8. Are Sikhs Hindus?

8.1. The problem of Sikh identity

In most of the contemporary literature, Sikhism is treated as a separate religion.  The questioning of this separateness by Hindus is usually only mentioned in scornful tones, as a sign of “Hindu fundamentalist” sympathies.  Most non-specialist Western sources implicitly support Sikh separatism, at least the religious, non-territorial variety.  Thus, the cover story on India in the non-political American monthly National Geographic carries a picture of a typical-looking Sikh before the Hari Mandir in Amritsar, with the caption: “The Golden Temple in Amritsar serves as the spiritual centre for the world’s 20 million Sikhs.  ‘From Hindus and Muslims have I broken free’, said Arjan Dev Ji, the fifth Sikh guru, in the 1590s.  The faith holds all people equal in the eyes of God.”1 Of these three sentences, two are statements of support to Sikh separatism, and both are open to criticism.

The last sentence highlights equality, obviously contrasting it with the “Hindu” caste system.  However, the now-popular claim that Sikhism is caste-free and that this sets it apart from Hinduism (on the assumption that caste is intrinsic to Hinduism), is simply untrue.  Every Hindu knows that Sikhs have not ceased practising caste, but for an authoritative refutation, we may turn to a historian who scrutinized the record of Sikhism: “The acknowledgement of caste identities was presumably acceptable to the Gurus, for the Gurus themselves married their own children according to traditional caste prescriptions.  The anti-caste thrust of the Gurus’ teachings must be seen as a doctrine which referred to spiritual deliverance and (…) a firm rejection of injustice or hurtful discrimination based on caste status.  What is not implied is a total obliteration of caste identity.”2

Till today, Sikhs marry with Hindus of the same caste, while they still avoid marriage with Sikhs of different castes.  Likewise, Sikh politics is largely divided along caste lines, e.g. the Akali movement is one of Jat Sikhs, shunned by low-caste Sikhs (who are called Mazhabi Sikhs, that is, Sikhs by religion alone, e.g. former Congress minister Buta Singh) and by the higher Khatri and Arora castes to which the Gurus belonged.

The second sentence in the National Geographic caption, Guru Arjun’s statement, is superficially a crystal-clear expression of Sikh separateness.3 Yet, it is not as straightforward as separatists might wish.  No Sikh Guru was ever a Muslim, ergo the half-sentence: “Of Muslims have I broken free”, does not mean that he abandoned Islam.  Therefore, the other half need not be construed as a repudiation of Hinduism either.  Rather, it may be read as repudiating the whole “identity” business including the division of mankind into Hindu and Muslim categories, on the Upanishadic ground that the Self is beyond these superficial trappings (the Self being neti neti, “not this, not that”)-but that is a typically Hindu and decidedly un-Islamic position.  To the Quran, group identity (being a member of the Muslim ummah or not) is everything, is laden with far-reaching consequences including an eternity in heaven or in hell.  To Hindu society, it is also undeniably important; but to Hindu spirituality, it is not.  Likewise, another verse of the same poem, “I will not pray to idols nor say the Muslim prayer”, is more anti-Islamic than anti-Hindu: it rejects a duty binding every single Muslim (prayer) and a practice common among Hindus (idol-worship) but by no means obligatory.

There is enough of a prima facie case that Sikhism is a Hindu sect pure and simple.  And effectively, some Sikhs do claim that they are Hindus.4 Of course, the Hindutva movement holds the same view: the Sikhs are just one of the sects constituting the Hindu Commonwealth.  Or no, not “just” one: they are the “sword-arm” of Hinduism.  The Sikh Gurus Tegh Bahadur, beheaded by Aurangzeb in 1675 for refusing to convert, and his son Govind Singh, who founded the military Khalsa order and whose four sons were killed by the Moghul troops, are very popular in Hindutva glorifications of “national heroes”.5 Their pictures are routinely displayed at functions of the RSS and its affiliates, and their holidays celebrated, e.g.: “Over 650 branches of Bharat Vikas Parishad observe Guru Tegh Bahadur Martyrdom Day”.6

The Hindu identity of the Sikhs which Veer Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar simply assumed, Ram Swarup and Arun Shourie have also tried to demonstrate, and we will consider their argument here, juxtaposed with some observations by other Hindu Revivalists and with the arguments given by the famous Sikh author Khushwant Singh, who sometimes defends and sometimes dismisses the claims of Sikh separateness.

8.2. Are Sikhs Muslims?

If we accept the historical definition of “Hindu” given by the Muslims, there is simply no doubt about it: all Sikhs fall under the heading “Indian Pagans”, for they are neither Muslims nor Christians, Jews or Parsis.  So, Sikhs are Hindus.  Unless…

Unless Sikhs are some kind of Muslims.  Ram Swarup starts his survey of the genesis of Sikh separatism with the discovery that T.P. Hughes’ Dictionary of Islam, written in the British-Indian colonial context, devotes the third-longest of its articles (after Muhammad and Qur’ân) to the lemma Sikhism.  According to Ram Swarup, “it must be a strange sect of Islam where the word ‘Mohammed’ does not occur even once in the writings of its founder, Nanak.”7 Nor did later Gurus include the praise of Mohammed in the Guru Granth.

Hughes himself admits at the outset that the readers may be surprised to find Sikhism treated as a sect of Islam, but promises to show that “the religion of Nanak was really intended as a compromise between Hinduism and Muhammadanism, if it may not even be spoken of as the religion of a Muhammadan sect”8.  His endeavour is significant for two trends affecting the Sikh position in India’s religious spectrum: Sikh rapprochement with Islam for the sake of distinguishing itself from Hinduism, and the British colonial policy (which also employed scholars) of isolating the Sikh community and forging it into a privileged collaborating enclave in native society.

To start with the first point, it is a general rule that any enumeration of the distinctive elements of Sikhism by proponents of Sikh separateness exclusively mentions points which distinguish it from Hinduism and bring it closer to Islam.  Thus, Khushwant Singh names the crucial difference: “The revolt of Sikhism was not against Hinduism but against its Brahminical form.  It was based on two things: the concept of God as unity, a God who was nirankâr (formless).  Therefore, Sikhism rejected the worship of idols.  It also rejected the caste system.  It was, as the cliché goes, an acceptance of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.”9

The said cliché is actually a self-formulation of Protestant Christianity; in India, it was also enunciated by Keshub Chunder Sen of the Brahmo Samaj, but there is nothing particularly Sikh about it.10 Khushwant Singh also calls Sikhism “prophet-based” and “monotheistic”, both Biblical-Islamic notions but now central items in Sikh separatist discourse.11

The question may be asked whether the alleged non-polytheism of Guru Nanak really is the same thing as the Biblical-Quranic worship of a “jealous God”.  Sri Aurobindo, for one, insisted on the radically different spirit in Sikhism as compared with Islam: “Those ways of Indian cult which most resemble a popular form of Theism, are still something more; for they do not exclude, but admit the many aspects of God. (…) The later religious forms which most felt the impress of the Islamic idea, like Nanak’s worship of the timeless One, Akâla, and the reforming creeds of today, born under the influence of the West, yet draw away from the limitations of western or Semitic monotheism.  Irresistibly they turn from these infantile conceptions towards the fathomless truth of Vedanta.”12 Just as Christians in debate with Islam affirm: the fact that both your God and my God are described as single and unique, does not imply that they are the same.13

The most striking point, however, is that none of the elements of Sikh doctrine mentioned by Khushwant Singh sets Sikhism apart from Islam; he could have mentioned the Sikh attachment to the taboo on cow-slaughter, but significantly overlooks it.  In militant Sikhism, we find a whole list of concepts and institutions remoulded or newly created in the image of Islamic (or Christian) counterparts, e.g. guru has become a synonym for rasûl, hukumnâma for fatwa, dharmyuddh for jihâd, pîrî-mîrî for khîlafat.14 And of course Khâlistân (from Arabic khalîs, “unmixed”) is the Sikh separatist equivalent for Pâkistân, both meaning “land of the pure”.

In order to bolster their separateness from Hinduism, Sikh separatists magnify the Islamic element in Sikhism.  An element of this tendency is the replacement of Sanskrit-based terms with Persian terms, e.g. the Hari Mandir, “Vishnu temple”, in Amritsar is preferably called Darbâr Sâhib, “venerable court session (of the Timeless one)”.15 Another expression of this tendency is the induction of Muslim divines into Sikh history, e.g. the by now widespread story that the foundation stone of the Hari Mandir was laid by the Sufi pîr Mian Mir.  After this story was repeated again and again in his weekly column by Khushwant Singh, Sita Ram Goel wrote a detailed survey of the oldest and modernst sources pertaining to the construction of the Hari Mandir, found no trace of Mian Mir there, and concluded: “I request you to (…) stop propping up a blatant forgery simply because it has become popular and is being patronised by those who control the neo-Sikh establishment.”16 Khushwant Singh never mentioned Mian Mir again.

