MACAULIFFE, MAX ARTHUR (1841-1913), English translator of the Sikh Scriptures and historian of Sikhism, was born on 10 September 1841 at Newcastle West, County Limerick, Ireland. He was educated at Newcastle School, Limerick, and at Springfield College and Queen's College, Galway. He received a broad humanistic education that allowed him to read the Greek and Latin classics in the original. He could also read French and Italian. In 1862, he was appointed to the Indian Civil Service and was assigned to the Punjab. He arrived in the Punjab in February 1864. After eighteen years of service, he was appointed a Deputy Commissioner in 1882. Two years later, he became a Divisional Judge. Throughout his life Macauliffe maintained a personal reserve that made him reluctant to speak of himself or his own aspirations and struggles save in a few scattered places in his writings. His career in the Indian Civil Service has received no special historical note. Although his deep understanding and sympathy for the people of the Punjab and their religious traditions doubtless made him an able and just civil servant, it also brought him into conflict with his fellow Englishmen in India.

         The focus of his life is in his work as a translator and interpreter of Sikhism to the English-speaking world. His interest in Sikhism was sparked by attending a Dīvālī celebration in Amritsar shortly after arriving in the Punjab. In order to understand ceremonies and the importance of the Golden Temple, he undertook a study of Sikhism and especially of the hymns of the Gurūs. He found himself deeply engaged by what he studied because, in his words, "the sublimity of their style and the high standard of ethics which they inculcated were unmatched."

         His studies of Sikhism first appeared in the Calcutta Review in articles published between 1875 and 1881. It became increasingly evident to Macauliffe that the massive work of translating the Gurū Granth Sāhib and writing a definitive history of Sikhism could not be combined with his responsibilities as a full-time civil servant. When, in 1893, the Khālsā Dīwān offered him financial assistance to carry on his work, he retired from the Indian Civil Service. However, long before his retirement, he had established deep and continuing contact with leading Sikh scholars and had mastered the necessary linguistic tools. He studied a number of Indian and related languages in order to master the linguistic complexities of the Gurū Granth Sāhib; among these he mentions Saṅskrit, Prākrit, Arabic, Persian, Turkī, Marāṭhī, Gujarātī and Punjabi in its various dialects.

         While in India, Macauliffe made his home at Amritsar on Cantonment Road. He also lived in Nābhā, where he was assisted in his work by Bhāī Kāhn Siṅgh whose services were made available by Mahārājā Ripudaman Siṅgh of Nābhā. Macauliffe spent time in Mussoorie and Dehrā Dūn as well. His extensive works of translation and historical research were brought together in his magnum opus, The Sikh Religion : Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors in 1909. In order to make this work ready for the press, he returned to England with Bhāī Kāhn Siṅgh. The work was published in six volumes by the Clarendon Press in Oxford. After this Macauliffe contributed the articles on Sikhism to the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and continued to interpret Sikhism to both popular and scholarly audiences by lectures and articles. He died on 15 March 1913 in his London home, Sinclair Gardens, West Kensington. He was attended to the end of his life by a Punjabi servant, called Muhammad, who reported that Macauliffe recited the Japu (), the Sikh morning prayer, shortly before he died.

         The antagonism of Anglo-Indian officialdom towards Macauliffe grew, particularly after his retirement. This was a major factor in denying him the official government patronage he needed to support his work. It is estimated that he spent two lakhs of rupees out of his personal funds for the work of preparing The Sikh Religion. Financial assistance came from a number of Indians, including H.H. Sir Hīrā Siṅgh, Mālvendar Bahādur, the Rājā of Nābhā H.H. Sir Rājinder Siṅgh, the Mahārājā of Paṭiālā H.H. Rājā Raṇbīr Siṅgh, Rājā of Jīnd; the Ṭikkā Sāhib of Nābhā Sardār Raṇjīt Siṅgh of Chhachhraulī and H.H. the Gāekwāṛ, of Baṛodā. Leading scholars and statesmen recommended The Sikh Religion for the patronage of the Indian government. In addition, a special committee of learned Sikhs, called together by Col. Jawālā Siṅgh, Superintendent of the Golden Temple, carefully examined Macauliffe's translations of the hymns of the Gurū Granth Sāhib and commended them as accurate and faithful to the Sikh religion. The Punjab Government recommended a grant of Rs 15,000 as advance payment for copies of the translation. Some in the government, following the lead of Sir Mackworth Young, opposed the grant on the grounds of government's religious neutrality. Finally, Lord Morley, the Secretary of State, ordered the sum reduced to Rs 5,000. Macauliffe felt slighted by the insignificance of the grant and declined it.

