The Politics of Non-Duality: The Work of Transcendence in Modern Sikh Hermeneutics

Author: Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair

Link: “The Politics of Non-Duality: The Work of Transcendence in Modern Sikh Hermeneutics”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, January 2006: 646-674

About: This article interrogates the ideological foundations of modern Sikh theology as found in the exegetical commentaries on Sikh scripture written by scholars belonging to the neocolonial reformist movement, the Singh Sabha. Drawing on post-structuralist critiques of transcendence, I argue that attempts by the Singh Sabha’s leading ideologue, Bhai Vir Singh (BVS), to construct a hermeneutic faithful to scripture could not avoid transforming what can be termed as the “middle ground” of Sikhism, a ground that is broadly continuous with Indic patterns of time and ontology. Breaking with earlier traditions of exegesis, the form of BVS’s commentary on the nature of the nondual One begins to resemble an ontological proof for God’s existence. Deploying a strategy in which all links to time and sense are systematically erased allows BVS to disguise the work of theological transcendence as a process that’s entirely natural to the meaning of Sikh scripture and by implication continuous with a tradition which claims to reproduce the original teachings of the Sikh Gurus (gurmat). By eclipsing the paradoxical notion of the One common to premodern Indic traditions with a consistent and systematic concept of God, BVS not only lays the foundations for modern “Sikh theology,” he also helps to underwrite the future master narrative of Sikhism as a “world religion.”


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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