Sikhism scholarship and research

Eleanor Nesbitt

traditions-small.pngThe majority of Sikh scholarship is in English. Its antecedents lie in (1) the attention given by Sikhs, mainly writing in Punjabi, from the period of the Gurus onwards, to the lives of the Sikh Gurus and to theology and the interpretation of the Adi Granth and (2) in the reports and historical writing of European travellers and British colonial administrators during the Raj. By the late nineteenth/early twentieth century an indigenous reformist impetus was at work among Punjab’s educated elite. Among Sikhs this was the Tat Khalsa (or ‘True Khalsa’) tendency within the Singh Sabha movement. During this period Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha compiled a Sikh encyclopaedia (Mahan Kosh) and M. A. Macauliffe translated the verses of the Adi Granth into English, contextualising them in narrative from the traditional literature on the Gurus’ lives.

During the second half of the twentieth century English-language scholarship on Sikhs and sikhi (what being a Sikh means) developed apace, chiefly in the universities of India’s Punjab state (e.g. historical work by J. S. Grewal) and in the UK (with Christopher Shackle providing linguistic expertise and historical overview, and a number of scholars carrying out research on local Sikh communities). The most formative single contribution was that of the New Zealander, W. Hew McLeod, a historian whose work ranged over every period of Sikh history, highlighted central issues and stirred heated controversy.

From the 1980s scholars in North American universities have added significantly to textual studies of the Adi Granth (e.g. Pashaura Singh and Gurinder Singh Mann), of women and gender (pioneered by Nikky Guninder Kaur-Singh and Doris Jakobsh), of history (e.g. Harjot Oberoi and Louis Fenech), of the Sikh diaspora (e.g. Karen Leonard, Verne Dusenberry, and Hugh Johnston, with Arthur Helweg and Katherine Hall focusing on diaspora communities in the UK). Sikh studies scholarship in mainland Europe has been sparse, but the network Sikhs in Europe ( facilitates the burgeoning academic activity now underway, especially in Scandinavian countries.

Scholarship on Sikhism is enriched by its multidisciplinary character (anthropology, sociology, history, religious studies, politics etc) and it is also complicated by the sensitivity of key issues. Thus, scholars have faced opposition from concerned Sikhs for subjecting the scripture to textual criticism or for questioning understandings of Sikhism propagated by the Singh Sabha movement. A few Sikh scholars have been subjected to considerable animosity. The course of Sikh studies has been variously affected by the political volatility of Punjab, notably in the 1980s and 1990s, by the establishment in some North American universities of chairs in Sikh studies dependent on the generosity of Sikh sponsors, and - in the UK – by the lack of a department of Sikh Studies and the paucity of specialists in the language of Sikh scripture.

In Sikh Studies ethnography continues strongly, as does history, and the work of Arvind-pal Singh Mandair and others marks a more philosophical-cum-theological and post-modern turn. Diaspora studies are extending into communities in Southern Europe and Scandinavia.

Key issues for specialists in Sikh Studies include identifying the subtle transformation wrought by interaction with a dualistic and classificatory European mindset (manifest in Christian doctrine and the administration of the Census) and, inseparably from this, the Singh Sabha’s interpretation/creation of Sikh scripture and history. Intrinsic to this development is the matter of definition and boundary-drawing, not least between ‘Sikhism’ and ‘Hinduism’ and the evolution of an exclusive Sikh identity.

The subjects of caste and gender require ongoing attention to the mismatch between contemporary rhetoric and reality, and the relation of both to the insights of Gurus and other contributors to the Adi Granth. The history of the late twentieth century calls for analysis – in particular the complex issues giving rise to a movement for an autonomous state of Khalistan, and the diverse attitudes to this within Sikh society. The issue of the changing profile of religious authority within the Sikh community also calls for study, especially with regard to the increasingly influential Sikh diaspora and the impact of the internet on Sikhs’ interactions and representations of their faith as well as its gift of unprecedented access to the content of the Adi Granth.

The issues outlined above suggest the central questions arising from Sikh Studies:

  • How the Gurus understood reality/the divine principle
  • What part the West has played in Sikh understanding of sikhi?
  • What is the nature of authority?
  • In what sense are Sikhs a ‘nation? and (the title of one of Hew McLeod’s books): Who is a Sikh?

RE in the UK has its own expectations, for example, that attention be paid to Sikh response to contemporary ethical issues. This subject requires more attention by Sikhs. Continuing change within Sikhs communities will highlight fresh areas of enquiry – in the UK the current upsurge of Nihang (traditional warrior) activity among young people is an example.



Sikhism: general reading

  • Cole, W. O. (2004) Understanding Sikhism, Edinburgh: Dunedin Press.
  • Cole, W. O. (1994) Teach Yourself Sikhism, London: Hodder and Stoughton.
  • Cole, W. O. and Sambhi, P. S. (1995) The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
  • Kalsi, Sewa S. (1999) Simple Guide to Sikhism, Folkstone: Global Books.
  • Mann, G. S. (2004) Sikhism, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
  • McLeod, W. H. (1997) Sikhism, London: Penguin.
  • Nesbitt, E. (2005) Sikhism A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Shackle, C. (2002) ‘Sikhism’ in L. Woodhead, P. Fletcher, H. Kawanami, and D. Smith (eds), Religions in the Modern World, London: Routledge, pp. 70-85.
  • Singh, C. K. A. (2001) The Wisdom of Sikhism, Oxford: Oneworld.

Sikhism: reference works

  • Cole, W. O. and Sambhi, P.S. (1990) A Popular Dictionary of Sikhism, London: Curzon and Glenn Dale MD: The Riverside Company.
  • McLeod, W. H. (1990) Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • McLeod, W. H. (1995) Historical Dictionary of Sikhism, Lanham, MD and London: The Scarecrow Press.
  • Nesbitt, E. (2007) ‘Sikhism’ in P. Morgan and C. A. Lawton (eds, 2nd edn) Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 118-167.
  • Shackle, C. and Mandair, A. (2005) (ed. and translated) Teachings of the Sikh Gurus: Selections from the Sikh Scriptures, London: Routledge.
  • Singh, Harbans (ed.) (1995-1998) The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, 4 vols, Patiala: Punjabi University Press.

Sikhism: online recommendations