         The coolness of the British government towards Macauliffe's work ultimately influenced even some Sikhs. In 1911, the Sikh Educational Conference in Rāwalpiṇḍī rejected a resolution commending his work. However, after his death, a resolution of condolence was passed by this group. The Sikhs of Rāwalpiṇḍī established a Macauliffe Memorial Society and tried to raise money for a Library. Their efforts brought only Rs 3,245. This money was to be used for a Macauliffe Medal to be awarded by the University of the Pañjāb in Lahore. Because the competition was limited to Sikhs, the University rejected the offer. Finally, the fund went to the Khālsā College in Amritsar where a medal is awarded each year for the best essay on an historical topic. However, this meager outcome is an inadequate measure of the high esteem in which Macauliffe is held by the Sikh community.

         Macauliffe undertook his work of translating the Gurū Granth Sāhib and writing the history of Sikhism with a sense of urgency. He believed that the moral and religious purity of original Sikhism was in danger of being lost. The Punjabi language was going through extensive change that was rapidly rendering the language of the original hymns unintelligible to many people. The older giānīs, the professional interpreters of the Scriptures, were dying out and not being replaced by younger men able to keep the voice of tradition alive. Educated Sikhs were losing not only the linguistic skills, but also the religious motivation to understand their own traditions. Sikhism was threatened, in Macauliffe's estimation, by religious syncretism that drained it of its unique moral and spiritual power. He believed that by rendering a competent translation and history Sikhism could be preserved not only for the historian, but also as a creative religious force. No adequate dictionary existed, at that time, of the language of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, although the foundations for one had been laid in the work of Paṇḍit Tārā Siṅgh Narotam. Macauliffe wanted to catch the living tradition as the guide through the linguistic complexities of the Scriptures before it was lost. The availability of the Gurū Granth Sāhib to modern understanding is in no small part due to his work.

         Macauliffe's work built upon over a century of modern Indological studies by western scholars. The footnotes of his writings reveal his discerning use of such earlier students of Sikhism as Henry Colebrooke, John Malcolm and Joseph Davey Cunningham. He utilized the linguistic and historical studies of Horace Hayman Wilson, Monier Williams, and Friedrich Max Muller. But in all his work, Macauliffe had the linguistic skills to come to independent judgement rather than simply to repeat others' research. No matter how important modern Indological studies were, Macauliffe realized that by themselves they could mislead if not related to the learning of the religious community being studied. This realization came to Macauliffe early in his work on Sikhism when he sought help from the translation of the Gurū Granth Sāhib and some of the Janam Sākhīs made by Ernest Trumpp.

         Trumpp, a German missionary linguist, had been retained by the India Office to translate the Sikh Scriptures. His work, which appeared in 1877, was widely repudiated by the Sikh community as inaccurate and misleading. In part, this repudiation stemmed from Trumpp's slanders of the Sikh tradition. But the problem with Trumpp's translation, as Macauliffe and later Max Mū̇̇̇̇̈̈ller and other scholars realized, was basically linguistic. Trumpp disregarded the traditional interpretations. Instead, he read the Punjabi of the Scriptures in the light of its relation to Sanskrit. This tended to obscure the complex interplay of languages and dialects that characterize the sacred writings of the Sikhs. Trumpp's translation was further impaired because its English was awkward. Macauliffe's basic decision was to seek a fresh approach to the language of the Scriptures through the assistance of professional interpreters of the Sikh community.

