Max Arthur Macauliffe

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Max Arthur Macauliffe

Max Arthur Macauliffe (10 September 1841 - 15 March 1913), an English translator of the Sikh scriptures and historian of early Sikhism, was born on September 10, 1841, at Newcastle West, Limerick County, Ireland. He was the first author to bring the Sikh faith to the attention of the "educated intelligencia" of western world.

He was educated at the Newcastle School, Springfield College and Queen's College, Galway. He received a broad humanistic education that allowed him to read the Greek and Latin classics in the original. He also read French and Italian.

At the examination of 1862 he was chosen for the Indian Civil Service and was assigned to the Punjab where he joined his appointment in February 1864. He reached the grade of a Deputy Commissioner in 1882 and became a divisional judge two years later.

His career in the Indian Civil Service has received no special historical note. Although his deep understanding and sympathy for the people of Punjab and their religious traditions doubtless made him a popular civil servant with the people of Punjab, but it also brought him into conflict with his fellow Englishmen in India.

Translator of Sikh scriptures

Max Arthur Macauliffe.

The focus of Maculiffe's life was in his work as a translator and interpretor of Sikhism to the English-speaking world. His interest in Sikhism was sparked by attending a Diwali celebration in Amritsar shortly after arriving in Punjab. In order to understand ceremonies and the importance of the Golden Temple, he undertook a study of Sikhism and especially of the hymns of the Gurus. He found himself deeply engaged by what he studied because of the "sublimity of their style and the high standard of ethics which they indicated."

Macauliffe's studies of Sikhism first appeared in the 'Calcutta Review' in articles published between 1875 and 1881, some of the titles being "Diwali at Amritsar - the Religion of the Sikhs," Calcutta Review, Vol. XI, 1880, 257-272. "The Rise of Amritsar and the Alterations of Sikh Religion," Calcutta Review, Vol. LXXII, 1881, 57-73, and "The Sikh Religion Under Banda and Its Present Condition," Vol. LXXIII, 1881, 155-168. Macauliffe had simultaneously started rendering into English, text from the Sikh Scripture, the Granth Sahib. This led many educated Sikhs to anticipate a new translation of the Holy Book to correct the shortcomings of Dr. Ernest Trumpp's work, which had been commissioned by the India Office and published in 1877.

On May 3, 1893, the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Ferozpur, where Macauliffe was then posted as a divisional judge wrote a letter which was forwarded to him by the chief secretary of the Khalsa Diwan, Lahore, urging him to put in hand a full scale rendering of the Holy Book. As more and more Sikhs were learning the English language, such a translation, the letter said, had become the need of the community. Dr. Trumpp's translation was utterly unsatisfactory and that the government money spent on it had been a total waste. The Singh Sabha's requested Macauliffe to persuade the government to assign him this work as they had Dr. Trumpp.

Maucauliffe resigns to start the translation

It became increasingly evident to Macauliffe that the massive work of translating the Guru Granth Sahib and writing a definitive of Sikhism could not be combined with his responsibilities as a full-time civil servant. Yet he could not afford to renounce his official employment. He had already lost nearly a lakh (lakh = 100,000) of rupees in some of the commercial companies going bankrupt. However, on the assurance of the Khalsa Diwan, that Sikhs would muster funds for him and on the assurance of Raja Bikram Singh, whom he had met in Faridkot, that he would pay his six months salary as divisional judge and secure support from other sources, Macauliffe resigned service in 1893.

Help came especially from such princely patrons as Raja Hira Singh of Nabha, Maharaja Rajinder Singh of Patiala, Raja Ranbir Singh of Jind, Tikka Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, Sardar Ranjit Singh of Chachhrauli and the Gaekwad of Baroda. But Macauliffe's liabilities exceeded the assistance he received, and this was not his only problem.

In his published letter of December 25, 1899, he explained how he had employed gianis and writers and how he had, on that account, incurred by that time a debt of Rs. 35,000. He also raised the point about money that would be needed to cover the printing costs.

Lives of the Sikh Gurus to be included

Specifying the scope of the work, he said that he would append to the translation a section on the lives of the Ten Gurus as well as the Bhagats whose compositions were included in the Guru Granth Sahib. The lives of the Gurus, he elaborated, would be based on Sikh texts such as "Suraj Prakash" and the "Gur Bilases" that he had studied during his stay in Amritsar.

