Dr. W. Hew Mcleod

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May his soul rest in peace

Dr. W.H Mcleod

Dr. W. Hew Mcleod or Professor William Hewat McLeod (2 August 1932 - 20 July 2009), was a prolific and highly controversial scholar, professor and author of Sikh studies who was born in New Zealand. The son of a sheep-farmer and belonging to the Presbyterian church, he had come to Punjab, the north Indian border province that has a Sikh majority population, as a Christian missionary in 1958. He then settled down in Batala town, 40 km from Amritsar; while living away from home, Mcleod found his interest in Christianity waning and Sikh history a growing interest.

Mcleod played a major role in establishing and popularising the academic study of Sikhism outside India. He leaves behind a body of work on Sikhism which will be a source of reference for the coming generations of Sikh and scholars of Sikhism. Much of his work was also found un factual and incorrect, but unfortunately many of his followers continue to use his work without providing reference to those who academically responded to him.

His work on Sikhi may continue to be controversial, and it created a wider debate among Sikhs and students of this religion. McLeod was unable to respond to those who debated with him and brushed them off with a few words and zingers. That has certainly helped bring the history and concepts of Sikhism to the attention of many people who would not have had access to these ideas, though the access he provided gave the wrong impression on the Sikh people to his audiences. He was a pioneering and extraordinary scholar combining passion and humility in his approach to Sikh history in a way rarely seen amongst academics. Many academics continue to do groundbreaking work to portray the correct and factual version of a faith, which was misrepresented by others.

Early life

Hew, as he was known, was born on 2 August 1932 and raised in a farming family near Fielding, in New Zealand's North Island. He completed his schooling at Nelson college before attending the University of Otago, Dunedin, where he undertook a BA and then an MA in history. He also met Margaret Wylie there, and in May 1955 they got married.

He then began theological studies and in 1958, with his wife and son, Rory, joined the New Zealand Presbyterian church's mission to Punjab. At Kharar, in Punjab, he learned Hindi and Punjabi as well as teaching English at the Christian Boys secondary school. He found that his lack of training as a language teacher and his New Zealand accent made this task difficult.

Interest in Sikhs

Hew escaped these concerns by immersing himself in studying the Punjab, especially the Sikhs, a community that quickly captured his imagination. This new interest was developed further when the family, which by then included sons Michael and Shaun, spent an extended period in England, where Hew studied for a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1965. While in London, Hew and Margaret adopted a half-Punjabi baby girl, Ruth. When the family returned to Punjab, Hew took a job teaching history at Baring Union Christian college at Batala.

Hew McLeod taught in Punjab for nine years and there developed a life-long interest in the Sikhs. In 1971 he returned to the History Department of the University of Otago in Dunedin, where he remained until his retirement in 1998. His first book was "Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion", published in 1968. Since then he has produced another fifteen books on Sikh history and religion. These include critical studies, translations, and a dictionary

Wrote many books connected with Sikh & Punjab Studies

Mcleod wrote several books, including "Guru Nanak and Sikh Religion" (translated into Punjabi by Amritsar's Guru Nanak Dev University), "The Evolution of Sikh Community", "The Sikhs - History, Religion and Society", "Sikhs of the Khalsa" and many others. He did his PhD on Sikh history from the University of London.

  • 1955: MA University of New Zealand
  • 1965: PhD University of London
  • 1990: DLit University of London
  • 1999: FRSNZ

Described by many as an "unsung success story" who acquired "global repute" with his work as a historian, Mcleod left New Zealand in 1958 to work as a missionary in northern Punjab. He taught Punjab history at Baring College in Batala town before his interest as a missionary started to fade. Unimpressed with the existing studies at that time on the Sikh Gurus, Mcleod got immersed in Sikh history and religion and even Punjabi, a language he learnt to speak with ease. He lost all interest and contact with the church as he pursued Sikh history.


Some of his books and research came in for criticism from Sikh scholars but there were many who admired his tireless work on Sikhism.

W.H. Mcleod, the man from faraway New Zealand who came to Punjab in the 1950s as a Christian missionary but ended up being a globally-reputed historian on Sikhs has passed away. He was dedicated over four decades of his life in researching Sikh history, died in Dunedin on Monday night.

