IN 1958, A 26-YEAR-OLD PRESBYTERIAN MISSIONARY left the shores of his native New Zealand, bound for the Punjab, accompanied by his wife and infant son. The missionary was Hew McLeod, and the journey that he embarked on was to profoundly alter the direction of his life. His ostensible purpose was to teach English at a Christian missionary school. However, a historian by training, he was soon drawn to the study of Sikhism. Teaching English fell by the wayside as McLeod delved deeply into the history and culture of the Punjab to the extent of learning Punjabi and completing a doctoral dissertation on the Sikhs under the tutelage of the famed AL Basham (best known to the general public for his historical book, The Wonder That Was India) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. The decision to study with AL Basham seems a curious (even dubious) one, for Basham, although a famed Indologist, did not know Punjabi nor was he an expert on Sikhism. But this choice is also revealing—for prior to McLeod there seems to have been no real place for Sikh Studies in academia. His passion proved to be an enduring one—he was a prolific scholar, with over 20 books and numerous essays to his name at the time of his death last year. The plethora of obituaries that mourned his passing testify to the degree of his influence—his work has ignited debate, raised challenging questions and been instrumental in encouraging a new generation of Sikh scholars.
Sikhism, first published in 1997 and reissued by Yoda Press this year, is intended for the layman. It is meant to be an accessible account of the history of Sikhism, and a survey of religious rituals, doctrines and society. The historical account is fascinating and well-written, raising many intriguing questions. But McLeod’s detailed survey of society and custom is, at times, tedious and overly meticulous—more suited to an academic work than an accessible introduction to Sikhism.
It is as a historian, first and foremost, that McLeod engages with Sikhism. Although his work reveals a cautious, considered approach, he never shies away from asking the ‘tough’ questions which measure religious myths and teachings against historical fact. It’s this approach which has sparked controversy, and it might be appropriate to note that McLeod isn’t unique in this regard. Many historians attempting a history of an Indian religion, most vociferously demonstrated in the case of Hinduism, attract the ire of the devout—those who perceive the conclusions and the questions raised by such a historical investigation as blasphemous.
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