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Sikh Studies and Punjabi Language

Sikh Studies and Punjabi Language at the University of Michigan

As one of North America’s premier research universities, the University of Michigan has been home to an endowed chair in Sikh Studies for over a decade.With a flourishing interdisciplinary program of culture and language courses and a growing Ph.D. program, Michigan is at the forefront of an international renaissance in Sikh Studies. We believe that excellence in scholarship can flourish in harmony with the aspirations of the community, contributing to the evolution and dissemination of new insights into the Sikh tradition as well as serving as a resource for representing the lived experience of Sikhi in an increasingly global society. By constructing a foundation in scholarship and thought, the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures is committed to supporting and encouraging growth in the conversation of Sikh Studies in our world today.


With over 25 million followers, Sikhism (or Sikhi) is often described as the fifth-largest organized religion in the world. Founded in the 15th century in the northwestern region of India known as the Punjab, at the heart of Sikhi are the ten Gurus, from the founding Guru Nanak to the tenth Guru Gobind Singh who transferred authority from individual leaders to the scriptures and the community itself. Although most Sikhs continue to reside in Indian Punjab, there is now a large and thriving Sikh diaspora.

Sikh Studies Courses

The Sikh Studies program offers a comprehensive and strongly interdisciplinary teaching program that covers the cultural history, religion, philosophy, politics, literature, and music of the Sikh tradition.


ASIAN 219: Warrior Saints-- Introduction to Sikhism

Sikhism’s relatively short but eventful history provides a fascinating insight into one of India’s youngest and most vibrant traditions. This course offers a comprehensive overview of the Sikh tradition which originated in India’s Punjab region five centuries ago. As the numbers of Sikhs settling outside of India have continued to grow, this tradition needs to be examined both in its Indian and global context. The course will focus on the historical background, its main texts, and its evolution into a living spiritual tradition in communities around the world. By taking contemporary Sikhism’s preoccupation with the enigmatic figure of the “Warrior-Saint” (sant-sipahi) as its focus, this course will examine a variety of different themes including, but not limited to, problems of migration, racial stereotyping, the relationship between violence and mysticism, or politics and religion.

ASIAN 303: An Introduction to Religious Military Orders of the World

The Sikh tradition's emphasis on the essential identity of the Warrior and the Saint has generated a great deal of misunderstanding particularly in the West. Sikhism's relatively short but eventful history provides fascinating insight into the workings of seemingly contradictory themes in the study of religion, such as politics and religion, or violence and mysticism. This interdisciplinary course provides an introduction to the forms and central ideas of Sikh culture and religion. Students will gain an understanding of the development Sikh traditions and the construction and institutionalization of its major beliefs, practices and festivals. In addition, the course will aim to explore the central teachings and leading ideas that have arisen from the Sikh textual and interpretive traditions. Students will be expected to analyze the complex interactions that have given rise to the contemporary interpretive scene, and will be encouraged to link their understanding of the various traditions to the present day problems of textual transmission and reception in global diasporas.

ASIAN 430: Philosophy of the Sikh Gurus

This course explores key philosophical concepts in the teachings and practice of the Sikh Gurus and how they apply to the contemporary world. Concepts include personal and impersonal notions of God, reality and nihilism, mystical experience, language and self, time and history, love and eroticism, and life and death.

This course will explore aspects of Sikh philosophy, religious experience, and ethics by analyzing the writings of the Sikh Gurus in a comparative and cross-cultural context. One of its aims is to show how Sikh thinkers, far from dwelling on theological issues, have drawn attention to the way in which we construct ourselves and notions of reality. This course will take as its premise the idea that any living culture, even relatively little known traditions such as Sikhi, have a philosophy, indeed are philosophical to the core. The question is how we define this thing called “philosophy” or quite simply what it means to think! How does one appropriate the task of thinking using Sikh literary sources and teaching? In order to access Sikh teachings originally articulated in the 15th and 16th century, however, it is necessary to unravel the construction of modern Sikh thought. Though it set out to protect the original teachings of the Sikh Gurus, ironically and inadvertently, it adopted the Western definition of what thinking is. As a result it ended up either imprisoning within a nihilistic framework or radically altering the core teachings of the Sikh Gurus to make them conform to what has come to be called the representational (and nihilistic) mode of thinking characteristic of modernity.

