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Criticism of Sikhism

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Sikhism has been criticized for various reasons by non-Sikhs and some scholars regarding texts, practice, and societal norms, but Sikhs and other scholars find these criticism to be flawed and based on poor understanding, or common to all religions.

Ernest Trumpp[edit]

The Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib in a Gurdwara

Ernest Trumpp, a colonial-era Christian missionary in Sindh, asked in 1869 by the Secretary of state for India on behalf of the British government to translate the Adi Granth and Dasam Granth, began studying and translating them,[1] but considered them not worth translating in full, because "the same few ideas, he thought, being endlessly repeated". He had been collaborating with granthis of the Nirmala sect, which interpreted Sikh scripture from within a Brahminical framework.[2] The Nirmalas and Udasis had risen to prominence at the expense of the mainstream Khalsa in the eighteenth century, which had been experiencing increased Mughal persecution in the 1700s that forced it to cede control of Sikh shrines to sects without external identifying articles, and subsequently focused on political sovereignty.[2] He found that the Sikh granthis who recited the text in the early 1870s lacked comprehension and its sense of meaning.[1] He stated that "as a result of their warlike manner of life and the troubled times,"[3] that "Sikhs had lost all learning" and the granthis were misleading.[1] Even for Sikhs the language of the Guru Granth Sahib is considered archaic and hard to understand without an interpreter, especially in relation to important but complex ideas.[4] According to Tony Ballantyne, Ernest Trumpp's insensitive approach such as treating the Sikh scripture as a mere book and blowing cigar smoke over its pages while studying the text, did not endear him to the Sikh granthis who regarded it as an embodiment of the Gurus.[1]

Trumpp said that Sikhism was "a reform movement in spirit", but "completely failed to achieve anything of real religious significance",[1] He concluding that the Sikhs he worked with did not understand the metaphysical speculations of their scripture. The Nirmala[2] Sikh intelligensia he met during his years of study, stated Trumpp, only had a "partial understanding" of their own scripture. He considered most Sikhs to neither observe the Sikh Rehat Maryada, or Sikh code of conduct, nor guide their popular notions by the teachings in the Adi Granth,[1] but had become more of a military brotherhood with a martial spirit, inspired by a "deep fanatical hatred" for the Muslims given the Sikh sense of their history and identity,[1] and described the scripture as "incoherent and shallow in the extreme, and couched at the same time in dark and perplexing language, in order to cover these defects. It is for us Occidentals a most painful and almost stupefying task, to read only a single Rag".[1] Trumpp criticized Adi Granth to be lacking systematic unity.[5]

According to Sikh historian Trilochan Singh, Trumpp used his "limited knowledge of the language of oriental text" to censure and denigrate the authors and texts he studied, approaching Sikh history, religion, and scripture with pre-conceived notions, biases, and prejudices, having a difficult time concealing his "missionary arrogance and contempt for any religion or religious teacher other than those of their religion,"[6] as he had similarly dismissed other religions whose writings he translated, and even the preface of Trumpp's book had been filled with such sentiments. According to Singh, driven primarily by missionary zeal, Trumpp had also sought to undermine Sikh social, cultural, and political underpinnings which had given cohesion and strength to the Sikh community throughout their history, in the hopes or seeking laurels from like-minded co-religionists, though many contemporary Christian writers had also dismissed Trumpp.[6] Singh also considers Trumpp to have found it difficult to place Sikhism neatly within deism, monotheism, or other "isms" of his day, which clashed with his 19th-century Christian sensibilities.[6]

According to Indologist Mark Juergensmeyer, setting aside Ernest Trumpp's nasty remarks, he was a German linguist and his years of scholarship, translations, as well as field notes and discussions with Sikhs at the Golden Temple remain valuable reference works for contemporary scholars,[7] as Singh writes that he did feel that the Sikh scriptures were a "treasure trove" of medieval languages, and maintained interest in them from that perspective.[6]

