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Sikhism in Global Context$

Pashaura Singh

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780198075547

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198075547.001.0001

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(p.267) Appendix A Eulogy for W.H. McLeod*

(p.267) Appendix A Eulogy for W.H. McLeod*

Source:
Sikhism in Global Context
Publisher:
Oxford University Press

(p.267) Appendix A

Eulogy for W.H. McLeod*

N. Gerald Barrier

We are gathered to remember our good friend Hew McLeod. Margaret asked me to say a few words. These will reflect the massive up swell of emotion and grief among Hew’s many friends across the globe.

My wife Joanne and I had the privilege of being with Hew and Margaret several times over the last decade. Hew and I go back a long way, with our first meeting in Batala in 1969. He was one of my two closest friends, and as he would say about his relationship with J.S. Grewal, I am his younger brother. I appreciate Tony [Ballantyne] sharing these thoughts [with those assembled at the funeral on Friday, 24 July 2009 in Dunedin], both personal and a reflection of how a community of friends and scholars has experienced Hew McLeod.

Two events accidently coincided with Hew’s fall a couple of weeks ago. Just a day or so before being hospitalized, he mailed the final proofs of a revised Penguin volume on Sikhism. A little earlier, New Zealand TV ran that wonderful documentary on his life, family, and contributions to Sikhs abroad and in New Zealand. I laughed and cried when I heard Hew described as a ‘New Zealand Success Story’ and an ‘International Superstar’.

That he was, but I would have given much to see his face when those superlatives hit the screen. Although Hew had a much more modest view of himself, I am sure he enjoyed the discussions of his contributions and the story of his life and family. I personally learned many things from the documentary, ranging from a book he wrote, Punjab to Aoteara, and (p.268) never mentioned to me, to the poignant story about Ruthie’s adoption and the letter promising to raise her in a sectarian way.

For me, particular themes also stood out in the half-hour presentation. Hew ventured beyond his comfort zone as a historian working with documents to become an ethnographer and anthropologist, gathering oral material and working in great detail with the memories of individual New Zealand Sikhs.

Hew also appeared as a scribe copying a rare document in Amritsar, soon to be destroyed in the attack on the Golden Temple. Hew frankly straddled the old and new in technology. I remember his old decrepit computer and software, finally evolving into the use of a modern machine with a flat screen. Still, the documents that he collected and which were digitized by Harpreet Singh originally were in Hew’s careful handwriting.

In a broader sense, Hew was an accidental scholar. He had the training and personality to carry out great work, but not until the opportunity came to go to India, where he discovered the Sikhs, did he integrate those skills into a valuable lifetime pursuit of Sikh history.

There, he and Margaret explored their own values, and Hew made a dramatic pivot from activities relating to the pulpit to the university lectern. Ainslie Embree’s account of their discussions about whether to attend church services when he no longer believed dogma is illuminating. Ainslie counselled ‘hold on’ for awhile, but Hew found that to be ‘hypocritical play-acting’. As Ainslie notes, ‘as I got to know him better, I realized that my advice while expedient was contrary to everything he stood for as a person and a scholar. That was at the heart of his greatness, a commitment to truth, and why I so greatly valued his friendship.’

There of course was nothing accidental about what Hew brought to the table, once he began serious research on Sikhism. He had a unique intelligence coupled with a commitment to history, finding the truth, and getting every piece of evidence, small and large, from documents. He pulled no punches when examining Sikh tradition, although characteristically, he frequently interjected phrases such as ‘it is possible’ or ‘the evidence seems to suggest,’ so as to open up dialogue with others who might have different perspectives and use different documents.

The products? A lifetime of unbroken scholarship, books, articles, and conference papers. Hew wrote or edited almost twenty books. He addressed most of the major issues concerning modern Sikhism. As (p.269) numerous associates note in their reflections on Hew’s life, he helped define Sikh Studies. He also trained a new generation of scholars and taught many students who built upon their experiences to move in a variety of directions.

His oldest and most renowned student, Pashaura Singh, holder of the Sikh Chair at the University of California, Riverside, captures that experience:

As my mentor, he taught me skills of scientific inquiry and guided me with gentle care. Right from the beginning of my association with him, he encouraged me to become my own person in the field of Sikh studies. That is what I cherish the most from my experience with him. I still remember that day when it was heavily snowing in Toronto. During the class, I had expressed the desire to see his forthcoming book from Columbia University. In that cold and heavy snow, he walked to my apartment and knocked at the door. When I opened the door, he offered me the galley proofs of his book.

Questioning documents and re-examining traditions necessarily generates opposition, and Hew’s whole life henceforth was filled with controversy. He narrates the issues beautifully in his intellectual autobiography, Discovering the Sikhs. Often, politics, academic jealousy, and a sense of ‘Sikhism in danger’ lay behind the attacks. Specific groups and networks of Sikhs mobilized, publishing books, holding numerous conferences, and at one juncture, spending approximately $10,000 in memberships and fees to get a lot of supporters into an academic seminar for the purpose to challenging Hew and his associates.