Macauliffe was also conscious of the limitations of the contemporary Sikh scholarship. As far back as 1886, he had said in a lecture at the annual session of the Lahore Singh Sabha that the Guru Granth Sahib was matchless as a Book of Holy teachings, but, regrettably, there were only about 50 Sikhs in the whole of Punjab who could interpret it.

Dedicated work undertaken

Long before his retirement, Macauliffe had established deep and continuing contact with leading Sikh scholars and had mastered the necessary linguistic tools. He studied a number of Indian and related languages in order to master the textual complexities of the Holy Book. Among these languages, he mentions, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Arabic, Persian, Marathi, Gujrati and Punjabi, in its various dialects.

While in India, Macauliffe made his home at Amritsar - on Cantonment Road. He also lived in Nabha, and spent time in Mussoorie and Dehra Dun. His extensive works of translation and historical research were brought together in his magnus opus, "The Sikh Religion, Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors," published by Oxford in 1909.

The exposition of the Sikh scriptural texts had come down by word of mouth through hereditary gianis (professional interpretors) or sectarian schools such as Udasi and Nirmala. No published exegetical works were till then available. Orthodox Sikhs felt that the interpretation of the holy writ was best served by on the lips of the believers and were reluctant to deliver up the texts to writers to try their hands at fathoming their meaning and thus taking liberties with the Guru's word.

Efforts before had been unsatisfactory

Under the influence of the Singh Sabha renaissance, Maharaja Bikram Singh of Faridkot, had appointed in 1877 a synod of Sikh scholars to prepare a commentary on the Guru Granth Sahib, but the work had not yet been published. In 1877, Trumpp's translation appeared, which, besides being untrustworthy, was tendentious and polemical and had offended Sikh sentiment. Led by his ideological zeal, Dr. Trumpp allowed odium theologicum to assert itself in his work.

How completely ignorant he was of the Sikh tradition was all to apparent when, at a conference of Sikh scholars he had summoned, he pulled out a cigar and started smoking it in the presence of the Sacred Book. He chided the Sikh divines for their lack of knowledge of Sanskrit which, he said, he knew so well. Macauliffe's main aim in undertaking his own translation was to make reparation to the Sikhs for the injury caused by Trumpp's work.

Some of the other advantages he foresaw were the presentation to the outside world of the excellence of the Sikh religion and making available to the new generation of English speaking Sikhs who could now read their sacred literature in English translation.

Service of prominent scholars secured

Macauliffe secured from Maharaja Sir Hira Singh of Nabha the services of Bhai Kahn Singh, the royal tutor. Bhai Kahn Singh, who later won fame with his authoritative and monumental "Gurshabad Ratnakar Mahan Kosh", an encyclopaedia of Sikh literature, was the most lettered Sikh of the day and he combined the knowledge of English with his vast classical learning.

With his help, Macauliffe, worked the Guru Granth Sahib through and settled down to translating it. He also maintained active liaison with all the important contemporary exegetes of the sacred Word such as Bhai Sardul Singh Giani, Bhai Sant Singh of Kapurthala, Bhai Fateh Singh, Bhai Darbara Singh, Bhai Bhagwan Singh of Patiala, Bhai Dasaundha Singh of Ferozpur and Giani Ditt Singh. A few gianis he kept in his regular employ all the time. His house in Amritsar was like a school of Divinity where theological discussion and literary and linguistic hair-splitting went on all the time.

The service of Gianis bears fruit

This excessive dependence on the gianis was the result of Macauliffe's anxiety to avoid the pitfalls Dr. Trumpp had run into and produce a translation which would be acceptable to the Sikh people. Dealing with the gianis was not an easy task. Some of them had a decided objection to sharing their sacred knowledge with a European.

None of them knew any English and hardly any two agreed in their interpretations. It took Macauliffe all his patience and skill to decide between rival and contradictory versions. He also sought the advice of English knowing Sikh scholars and circulated among them scripts of the different portions of the Guru Granth Sahib he had translated.

