Published by Singh Brothers, Amritsar, 2009
Price Rs. 225
By Rajesh Kumar Sharma
When Gurbhagat Singh told me a few months ago that he and Deepinder Jeet Randhawa had just brought out a book on “Sikh memory”, I could not but again admire his untiring commitment to a life of the intellect. He has been producing, year after year, serious scholarly work. I told him I would soon read the book.
Read it I did, though not very soon. I went through the Introduction the day I got hold of the book. But then it lay there, on my bedside, for untold nights, unfinished and shut like some intrusive old gossip’s mouth, making faces at me. I would have loved to read it to its last page with keenness, awe and thirst (such expectations I had of its principal contributor!), but the Introduction had left me distressed and too dehydrated for further adventure anytime soon.
There were minor irritants (but then is it not a minor irritant that can annoy you to the point of suicide?), such as a font-begotten sufficiency, an inelegant mixture of font sizes, bad proofreading, lack of a consolidated bibliography, and a structure that looked like uneven beads strung together by some clever vendor to overawe poor rustic kids. Besides, the translations of various terms made me uneasy. These looked like elaborate interpretations in the guise of exact translations. I am inclined to think that words are more than stand-ins for concepts and a translator has to beware of the temptation to conceptually overload a term. Should he succumb to the temptation, he may end up depleting the term of its specific performative energy altogether.
Occasionally, yet not rarely, I came across sentences that had the appearance of notes hurriedly scribbled: “His son, who was educated in Europe, when comes to know that his father is not being allowed the death that the gods sanctify, to save family “honour”, he himself dies” (35). Or the following:
By “traumatic events” here means, using the words of Hinsie and Campbell in their Psychiatric Dictionary, those events that cause “stimulation of such intensity that it cannot be mastered or adequately discharged”. (65)
Syntactical monsters of the kind sampled above are not mere slips of the finger on the keyboard. In other words, they are inexcusable in a book co-authored by a former Professor of English.
So I took my time to read, and then re-read, the book. I obviously had to – if only to overcome unforeseen and overwhelming allergies.
I have often felt that the kind of work Gurbhagat Singh has been doing deserved far better (and polemical) notice than it has received. Arguably, it never found the right intellectual climate. To make sense of the long and ostensibly complex ‘project’ of Gurbhagat, one requires the skills of a conceptual cartographer. Not many are perhaps equipped with the necessary skills, while most of those who are show little inclination to direct their energies to the unraveling of this project. In this short review essay, I cannot do more than indicate that German idealism, European (particularly post-War French) romanticism, avant-gardism, theological hermeneutics, Stalinism, postmodernist ethnocentrism and neo-racism are some of the principal sites which underlie Gurbhagat’s intellectual-political itinerary. To make sense of The Sikh Memory as another milestone (if it is one) in that itinerary, one needs to register the linkages among these and other sites. One would then notice that a certain postmodernist “depthlessness” (to use Fredric Jameson’s term) marks his itinerary as a functional requirement. And this carefully adopted “depthlessness” is the principal ingredient of the witch’s brew to which Gurbhagat’s project finally boils down – in the superficially amorphous but essentially crystal clear form of a certain kind of politics, a romantic politics of courted catastrophes.
There are several major problems with the way the book has been conceptualized and executed as a project. The foremost among these is its discursive paradigm, which may be best described as militaristic-managerial and which finds its clearest demonstration in Chapter 1 (particularly, page 29). It may be the current paradigm for neoliberal ‘think-tank’ intellectuals, but it sits rather ponderously and unnaturally among other contributions to the study of Sikhism. Hostage to adversarial and competitive binarism, the paradigm does not accommodate the supreme values of love, humility, service, generosity and popular (in the best sense) accessibility which, to my mind as a layman, are the glory of Sikhism as the lived faith of millions of people.
If combat and control are the key tropes of Gurbhagat’s discourse in the book, its ruling flavour is a recycled version of avant-gardist theory, with the result that Sikhism is made to appear less as a practiced faith and more as a theoretical riddle answering solely to some ‘intellectuals’ wedded to drifting islands of the post-1960s Western theory. An expected consequence of such intellectual reduction of Sikhism is the rational mind’s hubris from which gushes out a stream of verdicts unsupported by scholarly testimony or argument. These verdicts mark the Introduction and are also dispersed throughout the book:
The irreverent treatment of small cultures in the first part of the 20th century and the resistive but creative response that it invoked, [sic] have engendered a vital development. That development has activated cultural memory as a new and vigorous way of remembering. (9)
A little further, one reads this: “Cultural memory, therefore, has been accepted as a new way of remembering and distinctly organizing knowledge” (9). Undocumented assertions like these violate the very preliminary norms of scholarship. Another scholar would have advanced them as tentative hypotheses and then proceeded to test them, instead of investing them with a questionable axiomatic aura which evaporates the instant these are exposed to attentive reading.
