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on 17 January 2000
This book has been shrouded in controversy ever since the author, Canadian academic Harjot Oberoi, was hounded out the chair of Sikh Studies at the university of British Columbia, Canada. Coincidentally, it was the same Chandigarh based academic who had individually failed to get his job as professor of Sikh studies that were his main detractors when this book was published. The Construction of Religious Boundaries opens by recreating 19th century Sikhism - it's religious beliefs, cultural practices and traditions. After reading the initial section it is quite obvious that no writer on Sikh history has carried such a comprehensive task as Oberoi in piecing together early Sikh though and practices. In essence, 19th century Sikhism had no set rules, there was no common belief structure, religious power was held by Guru families and the continuation of Guru tradition, there was an equal veneration of Guru Granth Sahib and Dasam Granth, Caste distinctions were very strong and Dharamsalas were run by hereditary Mahants. This section naturally leads onto the arrival of the British, but more critically the influence of the British on Sikhs and Sikhism, and consequently the creation of a zealous, reformist Sikh intelligentsia. It is this group of reformist Sikhs, the political Akalis, that Oberoi argues, created a standardised version of Sikhism. In this standardised version Sikhism attained new lifecycle rituals (births marriages deaths), a new calendrical cycle and new symbols and power structures. In summary the creation of an -ism and hence the new religious boundaries between those that defined themselves as Sikh and those that defined themselves as Hindus. Having read the book, I fail to see what the controversy is about. This book is a real eye opener and helps to trace the roots of the malaise that Sikhs are currently in with the uneasy religious power structures and conflicting religious beliefs. The real controversy lies in why Sikhs have allowed political parties to re-invent Sikhism to best suites their political ends and why we do not allow voices to challenge or to foster an open debate. This book, however, is a challenge to read. It is written by an academic for academics, and is a book that requires patience and a dictionary to get through.
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