Puran Singh and the Sikh Critique of Singh Sabha Theology
The beginning of the twentieth century is a crucial moment for Sikhs. The colonization of Pañjāb in 1849 and the subsequent ascendency of colonial discourse placed a demand upon Sikhs to modernize their culture and traditions, and to define their religion in terms of a theology, or as Arvind Mandair has argued, as ‘ontotheology’. One prominent Sikh response to this demand is exemplified in the approach of Singh Sabhā, a late nineteenth century Sikh socio-religious reform movement centered in Pañjāb. Through intellectual activity, such as the wide scale publication of theological tracts and essays in Pañjābī, as well as missionary activity, Singh Sabhā sought to preserve Sikh tradition whilst simultaneously redefining and translating that tradition to fit the modernist ontotheological schema. Pūran Singh (1881–1931), a contemporary of Singh Sabhā scholars, resists the interpretation of Sikhī as a theology, and offers an alternative, non-discursive way of expressing Sikh experience. This paper argues that while Pūran Singh’s critique of Singh Sabhā’s theological definition of Sikhī resonates with a variety of different movements, particularly German Romanticism, he ultimately grounds his alternative vision of Sikhī in Sikh tradition itself, ultimately furnishing an indigenous critique of a colonial formation.