The central argument of the book is that “Sikh memory” (an infelicitous phrase, like “Sikh God”, also employed by Gurbhagat, on page 10) constitutes a distinctive way of remembering. For one thing, the term “memory” is often used so loosely and non-specifically in the book that it often remains indistinguishable from “consciousness”, leading to the impression that the choice of one term over the other is somewhat arbitrary. What, however, is totally arbitrary is the way collective cultural memory is conveniently conflated with individual memory. Whether it is a canny leap of scholarly faith or a routine sleight of hand, I cannot tell:
If we extend Endel Tulving’s elaboration of individual memory, cultural memory can be defined as a “neuro-cognitive capability” of a collective that its members share to bring back to their minds/narrative/context, the past experiences, for re-determination. (19)
It is significant that Gurbhagat does not mention the grounds on which one may “extend” Tulving’s observation on individual memory to collective memory. In a similar vein, he ‘decisively’ speculates yet again: “The subregions of the frontal lobes that mediate the individual autonoesis, we can believe, also mediate the collective autonoesis” [italics mine] (36). A discerning reader would notice a quick slide from the individual to the community along a mythical passage that has been secretly laid in the form of the notion of the organic community implicit here.
The tendency to make unfounded assertions conceals and therefore exposes the fragile and untested assumptions on which Gurbhagat’s project stands and founders. The question, then, is: Why make such assumptions? What do these assumptions signify and reveal?
It is not difficult to see that treating a community of people as an individual preempts the challenges that would beset a rigorous scholar at the inaugural moment of such a seemingly scientific and historical project. (Georg Lukács points out in The Destruction of Reason how Gobineau used “pseudo-scientific phraseology” in the service of “purely intuitive, irrationalist, historical myth” to bring back the long discredited racial theory which culminated in Hitler (675). The empirical and theoretical challenges of ‘collectivizing’ memory can be conveniently overlooked with the help of an apparently innocuous metaphorical move which secretly installs organicism as a given in the very genesis (and hence elaboration) of the project. Communities, like persons, are organic beings: this founding myth of the project is supposed to ‘answer’ – by foreclosing – most of the fundamental questions that would trouble a more forthright scholar and problematize his study.
But that is not all. The strategically political nature of the metaphorical move becomes sharply clear when one remembers that organicism actually functions as a password for the installation of various (but all related) essentialisms, including vitalism, biologism, primitivism, blood, soil, birth, and their less indecent avatars in nationalism, culture, history and tradition. (Bataille’s romantic predilection for primitivism, violence and blood, interestingly, fascinates Gurbhagat no end; see, for instance, page 23). The slippage between culture, history, blood and genes is too outstanding to be passed over in Gurbhagat’s discourse:
... cultural memory is meta in the sense that it recognizably influences the individual memory of the members of its genetic culture to contradistinguish it from the individual memories belonging to other cultures. In psycho-physiological terms it can also be said that this memory is a non-volitional reflex, a conscious content that has become unconscious, it remains in the neural system of the individual as a differential survival mechanism, ready to be activated by a slight stimulus. [italics mine](21)
The text quoted above is a fairly representative specimen of Gurbhagat’s discourse. Among the things one may note here is that he takes it for granted that culture is genetic; as such it is supposed to be made of genetic material; the material is believed to be deposited as sediment in the body; it remains there as a latent mechanism subject to a command-and control information system; and lastly, its identity is differential, not communitarian, with difference conceived as opposition.
Indeed, this route is traced by Gurbhagat’s discursive logic again and again. The essential steps in that logic, insofar as it constitutes the fundamental structure of the present book also, are three: religion > culture > postmodernist ethnocentrism/neo-racism. Not that certain logical structures are forbidden; the problem here, instead, is that the structure in the present instance is not logical but arbitrary and self-contradictory. Gurbhagat wants to write about memory of the Sikhs as a religious community but he substitutes religion with culture – without going into its implications for his project. Religion and culture are not coextensive. The distinctions of religions do not hold as sharply in the domain of culture; in fact, a culture often accommodates several religions.
But the exigencies and protocol of current academic and political discourse obviously make him speak culture when he would feign speak religion. After all, culture is the most acceptable term used in our day to allude to the most unacceptable phenomena and modes of conduct. Sundry latter-day racisms, that I previously referred to as neo-racisms, nest comfortably in the capacious lap of culture. As Kevin Passmore remarks, with biological racism having fallen into utter disrepute after the abominable acts of the Nazis, cultural racism has come to occupy its place in discourse. The racists no longer introduce themselves as racists but as champions of cultural difference (108). What obviously distinguishes them from the rational and democratic defenders of cultural difference is their tendency to assert this difference as essential, mystical and biological (for example, neural). They appear to affirm that difference is the precondition for democratic agency, yet they preempt agency by reducing the agent to a given essence.
