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A Translation of Ganda Singh's foreward to Sainapati's Sri Gursobha

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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.

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Having posited an explanation for the general Hindu failure to produce rational, chronological historical narratives, Ganda Singh now focuses his attention closer to home, attempting to explain perceived Sikh shortcomings in this very department. His surprise is apparent and understandable given the literary output of parallel societies that existed alongside of the early panth. Here I must add that personally, I’m not too sure of what to make of an explanation that simply reduces the matter to the effects of Puranic influences on those writing early Sikh narratives myself. I can’t help wonder about other factors that may have played a part. One possibility may have been the impress of the usually illiterate or semi-literate rural constituency of the Sikh community during the formative years of the panth. Such societies the world over have usually conveyed their sense of identity and history orally, often through metaphors and myths, even song and dance. This is not something peculiar to India but a globally observable phenomenon with such societies. The point being that if generally uneducated (in the formal sense), village based Sikhs formed a disproportionately large segment of the panth, then surely catering to their own preferred style of communication is as likely to have been a key a factor that shaped literary developments in the Sikh world as any other? So factors outside of Puranic influences, may have played a part in shaping things in this department.



For us today, acknowledging the passage of time and the experiences of Sikhs in an independent India (i.e. the period subsequent to the original release of the book from which the extract is taken) brings out further insights. You can tell these words were written before the troubled 80s, one legacy of which is an estrangement between an undeterminable number of Sikhs and the idea of ‘Indianness’. In the extract Ganda uses language which clearly and unquestioningly places Sikhs within a wider ‘Indian’ world (interesting in itself given his prominent position in the Singh Sabha movement and commitment to the goals of the organisation). However, he doesn’t let his dedication to demarcating an independent identity for his own people cloud his evaluation of Hindu and Muslim history and their achievements. This is most clear in the way he acknowledges the emergence of modern style histories from the Islamic/Semitic world on one hand, and in the way he recognises the historical significance of traditional Hindu religious texts in the context of global literature, referring to their authors as ‘world leaders’ in this field, on the other.



In this context, he identifies in Guru Gobind Singh ji’s penmanship, a significant shift towards the historical in Indic literature. I, however, do find it difficult to wholeheartedly agree with his perspective regarding the characteristics of dasmesh pita’s Bachhitar Natak. My own experience of Bachhitar Natak, doesn’t align with Dr. Singh’s belief (as I understand it), which seems to suggest that it sort of strikes close to modern style histories. Sure, I agree that it does contain a lot of historical facts, and its relative impartiality I can assent to. But I think Singh underplays the heavily metaphysical nature of the work, complete with narrations of conversations with God and accounts of prebirth experiences. If we are to resort to categorisation, then surely we must say that Bachhittar Natak is in a genre of its own. And if we are going to analyse it in through a reductionalist lens then it clearly encompasses originality as well as precedents that have foundations in previously existing traditions, especially ancient Indic ones. Needless to say, such an analysis is a sure fire way to land into hot water with a community that gives paramount importance to the words of their Gurus, given that these words are revered as the very physical manifestation of the Gurus today.



That dasmesh pita ji was the first person from an ‘Indian’ context to write an autobiography is another fascinating notion introduced by the text and I wonder if anyone has ever challenged this assertion since. In what follows, we are given further perceptive details of our Guru’s times touching on the original impulse to collect details of the life of Guru Nanak as well as facts regarding the administrative arrangements of the tenth Guru’s darbar. For me, such details illuminate (in no small way) by helping one to imagine the past in finer detail. When I think about it, it really is a form of darshan.


Indian sages and ascetics were amongst world leaders in the art of writing. They created great tomes like the Vedas, Shasters, Puranas, Ramayan and Mahabharat. They wrote poetry of the highest order and gave birth to many other varieties of literature too. But mainly because of the inclinations of their minds; these were metaphysical in nature and because of this, the materialistic activities of worldly lives – in which there is much that is negative and less that is good – were not given any particular attention. This is the reason why Indians have not carefully studied Islamic and Christian historical literature even till the present time, or why no impression of any significant depth has been made upon them from any other source. [Thus] they were unable to take ownership of the type of thinking which stimulated [the creation of] realistic-history. Otherwise there was nothing to prevent anyone from writing the Guru’s diaries (ਰੋਜ਼ਨਾਮਚੇ) or biographies (ਜੀਵਨੀਆਂ) during the [earthly life-] times of the Guru sahibaans, as these [times] were contemporary to those of the Moghul emperors, when countless ordinances (ਤੁਜ਼ਕਾਂ/ਤੁਜ਼ਕਰੇ), biographies (ਜੀਵਨ-ਚਰਿੱਤਰ), autobiographies (ਸ੍ਵੈ-ਜੀਵਨੀਆਂ) and histories (ਇਤਿਹਾਸ) were being written.


