The Revival of Elitism in Sikh Academia

By Dr. Harbans Lal

In a recently published essay “Ivory Towers or Towers of Learning” (IJ Singh, 2010, Sikh & Punjabi Language Studies, November 10th, 2009), the author deplored the widening gap between Sikh Studies programs (and the Sikh academics who run them), and the Sikh community at large.

Dr Singh, an academic himself, albeit in the biological sciences, writes that Sikh scholars tend to engage in narrow specializations and publish their work in restricted peer-reviewed journals – effectively cutting off the wider community of academics as well as the Sikh people from its benefits. He proposes that they widen their sphere of influence by stepping outside the walls of academia and engaging with the community. They should  also serve the wider interests of Sikhi by playing the role of public intellectuals.

I fully subscribe to IJ Singh’s analysis and wish to expand on it further in the light of Sikh teachings, particularly the role of our Gurus in spreading and popularizing Sikh scripture in the vernacular of the common man.

My remarks are limited to Sikh academia in the West.


There is a growing urgency for broad dissemination of the research being carried out by Sikh academics. To the question “How well are western Sikh scholars progressing in this regard,” the answer, sadly, is “not well enough.” This is especially poignant in view of the fact that the internet makes this so easy. 

One gets the impression that Sikh Scholars are missing the boat in terms of exploiting  technology for the broad socialization of their research. These technologies are readily employed by the non- Sikh academicians in the West.

Beyond the fact that their findings remain unavailable to Sikhs in general, Sikh scholars need to seriously re-think their penchant for publishing only in text and paper technology. While paper journals will no doubt continue to exist, the appearance of electronic media and other forms of exchange and dissemination are fast taking their place.

The Internet has changed the way we acquire information. For example, there are conferences, symposia, newsletters, project reports, etc., that publish their findings electronically, at the same time as it is published in scholarly outlets. This is not a new suggestion, and has been adopted with enthusiasm by other researchers and academicians throughout the Western world.

The lack of response from Sikh scholars is akin to the risk of being too late to resuscitate a dying patient. Let me provide an illustration from my own field of biomedical research by reference to an editorial from Plos Medicine – a peer-reviewed, international open-access journal sponsored by the National Institute of Health.

The editorial chided investigators and journals that were late in publishing their data; for example, data relevant to the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemics in the past decade. The delay may have exacerbated the problem of making appropriate decisions about vaccination for public health physicians and policymakers.

The Plos Medicine editorial referred to medical data that took 6-12 months to appear in the relevant journals. In contrast, research output from Sikh Studies in the West often take years and in some cases decades before coming to the attention of the Sikh public.


There is an emergency-like situation on many fronts in the West: the crisis of Sikh identity; the role of Sikh traditions and Sikh doctrines in the future of the global village; the authenticity and authority of Sikh scriptures and the marginalization of historic Sikh Institutions. We have yet to effectively engaged other religions in a dialogue with Sikh scholars. We are not even close to defining the place of Sikh Studies among the Academic disciplines in the West.

These concerns should force us to re-think the paradigm of text (paper) publishing that Sikh Studies programs appear to be caught in. In the age of blogs, Twitter, and the 24-hour news cycle, are peer reviewed journals or books – that take years to publish and are limited in availability in any meaningful quantity often on account of high dollar cost to the subscriber – a realistic avenue for rapid publication or dissemination? This urgency was recently illustrated by R.S. Gill (see, Academia and Sikh Tradition: Unique Opportunities, Sikh & Punjabi Language Studies, January 12, 2010).

Might there be a role for data sharing which attracts community support? Above all, in the case of a Sikhi, wide dissemination may simply be fidelity to the mission of our Gurus. Let me illustrate by looking at the Guru’s injunction and from Sikh tradition.


There is a beautiful story from the Guruship of Guru Amar Das reported by Sikh historian, Bhai Santokh Singh – from which the title of this paper is taken.

A delegation of Hindu religious leaders and scholars, known then as leaders of the Brahminical tradition, or Pundits, came to see the Guru. Their mission was to express their concern with the language and mode of propagation he was using to spread the Gurmat message to the people.

They loudly expressed their concern and attempted to persuade the Guru to use the language of the religious elite, Sanskrit, in order to impart Guru Nanak’s doctrines. The same elites should be given charge to further impart the knowledge.

The Guru is reported to rebuke the suggestion and used a metaphor to make his point forcefully. The divine message, the Guru said, was like water to a thirsty person. Divine knowledge in Sanskrit or Arabic is like water in deep well: it takes effort to draw it and then irrigates the crops of only those who possessed the means of taking out water in this manner. No sharing was possible as the quantity thus drawn was sufficient only to satisfy the appetite of the holder of the bucket.