Goel’s general position is that modern Sikh self-historiography is full of concoction, starting with insertions and changes in 19th-century editions of older texts, all of it in unsubtle appropriation of the latest ideological fashions.  He argues that Sikh history was magnified both by Anglo-secularist authors (Sikhism as a “proto-secular” religion of “Hindu-Muslim synthesis” free of “Brahminical superstition”) and by Hindu nationalists (Sikhism as the “sword-arm of Hinduism”) simply because the Sikhs were a privileged and prosperous community.  As often, the present power equation determines the relative importance of individuals and groups in the history books.17 In Goel’s view, Guru Nanak was by no means greater than other Sants like Garibdas (to whose panth Goel’s own family belonged), he only has the benefit of an assertive constituency of followers in the present.

Likewise, Rajendra Singh, a Sikh anti-separatist author and regular contributor to the RSS weekly Panchjanya, claims that even (not to say especially) the key moments of Sikh history are often concoctions.  Thus, the founding of the martial Khalsa order by Guru Govind Singh in 1699, with the beard as part of its dress code, is put in doubt by a post-1699 painting of a clean-shaven Govind Singh.18 He also points out that many stories about the lives of the Gurus are obvious calks on Puranic or Islamic stories.

Neither Goel nor Rajendra Singh has so far worked out these arguments in writing, so I will not pursue this line of debate here.  Yet, my impression from the available literature is that a close verification of the now-popular version of Sikh history is indeed called for.

Thus, Khushwant Singh relates about the martyrdom of the fifth Guru, Arjun Dev: “Among his tormentors was a Hindu banker whose daughter’s hand Arjun had refused to accept for his son.”19 In the main text, he relates this story as a fact, but in footnote, he adds that “there is nothing contemporary on record to indicate that the Hindu banker, Chandu Shah, was in any way personally vindictive towards the captive Guru”, then justifies the inclusion of the story with reference to colonial historian Max Arthur Macauliffe.20 And that is one case where he explicitates the conflict between the assurance given by his most important secondary source (Macauliffe) and the silence of the “contemporary records” consulted by himself; in numerous cases, however, he follows Macauliffe without conveying what the original record has to say.

Most things in Sikhism can be traced either to Hindu origins or to borrowings from Islam.  But for centuries, one thing which put the Sikhs firmly in the Hindu camp was the continuous hostility with the Islamic Empire of the Moghuls and with the Muslim Afghans.  After Partition, there were practically no Muslims left in East Panjab, and the contrast with Hinduism could now receive the full emphasis for the first time.  In that context, separatist Sikhs resorted to highlighting existing or introducing new elements borrowed from Islam.  It is typical that in his overview of the elements which make up Sikh identity, Khushwant Singh overlooks specific Sikh commandments which set Sikhism apart from Islam, e.g. the prohibition on marrying Muslim women and on eating halâl meat.21 In his case, I have no reason to surmise any bad faith: if he conveys this politically sanitized reading of Sikh identity, it is because that happens to be the received wisdom now.22

To the extent that Sikhism leans towards Islam, it does undeniably set itself apart from Hinduism.  The anti-separatist argument will therefore necessarily consist in branding the Islamic elements in Sikhism as late and disingenuous borrowings, or as mere externalities not affecting the essentially Hindu core of Sikhism.  They should at any rate be viewed in their historical context: by Guru Nanak’s time, Panjab had been under Muslim rule for five centuries, and a number of Muslim customs had passed into common use among Hindus, as lamented by Nanak himself.  Likewise, much Persian and Muslim terminology seeped into the language of Panjabi Hindus.

8.3. Hinduism as a boa constrictor

Ram Swarup relates how the British had been disappointed with the conclusions of the first scholar who investigated and translated Sikh Scriptures, the German Indologist and missionary Dr. E. Trumpp, who had found Guru Nanak a “thorough Hindu” and his religion “a Pantheism derived directly from Hindu sources”.23 This was not long after the 1857 Mutiny, when the Sikhs had fought on the British side, and the British were systematically turning the Sikhs into one of the privileged enclaves in native society with whose help they wanted to make governing India easier for themselves.

So, according to Ram Swarup, other scholars were put to work to rewrite Sikh history in the sense desired by the British: “Max Arthur Macauliffe, a highly placed British administrator (…) told the Sikhs that Hinduism was like a ‘boa constrictor of the Indian forest’ which ‘winds its opponent and finally causes it to disappear in its capacious interior’.  The Sikhs ‘may go that way’, he warned.  He was pained to see that the Sikhs regarded themselves as Hindus which was ‘in direct opposition to the teachings of the Gurus’. (…) The influence of scholarship is silent, subtle and long-range.  Macauliffe and others provided categories which became the thought-equipment of subsequent Sikh intellectuals.”24

The “boa constrictor” account is repeated by Khushwant Singh, who is very attached to “Sikh separate identity which we are trying to, and perhaps will go on trying to maintain”.25

He is worried by Hindu open-mindedness: “Hinduism has this enormous capacity of taking everything in its embrace: you can be an idol worshipper, you can be an idol breaker; you can believe in one god, you can believe in a thousand gods; you can have a caste system, you can deny the caste system; you can be an agnostic, atheist, or whatever else you like, and remain a Hindu.  What can you do about it?  It is this power of absorption of Hinduism, that it is even willing to recognize Prophet Mohammed as an Avatar of Vishnu, that poses the real challenge to other religions.”26 The statement contains exaggerations (idol breaker, Mohammed as avatar?!)27 , but we get the message: Hinduism’s accommodation of different spiritual approaches is a problem for separatists.

This is yet another instance of how Hindus are “damned if they do, damned if they don’t”: had they been intolerant, this would of course be held against them, but even when they are found to be tolerant and accommodating, it is still interpreted as an evil design.  When Hinduism integrates new elements, it is not proof of broad-mindedness, but of a strategy of swallowing the minorities.”28 As Arun Shourie remarks, after describing some examples of how Hindu tradition has integrated “Dravidian” and “Aryan” elements: “Why is it that (…) for our columnists and our communists that decision is yet another instance of the devious devices by which Hinduism has been ‘swallowing up’ other traditions?”29

In the case of Sikhism, at any rate, the boa metaphor does not really fit the case: Sikhism has sprung from Hinduism, and it is not as if the two were strangers who met one day and then the one decided to swallow up the other.  But it may be said that in the 19th century, Hinduism was reabsorbing Sikhism, and that it may yet complete this process in the future.

8.4. Sikhs were Hindus

That the Sikhs “regarded themselves as Hindus” is confirmed by Khushwant Singh, who concedes that three centuries of Sikh history after Nanak, including the creation of the Khalsa as a Sikh martial vanguard by Guru Govind Singh, were not enough to make Sikhism into a separate religion: “However, what is worthwhile to bear in mind is that, despite these innovations, this new community, the Khalsa Panth, remained an integral part of the Hindu social and religious system.  It is significant that when Tegh Bahadur was summoned to Delhi, he went as a representative of the Hindus.  He was executed in the year 1675.  His son who succeeded him as guru later described his father’s martyrdom as in the cause of the Hindu faith, ‘to preserve their caste marks and their sacred thread did he perform the supreme sacrifice’.  The guru himself looked upon his community as an integral part of the Hindu social system.”30

Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom is usually interpreted as an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of the Kashmiri Pandits threatened with forced conversion.  As such, it is a classic Hindutva proof of the Hinduness of Sikhism, though it is also a classic neo-Sikh proof of the “secularism” of Sikhism (“showing concern even for people of a different religion, viz.  Hinduism”).31 However, this whole debate may well rest upon a simple misunderstanding.

In most indo-Aryan languages, the oft-used honorific mode of the singular is expressed by the same pronoun as the plural (e.g. Hindi unkâ, “his” or “their”, as opposed to the non-honorific singular uskâ), and vice-versa; by contrast, the singular form only indicates a singular subject.  The phrase commonly translated as “the Lord preserved their tilak and sacred thread” (tilak-janjû râkhâ Prabh tâ-kâ), referring to unnamed outsiders assumed to be the Kashmiri Pandits, literally means that He “preserved b is tilak and sacred thread”, meaning Tegh Bahadur’s; it is already unusual poetic liberty to render “their tilak and sacred thread” this way, and even if that were intended, there is still no mention of the Kashmiri Pandits in the story.32 This is confirmed by one of the following lines in Govind’s poem about his father’s martyrdom: “He suffered martyrdom for the sake of his faith.”33 in any case, the story of forced massed conversions in Kashmir by the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb is not supported by the detailed record of his reign by Muslim chronicles who narrate many accounts of his biogorty.

