By any measure, the story of the Sikhs is a remarkable one. From humble beginnings in the late fifteenth century, they have grown to number more than 16 million. Largely concentrated in the Punjab region of India, they have also spread their faith around the world in a diaspora exceeding one million. Indeed, Sikhs who came to California as farmers at the beginning of the twentieth century were among the very first Indian immigrants to the United States.
Wherever they go, the Sikhs are distinctive, especially for the turbans worn by most Sikh men. Moreover, wherever they go, they are a living contradiction to the secularization theories that reigned unchallenged in social science from its founding in the nineteenth century through the 1960s, after which the stubborn persistence of religion became too obtrusive to ignore or explain away. According to the prophets of secularization, modernity and religious traditions were fundamentally contradictory, and the gradual triumph of the former spelled the decline and eventual disappearance of the latter. Yet something funny happened on the way to the secular city, as a photograph in Patwant Singh’s The Sikhs wonderfully illustrates: A Sikh pilot, in his Indian Air Force uniform and his turban, stands next to his Mirage 2000 jet fighter.
Mention of the persistence of religion in the modern—or is it the postmodern?—world brings to mind another facet of the Sikh story: the way that religious and ethnic identity (the two often conflated) can fuel conflict. Ask the average American what comes to mind in association with “Sikh” and, if there is not a total blank, the answer will probably include political violence—especially among Americans old enough to remember clearly the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The assassination occurred less than five months after Gandhi had ordered an armored assault to flush out an allegedly dangerous Sikh leader and his closest followers, an assault that destroyed the Sikhs’ most sacred site, the Golden Temple complex, and left more than five thousand Sikhs dead. Many more Sikhs—at least three thousand—were killed in revenge by Hindu mobs in the immediate aftermath of the assassination.
For readers who want to move beyond such fragmentary images to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Sikh history and culture, Patwant Singh has written a sprightly history, a fast-moving narrative in which the author does not hesitate to offer his opinions. This is no work of academic history—though Singh, the editor and publisher from 1957 to 1988 of the international magazine, Design, has written widely on his people—nor does it pretend to be. It is not enough, however, to say that Patwant Singh has not taken up the mantle of the professedly “objective” historian, for this is a frankly apologetic work, a hagiographic tribute to the Sikh people—which does not prevent the author from criticizing certain of his fellow Sikhs on occasion—and, by the same token, a sharply observed, all-out attack on the Brahmins who have dominated India for millennia and who continue to dominate Indian society today. It is highly unusual for such a book to appear under the imprint of a publisher such as Alfred A. Knopf, and it would be very interesting to know how that came about. Nonetheless, taken with a grain of salt, the book offers a engaging, if sometimes exasperating, overview of Sikh history.
The word “Sikh” derives from a Sanskrit word, shishya, meaning “disciple” or “devoted follower.” It was applied to followers of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev, who was born to a Hindu family in a village near Lahore in 1469. Nanak’s followers were attracted by his remarkable religious vision, articulated in teachings that were later committed to writing and became the foundation of the Adi Granth (also called the Granth Sahib and the Guru Granth Sahib), the Sikh scriptures. Nanak’s teachings—pithy, poetic, and profound—differed both from the Hinduism that was the majority religion in his time and from Islam, the faith of...
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