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Apr 7, 2006
Nangal, India
150th Birth Anniversary Special

Bhai Vir Singh – An Illustrious Sikh Scholar and Eminent Punjabi Litterateur

Dr. D. P. Singh, Canada

Bhai Vir Singh, a multifaceted personality, had made a seminal contribution to the Sikh religion, its heritage and Punjabi literature. He was one of the harbingers of the Sikh renaissance and immensely contributed to rejuvenating Sikh heritage, history, literature, education, culture and commerce.

Bhai Vir Singh was born on December 5, 1872, at Amritsar. He was the eldest among his six siblings. His father, Dr. Charan Singh, was a medical practitioner and an illustrious scholar. His grandfather Bhai Kahan Singh 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 Vir Singh's ancestry includes Diwan Kaura Mal, who was the vice-governor of Multan. Bhai Vir Singh's maternal grandfather, Giani Hazara Singh, too was a renowned exegete and a man of letters. Bhai Vir Singh's upbringing in the legendary scholarly Sikh family greatly shaped his personality and works.

He received his early education at the Church Mission School, Amritsar. He passed the middle school examination at the age of seventeen. Soon after, he was married to Bibi Chattar Kaur, who unto the last kept a happy, unruffled home for her husband. They had two daughters, Kartar Kaur and Sushil Kaur. In 1891, he took his matriculation examination, topping the list of examinees in the district and winning a gold medal.

Early in his life, Bhai Vir Singh realized he was meant for a higher calling. His deep religious conviction, a firm grounding in philosophy and literature, faith in his family's long scholarly tradition, and involvement in the objectives of Sikh reform had given him a certain sense of direction. Despite offers of several employment opportunities, he preferred the job of divinity teacher at the Khalsa School, Amritsar. However, with time his mystical temperament became more pronounced, and he became more and more involved in the advancement of the Singh Sabha movement. It became his full-time occupation and the sole principle of his literary creations. His contribution to moulding the ideological and cultural foundations of the Singh Sabha movement was immensely significant.

He realized that the people's tongue alone could be the vehicle for the ideological and cultural regeneration. So, he took up the responsibility to invigorate and enrich the Punjabi language. The resurrection of the past in glorified terms was a favored theme with him. Through his excellent choice of words and meticulous use of metaphors, similes, idioms, and phrases, he infused a new life in all his writings, which are thus profoundly engaging.

In 1892, in collaboration with his friend Wazir Singh, he established a lithograph press at Amritsar. All his works were printed there. The following year he founded the Khalsa Tract Society with the help of another of his friend, Kapur Singh. Service to the country and the Khalsa Panth was the declared object of the society. Through this society, he kept up a continuous supply of short pamphlets on various topics, mostly penned by him, to promote the Singh Sabha movement. This Tractarian movement provided an outlet for the productive faculties of young Vir Singh. Out of it developed at least three of his major works – Guru Nanak Chamatkar, Guru Kalgidhar Chamatkar, and the novel Baba Naudh Singh.

His success in Tract Society led him, in 1899, to launch a weekly newspaper, the Khalsa Samachar, which became not only the longest-lived Punjabi newspaper but also created new appeals of style and awareness. Moreover, he built the Khalsa Samachar into a potent vehicle for promoting social and religious reform.

Sundari, the first Punjabi novel, was conceived by young Vir Singh. It was partly written while he was still at school. But the novel was not published until 1898. The novel successfully portrayed the Sikh values through the trials and tribulations of the brave Sikh women. Despite the fabulous character of some of the incidents and dramatis personae, the story has the veracity of life, which gives it power and appeal. Since its publication, the novel has gone into 42 editions, totaling over a million copies.