Though Govind Singh is considered as the founder of the Khalsa order (1699) who “gave his Sikhs an outward form distinct from the Hindus”34, he too did things which Sikh separatists would dismiss as “brahminical”.  As Khushwant Singh notes, “Gobind selected five of the most scholarly of his disciples and sent them to Benares to learn Sanskrit and the Hindu religious texts, to be better able to interpret the writings of the gurus, which were full of allusions to Hindu mythology and philosophy.”35 Arun Shourie quotes Govind Singh as declaring: “Let the path of the pure [khâlsâ panth] prevail all over the world, let the Hindu dharma dawn and all delusion disappear. (…) May I spread dharma and prestige of the Veda in the world and erase from it the sin of cow-slaughter.”36

Khushwant Singh notes with a certain disappointment that even when the Sikhs carved out a state for themselves, they did not separate from Hinduism: “The Sikhs triumphed and we had Ranjit Singh.  You may feel that here at long last we had a Sikh monarch, and the Khalsa would come into their own.  Nothing of the sort happened. (…) Instead of taking Sikhism in its pristine form, he accepted Hinduism in its brahminical form.  He paid homage to Brahmins.  He made cow-killing a capital offence”37

Further, he donated three times more gold to the newly built makeshift Vishvanath temple in Varanasi than to the Hari Mandir in Amritsar.  He also threatened the Amirs of Sindh with an invasion if they didn’t stop persecuting the Hindus.  Even more embarrassing for those who propagate the progressive non-Hindu image of Sikhism: one of the last and greatest royal self-immolations of widows ever performed in India took place in 1839 when Ranjit Singh was accompanied on his funeral pyre by four of his wives and seven maids and concubines.38

By any standard, Ranjit Singh was a Hindu ruler: “He worshipped as much in Hindu temples as he did in gurudwaras.  When he was sick and about to die, he gave away cows for charity.  What did he do with the diamond Kohi-noor?  He did not want to give it to the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar which he built in marble and gold, but to Jagannath Puri as his farewell gift.  When he had the Afghans at his mercy and wrested Kashmir from them, he wanted the gates of the temple of Somnath back from them.  Why should he be making all these Hindu demands?  Whatever the breakaway that had been achieved from Hinduism, this greatest of our monarchs bridged in 40 years.”39

A few years after Ranjit Singh’s death, the British annexed his kingdom.  Khushwant Singh describes how Sikh (more precisely, Khalsa) identity was fast disappearing when the British occupied Panjab.  To Hindu Revivalists, this development was perfectly natural: Sikh identity was not religious but functional, and it disappeared when its circumstantial raison d’être disappeared.  Sikhism was thrown up by Hindu society as part of the centuries-long “Hindu response to the Islamic onslaught”40, and now that the Pax Brittanica made an end to the Hindu-Muslim struggle, it was natural that Sikhism was gradually reabsorbed.

8.5. Sikh identity and the British

It is the established Hindu Revivalist position that Sikhism as a separate religion is a British artefact.  Khushwant Singh confirms this much, that the British came to the rescue of the dwindling Khalsa by setting up Sikh regiments to which only observant Khalsa Sikhs were allowed.  This worked as “a kind of hot-house protection” to Sikh identity, and “by World War 1, a third of the British Indian Army were bearded Khalsa Sikhs”.41 This number may be exaggerated: Ram Swarup counts “19.2% in 1914”, falling to “13.58% in 1930” (because by then, “the Government was less sure of their unquestioning loyalty”).42 All the same, to Sikh identity the Army recruitment was crucial, and our Sikh historian candidly admits: “So the first statutory guarantee of the continuation of the Khalsa came from a foreign power.”43

A look at the census figures may be useful here.  In 1881, ca. 41% of the Panjabis classified themselves as Hindus, only 5.5% as Sikhs; by the time of Partition, the percentage of “Hindus” had decreased to 26%, that of “Sikhs” increased to 13%.  This had of course nothing to do with conversion, merely with the pressure on the Sahajdharis to become Kesadharis and assume an identity distinct from the Hindus.  On the downside, however, the polarization imposed by the Khalsa pushed one of the branches of Sikhism in Sindh, the Amil Nanakpanthis, to rejecting Sikhism as a separate religion and casting their lot wholesale with Hinduism.  Among them the family of L.K. Advani, who nonetheless calls himself “still spiritually a Sikh”.

But even at the stage of the British rewards for Sikh distinctness, the separation of the Sikhs from Hindu society had not fully succeeded: “To start with, Hindus did not find this much of a problem.  The Hindu who wanted to join the army simply stopped shaving and cutting his hair. (…) Nihal Chand became Nihal Singh and went into the British Army as a Sikh soldier.”44 According to Hindus, this was natural: Hindus did not see “becoming a Sikh” as conversion.  The point was made very clearly by a non-political Hindu leader from Varanasi, who told me: “If the Sikhs don’t want to call themselves Hindus, I will gladly call myself a Sikh.”45

According to Khushwant Singh, the loss of these privileges in 1947 undermined Sikh identity by taking its tangible benefits away: “Sikhs lost their minority privileges because there were going to be no minority privileges in a secular state (…) Their number in the Army started to dwindle.  Their number in the Civil Service also began to come down. (…) The younger [generation] did not understand why they must grow their hair and beard, when they got no economic benefits for doing so. (…) When a Sikh father is asked: ‘What do I get out of it ?’, he can no longer say: ‘I can get you a job in the army if you have your hair and beard.’”46

In a non-Sikh state and society, Sikh identity would probably get dissolved in the long run, so the Khalsa leadership saw salvation in a separate state: “External props to the Khalsa separatism started crumbling.  Leaders of the community felt that their flock was facing extinction and they must preserve it by whatever means they can.  The only answer Akali leaders could think of-they are not used to thinking very deeply-was to have political power in their homeland.”47 It was to safeguard their identity by means of physical separation that some Akali factions started a movement of armed separatism.

8.6. Sikhism as the sword-arm of Hinduism

Ram Swarup adds a psychological reason for the recent Sikh attempt to sever the ties with Hindu society and the Indian state: “‘You have been our defenders’, Hindus tell the Sikhs.  But in the present psychology, the compliment wins only contempt-and I believe rightly.  For self-despisement is the surest way of losing a friend or even a brother.  It also gives the Sikhs an exaggerated self-assessment.”48

Ram Swarup hints at the question of the historicity of the belief that “Sikhism is the sword-arm of Hinduism”, widespread among Hindus.  It is well-known that the Sikhs were the most combative in fighting Muslims during the Partition massacres, and that they were also singled out by Muslims for slaughter.49 The image of Sikhs as the most fearsome among the Infidels still lingers in the Muslim mind; it is apparently for this reason that Saudi Arabia excludes Sikhs (like Jews) from employment within its borders.  Yet, the story for the earlier period is not that clear-cut.  Given the centrality of the image of Sikhism as the “sword-arm of Hinduism”, it is well worth our while to verify the record of Sikh struggles against Islam.

In the Guru lineage, we don’t see much physical fighting for Hinduism.  Guru Nanak was a poet and a genuine saint, but not a warrior.  His successors were poets, not all of them saintly, and made a living with regular occupations such as horse-trading.  Guru Arjun’s martyrdom was not due to any anti-Muslim rebellion but to the suspicion by Moghul Emperor Jahangir that he had supported a failed rebellion by Jahangir’s son Khusrau, i.e. a Muslim palace revolution aimed at continuing the Moghul Empire but with someone else sitting on the throne. Arjun refused to pay the fine which Jahangir imposed on him, not as an act of defiance against Moghul sovereignty but because he denied the charges (which amounted to pleading his loyalty to Jahangir); it was then that Jahangir ordered a tougher punishment.  At any rate, Arjun was never accused of raising the sword against Jahangir, merely of giving temporary shelter to Khusrau.50

Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom in 1675 was of course in the service of Hinduism, in that it was an act of opposing Aurangzeb’s policy of forcible conversion.  An arrest warrant against him had been issued on non-religious and nonpolitical charges, and he was found out after having gone into hiding; Aurangzeb gave him a chance to escape his punishment by converting to Islam.  Being a devout Muslim, Aurangzeb calculated that the conversion of this Hindu sect leader would encourage his followers to convert along with him.  The Guru was tortured and beheaded when he refused the offer to accept Islam, and one of his companions was sawed in two for having said that Islam should be destroyed.

At any rate, he stood firm as a Hindu, telling Aurangzeb that he loved his Hindu Dharma and that Hindu Dharma would never die,-a statement conveniently overlooked in most neo-Sikh accounts.51 He was not a Sikh defending Hinduism, but a Hindu of the Nanakpanth defending his own Hindu religion.  However, even Tegh Bahadur never was a warrior against the Moghul empire; indeed, the birth of his son Govind in the eastern city of Patna was a souvenir of his own enlistment in the party of a Moghul general on a military expedition to Assam.

