Re-reading Guru Nanak


A scribe copies the Guru Granth Sahib by hand in the northern Indian city of Amritsar PHOTO/Reuters

Following the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, the nascent states of India and Pakistan busied themselves with writing each other out of their national histories. Punjab was carved up and, in one of the largest movements of population in modern history, reorganised into a Sikh-dominated East Punjab and a Muslim-majority West Punjab.

The new international border crucially shaped the Punjabi sense of identity. A process of redefinition of Punjabi culture and history began on both sides of the border to validate the narratives spun by the nationalist movements in Pakistan and India. In West Punjab, the area’s intellectual heritage began to be communalised under the shadow of the Muslim state, and the rich, multi-religious cultural landscape that wove together the Sufi fakirs, Bhakti sants and Nath jogis was sidelined. To this day, aspects of Punjabi history and culture that threaten to awaken uncomfortable memories of the departed Sikhs are silenced, and we are presented with a sanitised, Islamised perspective on regional history. In this context, the publishing of Kishan Singh’s Sikh Inquilaab Da Modhee is a welcome move towards reintroducing Pakistani Punjabis to one of the most profound thinkers their land has produced — the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak Dev.

The book was originally published in 1970 in East Punjab and has recently been transliterated from the Gurmukhi script by Maqsood Saqib. Saqib is a Punjabi short story writer and intellectual who also runs the publishing house Suchet Kitab Ghar and edits the monthly Punjabi magazine Puncham.

A historical-materialistic approach analysing the Granth Sahib opens up new ways of reading the spiritual and cultural past of Punjab

In an insightful preface to the book, Saqib introduces us to Professor Kishan Singh. Born in 1911, Singh completed his MA in English in 1933 and spent the next 43 years of his life as a college lecturer in English language and literature. He began writing in 1950 and, despite his background in English, chose simple, everyday Punjabi to express his shrewd analyses of Punjab’s history and literature.

As much today as it did in the 1970s, Singh’s book represents a radical departure from the majority of commentaries on Sikh history and Gurbani, which is the collection of poetry contained in the Sikh holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. The fifth guru, Arjun, began the process of compiling the Granth Sahib that features poetry from Nanak and Arjun himself. However, the Granth Sahib does not limit itself to the utterances of the Sikh gurus, extending its ambit to the verses of Bhagat Kabir and Baba Fareed. By the 10th guru, Gobind’s, time, the process of compilation was complete. Gobind declared that he would be the last living guru and the Granth Sahib was to serve as the eternal guru for all time to come.

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