubious literature, Dasam Granth, Gurbilas, Sakhis, etc. replete with avatarism, cultism, occultism, eroticism, mythology, witchcraft and wizardry and ignorantly/arrogantly professes that the said literature’s doctrinal content urged the Khalsa Sikhs to create separate identity.

Dubious Literature’s Doctrinal Content

‘Despite the problems in dating these texts exactly, and the considerable variation in their doctrinal content, collectively they do express a fundamental urge among Khalsa Sikhs to create separate identity. In the Gurbilas Chhevin Patshahi, a text written some times in early nineteenth century, the author instructs Sikhs to visit only Sikh shrines and read Sikh scriptures to overcome the exigencies of life. P. 422

‘Instead of relying on magic and witchcraft as prophylactic or for attaining worldly goals, the (Sau Sakhi) text says, the same ends can be attained by relying on Sikh sacred writings. Particularly efficacious (effective) are readings from Guru Nanak’s famous composition the Japji; each of its stanzas, or the whole, is said to possess certain powers ranging from curing a fever to obtaining success in enterprises. The magical powers of readings can be greatly enhanced if they were combined with a ritual called hom, in which offerings were made to a fire.’ P. 192

‘In early Sikh tradition God was almost exclusively conceived in Masculine terms (Akäl Purkh, Kartä Purkh) and metaphors (devotee as a bride yearning for God the bridegroom) The Goddess myths in the Dasam Granth transpose the early tradition and add new maternal dimension to Sikh understandings of the Ultimate Reality. As an anthology of such myths the Dasam Granth performed its symbolic role rather well. Koer Singh, in his Gurbiläs Pätshähi 10, written in the early nineteenth century, recommends that his readers pay the same attention to Puranic literature as they would to the Adi Granth.’ Pp. 97, 99

Note: - Harjot Oberoi’s doctoral student at UBC, Vancouver, BC Doris Jakobsh copies the first sentence in the above paragraph and paraphrases it, ‘the ‘Ultimate’ in Sikh Scripture was most often conceived in masculine terms, as Akal Purkh, Karta Purkh’ on page 11 of her published thesis ‘Relocating Gender in Sikh History’.

‘The author of Gurbilas Chhevin Patshahi portrays Guru Hargobind as the twenty-fourth reincarnation of Vishnu; this of course has the ring of the composition Chaubis Avavtar in the Dasam Granth.’ P. 102

Adi Granth, not exclusive focus of Sikh Religiosity

‘Finally the Adi Granth had not become the exclusive focus of Sikh religiosity. It shared status as a sacred text with the Dasam Granth, an anthology associated with the last Sikh guru, Gobind Singh. Although the Sikh tradition was considerably purged of its fluidity by the new imaginative categories and religious practices of Khalsa Sikhs, there still was ample room within it for ambiguity, inversion and conflicting interpretations.’ Pp 90-91

‘Sanatan Sikhs following older Khalsa conventions held the Adi Granth and Dasam Granth, the two devotional texts, at par. P. 93

Khalsa, old or new, never had much in with Dr. Oberoi’s Sanatan (pseudo) Sikhs, who produced the dubious literature and preached its content as an integral part of Sikh theology, tradition and practice. His insidious inferences signify that he is either unaware that the erudite Khalsa scholars never approved Dasam Granth’s total content as compatible with Guru Granth, or he is deviously siding with the pro-Dasam Granth lobby, the Sanatan Sikhs featuring extensively in Dr. Hewat McLeod’s academic fraternity.

Harjot Harps on Sikh Identity

‘Early Sikh tradition did not show much concern for establishing distinct Sikh religious boundaries. The religious diversity within the Sikh Panth made it possible for its adherents to belong to any of the following traditions; Udasi, Nirmala, Nanak Panthi, Khalsa, Sahajdhari, Kuka, Nirankari and Sarvaria.’ P. 24

‘In this sense the history of Sikh traditions is radically different from, say, early Christianity, which from the very beginning had a dominant concern with demarcating believers and non-believers: within less than a century of its formation, had begun to excommunicate those within the church who transgressed its systemized beliefs. Such modes of exclusion, of publicizing the boundaries of belief and practice were quite alien to early Sikh tradition.’ P. 48

It would be interesting to know what is Harjot Singh Oberoi’s concept of distinct Sikh identity? Obviously, he is not aware that the Christian believers, orthodox Christian zealots, who excommunicated the transgressors, also threw in dungeons, burned at the stakes or boiled in cauldrons the dissidents who didn’t fit into the distinct Christian identity or those who practiced what he defines as popular religion; i.e. witchcraft, sorcery, occult rituals, thaumaturgy, etc. He is also not very conversant with Sikhism’s unique theology and novel religiosity, that transcend all dogmatic creedal, social and cultural boundaries, an all-inclusive concept vouched by the Sikh scriptural anthology, co-authored by the Sikh Gurus; and Hindu and Muslim holy sages. Essentially Sikhism is an all-inclusive faith with a universal theological message.