Tegh Bahadur’s son and successor, Govind Singh, only fought the Moghul army when he was forced to, and it was hardly to protect Hinduism.  His men had been plundering the domains of the semi-independent Hindu Rajas in the hills of northeastern Panjab, who had given him asylum after his father’s execution.52 Pro-Govind accounts in the Hindutva camp equate Govind’s plundering with the Chauth tax which Shivaji imposed to finance his fight against the Moghuls; they allege that the Rajas were selfishly attached to their wealth while Govind was risking his life for the Hindu cause.  The Rajas, after failed attempts to restore law and order, appealed to their Moghul suzerain for help, or at least to the nearest Moghul governor.  So, a confrontation ensued, not because Govind Singh had defied the mighty Moghul Empire, but because the Moghul Empire discharged its feudal duties toward its vassals, i.c. to punish what to them was an ungrateful guest turned robber.

Govind was defeated and his two eldest sons killed in battle; many Sikhs left him in anger at his foolhardy tactics.  During Govind Singh’s flight, a Brahmin family concealed Govind’s two remaining sons (Hindus protecting Sikhs, not the other way around), but they were found out and the boys were killed.53

The death of Govind’s sons provides yet another demythologizing insight about Govind Singh through its obvious connection with his abolition of the Guru lineage.  A believer may, of course, assume that it was because of some divine instruction that Govind replaced the living Guru lineage with the Granth, a mere book (a replacement of the Hindu institution of gurudom with the Book-centred model of Islam).  However, a more down-to-earth hypothesis which takes care of all the facts is that after the death of all his sons, Govind Singh simply could not conceive of the Guru lineage as not continuing within his own family.54

After his defeat and escape (made possible by the self-sacrifice of a disciple who impersonated the Guru), Govind Singh in his turn became a loyal subject of the Moghul Empire.  He felt he had been treated unfairly by the local governor, Wazir Khan, so he did what aggrieved vassals do: he wrote a letter of complaint to his suzerain, not through the hierarchical channels but straight to the Padeshah.  In spite of its title and its sometimes defiant wording, this “victory letter” (Zafar Nâma) to Aurangzeb is fundamentally submissive.  Among other things, Govind assures Aurangzeb that he is just as much an idol-breaker as the Padeshah himself: “I am the destroyer of turbulent hillmen, since they are idolators and I am the breaker of idols.”55 Aurangzeb was sufficiently pleased with the correspondence (possibly several letters) he received from the Guru, for he ordered Wazir Khan not to trouble Govind any longer.

After Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, Govind tried to curry favour with the heir-apparent and effective successor, Bahadur Shah, and supported him militarily in the war of succession: his fight was for one of the Moghul factions and against the rival Moghul faction, not for Hinduism and against the Moghul Empire as such.  In fact, one of the battles he fought on Bahadur Shah’s side was against rebellious Rajputs.  As a reward for his services, the new Padeshah gave Govind a fief in Nanded on the Godavari river in the south, far from his natural constituency in Panjab.  To acquaint himself with his new property, he followed Bahadur Shah on an expedition to the south (leaving his wives in Delhi under Moghul protection), but there he himself was stabbed by two Pathan assassins (possibly sent by Wazir Khan, who feared Govind Singh’s influence on Bahadur Shah) in 1708.  His death had nothing to do with any fight against the Moghuls or for Hinduism.

So far, it is hard to see where the Sikhs have acted as the sword-arm of Hinduism against Islam.  If secularism means staying on reasonable terms with both Hindus and Muslims, we could concede that the Gurus generally did steer a “secular” course.  Not that this is shameful: in the circumstances, taking on the Moghul Empire would have been suicidal.

In his last months, Govind Singh had become friends with the Hindu renunciate Banda Bairagi.  This Banda went to Panjab and rallied the Sikhs around himself.  At long last, it was he as a non-Sikh who took the initiative to wage an all-out offensive against the Moghul Empire.  It was a long-drawn-out and no-holds-barred confrontation which ended in general defeat and the execution of Banda and his lieutenants (1716). Once more, the Sikhs became vassals of the Moghuls for several decades until the -Marathas broke the back of the Moghul empire in the mid-18th century.  Only then, in the wake of the Maratha expansion, did the Sikhs score some lasting victories against Moghul and Pathan power.  They established an empire of sorts including most of the North-West, but as we already saw, its greatest monarch Ranjit Singh was a conscious and committed Hindu by any definition.

We may conclude that Ram Swarup has a point when he questions the Hindu attitude of self-depreciation and gratefulness towards the Sikh “sword-arm”.  Sikh history has its moments of heroism, but not particularly more than that of the Marathas or Rajputs.  And like the Rajputs and Marathas, Sikhism also has a history of collaboration with the Moghul throne.  Those who insist on glorifying Sikh or Rajput history, ought rather to reflect on the merits (for Hinduism) of collaboration with an unbeatable enemy: when Moghul power was at its strongest, collaboration by Hindu princes meant in practice that large parts of India were only under indirect Muslim control, so that Hindu culture could be preserved there.56 But of course, in the rhetoric of heroism dear to nationalist movements, the compromise aspect of history is not that inspiring, and we should not expect to hear neo-Sikhs glorify “the wise collaborator Govind Singh”.

8.7. Hindu role in estranging the Sikhs

The attitude of cringing Hindu gratitude to the “sword-arm” is not the only nor even the most important reason for the contempt which some Khalsa Sikhs developed toward everything Hindu during the past century.  The British policy of privileging the Sikhs is probably the decisive factor, but we should not ignore the role which Hindus themselves have played in the estrangement of the Sikhs with their own type of contempt.

The Arya Samaj, as a genuinely fundamentalist movement, distinguished between “authentic” (Vedic) Hinduism and “degenerate” (defined as post-Vedic) forms of Hinduism.  By campaigning for the Shuddhi (“purification”, effectively conversion) of Sikhs, it implicitly declared the Sikhs to be either degenerate Hindus or non-Hindus.57 Khushwant Singh describes the adverse effect of the Arya Samaj’s campaign: “Fortunately for the Sikhs, Dayanand Saraswati was also very offensive in the language he used.  He did not realize that he was treading on soft ground when he described guru Nanak as a dambi, an impostor.58 (…) The Sikhs rejected Dayanand and the Samaj, and set up Singh Sabhas and the chief Khalsa Diwan to counteract Dayanand’s movement.  Kahan Singh of Nabha published a book entitled ‘Ham Hindu nahin hain’59 It was a categorical statement of rejection of Hinduism.  The Arya Samaj can take the credit for driving Sikhs away from Hinduism.”60

In the Arya Samaj version, Sikh pro-British “toadyism” versus Arya nationalism was a more decisive factor in their mutual estrangement.  After independence, Sikhs started arguing that their own contribution to the Freedom struggle had been the greatest given the high proportion of Sikhs among the martyrs.  However, most of these fell during the Jallianwala Bagh shooting in Amritsar (1919), started as a peaceful gathering of people who had no intention of giving up their lives (the responsible officer was removed from his post, for the useless and unprovoked massacre totally deviated from British policy).  The proportion of Sikhs who chose to wage their lives for Freedom was quite small; the one community which was heavily “overrepresented” among the freedom fighters executed or otherwise punished by the British was the much-maligned Brahmin caste.61 It is a well-attested historical fact that the Sikh community as such was firmly loyalist (see Khushwant Singh, above, on the Sikhs in the British Army), even after the emotional estrangement from the British which followed the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  By contrast, the Arya Samaj can claim to have stood by the cause of Freedom, though it certainly has a history of compromise as well.

As for Dayananda’s allegation that Guru Nanak was a pretender, Arya Samaj authors Pandit Lekh Ram (then) and Kshitish Vedalankar (recently) have defended it, arguing that Nanak could not read Sanskrit and was therefore not qualified to speak out on the Vedas and the Puranas.62 Modernists may sympathize with this irreverent and down-to-earth critique of a venerated saint, but it has a price, viz. the hostility of the saint’s followers.

8.8. The Hindi-Panjabi controversy

Sikh separatists, and probably Sikhs in general, resented it when Hindus in Panjab registered Hindi as their mother-tongue in the 1951 and 1961 census.  The Sikh plan was to carve out a Sikh-majority state under a linguistic cover, viz. as a Panjabi Suba, a Panjabi-speaking province: “in demanding a Punjabi-speaking state, they were in fact demanding a Sikh-majority state.  They were giving a linguistic sugar coating to a basically communal demand.”63 In the 1950s, many provincial boundaries had been redrawn with the object of creating linguistically homogeneous states.  Nehru had been opposed to this principle, but his hand was forced in 1952-53 by the fast unto death (ending in actual death, followed by widespread violence on government property) of Potti Sri Ramulu in support of the demand for a Telugu-speaking state.  After states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra had been created on a linguistic basis, the Sikhs were dismayed that the Government kept on opposing the creation of a Panjabi-speaking state.