         Macauliffe's approach was fraught with great difficulties. He had to retain a number of Giānīs. The chief one was Bhāī Kāhn Siṅgh of Nābhā along with Bhāīs Nihāl Siṅgh and Sant Siṅgh of Siālkoṭ Bhāīs Ditt Siṅgh, Gurmukh Siṅgh, Rājindar Siṅgh and Nihāl Siṅgh of Lahore; Bhāīs Sardūl Siṅgh Giānī, Prem Siṅgh, Fateh Siṅgh and Darbārā Siṅgh of Amritsar; Bhāī Sant Siṅgh of Kapūrthalā Bhāī Bhagvān Siṅgh of Paṭiālā and Bhāī Dasaundhā Siṅgh of Fīrozepur. While Macauliffe took care to find pious and learned men for the work, he found their opinions often widely at odds with one another. At times, he felt himself driven to vexation. He had to make difficult decisions among various translations and often placed second and third interpretations in footnotes when differences were irresolvable. Yet even after his work had been widely acclaimed by the Sikh community, he realized that there were other giānīs who could call the whole thing into question. "I have met so-called giānīs who could perform tours de force with their sacred work, and give different interpretations of almost every line of it." Finally he was guided by how an interpretation was related to its context and whether it was harmonious with the whole of Sikh doctrine.

         The work of translation was not ended with consultations with the giānīs. They communicated with Macauliffe in various Punjabi dialects. The task of rendering their interpretation into English still remained. Yet even in this, he sought the counsel of the Sikh community. After completing a part of his translation, he would circulate it in proof-sheets to Sikh scholars for correction. From 1901 to 1903, his proofs were read by Bhāī Kāhn Siṅgh, Dīwān Līlā Rām, Bhāī Shaṅkar Dayāl, Bhāī Hazārā Siṅgh, Bhāī Sardūl Siṅgh, Bhāī Ditt Siṅgh, Bhāī Bhagvān Siṅgh and others. As the work of translation neared completion, Macauliffe faced the question of how to present it to the English-speaking world.

         To print the translation of the Gurū Granth Sāhib in its original order would make it difficult to understand for those who were unfamiliar with its historical setting. Also some of Macauliffe's older, orthodox Sikh friends feared that the Scripture would not be shown the reverence due it when placed in the hands of those unfamiliar with Sikh piety. Macauliffe found a happy alternative that dealt with both these problems in the final form of The Sikh Religion . He interspersed the history of the Gurūs with passages of Scripture. The unfolding life of the Gurūs and the Sikh community became the context for understanding the Scriptures. Vol. I deals with Gurū Nānak and the originating events of the Sikh religion. Vol. II deals with Gurū Aṅgad, Gurū Amar Dās and Gurū Rām Dās. Vol. III is given over to Gurū Arjan, while Vol. IV tells of Gurū Hargobind, Gurū Har Rāi, Gurū Har Krishan and Gurū Tegh Bahādur. Vol. V is devoted to Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. Vol. VI departs from this chronological order to present the earlier Bhagats (Bhaktas) whose hymns help make up the Gurū Granth Sāhib.

         Macauliffe undertook his work with the realization that Sikhism was virtually an unknown religion. The measure of his success is that this is no longer true. The Sikh Religion placed before the world a comprehensive picture of Sikhism and its Scriptures. Macauliffe not only gathered together but went beyond what had been done before. His work made possible the modern scholarship that has followed. He correctly identified the linguistic context within which the Gurū Granth Sāhib was formed. Later scholars have gone beyond him and corrected his work at points as knowledge of the ancient language has increased.

         The literary style of his translations has been much debated. Macauliffe wrote in a simple, direct style. He did this not only in the interest of clarity but also because he believed it reflected more accurately the style of the hymns themselves. They were not high blown literary creations built on classical models but expressions of a piety for the common man. The complexities of the problems of translation have yet to be finally solved. Until a work of equal comprehensiveness integrates the results of more recent scholarship, Macauliffe's translation will remain a basic witness to the meaning of the Gurū Granth Sāhib.


  1. Harbans Singh, "Scholarly Study of Sikhism”, The Journal of Religious Studies. Patiala, 1970.
  2. Panjab History Conference Proceedings. Patiala, 1981.
  3. Darshan Singh, Western Perspective on the Sikh Religion. Delhi, 1991.
  4. Loehlin, C.H, The Christian Approach to the Sikhs. London, 1966.
  5. Barrier, N.G., The Sikhs and Their Literature, 1849-1919. Delhi, 1970.
  6. McLeod, W.H., Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism. Manchester, 1984.
  7. Fauja Singh, Historians and Historiography of the Sikhs. Delhi, 1978

Donald G. Dawe