An endeavour to reconstruct a religious biography can be formidable. In fact, such a venture which resurrects the lives of those who exemplify the religious spirit of an age can evoke the tendency to fabricate traits, in order to eulogize their portrayals as ideals and icons, so such a biography may morph towards being a hagiography. For Pashaura Singh, himself a Sikh, such a biography would be all the more daunting as he reconstructs the life of an individual who is a revered icon, i.e. the fifth Guru of the Sikh religion. Such a portrayal where fact, historiography and objectivity are juxtaposed in the analysis, and the information culled is interpreted can be a tight-rope walk. Singh deals with the task of rendering religious history as hagiography by deftly intertwining the analysis of historical docu-ments available within mythic traditions (often oral renditions), so as to reconstruct the biography of the fifth Guru within the specific parameters of history, memory and biography of the Sikh tradition.
A civilization, a culture, a religion evinces its maturity when it shuns the garb of mythology and portrays its icons into historic personages, in this case paper versions are buttressed by chronological realism. As the author says he has adopted the approach of a ‘life course theory’ or ‘life course perspective’ in the reconstruction of an individual’s life—in a multidisciplinary paradigm by studying lives within a structural context. In effect, the first chapter where he deliberates upon the modalities of reconstructing a religious biography and the hazardous trajectories entailed, is a significant delineation of the modus operandi for religious historiography. Sikhism is one of India’s modern religions and the lives of the Gurus form significant chapters of bravery and sacrifices within the annals of Indian history, so of course, truly the grain of fact must be sifted from the chaff of myth. Myth is inevitably intertwined with the study of historical do-cuments to reconstruct the history of the Guru.
Interestingly, the author comments that myth began to be inevitably spun with the advent of Gurudom. The Sikh bards began singing eulogistic praises of the Gurus, some of these panegyrics are recorded in the Adi Granth and illuminate the lives of the Gurus. ‘The traditional perception has survived even to this day, and it will continue to influence future generations of Sikhs too. Most interestingly, the panegyrics of each day, early in the morning, by certain individuals of particular family lineages descending from the bards who held office when the Guru Granth Sahib was first ceremonially installed in the Darbar Sahib, Amritsar’.
About five centuries ago amidst the waves of religious pluralism blowing over North West India, Guru Nanak founded a unique faith, Sikhism which was an autonomous blend of the sifted essence of the two main contemporary religions as he suffused the thoughts and ideals of medieval poet-saints, founding a syncretic faith to alleviate the rituals and casteism which had crept into the vitals of Hindu society. This faith evolved with the passage of time from a tradition of spiritual lineage of the Gurus, as each contributed to its theology and cannons accentuating its distinctive identity and evolution. The author deftly suffuses the historical Arjan, the Arjan of legend and faith and contextualizes the image of the Guru blending memory and sources from traditions and myth. Inevitably, he transcends into the larger ambit of Sikh dynamics, history and culture juxtaposing it with the prevalent volatile religious landscape in Mughal India.
A biography of the fifth Guru with intensive scholarly investigation and analysis was imperative, since a detailed study on the latter has been glossed over, his martyrdom has stoked up controversy even recently. However, his period as the Guru is significant for the contribution in compiling the Adi Granth, the Bible of the Sikhs. The quarter century phase was marked by far reaching institutional developments within the Panth, and his death became a turning point in Sikh history. Guru Arjan’s martyrdom is a significant episode of the Sikh ‘Panth’ which transformed a pacific sect into a defensive and combative one, since the previous era of peaceful coexistence with the Mughals ended and an era of increasing conflict began. The tradition of sacrificial modes to protect faith and honour became crystallized and integrated within the mores of the Sikh community. The author has succinctly summed up the achievements of Guru Arjan:
First, at Amritsar he built the Harimandir or Darbar Sahib (Divine Court), the present-day Golden Temple, which acquired prominence as the central place of worship for the Sikhs. It became the integral identity marker for the Sikhs, parallel to the famous Hindu tiraths (pilgrimage sites) and the Muslim Mecca. Second, he compiled the first authoritative text of the Adi Granth (the Original Book), in 1604, which advocated the doctrine of the unity of Akal Purakh (the Timeless One, God), stressing an uncompromising monotheism, in which there was no place for incarnation or idol worship. It provided a framework for the shaping of a text-centred community and hence it was a decisive factor for Sikh self-definition.
A useful read on a relatively neglected but vital significant phase of Sikhism. Parshura Singh’s book is a good source reference work as Sikhism is posited as a global religion and the number of its diasporic adherents continues to soar.
Gurpreet K. Maini is an officer on special duty with the Literary Centre at Punjab Bhawan, New Delhi.