No problem; Hew and those of us on the panel held our own. Fighting Hew McLeod turned out to be a very expensive proposition for some Sikhs. Even so, many of his critics have admitted that, as one puts it, ‘his writings have done a lot toward furthering the systematic study of Sikh history at the international level… Sikhs have lost a good friend.’

Something else grew out of the controversies. Hew demonstrated to all of us how to deal with arguments and still preserve one’s dignity and balance.

I.J. Singh, one of his admirers and a lay scholar in his own right, notes, ‘What I saw and admired was a man under siege, but calm as in the eye of the storm.’

A close friend in Canada, T. Sher Singh, has written eloquently about how Hew personified a central Sikh concept, sehaj, or equipoise, solemnity. He had seen Hew honoured and rebuked, healthy and (p.270) weakened by illness, contemplative and energized in debate, acceding to error and defending his findings. He concludes:

I had the pleasure of seeing him in all these facets and never, not once, did I see him lose poise or his ability to smile—that lovely disarming smile of his—or his gentleness or his gentility, or his humanity. There was always grace about him. Frankly I learnt about Sehaj [‘equipoise’] not from the teacher or the friend, but from the Man.

Hew managed to convey that calm and judgment to many of us who were ready to take up arms against the often silly and very personal charges against him and by extension, the ‘McLeod gang’. Many times, I learned to send him a draft of a response to a chat room challenge and he often talked me down or at least had me revise and temper my hot-headed rhetoric.

Doris Jakobsh catches the spirit of such interactions: ‘Hew was an example for those of us who tend to jump first and think later. On occasion, I would get an email from him urging quiet, restraint—something that never did come easily to me. His quiet graciousness towards those who called him “foe” was startling. Moreover, it never wavered. He was and will continue to be in my eyes the finest gentleman scholar I have ever met.’

Hew’s academic contributions were irreplaceable, but there is the very human side that made us not only respect him, but love him.

First, he was a model for total dedication, often shutting out all seemingly extraneous activities. As he noted in the documentary, others have hobbies, Hew had his study. His work ethic was legend. Books and articles rolled out regularly, even as he fought valiantly against a disease that zapped his strength.

While focused, he seemed to be open to everyone and could share his time with others. He changed the lives of scholars and friends around him. All have their Hew McLeod stories. We would send in papers, and almost immediately get detailed replies, queries, and supportive suggestions.

I can think of no better example than the way Himadri Banerjee describes his relationship with Hew. Himadri never met Hew in person, but carried on an extensive correspondence for two decades. He describes Hew as ‘good as my answering machine in the domain of Sikh Studies’. Hew introduced him to those leading the 1987 Toronto Sikh (p.271) Conference. Himadri’s participation threw open a whole new area of understanding Sikhism, in India, but in the Bengal and Orissa area, and conversely, that experience introduced him to the wider scholarship of Sikh Studies. Hew followed Himadri’s rise to international prominence, reading his work, making suggestions, and in general, being a long-range friend.

Van Dusenbery also remembers how Hew encouraged Rashmere Bhatti and Van when they were working on a book about the Sikh community in Wollgoolga. Rashmere venerated Hew as a truly selfless sevadar (one who gives service). Hew gave service to each one of us, and we all are better scholars and human beings because of that sharing and empathy.

Hew identified strongly with the Sikh community. On numerous occasions, he ventured into social settings that potentially could have erupted in calumny and nastiness. At the invitation of I.J. Singh in New York, for example, Hew met with a group of Sikhs, many of whom had heard untrue claims about his research and his intentions. That event ended in Hew resolving issues, with some Sikhs reporting back to I.J. that the meeting was unexpectedly useful and broadened their perspective.

All now know of Hew’s service to the New Zealand Sikh community. The documentary makes clear that his dedication and tedious research helped preserve the record of an evolving Sikh presence and contributed to the local Sikhs’ sense of community and family.

As another summarized Hew’s work, ‘The WHOLE Sikh world should be in mourning; his passing is a huge loss to the quam (nation or community).’

In his last years, Hew became central to the evolution of a new cyber community of scholars. He and I exchanged ideas and news almost daily. Others recount how Hew served as a ‘walking encyclopedia,’ answering endless queries with supportive, gently corrective comments when necessary, and with a humorous edge.

Again, a person who never met Hew personally but knew him well through internet exchanges, Himadri Banerjee, sums it up well: ‘The world is big, but for a few moments, he could make us feel that we belong to a larger family… It is the invisible deathless Hew who has stimulated us over the years. For more than forty years, he has silently been constructing an invisible human bridge that keeps us together.’

(p.272) Hew is gone, but his presence remains. Speaking to the Indian nation after Gandhi’s assassination, Nehru gave one of the most beautiful eulogies ever delivered: ‘The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the Father of the Nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that. Nevertheless, we will never see him again, as we have seen him for these many years. We will not run to him for advice and seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow.’

Then Nehru adds, ‘The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years.’

Hew was no Gandhi, but his light continues to shine. For his friends and fellow scholars throughout the world, he personified serving truth, reminding us of the right path, helping to draw us from error, and establishing a benchmark of honour and trustworthiness.

Hew McLeod lives in our hearts and memory.

Notes:

(*) This eulogy was read at W.H. McLeod’s funeral service on 24 July 2009.