The 1961 census, and in particular its item on language, became a crucial event in the campaign for the Panjabi Suba.  Since language was used as a code for religion, Hindus joined the game: “Punjabi Hindus were persuaded to declare their language to be Hindi, which it is not, and not Punjabi, which it is.”64 This way, “they played into the hands of Sikh communalists: ‘How can you trust this community?  They are even willing to deny their mother tongue’, they said.”65

The Sikhs got their Panjabi Suba anyway, as a reward for their sterling loyalty to India in spite of Pakistani overtures during the 1965 war.  But twenty years later, Arya Samaj polemicist Kshitish Vedalankar still defended the claim of the Panjabi Hindus that their mother tongue is Hindi: “What we call Panjabi today is only a wing of Hindi--Pashchimi [= ‘Western’] Hindi.”66 The difference between language and dialect is indeed not always clear-cut, and the separate status of Panjabi is more a matter of politics than of linguistics (somewhat like the recent decision of the Croats and Bosnian Muslims to develop their own dialects of Serbo-Croat into separate languages).

What might clinch the issue is that the Gurus themselves also used and encouraged non-Panjabi styles of Hindi: “Because of this association of Hindi with the masses, the Gurus found it proper to encourage Hindi poets and to popularise Hindi poetry.  They themselves adopted Brajbhasha as the vehicle of their views.”67 By now, however, the development of Panjabi as a separate language has gone quite far, the Panjabi Suba is an accomplished fact, and this debate has lost its relevance.  In Panjab and in Delhi, the BJP is now a great promoter of Panjabi, if only to humour its numerous Sikh constituents.

8.9. The message of Sikhism

Khushwant Singh describes the fact that most outsiders are not aware of anything constituting Sikh “identity” apart from beards and turbans, as a serious problem: “Most regard them as no more than a sect of bearded Hindus.  It is a real problem and in some ways it does sum up the Sikh dilemma from the very beginning. (…) Any new religious community which breaks away from its parent body has to establish a separateness from the parent body.”68

To Hindu Revivalists, this is a false problem: identity is merely the accidental outcome of historical processes or indeed of religious practices, but it is not a thing in itself, worth cultivating.  Thus, if Jain monks want to wear handkerchiefs on their mouths and sweep the ground in front of their feet in order not to kill any tiny animals, that may be a fine application of their concept of non-violence, but it would be absurd if Jains started doing this for no other reason than to affirm Jain identity.  It is alright if youth gangs impose on themselves artificial identities with distinguishing marks and signs and rituals, but that is a passing phase.  Identity for the sake of identity is a concern of puberty, not more.  “Identitarianism” is but one of the many fashionable ways to misunderstand and misrepresent Hindu revivalism: the Hindu problem is not with identity, it is precisely the anti-Hindu separatists in Sikhism, Jainism etc., who make an issue of identity.69

It reflects favourably on Khushwant Singh’s intellectual honesty that, while a staunch advocate of separate Sikh identity, he mentions some facts that seriously undermine the Sikh claim to a separate identity: “Sikhism did not evolve a distinct theology of its own like Jainism or Buddhism. It accepted a form of Vaishnavite Hinduism, giving it a new emphasis.  Basically the gurus’ teachings were Vedantic.  Therefore there was not the same kind of breach from Hinduism as in the cases of Jainism and Buddhism.  Sikhism accepted the Hindu code of conduct, its theory of the origin of the world, the purpose of life, the purpose of religion, samsara, the theory of birth-death-rebirth-these were taken in their entirety from Hinduism.”70

That, then, is precisely the point argued by Hindu Revivalists: “Not only does the Adi Granth reproduce hundreds of passages from the older scriptures, but like the rest of the Sant literature it also follows the lead of the Upanishads and the Gita and the Yoga Vasishtha in all doctrinal points. Its theology and cosmology, its God-view and world-view, its conception of deity and man and his salvation, its ethics, philosophy and praxis and Yoga-all derive from that source.  It believes in Brahma-vada, in Advaita, in So-ham, in Maya, in Karma, in rebirth, in Mukti and Nirvana, in the Middle Path (in its yogic sense)”.71 This is a far cry from recent Sikh self-presentation, when apologists describe Sikhism as “prophetic and monotheist”, or as “rationaliStl”72or as “secular”73, but certainly not as “taken in its entirety from Hinduism”.

8.10. Sikh distinctiveness

Kshitish Vedalankar, the Arya Samajist author of one of the rare post-Independence anti-Sikh tracts (mainly focusing on Sikh collaboration with the British), starts out by emphasizing that Guru Nanak “called himself a Hindu.  According to Janamsâkhî, he wore a sacred thread (yajñopavît) and had a lock of hair (chotî) on his head.  After him till the fifth Guru, each had his sacred thread ceremony performed, were married according to Vedic rites, used to apply tilak and used to hear tales from Vedas and Puranas.”74

But there we already get a hint of an early separation: only until the fifth Guru did the Sikhs follow Vedic rites.  As Khushwant Singh points out, the Sikhs have gradually introduced separate rituals: “The third guru, Amar Das (…) introduced new rituals, new ceremonies to be performed at birth, marriage and death.”75 It seems that Sikh separateness does have a pre-British origin.  Or at least, it seems that early on, the Sikhs developed a certain distinctiveness.  But then, so many Hindu sects have their distinctive customs, dress codes and other externals.  The Sikhs have their own Scripture, their own sacred city, their own chief temple, their own priesthood, but almost by definition, every Hindu panth has some such material things of its own.76 Kashi is the city of Shiva, Vrindavan is dedicated to Krishna, Ayodhya to Rama, Kanchipuram to Kamakshi, and they are all Hindu sacred cities.

The panths founded by sants like Kabir, Chaitanya, Ravidas, give a special place to the writings of their founder, but not an exclusive place.  The Guru Granth equally contains writings of some non-Sikh bhakti poets including Kabir, and thousands of references to such Hindu concepts and characters as Rama, Krishna, Veda, Omkara, Amrit.77 Sikh names are full of Hindu elements: Hari (= Vishnu), Rama, Krishna and his epithets (Har-kishan, Har-govina), Arjun, the Vedic god Indra (Yog-indr, Sur-indr).78 The Hari Mandir, dedicated to Hari/Vishnu, is as sacred to Vaishnavas as any of their non-Sikh temples; its tank was already an old Hindu place of pilgrimage, where Maharana Ikshvaku is said to have performed yajnas. (The 1875 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica says in its entry on Amritsar that it has sacred tank with a temple dedicated to Vishnu in the middle).

And so on: sects may and do distinguish themselves by a lineage of gurus, physical marks, specially dedicated places of pilgrimage, and nobody is disputing the right of the Sikhs to do the same things, but that does not put them outside the Hindu fold.

8.11. No Hindu, no Muslim

Khushwant Singh’s final and decisive argument for the non-Hindu identity of Sikhism is this: “Guru Nanak did start a new religion.  He said so clearly in the year 1500 or thereabouts, when he had his mystical experience.  He went to bathe in a stream and was missing for three days.  His first statement as he came out was: ‘Na koi Hindu, na koi Mussalman’.  You can interpret that statement in many ways.  But you cannot deny that what he intended to imply was that he was introducing a new system of ethics and metaphysics.”79

Ethics and metaphysics are serious subjects; three days is a short time if you want to free yourself from your acquired notions of ethics and metaphysics, and start a whole new religion. in fact, for all we know, Guru Nanak continued the practices of the Bhakti saints that had come before him, starting with the mental or oral repetition of the Divine Name, Râma nâma.  Moreover, isn’t it strange that the statement which founds a whole new separate religion does not even mention this new religion?  If Guru Nanak’s discovery, “neither Hindu nor Muslim”, had meant the founding of a new religion, he might have added a positive conclusion: “Neither Hindu nor Muslim, but Sikh!”

At any rate, the insight with which he came back from his three days’ retreat, as quoted by Khushwant Singh, was entirely within the Hindu tradition.  “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim” (for that is the literal translation, and it makes a difference) does not mean “I, Nanak, am neither Hindu nor Muslim”, it means a wholesale rejection of the Hindu and Muslim identities valid for all self-described Hindus and Muslims as well.  It means that the Self (Atman, the timeless indweller, the object-subject of his “mystical experience”) is beyond worldly divisions like those between different religions and sects.  The Self is neither black nor white, neither big nor small, neither Hindu nor Muslim, neither this nor that; neti neti, in the Upanishadic phrase.  This insight is as typically Hindu as you can get.

