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The making of Sikh history – literally. I’d like to humbly submit the text below for my brothers and sisters consideration. I hope you enjoy reading it, and receive as much food for thought from it as I did during the translation. Especial thanks to Kam1825 for taking the time to create and share an ebook of the original work from which the translation is derived (Kavi Sainapati Rachit Sri Gur Sobha edited by Dr. Ganda Singh and published through the Publication Bureau of Punjab University of Patiala, 1st edition 1967, 4th edition 1996). Strangely, a few days after I had finished the main bulk of the translation, my own copy of the book miraculously (and unexpectedly) turned up after being missing for over four years! I’ll take that as a good sign. Anyone interested in perusing the original Panjabi text can find it here (between pages 8 and 13 in the PDF reader). Any feedback on improving the translation from knowledgeable parties is not only welcomed, but actively sought. The posts that follow this one reproduces the translation offered below, but includes my own scattered thoughts on the contents (identifiable as the blue italicised text). WJKK WJKF
Version with commentary [My commentary is the blue coloured text and the translation is the black text. The making of Sikh history – literally. I guess a good as place as any to start this, would be with a brief explanation of why I feel the text translated below is worthy of people’s attention. When I first read it, the piece struck me as being akin to Dr. Who’s famous tardis, and by this I simply mean that it’s deceptively meagre outwardly appearance disguises the extent of what it contains inside. I’m assuming that many, if not most, of the young Sikhs who may end up reading these words (assuming any do!), would not have previously heard of the author of the original Panjabi text, Professor Ganda Singh. Despite this, if they have ever delved into the subject of Sikh history, even on a cursory basis, it is highly probable that they would already have been influenced by this man and his work (albeit indirectly). Dr. Ganda Singh (1900 – 1987) is rightly considered to be the father of modern Sikh history/historiography for the towering role he played in setting new trends in historical research within a South Asian context. This he did with an especial focus on the Panjab region and the Sikhs (although it’s important to note that his work was not strictly limited to these areas). In order to make the distinction between ‘history’ and ‘historiography’ a bit clearer for anyone requiring it, consider this online dictionary definition of the word ‘historiography’: “The writing of history based on a critical analysis, evaluation, and selection of authentic source materials and composition of these materials into a narrative subject to scholarly methods of criticism.” So we are talking about the background processes that take place during the act of writing ‘a history’ - in the modern understanding of how such a history needs to be written. In this context Dr. Singh not only helped to cause changes to the way Sikhs would write their own history, he also played an important but subtle role in peripherally related areas i.e. in bringing change to ‘how’ Sikhs conveyed their own sense of history amongst each other. When I say this, I have in mind the shift towards the dissemination of historical knowledge via printed books, using blank prose with an emphasis on referencing from critically verified sources. This contrasts with the general Sikh preference for receiving their home grown historical narratives through the ears, usually in a poetic form, sometimes accompanied by music - as exemplified by the dhadhi tradition. This indigenous approach usually deriving facts from the community’s collective, corporate memory as passed down orally between generations. Although I’m more than a little wary of being bogged down into dry biographical details at this point (these are readily available via the net for any interested party), I do feel it necessary to provide the briefest of sketches to further contextualise Dr. Singh’s work for any interested readers. Born in 1900 (i.e. a full half century after the dubious ‘annexation’ of the Panjab), Ganda grew up in a Panjab with British imperialism at its peak. Singh appears to have thrived in the complex and fluid linguistic landscape of his times, with various languages jostling to gain prominence and acceptance as the official administrative language of the state with an array of factors pushing and pulling this decision in different directions. Like many people of that period, Singh had managed to master a number of vernaculars, something evident by the many books (over two dozen), articles and tracts he was to publish in his lifetime (one of which is the original source material of the translated text offered below). His literary contributions involved writing in, or analysing text in a variety of languages including Persian, English, Panjabi, Hindi and