HISTORY IN THE SIKH PAST1

Authors


  • 1

    Versions of parts or all of this essay were presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, the Conference on South Asia at the University of Wisconsin, Columbia University, The New School for Social Research and Lang College/The New School, and the University of British Columbia; thank you to those who provided insightful comments and dialogue. Faculty writing groups at The New School and UBC were particularly valuable. Special thanks to Varuni Bhatia, Purnima Dhavan, Sam Haselby, Tavia Nyong'o, Christian Novetzke, Paul Ross, and Adheesh Sathaye; members of my dissertation committee (Elizabeth Castelli, Partha Chatterjee, Nicholas Dirks, J. S. Hawley, and Rachel McDermott); and the generous anonymous readers and editors from the journal. Translations from Punjabi are my own, as of course are all errors and omissions.

ABSTRACT

This article offers a reading of an early eighteenth-century Punjabi text—Gur Sobha or “The Splendor of the Guru”—as a form of historical representation, suggesting reasons for the importance of the representation of the past as history within Sikh discursive contexts. The text in question provides an account of the life, death, and teachings of the last of the ten living Sikh Gurus or teachers, Guru Gobind Singh. The article argues that the construction of history in this text is linked to the transition of the Sikh community at the death of the last living Guru whereby authority was invested in the canonical text (granth) and community (panth). As such a particular rationale for history was produced within Sikh religious thought and intellectual production around the discursive construction of the community in relation to the past and as a continuing presence. As such, the text provides an alternative to modern European forms of historical representation, while sharing some features of the “historical” as defined in that context. The essay relates this phenomenon to a broader exploration of history in South Asian contexts, to notions of historicality that are plural, and to issues particular to the intersection of history and religion. Later texts, through the middle of the nineteenth century, are briefly considered, to provide a sense of the significance of Gur Sobha within a broader, historically and religiously constituted Sikh imagination of the past.

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