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The Sikh Religion, Volume 1

Max Arthur MacAuliffe

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This is volume 1 of 6 volumes. This is one of the first (and still one of the few) comprehensive books about the Sikh religion in the English language. MacAuliffe had extensive access to manuscripts of the Sikh sacred writings (the Granth), as well as support from Sikh scholars and leaders of the time. This volume covers Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.

This book has 401 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1909.

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Excerpt from 'The Sikh Religion, Volume 1'

I BRING from the East what is practically an unknown religion. The Sikhs are distinguished throughout the world as a great military people, but there is little known even to professional scholars regarding their religion. I have often been asked by educated persons in countries which I have visited, and even in India itself, what the Sikh religion was, and whether the Sikhs were Hindus, idolaters or Muhammadans. This ignorance is the result of the difficulty of the Indian dialects in which their sacred writings are contained.

Judaism has its Old Testament; Islam its Quran; Hinduism its Veds, Purans, and Shastars; Budhism its Tripitaka; the Parsi religion its Zendavesta; and Confucianism its Analects, its Spring and Autumn, its Ancient Poems and its Book of Changes. The languages in which the holy writings of these religions are enshrined, though all difficult, are for the most part homogeneous, and after preliminary study with tutors can generally be mastered by the aid of grammars and dictionaries; but not so the mediaeval Indian dialects in which the sacred writings of the Sikh Gurus and Saints were composed. Hymns are found in Persian, mediaeval Prakrit, Hindi, Marathi, old Panjabi, Multani, and several local dialects. In several hymns the Sanskrit and Arabic vocabularies are freely drawn upon.

There were no dictionaries of the Granth Sahib, or sacred book of the Sikhs, when the author commenced his labours. Some have been since published, but each lexicographer has adopted a system of his own which makes it difficult to find the word required, and even when found the interpretation is not always satisfactory. For these reasons it is necessary for the translator of the Sikh sacred writings to reside for long years in India, and work with the assistance of the few gyanis, or professional interpreters of the Sikh canonical writings, who now survive. It would probably be an exaggeration to say that there are ten such men in the world. Of these few or none is capable of giving an English interpretation. They generally construe in tedious paraphrases in their own local dialects. But more than this, there is hardly any one Sikh who is capable of making a correct translation of his sacred writings. A man who is a good Sanskrit scholar will not know Persian and Arabic, and he who knows Persian and Arabic will not know words of Sanskrit derivation. A man who knows Hindi will not know Marathi; a man who knows Marathi will not know Panjabi and Multani, and so on. Moreover, there are words in the Sikh sacred writings which are peculiar to them, and cannot be traced to any known language. As to these one must accept the traditional interpretations. The Granth Sahib thus becomes probably the most difficult work, sacred or profane, that exists, and hence the general ignorance of its contents.

A portion of the Granth Sahib was translated some years since by a German missionary at the expense and under the auspices of the India Office, but his work was highly inaccurate and unidiomatic, and furthermore gave mortal offence to the Sikhs by the odium theologicum introduced into it. Whenever he saw an opportunity of defaming the Gurus, the sacred book, and the religion of the Sikhs, he eagerly availed himself of it.

One of the main objects of the present work is to endeavour to make some reparation to the Sikhs for the insults which he offered to their Gurus and their religion. There are, however, many other advantages which I am hoping for, and which will probably be understood by the reader.

All persons of discrimination acquainted with the Sikhs set a high value on them, but it appears that a knowledge throughout the world of the excellence of their religion would enhance even the present regard with which they are entertained, and that thus my work would be at least of political advantage to them. In the second place, there is now a large number of Sikhs who understand the English language, but who have no time for the study of the compositions of the Gurus, and I thought it would be useful to them, if only from a linguistic point of view, to read a translation in the very simple English in which I have endeavoured to write it. In the third place, the old gyanis or professional interpreters of the Granth Sahib are dying out, and probably in another generation or two their sacred books will, owing to their enormous difficulty, be practically unintelligible even to otherwise educated Sikhs. In the fourth place, the vernacular itself is rapidly altering and diverging more and more from the general language of the Granth Sahib. Words which men still in the prime of life were accustomed to use in their boyhood have now become obsolete, and new vocables have taken their place. It appears, therefore, that it would on every account be well to fix the translation of the many exceedingly difficult passages scattered broadcast through the Sikh sacred writings. In the fifth place there are local legends now rife which we have been able to gather, but which would otherwise pass into oblivion in a comparatively short period of time.

Time was when it was not allowed to print the sacred book of the Sikhs. As ancient prejudice gave way, it was printed in parts which it was forbidden to unite in one volume lest it, as the embodiment, not only of the wisdom of the Gurus, but of the Gurus themselves, might be treated with disrespect. This prejudice has also vanished, and now the book is openly exposed for sale. There was also a prejudice on the part of Sikhs of the old school against translating the sacred volume, but those who held it forgot the injunction of Guru Arjan to translate it into Indian and foreign languages so that it might spread over the whole world as oil spreads over water.

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