The Saint of Pingalwara Bhagat Puran Singh At Pingalwara, in Amritsar and elsewhere in the area, the wondrous legacy of Bhagat Puran Singh lives on. We share some first-person accounts of this multi-dimensional personality, one of the true saints of our times. As Professor Pritam Singh of Patiala wrote, “Throughout his life Bhagat Puran Singh remained a living legend in the Punjab, the modern version of Bhai Kanahayya the founder of Sewa Panthi, our precursor of the Red Cross.” Bhai Kanahayya was a disciple of Guru Tegh Bhahadur, who outlived his Guru and joined the entourage of Guru Gobind Singh. The Bhai took upon himself the duty of providing drinking water to the Guru’s camp. In one of the Sikh-Mughal skirmishes, he was also seen offering water to the injured enemy. The Sikh soldiers were furious and dragged him to the Guru for suitable action. To their amazement, the Guru not only blessed him for his true perception of the Sikh faith but also gave him healing ointment for the benefit of those who needed it the most. Since then, the Sewa Panthi Sikhs have been known for their humanitarian services, which transcend all barriers of colour, caste, creed country. Bhagat Puran Singh represented, in practice, the same spiritual and moral values that Bhai Kanahayya imbibed under the guidance of Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh. A visit to his Pingalwara (the refuge of the handicapped) which was conceived and founded by him in Amritsar, shows how the compassionate soul of this saintly person had spread its protective wings over the many hundreds of unfortunate persons suffering from incurable diseases and with no one to look after them. The Pingalwara provides an asylum to the physically handicapped, the mentally retarded, the completely deranged, the derelict, forsaken women and abandoned children. For such people, Bhagatji’s unique institution remains a charitable hospital, rather a nursing home, with free medicines, boarding, lodging and clothing. Any person coming from any part of the country, whom society had thrown out of its pale, was sure to find a welcoming godfather. For Bhagatji, all persons suffering from physical or mental ailments were human beings in distress needing immediate succour. He was once asked whether he had any religion-wise record of inmates of his Pingalwara: his reply was that he had never cared to know, but could tell with certainty that non-Sikh inmates far outnumbered their Sikh brethren. “And what about the religion-wise ratio of the contributors”? “Perhaps 90 per cent of more among the contributors are Sikhs, but, everyone is God’s child”. Time was when Bhagatji used to go about seeking those who were shelterless so he could provide some succour. In fact, that is how he started his life of service at Lahore. He had adopted a forsaken, ******* child and for the next 14 years, a tall, lanky, poorly dressed person with unkempt beard moving about in streets, with a growing boy clinging to his neck, became a familiar scene for the people of Lahore. Since then, the situation has changed tremendously. The inmates of Pingalwara in Amritsar are now provided with better perches than human backs: the wards of the spacious, double-storeyed building overflow with patients. Bhagat Puran Singh would share the same food as was provided to all immates and more often than not, sleep on the floor using the same blankets. The Bhagat never married: his decision to remain single was deliberate because the avocation that he had chosen required total dedication. No marriage could have survived the stresses and strains that he had no undergo during his life. “Who was responsible for driving you this life of a roving mendicant?” “God himself,” he said and continued thus: “Born as Ramji Das, in a rich money-lending Hindu family of Village Rajewal, near Samrala in District Ludhiana, I was to receive a revelation early in life. Once, going to my village on foot, I was forced to spend a night in a Hindu temple, which I voluntarily swept-clean and washed, but when it was time for a meal, the priests ate in my presence without bothering to share even their leftovers, even though they knew that I would sleep with an empty stomach. As luck would have it, I had to spend another night in similar circumstances at a way-side Sikh Gurdwara. I was a total stranger there, did not belong to their faith, but was served, without discrimination, a wholesome meal which was rounded off with a glass of milk. This contrast in the attitude of the two sets of people living in their respective places of worship, planted in my young mind the seeds of the Sikh faith, from which I learnt the lessons of social service, self-sacrifice and dignity of human life. My contact with the Head Granthi of Guru Arjun’s Dera Sahib Gurdwara at Lahore, Bhai Teja Singh convinced me to dedicate my entire life so that most satisfying avocation in the world – alleviation of human suffering, howsoever small the measure of one’s contribution. I have swept the excreta of patients with my own hands and do so, even now, I have picked up wastepaper and fruit-skins from the roads and do so even now; I have carried mud and bricks on my head for the buildings of Pingalwara. I have begged food for the inmates from door to door and do so even now; I sit outside the Golden Temple and other Gurdwaras in sun and rain and collect