The Self, the objectless self-contained consciousness, is nirguna, beyond the qualities that make for difference between human beings.  As a contemporary Hindu spiritual teacher said: “What is Self-realization?  By what does a ‘realized’ person distinguish himself? Very simple, the special thing about him is this: one who is ‘realized’, realizes that he is the same as everybody else.”80 The Self has no separate identity, neither individual nor communal.

When we get to this conceptual level, we can see that communal identity in Hindu-Sikh tradition is a superficial reality, relatively acceptable and inevitable in the temporal world, but unreal from the angle of the timeless and colourless Self.  By contrast, it has an absolute value in Islam, which decides on eternal heaven and eternal hell on the basis of communal identity: as per the Quran, all “unbelievers” (Sikhs as much as Hindus) carry a one-way ticket to hell.  At the fundamental level, for all its adoption of external elements following Islamic models, Sikhism is not a middling position between Hinduism and Islam.  Sikhism has never repudiated the doctrine of the Self, which is entirely non-Islamic and entirely Hindu.81

After reading a bit of Sikh scripture and the arguments put forward by Hindu and Sikh authors about the roots of Sikhism, it is now my considered opinion that the profoundly Hindu character of basic Sikh doctrine is undeniable.  So far, Ram Swarup and his school are right.  However, Sikhism hasn’t stopped developing with Guru Nanak’s Hindu utterances, and it has just as undeniably adopted some Islamic elements and attitudes at the expense of some of its Hindu identity.  Today, it would therefore be too simplistic to just affirm that “Sikhs are Hindus”.  For Hindu nationalists, that presents a problem which cannot be resolved with debates on definitions.  The only solution which could satisfy them is that Sikhs themselves make a choice to go back to the original inspiration of Guru Nanak and shrug off the superficial but ever-hardening separateness which has developed after Nanak had gone, and particularly after British policy set Sikhs against Hinduism.

8.12. The Khalistani failure

To quite an extent, the feeling that “Sikhs are Hindus” is mutual.  Till today, though on a lesser scale than in the past centuries, Sikh caste groups continue to intermarry with Hindu non-Sikh members of the same castes rather than with Sikh members of other castes.  A more specifically religious indication is that Master Tara Singh, the acknowledged leader of the Sikhs since at least the eve of Partition, was a cofounder of the Vishva Hindu Parishad in 1964.

The strongest evidence for Hindu-Sikh unity is certainly the fact that no matter how hard the Khalistani separatists of the 1980s tried, they could not get Hindu-Sikh riots going.  Though Hindus became wary of Sikhs, they never responded to the Khalistanis’ selective massacres of Hindus with attacks on Sikhs, nor did ordinary Sikhs ever start the kind of attacks on Hindus commonly witnessed as the opening scene of Hindu-Muslim riots.  The Khalistani episode was a confrontation between Sikh separatists and the police and army of the secular Indian state, not one between Sikhs and Hindus.  The surprising fact is that “there were no communal riots in Punjab even in the worst days of terrorism”.82

The massacre of Sikhs by activists of the secularist Congress Party in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s murder by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 was not a Hindu-Sikh riot, in spite of secularist efforts to “rationalize” it as one.  Even Khushwant Singh admitted that RSS and BJP activists had saved many Sikhs while Congress secularists were killing them: “It was the Congress leaders who instigated mobs in 1984 and got more than 3000 people killed. I must give due credit to RSS and the BJP for showing courage and protecting helpless Sikhs during those difficult days.  No less a person than Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself intervened at a couple of places to help poor taxi drivers.”83

For this very reason, Khushwant Singh himself advised Delhi Sikhs to vote for BJP candidate L.K. Advani in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections.84 And so they did.  In the 1991 and 1996 Lok Sabha elections and in the 1993 Vidhan Sabha elections in Delhi, the Sikh vote largely went to the BJP.  In 1996, the Akali Dal faction in the newly elected Lok Sabha was one of a few small parties willing to support the 13-day BJP Government led by A.B. Vajpayee.  An alliance of the BJP and the moderate Sikh party Akali Dal (Badal) swept the Panjab Vidhan Sabha elections of 1997, and made new progress in the Lok Sabha elections of 1998.  Only in the last few years, when the memory of the massacres started to recede, did Sikhs in Delhi relax their collective pro-BJP and anti-Congress position.

The BJP, for its part, is full of gestures towards its Sikh constituency, e.g. one of the first things the BJP did after coming to power in Delhi (union territory), was to declare Panjabi an official language, so that many signboards in Delhi are now quadrilingual: English-Hindi-Urdu-Panjabi.  With regret, a Sikh supporter of the United Front notes how the BJP is attracting the Sikh vote: “The BJP, on its part, has accommodated Sikhs in several states and even at the central level.  Gurjant Singh Brar in Rajasthan, Jaspal Singh in Gujarat and Harcharan Singh Balli are Cabinet rank Ministers in these BJP-ruled states.  The short-lived Vajpayee Government had a Sikh Minister, Sartaj Singh from Hoshangabad (Madhya Pradesh). (…) By taking strong action against the guilty persons of 1984 riots, the BJP has won over the sympathy of the Sikhs.”85

The VHP and other Hindu organizations have adopted a Sikh innovation (perhaps a truly original contribution of Sikhism), viz.  Kar Seva, “hand service”, meaning the collective participation of ordinary Hindus in the building of temples.  Thus, the unskilled labour in the construction of the Swaminarayan temple in Neasden (London, 1995) was performed by Hindu doctors, accountants, shopkeepers and other amateurs.  The VHP has the same plans for its projected Rama-Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya.  Hindu-Sikh unity celebrations are organized both in India and abroad, where small numbers in a foreign society force Hindus and Sikhs to remember their common roots, e.g. in New Jersey:

“The gala event started with chanting of mantras followed by Vande Mataram.  The speakers emphasized the age-old relationship and similarities that bind Hindus and Sikhs together.  They mentioned the fact that Lord Rama’s name appears thousands of times in the Guru Granth Sahib and that the original name of Golden Temple is Hari Mandir Sahib.  Sardar Jagjit Singh Lamba said that Guru Nanak Dev and Guru Gobind Singh were the descendants of Lav [c.q.] Kush, both sons of Lord Rama.”86

After the defeat of Khalistani militancy, there has indeed been a remarkable rapprochement between Hindus and Sikhs.  Whether this will lead to a full reabsorption of the Sikh community by Hinduism remains to be seen.

8.13 Conclusion

In theory, the case for the basic Hindu identity of Sikhism is overwhelming.  Unlike Jainism and Buddhism, Sikhism has gone through all the developments of Hinduism until the Moghul period.  It has no separate theology or philosophy, no separate ethics or social structure.  It has borrowed elements from Islam, but not the decisive ones: belief in a notion of a true God versus false gods, hence in iconoclasm, and belief in a monopolistic prophethood.  There is nothing in Sikhism at which a Hindu should feel offended.

In practice, however, Sikh separatism has scored important victories.  Most Sikhs would object to their inclusion in the Hindu category.  In this separatist endeavour, they are encouraged by the non-Hindus and the secularists, whose attitude to religious issues is always one of crass superficialism.  Looking at the matter superficially, the mere existence of the labels “Hindu” and “Sikh” is enough to prove the existence of two distinct entities going by these names.  Any subtler understanding which sees the profound rootedness of Sikhism in Hinduism is routinely blackened as a Hindu conspiracy of the “boa constrictor” type.

And yet, such deeper understanding is the only way forwards.  It is ignoble and below the dignity of human intelligence to remain stuck in the prevailing situation where a religion is defined as separate on no better grounds than externalities like turbans and beards.

The case for Sikh separateness is based on nothing more than, firstly, a handful of ambiguous sentences in the Sikh canon, as against thousands which unambiguously put Sikhism inside the Hindu fold; and secondly, puerile loud-mouthing and violence.  Of all the borderline cases considered in this book, Sikhism is next to Ramakrishnaism by far the clearest: apart from separatism, its contents are entirely part of Hinduism even if the latter is narrowly defined.


1National Geographic, May 1997, p.54.

2W.H. McLeod: Who is a Sikh?, p.21. The pan-Sikh last names Singh, “lion”, and Kaur, “princess”, do not replace but merely conceal the caste titles (Khattri, Arora etc.) which are the real last names.  It is a recent development that Singhs have replaced their caste surnames with the names of their villages, e.g. Badal, Barnala, etc.

3The verse, from the Guru Granth Bhairav is quoted in extenso by Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon: “Perspective on Sikh identity”, Indian Express, 21-5-1991, and in Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol.1, p.62. A similar verse was included by Guru Arjun in the Granth (54:5) but originally written by Kabir: “I am neither Hindu nor Muslim; body and life belong to Allah-Rama”, see Duncan Greenlees: The Gospel of the Guru Granth Sahib, p. 211.