Urdu. His linguistic proficiency was to play a central role in his research achievements - not only in the way it facilitated access to sources of history which were likely to have (otherwise) remained out of reach for the majority of even reasonably educated Panjabi Sikhs (for instance he was chiefly responsible for bringing the bulk of Persian sources of Sikh history to the attention of the wider panth through pioneering translations), but also in the way his ability brought to the fore the differences in models and methodologies of interpreting history emerging from different cultures. His efforts (and success) in bringing (arguably) ‘modern’, ‘critical’ theories into the study of Sikh history have been heavily influential on the way many educated (and indirectly many uneducated) Sikhs were to subsequently perceive and receive their history, an influence that endures to this day. On a personal level, looking back to my own experiences of growing up in England in the 70s & 80s, a time when the historical works generated by Sikhs were being openly criticised for lacking any discerning, critically evaluative qualities (the charge being that biased hagiographical or traditional narratives had been accepted at face value and were being passed off as ‘historical facts’), I clearly remember encountering Ganda Singh’s work with an outright sense of relief in the face of haughty western narratives on Sikhs. His work also made sense (to me) in the context of the worldview I was naturally imbibing as a consequence of growing up, and being educated in the west. So Ganda Singh’s work helped bridge that gap between a Sikh perspective or account of history and the dominating (often disparaging and almost always politically motivated) English accounts of the Sikhs and history in general. Unsurprisingly then, Singh’s work was/is appreciated by many literate Sikhs. If the western/Orientalist accounts caused dissonance, the professor’s work helped to alleviate this. I can’t help but think, that at some stage, Ganda Singh himself may have had an analogous experience of the type of dissonance alluded to above, caused through his own personal confrontation with the embedded differences between the literature that had emerged from India in comparison to that originating from European culture (as it stood by the early twentieth century). His worldly experiences and personal interests would have compelled him to confront this dichotomy, and this is more than apparent in the translated text from the very outset. One of the many fascinating elements of the translated text is how he grapples with the dichotomy he encounters in ‘history’ as conceived (or not as seems the case!) in the traditional Indic worldview, in contrast to its conceptualisation in Semitic traditions. Faced with quality histories from Islamic sources from the same period, he is troubled by what appears to be an indifference towards creating rational, historical narratives from indigenous Indian sources. So in amongst a wonderfully intimate account of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s court, we have an attempt at explaining this disparity, where a central role is given to the impact of belief, specifically that of single existence believing societies (the Semitic) in contrast to those subscribing to reincarnation and it’s multiple existences (the Indic). It would be interesting to know if the idea of ‘Indic versus Semitic time’ expressed here, were his own, or a relay of someone else’s work? If these ideas are not his own, their source is possibly some Orientalist ‘Indology’ he had encountered either through print or in discussions with Orientalists themselves (he was a member of a few prominent ‘societies’ of this type). In any case, the ideas are big ones, and this journey into the mind of an influential figure such as Ganda Singh really helps to provide a clear window onto the intellectual challenges that colonialism and Eurocentric ‘enlightened thought’ brought to Sikh doorsteps as a consequence of their subjugation by the British imperial machine. The work provides us with an example of how one highly intelligent, educated Sikhman responded to the questions and challenges of his time. I’ve extravagantly added some of my own thoughts on what I have read (identifiable as the blue, italicised text in the style of that which you are reading at the moment). Despite my attempts to limit the length of these comments (I tried believe it or not!) – I ask brothers and sisters to forgive me if I have rambled on a bit too much in them. If they seem lengthy, it is because I see so much to discuss in the original text. When I have made remarks they are neither exhaustive or in any particular order and are offered in the hope of stimulating further debate. I make no claims of any authoritative position on any of the subjects that are touched upon. Think of it as a discussion between brothers and sisters. For the sake of trying to accurately convey the original text, the translation is heavily literal. Feedback on how this effects the