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A Sublime Heritage


Navtej Sarna

FOUR CENTURIES OF SIKH TRADITON: HISTORY, LITERATURE AND IDENTITY
By J.S. Grewal
Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2011, pp. 332, Rs.850.00

VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 7 July 2012

It is a rare study that can encompass within its bounds the writings of the Sikh Gurus as well as several other writers who followed and then draw threads of arguments that run from sacred texts to later polemical essays in order to develop a holistic view of the evolution of various aspects of the Sikh faith. J.S. Grewal, with decades of scholarship behind him, has produced just such a study which takes up for indepth analysis not only the Adi Granth and the Dasam Granth but several other critical texts that throw light on Sikh beliefs, traditions and identity from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. The early evolution of Sikhism, from Guru Nanak to the fifth Guru Arjan Dev was largely achieved in peaceful times, though the broad backdrop even then was one of political oppression, religious intolerance and ritual orthodoxy. The writings of the first five Gurus—all sublime poets and writers—expound the basis of the Sikh faith and belief, even as they comment on the reality that surrounds them. Guru Nanak’s writings (e.g., the Babarvani and Asi di Var) contain telling, sharp commentary on prevailing social, religious and political wrongs. He also spelt out his own conception of God: a monotheistic characterization of a fearless, timeless, selfexistent and unattributable Supreme Being responsible for all Creation whose grace must be sought through loving, devotion. He denounced renunciation, ascetical traditions (e.g. in Siddha Goshti), inequality, discrimination and ritualism. He promoted the path of righteous living and the pursuit of liberation-in-life. Practical virtue, rather than abstract piety, was the preferred way. He laid the foundations of institutions such as sangat or congregation for the singing of the praises of God and the langar or community kitchen where people from different caste and creed would eat together. Grewal sifts through Guru Nanak’s writings that pointed out the short comings of the age, the profligacy of rulers and the nature of Divine Will and would lay the foundation of a new path, both in spiritual as well as in socio political terms. Only sixty-three shlokas of Guru Angad, the second Guru, are included in the Guru Granth Sahib but their importance is immense, given his immediacy to the thought and philosophy of Guru Nanak. He promotes the same understanding of God and talks of the concepts of God’s hukam (or command) and nadar (...


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