ASIAN 480: Sikhism and Modernity

This course looks at the interaction of one of South Asia's most visible and distinctive communities (the Sikhs) with modernity. The course will bring together South Asian and European imperial history with scholarship on transnationalism and postcoloniality. The course will begin by looking at the creation of the modern Sikh imaginary by mapping the emergence of nationalistic discourses on Sikh religion, history, and politics, before moving on to study anti-colonial movements such as the Ghaddar movement, the role of Sikhs in the Indian Independence Movement, and Sikh separatism in the wake of the events of 1984. One of our concerns will be to revaluate the shifting, complex and often competing visions of Sikh identity over the last two centuries to the present day. 

ASIANLAN 145/146: First-Year Punjabi

This course offers an introduction to spoken and written Punjabi. Those who have little or no previous knowledge of Punjabi (Gurmukhi) script will learn to read and write at the basic level. During this course students will use the communicative approach to develop the ability to speak, comprehend, read, and write Punjabi.

ASIANLAN 245/246: Second-Year Punjabi

This is a continuing proficiency-based course which refines and expands previously acquired linguistic skills in culturally authentic contexts. In this course, the focus will be on expanding vocabulary, mastering more complex grammatical structures, and acquiring idiomatic expressions.  The course is designed for students who have a basic knowledge of spoken and written Punjabi. Readings will include items from a variety of short stories depicting the Punjabi culture, items from Punjabi newspapers, poetry, and plays. The students will be encouraged to communicate in the Punjabi language.  

Sikh Studies Publications and Resources

Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture, Theory

Published three times a year by the renowned Routledge Press, this publication has established itself as the leading scholarly journal in Sikh studies. Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture, Theory was founded to understand Sikhs, Sikhism, and Sikh Identity within the context of a new and dynamic setting that embraces globalization, trans-nationalism, and other related processes. 

Visit the journal here

Contributing to Sikh Studies

The excellence of our program depends upon the generosity of donors from around the world. In one sense, Asia is next door, but it is also far away - and our ability to bring Sikh scholars, writers, and artists to Ann Arbor is crucial to our success. 

Endowed Lectureship in Punjabi  ($750,000 endowed/$37,500 annually) 

Our array of language offerings provides our students with unparalleled opportunities to explore broadly and deeply the myriad cultures of Asia. The Department seeks an endowment that will help preserve these rare opportunities for our students. A gift of $750,000 will endow a named lectureship in Punjabi in perpetuity.Because of funding constraints, the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures is currently only able to offer first-year Punjabi every other year, meaning that a student who wishes to begin the study of Punjabi will often have to wait a full year before doing so.  Beginning in 2012, the federal government no longer provides support for the study of South Asian languages (Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu); the Title VI Program, which has traditionally provided 40% of the salary support for Asian languages. This jeopardizes our ability to teach Punjabi.  An endowed Lectureship will protect the Punjabi program and allow the department to offer more courses and more levels of Punjabi more often: six courses in Punjabi language every year.  This will provide the department with the best range and frequency of instruction to the growing number of students interested in studying Punjabi.

Graduate Fellowships in Sikh Studies   ($1 million endowed/$50,000 annually) 

Over the past two decades, scholarly research on Sikhs and the Sikh tradition has helped to establish Sikh Studies as a viable and vibrant area of inquiry in the humanities and social sciences. Though rarely considered, such research has contributed to the ongoing effort to counteract negative stereotypes and positively influence wider public perceptions of Sikhs.One of the most effective ways of continuing this trend is through the support of graduate training in Sikh Studies. Indeed, the funding of graduate students in Sikh Studies who will go on to hold important positions in departments of History, Anthropology, Literature, and Religious Studies is the best strategy for integrating Sikh Studies fully into the curricula of colleges and universities across North America. An endowed graduate fellowship in Sikh Studies will create a community of young scholars whose familiarity with mainstream issues and intimate knowledge of the Sikh tradition will lead to a more nuanced and accurate understanding of Sikhism within the public sphere.  To be competitive with other top-tier graduate programs the Department needs to provide full funding for each student, and we currently lack the funds to maintain this edge in attracting the top students. We need the help of our donors to assure the continued viability of our program.

Regular Conferences and Workshops  ($50,000 annually)

In previous years the Sikh Studies program has hosted a number of successful conferences and workshops at the University of Michigan. To enable the continued growth of Sikh Studies as a distinct area of inquiry, it is important to stage conferences and workshops at least once every three years. This requires a regular funding resource that is not currently available to the program.

All donors will be eligible for Presidential Society Recognition opportunities, including the President's Club ($15,000), the Tappan Society ($50,000) and the Hutchins Society ($100,000).

Interested in contributing? Contact the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures