Legendary Pioneers in Sikh Studies
– Bhai Sahib Bhai Vir Singh –
At the outset I am greatly indebted to the Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh for giving me the opportunity to contribute a comprehensive article on Bhai Sahib Bhai Vir Singh under the series Legendary Pioneers in Sikh Studies to be published in the July-October issue of the Institute’s quarterly Journal Abstracts of Sikh Studies, in order to highlight his seminal contribution to Sikh religion and its renaissane, rejuvenaltion and punjabi language and literature in various genres such as poetry, prose, novels, pamphlets, scholarly writings in newspapers, journal, and books. All his scholarly works are a treasure trove for researchers, students, historians and others for today and ever after. Through this paper a humble attempt is being made to bring to light Bhai Sahib’s multifaceted personality and his valuable contribution to Sikh religion, history and literature. Bhai Vir Singh was prominent among the pioneers who were harbingers of Sikh renaissance in Sikh religion, Sikh heritage and history, Sikh revival of interest in Sikh classics, Sikh literature, Sikh education, culture and commerce.
Bhai Sahib Bhai Vir Singh (1872-1957) (hereafter addressed as Bhai Sahib) was born on 5th of December 1872 in Katra Garba Singh, Amritsar in a family of scholars and intellectuals. His father Dr. Charan Singh was a medical practitioner and was also a illustrious scholar in Sanskrit, Braj, English, Persian and Sikh texts and Sri Atal Parkash, Dasam Guru Charitra, Gurmat Sangeet Nirnaya (Musical Measures in Guru Granth Sahib), Sri Guru Granth Beora (Verse forms in Guru Granth Sahib) are some of his notable contributions. Bhai Sahib’s grandfather Bhai Kahan Singh, contemporary of a renowned English scholar Mr. Max Arthur Macauliffe was a learned man himself. Bhai Kahan Singh (1788-1878) was the first in the family to be sworn as a Sikh and was a forerunner of the family’s literary and scholarly tradition. Bhai Kahan Singh ji is remembered for his contributions as an eminent scholar, a Gurmat researcher, a learned annotator, a scientific lexicographer, a language expert, a great poet and an excellent editor in Punjabi1. Bhai Sahib’s family traces its ancestory back to Diwan Kaura Mal (died 1752) who rose to the position of vice-governor of Multan under Nawab Mir Moin-ul-Mulk. The maternal grandfather of Bhai sahib, Giani Hazara Singh too was a renowned exegete and a man of letters who compiled a lexicon of the Aad Guru Granth Sahib, penned and wrote commentary on Bhai Gurdas’ varaan. Giani Hazara Singh’s collaboration with the colonial scholars like M.A.Mcauliffe are well known2. Thus Bhai sahib’s upbringing in the legendary scholarly Sikh family shaped his personality and his works immensely. The zeal, passion and enthusiasm for spearheading the projects for reawakening the Sikh consciousness was the result of Bhai Vir Singh’s upbringing in the Sikh milieu and his education by his illustrious grand father Giani Hazara Singh and his scholarly father Dr Charan Singh.
His early education at the Church Mission School at Amritsar facilitated his command over English language which enabled him to master the intricacies of modern writing and equipped him with science of exegesis under the guidance of his maternal grandfather. His writings hence were a perfect blend of modern and classical learning. Despite being well versed in Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu, Braj and English, he chose to express his thoughts in Punjabi language making a renowned place for himself in the world of literature and raising the status of his native language Punjabi as a medium of good literature. Through his excellent choice of words and meticulous use of metaphors, similes, idioms, phrases Bhai Sahib infused a new life in all his writings be it prose, poetry, short stories, editorials, philosophical and religious essays, and novels which are thus deeply engaging.
Bhai Sahib’s contribution towards the promotion and propagation of Sikh values and ideals can be traced back to his teenage days when his religious convictions about Sikhism were strengthened as he noticed his fellow students at school coming under the increasing influence and allure of Christianity and their conversion to the same. Over a period of years he passionately devoted himself to restore the Sikh confidence in the divine ministry of the Great Sikh Gurus. His writings gave a new lease of life to Sikhism that had severely come under cultural onslaught of Christianity under the British rule. He eventually established himself as a Sikh icon and legendary personality with his exemplary creative works and editing of Sikh classics. Through his fluent style of writing Bhai Sahib sought to shed light on the divinity in Sikhism in its purest form and highlighted its aesthetic and intellectual appeal. His mission of life was to revive the forgotten glory of Sikhism and reaffirm the faith in the Sikh scriptures, heritage and traditions among the young and old; distinguished and common people who were losing interest in Sikhism.