"There is something strangely modern about these (Sikh) scriptures and this puzzled me. Perhaps this sense of unity is source of power that I find in these volumes. They speak to people of any religion or of none. They speak for (to?) the human heart and the searching mind." Pearl S. Buck

‘Guru-Granth’ Principle put into service as Substitute

‘For a social historian it is unimportant whether or not Gobind Singh formally declared the Adi Granth a guru. If history is a social process, then what is crucial for our purpose is that, an older principle of Guru Granth or scriptural guru was successfully put into service by Khalsa Sikhs in the eighteenth century. In the absence of any clear leadership within Sikh ranks, the doctrine of Guru Granth served as substitute for the line of Sikh gurus by providing much needed cohesion to a Panth faced with political turmoil and serious internal dissensions.’ P. 70

Guru-Panth doctrine; handy

‘The highly complex doctrine of Guru Granth took root in unison with a more simple concept, that of Guru Panth. This principle too had emerged in the time of early Sikh gurus. With a numerical and geographical expansion of Sikh movement, it became increasingly difficult for its members to establish direct physical contact with the guru. A way was found in the belief that guru was present wherever the Sikh Sangat or congregation assembled.’

‘When in 1708, at the death of Gobind Singh, there was no one to succeed him as Guru, the Panth turned into his collective successor. This was to be an abiding belief of the Khalsa Sikhs, one that came in handy when waging battles for collective survival and political sovereignty over the course of the eighteenth century.’ Pp. 70, 71

Since Harjot Singh Oberoi is a social historian, he is not qualified to be an authority on Sikh theology. What he ambiguously characterizes as ‘older principle of Guru Granth or scriptural guru’ is Sikhism’s cardinal concept and doctrine. The Sikh Gurus professed Guru’s edifying eternal Word (now enshrined in Guru Granth), not his mortal body, as the Guru. (See GG. P. 943)

Khalsa, Singh Sabha portrayed as Ideologues

‘The increasing political power of the Khalsa allowed it to begin recasting Sikh society after its own image. During the course of the eighteenth century tens of thousands of Sikhs took to Khalsa identity. The dramatic story of the political power of Khalsa Sikhs begins to unfold in the early eighteenth century with Banda Bahadur (1670-1716), a prominent disciple of Gobind Singh from his last days in central India. Under Banda Bahadur a bloody offensive was launched to uproot the Mughal state in Punjab.’ P. 71

‘The ideologues of the Singh Sabha, in order to enforce their new version of Sikhism, also wanted to demonstrate that prior to their intervention Sikhism was weak and ill-equipped to cope with the future. In the reasoning of Singh Sabha intellectuals, they rescued the community from the dark ages and created the golden epoch without which Sikh tradition was doomed. Unfortunately, historians have tended to take the British discourse, seconded by the Sabha’s literature, at face value, a neat little model that posits a decline in Sikh fortunes and then shows an ascendancy called the Sikh renaissance.’ Pp. 214, 215

But in colonial Punjab, during the second half of the nineteenth century there emerged a restless new elite that cut across kin lines, neighbourhood networks and even caste affiliations.’ P. 265

‘The martyrs’ blood provided Tat Khalsa with unlimited potential to recast the façade of Sikhism in a form very desirable in the nineteenth century.’ P. 332

Apparently Dr. Oberoi is a disgruntled Sikh, whom Dr. H. McLeod took under his wings and indoctrinated him with his trademark skepticism and cynicism, that are obvious from his use of venomous invectives and diatribes against Banda Bahadur, Khalsa Sikhs, the reformist Singh Sabha, and the British authors sympathetic to the noble Sikh cause.

