Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Teaching ‘Philosophy of Sikhism’

Alex:  It seems 2022 was an interesting year for you in terms of publications. Your bookViolence and the Sikhs came out in March, and this was followed barely 6 months later with the release of your new monograph Sikh Philosophy: Exploring Gurmat Concepts in a Decolonizing Age. And in November there was a panel around this book at the American Academy of Religion Meeting in Denver. Seems like it would be quite a hectic schedule getting two sets of book proofs done within a few weeks of each other. What was the reception like for the book at the AAR meeting? 

ASM: Indeed! It was definitely hectic at the proof stage. I barely had time to take a breather before the next set of proofs landed on my desk. I hadn’t meant for both books to come out in the same year. The plan was for the Violence book to come out in 2021, but I think the pandemic was still slowing things down at the production stages. And yes, the AAR panel around the book went very well. The respondents were Ananda Abeyesekara (Virginia Tech), Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach (Free University of Amsterdam) and Jeffrey Long (Elizabethtown College) with Puninder Singh (University of Michigan) presiding. There was a decent sized audience with some very engaged academics from Europe, the UK, the USA and Canada—most of them scholars of Indian philosophy. The proceedings of the panel will most likely be published in a comparative philosophy journal. My feeling is that there will be other events around this book along the way, but this a nice way to kick things off. 

Alex:  I see that you’re teaching ‘Philosophy of Sikhism’ as a 500-level graduate seminar. It strikes me as a carefully chosen title. Why not call the course ‘Sikh Philosophy’ after your book? Is there a difference between the two titles? 

ASM:  That’s a fair question. The only major difference is that ‘Philosophy of Sikhism’ investigates the emergence of a body of literature that goes by that title, in particular Sher Singh’s 1944 work Philosophy of Sikhism which is one of the founding texts of this area of study. Philosophy of Sikhism has a ‘history of ideas’ dimension to it which it takes seriously the intersection between religion and philosophy. ‘Sikh Philosophy,’ on the other hand, uses the term ‘spirituality’ instead of ‘religion.’ Otherwise they’re practically the same.

Alex:  Can you tell us a bit about the make-up of the course and how you’ve framed it? 

ASM:  Sure! So the version of the course I’m teaching in Winter 2023 examines the philosophical teachings of Sikhism, which is one of the younger spiritual-philosophical traditions of India. The origins of Sikh philosophy can be found in the teachings of a lineage of successive spiritual masters whose thought and practice reworked key concepts of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist philosophies in new and innovative ways. I’ve divided it into three parts. Part 1 develops the cultural background and history (from the premodern period into colonial modernity) behind the emergence of Sikh philosophy and situates the topic in the contemporary humanities. We look at the figure of Guru Nanak and do a quick overview of the central literature and primary sources and key thinkers. Part 2 is a systematic survey of some of the key philosophical concepts in the lexicon of Sikh philosophy. Each week students are introduced to some of the key concepts of Sikh philosophy and how they inform its vision of life. Early in the course we also look at the encounter between Sikhism, Western philosophy and religion in the 19th and 20th centuries—an encounter which gave rise to modern formulations of Sikh philosophy. We then dive into Sikh philosophical concepts to see what they can tell us about the nature of reality; the relationship between mind/self/ego; whether it is possible to discern broad contours of Sikh logic, epistemology, ontology and how it differs from Western thought. Specifically, we shall be looking at some of the critical terms used by the Sikh Gurus and ask how these terms address themes such as the nature of consciousness, theism/atheism, spirituality, death and rebirth, liberation, time/language, the nature of self and mind, and—of course—ethics. Part 3 of the course looks at the application of Sikh philosophical concepts in contemporary global issues (e.g. social & political activism, climate change, medical ethics, capitalism). This is the part where I expect the students to apply their knowledge of the concepts to these areas and develop a podcast around it in consultation with me. 

Alex:  What’s the student profile like? 

ASM: Remember this is a graduate seminar meant for MA and Ph.D students. I was expecting 2 or 3 students at the most, but to my surprise the class filled up really quickly. The student profile is really interesting. A couple of them are MS students working in sustainability and environment. Another is interested in climate change and mental health, whereas others are in art and architecture, a graduate student form the philosophy department, one from the English department, two from Asian Languages and Cultures, and one from the Law School. Of course, this creates its own challenge because I have to try and try and ensure they remain receptive to philosophical ideas and to keep them on the same plane during discussions. But the discussions promise to be vibrant if nothing else.