His role was central in the Singh Sabha Movement (1873-1920) initiated to bring religious and social reform through the publication and circulation of journals, tracts, newspapers and books and for addressing the identity threats among the sikhs due to the growing popularity of evangelists and the Hindu revivalists. Through various activities intended to disseminate information enabling Sikhs to denounce lifestyles inconsistent with the teachings of the Sikhs Gurus, the movement gained considerable importance by the end of the nineteenth century. Bhai Sahib’s notable work in the Singh Sabha Movement added vigour, vibrancy and strength to the movement, which produced scriptural commentaries and biographies on the Sikh Gurus. He also employed the Victorian novel form to produce popular fictional literature that promoted Khâlsâ identity. His cherished works Sundarî (1898), Bijay Singh (1899) and Satvant Kaur (1900) stressed on the importance and the adoption of the articles of Sikh faith (five Kakkars); the Sikh rituals, the recitation of bani; following the Rahit (Sikh Code of Conduct). In the very first novel, Sundari, Bhai Sahib invests the lead character with the noblest of Sikh merits derived from Sikh history and teachings with an attempt to encourage all Sikhs to become baptised Khalsa Sikhs (purest of all) holding steadfast to the principles and path of the Gurus. All his writings spread message of peace and divinity however, categorically abandoning Khalsa way of life as sinful. The degeneration of Sikhism was largely due to neglect of highly held Sikh values and practices and preference towards other religions:
“Look at yourself and see whether or not the decline of the Sikh nation is caused by your own hands. Leaving your God and your true Gurus, you worship stones, trees, idols, tombs and saints. Forgetting Sikh religion, you rot in another religion. Turning your back on the true Gurus you teach someone else’s religion to your offspring too. Your children will grow to be half-baked like you - Sikh on the head, Brahmin around the neck and Muslim below the waist3. (Sundarî, Amritsar 1972, quotation translated by S.S. Dulai)
He sought to accomplish his mission by penning down his religious feelings thoughts words of wisdom in a language that was not considered a literary language in those times and this is what made him unique in Sikh annals. He chose to address the challenge by accepting a challenge of a higher order. At a time, when Persian and Urdu were the literary languages, Bhai Vir Singh ji chose to write in punjabi instead. He wrote exemplary philosophical and historical essays in punjabi to resuscitate the glory of the Sikh religion, Sikh martyrdom and the heroic tradition professed and practiced by the Sikh Gurus and Sikh warriors to defend their own faith and uphold human rights. The dual challenge to instill feelings of pride, respect and honour in professing faith in Sikhism as well as the Punjabi language were accomplished by Bhai Sahib with dogged perseverance, hard work meticulous efforts deep insight and a pragmatic approach. Indeed, the social, political and the cultural milieu prevailing at that time in Punjab was an influential force for his scholarly achievement but definitely not the only one. Stronger still was his passion to give expression to his creativity, his mystical faith in God and Sikh Guru’s divinity and internalization of feelings of living and non living beings and his desire to spread the message of peace, love, co existence, compassion, empathy and magnanimity. From his early young days till his death at the age of 85 years, Bhai Sahib was single mindedly engaged in his religious spiritual and literary pursuits with absolute clarity of the goals and the means to be taken for the same. Literature, as he knew by intuition and intellect, has always been a potent force in the development of society. It has played a key role in shaping civilizations; in the evolution of political systems and in establishing an orderly, peaceful society by exposing injustice and tyranny. Since, there exists a two way relationship between literature and society, both influence one another significantly in a dialectic manner, he chose this area. However did not limit himself to be a litterateur only. He was a poet, prose writer, historian, research scholar, exegete, novelist, social reformer, Sikh theologian and ideologue not for his own age but for all times to come. All his works, being a meticulous blend of classic and modern, reflected the richness of his thoughts and feelings. Every piece of his writing was deeply immersed in divine philosophy that leaves an indelible impression on the minds of readers irrespective of the age and time it is read. The thoughts and the expressions are so captivating that the more one reads, the more is the urge to read and communicate with such a great man. He has deservedly been honoured with the Sikh congregational honour and epithet “ Bhai Sahib Bhai”.
