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Discovering The Sikhs - Autobiography Of A Historian - Book By W H McLeod

Foreword To 'Discovering The Sikhs, Autobiography Of A Historian' By W H McLeod

The encounter between Sikhism and the West has helped frame the Sikh institutions, ideas, and controversies that abound today. Over the last century, scholarly study of Sikh history and tradition has become part of Sikh efforts to understand themselves and their past. At various times, the fusion of religion and politics has involved intellectuals, but generally on the periphery as groups and organizations vied for power and control of new political parties and institutions. That now has changed dramatically. 

Just as American politics, metaphor, and public discourse were altered by the attacks on September 11, 2001, so the growing militancy and turmoil that culminated in the attack on the Golden Temple and the Delhi riots in 1984  reshaped the relationship between religion and politics among Sikhs. Academic research and authors quickly became emmeshed  in the ensuing debate over controversial elements in Sikh public life. No individual, Sikh or western, has been  more pivotal in the resulting wars over scholarship and Sikhism than Professor W.H. ( 'Hew') McLeod.

I met Hew while beginning my own journey in Sikh studies in 1969. We have shared many ideas perception of the sometimes bewildering attacks and counterattacks that have been so prominent in what  prior to around 1974 had been active but often genial scholarly exchange.  Hew was a bit worried about reaction to his first major publication, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (1968), but initially criticism of his textual analysis and persistent questioning of the traditional janamsakhi literature created primarily scholarly reviews, some positive, some negative. Within a decade, that book and  his subsequent collected lectures moved to the centre of controversy. The themes that were to appear again and again in Sikh reviews of Hew's work - missionary bias, cultural insensitivity, political motives, and the like - became commonplace as a academics and politician characterized his research as a threat to  the community and Sikh understanding of tradition and practice. Sikh scholars themselves experienced even more serious attacks thathreatened their teaching positions - and sometimes lives - good man and good scholars such as Fauja Singh and J.S.Grewal, among others, and in a late generation Piat singh and those associated with Hew, such as Harjot Oberoi and Pashaura Singh. But Hew remained the designated lightning rod for attack.

This autobiographical account reflects Hew McLeod's intellectual development as well as his ongoing role in the often heated debate over the nature of Sikhism. In typical McLeod fashion. Hew is very direct in terms of his presentation of fact, quick to give others the benefit of the doubt, and careful in reaching broad conclusions. Underlying the narrative is concern with academic honesty combind with amazement at the degree of ferocity in many of the seminar papers, books, and articles launched to project Sikhism from its preceived mortal enemy. In the early stages of attack, he and others were surprised at the 'game of scholarship' that abounded. Supporters of Khalistan and groups claiming to defend Sikhism intellectually began talking over many gurdwaras in North America, disrupting meetings, calling for mass action,  and generally challenging Hew and his supposed anti-'Sikh school of thought'. Hew's wife margaret gave emotional and intellectual support throughout the troubled years, while a few of Hew's friends did what they could to attempt to counterattacks and maintain an even playing field.

For example, when several of us, including Harjot Oberoi, put together a panel at an American Academy of Religion conference near Los Angles, numerous Sikh opponents took out expensive memberships in that scholarly organization and paid heavy fees to be able to attend and try to disrupt the proceedings. Later that weekend, Hew, Margaret, Harjot, and I were invited to a social at the home of Jasbir Singh Mann. After a few pleasantries, the attacks came. Eventually the critics backed off a bit, partially in response to Margaret's firm denunciation of the unfair charges and innuendoes. One upshot, we thought, was that at least Hew was able to convince them that he was not a  Christian and that his scholarship was not based on missionary assumptions and goals. Within two weeks, the same attacks on 'missionary McLeod' appeared like clockwork in several articles sponsored by those attending the informal gathering. Almost two decades later, one of the leaders of the anti-McLeod movement  repeated many of the charges  at  a conference in Santa Barbara, but afterwards hugged Hew and wanted pictures of both of them together. Politics, scholarship, and compitition among factions and groups - a brew that often produced strange responses and mixed signals.

Hew has written an excellent retrospect that addresses many of the vital issues still central to the life of Sikh public discourse, especially in the diaspora. Reviews, essays in cyber chat rooms or organized forums, and debate our identity, historical fact and interpretation, women, ritual - any numer of  problems daily confronting Sikhs - all use Hew's work either to support argument or to serve as a pawn which can be denounced and shown to be illegitimate ( along with any who might side with his opinion). The struggles over the Sikh chairs and programmes in Berkeley, Vancouver, Toronto, and Ann Arbor have subsided a bit, but the compaigns aimed at those involved in Sikh Studies have taken their toll, and in several cases have injured academic efforts or driven scholars away from research on the Sikhs.

The account of Hew's scholarship and engagement with Sikh ends before the publication of what some of us consider to be his finest scholarly work, Sikhs of the Khalsa (2002). The same uncompromising approach to sources and the reflective approach to controversial issues can founded in the book, which examines the documentary trail of rahitnamas and other words that have been vital in Sikh attempts to understand their roots. To date, there has been little reaction. One reason undoubtedly is the inability of earlier McLeod critics to control the print culture linking Sikhs, as they did so effectively between 1978 and 1993. Not that Sikhs do not continue to fight, and in those fights bring in Hew's arguments or attack him, but the struggles tend once again to be local and not driven by the heated militancy and sense of 'Sikhism in danger' that conditioned earlier intellecual and political responses.

I also think something else has happened. More and more Sikhs have begun to read Hew's articles and books, and, while disagreeing with points or theses, appreciate what he has done, and take his word, namely, that his method is a historical approach to tradition, and that he respects Sikhism and would do nothing to injure the sensibilities of Sikhs or cause discomfort. Also, Hew's work rests on decade of scholarly translation and study of key documents, and any dissenting arguments or rhetoric ultimately have to take into account the documents so ably presented. ' Who is a Sikh' and 'what is the nature of Sikh tradition' continue to be central issues as Sikhism emerges more and more as a major world religion.

In that important discussion, the extensive scholarly record as well as the personal honesty and  commitment exemplied by Hew McLeod constitute an important standard for Western and Sikh interpretation of tradition, history, values, and practice.


Table Of Contents For 'Discovering the Sikhs - Autobiography Of A Historian' Book By W.H. McLeod



Page No
  Foreword by N.G. Barrier ix
  PART 1  
1 The Reason Why 1
2 A Boy from Feilding 9
3 University Years 19
4 The Punjab Years: 1958-69 29
5 The England Interlude: 1969-70 67
6 The Otago Years: 1971-87 76
7 The Otago Years: 1988-2002 99


9 The Purpose 127

Early Works










10 Perspectives on the Sikh Tradition 154

The Institute of Sikh Studies









Banishment, Responses, Regrets


















1 Article from The Sikh Review: Where It All Started 214
2 A Contribution to studies in Orientology: Essays in Memory of Prof.A.L. Basham



3 Definition of Myth 226
4 Panja Sahib 229
  Glossary 232
  Index 237


Author W.H. McLeod
Pages 245
Cover Hardbound
Language English

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Discovering The Sikhs - Autobiography Of A Historian - Book By W H McLeod

  • Brand: Permanent Black
  • Product Code: SHE113
  • Authors: W.H. McLeod
  • Page: 245
  • Format: Hardbound
  • Language: English
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