Dr Hew McLeod: Bouquets & Brickbats
Dr W H McLeod from New Zealand passed away on 21st July 2009 at the age of 77 years. He dominated Sikh studies in the West for about 4 decades. He introduced Western methodology, contributed much himself, and questioned and challenged traditional Sikh lore. With a jolt, Sikh scholars were brought face to face with the need for application of rigorous western objectivity to the study of Sikh religious tradition.
That was not always the case before his arrival on the Sikh studies scene with his PhD thesis of 1965, published in 1968 as, “Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion”.
In a different context and time frame, he was perhaps in the same league for taking Sikh religion to the West as J D Cunningham who completed his “A History of the Sikhs” at about the same time as the annexation of Panjab in 1849, and Max Arthur Macauliffe who completed “The Sikh Religion” towards the end of the 19th Century. Hew McLeod will be remembered for his catalytic role in promoting Sikh studies in the West. He will also be remembered for creating more controversy about the authenticity of some parts of Sikh religious tradition than any other Western scholar in the 20th Century.
He went to Panjab from New Zealand in 1958 as a Christian missionary and later “converted” to an atheist student of Sikh religion. As was to be expected, by mixing atheism and religious study, McLeod was bound to apply “rigorous and critical methodology” to the study of any faith! (*see footnote) The scene was set for much controversy in the years to come.
Nevertheless, despite controversy about McLeod’s methods and even intentions, his great contribution to the recognition of Sikh religion at world level has been accepted by most Sikh scholars. In fact, the controversy itself has contributed to that recognition by raising the standard of Sikh studies in response to McLeod desire to separate fiction from historical fact. One outstanding response is the “Perspectives On The Sikh Tradition” invited and edited by Justice Gurdev Singh (Academy of Sikh Religion & Culture 1986 ) (**see footnote about McLeod’s propositions).
Cunningham clearly showed that the Sikh nation arose out of the founding ideology of Guru Nanak which unfolded as the Sikh miri-piri tradition up to the time of Guru Gobind Singh over a period of over 200 years spanning ten human Guruships. To quote, “ It was reserved for Nanak to perceive the true principles of reform, and to lay those broad foundations which enabled his successor Govind to fire the minds of his countrymen with a new nationality, and to give practical effect to the [Guru Nanak’s] doctrine that the lowest is equal with the highest, in race as well as creed, in political rights as in religious hope.”
Max Arthur Macauliffe’s starts his 6 volumes “The Sikh Religion” with the words, “I bring from the East what is practically an unknown religion. The Sikhs are distinguished throughout the world as a great military people, but there is little known even to professional scholars regarding their religion.”
Hew McLeod wrote extensively about Sikh religious. The list of his publications on Sikh studies is quite mind boggling and shows his total dedication to this subject. His stress on “rigorous critical methodology developed in the West during the last two centuries” was bound to question every aspect of Sikh beliefs and established practice (**see footnote). However, no matter how much we disagree with McLeod, as those like Dr Ganda Singh have stressed, charges of any “mala fide (in bad faith) intentions” on his part cannot be justified.
Doubts were expressed about his treatment of the Janamsakhis in his first publication “Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion”. However, scholars defended the right of a historian to discard “fiction”. Serious debate started with McLeod’s provocative “The Evolution of the Sikh Community” published in 1975 in which McLeod chose to ignore much traditional and contemporary evidence. Instead he promoted own views about the impact and influence of environmental factors in changing the direction of Guru Nanak’s Panth. Ignoring the essential continuity of Guru Nanak’s mission, he regarded the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev ji’s as a watershed (change of direction) in Sikh ideology.
McLeod seems to have missed the “political” (miri) aspect inherent in Guru Nanak Sahib’s Gurbani which combined simran (meditation) with serving the creation here and now by creating a just society in which no one inflicted pain on another. He gave too little importance to the underlying political idiom in Guru Nanak Sahib’s thought and the institutional and organisational developments which took place during the Guru period from Guru Nanak Sahib to Guru Arjan Dev, which became the cause of Guru Arjan Dev’s martyrdom. Contemporary evidence shows that these developments were noted with apprehension by rulers like Jehangir. He gave too much importance to the consequences of Guru Sahib’s martyrdom and the influx of Jat peasantry of Panjab into Sikhism. He ignored Guru Hargobind Sahib’s lead in taking Guru Nanak-Gobind Singh mission to the next (miri) stage.