Bhai Sahib’s writings repeatedly stressed on khande di pahul initiation for transformation from being ‘effeminate’ and ‘immoral’ into ‘virtuous’ and ‘moral’ individuals4. The central characters in his works Bijay Singh (1899) and Satvant Kaur (1900 & 1927), Baba Naudh Singh (1921) and Rana Surat Singh, 1st Punjabi Epic (1905) undergo transformation from passive Hindus to Khalsa warriors after baptism. Their stories and tales remind the Sikhs about the valiant deeds of Sikhs and encourage readers to enact these characters within their own selves.
All Sikh women are given a message to become like Sundari, a character akin to Mai Bhago who, during the time of Guru Gobind Singh ji, fought bravely in the battle of Muktsar. Extremely concerned and conscious of the contemporary developments threatening sikh religion and identity, Bhai Sahib made an attempt to highlight not only martial qualities exhibited by the sikhs in the past but also the fact that the principles of justice, fairness, democracy, human rights of all and equality for all, were equally upheld by the Sikhs in all times. He thus played a key role in augmenting religious and cultural renaissance in Sikh society/ community in conformity with the ideological propagation by the Singh Sabha Movement.
He envisioned a strong, morally and ethically inclined, prosperous, strongly bonded and grounded sikh community, making a niche for itself through genuine, pure, humanitarian efforts and deeds. And the vision became his mission of life and all literary pursuits. Bhai Sahib started a printing press in 1892 - Wazir-e-Hind – to promote and propagate his vision and mission. At the press, all the works of Bhai Sahib were published at this press. Followed by the establishment of the printing press, the Khalsa Tract Society (1893), emulating the model of the Religious Tract Society in London, was also started by Bhai Sahib. Most of the tracts published by this society were penned down by Bhai Sahib himself and these were an immensely powerful medium to connect with the readers. They had a still wider readership through pamphlets on varied topics like social ills, derogatory practices, and need to adopt Rahit, moral values. The purpose was accomplished by penning and publishing stories and parables, quotations from Guru Granth Sahib and Gurpurab greetings on the occasion of birth anniversaries of the Sikh Gurus following the western model of exchanging good wishes. Combinations of conventional and western practices were effectively used for the accomplishment of achieving the goals of Singh Sabha Movement. To further the goal, in 1899, he started the Khalsa Samachar, a weekly newspaper, which influenced and shaped the Sikh thought, to a considerable extent, among the Sikhs. It proved an important vehicle for social, cultural and religious renaissance for the Sikh World. The newspaper, besides providing readers with the latest panthic information and developments, disseminated valuable information on Sikh faith and its tenets, principles, history, philosophy. Publication of another journal Nirguniara started in 1893 which was another milestone that contained well researched essays and articles on Sikhism. One finds a reflection of his academic excellence and philosophic maturity in his journalism, tractarian and scholarly writings and his grasp over the Sikh historical and religious doctrines. His command and control of the poetic expression, flow of ideas and plot of the imaginary stories was smooth, flawless and aesthetically superb. However, equally unparalleled was the area of his scholarly work where he expressed himself assiduously. Some of his major theological works Sri Guru Nanak Chamatkar and Sri Guru Kalgidhar Chamatkar were serialized in the columns of this newspaper which served as a ground for the monumental work of Kalgidhar Chamatkar (1925) followed by Sri Guru Nanak Chamatkar (1928). The first work however, was the Sikhan Di Bhagat Mala that was chosen by Bhai Sahib for scholarly scrutiny. This edited work was published in 1912. He also edited celebrated Sikh classics Prachin Panth Prakash (1841) by Rattan Singh Bhangu that provides a detailed account of the cataclysmic days of Sikh struggle for survival in the eighteenth century when the Sikhs, through their dogged resistance, laid the foundations of their Sikh rule in the Punjab. The first hand information and development of events as provided by the author of this classic and later edited by Bhai Sahib and brought out in 1914 was indeed phenomenal and has been an authentic source of information