Hew McLeod came to Punjab half a century earlier as a missionary. His mission was to convert people to Christianity. Last Monday, when he died, had he not proclaimed himself largely an agnostic, many would have rushed to dub him almost a Sehajdhari Sikh.

Much did McLeod for Sikhism, and much gave Sikhism to McLeod. His life time’s work was the study of the Sikhs, and McLeod opened the window of the world to Sikhism. He lived a rich life, full of pursuit of truth, his fair share of controversies, an impressive body of writing and a commitment to the cause he found that lasted a lifetime.

Important name in the field of Sikh Studies

To say that McLeod was an important name in Sikhism’s scholarship will be an understatement. As I.J. Singh wrote in a brilliant piece meant as a tribute to McLeod, he was “gentleman and a scholar” who was an “ex-missionary … not left untouched by the richness of Sikh teaching and faith” but most importantly “who has done more to introduce Sikhism to the world outside India than anyone else.”

That there was immense criticism of his work is a measure of the man as a scholar, and the special articles that this edition carries on inside pages about him reflect a diversity of opinion about McLeod’s approach and methodology.

Often, McLeod’s interpretations ran contrary to more accepted and acceptable interpretations of Prof Sahib Singh or even Macauliffe and never really answered the charge of misinterpreting Gurbani but wanted his readers to judge him for that.

Traditionalist or factual writer?

There are many who will find his tagging of the Institute of Sikh Studies as ‘traditionalist’ and many scholars’ work as ‘conservative’, problematic, but we must remember that while all historians may honestly try (Few do, of course), complete objectivity may be an ideal that may still not be within grasp. Further proof that historians are humans, too.

We have heard suggestions that McLeod’s approach was historical and the others’ based on belief. This is somewhat specious. There is an argument that having being taught in western tradition, McLeod’s way was to cast all aside and only accept what was backed by facts.

This is tantamount to saying that all who preceded him or differed were guilty of having wrong facts. A historian’s truth is often relative, just like everyone’s else. Thankfully, in his autobiography, McLeod concedes that his work has all the limitations that the Western historical methods impose.


W. Hew McLeod died at 11.00 pm, Monday, July 20, 2009 (New Zealand time) in Dunedin, New Zealand, after a lengthy illness. He was 77. The World Sikh News mourns his death and also holds that the best way to pay tribute to a scholar who has lived a life so extraordinarily rich is to try and re-engage with his work.

It is a sign of the times that in Punjab, virtually no newspaper carried even the news of the death of Hew McLeod even on Wednesday, except a local edition of the Hindustan Times. In the dumbed down times, McLeod’s work and its criticism assume all the more importance.