money for my Ashram. I do not feel ashamed for all this. In fact, I get in return affection and respect. I have no personal demands but my demands for Pingalwara are unending and enormous. Much of my time is taken by other activities relating to the inculcation of social and ecological awareness among our people and that requires money, which I collect from the public. My demands, however heavy, have always been met generously by he public because people are confident that behind my craze for collection is an unselfish and noble cause. Mine has been a full and meaningful life – a Guru directed journey, through the service of humanity.” Meeting Bhagatji was always an instructive experience. Full of energy and upto date with ideas culled from books and newspapers, he had a socially relevant advice for everyone. “Plant trees, do not cut them”, and then would follow an informed lecture on the economic and ecological advantages of trees. “Always travel by train; avoid bus travel”, and then he went on to tell you how deleterious to health carbon monoxide exhausts are and panted an alarming picture of the steeply mounting toll of human lives in road accidents; “Beware of the impending doom of our beautiful world by nuclear and chemical arms”, and you heard from him a horrifying description of the devastating prowess of the malignant fission of the atomic nucleus. “Produce less children”, “Do not throw fruit skins on the road” – the list of such Do’s and Don’ts went on and on. Bhagat Puran Singh was a voracious reader. He employed three readers to provide him with cuttings of socially useful and informative writings from national newspapers and journals and reproduced them on any sort of paper in his own press in the form of handbills, booklets, pamphlets, for free distribution. Books published by him, such as the biographies of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh and the English translation of the Japu of Guru Nanak, some of them as many as 500 pages, were distributed free, in spite of the fact that the amount spent on them ran into lakhs of rupees. “Money comes to me in small amounts from so many people. I give it back to them in the form of character-building and nation-building literature,” explained Bhagat Puran Singh in justification of such expenditure. It is not easily possible to sum up the multi-dimensional institution that Bhagat Puran Singh surely was. Had the Bhagat been a little more exposed to the clinical standards of cleanliness and business management and had the information media of our country been a little more observant of the constructive and inspiring voluntary servants of society, instead of over-indulgence in the game of inflating and deflating by turns, there is every reason that Bhagat Puran Singh’s name should have been the common property of the whole world, such became that of Mother Teresa. As written elsewhere, “The sage of Amritsar was to the unattended here which Mother Teresa was to the poor orphans of Calcutta. The difference was, of course, resources – and media exposure.” Bhagat Puran Singh’s vital concern: ecology Bhagat Puran Singh’s dedication to the service of the sick, the disabled and destitute is universally acknowledged, but lesser known in his pioneering concern on ecology, for survival of not just homo-sapiens but of all creation on this planet. Bhagat Puran Singh was a pathfinder who raised an impassioned cry about jeopardy looming over the earth, while most carry on in the euphoria of ignorance. He had foreseen the dangers emanating from indiscriminate industrialisation, the so called “boons” of modern life. In one of this pamphlets (in Gurumukhi) The Knell which he distributed free and would insist that people read between its lines, he wrote that the reckless pursuit of technology for its own sake would devastate all the treasures of this earth and ruin it completely within a lifetime. The pamphlet gravely warned against inordinate use of modern transport run on hydro-carbons and exhorted people to travel on foot or by bicycle. Bhagatji would advise his followers to cultivate a habit of walking regularly for 8 miles a day so as to keep healthy and physically fit. Bhagatji regarded the earth as holy shrine of the Lord, after Guru Nanak’s concept … “Within the Universe, Earth was created to be a Shrine”, and polluting its atmosphere was an act of sacrilege. He perceived the presence of God pulsating through every insignificant factor of this planet. His passion for the protection and safety of the earth had evolved into a sort of new religion that verily cherished the well-being of all. His spirit of care was so extensive that it encompassed everything – sensate or insensate – on earth. Besides his fellow beings, he would feel equal kinship for the birds, the beasts, the trees, he flowers, the hills, the blue sky, the dancing rivulets and all that the human eye could see. He would be anguished at the sight of a wood-cutter chopping branches of a tree. He once gave a large sum to a cutter who threatened to axe down the trees grown by his mother. His major apprehension was the gradual extinction of present civilisation through indiscriminate feeling of trees. Written on a wall of the Pingalwara Complex, he warned that the green forest cover in India was being reduced at the rate of ten lakh and fifty thousand hectares every year. If