In quick succession came two more novels—Bijay Singh and Satwant Kaur (Part I). Both followed Sundari in theme and style. Each of the novels was constructed around a heroic figure whose spiritual integrity it endeavored to delineate on Sikh values, beliefs, inspiration, and way of life. Bijay Singh contained an intriguingly human situation wherein the ruling Begum of Lahore falls in love with the principal character. Satwant Kaur appeared in two parts - the first one, also serialized in the Khalsa Samachar in 1900 and the second in 1927. It is a moving tale of the dangerous return journey of Satwant Kaur from Kabul to India after her seizing from the village of Khanna during one of Ahmed Shah Durrani's invasions and having taken, along with others, as a slave to Kabul. Satwant Kaur evoked the pathos of those helpless times when the country lay at the mercy of invaders from across the border.

Bhai Vir Singh's fourth novel Baba Naudh Singh, published in 1921, was set in a contemporary locale. The novel has an admittedly didactic bias. Baba Naudh Singh's life is one long sermon on Sikh morality and religion. As a portrait of a Punjabi village, secure, self-sufficient, and trustful of the leadership of a man of deep humanity, faith and courage, gradually opening itself to new influences, Baba Naudh Singh has attested value. Bhai Vir Singh's prose style, rather plain in Sundari, better wrought in Bijay Singh, becomes more metaphorical in Satwant Kaur, but it achieves pliancy and exactitude in Baba Naudh Singh. Thus, Bhai Vir Singh was not only the creator of the Punjabi novel but also the creator of the Punjabi prose.

Rana Surat Singh, published in 1905, is among Bhai Vir Singh's earlier works. Yet it marks the highest point in his long and prolific literary career in several ways. His poetic prowess is in its fullest vigor in this epic. Allegorically, it is the story of the eternal longing of the human soul for merger with its original essence, of the matter-bound human consciousness to reach out to its divine source. Aesthetically, the poem presents an ardent and artistically wrought vision of a world beyond the categories of time and space. It is tempered to a moral end and has religious and theological meanings. Balancing the ephemeral and the eternal is central to the poet's mystical and doctrinal understanding of Sikhism. The narrative is breathtakingly gripping. It has a hypnotic tone and is rich in illustration. Some of the Nature scenes are profoundly moving in their pictorial beauty and intensity, heightening the narrative's emotional impact. Rana Surat Singh introduced a new literary species to Punjabi and a new verse form.

Raja Lakhdata Singh followed Rana Surat Singh. Raja Lakhdata Singh, published in 1910, was the first play in the Punjabi language. Herein the author has attempted to truly portray the scenes of Sikhs' current condition and signify the principles of reform. Raja Lakhdata Singh, despite its frankly propagandist tone, has theatrical elements. It makes skillful use of some of the classical techniques - poetically declaimed prologue and epilogue, rhymed couplets to effectively punctuate the dialogue, measured speech full of poetic imagery, a court clown, and so on.

By now, poetry had become a permanent calling for Bhai Vir Singh. He poured his vibrant vision of beauty and joy into well-made short lyrics. Most of his poetry was woven around natural objects like flowers, birds and trees. These poems became instantly popular and gained him a large audience outside the religious circle. His first collection of these lyrics, Dil Trang (Heart Wave) was published in 1920. In quick succession came Trel Tupke (Dew Drops) and Lehran de Har (Wreaths of the Waves) in 1921, Matak Hulare (an anthology of poems exclusively on the scenes and sites of the valley of Kashmir) in 1922 and Bijlian de Har (Wreaths of Lightning) in 1927. In 1933 he published Kambdi Kalai (Wrist Atremble), a collection of songs in honour of the Sikh Gurus. Following at some distance was Mere Saiah Jio (1953). These poems are rich in personal import. They express a rare mood of lucid communion. A fugitive thrill of gladness echoes through them. In his mystic imagination, he spiritualizes Nature and evokes from it a principle of joyous harmony. His poems were graceful in feeling and mature in suggestion and structure. They delicately captured the mood and beauty of Nature and the poet's feelings. Spiritual uplift is his perennial quest and the recurrent theme of his verses. Lyric after lyric expresses his personal experience of it. Bhai Vir Singh related his inner experience to the outer world of reality in terms of such simple imagery that the communication process was always vivid and accessible. His poetry, though lacking in social significance, yet has elemental beauty, rare creative quality and universality of appeal that makes these the marks of the most genuine utterance of the human spirit.