Books by McLeod

  1. Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. Oxford: the Clarendon Press (1968). First Indian ed., rev. Delhi: OUP (1976). Third impression 1988. Oxford India Paperbacks 1996, 1998, 2001. xii, 259p. Reprinted as a part of the omnibus volume Sikhs and Sikhism (New Delhi: OUP, 2000).
  2. The Evolution of the Sikh Community. Delhi: OUP (1975). Oxford: the Clarendon Press (1976). viii, 119p. Oxford India Paperbacks 1996, 1998. xi, 127p. Reprinted as a part of the omnibus volume Sikhs and Sikhism (New Delhi: OUP, 2000). ).
  3. Early Sikh Tradition. A study of the janam-sakhis. Oxford: the Clarendon Press (1980). xiv, 317p. Reprinted as a part of the omnibus volume Sikhs and Sikhism (New Delhi: OUP, 2000).
  4. Punjabis in New Zealand: A history of Punjabi migration, 1890-1940. Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University (1986). Illus, maps. iv, 199p.
  5. The Sikhs: history, religion, and society. New York: Columbia University Press (1989). ix, 161p.
  6. Who is a Sikh? The problem of Sikh identity. Oxford: the Clarendon Press (1989). New Delhi: OUP (1989). New Delhi: OUP (Oxford India Paperbacks 2002). x, 140p. Reprinted as a part of the omnibus volume Sikhs and Sikhism (New Delhi: OUP, 2000).
  7. Popular Sikh Art. A selection of bazaar posters with accompanying text. Delhi: OUP (1991). Illustrated. xi, 139p.
  8. Punjab to Aotearoa: migration and settlement of Punjabis in New Zealand 1890-1990. With S. S. Bhullar. Hamilton: New Zealand Indian Association Country Section (Inc.) (1992). Illustrated. 177p.
  9. Historical Dictionary of Sikhism. Lanham, Md., and London: Scarecrow Press (1995). 323p. Reprinted for South Asia by the Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, with Addendum to the Bibliography. 349p. Second edition revised and enlarged published by the Scarecrow Press, 2005.
  10. Sikhism. London: Penguin Books (1997). 334p.
  11. Gandhi and Indian Independence. With Richard Webb. Auckland: Macmillans (1998). 108p.
  12. Sikhs and Sikhism. Omnibus volume containing reprints of Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, Early Sikh Tradition , The Evolution of the Sikh Community , and Who is a Sikh? , all originally published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford, and Oxford University Press, New Delhi. New Delhi: Oxford University Press (1999). 259+317+127+140p.
  13. Exploring Sikhism: aspects of Sikh identity, culture, and thought. Collected articles. New Delhi: Oxford University Press (2000). 288p.
  14. Sikhs of the Khalsa: a history of the Khalsa Rahit. New Delhi: Oxford University Press (2003). xvi, 482p.
  15. Discovering the Sikhs: autobiography of a historian. Delhi: Permanent Black (2004). xii, 245p.
  16. The B40 Janam-sakhi. An English translation with introduction and annotations of the India Office Library Gurmukhi manuscript Panj. B40 , a janam-sakhi of Guru Nanak compiled in A.D. 1733 by Daya Ram Abrol. Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University (1980). xiv, 32, 271p.
  17. Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism. Manchester: Manchester University Press (1984). Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1990). x, 166p.
  18. The Chaupa Singh Rahit-nama. The rahit-nama attributed to Chaupa Singh Chhibbar and the associated prose rahit-nama attributed to Nand Lal. Gurmukhi text and English translation with introduction and notes. Dunedin: University of Otago Press (1987). 260p.
  19. Prem Suma´rag: the testimony of a Sanatan Sikh. An eighteenth-century rahit-nama with introduction. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006. 129p.
  20. Part 2 of Sikhs of the Khalsa comprises translations of 21 works consisting of proto-rahit compositions, rahit-namas, and other Rahit material. Accepted for publication by OUP, New Delhi. Translation from Punjabi of Prem Sumarag , an eighteenth-century rahit-nama. The Punjabi printed edition is 151p in length.
  21. Published work edited: Henry Steinbach, The Punjaub (1st ed. London, 1846). 2nd edition, with introduction by W. H. McLeod. Karachi: Oxford University Press (Oxford in Asia Historical Reprints) (1976). xxxiv, 183p.
  22. Guru´ Na´nak de udesh. Punjabi translation of Part V of Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion. Translator: Mohan Jit Singh. Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University (1974). 115p.
  23. The Sants: studies in a devotional tradition of India. Ed. Karine Schomer and W. H. McLeod. Berkeley: Berkeley Religious Studies Series; Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass (1987).
  24. Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Joseph T. O'Connell, Milton Israel, Willard G. Oxtoby, W. H. McLeod, and J. S. Grewal. Toronto: University of Toronto Centre for South Asian Studies (1988).
  25. The Sikhs of the Punjab. A text for use in secondary schools. First N.Z. edition published by Graphic Educational Publications, Auckland (1968). Second N.Z. edition by Whitcombe & Tombs, Auckland (1970). Indian edition by Lyall, Ludhiana (1969). U.K. edition by Oriel Press, Newcastle-on-Tyne (1970). 32p.
  26. The Way of the Sikh. For children 10-12 years. Amersham, U.K.: Hulton Educational Publications (1975 and four reprints). 60p.
  27. A List of Punjabi Immigrants in New Zealand 1890-1939. Hamilton, Country Section of the Central Indian Association (1984). Illustrated. 82p.
  28. The Life of Guru Nanak according to Bhai Gurdas. Trans. with brief introduction and notes of Bhai Gurdas's Var 1, stanzas 23-45, and Var 11, stanzas 13-14. The Panjab Past and Present III.1 and 2 (1969), 32-44.
  29. The Mahima Prakas Varatak: a History of the Ten Gurus. Trans. with introduction and notes of the portion dealing with Guru Nanak. The Panjab Past and Present III.1 and 2 (1969), 54-87.
  30. Essays in Sikh History, Tradition, and Society. To be published by Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Views on Mcleod