reading experience would be much appreciated in this context. Let me know if it tediously stultifying! And if my own comments hedge on the verbose side in their use of English vocabulary, understand that it is because I’m simultaneously trying to develop myself in English and Panjabi with such exercises and not because I normally speak like this! I should add, with more than a touch of nostalgia and affection, being older and [hopefully but possibly not much] wiser now than when I first encountered the man’s work, it dawns on me that figures such as Ganda Singh often play a role akin to a wise ‘uncle ji’ teacher in lives such as my own. And by this I mean a positive influence, providing knowledge when it was most needed – food for the mind AND soul if you like. The passing down of knowledge in this way and its subsequent (positive) effects on our intellectual growth is something I appreciate more than ever today, especially as being of a certain Panjabi background, many real ‘uncle jis’ were more likely to have a passed on a glassy than any pearls of wisdom of this type. Interestingly, this point about conveying valuable information down generations is mirrored in the text itself within the description of why Semitic people may have developed rational histories in the first place. With all that being said, ‘time’ (a central theme of the work) has had its own effects on some of the professor’s work. It’s rapidly approaching a half century since the words below were first published (1967), and it is only natural that our understanding of Sikh history would have grown in this time. And even if current understanding may have rendered some of the professor’s ideas superseded or even obsolete, it’s very important that young Sikhs understand the underlying nature of pioneering works like these – taking care to draw appropriate lessons for today, where the proliferation of digital communication technology means that, once again, Sikhs find themselves in an environment where the cross fertilisation of ideas is inevitable and their own version of events are robustly challenged. I think our own generation (as much as any yet to come) can draw many valuable lessons from the way Ganda Singh responded to the intellectual challenges of his own time in the matter of preserving and conveying Sikh heritage. That doesn’t mean he didn’t get anything wrong or is above criticism himself (as he himself is keen to point out). Whether the experience today is one from amongst the growing Sikh diaspora (like my own), or one of a Sikh somewhere in India exposed to new, challenging ideas regarding the nature of his/her own history via computer technology or print, what we share with Professor Singh is the way in which change has been thrust upon us by circumstances beyond our control – usually by decisions and events that have been respectively made, or have occurred, prior to our conception. What we should maybe hope for, is to meet the intellectual challenges of our own time, with as much proficiency and poise as he did his and mitigate the change being imposed upon us by the agendas and objectives of outside communities. We can follow the trend set by Ganda Singh and continue to push for self definition in a critical and openly honest way, all the time remembering that no human is beyond error. In the words of Professor Singh himself: ਪਰ ਇਨਸਾਨ ਭੁੱਲਣਹਾਰ ਹੈ। ਇਸ ਲਈ ਵਿਦਵਾਨ ਪਾਠਕਾਂ ਦੀ ਸੇਵਾ ਵਿਚ ਬੇਨਤੀ ਹੈ ਕਿ ਕਿਧਰੇ ਉਨ੍ਹਾਂ ਨੂੰ ਕੋਈ ਉੱਕਾਈ ਦਿਸੇ, ਉਹ ਕਿਰਪਾ ਕਰਕੇ ਲਿਖਭੇਜਣ ਦੀ ਖੇਚਲ ਕਰਨ ਤਾਂ ਕਿ ਉਨ੍ਹਾਂ ਦੀ ਸੋਧ ਅਤੇ ਟੋਹ ਦੀ ਲੋ ਵਿਚ ਉਸ ਨੂੰ ਵਿਚਾਰਿਆ ਜਾ ਸਕੇ। “But man is prone to error. For this reason, in the service of learned scholars, I request that they graciously inconvenience themselves to write and send [details of any] perceived errors, so that in with their correction and in the light of scrutiny, these can be deliberated upon.” Dalsingh, March 2012 There was only a single poet amongst those of Guru Gobind Singh ji’s court, [named] Sainapati, who wrote about Guru sahib’s historical life in a somewhat elaborate manner. If a few more of those writers present at [Guru ji’s] court had written something about the incidents in Guru ji’s life in a similar fashion, the task of composing a substantial, quality and trustworthy biography [of Guru Gobind Singh] would’ve been made considerably easier. Plus many of those knotty problems [concerning Guru ji’s life], that are currently difficult for historians to unravel would have been resolved. Yet [the reality is that] all of the intellectuals that were gathered at Guru sahib’s court were poets, and the worth and value of [such] poets arises from the magic of the language [they employ] and their flights of imagination. Such artistic creativity, however, can neither stimulate the creation of [purely] historical narratives, nor be of any use in this endeavour. For this reason, those writing from a historical perspective couldn’t depend on such works. Ether bound poetic minds cannot descend to ground level, where communication has to take place without grand imagination, on a straight forward level - using