The Sikhs
By Patwant Singh
Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pp.

Sikhism, among the world's youngest religions, is also among its mostparadoxical. The trappings and imagery of the faith are unabashedlymartial: Sikh men are baptized with the surname Singh ("lion"), wear adagger (today often a miniature one) as part of their daily dress, andare renowned for their skill in the art of war. On the other hand,Sikhism was founded as a quest for religious tolerance, its holiestscriptures include writings by individuals who did not even belong tothe faith, and five centuries of intermittent oppression (some of itunspeakably brutal) have not robbed the Sikhs of their genuinecommitment to ecumenism and no-strings-attached charity.

Who are the Sikhs? Think of gentle, open-hearted Unitarians--but oneswho can kick your butt.

The essence of the faith is summed up, in all its contradictions, bythe Golden Temple in the Indian city of Amritsar. Step inside, andyou're welcomed like a long-awaited friend. Sikh and stranger alikeeat together at the pilgrims' free kitchen. The temple has fourgates, symbolizing the faith's openness to people from the four varnasof the Hindu caste system and the four corners of the earth. Insidethe Harmandir (the gilded center of the temple complex), white-beardedpriests chant hauntingly beautiful ragas composed of verses from theGuru Granth Sahib, the "Bible" of Sikhism.

Just steps away from the Harmandir, however, is a reminder that this isnot a faith for the faint-hearted. Martyrs' Galleries display goryphotographs of militants killed in 1984, when the Indian army attackedKhalistanist rebels who had turned the Golden Temple into a veritablefortress. The carnage before, during, and after this siege is only themost recent example of bloodshed that has afflicted the Sikhs duringtheir 500 years of history. Seldom the first to start hostilities, the Sikhs have seldom let hostilities inflicted on them go unanswered.

Author and broadcaster Patwant Singh, in his book "The Sikhs," does an excellent job of setting out the history, beliefs, and ethos of his community. Singh's book succeeds because of what it does not do: It does notpretend to be a cold, dispassionate, impartial history. Instead, it isan unapologetic apologia, a celebration of a people and a faith thatwell deserve to be celebrated. Such writing is risky; far too often, abook of this sort can veer off into trite, propagandistic polemic. ButSingh's work is level-headed, fair, and not overly given to hyperbole. It does not aim to present all sides of the story, merely the story of (and from the viewpoint of) its protagonists. Singh writes of his subjects, "having opposed repression, and the tyranny of caste, a number of times in their history, they know how to stand their ground. And that is what this book is about."

The book does not present a faulty picture, nor does it present an absolutely complete picture. Singh correctly notes that caste has no place in the theological outlook of Sikhism, but his brief discussion of the division between Jat and non-Jat Sikhs is too thin a gloss on the very real caste structures that still exist in daily practice.

A more significant shortcoming is the treatment of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of the Sikh militancy who gave rise to the Khalistanist rebellion of the 1980s and early 1990s. Singh quite rightly states that Bhindranwale was pushed into the political limelight by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in order to discredit her moderate Sikh opponents in the Akali Dal. Singh notes Bhindranwale's "inflammatory utterances"--but is silent about the sant's role in upward of 300 killings over a period of six years. Bhindranwale was not merely an extremist, he was a terrorist. And thekilling of noncombatants is something that almost all Sikhs (Singhincluded, as he makes quite clear elsewhere) consider anathema to thebasic tenets of the faith.

Because Singh is not attempting to present an academic history, however, his work may be said to be immune to such carping. It has been more than two decades since the publication of a similarly accessible and similarlycredible text on the subject (Khushwant Singh's "A History of theSikhs," in 1978). What Patwant Singh has presented is a book that willdelight Sikh readers without pandering to them and provide non-Sikhswith a window into a truly fascinating and (to this observer, at least)philosophically inspiring religious community.

The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, once wrote, "Truth is puresteel." Patwant Singh's book, like the faith it celebrates, contains agreat deal of hard, sharp-edged, cutting truth indeed.