W.H. McLeod: A Pioneer in Sikh Studies

  • Kushwant singh stated him pioneer of sikh studies Khushwant Singh fails to appreciate that the true measure of the Singh Sabha movement's success at distilling the Sikh rahit tradition will continue to escape us unless we gain access to tools that allow us to contrast the current rahit with its flawed predecessors. McLeod's book Sikhs of the Khalsa: A History of the Khalsa Rahit is one such essential tool. It is critical that the blemishes present in the current edition of the Sikh Rahit Maryada be viewed not in isolation but in context with earlier textual versions of the rahit. However, the intellectual lethargy Khushwant displays here is not new. Other notable instances include blatant support (until much after it's conclusion) for Indira Gandhi's fascist Emergency rule (1975-1977) and the failure to denounce (again, until well after its conclusion; Jun. 20, 2003) state-sponsored terrorism in the Punjab (1984-1995).
  • I.J. Singh, an academic said "He became an international authority on the religion, perhaps the best known outside Punjab and India, and the man who has done more to introduce Sikhism to the world outside India than anyone else," said . "It is because of a few writers, and Hew McLeod above all, that the world has any inkling of Sikhism as an independent religion, with a unique, universal and timeless world view. He brought Sikhism to Western academia," Singh wrote Tuesday on an international website on Sikhs.
  • "It (his death) is a huge loss to the Sikh community. He always added a fresh perspective to the development and history of the Sikhs as opposed to the traditional view of romanticising it overly," said Punjab-based author of the book "Sikhs Unlimited" Khushwant Singh.

It will be fair to conclude that McLeod’s work helped the western world in trying to understand Sikhism in terms that the west was familiar with, while the Sikhs already knew only too well what to believe. Their notion of religion flows from Guru Nanak Dev ji to Guru Gobind Singh ji and from Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

Responses to McLeod by Sikh Scholars

Many scholars, historians, theologians, intellects, etc. have academically responded to the misinterpretations and nonfactual writings of McLeod.

Here are some books and writings in general by various accomplished intellects that respond to McLeod:


Other historians, scholars, intellects etc. that responded to McLeod (general list - to name a few):

Judge Gurdev Singh,
S. Daljeet Singh,
Jagjit Singh,
Kharak Singh,
Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon,
Gurtej Singh,
Dr. J. S. Mann,
Gurbakhsh Singh,
Dr Trilochan Singh,
Dr. Ganda Singh,
Fauja Singh,
Harbans Singh,
Justice Choor Singh,
Dr. Balwant Singh Dhillon,
Surinder Singh Kohli,
Surinder Singh Sodhi,
Gobind Singh Mansukhani,
Dr. Madanjit Kaur,
Saran Singh (Sikh Review),
Prof. Noel King,
Pamela Wylam (Manjit-Kaur),
James R. Lewis,
Surjit Singh (SSG),
Bachitar Singh Giani,
Sangat Singh,
Avtar Singh,
Dr. H. S. Dilgeer,
S. S. Kapoor (London),
Tharan Singh,
Arvindpal Singh Mandair,
Pritpal Singh Bindra and
Jathedar Manjit Singh of Sri Kesgarh Sahib

A Letter

Sikh Studies Chairs: Letter from Sri Akal Takhat

This letter was received today (July 6, 2004) --Editors

Giani Joginder Singh Jathedar
Number: AT-8P-NY-CAL-2004
July 4, 2004

Beware of Anti-panthic Writings

The Sikh religion founded by Guru Nanak to accomplish his divine mission, is now known all over the world for its distinct socio-religious identity. A large part of Sikh community is settled abroad. These Sikhs form a strong Diaspora which is an invaluable asset of the Sikh community. In order to promote better understanding of Sikhism, the Sikh Diaspora of North America has done commendable job to establish Sikh Studies Chairs in a few Canadian and American universities.

