Clearly the body politic of Sikhism - of over 22 million people worldwide - is not and cannot be a monolithic bloc. That would be boring, dull, static and lifeless. Uniformity of vision and homogeneity of thought should not be expected and are not the aims of Sikhism. A living people show divergence in opinion, interpretation and even lifestyle, and so do Sikhs.
But a discussion that started promisingly about the many faces of Sikhs - Jats, non Jats, sects and castes within Sikhism - has been sidetracked to an unrelated area: a referendum on Hew McLeod and his work.
One needs no further proof of the importance of his work than the fact that it is being debated so vociferously.
The nature of academic work is such that conclusions are not written in stone but remain subject to further research and differing viewpoints. In my professional work, for instance, it would be unthinkable to me to find an analytical scholar with whose work I never had an iota of difference in interpretation, or from whose work I would not derive meanings that he/she had not. This is how progress is made.
I look at Jesus the man who walked the earth; a Christian sees Christ, the savior, who embarked on a magical journey. A non-Sikh looks at the historical Nanak; a Sikh looks at the miracle that Nanak wrought. The believer and the non-believer are not necessarily inimical to each other. They are on different paths but neither remains untouched by the other.
We may agree with many of McLeod's formulations or not, in fact, we may even disagree with his premises or methods of research. But I see that he has raised many historical issues that need and deserve exploration and analysis. How we come to terms with many of these questions is ultimately our burden, not Hew McLeod's.
Hew McLeod has also been magnificently supportive of Sikhs in their many causes across the globe. I cite his contribution to the Sikh cause as an expert witness in the matter of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and in the kirpan case.
I look at McLeod's work on textual sources in Sikhism and find it absolutely great. I see how he analyzes Sikh lore and I disagree with him. Sure I differ with him on many matters. Such is the nature of the academic process. Differences do not mean that I see an enemy in Hew McLeod.
Many of the issues raised by Hew McLeod have been debated and discussed by reputable Sikh scholars. Incidentally, in many of the issues that he has explored, differing opinions existed amongst Sikhs long before McLeod came on the scene. Such differences existed among Sikh scholars then and continue to exist today. (Look at the controversy over the events of 1699, historical role of sehajdharis, and the contents of the Dasam Granth as examples.) Differences of opinion have always existed. Look at the role of Baba Teja Singh (Bhasaur), Professor Gurmukh Singh, Giani Dit Singh, even Bhai Kahn Singh (Nabha).
Debate and discuss the differences; hang a man's opinion, not the man who offers it. I hasten to add that I write not to defend Hew McLeod; such defense is unnecessary and unseemly. Much has been written by him and about him and it is all available in the public domain. I submit that little that is new has come out in the debate unfolding on sikhe.com during the past week or so.
We have debated his work. Time will give us a better and fuller measure of the man and his work.
There is a larger issue even more deserving of discussion and it is one that we started with.
Many of the problems that face us are of our own making and of internal origin; we need not look outside of our community to find the enemy. The internal cracks in Sikhism - Jats, non-Jats, castes and sects - are not going to disappear, nor can they be ignored or swept under the rug. Why are we skirting the topic without coming to grips with it? I wonder why is this issue consistently shunted aside by red herrings.
Could it be that for many of us the umbilical cord that binds us to caste, lineage or sect is so strong that we cannot see a life without it?
Let's get back to basics. Let's not ignore something that affects us everyday.
Inder Jit Singh is Professor & Co-ordinator of Anatomy at New York University. Among other publications, he is the author of two books of essays: 'Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias' and 'The Sikhs Way: A Pilgrims Progress' and is on the editorial advisory board of 'The Sikh Review', Calcutta.