such process of hewing the jungles continued, India would turn into a vast desert by the year 2010. Such realisations created horrifying imagination. Bhagatji explained through his numerous pamphlets and posters, that the toxic waste produced by industry and poisonous fumes of fuel and chemicals was taking earth to the brink of extinction. Dr Inderjit Kaur Touch of eternity VN Narayanan, then Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune and later of The Hindustan Times wrote about Bhagat Puran Singh with great reverence: He looks like the rishis of old and the Khalsa of Guru Gobind Singh – a veritable combination of courage and compassion, a total embodiment of unselfishness and service. Bhagat Puran Singh is what India’s distilled wisdom and rich heritage are all about. There he sits, at the entrance of the Golden Temple at Amritsar, with loads and loads of paper around him. In front of him is a brass vessel as nondescript as the man’s physical appearance. Visiting devotees to the shrine stop, pay silent obeisance, put some cash into the tray and move on. Bhagat Puran Singh neither seeks nor acknowledges their greetings. The money piles up, but the sage notes it not, but along comes a seeker and the sage welcomes with open arms. There is spontaneous rapport and the generation gap is closed. You wonder what this wizened old man has – if anything at all – to say and minutes later there is another kind of wonder how is it that this frail man of near ninety is so well versed in ecology, environment problems, the Tehri dam, Narmada and deficit financing. The words of Guru Nanak in Var Asa flash through the mind: “He who attains humility through love and devotion to God. Such a one may attain emancipation”. He is gentle, soft and sublimely uncritical of anything around him. To him, all of God’s creations are scared, be they animal, vegetable or mineral or whatever. He collects, as he walks along the streets of Amritsar pebbles, horse-shores, peculiarly shaped stones, and a lot else… The picking of pebbles on the street is very symbolic. After all, for close to seven decades Bhagatji had been picking up human pebbles cast away by a cruel destiny or an uncaring society. God helps those who help themselves, Bhagat Puran Singh has vowed to help those who cannot help themselves. He is the saint of our times. Contemporary history has few names (I have Mother Teresa on my mind when I write this) which on boast of such relentless service to humanity as that of Bhagat Puran Singh. 'Binu seva phal kabhu na parwasi seva karni sari”. Talking to him is enlightening. He has very simple remedies for almost all the nation’s ills. All perfectly practical and easily enforceable – but in a nation of Bhagat Puran Singhs. A few public-spirited Indians in the USA started a movement to recommend the Nobel Peace Prize for Bhagatji. He would be the last person to be enthusiastic about it. He knows the difference between the emancipated soul and the Good Samaritan, the difference explain why Martin Luther King’s non-violence struggle was worthy of the Nobel Award, and why it was unworthy of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha and Ahimsa. Meanwhile, the saint went on unworried by the mess caused by our leaders to the country. Bhagat Puran Singh would echo Guru Nanak Dev… “I have learnt by the light shed by the Master, perfectly endowed; Recluse, hero, celibate or sanyasi – No one may expect to earn merit Without dedicated service - Service which is the essence of purity”. This was written in 1991. When VN Narayanan last met Bhagatji, at Chandigarh’s PGL he was in deep coma … “I was admitted to his bedside… as in a trance I moved my hand towards him and thought his own hands moved up to touch mine. It was the touch of the Lord himself. Cosmic bond Some associations are dictated by cosmic design and these then channelise future ideologies and perceptions in a definite manner. My association with Bhagat Puran Singh was one such. I cannot assign any tag or title to it, but this was a strong bond. He was Bhagatji for rest of the world but for me, he was Babaji, name which I had affectionately coined for him at an early age. I was into my teens when first taken to meet Bhagatji by my grandfather, while visiting Ferozepore. Being so young, I interpreted religion in my own terms then and had scant respect for any other interpretation. So grandfather redefined the personality. “He is an unusual social worker”. This was different, and now I was interested. After school, I was taken to meet the gentleman. Both Bauji and this unusually dressed Sikh person were sunning themselves in the verandah and were engrossed in deep discussion. He was tall and thin, wearing a freshly washed and ironed white khadi kurta and loose pyjamas. A kirpan slung from a black strap contrasted starkly with whiteness as did the saffron parna loosely wrapped around his head. It was lesser in length than a pagri, but being coarse in material, gave the appearance of a mountain-sized pagri on top of his frail head, with flowing white beard beneath it. I was still not impressed until he pinned me to my seat with his sharp grey eyes and started conversing with me in English. “So, what do you aim to do in life?” “Become a surgeon,” I said shortly. “But I hear that you write well”. I simply shrugged my shoulders. “This world needs