to scholars and students of a widespectrum of scholars and readers. Another major contribution by Bhai Sahib was edited version of The Puratan Janamsakhi, which remains the most valuable source material on the life of Guru Nanak. His knowledge of science of exegesis, various indigeneous languages gave him the confidence and wisdom to take up the gigantic task of editing Bhai Santokh Singh’s Gur Pratap Suraj Granth (1843), commonly known to the people as Suraj Prakash, conscious of the importance of the Suraj Prakash for being a rich reservoir of information on Sikh religion and history. Bhai Sahib delved deep into it by engaging in intensive research, dedication and meticulous editing. Bhai Santokh Singh’s Suraj Prakash, is a reflection of author’s genius, academic talent, versatile knowledge, grasp over various languages and about a variety of things such as the flora and fauna of the Punjab, birds and cattle, horses and elephants, weapons of war and the strategy of battlefield. And indeed no other person than Bhai Santokh Singh could have devoted his time and energy in a task of such a great magnitude. Besides Bhai Sahib’s intellectual, literary and linguistic capacity, the editing assignment of this classic required sustained and dedicated labour and planning of a highly sophisticated order. Besides annotating the text with highly Sanskritized vocabulary and the elaborate conventions of poetry—the text had to be standardized and, as far as possible, and Sikh doctrines dissociated from poetic fancy and mythologizing. For nearly nine long years, he was completely engaged in this expansive work. The Suraj Parkash was translated exhaustively into punjabi prose, by Bhai Sahib in a 14-volumes annotated edition and published between 1927-35 after years of hard work, perseverance, commitment. Its editing involved meticulous planning, deep investigation covering varied aspects like the sources of historical information, philosophy of history and the place of history in the Sikh system as well. The Suraj Prakash, as published by him in 1934, represented Sikh scholarship at its best and will continue to be an exemplary contribution to Sikh studies.
A man of extraordinary talent and superhuman qualities and dedication beyond limits, Bhai Sahib resolved to add to the chamatkar series, by covering the account of the remaining of the eight gurus. However, during his lifetime he could finish only four of these. Three of these accounts he published under the title Sri Asht Guru Chamatkar (Vol.I) in 1952. The life of Guru Arjan was published posthumously by his brother Dr. Balbir Singh. The other scholarly works included exegete selections from the Sikh scripture published in 1906 under the title Panj Granthi Steek. He also revised and enlarged the dictionary of the Guru Granth prepared by his maternal grandfather Giani Hazara Singh. This revised edition was published in 1927. He dedicated his life towards spreading the message of the Guru Granth and addressing the distortions that had come up due to external and internal reasons. His dedication and undwindling faith motivated Bhai Sahib to write a commentary on the entire Sacred Granth but unfortunately the commentary remained incomplete. His commentary on nearly half of the Holy Book – he had done, was published posthumously in seven large volumes by his brother Dr Balbir Singh. The Santhya Sri Guru Granth Sahib, as the series has been styled, is a testimony of his industriousness, mastery of the Sikh sacred texts and his vast knowledge of Indian literature, philosophy, semantics and grammar. Another work in the series of his literary and scholarly accomplishments was the Sakhi Pothi, an important historical document that Bhai Sahib edited. This work deals with the travels of Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh in the Malwa region of the Punjab.
In addition to his contribution to the religious and Sikh studies, his creative talent manifested itself in a significant body of secular Punjabi poetry which included around half a dozn collection of Short poems and lyrics namely Dil trang (1920) Tarel Tuptee (1921), Lehran de Har (1927) and Mere Sajan Jio (1953). Besides expressing his love of beauty of nature, these poems reflect his aesthetic and mystical aspirations. These poems reflect his poetic excellent craftsmanship as he not only refined the old metrical forms like Kabit, Sortha, Baint, Rubai but also light, nimble meters, thus enriching Punjabi poetry. These verses are unique for their mystical content as well as their fine craftsmanship.