Letters of appreciation flood in

The Japji, for instance, he sent to Bhagat Lakshman Singh who revised it with the help of his brother Bhagat Balmukand, a law graduate, and his udasi friend who was a great Sanskrit scholar. Macauliffe also sent copies to some Sikh dignitaries and to eminent men of letters abroad. He was in return flooded with letters of appreciation.

Divan Leila Ram, Subordinate Judge of Hyderabad, Sind, wrote to him on February 9, 1898, saying that he had gone through nearly 25 translations of the Japji - some in English and others in Persian, Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, etc., but none of them matched his translation in accuracy and quality. Likewise letters were received from Baba Sir Khem Singh Bedi (May 1, 1889), the Raja Sahib Faridkot (February 24, 1898), Baba Sumer Singh, Mahant Sri Patna Sahib (January 8, 1898), Bhai Kahn Singh, then Nazim, Nabha State (February 5, 1889), Bhai Hazara Singh Giani, Amritsar (February 9, 1898) and Dr. Sunder Singh, Penang (January 29, 1898).

Among the European scholars who wrote to him were J.A. Grierson (January 11, 1898), Sir William Hunter (October 7, 1898), Sir Edwin Arnold (October 27, 1898) and Professor Max Muller (December 15, 1898).

Translation to be scrutinised

When the work was completed, Macauliffe requested for a committee of Sikh clergymen to examine his translation. He was invited by the custodians of Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, to address from Sri Akal Takhat Bunga an assembly of Sikhs on the subject of his translation. The occasion was marked by unbounded enthusiasm and jubilation and there was a tremendous ovation for the speaker. Colonel Jawala Singh, Superintendent of the Golden Temple, proposed a committee consisting of Bhai Sardul Singh, Bhai Sant Singh and Bhai Prem Singh to scrutinize the translation. The proposal was approved by the congregation.

While the committee worked, three akhand-paths or continuous recitals of the Guru Granth Sahib were held for the success of Macauliffe's work and a special prayer was offered for him personally. The committee finally recorded the following opinion:

"We, through the agency of learned Sikhs acquainted with English, have carefully perused the translation of the hymns of the Granth Sahib by Mr. Macauliffe. The perusal cost us a month and a half of continuous labour. Wherever any of us found what seemed to be an error we all met, discussed the passage, and either corrected it or allowed Mr. Macauliffe's translation to stand.

Therefore we now state that Mr. Macauliffe's translation has been fully revised by us, and is thoroughly correct. The greatest care has been taken in making the translation conformable to the religious tenets of the Sikhs. The translation is quite literal and done according to all grammatical and rhetoric rules."

History of the Sikh Gurus and Bhagats added

To the translation, Macauliffe added accounts of the lives of the Gurus and of the saints and sufis whose hymns form part of the Guru Granth Sahib, and proceeded to England with the fruit of labour of a lifetime. Arrangements for the publication of the work were made with the Oxford University Press. Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha, remained with him in England to check proofs. In 1909, the book was out in six stout volumes, a consummation which must have greatly pleased Macauliffe's heart and compensated him with the disappointments which, not unoften, are the lot of people engaged in the labour of love.

Lack of Government backing

Macauliffe's one regret was that his work had not received Government patronage. The Punjab Government had recommended a sum of rs. 15,000 by way of an advance grant to him against copies of the translation to be supplied when published. The Secretary of State, Lord Morley, reduced it to Rs. 5,000. Macauliffe felt slighted and declined the paltry sum. the Lt. Governor of Punjab, Sir William Mackworth Young, had opposed the grant on the grounds of religious neutrality which drew from Macauliffe the caustic remark that: "there is no Anglo-Indian official who can rise superior to his weak intellect and prejudices."

Taking the hint from the attitude of the Government, a section of the Sikh community also cooled off. The Sikh Educational Conference, held in Rawalpindi in 1911, refused to sponsor a resolution commending the translation. Macauliffe sat in the evening a dejected man eating alone in his hotel room in Rawalpindi cantonment. He had been rejected by the people whom he had given his lifeblood and he wanted not dine in the hall with the British who shunned his company for having "turned a Sikh". He was also disappointed that it had not been possible for him to publish his translation to synchronize with the celebration in 1899 of the 200th birth anniversary of the Khalsa.