Shortly after Guru Angad had absorbed Guru Nanak sahib’s light [i.e. Guru Nanak ji’s physical passing], they began efforts to collect [details] of the events of Guru [Nanak] ji’s life - [or] if the dates given in the janam-sakhis are broadly correct – then within Guru sahib’s [Nanak’s] final years themselves. But because writers had been raised up upon Puranic literature, no janam-sakhi was ever prepared from the perspective of a historical chronicle (ਤਵਾਰੀਖ਼ੀ ਦ੍ਰਿਸ਼ਟੀਕੌਣ ਵਾਲੀ ਕੋਈ ਜਨਮ-ਸਾਖੀ ਤਿਆਰ ਨਾ ਹੋਈ) and nor was any other type of literature, that presented the lives of any of the Gurus comprehensively, with chronological accuracy to emerge subsequently. It doesn’t appear as if anyone carefully preserved the personal records (ਵਹੀਆਂ) of the Guru’s households either, which would have provided some measure of assistance [in writing history]. All the way up to the ninth Guru, whichever extant hukamnamas (addressed to sangats) we can obtain, do not furnish any date or year, meaning even these are of no help in trying to present events in accordance to a tight chronological framework. It is only in the time of Guru Gobind Singh ji, when their clerical system appears to have been in effect [that such conventions were used]. All of their [Guru Gobind Singh’s] hukamnamas provide dates, months and years from Sammat 1780 Bikrami (1691 AD) onwards. It was not customary to leave signatures of one’s own name at that time, but Guru sahib’s own writing is present on every hukamnama [in a form] referred to as a symbol (ਨੀਸਾਣ). In many places, the summarised contents of a hukamnama have also been provided. And not only this, the number of lines penned by scribes have been supplied at the ends, so that no subsequent omissions or additions can occur. Many of the hukamnamas contain a number [that corresponds] to a clerical register too.


In this way, some of Guru Sahib’s personal creations (Ram avatar, Krishan avatar etc.) also give the year, month and date [of completion] in their concluding sections. These things are signifiers of Guru ji’s understandings and perceptions, and hazoor’s inclinations towards the historical. But regretfully, where the ill will of the hill rajahs and oppression of the Moghul government compelled Guru Gobind Singh ji to vacate Anandpur Sahib in 1705 [AD], innumerable volumes of literature, as well as the accounts, clerical records and files of Anandpur were all destroyed or sacrificed at the Sarsa river [during that evacuation], with which priceless, original sources for Guru sahib’s life and Sikh history were destroyed.


Amongst all of India’s, great (nonMuslim) religious figures, Guru Gobind Singh was the first to start the custom of writing one’s own narrative (an autobiography). Prior to Guru Gobind Singh ji, nobody had written their ‘personal narrative’ – whether this be in Sanskrit, Braj bhasha, Hindi or any other language. Guru sahib’s ‘apnee katha’ greatest virtues are its factuality (ਯਥਾਰਥਕਤਾ) and neutrality (ਨਿਰਪੱਖਤਾ), which are two great attributes of [modern] historiography [‘ਅਪਨੀ ਕਥਾ’ here refers to a subsection of a Dasam Granth composition called Bachhitar Natak (ਬਚਿੱਤ੍ਰ ਨਾਟਕ literally ‘wonderful drama’) and is believed, by mainstream Sikhs, to be a autobiographical account by Guru Gobind Singh himself]. Despite being written in a poetic form (in accordance to the prevalent custom at the time) there is a considerable reserve in the given statements, and they are not exaggerated at all. Nor is any bitter or harsh language used for the enemy at any place.

Sainapati, the author of Sri Gur Sobha has endeavoured to proceed along these very principles (ਪੂਰਨਿਆਂ), as laid down by Guru sahib, and has managed to achieve a high degree of success in his effort.

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In this small, final paragraph Ganda Singh is speaking as a witness, product and exegete of the movement that was flourishing around him. He traces the emergence and growth of a modern Sikh Panjabi literary movement to the efforts of the Singh Sabha lehar of Lahore, but is careful to note that some of the literature that had been produced from more traditional Sikh sources, outside of the sabhas played a role in stimulating interest in this area too. Dr. Singh gives us an explicit roll call of significant writers of his era.


Here, I’d like to share the observation that a lot of traditional Sikh literature seems to have written with the heavy use of Braj Bhasa or Sant Bhasa vocabulary (presumably to make it accessible to a wider audience than just Panjabis?). When we acknowledge this, we can begin to appreciate how making simplistic connections between ‘Sikh’ and ‘the Panjabi language’ can be misleading. The Dasam Granth itself, with its diverse use of languages and broad subject matter points at a purposeful widening of the Sikh literary and linguistic world; directly facilitated by the instructions and actions of Guru Gobind Singh himself. So whilst we, as Sikhs, may love Panjabi (I certainly do), making linear connections between Sikhs and the Panjabi language is a mistaken premise that we should avoid falling into.


