Do Good Intentions Equal Accuracy?

18 Nov
Among the many Western writers who have written about Sikhism, Cunningham is undoubtedly considered to be one of the most creditable and venerable. And for good reason too. His historical accounts and corresponding footnotes are comprehensive and meticulous. Even more, the facts and perspectives that he presents are not based on any political agenda. So naturally, I embarked on this book with high expectations and very little knowledge of the post-Guruship era.

As expected,  I was really impressed by the extent to the details of events and references were provided. However, I began to question the reliability of the information regarding the Guruship era, an area which I am a little more familiar with. I am referring to the following sections:

Quote 1:
“Nanak had sanctioned or enjoined secular occupations, Arjun carried the injuction into practice, and the impulse thus given speedily extended and became general. The temper and the circumstances of Har Gobind both prompted him to innovation; he had his father’s death to move his feelings in surpassing the example of his parent even the jealous dogma of the Hindu law…” (pg 50)
According to my interpretation, this section could mean several different things:

1. Guru Har Gobind took Sikhism in a very different direction. Many people believe in the teachings of the first five Gurus, but not from Guru Hargobind and on due to their military approaches. Is Cunningham agreeing with them in this stage and saying that Guru Har Gobind took Sikhism in a very different direction? Does it simply mean that during Guru Har Gobind Ji’s contribution to the development of Sikhism was great?  Interestly, I have read how this military approach was in the development even with the earlier Gurus. For example, Guru Angad Dev Ji actually promoted the sport of wrestling and physical strenth amongst his Sikhs. (Please correct me if I am wrong about this. )

2. Part of his motivation was to simply do something different.

Quote 2:
“but the adventorous Har Gobind became a hunter and an eater of flesh and his disciples imitated him in these robust practices. The genial disposition of the martial apostle led him to rejoice in the companionship of a camp, in the dangers of war, and in the excitements of the chase, nor is it improbable that the policy of a temporal chief mingled with the feelings of an injured son…” (Pg 50)
To me, this seems more like he was into a military approach partly for hte wrong reasons. “An injured son”, this makes it seem personal. More like this was about the death of his father, rather than the revered Guru.  What do you think? Am I reading too much into all of this?

Quote 3:
“Har Gobind appears to have admitted criminals and fugitives among his followers, and where a principle of antagonism had already arisen they may have served him zealous without greatly reforming th practice of their lives; and, indeed, they are stated to have believed that the faithful Sikh would pass unquestioned into heaven.” (Page 50)
Is this saying that Guru Har Gobind did not reach this group of people on a deeper level?

Quote 4:
“Har Gobind became a follower of the Emperor Jahangir…On the death of Jahangir in 1628, Har Gobind continued in the employ of the Muhammadan Government”” (Page 51)
Please tell me that I am completely misunderstanding what he is saying!
So if indeed I am not misunderstanding his quotes, then this makes me question the other facts and opinions that he presents in the book, especially when he explains the motives for many Sikh, Hindu and Muslim rulers.  I searched for any online literature that refutes the accuracy and reliability of Cunningham, and have not found much. So what do you guys think..have I completely taken his statements out of context? I would love to hear from you!


4 Responses to “Do Good Intentions Equal Accuracy?”

  1. Sarbjeet November 18, 2008 at 7:36 pm #

    Will be thinking about your questions as I read the book. Meanwhile, to complement the reading, here’s a link to a timeline of Punjab history. This is a great resource. You can scroll the page horizontally to follow the timeline.

  2. sikhcentre November 18, 2008 at 8:50 pm #

    1. When reading Cunnigham we need to keep in mind that his accuracy extends only up to the first-hand accounts — accounts of Anglo-Sikh wars and the Sikh society around 1840.
    2. To understand the reasons for the misstaments, we need to be aware of his sources of earlier Sikh history. Majority of sources — who knew English and who could read Shahmukhi/Devnagri scripts — came from areas which had been colonized by British starting 1757 with Battle of Palasi. Thus all the sources were Hindu or Muslim who coloured the information about Sikhs they communicated to their British masters, with their own personal or religious biases.
    3. Lt Col John Malcolm published his “Sketch of the Sikhs” in 1812 with many many inaccuracies. I would suggest that your book club reads Malcolm after Cunnigham (ideally he should have been your starting point). Malcolm’s inaccuracies have been reproduced again and again by as diverse sources as Encyclopaedia Britannica (1823 edition I think) and Encyclopedia Americana (also the first half of 19th century).
    4. I was having a look at your book source list and thought you missed the most important one — Google Books. It has the PDFs of first prints to download!
    5. You may download Malcolm at this link:

  3. Supreet November 20, 2008 at 11:01 pm #

    Wow…thank you for your explanation and suggesting those resources. I will definately suggest the “Sketch of the Sikhs” at our Sikh Book Club meeting. Do you know why there is literature on the lack of credibility of Malcolm, but very little critique on the inaccuracies provided by Cunningham? Also, are there any Western authors that you think present a relatively accurate depiction of history post-Guruship?

  4. Sarbjeet November 21, 2008 at 2:05 pm #

    In my reading of this book so far, I have skimmed through the first chapter on the Guruship period reserving the close reading for the later part of the book, the post-Guruship period, especially Cunningham’s account of the war with Sikhs. Here, in agreement with the comment by Sikh Centre, I too think that Cunningham may be more accurate about the period he was in India than about the Guruship period. But you raised an important question. If Cunningham’s writings on the Guruship period is flawed, then isn’t it possible that his writing on post-Guruship period too could be flawed?

    (Regarding your questions about Cunningham’s account of the 6th Guru, I managed to get a copy of Dabistan, written by Mohsin Fani, a contemporary of Guru Hargobind. Will bring it to our meeting. This book is also available online at If you intend to read/download this book, be sure to click on the ‘see other formats’ link at the top left of the page.)

    I was drawn to reading Cunningham’s book for several reasons some of which are:
    1) reading a first hand account of a British general who had close contacts with the Sikhs and who led the British army to a war against the Sikhs (how does it compare with the accounts of the war written by Sikhs?);
    2) the fact that he developed an admiration for the Sikhs (what exactly led him to that?),
    3) the British ire with the book (what was it about this book that irked the British?),
    4) why do so many Sikh scholars speak highly of Cunningham?

    Of course, it is possible that these questions answer each other. For example, if Cunningham admired the Sikhs and portrayed them positively in his book, then the British who were fighting the Sikhs would understandably be upset with the book and with the British author. And such a book is also then likely to go down well with that part of the Sikh community that reads his book.

    But turning to your bigger question: do good intentions equal accuracy? Of course not. Even if one of the good intentions were ‘to write accurately’, it would not be a sufficient condition to ensure accuracy. However, what were Cunningham’s intentions in writing the book? The back cover of the book reads, “The principal object in writing this history has not always been understood …”. Lets see what each of us thinks about this when we get together to discuss the book.

    Though not exactly applicable here, I am reminded of a quote from an Ayn Rand novel: “An artist reveals his naked soul in his work and so do you when you respond to it”.

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