Macauliffe, Max, also known as Michael McAuliffe (1838–1913), Indian Civil Service judge and Sikh scholar, was born 11 September 1838 in Glenmore, Monagea, Co. Limerick, eldest of five sons and seven daughters of John McAuliffe, schoolteacher and farmer, and Julia McAuliffe (née Browne), schoolteacher, both of Co. Limerick. He was baptised as Michael McAuliffe according to the rites of the Roman Catholic church in the parish of Monagea. He was educated in Glenmore and then Templeglantine national school, of which his father became the first principal in 1846 and at which Macauliffe subsequently assisted as a monitor. He received his intermediate education at Springfield College, Ennis, Co. Clare (later to become, and remain, St Flannan's College). In 1857 he was admitted to QCG and he held scholarships for each year of his arts course, graduating in 1860 with first-class honours in modern languages and winning a gold medal. He held senior scholarships in ancient classics (1860–61) and in modern languages and history (1861–2). He received an honorary MA on the dissolution of the Queen's University in Ireland in 1882.
He joined the Indian Civil Service in 1862 and was posted to the Punjab, where he arrived in 1864, becoming a deputy commissioner in 1882 and a divisional judge in 1884. He appears to have become ‘Max Arthur Macauliffe’ while in India, and used this name in all his publications and in his will. He lived at 2 Cantonment Road, Amritsar, the city in which the Golden Temple of the Sikhs is situated, and he soon became deeply interested in the Sikh religion. Between 1875 and 1881 he published four articles on Sikhism in the Calcutta Review and he had begun to learn the languages of the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred book of the Sikhs. The India Office had commissioned a German missionary, Dr Ernest Trumpp, to translate the Granth into English, but the partial translation, which appeared in 1877, was unacceptable, indeed offensive, to many Sikhs. Macauliffe undertook a new translation as an act of reparation to the Sikh people. It soon became obvious that he could not combine this work with his official duties. He received financial support from various Sikh sources, enabling him to resign from the Indian Civil Service in 1893. He was bitterly disappointed when his requests for patronage from the Punjab government were either rejected outright or were responded to parsimoniously.
He incurred extra expense by employing gianis (professional interpreters of the Sikh scriptures) to help him with his great task, reputedly spending two lakhs of rupees out of his own pocket. He worked in close collaboration with Sikh scholars, sending them every line of his translations and revising his drafts in response to their recommendations. This, he believed, was an entirely novel plan, for not even the most eminent oriental scholars in the west submitted their translations to native scrutiny, nor were their works accepted by native scholars. When his work was completed, Macauliffe asked that it be scrutinised by a committee of Sikh scriptural scholars, who suggested various emendations and gave it their seal of approval, both linguistic and theological. As well as translating the Granth, he decided to include biographies of the ten gurus of Sikhism and of the Bhagats, the Sant poets whose works also appear in the Granth. When he completed his work, he moved to England, accompanied by his great friend and adviser, Bhai Kahn Singh, the celebrated Sikh scholar, who helped him correct the proofs of his book. In 1909 the Clarendon Press, Oxford, published Macauliffe's monumental treatise, The Sikh religion: its gurus, sacred writings and authors, which includes the classic translation into English of the Granth. This ‘famous and enduring work’ (McLeod, 6) was produced in six volumes, running to almost 2,500 pages; it has remained in print ever since. It was the first published exegetical work on the Sikh scriptures, as previous expositions had come down by word of mouth through, for instance, hereditary gianis. It is generally seen as forming the basis for modern Sikh scholarship. He also published numerous articles and pamphlets, including the entries on ‘Sikh’ and ‘Sikhism’ in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Macauliffe converted to the Sikh religion and was a leading member of Tat Khalsa, the radical section of the Singh Sabha reform movement, founded in Amritsar in 1873. Its members believed that though Sikhism and Hinduism shared some beliefs, Sikhism was an entirely new religion, independent of Hinduism. The Tat Khalsa movement, based in Lahore, was influenced by western ideas and Macauliffe was motivated by a desire to make the Sikh people and their religion understood in the west. He began his masterpiece with the words: ‘I bring from the East what is practically an unknown religion’. His interpretation of the Sikh religion and community is now accepted by most Sikhs, including Sikh scholars. The Sikh religion has been enormously influential in the west, and of the twenty articles reprinted in Darshan Singh's Western image of the Sikh religion: a source book no fewer than seven are by Macauliffe. Though he saw his labours as serving the political interests of the Sikhs, he by no means saw them as anti-imperial. Indeed, in 1903, he recommended the Sikhs to the British as potential allies in a pamphlet with the significant title A lecture on the Sikh religion and its advantages to the state.
Both the Punjab government and the government of India refused official sanction for The Sikh religion, while Macauliffe rejected contemptuously the Punjab government's paltry offer of a subvention of 5,000 rupees, which had been reduced from 15,000 rupees by the secretary of state, Lord Morley. Though the work was enthusiastically received by his co-religionists, wealthy Sikhs (fearing government displeasure) failed to support it financially. The Sikh Educational Conference, held in Rawalpindi in 1911, refused to sponsor a resolution commending Macauliffe's translation.
Macauliffe, who was unmarried, died at his residence, 10 Sinclair Gardens, West Kensington, London, on 15 March 1913. Probate of his will was granted on 16 December 1914. Despite the general belief that he died impoverished, Macauliffe left over £3,000, apart from investments, plus a bequest of £5 a month to his ‘delicate’ brother Dan. He left most of his estate to his relatives but bequeathed the copyright of The Sikh religion to Kahn Singh. The Sikh Educational Conference passed a vote of condolence and the Sikhs of Rawalpindi set up a Macauliffe Memorial Society to raise funds to establish a library in his memory, but the amount collected was insufficient. Among those who subscribed, and sent a letter of support, was the lieutenant governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O'Dwyer (qv). The money was eventually given to Khalsa College, Amritsar, to fund an annual Macauliffe Memorial Medal for the best student in Sikh theology and history. The medal is still awarded on an occasional basis. But his reputation has grown dramatically since his death and he is now considered the most significant western figure in the history of Sikhism. There are portraits in Macauliffe, The Sikh religion (1909), vol. i, and in Lal, p. 130.