more writers, who can make other people aware of what is happening around us and what all needs to be done”. I heard him quietly and respectfully. “What about marriage,” he questioned. “You tell me Babaji, why haven’t you married”? was my retort. I was very anti-marriage then. “Of course I am married – but to my work”. “What kind of work”? I asked, for till then I had no inkling of what ever he was doing. Babaji then suggested that I walk with him to the Gurdwara, where people were waiting to donate something for his institution ‘Pingalwara’ (literally, a house of pingalas, or the handicapped). Along the way, whenever he saw a stone or a piece of broken glass on the road, he would pick it and leave it at one side… “this might hurt someone’s foot or puncture a vehicle’s tyre”. And if he saw paper left on the road, he would pick that up too, saying that it could be recycled. He abhorred the use of plastics and polluting vehicles. He said this without hesitation, to whosoever visited it was the Chief Minister of Punjab or Khushwant Singh or whosoever. There were heaps of clothing of all shapes and sizes, which he was collecting for the inmates of the Pingalwara. “There are women who have been abandoned, raped or are widows, even unmarried mothers. They come and the stay in Pingalwara till can find a substitute home for them,” Babaji stated. Each one in the crowd was eager to have a word with him, or give him donations for the Pingalwara, and he personally wrote out the receipts. I watched the scenario quietly. It was slowly seeping into my conscious mind… this man’s stature belied his appearance. When the crowd around him receded, he continued with his advice: “You must take up writing seriously. Secondly, you must marry, but marry a puran Gursikh”. I nodded my head slowly. This first meeting with him affected me greatly and left an indelible impression of what true service towards humanity and society really meant. The magnitude of his endeavour, undertaken single-handedly, was to strike me with much greater force, but many years later. I learnt that Bhagat Singh was born a Hindu and was named Ramji Das in his childhood before his mission rechristened him and remodeled his personality. Growing up in village Rajewal in Ludhiana district, he belonged to a well-to-do family. He was deeply influenced by his mother’s ideology at a very tender age, and imbibed her generosity, warmth and high principles, which multiplied with age and lifted his stature so as the place him somewhere between the soul and he over-soul. Ramji Das was preparing for his entrance examination to college, when by a single stroke of fate, his father Chhibu Mal died and the mother and son were left virtually penniless. They left for Lahore and took shelter in Gurdwara Dera Sahib. Ramji Das got employed as a helper in the Gurdwara langar. Sikhism was not new for him as he had leanings towards this faith from a very early age. He soon became a Sikh and was named Puran Singh, a name he hugged and whatever it represented metaphorically, all his life. Bhagat Puran Singh’s mother. Mehtab Kaur continued in trial health for sometime but soon passed away. Puran Singh was left alone. He was passing through a void, when he saw an abandoned child left on the steps leading to Gurdwara Dera Sahib. The child of four was mentally and physically handicapped and suffering from diarrhea. Puran Singh felt an overpowering surge of love and pity for the child, picked him up, washed him, fed him and then named him Piara (loved one). Thus started a long journey of service rendered to humanity, self-sacrifice, the establishment of Pingalwara (home for the handicapped) and a continuous effort to instill social and religious values in humans at large without alienating them as different sects. He practiced his ideas zealously, even as he satiated his hunger for all-encompassing knowledge by reading books on all sorts of subjects at different libraries. This pattern continued until India’s partition left him homeless again and he left Lahore for Amritsar in 1947. As a refugee, carrying Piara on his back, he camped at the Khalsa College, where he helped other refugees suffering from a cholera epidemic. After the camp was would up, Bhagatji found that Piara had brothers and sisters, old or disabled like him, who too had become dependent on him. So the foundation of Pingalwara was unconsciously laid, with some help from others but continued to be nomadic in nature for sometime. The land where the present Pingalwara stands (near the main bus stop in Amrtisar) was purchased in the early 1950s with some help from the Ministry of Rehabilitation. Bhagatji’s dream started unfolding here. The main wards were built here, while with aid from various institutions and individuals, other wards came to be added over the next years. At all times, Bhagatji would be serving the helpless, the sick, the mental wrecks, the lepers, welcoming them into the fold of Pingalwara. As a result the number of wards or Pingalwara’s sub-branches, increased: the Ram Talai ward, Mahan Singh Gate ward, Pandori Waraich branch and the one at Goindwal Sahib came into being. Throughout my schooling, and later in college, Bhagatji and I keep in touch with each other. Invariably there would be the local Pingalwara representative standing at our gate, bearing a note from Babaji along with some books