ASIAN 430: Philosophy of the Sikh Gurus

Course Level: Undergraduate / Graduate

Course Description: The Sikh Gurus comprise a unique lineage of ten successive spiritual masters who passed on their teachings through a large body poetic compositions of surpassing beauty and directness that are designed to be sung or recited. These teachings (or gurmat) are now enshrined in the two key scriptures of the Sikh tradition: the Guru Granth Sahib and the Dasam Granth, both recognized masterpieces of Indian literature. This course will examine the mystical and philosophical aspects of these teachings and their relation to contemporary practice. At the heart of this course is the following question: how can we interpret these teachings today in a foreign language such as English, and make them relevant to today’s complex world. Specifically we shall be looking at some of the critical terms used by the Sikh Gurus and ask what these terms tell us about the nature of God, the nature of Man, and broader themes such as Time and Language, Self and Mind, Authority, Ethics etc. The aim of the course is to explore aspects of Sikh philosophy, religious experience and ethics. But such an undertaking faces two immediate problems. First, while there are indigenous traditions of Sikh thought, teaching and praxis (collectively called gurmat or simply  sikhī: lit. the teachings of the Guru) going back several centuries, many of these have been affected by Sikhism’s encounter with modernity and imperialism. Second, ever since the first encounters between Asian and Europe in the 19th C, the West has reserved the right to define the terms ‘philosophy’, ‘religion’ and ‘ethics’. Indeed, from this standpoint non-Western cultures, properly speaking, do not have ‘philosophy’. As such, ‘philosophy’ and the task of thinking, despite evidence to the contrary, has come to be regarded  as uniquely European. We see this particularly in the way that philosophical and theoretical knowledge is organized in the modern university system. If other traditions of philosophy are even acknowledged, they exist only at the margins of history, that is to say, as historical, which means no longer alive, or as traditions whose essence has been exhausted.


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Arvind-Pal S. Mandair
Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures 

Tara Singh & Balwant Kaur Chattha, Gurbax Singh & Kirpal Kaur Brar Professor of Sikh Studies

Philosophy/Religion/Postcolonial Theory/Sikh Studies/South Asian Studies

Office: 202 South Thayer Street
Office 6016
Ann Arbor, MI 48104-1608

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