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Max Arthur Macauliffe

Max Arthur Macauliffe (10 September 1841 − 15 March 1913)  was a renowned senior British administrator under British rule in India, a prolific scholar, a translator of Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib in English and author of many articles on the sikh religion . He was the first author to bring the Sikh faith to the attention of the “educated intelligencia” of western world. He was the first English man who was so much influenced by the teachings and philosophy of Sikhism that he converted himself into Sikhism shortly after he joined his services in Punjab. His name will always be associated with his monumental translation of Guru Granth Sahib,for which he spent 16 years of his life.

Max Arthur Macauliffe was born on September 10, 1841, at Newcastle West, Limerick County, Ireland. He was educated at the Newcastle School, Springfield College and Queen’s College, Galway. He received a broad humanistic education that allowed him to read the Greek, Latin , French and Italian classics in the original. In 1862 he was chosen for the Indian Civil Service and was assigned to the Punjab where he joined his appointment in February 1864. He reached the grade of a Deputy Commissioner in 1882 and became a divisional judge two years later.His career in the Indian Civil Service has received no special historical note. Although his deep understanding and sympathy for the people of Punjab and their religious traditions doubtless made him a popular civil servant with the people of Punjab, though it also brought him into conflict with his fellow Englishmen in India.

His interest in Sikhism was sparked by attending a Diwali celebration in Amritsar shortly after arriving in 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 Gurus. He found himself deeply engaged because of the “sublimity of their style and the high standard of ethics which they indicated.”

Macauliffe translated portions from Sikh Scriptures with rare love and devotion and identified himself completely with their heritage and destiny. He delivered lectures and presented papers on  Sikhism at different places. In 1897, he read a paper, “Holy Writings Of The Sikhs” before the Aryan Section of the Congress of Orientalists in Paris. Two years later he presented a paper “Life And Teachings Of Guru Gobind Singh” at the Orientalists Congress in Rome. In his general lectures and writings. Macauliffe, showed much concern for the state of Sikhism and deplored many weaknesses that had crept in. Like other Sikh reformers, he deeply regretted what he called “the abolition of Sikhism as a State religion in Kapurthala” when its ruler apostatized himself by renouncing the Sikh form and was very much disturbed by hinduization of Sikhism. Macauliffe described the present conditions and danger facing Sikhism from Brahmins but still hopeful for the positive. He wrote, “I am not without hope that when enlightened nations become acquainted with the merits of the Sikh religion, they will not willingly let it perish in the great abyss in which so many creeds have been engulfed..

Macauliffe’s studies of Sikhism first appeared in the ‘Calcutta Review’ in articles published between 1875 and 1881, some of the titles being “Diwali at Amritsar – the Religion of the Sikhs,” Calcutta Review, Vol. XI, 1880, 257-272. “The Rise of Amritsar and the Alterations of Sikh Religion,” Calcutta Review, Vol. LXXII, 1881, 57-73, and “The Sikh Religion Under Banda and Its Present Condition,” Vol. LXXIII, 1881, 155-168. Macauliffe had simultaneously started rendering into English, text from the Sikh Scripture, the Granth Sahib. This led many educated Sikhs to anticipate a new translation of the Holy Book to correct the shortcomings of Dr. Ernest Trumpp’s work, which had been commissioned by the India Office under British Rule and published in 1877 which was full of imperfections.

On May 3, 1893, the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Ferozpur, where Macauliffe was then posted as a divisional judge wrote a letter which was forwarded to him by the chief secretary of the Khalsa Diwan, Lahore, urging him to put in hand a full scale rendering of the Holy Book. As more and more Sikhs were learning the English language and such a translation, the letter said, had become the need of the community. They referred that Dr. Trumpp’s translation which appeared in 1877 was utterly unsatisfactory, untrustworthy, tendentious,polemical and that the government money spent on it had been a total waste. It also had offended Sikh sentiments on many occasions when he was smoking cigar in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib. The Singh Sabha’s requested Macauliffe to persuade the government to assign him this work as they had assigned to Dr. Trumpp.but it did not work.

Maucauliffe had to resign to start the translation

Macauliffe’s main aim in undertaking his own translation was to make reparation to the Sikhs for the injury caused by Trumpp’s work. Some of the other advantages he foresaw were the presentation to the outside world of the excellence of the Sikh religion and making available to the new generation of English-speaking Sikhs who could now read their sacred literature in English translation.