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In contrast, the Guru’s Wisdom, gurmat, was manifested in Gurbani (Guru’s repository of knowledge and findings) in a language which served like a cloud burst. It turned the crops in every field green; it reaches mountains and valleys alike, birds and mammals alike, animals and human alike, educated and uneducated alike, poor and rich alike. (See Santokh Singh, Sri Gur Partap Suraj Granth, Raas 1, Part 46, p. 1518. Reprinted Amritsar, Khalsa Samachar, 1954.)

Jesus is known to have said that when you light a lamp, place it on a higher pedestal so that the light can reach every one.

The message of Sikhi was meant to break down the walls of Brahminical exclusivity that manifested itself in the elitism of a few – scholars of religious studies who claimed that they alone should dispense religious knowledge, and in their restricted way.

Kabir, who was himself marginalized by the pundits, rebelled against the system and Guru Arjan incorporated his relevant verse in the Sikh Scripture as:

ਕਬੀਰ ਜਿਹ ਮਾਰਗਿ ਪੰਡਿਤ ਗਏ ਪਾਛੈ ਪਰੀ ਬਹੀਰ ॥ ਇਕ ਅਵਘਟ ਘਾਟੀ ਰਾਮ ਕੀ ਤਿਹ ਚੜਿ ਰਹਿਓ ਕਬੀਰ ॥੧੬੫॥

Crowds of people are following the paths that are laid down by religious scholars and clerics. However, Kabir found a pathless track that reaches the One Manifested in All. AGGS, p. 1373.

Let me also quote from the verse that I elaborated in my recent paper published in Sikh & Punjabi Language Studies, May 19th, 2010.

The famous scholars of Guru Arjan’s era whose verses had the approval of Guru Arjan and considered them worthy of inclusion in the Guru Granth believed that the exegeses of the Gurus’ hymns were always meant to be shared freely. When shared and spread without restrictions it would not deplete but continue to swell. They wrote:

ਲੰਗਰੁ ਚਲੈ ਗੁਰ ਸਬਦਿ ਹਰਿ ਤੋਟਿ ਨ ਆਵੀ ਖਟੀਐ ॥ (Balwand & Sata   SGGS. P. 967)

The Langar – the Kitchen of the Guru’s wisdom has been released for free distribution, and its supplies never run short per divine promise.

Those scholars continued to write:

ਲੰਗਰਿ ਦਉਲਤਿ ਵੰਡੀਐ ਰਸੁ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਖੀਰਿ ਘਿਆਲੀ ॥ (Balwand & Sata   SGGS. P. 969)

The Langar – Guru’s kitchen distributes the wealth of the Guru’s Langar; that is appetizing like kheer – the rice pudding and ghee, meaning sweet ambrosia.

Sikh academics should re-visit their role, not just as scholars in exclusive possession of specialized knowledge but also as missionaries for the spread of the Sikh message. They should follow in the footsteps of our Gurus who dislodged the Brahmanism system by making available divine knowledge in an open way.

However, a certain fear, or the lure of elitism is reviving the ancient system of exclusivity again – with its well-oiled machinery intact and once again at the helm. The slogan is to keep civil society and scholars in other fields at bay, and ignorant of Sikh Studies in the West. That is our misfortune.

This is especially disturbing when we realize that this is not the norm. In the West, for instance, scholars in all research fields use every means available to spread their word. They are proud to know that society becomes aware of their research sooner, rather than later. They feel rewarded when their work is cited as soon as it is done.

Western scholars use “citations of their work by other scholars” as a measure of merit for any promotion and tenure consideration. During my professional career as the Chair of a large department and often as member of the university promotion committees, I often presided over promotion of faculty in my own department, and played a key role in the promotion processes of the university at large. In most cases, the citations of applicant’s work by the academic community were one of the criteria. It was an index of the impact of the faculty’s scholarly activities on the academia as a whole.


I join Dr. IJ Sigh to sound the bugle of the coming jeopardy that is in sight if we continue to build ivory towers and allow the elite system of Pundits to be resuscitated. This would amount to resurrecting the Brahmanism that our Gurus had so skillfully destroyed.

In contrast, our Gurus gave us the flame and the steel to directly serve the causes we commit to. Let us not ignore the needs of new generations and the ever-spreading congregations who are hungry to learn.

Our Gurus promoted the idea of freely distributing religious knowledge, as well as its open study by scholars. To impede this processes will only reduce the impact of our Guru’s gifts.

Update originally published as:

Revival of Elitism in Sikh Academia by Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal. The Sikh Foundation International.

Send all communications to the author:

Harbans Lal, PhD; D.Litt (hons)


Emeritus Professor and Chairman, Dept of Pharmacology & Neuroscience, University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Emeritus, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India.
President, Academy of Guru Granth Studies.


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