Macauliffe passes away

On March 15, 1913, Macauliffe passed away in his London home - Sinclair Gradens, West Kensington. His Punjabi assistant, Muhammad, who knew little English, wrote in his simple inadequate way to Bhai Kahn Singh, one of Macauliffe's valued colleagues in India, informing him of the sorrowful event:

"1913 March two-day [today] Friday 21 [March] Sir dear Sardar Mr. Kahn Singh good morning Much better you look I am sorry you now dear friend very good dear not come India and I am sorry Saturday 15 [March] twonight last time it is 8 o'clock past 10 minute lost Sir dear lost Mr Macauliffe a sleep London now and I am sorry....."

Reciting the Japji sahib 10 minutes before

In this letter, which is preserved in the Dr. Ganda Singh collection in Patiala, Muhammad said that Macauliffe was reciting the Sikh prayer, Japji, 10 minutes before his death. Macauliffe left no direct descendants. The people he mentioned in his will for the largest benefits lived in Ireland.

The news of his death caused widespread sorrow, and to his numerous friends in Punjab it came as a great personal shock. The Sikh Educational Conference which was meeting a week later in Ambala for its annual session adopted a resolution condoling his death. The Sikhs of Rawalpindi set up Macauliffe Memorial Society and sought to raise funds to establish a library in his honour, but the response was so far from encouraging.

The meagre sum of Rs.3,245 which was collected was offered to the University of Punjab, Lahore, for the endowment of a medal in memory of Mr. Macauliffe, but they declined to accept it for the reason that the competition the donors proposed was to be restricted to the Sikh community alone. The sum was eventually handed over to Khalsa College, Amritsar, which now awards annually out of the interest accrued, the Macauliffe Memorial Medal to the writer of the best essay on a given topic.

Place of honour

Macauliffe will always occupy a honoured place in the hall of fame of the Sikhs. He translated portions from their scriptures with rare love and devotion and identified himself completely with their heritage and destiny. He delivered lectures and presented papers on Sikhism at many different places.

In 1897, he read a paper, "Holy Writings Of The Sikhs" before the Aryan Section of the Congress of Orientalists in Paris. Two years later he presented a paper "Life And Teachings Of Guru Gobind Singh" at the Orientalists Congress in Rome. In his general lectures and writings, Macauliffe, showed much concern for the state of Sikhism and deplored many weaknesses that had crept in. He, for instance, deeply regretted what he called "the abolition of Sikhism as a State religion in Kapurthala" when its ruler apostatized himself by renouncing the Sikh form.

The quality of Macauliffe's translation have been criticized, ungratefully and unreasonably - as being too plain and matter-of-fact. It is true that his sensitiveness to the Sikh sentiment and his emphasis on accuracy somewhat inhibited his style. Yet there is a classic grace and chastity in his self-imposed austerity. His is a work of high excellence and dignity and has, over the years, been a beacon in the Sikh literary world.

For as long as there is anyone wanting to explore the faith through the medium of English language, Max Arthur Macauliffe's name will live; so will his six precious volumes inscribed to the Sikh religion. Historically too, Macauliffe's translation is important for it records the interpretation of the sacred texts as orally communicated by gianis from generation to generation. It, thus preserves a valuable tradition and has become a key to the understanding of the Sikh thought.


Macauliffe went on to convert to Sikhism in the 1860s[1] and was even derided by his British employers for having "turned a Sikh"[2]

His personal assistant remarked in his memoirs that on his death bed, Macauliffe could be heard reciting the Sikh morning prayer, Japji, ten minutes before passing away.[2]

Macauliffe is held in high esteem among the Sikh communion, in particular the intelligentsia, for his monumental translation into English of the Sikh Scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib. At a lecture at the annual session of the Lahore Singh Sabha Macauliffe proclaimed that the Guru Granth was matchless as a book of holy teachings.[2]

He was awarded the degree of M.A. (honoris causa) by his alma mater in 1882. MacAuliffe died at his home in London on 15 March 1913.

  • based on article Matchless Scholar of Sikh Lore by Professor Harbans Singh

See also

External Links


  • Macauliffe, M.A (1909). The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus Sacred Writings and Authors. Low Price Publications. ISBN 8175361328.


Mirror Links to e-books


  1. ^ University of Ireland
  2. ^ a b c SikhChic