It became increasingly evident to Macauliffe that the massive work of translating the Guru Granth Sahib and writing a definitive of Sikhism could not be combined with his responsibilities as a full-time civil servant. But he could not afford to renounce his official employment. However, on the assurance of the financial support from Khalsa Diwan, and Raja Bikram Singh, whom he had met in Faridkot, Macauliffe resigned service in 1893 to concentrate fully on this gignatic task. Though help came from all the sources and from other princely patrons as Raja Hira Singh of Nabha, Maharaja Rajinder Singh of Patiala, Raja Ranbir Singh of Jind, Tikka Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, Sardar Ranjit Singh of Chachhrauli and the Gaekwad of Baroda. But Macauliffe’s liabilities worth Rs.35000 + the printing costs,exceeded the assistance he received. Specifying the scope of the work, He appended the life of the Ten Gurus as well as the Bhagats to the translation of Guru Granth Sahib.

Macauliffe had established deep and continuing contact with leading Sikh scholars and Gianis and had mastered the necessary linguistic tools. He studied a number of Indian and related languages in order to master the textual complexities of the Holy Book. Among these languages, he mentions, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Arabic, Persian, Marathi, Gujrati and Punjabi, in its various dialects.

While in India, Macauliffe made his home at Amritsar – on Cantonment Road. He also lived in Nabha, and spent time in Mussoorie and Dehra Dun. Macauliffe secured from Maharaja Sir Hira Singh of Nabha the services of Bhai Kahn Singh, the royal tutor. Bhai Kahn Singh, who later won fame with his authoritative and monumental “Gurshabad Ratnakar Mahan Kosh”, an encyclopaedia of Sikh literature, was the most lettered Sikh of the day and he combined the knowledge of English with his vast classical learning. He also maintained active liaison with all the important contemporary exegetes of the sacred Word such as Bhai Sardul Singh Giani, Bhai Sant Singh of Kapurthala, Bhai Fateh Singh, Bhai Darbara Singh, Bhai Bhagwan Singh of Patiala, Bhai Dasaundha Singh of Ferozpur and Giani Ditt Singh.

This excessive dependence on the gianis was the result of Macauliffe’s anxiety to avoid the pitfalls Dr. Trumpp had run into and produce a translation which would be acceptable to the Sikh people. One problem was that none of them knew any English. It took Macauliffe all his patience and skill to decide between rival and contradictory versions. He also sought the advice of English knowing Sikh scholars and circulated among them scripts of the different portions of the Guru Granth Sahib he had translated. Macauliffe also sent copies to some Sikh dignitaries and to eminent men of letters abroad. He was in return flooded with letters of appreciation.

Divan Leila Ram, Subordinate Judge of Hyderabad, Sind, wrote to him on February 9, 1898, saying that he had gone through nearly 25 translations of the Japji – some in English and others in Persian, Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, etc., but none of them matched his translation in accuracy and quality. Likewise letters were received from Baba Sir Khem Singh Bedi (May 1, 1889), the Raja Sahib Faridkot (February 24, 1898), Baba Sumer Singh, Mahant Sri Patna Sahib (January 8, 1898), Bhai Kahn Singh, then Nazim, Nabha State (February 5, 1889), Bhai Hazara Singh Giani, Amritsar (February 9, 1898) and Dr. Sunder Singh, Penang (January 29, 1898).

Among the European scholars who wrote to him were J.A. Grierson (January 11, 1898), Sir William Hunter (October 7, 1898), Sir Edwin Arnold (October 27, 1898) and Professor Max Muller (December 15, 1898)

When the work was completed, Macauliffe requested for a committee of Sikh clergymen to examine his translation. He was invited by the custodians of Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple, to address from Sri Akal Takhat Bunga an assembly of Sikhs on the subject of his translation. While the committee worked, three akhand-paths or continuous recitals of the Guru Granth Sahib were held for the success of Macauliffe’s work and a special prayer was offered for him personally. The committee finally recorded the following opinion:

“We, through the agency of learned Sikhs acquainted with English, have carefully perused the translation of the hymns of the Granth Sahib by Mr. Macauliffe. The perusal cost us a month and a half of continuous labor. Wherever any of us found what seemed to be an error we all met, discussed the passage, and either corrected it or allowed Mr. Macauliffe’s translation to stand.

Therefore, we now state that Mr. Macauliffe’s translation has been fully revised by us, and is thoroughly correct. The greatest care has been taken in making the translation conformable to the religious tenets of the Sikhs. The translation is quite literal and done according to all grammatical and rhetoric rules.”


To the translation, Macauliffe added accounts of the lives of the Gurus and of the saints and sufis whose hymns form part of the Guru Granth Sahib and proceeded to England. Arrangements for the publication of the work were made with the Oxford University Press. Bhai Kahn Singh of Nabha, remained with him in England to check proofs. In 1909, the book was out in six stout volumes, a consummation which must have greatly pleased Macauliffe’s heart and compensated him with all the disappointments which faced before.