Going back to the historical context of Dr. Singh’s comments, it’s interesting to note one particularly far reaching and unforeseeable cultural after-effect of British colonialism on the Panjab - the polarisation of Panjabi communities along religious lines (in a way markedly different to the pre-annexation situation). This eventually manifested itself in different groups aligning themselves with particular languages/scripts as markers of their religious identity. A negative legacy of which is the way it led to many Hindu and Muslim Panjabis identifying with languages other than their mother tongue. This can be seen strikingly in modern day Pakistan, which, despite having a larger number of Panjabis than India - as well as an ethnically Panjabi dominated government - provides no state support for the promotion and development of the language itself. When I think about it, (and resist the urge to start pointing fingers), we’d be hard pressed to find a community as fractured as Panjabis. This is a shame because it DOES have a negative impact on the development of literature by an otherwise generally confident and strong headed people. As things currently stand, it appears as if Panjabis are ‘ghettoised’ into separate worlds along religious faults.


If we zoom out even further, and survey the scene before us now, at the turn of the 21st century we can see that the introduction of modern historiography amongst Sikhs didn’t lead to a pervasive community wide transformation in how we view our history. The traditional systems of imparting knowledge have proved enduring thus far. Modern historiography seems to have provided us with another lens with which we can view our past, one that exists alongside surviving, indigenous vehicles of Sikh history - sometimes contesting them. The new school has been particularly useful as a platform to respond to outsider attempts to dominate the narrative of our history in the English medium, usually via academic institutes, and the ‘jostling’ between writers of each camp in this arena has taken the study of Sikh history into new directions in its own way.


So today we exist in a scenario where we have university Phd’s on matters of Sikh history alongside traditional narratives like Bhangu’s Panth Prakash (recently translated to English), as well as the rich dhadhi repository and accounts from traditional sampardayas like the Damdami Taksal. If the new school sometimes accuses the traditional as lacking in critical evaluation (which interestingly was the original accusation from nonSikh sources that caused it to emerge), the traditional schools themselves can view the modern approach with disdain, by contemptuously referring to works generated from that quarter as the outpourings of ‘kitaabi-vidwaans’ or ‘bookish scholars’.


Having talked of the past and briefly reviewed the present, I think it’s only natural that we close the circle and cast an eye on the future. Speaking from a purely subjective position, I can’t help but think that yet again, Sikhs find themselves on the cusp of another leap in understanding. One significant step in this direction will come about through a contextualised analysis of our history in truly global terms. This is something that has barely been touched upon so far (in my opinion) and Jagjit Singh’s book ‘The Sikh revolution’ represents a brilliant tentative step in this direction in my eyes. We also have a diverse storehouse of traditional material (the Gurbilas and Nirmala literature for example) whose contents awaits wider dissemination amongst the rank and file of the community (especially in the diasporas, where linguistic barriers exist). So there’s still much to discover about our past, and we are (thankfully) quite far from a point where we have exhausted the source material from which we can extract information regarding our history. This takes us neatly to the matter of those who feel that we already know our past in a conclusive manner.


The question of how we deal with facts that challenge the accepted mainstream narrative of our history (itself heavily influenced by the Singh Sabha trends we have been discussing throughout this piece) floats before us. Will we meet challenging information with poise, grace and an open mind? Probably not, our inherent conservatism mixed with our infamous, pugnacious spirit guarantees many heated arguments in this domain for the foreseeable future. But it would be a shame to sacrifice the truth to personalities, agendas and politics. References to behaviour starkly contrary to orthodox practice today in surviving contemporary or near contemporary accounts of our past shouldn’t be cause for us to reject chunks of our own literary heritage or unnecessarily talk disparagingly about the authors of old manuscripts or those they write about. The whole endeavour needs to be about understanding – not judging or using emerging facts as sticks to beat opponents on the head with. Are we ready to have a grown up discussion about these things yet?


When Panjabi magazines and newspapers started to be issued under the Singh Sabha movement’s drive for religious propagation and social reform, a desire for preserving and publishing literature in Panjabi arose too. The drift towards an affection and enthusiasm for history begotten through Bhai Santokh Singh’s Sri Gurpartaap Suraj Granth and Giani Gian Singh’s Panth Prakash and Twarikh Guru Khalsa, also caused some further attention to be drawn in this direction.


At the start of the 20th century the Chief Khalsa Diwan established a Historical Research Subcommittee and Sardar Karam Singh made up his mind to dedicate his life to the investigation and scrutiny of history. At this time Bhai Takhat Singh ji began to collect books for people conducting historical research and enquiry, making this [a central] consideration of the Bhai Ditt Singh library in Ferozpur. This was also the period where Bhai Vir Singh, in 1914, had Rattan Singh Bhangu’s Pracheen Panth Prakash published and composed many other historical tracts. During these very days Akali Kaur Singh ji Nihang inititated his own hunt for historical works and other literature. It was during this search that he came to receive two handwritten volumes of the poet Sainapati’s composition Sri Gur Sobha, and after performing a comparison between them, he had them published in Poh 457 Nanakshahi, Bikrami (December 1925 AD) through Bhai Nanak Singh Kirpal Singh Hazooria in Amritsar. It was in this way that this book [sainapati’s Gursobha] came to light.




23 June 1967

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