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Conferences, Lectures, Workshops

Sikhism and Critical Theory

Workshop Conference at Hofstra University

organised by:

Click here for abstracts of papers presented

For two full days - Friday 13th and Saturday 14th of September 2002 - Hofstra University hosted a major workshop-conference entitled "Sikhism and Critical Theory". This event was organized by Dr. Arvind-pal Singh Mandair, holder of the Sardarni Kuljeet Kaur Bindra Endowed Chair in Sikh studies.

"Sikhism and Critical Theory" was a great success on many accounts. The conference was attended by scholars, students and researchers within and outside the field of Sikh studies, as well as by members of the American Sikh community who came to attend this event from as far away as California, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Before the conference relatively few people will have had any real idea of what "Critical Theory" is, let alone its relationship to Sikhism and Sikh studies. By the end of the two days' proceedings, however, most people attending the conference had witnessed the beginnings of a new domain in the study of Sikhism, one that is generated from the unavoidable encounter between Sikhism and Critical Theory.

In its broadest sense Critical Theory refers quite simply to an important and contemporary mode of thinking within the humanities and social sciences that resists and overtakes the previous emphasis on social science methodology with its pretence of a producing a disinterested and objective field of research and teaching in regard to Sikhs and Sikhism. The need to shift away from methodology and objectivism is, in one sense, linked to the changing demographics of the Sikh community in the West over the last two decades. During this time the growth of Sikh settlement in North America and Western Europe has given the Sikh diaspora a voice hitherto occupied by a few mostly non-Sikh Western academics. Recent years have thus seen the emergence of new intellectual demands for a Sikh studies agenda capable of addressing the needs of a Sikh diaspora in the English-speaking world. One such demand calls for the recognition by scholars that Sikh Studies in the West no longer functions like a "guest" within the humanities and social sciences which, hitherto, has been its intellectual "host". Though rarely recognized, this guest/host relationship presumes a notion of hospitality that differs little from the hospitality granted to immigrant and ethnic groups. However, such hospitality -- based the unspoken assumption that the guest is above all a foreigner, an outsider, who must not be allowed to roam around unaided or unobserved -- is never freely given. Likewise, there is always an aspect of control and discipline attached to the prevailing intellectual norms of methodology and objectivism in the humanities and social sciences which alone assumes the task of the critical function. As many now agree, this frame of thinking has ensured that much of the discourse about Sikhs and Sikhism was overshadowed by an Occidentalism which has consigned Sikh experience – the experience of living Sikhism -- to the margins of academic discourse.

One of the aims of this conference was to challenge this rather outdated frame of thinking by exploring new ways of relating contemporary Sikh experience to recent movements of critical thinking, but without the kind of intellectual marginalization that has normally been the case. The conference introduced new ways of interpreting and thinking about traditional Sikh categories and contemporary Sikh experience so that one could be self-critical without relinquishing one's commitment to the Sikh culture and religion. The engagement with Critical Theory helped to present Sikh thought and categories of Sikh experience as not only relevant, but as actively contributing to cutting edge debates in globalization, religion and politics.

The level of debate throughout the workshop was of an extremely high order. Controversial topics such as the future of Sikh politics and education were highlighted, discussed and debated in a manner such that it was possible to disagree without becoming disagreeable, which has been something of a rarity in Sikh conferences.

The workshop was followed by a Public Forum session. During this session three highly reputable speakers -- T.Sher Singh, I.J.Singh and Davinder Singh reflecting the views and experience of Sikh communities in Canada, New York and the United Kingdom respectively -- gave fascinating presentations focusing on the need to establish firmer links between the university and the Sikh community.

In a fascinating concluding keynote speech Professor Christopher Shackle (pro-Director of the University of London, SOAS) gave a wonderfully lucid overview of the evolution of modern Sikh studies from its beginnings in the pioneering work of the Singh Sabha scholars, to more contemporary developments in North America and the United Kingdom.

This was the second conference to be held at Hofstra University under the auspices of the Sardarni Kuljeet Kaur Bindra Endowed Chair in Sikh Studies, since the program was established in September 2000. It is anticipated that such conferences and programs that involve both academic scholars and community activists in a continuing and ongoing conversation will become a regular and permanent feature at Hofstra University.

Sikhism and Critical Theory Workshop

Program of Events
Friday September 13th

Welcome and Opening Remarks

Panel 1. Diaspora (Chair Arvind-Pal S. Mandair)
Respondents: Sunit Singh (University of Chicago) and Sabina Sawhney (Hofstra University)

Ajit K. Mann (University of Oregon)
Narrative Nomads and Post-Colonial Perspectives: A Sikh Perspective

Brian Axel (Swarthmore College)
(i) Diasporic Sublime and (ii) Fanatic, or, the Withdrawal of Critical Theory

Vrinder Kalra (Manchester University)
Locating the Sikh Pagh: Missing Identity or Mis-Identity

Panel 2. Religion (Chair: Warren Frisina)
Respondents: Paulo Goncalves (SOAS) and Sunit Singh (University of Chicago)

Arvind-pal S. Mandair (Hofstra University)
Transcendence and Singh Sabha Theology: Redefining the Terms of the "Critical"

Balbinder Bhogal (James Madison University)
Questioning Hermeneutics: The Difference of Non-Dual Interpretation in Gurbani

Navdeep Singh Mandair (SOAS, University of London)
Between Bodies: The Imminence of Khalsa Identity

Gurnam Singh (Coventry University, UK)
Critical Perspectives on the Emancipatory Discourses of Sikhism

Saturday September 14th

Panel 3. Politics (Chair: Gurcharan Singh)
Respondents: Richard King (University of Derby) and Margaret Abraham (Hofstra University)

Gurharpal Singh (Birmingham University, UK)
Rethinking the Political: Sikhism and Critical Theory

Giorgio Shani (Ritsumeikan University, Japan)
Beyond Westphalianism: Sikh Diasporic Nationalism and the International Order

Jasdev S. Rai (S.H.R.G.)
The U.N. and Internal Conflicts: A Case Study of the Sikhs

PUBLIC FORUM Speakers: T.Sher Singh, Davinder Singh, I.J. Singh

Keynote Speech: Christopher Shackle (F.B.A.)

Closing Remarks: T.J.Bindra