just published by the Pingalwara press, which he wanted me to read and then react on. I would go through the books dutifully and then write to him. He would never, or hardly ever, write himself but instead would select passages relevant to them from different sources and then bring them together in the form of an article, and publish it at his press. Some years on, when I was writing for Chandigarh newspapers, my contemporaries would refer to Bhagatji as an “eccentric genius”, but factually, they are eccentrics like him who make the world a better place. In the years that followed, we met just three or four times again, but kept in touch and met again many years later, after I had got married and settled in Delhi. Television had by now entered our lives in a big way. Subconsciously, I had nurtured the idea of making documentary films for quite sometime and there was also a fixation in the mind that if I switched from the print media to TV journalism, I would embark on this career by first making a documentary on Bhagat Puran Singh. In the summer of 1992, I called Babaji and told him that I wanted to meet him. By this time, the idea of making a documentary film on Bhagat Puran Singh was taking clear shape and I was engaged in working out plans with my director and rest of team. We would have to work day and night to finish the work as per schedule, as it was within a very tight budget. For my groundwork, I reached Amritsar to meet Babaji, to take his formal permission and to have a general idea of what I wanted to capture on camera. As was my habit, I touched his feet in deep reverence. This time I found he had aged considerably and took some time to place me. “It’s Reema, Babaji..From Ferozepore…” He blessed me fondly and introduced me to those around him… “meri beti hai…” Everyone he introduced was his son, his daughter, sister or brother. But the place that Piara Singh occupied in his heart, no one else could. This crippled, deaf and dumb person was his most precious being and it is because of him that Pingalwara owes identity “If I go anywhere, Piara becomes very sad and refuses to eat anything,” Babaji confided laughingly. Babaji took me on a tour of Pingalwara, called out to each inmate with great affection and told me about each person’s background, their problems, and as to how he was trying to deal with them. He then asked a veteran worker in Pingalwara to show me the rest of the place. “I am not young any more, and grow tired very fast,” he said in a breathless voice. “I have made you tired,” I said apologetically. “No, no, I have to go to the Gurdwara Sahib and sit there till the evening.” He then gathered Piara in a hand-cart which is now being pushed by sevaks, and went to the Harmandir Sahib, where he sat surrounded by large black trunks which carried his messages scrawled in white paint. A steel bata, a hollow utensil, was placed next to him for donations which the Sangat would willingly make for the Pingalwara. In return, Babaji would distribute books, pamphlets, or broad sheets which were printed on recycled paper, covering a wide range of subjects ranging from religion, the environment, to pollution, politics, family, roles, the society and so on. He would invariably be at the Golden Temple till late evenings and only return to the main Pingalwara building at night. Babaji never slept more than four to five hours a day. The zest for goodness and service to humanity was pursued with single-minded determination, which was incredible for his (or any) age. I then told him the purpose of my visit and he laughed. “A film on me… why? I am doing no great work, just a duty, fulfilling a vow which my mother had taken from me”. His humbleness, his modesty made his stature even more daunting. It was incredible that he gave himself no credit for the herculean task which he was undertaking. Soon, I brought my team and carried out the filming for three days and nights, all the while trying not to tire Bhagatji. We managed to cover all the wards that he had opened, and met a all kinds of inmates who were living there. We also traced Babaji’s personal history after his arrival in Amritsar in 1947, along with his very personal thoughts about his childhood, his mother, his self-education. I do not know whether we were able to do justice to this great man’s life. How I wish he was alive so that he could see what had been made on him, and tell me how I could improve upon this. One can only pray that the institution which he literally carved out of his body and soul, will progress from strength to strength and so keep this superhuman’s spirit and memory alive. Reema anand Reema Chadha (nee Anand) was born on 4 June 1964 and went to school at St Joseph’s Convent, Ferozepore. After college in Jullundur, where she got her Masters degree in English Literature, she taught at the Institute there and started regular contributions to newspapers from the early 80s. Her selected poems were published in three volumes in 1980, ’82 and ’87. In 1989 she married Amit Singh Chadha, a Constitutional & International Lawyer from Harvard. They now have three children and live in New Delhi. Reema first met Bhagat Puran Singh when she was 13 and was overwhelmed by his devotion to humanity. In 1988 she started to plan a documentary film on Bhagatji which was completed in 1992, just a few weeks before he passed away.