4E.g.: Rajendra Singh Nirala: Ham Hindû Hain (Hindi, itself a translation from the Panjabi original: “We are Hindus”), 1989; Ham Hindû Kyon (“Why we are Hindus”), 1990, both published by Voice of India.  These hooks were written at the height of Khalistani terrorism and publishing them was a matter of great personal courage.

5Vide e.g. the RSS publication by Ram Prakash: Tegh Babadur.

6Title in Organiser, 21-12-1997. Bhârat Vikâs Parishad: “Indian Development Council”, yet another RSS front.

7Ram Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p.12.

8T.P. Hughes: Dictionary of Islam, p.583.

9K. Singh: Many Faces, p.4,

10I forego discussion of the apparent contradiction between Gods’s “fatherhood” (a specific god-form) and His “formlessness”.

11E.g.: “Monotheism (..) culminated in Guru Nanak’s religious thought”, according to Shashi Bala: The Concept of Monotheism, p.vii. An explicit claim that Guru Nanak was a prophet receiving divine revelations is made in D. Greenlees: Gospel of Guru Granth Sahib, p.clxxi ff.

12Sri Aurobindo: Foundations of Indian Culture, p.135.

13See e.g. Dr. Robert Morey: The Islamic Invasion, esp. Ch.3: “The God of Islam: Allah and the God of the Bible”, e.g. p.65: “Many Westerners assume that Allah is just another name for God.  This is due to their ignorance of the difference between the Allah of the Quran and the God of the Bible land to] the present popularity of religious relativism”.

14Rasûl: “prophet”. Pîrî-mîrî, from Persian pîr, Sufi saint, and Arabic (a)mîr, “commander”, means “spiritual-cum-worldly authority”, proclaimed as his prerogative by Guru Hargovind in ca. 1630 (or so modern Sikh authors claim), and symbolized by the two swords in the Sikh emblem (as Islam described the Khalifas as Amir-ul-mominin and never as a pîr, it never spawned anything like the two-sword symbol which adorned the pope two-three contries earlier).  Hukumnâma, “ordering letter”, is a written judgment by the Akâl Takht, the “timeless throne”, the highest collective authority of the Sikh community.  Dharm-yuddh, “religious war”, originally not in the sense of jihâd, “war against the unbelievers”, but in the sense of: warfare conducted within the limits of a chivalrous code of honour.

15In Sikh terminology, the Arabic-derived term sâhib, “companion [of the Prophet]”, hence an honorific for white people (formerly Turks, then Europeans), serves as a general honorific (like Hindi shrî or -), e.g. Gurû Granth Sâhib, Anandpûr Sâhib.

16S.R. Goel: “Only the truth is sacred”.  Sunday Observer, 2-4-1995.

17Interview, Delhi, December 1997.

18Rajendra Singh (not to be confused with RSS supremo Prof.  Rajendra Singh), interview, Delhi, November 1993; relaying a finding of his mentor, Sikh author Rajendra Singh Nirala.

19Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.60.

20Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.60-61, n. 29, referring to M.A. Macauliffe: The Sikh Religion (Oxford 1909), vol.3, p.72-75 and p.8990. As we shall see below, Ch.8.3, Macauliffe’s bona fides has been questioned.  At any rate, the near-contemporary accounts of Arjun Dev’s martyrdom, including Jahangir’s autobiography (which refers to the Guru as a Hindu), conflict with the now-approved version, vide Louis E. Fenech: “Martyrdom and the Sikh Tradition”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1997/4, p.623-642

21Halâl, in the case of meat, means that the animal was slaughtered according to ritual prescriptions borrowed from Judaism (the term is roughly equivalent to Hebrew kosher), esp. in such a way that the blood drips out as completely as possible.

22Apart from having read a considerable part of Khushwant Singh’s work, I have also met him in informal circumstances (on the airplane, ca.  February 1993), and I was struck by his capacity to take a laugh at himself, a rare quality among contemporary intellectuals, particularly those who have made it to the top.  A typical example of standard neo-Sikh historiography is Gurmit Singh: History of the Sikh Struggles.

23Quoted from E. Trumpp: Translation of the Adi Granth, p.ci, in T.P. Hughes: Dictionary of Islam, p.583, and in Ram Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p.11.

24Ram Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p.12-13. Indeed, “Macauliffe’s works (…) were reissued in the sixties.  More recent Sikh scholars wrote histories of the Sikhs which were variations on the same theme.” (op.cit., P.19)

25K. Singh: Many Faces, p. 5.

26K. Singh: Many Faces, p.4.

27Mohammed is equated with Vishnu’s tenth incarnation Kalki in the Khojâ Vrittânta scripture of the Ismaili Khojas in Gujarat (M.A. Jinnah’s community), a kind of inculturation tactic to woo Gujarati Banias into Islam.  However, the doctrine of incarnation (avatârvâd) is deeply offensive to Islam, which sees shirk, “association (of other beings with God)” as its worst enemy.  Classically, shirk has the general sense of “polytheism”, but originally it meant very specifically the “association” of a freshly decoded prominent human individual with a deity (parallel to what the Greeks called apotheosis), the way Krishna got “associated” with Vishnu (i.e. posthumously recognized as partaking of the essence of that deity); see, for examples of the shirk of Ugaritic kings with god Ilu (Hebrew El/Eloha, Arabic al-Ilâb,= Allâh), J.C. De Moor: The Rise of Yahwism, p.330-331.

28For partisan studies criticizing Hindu “inclusivism” as a manifestation of their intolerance, vide e.g. W. Halbfass: India and Europe, Ch.22, or G. Oberhammer, ed.: Inklusivismus, eine indische Denkform.

29A. Shourie: Secular Agenda, p. 16-17.

30Khushwant Singh: Many Faces, p.6.

31V.P. Bhatia (“Secularisation of a martyrdom”, Organiser, 11-1-1998) takes offence at the Times of India’s claim (11-11-1997) that Tegh Bahadur “died for other people’s rights”, thus epitomizing “empathy for fellow human beings, cutting across communal, religious and political barriers”.  He objects to the “misleading secularist sting”, viz. the suggestion that Kashmiri Pandits and Sikhs belong to two distinct religions.

32That the Kashmiri Pandits are not mentioned in the contemporaneous accounts is confirmed by Khushwant Singh’s translation of the whole poem (History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.74-75, from Govind Singh’s Bachitar Nâtak); and tentatively also by Louis E. Fenech: “Martyrdom and the Sikh Tradition”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1997/4, p.623-642. The Kashmiri Pandits may have been brought into the account because the history of mass forced conversion in Kashmir was well-known, even proverbial.  The Pandits, or at least some of them, escaped by bravery, compromise, bribery, dissimulation or emigration (hence the presence of the Saraswat Brahmin community in the Konkan region), but all other communities in Kashmir were islamized; see e.g. Narender Sehgal: Converted Kashmir, p.107-177. However, this forced mass conversion took place under Sikander Butshikan, centuries before Aurangzeb; I am not aware of any original accounts of such a policy concerning the Pandits under Aurangzeb, whose known persecutions may have been projected onto the Kashmiri situation and conflated with Sikander Butshikan’s

33Quoted in Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.75.

34Khushwant Singh and Kuldip Nayar: Tragedy of Punjab, p.20-21, quoted by V.P. Bhatia: “Secularisation of a Martyrdom”, Organiser, 11-11998.  Bhatia merely quotes it for the sake of contrast, to highlight the Hindu commitment which even these two prominent secularists concede to Govind Singh: “Guru Govind Singh (…) sought inspiration from the deeds of martial Hindu deities like goddesses Chandi, Sri and Bhagwati.(…) the dividing line between Hindus and Sikhs remained extremely thin. (…) Many Hindu families brought up one of their sons as a kesadhari Sikh and Hindus and, Sikhs in urban areas continued to give their children in marriage to each other.” Kesadhârî: “one who keeps his hair”, a Khalsa Sikh.

35Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.80.

36A. Shourie: Secular Agenda, p.11.

37Khushwant Singh: Many Faces, p.8.

38Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p. 289.

39Khushwant Singh: Many Faces, p.8.

40S.R. Goel: introduction to Ram Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p.2.

41K. Singh: Many Faces, p.9.

42Ram Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p. 18.

43K. Singh: Many Faces, p.9.

44K.  Singh: Many Faces, p.9.

45Prof. Veer Bhadra Mishra, Mahant of Sankat Mochan Mandir, Varanasi, talking to me in 1989.

46K. Singh: Many Faces, p.12.

47K. Singh: Many Faces, p.12.

48Ram Swarup: Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p. 19.

