Readable and scholarly
by Gurinder Singh Mann. Prentice Hall, USA. Pages 128. $ 20.
THERE has been much much interest in the Sikhs and their religion, especially since 1984. This book gives an authoritative, readable account of the community, its beliefs and practices and its place in the world. It even ventures a look at the future of the community.
The book’s focus and intended audience comes forth as soon as you open it. It starts with an anecdote about the Governor of New Jersey who wanted “biographical” information on the Khalsa, since someone in his office thought that Khalsa was an individual.
It is such ignorance about different cultures and faiths that the series on religions of the world, of which this book is a part, seeks to dispel through pithy introductory books that are simple in style, but built on strong foundations of scholarship. Mann’s book fits in on both accounts.
He gives basic biographical information about Guru Nanak. His account of Guru Nanak in Kartarpur places the city founded by the Guru right at the centre of discourse on Sikhism. The institutions of kirtan, congregational prayer and the recitation of Guru’s compositions, and langar or the community kitchen, that were nurtured at Kartarpur are the basis of Sikh religion. The author shows rather well how the imagery of Kartarpur and its environs figures in Guru Nanak’s compositions.
He has also recreated early Sikh religious lifesyle and points out that Guru Nanak was not only a religious leader but also an overall leader of the community. Mann rightly traces the evolution of a number of practices, like langar and the tying of turban on the successor to the Sufis, again underlining the openness of the religion founded by Guru Nanak.
The lives and teachings of the nine Gurus who followed Guru Nanak and the developments in the community are also traced briefly, with a deft pen. He also gives an account of the rule of both Banda Bahadur and Maharaja Ranjit Singh. However, Mann has not just traced the history, he has woven a story of the community, its beliefs and practices, too.
Sometimes Mann treads on paths not familiar. He writes Vahiguru, instead of using the letter W as the first one. Similarly, he spells Goindwal as Goindval. Of late, this has become an American affectation. There should be a stylesheet, perhaps given out by the SGPC in consultation with Sikh scholars, to standardise the spellings of names associated with Sikh history and religion.
One can’t think of the Sikhs without the diaspora, and it is but natural that it too finds its rightful place in the book. Mann brings out the contribution of Sikh women well and devotes a chapter to it which is noteworthy for the span and brevity. One would, however, like to add to the galaxy of accomplished Sikh women the name of Sahib Kaur, who defeated the Marathas in battle and supported the Udassis at Hardwar.
The book’s value is enhanced by such reader-friendly features like a timeline of Sikh history, a note on transliteration, a listing of festivals, and bibliography. It is well illustrated with maps, some interesting miniature paintings and works of contemporary artists like R M Singh. One wishes that the artwork had been in colour, rather than in black and white.
Because of its simplicity of style and depth of scholarship, this is a book on Sikhism whose significance is in inverse proportion to its size. It is an introduction to the religion and its adherents, and more. All those who want to know more about Sikhism will learn from it, even the Sikhs.
This review was published on Sunday, June 13, 2004