Sikh History; Principle of Silence and Negation

‘In the Sikh case, historical texts are virtually silent about religious diversity, sectarian conflicts, nature worship, witchcraft, sorcery, spirits, magical healing, omens, wizards, miracle saints, goddesses, ancestral spirits, festival, exorcism, astrology, divination, and village deities. When, occasionally, some of these are mentioned in historical texts, they serve to dress up an argument about how Sikhism was rapidly relapsing into Hinduism in the nineteenth century, how its adherents deviated from the ‘true’ articles of faith and subscribe to ‘superstitious’ and ‘primitive’ beliefs.’ Ultimately, this argument in official Sikh historiography goes on to establish that Sikhs were delivered from the bondage of un-Sikh beliefs by the intervention of the late nineteenth-century Singh Sabha movement. Scholars who favour such interpretation are backing what I call the principle of negation. They are of the view that Singh Sabha reformers were in line with traditional Sikh doctrines when they opposed a large terrain of Sikh beliefs and practices in the nineteenth century.’ Pp. 30-31

‘The most notable features of Popular religion in mid-century Punjab, as discussed in chapter 3, were: a repertoire of ubiquitous saints, pervasive beliefs concerning benign and malevolent spirits, witchcraft, divine intercession, the ability of saint long dead to work miracles, the heeding of omens and the boons that were believed to result from making pilgrimage to the shrines of a saint. It hardly comes as a surprise that one of the first cultural conventions to come under fire from Sikh reformers was the wide spread practice of worshipping popular saints like Sakhi Sarvar and Guga Pir. P. 307

‘Third, by the time of 1911 census the Singh Sabha movement had been actively campaigning for over three decades to wean Sikhs away from worship of Pirs like Sakhi Sarvar. This exercise was highly successful, and by the turn of the century entire Sikh villages, which had earlier worshiped Sarvar and taken part in the ritual cycle associated with that Pir stopped doing so.’ P. 148

‘In the summer of 1896 Giani Thakar Singh, widely respected in the Majha belt for his piety and learning, prevailed upon the entire Sikh population of village Sarli in Amritsar district to renounce their age-old veneration of Pir Sakhi Sarvar. In a large public gathering, these former followers of Sikh Sarvar were administered the Pahul and undertook to strictly adhere to the Khalsa code of conduct.’ Pp. 310, 311

‘Ditt Singh’s ire at worship of Sakhi Sarvar by the people of Punjab in general, and Sikhs in particular, was based on four main reasons. First, undertaking a pilgrimage to the Pir’s shrine at Nagah led to the intermixing of different religions and castes, resulting in the violation of social codes, which proscribed such intermixture. Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus, Jats, Brahmans and Chamars all ate together freely during the period of pilgrimage and addressed each other as brothers. (It is ironic that Ditt Singh, an untouchable himself, took to censuring intercaste commensality.’ P. 308

‘The philippic against Sarvar had a far-reaching impact on Sikh consciousness. Its most dramatic manifestation is the case of Dani, a Jat lady who, according to popular legend, was cured of barrenness as a result of Sarvar’s blessings. Ironically, in the late nineteenth century, when descendents of a son born to Dani through Sarvar’s intercession, read Ditt Singh’s invective against the Pir, it had such an profound impact on them that they renounced allegiance to the family saint.’ Pp. 308-9

 ‘Ditt Singh’s barbed text was widely used by Tat Khalsa publicists, who read from it to Sikh assemblies and apparently succeeded in convincing their audience of the futility of Sikhs following a Muslim Pir.’ P. 309

‘Similar critiques were offered against Gugga Pir and other popular saints visited by large crowds, particularly to heal illness or seek boons. The authoritative discourse represented the worship of saints as a sign of credulity, superstition, sacrilege and above all un-Sikh behaviour.’ P. 309

‘As well as undisguised hostility towards veneration of Pirs, the Khalsa code entailed a hostile polemic against all forms of popular worship. Village gods, local shrines, ancestral spirits, holy nature-spots, and devis like the smallpox goddess Sitla were all ridiculed and proclaimed to be powerless. The new elite exhibited no keenness to understand why many Sikhs residing in rural tracts embraced these alternative forms of worship. Possibly the gap between elite and popular thinking had widened to such an extent that the question of understanding the rationale behind peasant religion did not arise. As far as elite was concerned, no multiple religious loyalties were henceforth to be permitted.’ P. 311

Harjot Singh Oberoi states, ‘In the Sikh case, historical texts are virtually silent about religious diversity, sectarian conflicts, nature worship, witchcraft, sorcery, spirits, magical healing, omens, wizards, miracle saints, goddesses, ancestral spirits, festival, exorcism, astrology, divination, and village deities’. Then he depicts Sikhs participating in the same pagan practices and decries the reformist Sikh individuals and organizations for preventing them from indulging in such un-Sikh practices. His self-contradictory statements and implicit denunciation of the worthy Sikhs and reformist organizations exemplify that he is either a charlatan or a perverted scholar professing to an authority on Sikhism.