If tradition and ruptures happily sit next to each other in Gurbhagat’s discourse and if he commemorates Derrida’s “devastating act of dememorizationwhile simultaneously fetishizing memory, history and tradition, there is nothing surprising about it. Contradictions are the stuff such discourses are made of: José Ortega y Gasset has put it tersely, “Whichever way we approach fascism we find that it is simultaneously one thing and the contrary, it is A and not A...” (qtd. in Passmore, epigraph, n.p.). However, there is also a larger rationale in which the contradictions dissolve: in the discursive universe of this kind of logic, “dememorization” can be reappropriated as a peculiar kind of memory (but now it is termed “tradition”). Of course, the reader is expected to naturally see what is obvious – that this memory, or tradition, has only internal continuity; externally, it is separated from everything else by “ruptural violence” (a jetlagged borrowing from the avant-gardists) and exists in a vacuum (23). The problem with such an exercise in logic, however, is that the arbitrariness of the act of choosing or rejecting the continuities/ruptures cannot be covered by any mask of formidable jargon or pseudo-prophetic utterances. Just as no intellectual acrobatics can cover up a misappropriation of “difference”, which in the Derridean scheme is constitutively disseminated/contaminated, as some pure essence!
The love of absolute, violent ruptures explains Gurbhagat’s stance towards other religions. In the process, Foucault’s critique of historical narratives on behalf of the difference of and in history as such stands betrayed for the sake of a long dead metaphysics of origins. In order to proclaim his idea of the distinction of Sikhism, Gurbhagat merrily runs down Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. He likes to see these as monolithic, oppressive religions whose fate is sealed – and identically so – because they are all alike, even as the Sikhism of his reading is different because it is unlike them. The rich and enormous testimonies of the blossoming of the human spirit that the arts, philosophies and sciences inspired by these and other religions including Christianity have passed on to the world does not penetrate his carefully bounded field of vision. He reduces Hinduism to Shankara’s commentary on Brahmasutra known as Brahmasutrabhashya, and that text to his own reading of it. He not only ignores Shankara’s devotional and Tantric works, such as Saundaryalahari, but also the other schools of mainstream Hindu philosophy and the numerous lived forms and little local narratives of Hinduism. The poetry of Rigveda does not exist for him because he has either not read it or does not want to acknowledge its evocative power and this-worldly sublimity. While the British scholar Kim Knott, writing in 1998, recognizes that Hinduism is not a static and monolithic religion but “a matter of constant negotiation” (110) in which “various hinduisms exist in tension with one another” (113), Gurbhagat is content to reduce it to one particular Vedantic concept. Even Warren Hastings, needless to say, had a more open and liberal understanding of Hinduism, as evident in his note on Charles Wilkins’ translation of Bhagvad-Gita (70).
Likewise, when Gurbhagat comes to Buddhism, he collapses all Buddhism into Nagarjuna’s exposition of it (did Buddhism not exist before Nagarjuna?), before conflating Shunya with void, and sees Shunya as “co-dependently originated in the principle of Pratityasamutpada” – a sort of Platonic formulation that makes no sense in the context of Buddhism, as even a primer on Buddhist philosophy will enlighten you. Furthermore, he proclaims – still without a ghost of reason – that “[t]his is the Absolute of Buddhism, the ultimate form of the world”, and goes on to make probably the weirdest interpretation in the history of Buddhist hermeneutics, robbing the Buddhism of Nagarjuna of its distinction from Vedanta: “Only merging into this Absolute world formation with necessary transformation can lead to Nirvana” (42). In fact, he treats Buddhism the way he treats Hinduism – as homogeneous and monolithic formations, shorn of any internal diversity.
The worst treatment is reserved for Islam. (Is it because Islam is being shown by vested interests as standing today on the wrong side of history as that history is being written by the American empire?) To quote Gurbhagat:
“From this angle of multiplicity and difference, the Islamic meta-sign of Allah was equally unitive or totalitive, in fact the word totalitarian can be used to describe it.” (42)
He yet again shuts his eyes to the vast internal diversity and wealth of a religion that no inventory can ever exhaust.
In Gurbhagat Singh’s hands, memory comes to look like a machine that recycles, reinvents, invents and erases data in response to requirements of the occasion: an almost flawless ‘retrojective’ apparatus of production and reproduction under late capitalism.
The better part of the book for me are the two chapters on Sikh ardās and Harimandar Sahib, both authored by Deepinder Jeet Randhawa. The chapter on ardās has a section on the theory of memory. It largely repeats the contents of the first chapter written by Gurbhagat Singh, but in Randhawa’s hands the theory of memory has more more clarity and coherence. I wish this chapter had been put at number one or two. Randhawa’s writing has conviction, modesty and rigour. Gurbhagat Singh deserves praise for having groomed a scholar who promises to contribute significantly to Sikh studies in particular and religious and cultural studies in general.
Knott, Kim. Hinduism. 1998. New York: OUP, 2008.
Lukács, Georg. The Destruction of Reason. 1962. Trans. Peter Palmer. London: The Merlin Press, 1980.
Passmore, Kevin. Fascism. New York: OUP, 2002.
Singh, Gurbhagat, and Deepinder Jeet Randhawa. The Sikh Memory: Its Distinction and Contribution to Mankind. Amritsar: Singh Brothers, 2009.
This review essay has been published in South Asian Ensemble Spring 2010.