Wrote Dr J S Grewal:- "Jagjit Singh put forth the idea that acquisition of political power for a noble cause could be "a legitimate spiritual pursuit". Unfamiliar with the idea, most of the scholars failed to appreciate the novel doctrine of “miri-piri”. The hypothesis that the Sikh movement was a purely religious movement before it took a political turn with the martyrdom of Guru Arjan was a "distortion". Guru Arjan's "direct political involvement" was evident from the fact that he helped the rebel prince Khusrau……Thus, it was not Guru Arjan's martyrdom which gave a political turn to the Sikh movement; rather it was the political ethos of the Sikh movement that contributed to his martyrdom."
“Even a casual study of Guru Nanak's Gurbani brings out the, "The distinctive Sikh view of nam marg was not wedded to the doctrine of ahinsa. The obligation to bear arms and to be linked with nam was considered by the Khalsa to be complementary and not mutually exclusive." (Above quotes are from Dr J S Grewal's remarkable publication, "The Sikhs: Ideology, Institutions and Identity”, collection of essays 2009, Oxford University Press)
Dr Hew McLeod did not revise the obvious flaws in his understanding of the Sikh political ethos, which was always an inseparable part of the bhagti-shakti (meditation & acquisition of power to create an egalitarian society), deg-teg (community sharing & the sword), miri-piri (temporal & spiritual), twin-track revolutionary egalitarian mission of Guru Nanak Sahib. That political aspect comes through in Guru Sahib's "political" reaction to Babar's invasion and cruelty; and in Banis like Asa ki Vaar.
To quote Ishwinder Singh (IOSS), “The author [Hew McLeod] trained in the western tradition did much for bringing Sikhism to western academia's attention but often missed the point of Sikhism. His death may provide an occasion and trigger to look deeply at not just his position and location in the Sikh scholastic mindscape but also the Sikh Nation's continuous fight to safeguard its traditions, history and spirit.”
Dr Noel Q King put it in a nutshell about Dr McLeod's works, that despite "meticulously and exhaustively carried out drills in certain methods of Western criticism" "The reader seeking the well-springs of what Sikhism is will not be assisted. The only successful opponent [Sikh nation] to thousands of years of passing conquerors must have something that makes him tick!" ("Perspectives On The Sikh Tradition") Regrettably, due to his "static" approach and failure to appreciate the progressive "continuum" of Guru Nanak's miri-piri mission, Dr McLeod failed to discover what made the Sikh nation "tick".
I conclude with a quote from a post on Gurmat Learning Zone (GLZ) by Professor Nirmal Singh, “Hew McLeod came in at a low point in Sikh studies and gave it a jolt to remember that the era of Macauliffe, Theosophical Society, Teja Singh, Ganda Singh, Puran Singh had passed by and that the Sikh academia could do with some fresh thinking. For this we owe him thanks and must honor his memory.”
[On one occasion Dr J S Grewal, who was passing through, dropped in for an evening chat. He explained the background to the controversy in Sikh studies, which centred around Hew McLeod. I asked, what about applying similar “rigorous analytical methodology” to the orthodox world religions? He smiled and said something like, “No point, because they lost the argument centuries ago! Sikhism will always stand up to such scrutiny.” That sort of confidence assumes a high standard of Sikh scholarship from within to withstand the external threat and challenges.]
* To quote Dr Kanwar Ranvir Singh (of GLZ) who met Dr McLeod at Dr J S Chadha’s place in LOndon: “Upon learning that Hew was an atheist, he [Dr Chadha] was shocked. He tried to convince Hew that there was a Creator but as Hew smiled away his efforts, Dr Sahib looked amazed. "What can a man who does not know his Maker, know? How can he understand a person of faith and if he can't understand them, what can he write about them?"
**Dr J S Grewal summed up eight propositions attributed to Hew McLeod, which, according to Justice Gurdev Singh “stand refuted” in the “Perspectives on the Sikh Tradition.” as follows:-
“One, that Guru Nanak belongs to the sant tradition; two, that his successors did not preach one set of doctrines, giving up at one stage his teachings in favour of militancy; three, that the Panth got armed not because of any decision of Guru Hargobind but because of Jat inflix; four, that the traditional account of the founding of the Khalsa cannot be accepted; five, that the Sikh code of discipline and Sikh symbols were evolved during the eighteenth century and not promulgated by Guru Gobind Singh on the Baisakhi of 1699; six, that the Gurus denounced caste system but they were not sincere or serious in removing caste differences; seven, that the succession Granth Sahib as the Guru after Guru Gobind Singh was a subsequent adoption and not due to his injunction; eight, that the authenticity of the current version of Guru Granth Sahib is open to question.”
(Published in a special issue of The Sikh Review dedicated to Dr Hew McLeod)
Gurmukh Singh (UK)
© Gurmukh Singh