W. H. McLeod[edit]

W H McLeod, a scholar with former missionary links, considered a portion of the hagiographic Janamsakhis of the Sikh gurus, though popular among Sikhs, as stories with myth and miracles, discounting some entirely, considering some as improbable, and some as merely possible, placing 87 of 124 sakhis in these categories. The remaining 37 he categorized as probable or established.[8] McLeod considered the Guru Nanak of the janam-sakhis was the one "of legend and of faith, seen through the eyes of popular piety" decades after his death, distilling what he considered an accurate portrait of Guru Nanak in three paragraphs.[8] McLeod's textual criticism, his empirical examination of genealogical and geographical evidence, examination of the consistency between the Sikh texts and their versions, philological analysis of historic Sikh literature, search for corroborating evidence in external sources and other critical studies have been influential popular among the Western academics and Indian scholars working outside India, but highly controversial within the Sikh community, and prompting a reaction similar to that of other faith communities.[8]

McLeod was also not content with the approach of expositions of Sikh scholars of the nineteenth century to leave questions unanswered on concepts such as nirgun (transcendent) and sagun (immanent) aspects of the divine (that God was transcendent while God's phenomena were immanent), and how Nanak's theological thought that God can and does communicate to every human being regularly, and how this communication can be "recognized, accepted and followed," criticized as failing to provide a satisfactory, coherent answer about "how" this ongoing divine communication happens or can happen, which was "allowed to remain a mystery," as according to the scholars of the time, in regards to the nirgun aspect, "there is nothing man can say of it" except when experienced in the "ultimate condition of absolute union."[9]


English travelers to Sikh temples during the early 1900s saw the veneration of the Granth as coming close to defeating the purpose of Guru Nanak's reforms (away from external authority to living experience), and saw it as a warning to Christian Protestants to avoid lapsing into bibliolatry, as Hindu temple idol worship served as a warning to Catholics.[10]

Dayanand Saraswati, in his book Satyarth Prakash, criticized Sikhism and Guru Granth Sahib, deeming them to be spreading falsehood, a snare to rob and cheat common people of their assets.[11]

According to Kristina Myrvold, every Sikh scripture copy is venerated with elaborate ceremonies.[12] However, these rituals are a daily means of "merit bestowing ministrations."[12] These daily ritual ministrations and paying of homage for the scripture by Sikhs, states Myrvold, is not unique to Sikhism. It moulds "meanings, values and ideologies" and creates a framework for congregational worship, states Myrvold, that is found in all major faiths.[13]

Hair cutting[edit]

The cutting or removal of hair from any body part is forbidden for Sikhs who have gone through the voluntary initiation,[14] as bestowed by the divine.[15] This growing of one's hair is known as Kesh.[16]

Second-generation non-amritdhari young women in the West, in addition to being critical of the perceived fixation and commodification of the body in Western society, have expressed criticism of the generational pressures to keep hair from the amritdhari, or initiated, portion of female Sikh society, whose discipline "went against the feminine normativity that gender discourses require women to perform," though non-Amritdhari women commonly attribute this to traditional societal norms and as "nothing to do with Sikhism."[17] though Sikhs who have not undergone the initiation are not obligated to keep it. Sikh women have often found it difficult to reconcile Sikhism's ban on cutting hair (for initiates of both genders) with contemporary beauty standards and media images.[18]


Khanda emblem of Sikhism

The Sikh community in Punjab traced its root to mystical universalists who tried to transcend Hinduism and Islam alike, though increased persecution by the Mughals, particularly the emperor Aurangzeb, and the martyrdoms of multiple gurus and leaders led to the evolution of Sikhism as not just a spiritual movement, but a clearly defined militant brotherhood to win independence from Mughal oppression in the Punjab.[19]

According to McLeod, Sikhism was predominantly a peaceful panth dedicated to theology until Guru Arjan was tortured and executed by the Mughal emperor Jahangir; thereafter, focus began to change towards an orientation of a religious militia and resistance movement.[20] Mandair considers Nanak's originality to lie in combining mystical experience with the historical foundations of introspection, interiorization, detachment, meditation and spirituality. After Guru Arjan's persecution and death during the Muslim rule period, the theology of Sikhism shifted from these precepts, as tensions with the Mughals began to increase, and more toward militarization in the defense of religious freedoms of Sikhs and non-Muslims as the process of change and response to the "disturbed circumstances" culminated in the 1699 founding of the Khalsa, as well as the influx of more martial social strata which swelled the ranks of the community during this era,[20] though some disagree that the martiality of Sikhism can be attributed to the customs of the social strata that converted to it.[21]