Besides his monumental contribution to the rejuvenation of Sikh religion and heritage, he also contributed to bring about an educational, cultural and economic renaissance in Sikh Society. He extended his assistance in the formation of the Chief Khalsa Diwan (1902), a representative body of Sikhs, which played a leading role in organizing the social, religious and political and educational activities of the Sikh community. The Chief Khalsa Diwan constituted in 1900 engaged itself for the multiple amelioration of the Sikh society. In cooperation with the Chief Khalsa Diwan, he playd an eminent role in establishing the premier Sikh Educational Institution, the Khalsa College at Amritsar. He founded the Sikh educational Committee in 1908 which has been instrumental in spreading primary and secondary education among the masses. His ceaseless and untiring efforts for the betterment of humanity culminated in opening orphanages, asylum for the blind and destitutes; homeopathic hospital at Amritsar; old age homes; amelioration of the socially- culturally marginalized among the Sikh society. He was also a prominent member among the founders of the Punjab & Sind Bank (1908) which provided employment to thousands of Sikh Youth.
Bhai Sahib, an epitome of dedication to his faith, knowledge, humility, generosity, kindness, love for humanity, holds the same place as is occupied by Iqbal in Urdu, Rabindranath Tagore in Bengali or Wordsworth in English. Eminent scholars like Jean Helbert, Khushwant Singh. Prof. Puran Singh, Dr. G S Mansukhani, Shri Vegeshwar, Shri K.N. Sharma and Madan Mohan Singh have brought out poetic qualities of Bhai Sahib’s work. Their articles inspire the readers to make extensive and intensive reading of the works of Bhai Sahib. In her article, Sabita Sen Gupta draws a comparison: “A comparison between Tagore and Bhai Vir Singh may seem inappropriate but in the limited sky of modern Punjabi literature, Bhai Vir Singh was the luminous sun almost holding the same position of unchallenged supremacy which Tagore had in Bengali.” Harindranath Chattopadbya titled his article: “A River of Culture and Learning” and says: “In the land of the Five Rivers, Bhai Vir Singh may well be said to be the sixth; for he has always been known to his people as a river of culture and learning, one who has flowed for several years like a nourishing influence into their lives and sustaining them.5 He was honoured with the degree of ‘Doctor of Oriental Learning’ in the year 1949 by Punjab University and conferred with the national honour ‘Padam Bhushan’ in 1956 by the Government of India. And when people exhorted him to say a few words at the Sikh Educational Conference on December 5, 1954, where he was presented the ‘Abhinandan Granth’ for his great service to Punjabi and Punjab, he did not deliver any speech but when insisted to speak few words he asked for the recitation of the following Gurbani verse, which reflects his humility despite his monumental contribution:
“Rolling in dust were we, regarded by none –
By association with the holy Preceptor, the Master,
Were exalted worms such as we.”6
Bhai Sahib left this world on 10 June 1957 leaving behind a great legacy. “Shri Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the then President of India, in inaugurated the building of Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi on 28 November 1978 in honour Bhai Sahib said “Bhai Vir Singh ji was not an individual but an institution. An eminent poet, distinguished educationist, social reformer and above all, a humanist Bhai Vir Singh was truly the architect of modern Punjabi literature.”
Thus, Bhai Vir Singh was a colossus among the legendary pioneers and Sikh stalwarts who enrichd Sikh and Punjabi Literature through his literary works and whole-hearted commitment. He was also a leading light among the harbingers of Sikh renaissance in the early twienth century.
1 Great Punjabi Scholar http://apnaorg.com/prose-content/english-articles/page-155/article-10/index.html accessed on 14/06/2021.
2 Singh, Ganda (2002). Bhai Vir Singh: Birth Centenary Volume. Publications Bureau, Punjabi University Patiala
3. S.S. Dulai, ‘The Political Novel in Punjab’, Contributions to Asian Studies, vol 6, 1975, p.51
4. Oberoi (1997) The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
5. Lt Col J S Gule!ria (1984) Bhai Vir Singh: The Sixth River of Punjab, Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan Publication.
6. ਹਮ ਰੁਲਤੇ ਫਿਰਤੇ ਕੋਈ ਬਾਤ ਨ ਪੂਛਤਾ ਗੁਰ ਸਤਿਗੁਰ ਸੰਗਿ ਕੀਰੇ ਹਮ ਥਾਪੇ ॥ – Guru Granth Sahib, p. 167