The Limerick man unknown in Ireland but revered by millions worldwide
Max Arthur Macauliffe is considered the most significant western figure in the history of Sikhism
Max Arthur Macauliffe, the eldest in a family of 11, grew up in Co Limerick.
The name Max Arthur Macauliffe means very little to most people in Ireland. Up until recently, this man, who is revered by millions around the world, was barely heard of even in the small west Limerick parish of Templeglantine where a plaque commemorating his achievements was unveiled last month.
A well known and celebrated figure among the 27 million strong Sikh community, Macauliffe, who was born in 1838, is best known for his six volume work on the Sikh religion. His English translation of the Sikhs’ holy book has been in continuous print since it was first published by the Oxford University Press in 1909, can be listened to on YouTube and is still recognised as the most accurate translation of the Guru Granth Sahib to date.
There are some misconceptions about Macauliffe’s life, one being that he was an English Protestant. While he did refer to himself as an Englishman at various stages of his life, professor emeritus of English at NUI Galway Tadhg Foley, who is currently writing a biography on the little known Irishman, notes in his own scholarly article on Macauliffe that this is simply untrue.
Born the eldest of 11 children, Michael McAuliffe (no relation), as he was christened, moved a few miles from his home village of Monagea to Templeglantine when his father became the parish’s first principal. Educated in what is now St Flannan’s College in Ennis and later at Queen’s College Galway, he studied ancient classics, modern languages and modern history.
He arrived in Bengal in 1864 after passing the exam for the Indian Civil Service in 1862, and later moved to the Punjab where he worked as assistant commissioner and judicial assistant. He became a deputy commissioner in 1882 and a divisional judge two years later, before retiring in 1893.
While it’s not fully known why Michael McAuliffe changed his name to Max Arthur and the spelling to Macauliffe, Foley notes it is likely he called himself Max in honour of the celebrated Orientalist, Friedrich Max Müller who translated some of Hinduism’s most important texts into English. But, it could also be because of a number of scandals McAuliffe was involved with and the many difficulties he experienced in his work in India.
It was in Amritsar in the Punjab that Macauliffe, baptised a Catholic, became deeply interested in the Sikh religion. He was taken by what he described as their military prowess, their modernism, their rejection of the caste system, their preaching on equality for women and the dangers of clericalism in religion. He believed Sikhs to be physically and spiritually worthy of being collaborators with British rule in India and he wanted to bring the religion to the West, saying, “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, who learned the languages of the Sikh scripture, spent 16 years translating texts which were written in a number of different languages and local dialects with no dictionaries to guide him. He also put into ink what had previously only been passed down through word of mouth.
He collaborated closely with Sikh scholars, sending them every line of his translations to ensure they were correct. This was an unusual move at the time as most westerners who translated such works never offered them up for scrutiny by the communities they were attached to, as was the case with Müller.
Macauliffe put a considerable amount of his own money into bringing his six volumes to completion. He frequently petitioned the British government for funding, even after the book was published, on the basis of the political importance of his work. However, they refused to give him anything (bar a paltry 5,000 rupees, which he took as an insult), or even associate openly with the work. While his book was well received by most Sikhs, one section of the community who relied on the government for patronage distanced themselves from it, afraid of upsetting the powers that be. In 1911, a Sikh educational conference in Rawalpindi refused to sponsor a resolution commending his translation. He was also shunned by many British people for having “turned a Sikh”.
Macauliffe moved to London in 1904 and while he never married there is evidence he had three children with the daughter of one of his servants who took him to court for maintenance payments in Lahore in 1888. When he died of cancer at his home in West Kensington on March 15th, 1913 his Muslim servant wrote how just 10 minutes before he died Macauliffe had been reciting the Sikh morning prayer. On his death he left most of his £19,000 estate to his relatives and the copyright of The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors to his close friend and scholar Bhai Kahn Singh who had helped him with getting his renowned book, which has made such an enormous contribution to Sikhism, to press four years earlier.