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

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

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

The essence of the faith is summed up, in all its contradictions, by the Golden Temple in the Indian city of Amritsar. Step inside, and you're welcomed like a long-awaited friend. Sikh and stranger alike eat together at the pilgrims' free kitchen. The temple has four gates, symbolizing the faith's openness to people from the four varnas of the Hindu caste system and the four corners of the earth. Inside the Harmandir (the gilded center of the temple complex), white-bearded priests chant hauntingly beautiful ragas composed of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, the "Bible" of Sikhism.

Just steps away from the Harmandir, however, is a reminder that this is not a faith for the faint-hearted. Martyrs' Galleries display gory photographs of militants killed in 1984, when the Indian army attacked Khalistanist rebels who had turned the Golden Temple into a veritable fortress. The carnage before, during, and after this siege is only the most recent example of bloodshed that has afflicted the Sikhs during their 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 not pretend to be a cold, dispassionate, impartial history. Instead, it is an unapologetic apologia, a celebration of a people and a faith that well deserve to be celebrated. Such writing is risky; far too often, a book of this sort can veer off into trite, propagandistic polemic. But Singh'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 the killing of noncombatants is something that almost all Sikhs (Singh included, as he makes quite clear elsewhere) consider anathema to the basic 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 similarly credible text on the subject (Khushwant Singh's "A History of the Sikhs," in 1978). What Patwant Singh has presented is a book that will delight Sikh readers without pandering to them and provide non-Sikhs with 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 pure steel." Patwant Singh's book, like the faith it celebrates, contains a great deal of hard, sharp-edged, cutting truth indeed.

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