Pashaura Singh

Power Play in the Formation of the Sikh Canon

The most controversial issue in the field of Sikh studies relates to the making of Sikh scripture, commonly referred to as the Guru Granth Sahib to reflect its authoritative status within the Sikh community as the living embodiment of the Guru. Recent research has revealed some divergent views on this process. This paper will discuss the genesis, evolution and canonization of this foundational text. It will take a radically different approach from other contesting views to offer a theory of ‘working drafts’ prepared under the direct supervision of Guru Arjan (1563-1606) to understand the making of an early recension in 1604. This text is called Kartarpur Pothi because it is now preserved at Kartarpur in the Jalandhar District of Punjab in India. After the execution of Guru Arjan in 1606 by the orders of Emperor Jahangir, the Sikh community underwent a considerable degree of transformation, which was largely due to external interference in Sikh affairs by the Mughal officials. This unstable situation led to the emergence of different recensions (birs) of the Sikh text. The manuscript evidence has brought to light another recension that was prepared in 1610 during the period of the sixth Guru, Hargobind (1595–1644). It is popularly known as the Lahori bir, because it was found at a shrine in Lahore. The Lahore recension differs from the Kartarpur version only in its concluding section. In 1642 still another recension came into being by the name of Banno bir, which contained some unauthorized material. We will argue that the origin of the Banno recension represents the union of Mina, Hindali, Udasi, Bhatra and Brahminical interests, illuminating the power struggle between different groups within the Sikh community. In order to prevent the circulation of different recensions of the text, the tenth and the last Guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708), closed the canon by adding the works of his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-1675), to the original compilation. This final recension is called Damdama bir, a version that provides the text of the modern Guru Granth Sahib.   

Pashaura Singh is Professor and Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies at the University of California, Riverside. His teaching and research focus on scriptural studies and early Sikh history. He has a sound knowledge of traditional Sikh learning, manuscripts in archaic forms of Gurmukhi script and Indian religious traditions, with a mastery of contemporary issues in textual studies, canonicity, hermeneutics, literary theory, and history of religions. His publications include The Guru Granth Sahib: Canon, Meaning, and Authority (Oxford University Press 2000), The Bhagats of the Guru Granth Sahib: Sikh Self-Definition and the Bhagat Bani” (OUP 2003), and Life and Work of Guru Arjan: History, Memory, and Biography in the Sikh Tradition (OUP 2006). He has also edited six volumes, including Sikhism in Global Context (OUP 2011) and The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies (OUP, UK, 2014). Currently, he is working on the research project on Sacred Melodies: History, Theory and the Performance of Sikh Kirtan.