Unfortunately the professors appointed on these Chairs instead of studying Sikh history, religion and literature in an objective and impartial manner have taken interest to propagate and establish a particular school of thought which is highly prejudiced against the established facts of Sikh history and religion. This school founded and patronized by W.H. McLeod and carried on by his flag carriers is hell bent to distort the Sikh history and religion. One of these Chairs is also functioning at the University of California, Santa Barbara in California. The professor, Gurinder Singh Mann, appointed on this Chair is also not performing according to the expectations and aspirations of the Sikh community.

For example, his remarks that the text of Sri Guru Granth Sahib is still going under evolution is totally uncalled for. He does not fully subscribe to the revelatory character of Gurbani. His reluctance to accept that the final canonization of Guru Granth Sahib occurred at the hands of Guru Gobind Singh at Damdama Sahib, Talwandi Saboo, Bathinda in 1706 and Guru Gobind Singh had conferred Guruship on Guru Granth Sahib at Nanded in 1708 are very unfortunate.

Similarly his observation that initial five weapons were a part of the Khalsa rehit is established by Guru Gobind Singh and five kakkars were not in vogue is totally unfounded and historically incorrect. He does not accept Guru Arjan Dev and Guru Tegh Bahadur as martyrs but puts them as if they were criminals who suffered executions at the hands of the Mughals. In his recent book he has recommended “suggested further reading” of a book which alleges that the birth of Guru Hargobind was the outcome of niyoga between Baba Buddha and Mata Ganga, wife of Guru Arjan. All these writings by this professor are highly condemnable. I strongly urge the Sikh sangat all over the world that they remain beware of above type of scholars and take appropriate academic measures to counter their activities.

Joginder Singh Jathedar
Sri Akal takhat Sahib
Tel./Fax: 91-183-2540820

Obituary WH McLeod

New Zealand scholar and an authority on the history of Sikhism by Tony Ballantyne, The Guardian, Thursday 3 September 2009

Though McLeod went to Punjab on a Presbyterian church mission, he lost his own belief in God

William Hewat McLeod, who has died aged 76, was a scholar whose life's work helped transform the understanding of Sikhism. He produced a remarkable series of publications and was central in establishing Sikh studies as a distinctive field. Although his own work was careful, measured and judicious, it frequently provoked controversy.

Hew, as he was known, was born and raised in a farming family near Fielding, in New Zealand's North Island. He completed his schooling at Nelson college before attending the University of Otago, Dunedin, where he undertook a BA and then an MA in history. He also met Margaret Wylie there, and in May 1955 they got married.

Hew then began theological studies and in 1958, with his wife and son, Rory, joined the New Zealand Presbyterian church's mission to Punjab. At Kharar, in Punjab, he learned Hindi and Punjabi as well as teaching English at the Christian Boys secondary school. He found that his lack of training as a language teacher and his New Zealand accent made this task difficult.

Hew escaped these concerns by immersing himself in studying the Punjab, especially the Sikhs, a community that quickly captured his imagination. This new interest was developed further when the family, which by then included sons Michael and Shaun, spent an extended period in England, where Hew studied for a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1965. While in London, Hew and Margaret adopted a half-Punjabi baby girl, Ruth.

The family returned to Punjab, where Hew took a job teaching history at Baring Union Christian college at Batala. They left India in 1969 after both Hew and Margaret realised the extent of their religious doubts. Hew recognised that he did not, in fact, believe in God. Many Sikh critics have persisted in dubbing him the Rev McLeod, failing to recognise that he severed his formal ties with the Presbyterian church 40 years ago and the ways in which his agnosticism shaped his approach to Sikh religion and history.