Sikhs were accused of a violent character following the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.[22] Through its history (such as the militarisation of the Khalsa),[23] the symbol of the Khanda), has been given religious meaning and is considered to hearken to the remembrance of martyrs through whose sacrifices the community survived,[24] as has art and legend.[25][26] Critics claim that Sikh religious identity has "become grounded in historical moments of conflict".[27] For Sikhs, weapons are sacred as they are seen as means to fight any persecution against any innocent regardless of colour or creed.[28]

Other sects[edit]

The idol of Ravidas in the sanctum of Shri Guru Ravidas Janmsthan Mandir in Varanasi, marking his birthplace. The Ravidassia group separated from Sikhism into a separate religion in 2009.

Dalits (formerly untouchables) who had previously converted to Sikhism, in response to social discrimination, and targeted violence against them for supposed unorthodoxy in a shooting incident in 2009. That year, they carved out a new religion called Ravidassia religion,[29] while retaining some historical Sikh symbols such as the nishan, sabhas and langar.[30][31][32]

Ravidassias believe that Ravidas is their Guru (saint) whereas the Sikhs have traditionally considered him as one of many bhagats (holy person).[33] Further, Ravidassias accept living sants of Ravidass Deras as Guru whereas the Sikhs do not, states Ronki Ram.[34] The Sikh subtradition decisively split from Sikhism following an assassination attack on their visiting living Guru Sant Niranjan Dass and his deputy Ramanand Dass in 2009 in Vienna by Sikh radicals.[31][35] Ramanand Dass died from the attack, Niranjan Dass survived his injuries, while over a dozen attendees at the temple were also injured.[35]

In the 1970s, Western heritage people – mainly North Americans and Europeans – led by Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, also known as Yogi Bhajan, began converting to Sikhism. They started as Yoga exercise enthusiasts who became interested in their founder's religious background. They called their movement Sikh Dharma Brotherhood or 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization).[36] They accepted the Guru Granth Sahib as their scripture, underwent the rituals of Khalsa initiation, visited Amritsar, and adopted the dress (turban) and codes of Sikhs. Many in the Sikh community in India have, however, not accepted them as true Sikhs. While it was embraced by some Sikh leaders who were eager to widen Sikhism's appeal by displaying as a "modern" region amid fears of native youth not taking up the traditional Sikh lifestyle in desirable numbers, many Sikh intellectuals and community leaders were suspicious of his methods. The noted Sikh historian Trilochan Singh, for example, has criticized it as "absurd and sacrilegious," citing the flamboyant titles Yogi claimed for himself, misuse and mistranslation of Sikh scriptures, and incorporation of tantric yoga practices, as they were "never known in Sikh history, and were repulsive to the mind of every knowledgeable Sikh".[36]

A similar conflict in the 1970s between the Sikhs and the Sant Nirankari sect, a 20th-century offshoot of the Nirankari tradition, led to accusations by some Sikhs that the Sant Nirankaris were heretical and sacrilegious.[37] Contrary to mainstream Sikhism, the Sant Nirankari leader had declared himself a guru with his own scripture in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib, and added heretical variations of several Sikh rituals and symbols, including replacing the Sikh institution of the Panj Pyare council with the sat sitare, and replacing amrit, a mixture of mixed sugar and water administered to Khalsa initiates, with charan amrit, water used to wash his feet.[37] They were also accused of unprovoked criticism of the Gurus and Sikh scripture, as the Sant Nirankari leader had written in his own scripture that he alone, of all religions' prophets, had agreed to go back to Earth to spread God's true message, with the understanding that God agreed that anyone who was blessed by him would go to heaven regardless of their deeds, and that analysis of the Guru Granth Sahib had fruitless, using the metaphor of churning butter yielding no cream, and of being funded by the government and economic elites to undermine the community.[37][38]

