In September 1983 I gave some lectures in New Delhi. During
one of them I expressed the need of Sikhs in the West and students
of Sikhism like myself to have available to them a sound version
of the Guru Granth Sahib written in fluent modern English. The
suggestion provoked considerable debate, as it was intended to.
First, I must acknowledge that my use of the word translation
was an unhappy choice. The poetry of the Guru Granth Sahib cannot
be translated. It would have been better had I talked about an
English version of interpretation. My Sikh friends quickly but
politely put me right on this point and I unhesitatingly accept
Discussion, however, continued on other aspects of the issue.
First, it was argued that young Sikhs in Britain, for whom the
need for an English version is acute, must solve the problem by
learning to read gurmukhi. The argument ran along these lines.
Sikhs in India have settled outside the Punjabi-speaking areas
of India for a long time ó in Calcutta or Bombay for example,
and have retained their mother tongue, learning also Bengali,
Hindi, Gujerati, English and other languages. Some accepted my
riposte that India and Britain (or the USA) are very different
societies, and the Punjab seems near to a Calcutta Sikh ó he can
board a train and be in Amritsar within 48 hours at a cost of
less than £10 (which I know is not cheap for many Indians). The
direct link with Punjab seems real and close, there is obvious
value in knowing Punjabi. It is moreover the language which links
him with his community and, together with the turban and the 5
Kís, helps him maintain his distinct identity. If the evidence
of Madras, Calcutta, Bangalore and Bombay is accepted then it
would seem that the non-Punjabi speaking, non-gurmukhi reading
Sikh is a rarity.
However, the evidence coming from Britain is different. Teachers
may not be aware of it and Sikh leaders may not wish to admit
it but the proportion of Sikh young people who can read gurmukhi
is low. There are no figures available, so far as I know, but
if teachers could sensitively and carefully discover the situation
in their secondary schools I am sure they would confirm my assertion.
(I would be pleased to hear from them). Although many gurdwaras
run Punjabi classes more children seem to evade them than attend
them. I find it rare to come across a Sikh teenager who understands
what he hears in the gurdwara. When questioned these young men
and women have never been to India, they regard it as a remote
place, although they are proud of being Sikhs and may keep the
turban and uncut hair at least; they give little priority to retaining
the language. Indeed some will say that English is their mother
tongue. Their spiritual needs must be met in English otherwise,
either they will be Sikhs in little more than appearance, or they
will have to satisfy the needs of the soul through the English
The greatest stumbling block to my request for a sound, fluent,
authorised version was one which surprised me initially, given
that Guru Nanak spoke in the language of the people rather than
using the language of religion, Sanskrit. Presumably it shows
how institutionalised Sikhism, like other religions, has become.
I was reminded by one scholar, that the Guru Granth Sahib is no
ordinary book. It is divine revelation. That revelation would
lose not only meaning and impact but sanctity if it were rendered
into another language. Opinion was strongly divided on this issue.
Some Sikhs declared that if Guru Nanak came to Britain he would
preach in English, others clearly reverenced the sacred language
of the Sikhs as Muslims regard Arabic, though I refrained from
explicit reference to Islam.
The debate is an on-going one. For many Indian Sikhs the prospect
of an authorised English version which, one day, might rest alongside
the gurmukhi Guru Granth Sahib in the gurdwara, or even take its
place, is something they have never before considered. They regard
the prospect with horror. Other Sikhs listened with interest to
my claim that the 23rd Psalm meant as much to me in English or
to an Indian Christian in Punjabi or Hindi as it does to someone
who can read it in Hebrew. Some knew the Judaeo-Christian scriptures
in English and acknowledged their spiritual impact.
Will an English version of the Guru Granth Sahib be installed
in a gurdwara in my lifetime? I donít know (but I have prevented
Trumppís incomplete and unacceptable rendering being used for
an Akhand Path!). Frankly, I have no wish to press for such a
thing or impose my wishes upon a community to which I do not belong,
though I hold it in great respect and affection. My concern is
that its young people may grow up to be Sikhs in every sense of
that word. For the teachers reading this article my hope is that
they may understand the Sikh feelings about their scriptures a
little bit better and, perhaps, consequently, be able to serve
the needs of their Sikh pupils with still more understanding.