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Reviews of Patwant Singh's "The Sikhs" and "The Coming Anarchy"

Caught in the Crossfire

One of the youngest of the major world religious traditions is Sikhism, and the tradition's rapid change in form and fortune make it an excellent study for those interested in the complex tapestry woven of culture, politics, violence and religious belief. Patwant Singh in "The Sikhs" (Knopf, $27.50) provides a Sikh's telling of this story that begins with the imaginative poetry of religious geniuses in the 16th century and ends in the confusion and horrors of political betrayals and orgies of violence as British colonialism, Hindu and Muslim interests transformed and threatened to eradicate the minority religion of many Indians caught in the middle of those international struggles.

Though the Golden Temple of Amritsar and most of the world's Sikhs remain in the Punjab region of northwest India, a large number have sought relief from persecution by scattering among the nations, with a significant Sikh community in parts of England and in Vancouver, British Columbia. A few Sikh merchants have even established themselves here in Richmond.

Sikhism, which means "disciples," was founded by Guru Nanak, born to a Hindu family in 1469 in what is now Pakistan. A revelation of the one God, referred to as "the True Name," led Nanak to sing his poetry from village to village to the musical accompaniment of Mardana, a Muslim musician. Responding to themes in both Hindu devotional spirituality and Islamic Sufi mysticism, Nanak sang that "there is no Hindu, there is no Muslim," seeking a faith beyond religious conflicts, and beyond classes and castes. Some nine further gurus, or divine teachers followed Nanak, some dying of torture and decapitation by the majority forces around them. The 10th of the gurus, Gobind Rai, came to be known as Gobind the lion ("Singh"), developing a special military order to protect Sikhism's right to exist. It is the warriors of that order that became famous as the most admired soldiers hired by the British and sent to protect its interests around the world. Following the 10th guru, the sacred book of poetry, the "Adi Granth," was enthroned in the Golden Temple and in each Sikh place of worship, or gurdwara as permanent guru.

Singh's volume seems to separate itself into two stories: one the idealistic founding of a poetic faith beyond religious conflicts and inequalities, the other story the confusing history of violence and persecution of a minority group seeking to survive in the midst of political upheaval. With the British leaving India in 1947, Sikhs were caught between the developing Muslim State of Pakistan and the largely Hindu State of India, some 2 million moving out of the Pakistan area for the Punjab. Conflict between Indian troops and Sikhs, some seeking an independent state in the Punjab, became world news when troops were sent to arrest Sikhs at the Golden Temple at Amritsar, and in revenge, Sikh bodyguards assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

Perhaps the chief lesson of this book is that no religion can be accurately studied apart from its context in culture, political struggle and international tensions. Even a religion seeking to move beyond religious conflict and inequalities, becomes shaped in part by those very forces it seeks to transcend.
— Cliff Edwards

Author of "Balkan Ghosts," Robert Kaplan has traveled the world writing about foreign affairs and travel. This time out in a collection of essays, "The Coming Anarchy" (Random House, $21.95), he has come back to us with a terrible message: We are living in an insular fool's paradise while the world disintegrates into cultural conflict. Even as we naively press "democracy" on peoples who have no economic stability, no rule of law and no cultural glue to hold them together, these same people are killing each other en masse. He tells us that "as refugee flows increase and as peasants continue migrating to cities around the world — turning them into sprawling villages — national borders will mean less, even as more power will fall into the hands of less educated, less sophisticated groups."

The case Kaplan makes for this conviction is compelling and scary as we see many of his predictions becoming reality in the violent anarchy of places such as Sierra Leone. He does, it seems to me, go a bit far when he maintains in the last essay that struggle is necessary and that universal peace would be a calamity because "permanent peace, with its worship of entertainment and convenience, will produce ever-shallower leaders." In fact, he seems to think this has already happened for he concludes that, "The clock ticks toward something unpleasant while our entertainment culture dilates to the point that the Academy Awards ceremony has achieved a status akin to a national holiday." Touché.

It's possible to disagree with his conclusions, but this little book is thoughtful and frightening. One note: For goodness sake don't read it if you need a bit of cheer.
— Rozanne Epps

Heads-Up: The distinguished Virginia Quarterly Review is celebrating its 75th anniversary. To mark the birthday, The University Press of Virginia has published "We Write for Our Own Time," (paperback edition, $19.95), a collection of some of the best essays that have been published by the quarterly. It is edited by Alexander Burnham, and writers include D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Bertrand Russell, Arthur C. Clarke, Thomas Wolfe and Edgar Shannon Jr.

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