While listing the daily duties of a Sikh, early rahitnamas in Sikhism warned that they must shun panj mel (five groups). These include the Ramraiyas, the Minas, the Masands (corrupted tithe collectors), the Dhirmalias, the Sir-gums (Sikhs who accept Amrit baptism but subsequently break it cut their hair).[39][40] In some historical rahitnamas, the presence of sahajdhari Sikhs, who have not undertaken the formal initiation, "problematizes" and sharpens the distinction with the initiated Amritdhari Sikhs and the .[39]


A few Sikh groups have put pressure on universities to stifle academic criticism of popular Sikh literature and theories of Sikh history.[41] In the early 1990s, Pashaura Singh, an academic of the "Macleodian school," was campaigned against for "challenging the authenticity of Guru Granth Sahib", which he denied, and pressured to withdraw sections of his thesis at University of Toronto supervised by W.H. McLeod, his mentor.[42][43][44] In 2019, a minor political party in Punjab objected to an invitation to Pashaura Singh by Punjabi University for an International History Conference for his scholarship on Sikh scriptures and literature, threatening to protest if Singh is allowed to speak at the conference.[44] It must be noted that Pashaura Singh was afforded due opportunity by the Akal Rakhta and other Sikh scholars on his comparative method (borrowed from Trumpp) and his hypothesis of the draft theory was rejected as forcibly injecting undated texts dated much beyond the timeline of the Adi Granth to which he failed to bring a credible response to his academic peers.[45] Another academic also praised by MacLeod, Harjot Oberoi, was also campaigned against for his removal by parties which denounced his methodology towards the study of Sikhism.[46]

According to the Indologist Mark Juergensmeyer, the largest group of scholars dedicated to Sikh Studies are based in and near Punjab, but these scholars project themselves as proud Sikhs and predominantly focus on showing distinctiveness of their faith rather than examine the connections and similarities of Sikhism to other religious traditions based on comparative studies of texts and manuscripts.[47] Sikh writers criticize methodologies to "coldly dissect" their personal faith and Sikh history by "methods of social science" and by critical comparative textual or literary analysis.[47] This, critiques Juergensmeyer, has set the stage for an "unhappy confrontation" between the academic scholars versus those motivated in defending the dignity of their faith, including publications by Sikh institutions that are hostile to W. H. McLeod and other scholars who are based outside India,[47] and as Juergensmeyer states, some conservative Sikh scholars have made important contributions to the scholarship of Sikhism by discovering old Sikh manuscripts and publishing their analysis.[47]