His place in the Punjabi poetic tradition is unbeatable, and so is his place in Punjabi learning. His work as an annotator of old texts, commentator on Sikh Scripture, lexicographer, and historian will continue to command respect for the maturity of his erudition. Even though he had mastered the Sikh historical and religious literature while still young, his interest in Sikh documents was abiding and discriminating. The first work he chose for scholarly scrutiny and treatment was Sikhan di Bhagat Mala, a Punjabi work by Bhai Mani Singh (1644- 1734). Bhai Vir Singh edited the manuscript and published it in 1912. He also edited and published Prachin Panth Prakash, the work of Rattan Singh Bhangu, in 1914. For its first edition, Bhai Vir Singh had only one manuscript of this rare work. Later he could locate another copy and published a second edition by collating the two texts.

Another old work which engaged Bhai Vir Singh's attention was the Janamsakhi, or life-story of Guru Nanak, brought to light by Emest Trumpp, a German orientalist. Bhai Vir Singh was the first one to make a critical study of the manuscript. In his research, Bhai Vir Singh utilized two main versions--the Colebrooke one (as available in copies circulated by Punjab Government) and the Hafizabad one (brought out by Max Arthur Macauliffe). As finalized by him, the text was published in 1926 under the title Puratan Janamsakhi. The Puratan Janamsakhi, as edited by Bhai Vir Singh, is to this day the most valuable source material on the life of Guru Nanak.

The subsequent work, Bhai Vir Singh undertook for similar treatment was Bhai Santokh Singh's Gur Pratap Suraj Granth, commonly known to the people as Suraj Prakash. In 1926, he started the work of annotating the entire volume. For the next nine years, he was completely immersed in it. First, he made a minute analysis of the Sikh scriptural texts as sources of historical information. Then, he worked out a thesis on the philosophy of history and the place of history in the Sikh system. After that, he wrote a well-researched treatise on the life of Bhai Santokh Singh. These formed part of the introductory volume in the edited series, which comprised the new Suraj Prakash. The Suraj Prakash, as published by him in 1934, represented Punjabi scholarship at its best.

Just before starting work on the Suraj Prakash, Bhai Vir Singh had published Sri Kalghidhar Chamatkar (1925) followed by Sri Guru Nanak Chamatkar (1928). These were the life stories of Guru Gobind Singh and Guru Nanak. Graceful and opulent in diction, they have influenced the formation of the Punjabi prose style. As biographies, they are a cross between history and hagiography. They are admittedly cast in the idiom of piety.

In the same style and with the same object in view, Bhai Vir Singh sought to complete the series by attempting the lives of the remaining eight Gurus. But in his lifetime, he could finish only four of these. He published three of these under the title Sri Asht Guru Chamatkar (Vol. I) in 1952. Guru Arjan's Life was published posthumously by his brother Dr. Balbir Singh.

As soon as the Suraj Prakash was concluded, Bhai Vir Singh took up an even more complex and significant task of writing a detailed commentary on the Guru Granth. In a way, it had been his lifelong occupation. Early in his career, he had exegeted selections from Scripture published in 1906 under the title "Panj Granthi Steek." He also revised and enlarged the dictionary of the Guru Granth prepared by his grandfather Giani Hazara Singh. This revised edition was published in 1927. For several years he devoted himself unsparingly to writing a detailed commentary on the Guru Granth. But unfortunately, the commentary remained incomplete. The portion - nearly one-half of the Holy Book - he had done was published posthumously in seven large volumes by Dr. Balbir Singh. The volumes have since then been reprinted by Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan. The Santhya Sri Guru Granth Sahib, as the series has been styled, is a monument to Bhai Vir Singh's industry and mastery of the Sikh sacred texts and his knowledge of Indian literature, philosophy, semantics, and grammar.