Hew's revised thesis was published by the Clarendon Press as Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (1968). This book assessed the historical value of the janam sakhis, popular narratives that recounted the life of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, and embodied the highest standards of philological analysis and the evaluation of sources. This approach angered some Sikhs because they saw it as a direct challenge to the authenticity of their traditions.

After 18 months in England on fellowships at Cambridge and Sussex universities, Hew and his family returned to New Zealand. He became a professor of history at the University of Otago, a position he held until his retirement in 1997. He continued to produce books, including The Evolution of the Sikh Community (1975) and Early Sikh Tradition (1980), and completed a pioneering study of the history of Punjabi migration to New Zealand.

Conferences and sabbaticals allowed Hew to travel widely in the late 1970s and 80s. In 1987, during one of these trips, he suffered a stroke. This would later impede his ability to lecture and argue ex tempore, though he continued to write, opening up new aspects of Sikhism to scholarly assessment, from popular art through to women in Sikh tradition. He produced an indispensable Historical Dictionary of Sikhism (1995) and edited Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism (1990), as well as publishing several surveys of the religion. For five years from 1988, he taught for one term annually at the University of Toronto, where he supervised PhDs by Louis Fenech and Pashaura Singh, leading figures in the field today.

Hew was renowned for his openness and his readiness to answer any question and to read any manuscript. This generosity, together with his precocious embrace of email, placed him at the centre of an international scholarly community.

He is survived by Margaret, his four children and four grandchildren.

• William Hewat ("Hew") McLeod, historian, born 2 August 1932; died 20 July 2009

Response to Some Misstatements About Hew McLeod

Response to Some Misstatements About Hew McLeod from Sikh Center

[The following response, to some of the statements made about Dr McLeod in tributes paid to him after his death, has been made using Dr McLeod's own methodology of a "skeptic" — that we believe the statements in question are hagiographical in nature rather than objective. I am sure those who worship Dr McLeod would not begrudge us this step — as we believe using his own methodology to dissect his own life's account may be the biggest tribute to him. If what we write does not read like a tribute and makes you angry, please do keep in mind that all the arguments applied to those Sikhs who felt angered by Dr McLeod's methodology and the statements stemming from it, are applicable to you too. Peace & love — Sikh Centre.]

EDITOR: World renowned Sikh historian, W. Hew McLeod, passed away peacefully at 11.00 pm, Monday, July 20, 2009 – (New Zealand time) – in Dunedin, New Zealand, after a lengthy illness.

Again there is a problem with the usage of term “Sikh historian”. One fails to find an equivalent usage w.r.t. Christianity or Islam or Judaism. What one does find is “a Jewish historian of Christianity” or “a Biblical scholar” or “a scholar of Sharia Law”. To take another example, has anyone ever described, say, Max Muller (or Mueller) as a “Hindu historian”? As stated earlier, at best Dr McLeod may be described as “Janamsakhi historian”. For reasons listed at number (2) he cannot be described as an “authority on Sikhism” – however, looking at the focus of his work, he may be described as an “authority on Sikh schismatic literature” (which also includes Janamsakhis, as neither Puratan Janamsakhi nor Bhai Bala Janamsakhi was written by a Sikh). Then again, an “authority” needs to understand the historical significance of the subject matter being studied – Dr McLeod, unfortunately, spent a lifetime creating misunderstanding about his subject matter of Sikh schismatic literature (like Chaupa Singh Rehatnama, Janamsakhis, etc.) by not enlightening his readers (and, more seriously, his students) about the context in which the literature he was citing to support his arguments, was written.


We join Sikhs around the globe in mourning his passing, and in celebrating an extraordinary life, rich in scholarship and wisdom and lived to the highest ideals of Sikhi.

Pray, what is the highest ideal of Sikhi? I thought it was honesty and integrity.


Our deepest condolences to Margaret, his wife of 54 years, and his loving family.

Our deepest condolences to Margaret (I have met her twice in Dunedin and found her charming) and Dr McLeod’s children.


We are grateful for the blessings he brought to Sikhdom and pray for his eternal peace.