In Quebec, Canada, a 2013 poll concluded that 39% of Canadians had a negative view of Sikhism.[48] According to the Vice president of the polling institute, "Since 2009, favourable views towards all religions have dropped outside Quebec. In that province, favourable views towards Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism have climbed, but are still lower than in the rest of Canada. Only perceptions of Christianity remain unchanged."[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Tony Ballantyne (2006). Between Colonialism and Diaspora: Sikh Cultural Formations in an Imperial World. Duke University Press. pp. 52–54. ISBN 0-8223-3824-6.
  2. ^ a b c Mandair, Arvind-Pal Singh (2013). Sikhism: A Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsburg Academic. pp. 83–86. ISBN 978-1-4411-0231-7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  3. ^ The Adi Granth, Ernest Trumpp (1877), WH Allen & Co, page vi
  4. ^ S. K. Rait (2005). Sikh Women in England: Their Religious and Cultural Beliefs and Social Practices (illustrated ed.). Trentham Books. p. 39. ISBN 9781858563534.
  5. ^ "Sikhism: A Guide for the Perplexed", by Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair, p. 87
  6. ^ a b c d Trilochan Singh (1994). Ernest Trumpp and W.H. McLeod as scholars of Sikh history religion and culture. International Centre of Sikh Studies. pp. 295–299.
  7. ^ Mark Juergensmeyer (1993). John Stratton Hawley and Gurinder Singh Mann (ed.). Studying the Sikhs: Issues for North America. State University of New York Press. pp. 16–17. ISBN 978-0-7914-1426-2.
  8. ^ a b c Tony Ballantyne (2006). Between Colonialism and Diaspora: Sikh Cultural Formations in an Imperial World. Duke University Press. pp. 7–12. ISBN 0-8223-3824-6.
  9. ^ Arvind-Pal S. Mandair (2009). Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation. Columbia University Press. pp. 260–262. ISBN 978-0-231-51980-9.
  10. ^ James Bissett Pratt (1975). India and Its Faiths: A Traveler's Record. Houghton Mifflin (Orig year: 1915). pp. 250–251.
  11. ^ Gurmit Singh (1989). History of Sikh Struggles. Atlantic Publishers & Distributors. p. 134. he called mithya ( falsehood ) and Sikhism , a jal ( a snare ) to rob and cheat simple folk of their wealth and property
  12. ^ a b Kristina Myrvold (2017). "Guru Granth: Ceremonial Treatment". Brill's Encyclopedia of Sikhism. Brill Academic. pp. 141–145. ISBN 978-90-04-29745-6.
  13. ^ Kristina Myrvold (2008). Knut A. Jacobsen (ed.). South Asian Religions on Display: Religious Processions in South Asia and in the Diaspora. Routledge. pp. 144–145, context: 140–154, . ISBN 978-1-134-07459-4.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  14. ^ Khushwant Singh (2003). Truth, Love and a Little Malice: An Autobiography (reprint, revised ed.). Penguin Books India. p. 369. ISBN 9780143029571.
  15. ^ Scott Lowe (2016). Hair. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 93. ISBN 9781628922219.
  16. ^ Lalita Clozel (13 April 2014). "U.S. Sikhs say military's ban on long hair and beards keeps them out". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 1 September 2014. The turban, hair and beard date from the 17th century, when the last living Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh, decided that followers should allow their hair to grow as a sign of respect for God, known as Kesh.
  17. ^ Gallo, Ester, ed. (2016). Migration and Religion in Europe: Comparative Perspectives on South Asian Experiences. Routledge. p. 104. ISBN 9781317096375.
  18. ^ Abdulrahim, Raja (9 October 2011). "A decision on the razor's edge". LA Times.
  19. ^ James W. Laine (2015). Meta-Religion: Religion and Power in World History. University of California Press. pp. 152–153. ISBN 978-0-520-95999-6.
  20. ^ a b Arvind-Pal S. Mandair (2009). Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation. Columbia University Press. pp. 250–259. ISBN 978-0-231-51980-9.
  21. ^ Rapoport, David C., ed. (2013). Inside Terrorist Organizations. Routledge. p. 179. ISBN 9781135311858.
  22. ^ Michael S. Roth; Charles G. Salas (2001). Disturbing Remains: Memory, History, and Crisis in the Twentieth Century. Getty Publications. p. 54. ISBN 9780892365388.
  23. ^ Pashaura Singh; Louis E. Fenech (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. Oxford University Press. p. 31. ISBN 9780199699308.
  24. ^ Mark Juergensmeyer (2003). Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. University of California Press. p. 163. ISBN 9780520240117.