The last crucial historical document that Bhai Vir Singh undertook for editing was Sakhi Pothi - an anonymous account in Punjabi of the travels of Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh in the Malwa region of Punjab. Bhai Sahib Singh Giani discovered an old manuscript copy of Sakhi Pothi in 1935 and presented it to Bhai Vir Singh. The latter made a careful study of it and published it in 1950.

The size of Bhai Vir Singh's literary output was vast, with a very diverse range of genres. Despite his full-time engagement, with complete absorption and enlistment of his mental and spiritual powers, in literary pursuits, he maintained a delicate balance between his life and work. His profession and practice were centered on a living faith. His mind was tuned to an eternal source of beauty and harmony. He lived the experience he sought to intellectualize and transmit. His ever-widening circle of readers paid him the homage of a holy man, a saint, a mystic. Yet, despite his religious and spiritual commitment, he lived fully and vigorously and took his fair share of worldly concerns. He planned with care his printing business and worked hard for its success. He was fond of flowers and grew them in plenty in his house. He was a connoisseur of music and had maestros of instruments such as sitar and dilruba. He spent his summers in Kashmir and, after 1947, in Dehra Dun, where he had a comfortable home with spacious lawns dotted with handsome sculptures.

Bhai Vir Singh exercised an immense public influence - first, through his writings and the immediate circle of his friends and admirers; secondly, by his institutional work, which was practical and effective. He was closely connected with the Chief Khalsa Diwan, an influential body of Sikh opinion, and its affiliate institutions such as the Sikh Educational Conference and the Khalsa College. He sought to create consciousness among the people by awakening a sense of pride in their history and culture.

Awards and honours followed him in quick succession in Independent India. In acknowledgement of his contribution to Punjabi letters, the East Panjab University conferred upon him the Doctor of Oriental Learning (Honoris causa) degree in 1949. He was nominated as a member of the Punjab Legislative Council in 1952 and received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his book, Mere Saiyan Jeo, in 1953. On October 6, 1956, the President of India conferred upon him the Padma Bhushan.

Bhai Vir Singh left this world on June 10, 1957, leaving behind a great legacy. He was a poet, prose writer, historian, research scholar, exegete, novelist, social reformer, Sikh theologian and ideologue. All his works are a meticulous blend of classic and modern. Every piece of his writing was deeply immersed in divine philosophy. His unquestionable originality, excellent creative intuition, enthusiasm and purity of vision can be easily seen in his works. He was the main force behind the cultural revival in Punjab at the turn of the century. Through him, new enlightenment broke forth upon the Punjabi mind and literature. Besides, he awakened and shaped the conscience of neo-Sikhism. He imparted a fresh inspiration and style to Punjabi literature and launched it on its modem course of development.

Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan, a premier literary and cultural organization, was established in memory of Bhai Vir Singh at New Dehli, in 1958. The foundation stone of its building was laid down by the President of India, Sh. V. V. Giri in March 1972. In November 1978, Shri Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the then President of India, inaugurated Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan. At the inaugural ceremony, he proclaimed, "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 enriched Sikh and Punjabi Literature through his literary works and whole-hearted commitment. He was also a leading light among the harbingers of the Sikh renaissance in the early twentieth century.

  • Harbans Singh, (2010). Bhai Vir Singh – Father of Modern Punjabi Literature. 3rd Edition. Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi. ISBN 978-93-80854-33-5
  • Gurdeep Kaur, (July- Sept. 2021). Legendary Pioneers in Sikh Studies – Bhai Sahib Bhai Vir Singh. Abstract of Sikh Studies. XXIII (3). Abstracts of Sikh Studies, April-June 2020
  • Harbans Singh (1990). Bhai Vir Singh – A Short Biography. Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi.
  • Ganda Singh, (2002). Bhai Vir Singh: Birth Centenary Volume. Publications Bureau, Punjabi University Patiala.
  • J S Gule!ria (1984). Bhai Vir Singh: The Sixth River of Punjab, 2nd Edition. Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan Publication., New Delhi.
  • Bhai Vir Singh, The Sikh Encyclopedia. VIR SINGH. BHAI - The Sikh Encyclopedia
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