I doubt the writer (listed as “Editor”) can cite these blessings. At the risk of violating a social convention of “not speaking ill of the dead” by all yardsticks Dr McLeod cannot be put in the same category as, say, Dr Noel Q King when it comes to the “blessings to Sikhdom”.

7. What are the defining landmarks of a well-lived life?

To me, a minimal but universal definition, devoid of any religious overtones, would be a purpose-driven existence that transcends the self, a cause greater than the person, along with transparent honesty of effort in its pursuit.

To the short list of those that I have met and dealt with that I believe fill that bill, I would add without an iota of reservation another – Hew McLeod.

Here starts Dr I J Singh’s eulogy to Dr McLeod. Unfortunately, he stumbles at the very first step. If we accept his definition of a “well-lived life” then Hitler and Stalin had lived their lives pretty well. They were purpose-driven, and thought they were fighting for the greater good of their respective countries and were completely honest about what they sought to achieve – Hitler wanted Aryan supremacy while Stalin wanted to rid the world of bourgeoisie. Both sought absolute power and did not want any opposition to rise against them. Anyone who opposed their view was killed, or if that was not possible, derided as not worth answering to. Thus, one finds it hard to find an essay (or a statement) from Stalin or Hitler wherein they engage in debate on any aspect of their respective worldview.


Hew McLeod went to Punjab almost fifty years ago as a Christian missionary, to do what missionaries do best – convert others to their truth.

“Their truth”? I thought truth is truth. It is, however, important to note that Dr McLeod had the courage of his conviction to leave his hometown with his young wife to go to a country that did not probably have electricity supply at that time in the areas he went to. It is equally important to remember that he came to Punjab with the purpose of converting the Punjabis (mainly Sikhs) to Christianity. The first Christian mission was established in Ludhiana in 1846 in the immediate aftermath of the first Anglo-Sikh war. Everyone who tried to convert Sikhs, met with failure, most prominent failure being Dr Ernest Trumpp, a German Missionary. Dr McLeod was to become another name in this long list of failures.


Apparently, he fell in love with Punjab and Sikhs and lost his missionary zeal and purpose.

From his life it is not at all “apparent” that Dr McLeod was motivated by any love for Punjab or Sikhs. By his own admission, it was a huge shock when he landed in Punjab. All the time he and Margaret spent there before going to England was spent facing one hardship after another.

However, he did love a particular type of Sikhs – the Sikhs who are still not able to differentiate between where a blessing comes from and who should they thank for it. He quickly realized that if one speaks nicely to a Sikh, we find it hard to challenge anything one might say that would usually be unpalatable. If one obliges a Sikh, one may be sure of eternal indebtedness of a Sikh. That is what Dr McLeod used to silence people like Dr Harbans Singh (perhaps Nikki Guninder can tell us some more about her father’s relationship with Dr McLeod and her own indebtedness to Dr McLeod in finding placement in Western academia).


By his own admission, he became agnostic, if not an atheist.

Dr McLeod was very very intelligent and he used his words in a way which communicated another meaning to an average person and a completely different meaning to those with some intelligence. His description of himself as “agnostic” falls in the same category. Agnostic has two meanings:

1. somebody denying God’s existence is provable: somebody who believes that it is impossible to know whether or not God exists

2. somebody denying something is knowable: somebody who doubts that a particular question has a single correct answer or that a complete understanding of something can be attained: I’m an agnostic concerning space aliens.

Dr McLeod’s Sikh apologists argue that he meant the word in its first meaning, whereas his whole life seems to argue that he meant the second meaning, which fits nicely with his argument that he was “a skeptic” in his approach to Sikh history. “I’m an agnostic concerning Sikhs” would be an apt paraphrasing of Dr McLeod’s oft repeated statement. That he did not mean to use the term “agnostic” in its first usage may also be clear from the fact that he headed the History Board of Presbyterian Church of NZ till cancer of the bone made him give up his position in 2004.

It is a measure of general lack of awareness amongst the Sikhs that his apologists keep on arguing that Dr McLeod “lost faith in God”.

………….to be continued.

External Links

Reflections of The Sikh Studies Community Compiled by TONY BALLANTYNE & JERRY BARRIER]