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Beyond Hagiography

Gurpreet K. Maini

By Pashaura Singh
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 317, Rs. 395.00


An endeavour to reconstruct a religious biography can be formidable. In fact, such a venture which resurrects the lives of those who exemplify the religious spirit of an age can evoke the tendency to fabricate traits, in order to eulogize their portrayals as ideals and icons, so such a biography may morph towards being a hagiography. For Pashaura Singh, himself a Sikh, such a biography would be all the more daunting as he reconstructs the life of an individual who is a revered icon, i.e. the fifth Guru of the Sikh religion. Such a portrayal where fact, historiography and objectivity are juxtaposed in the analysis, and the information culled is interpreted can be a tight-rope walk. Singh deals with the task of rendering religious history as hagiography by deftly intertwining the analysis of historical docu-ments available within mythic traditions (often oral renditions), so as to reconstruct the biography of the fifth Guru within the specific parameters of history, memory and biography of the Sikh tradition.   A civilization, a culture, a religion evinces its maturity when it shuns the garb of mythology and portrays its icons into historic personages, in this case paper versions are buttressed by chronological realism. As the author says he has adopted the approach of a ‘life course theory’ or ‘life course perspective’ in the reconstruction of an individual’s life—in a multidisciplinary paradigm by studying lives within a structural context. In effect, the first chapter where he deliberates upon the modalities of reconstructing a religious biography and the hazardous trajectories entailed, is a significant delineation of the modus operandi for religious historiography. Sikhism is one of India’s modern religions and the lives of the Gurus form significant chapters of bravery and sacrifices within the annals of Indian history, so of course, truly the grain of fact must be sifted from the chaff of myth. Myth is inevitably intertwined with the study of historical do-cuments to reconstruct the history of the Guru.   Interestingly, the author comments that myth began to be inevitably spun with the advent of Gurudom. The Sikh bards began singing eulogistic praises of the Gurus, some of these panegyrics are recorded in the Adi Granth and illuminate the lives of the Gurus. ‘The traditional perception has survived even to this day, and it will continue to influence future generations of Sikhs too. Most interestingly, the panegyrics of each day, early in ...

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