Macauliffe’s one regret was that his work had not received Government patronage. The Punjab Government had recommended a sum of rupeees . 15,000 by way of an advance grant to him against copies of the translation to be supplied when published. The Secretary of State, Lord Morley, reduced it to Rs. 5,000 but this offer was declined by Lord Mcauliffe

Taking the hint from the attitude of the Government, a section of the Sikh community also cooled off. The Sikh Educational Conference, held in Rawalpindi in 1911, refused to sponsor a resolution commending the translation. Macauliffe sat in the evening, a dejected man eating alone in his hotel room in Rawalpindi cantonment. He had been rejected by the people whom he had given his lifeblood and he wanted not to dine in the hall with the British who shunned his company for having “turned a Sikh”. He was also disappointed that it had not been possible for him to publish his translation to synchronize with the celebration in 1899 of the 200th birth anniversary of the Khalsa This  work occupied him for allmost sixteen years, Later The work was printed at the cost of the University of Oxford in 1909 but this only represented a small part of the translator’s expenditure. He himself estimated that he had spent as much as two lakhs on the work.

On his death, Macauliffe’s contributions secured him a permanent place in the hearts of Sikh people. But there were people who have ungratefully and unreasonably criticized the quality of his translation – as being too plain and matter of fact. It is true that his sensitiveness to the Sikh sentiment and his emphasis on accuracy somewhat inhibited his style. Yet there is a classic grace and chastity in his self-imposed austerity. His is a work of high excellence and dignity and has, over the years, been a beacon in the Sikh literary world.

. MacAuliffe died at his home in London on 15th March 1913. His personal assistant remarked in his memoirs that on his death bed, Macauliffe could be heard reciting the Sikh morning prayer, Japji, ten minutes before he died. Macauliffe’s contributions secured him a permanent place in the hearts of Sikh people and he added a chapter in Sikh history by being an important leader of Singh Sabha movement. A Macauliffe Memorial Society was founded to lead this effort.  Lieutenant Governor Sir Michael O’Dwyer wrote a letter of support and sent financial contribution for a library in Macauliffe’s name.

According to Bhai Kahan Singh, there was a great debate among the community he was living in with regard to Macauliffe’s religion and his rights to burial in the community cemetery. As Macauliffe was considered a Sikh and labeled as “turned Sikh”, the town’s Christian community put up a resistance to permitting Macauliffe’s body to be buried in the local cemetery as the cemetery was considered to be “meant” for Christians and not for those who opted out of Christian faith as did Macauliffe. This happening offered further evidence that Macauliffe’s conversion to Sikhism was widely known among the neighborhood community in England as was known to Sikhs in India.

The news of his death caused widespread sorrow, and to his numerous friends in Punjab it came as a great personal shock. The Sikh Educational Conference which was meeting a week later in Ambala for its annual session adopted a resolution condoling his death. The Sikhs of Rawalpindi set up Macauliffe Memorial Society and sought to raise funds to establish a library in his honour, but the response was so far from encouraging.

The meagre sum of Rs.3,245 which was collected was offered to the University of Punjab, Lahore, for the endowment of a medal in memory of Mr. Macauliffe, but they declined to accept it for the reason that the competition the donors proposed was to be restricted to the Sikh community alone. The sum was eventually handed over to Khalsa College, Amritsar, which now awards annually the Macauliffe Memorial Medal to the writer of the best essay on a given topic.Dr. Gopal Singh Dardi, the author of famous English translation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib received this medal in 1934 at the age of 16.

The Academy of Guru Granth Studies undertook to celebrate 2013, the Centenniel year in honor of Max Arthur MaCauliffe in North America. An International Conference was held in Montreal, Canada, to celebrate the MaCauliffe Centenniel to highlight his contributions to the Panth and initiate translations of Sikh scripture in English. The Conference honored MaCauliffe by conferring the title of GYANI on Sikh-British scholar Max Arthur Macauliffe.

Similarly, in 2013, University College Cork hosted the Max Arthur Macauliffe Centennial Conference, “Representing Sikhism,” on March 15, 2013 in Ireland.In the summer of 2013, plans were made to establish a library and residence facilities for visiting scholars to initiate research projects in the city of Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada. Representatives of the Academy of Gur Granth Studies from USA and a number local Sikhs from London paid their respect to the memories of Macauliffe by visiting and saying prayers in front of his last residence on 10 Sinclair Road, London.



The Sikh Religion Vol I (1909)
The Sikh Religion Vol II (1909)
The Sikh Religion Vol III (1909)
The Sikh Religion Vol IV (1909)
The Sikh Religion Vol V (1909)
The Sikh Religion Vol VI (1909)
Translation of the Japji – M. Macauliffe

Waheguru ji ka Khalsa Waheguru ji ki Fateh


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