clear language. Perhaps they [poets] considered such matters to be those for lesser developed minds? It is, however, a surprising matter that historians never emerged from amongst those Hindus of ancient times, who had expertise in, and were realistic with the calculative techniques of sciences such as mathematics and astrology. Yet, whatever the reasons for this, the fact that the art of realistic, historical writing failed to take birth in ancient India cannot be denied. And had Islamic and Christian influences not arrived here [in India], it’s uncertain how much more time would have passed before attention was drawn to this skill. The psychological inclination toward (and a general awareness of) the concept of narrating events chronologically across days and weeks, precisely and without mentally projected assumptions was stimulated by external, old, single-birth [believing] Semitic races (Judaic, Christian and Islamic ideologies - Greek, Syrian and Arab etc.) In accordance to whose creeds, man has only a single birth, so that they had to settle all of their individual and collective affairs in this very existence for the lack of opportunity to do anything afterwards. Thus they had to establish their memorials (in the form of literature or architecture) within this very lifetime. And it was in this existence that efforts had to be made to provide forthcoming generations with counsel and direction to ensure that sons and grandchildren were able to continue projects that had already been initiated. And it was matters pertaining to how particular endeavours were started, the sources of materials that had been procured, details of who provided assistance or opposition. Or [details of] how their people and kinfolk traversed deserts, mountains, jungles and rivers to reach other countries. Also how, on conquering the native folk, they asserted their occupation on them and in which way they [subsequently] reinforced their rule - that they wished to communicate. Committing all of this to writing and leaving it for those who would come in future – some of whom would have been small children [at the time and thus] unable to comprehend [such matters], and some of whom had yet to take birth, was one good medium [to ensure its receipt by the intended audience]. The writing itself needed to be a form that was clear, accurate and unadulterated, which could be understood and relayed without any room for error. Such objectives and ideas led to the birth of, (and provided the underlying motive for) writing narratives, daily diaries and historical chronicles amongst Semitic people. And so through imitation a strong movement/school developed, the result of which is that there is no sign of anything comparable in contemporaneous India that conforms to the quality, lucidity and accuracy of the narratives or histories etc. these people have penned. Here [in India] the writing of this type of history amongst Hindus started with the arrival of the Muslims and it has taken hundreds of years to get to the standard of Muslim clarity and solidity. On the other side, ancient India, with its belief in multiple-existences, considered this world and material life illusory. In their eyes, attachment to this transitory world was a disease; the cure to which lay in its renunciation. So if there is no fondness for the material, the question of keeping it in remembrance or cementing memories of it for posterity don’t arise. In accordance to their [the Indians] conceptualisations, human life was [an experience] of bondage and their main objective was a liberation from this. They endured life; they didn’t live it. Preserving the memories of a life was thus a meaningless matter for such ideologues. [in contrast to] Semitic folk, who would, as much as was practically possible, bury a body in a grave in order to carefully retain it, even after death. Some even had their own personalised, beautiful mausoleums or [commemorative] graves created whilst still alive, whereas Hindustanis would burn their bodies, turning them into ash, and even then, they would throw these ashes into a river to be carried away by the torrents, so that no trace was left of the remains. Besides this, according to the belief of transmigration the number of existences [a being must go through], are so numerous that they don’t even come to a gradual end. [Dal: the exact meaning of the preceding sentence is unclear to me. The original Panjabi is: ਇਸ ਤੋਂ ਇਲਾਵਾ ਆਵਾਗਊਨ ਦੇ ਯਕੀਨ ਅਨੁਸਾਰ ਜੂਨਾਂ ਦੀ ਗਿਣਤੀ ਇਤਨੀ ਜ਼ਿਆਦਾ ਹੈ ਕਿ ਸਹਿਜੇ ਕੀਤੇ ਮੁੱਕਣ ਵਿਚ ਨਹੀਂ ਆਉਂਦੀ]. And because of this there wasn’t much of an urgency to accurately remember the activities of a life. For this reason, the value of [the concept of] time couldn’t take any firm root amongst them. They [the Indians] were the type of philosophers who would take flights into higher spiritual skies. Time was an infinite, inexhaustible thing for them. So matters regarding short periods of time and the fleeting worldly lives of one or more human – were considered low level matters, to which they never paid any attention.