49In Hindutva writings (e.g. in Jeevan Kulkarni’s Writ Petition no. 587 of 1989), there is frequent reference to a telegram allegedly sent by the Pakistani raiders to their military headquarters during the invasion of Kashmir in 1948: “All women raped, all Sikhs killed.”

50All this is according to Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol.1, p.60.

51Tegh Bahadur’s Hindi reply to Aurangzeb is reproduced in full in Kshitish: Storm in Punjab, p.178. In pro-separatist publications, it is strategically omitted, e.g. in D. Greenlees: Gospel of Guru Granth Sahib, p.xcvii.

52In the modern anti-Hindu variety of Sikh history, this becomes: “the Guru was forced into resistance by the incessant attacks of jealous Hill Rgjas, who could not tolerate the rise of Sikhism beside them”, according to Duncan Greenlees: Gospel of the Guru-Granth Sahib, p.xcix.

53In neo-Sikh historiography, which has a strong anti-Brahmin bias (e.g. systematically concealing the presence of Brahmin officiants at the Gurus’ weddings), the capture of the two boys is explained with the undocumented allegation that these Brahmins who protected them had “betrayed” them, e.g. Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol. 1, p.92.

54Incidentally, here again there is an Islamic parallel: Mohammed himself admitted that he would not have been the final prophet if Ibrahim, his son by his Coptic wife Mary, had lived.

55Translation by Khushwant Singh: History of the Sikhs, vol.1, p.87. Pâdeshâh: “sovereign”, official title of the Moghul Emperor.

56I mention only Sikhs and Rajputs as wise collaborators, for the Marathas, who had stood tip to the Moghuls at a time when all the others felt compelled to collaborate, ended up collaborating with the Moghul throne at a time when the said justification had disappeared: given their military superiority in the 1770s and 80s, the Marathas could have replaced Moghul sovereignty (pâdeshâhî) with native sovereignty, but somehow they dragged their feet and continued to act as loyal vassals of a Moghul who had lost all military power and was about to accept a pension from the British East India Company (which continued the same pretence of respecting Moghul sovereignty until 1857).

57In the first years of Arya Samaj activity (and on a smaller scale even well into the 20th century), by contrast, there had been plenty of cooperation with the Sikhs, both being aware of the common ground between them as Hindu reform movements, see Kshitish Vedalankar: Storm in Punjab, p. 166-170.

58The allegation that Nanak was a well-intentioned man who wrongly pretended to be a Vedic scholar is made by Swami Dayananda Saraswati: Light of Truth, p.442-445, though the exact word “impostor” (dambhî should at any rate be translated more precisely as “pretender”) is not used there.  Dayananda attributed to Nanak some sentences disparaging the Vedas which are there in the Sikh canon but not uttered by Nanak himself.  Nonetheless, he appreciated it in Nanak that he “saved some persons from embracing Mohammedanism” and that he remained a householder instead of becoming a Sadhu, family life being a Vedic duty.  He also praised Govind Singh for fighting Islam.

59“We are not Hindus”, 1898.  Kahan Singh was royal tutor in the princely state of Nabha and, in Ram Swarup’s description, “a pakkâ [impeccable] loyalist” (Hindu-Sikh Relationship, p.14). He was also a disciple of M.A. Macauliffe, who bequeathed the royalties of his books to him.

60Khushwant Singh: Many Faces, p. 10

61According to Meenakshi Jain (“The Plight of Brahmins”, Indian Express, 18-9-1990, included in H.P. Lohia, ed.: Political Vandalism, p.56), Brahmins constituted 70% of the freedom fighters executed by the British; any list of pre-Independence Congress office-bearers confirms that among non-violent freedom fighters too, Brahmins, from B.G. Tilak and G.K. Gokhale to C. Rajagopalachari, were enormously over-represented.  The Brahmin initiative in Hindu nationalism (Savarkar, Hedgewar) is also part of this phenomenon.

62Kshitish: Storm in Punjab, p. 174.

63Khushwant Singh: Many Faces, p. 13.  

64Khushwant Singh: Many Faces, p. 13.  

65Khushwant Singh: Many Faces, p. 13.

66Kshitish: Storm in Punjab, p. 179.

67Kshitish Vedalankar: Storm in Punjab, p.181, quoting observations to this effect by E. Trumpp, G.A. Grierson and S.K. Chatterji (see also Chatterji: Indo-Aryan and Hindi, p.188, enumerating the Hindi dialects including Panjabi).  Braja-bhâshâ was the then dominant Hindi dialect of the Yamuna region and the lingua franca of northern India from Panjab to Assam.

68Khushwant Singh: Many Faces, p. 2.

69After demolishing the Communist rhetoric about the RSS being “fascist”, Gérard Heuzé (Où va l’Inde moderne?, p.123) wonders whether “the invention of a category of ‘Third-World mass identitarianism’ would not be more pertinent than the never-ending references to fascism”.

70Khushwant Singh: Many Faces, p.4. This point is dramatized in his joke: Sikh scholars sat down to take Hinduism out of the Granth Sahib.  They took it out page by page.  In the end, however, they were left holding the binding cover in their hands.

71Ram Swarup: “Hindu Roots of Sikhism”, Indian Express, 24-4-1991. Brahma-vâda: “doctrine of the Absolute”; Mâyâ: “the power to create delusions”, hence “the world as a delusion created by this power of the Divine”; So-’ham: “Him am I”, statement of monistic oneness of individual and divine consciousness; Advaita: “non-duality”; Karma: “law of cause and effect spanning across incarnations”: Mukti: “liberation”; Nirvâna: “blowing out”, hence “ego annihilation”.

72E.g. Gurnam Kaur: Reason and Revelation in Sikhism.

73E.g. V.R. Bhattacharya: Secular Thoughts of the Sikh Gurus, honoured with a foreword by Giani Zail Singh, President of India.

74KshitishVedalankar: Storm in Punjab, p.19. Janamsâkhî is a biography of Guru Nanak.

75K. Singh: Many Faces, p.6. The separate Sikh wedding ritual was consolidated by the Anand Marriage Act 1909.

76For Panth (from Sanskrit patha, “path”) or its synonym sampradaya, I might have used the term “sect”, but in recent decades this term has been identified with “sectarian” phenomena to the extent of making it purely pejorative; so I have retained the Hindi term.

77An near-exact count is given in K.P. Agrawala: Adi Shrî Gurû Granth Sâhib kî Mahimâ (Hindi: “The greatness of the original sacred Guru scripture”), p.2, and in Ram Swarup: “Hindu roots of Sikhism”, Indian Express, 24-4-1991.  Examples: ca. 8,300 times Hari (630 times by Nanak alone), 2,400 times Râma (the god-name whose constant remembrance leads to Liberation), 550 times Parabrahman (the Absolute), 400 times Omkâra (the primeval sound Om).

78About Sikh devotion to Ram, see Rajendra Singh: Sikkha Itihâsa mein Râma Janmabhûmi.

79K. Singh: Many Faces, p. 5.

80Dr. Pukh Raj Sharma of the Ram-Rukmini Institute, Jodhpur, speaking in Mechelen (Belgium), May 1988.

81Sir Mohammed Iqbal, the spiritual father of Pakistan, did develop a concept of khudî, “selfhood”, but he opposed it to Sufi notions of fanâ (ego-extinction and the absorption in God, equivalent to and possibly evolved from the Buddhist notion of Nirvâna, and similar to the Upanishadic true impersonal Self); his non-mystic al khudî is more akin to modern psychological notions of “self-actualization” and the like, perhaps best approaching the Hindu concept of swadharma, “one’s own duty”, but more individualistic.

82Manini Chatterjee: “The BJP: Political Mobilization for Hindutva”, South Asia Bulletin, p. 17.

83Khtishwant Singh: “Congress (I) is the Most Communal Party”, Publik Asia, 16-11-1989. In Delhi, taxi drivers are typically Sikhs.

84Sunday, 26-11-1989: “Veteran journalist Khushwant Singh has gone public with his support for (…) L.K. Advani.  At considerable personal expense.”

85Swadesh Bahadur Singh (editor of the Sher-i-Panjâb weekly): “Cabinet berth for a Sikh”, Indian Express, 31-5-1996.  His point is that to counter BJP influence, the then United Front Government led by Deve Gowda should court the Sikhs by inducting a Sikh as Minister.  Note how this communal demand (viz. for inducting someone on the basis of his communal identity) is justified: “The UF should gain confidence of millions of secular-minded Sikhs in India and abroad by inducting a Sikh in its Cabinet.  Secularism is a factor in India’s unity and integrity.  The Sikhs with glorious secular traditions have thus a right to their representation in the Front’s new Cabinet.” (emphasis added)

86Devender Singh Sawhney and Narain Kataria: “Hindu-Sikh Unity Celebration in America”, Organiser, 14-12-1997.

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