  25. ^ David C. Rapoport (5 November 2013). Inside Terrorist Organizations. Routledge. p. 179. ISBN 9781135311858.
  26. ^ Cole, William (1991). Moral Issues in Six Religions. Heinemann. p. 212. ISBN 9780435302993.
  27. ^ Churnjeet Mahn, Anne Murphy (2017). Partition and the Practice of Memory. Springer. p. 261.
  28. ^ Renard, John (2012). Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts. University of California Press. p. 211. ISBN 9780520274198.
  29. ^ "India's 'untouchables' declare own religion". CNN. 3 February 2010.
  30. ^ Paramjit Judge (2014), Mapping Social Exclusion in India: Caste, Religion and Borderlands, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-1107056091, pages 179-182
  31. ^ a b Knut A. Jacobsen; Kristina Myrvold (2011). Sikhs in Europe: Migration, Identities and Representations. Ashgate Publishing. pp. 289–291. ISBN 978-1-4094-2434-5.
  32. ^ Inflamed passions, Ajoy A Mahaprashasta (2009), Frontline (The Hindu), Volume 26, Issue 12, Quote: "The violence can be understood only when we see the non-Sikh deras as independent sects and not as part of the mainstream Sikh religion. Most of such attacks happen when the mainstream religion thinks that the deras are not adhering to Sikh maryada. But if the dera followers do not identify themselves as Sikhs, where is the question of maryada?" [...] the discrimination that they see around provokes a strong reaction. Despite their population of around 50 per cent in the Doaba region, most Dalits are pushed to the western side of the villages and are robbed of all privileges. "As deras take up social issues such as infanticides, dowry, suicides and education, the backward castes are drawn towards them," he said.
  33. ^ Ronki Ram. "Ravidass, Dera Sachkhand Ballan and the Question of Dalit Identity in Punjab" (PDF). Panjab University, Chandigarh. Retrieved 5 December 2013.
  34. ^ Ronki Ram (2009). "Ravidass, Dera Sachkhand Ballan and the Question of Dalit Identity in Punjab" (PDF). Journal of Punjab Studies. Panjab University, Chandigarh. 16 (1). Retrieved 5 December 2013.
  35. ^ a b Inflamed passions, Ajoy A Mahaprashasta (2009), Frontline (The Hindu), Volume 26, Issue 12, Quote: "The riots were sparked off by an attack on Sant Niranjan Dass, the head of the Jalandhar-based Dera Sachkhand, and his deputy Rama Nand on May 24 at the Shri Guru Ravidass Gurdwara in Vienna where they had gone to attend a religious function. A group of Sikhs armed with firearms and swords attacked them at the gurdwara, injuring both; Rama Nand later died. The Austrian police said the attack that left some 15 others injured “had clearly been planned”."
  36. ^ a b Verne Dusenbery (2014). Pashaura Singh and Louis E Fenech (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. Oxford University Press. pp. 560–563. ISBN 978-0-19-100411-7.
  37. ^ a b c Jugdep S Chima (2008). The Sikh Separatist Insurgency in India: Political Leadership and Ethnonationalist Movements. SAGE Publishing. pp. 55–61. ISBN 978-93-5150-953-0.
  38. ^ Maya Chadda (1997). Ethnicity, Security, and Separatism in India. Columbia University Press. pp. 53, 202, 254. ISBN 978-0-231-10737-2.
  39. ^ a b Jeevan Deol; Gurharpal Singh (2013). Arvind-Pal S. Mandair; Christopher Shackle (eds.). Sikh Religion, Culture and Ethnicity. Taylor & Francis. pp. 36–40. ISBN 978-1-136-84634-2.
  40. ^ SS Kohli (1993). The Sikh and Sikhism. Atlantic. pp. 2–3.
  41. ^ John Stratton Hawley; Gurinder Singh Mann (1993). Studying the Sikhs: Issues for North America. State University of New York Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-7914-1426-2.
  42. ^ Pashaura Singh (2002). The Bhagats of the Guru Granth Sahib: Sikh Self-Definition and the Bhagat Bani. Oxford University Press. pp. Foreword by WH McLeod. ISBN 978-0-19-908772-3.
  43. ^ Professor of Sikh Studies Pashaura Singh refuses to honour Akal Takht decree, India Today (15 September 1993), Viji Sundaram
  44. ^ a b Sikh bodies object Punjabi University's call to controversial Sikh scholar at International Conference, The Times of India (22 November 2019)
  45. ^
  46. ^ Pashaura Singh; Norman Gerald Barrier (1996). The transmission of Sikh heritage in the diaspora. Manohar Publishers. pp. 281–282. ISBN 978-8-17304-1556.
  47. ^ a b c d Mark Juergensmeyer (1993). John Stratton Hawley and Gurinder Singh Mann (ed.). Studying the Sikhs: Issues for North America. State University of New York Press. pp. 12–21. ISBN 978-0-7914-1426-2.
  48. ^ Canadians view non-Christian religions with uncertainty, dislike, 2 October 2013