BHAI VIR SINGH: A BROAD OVERVIEW

Recent exchanges on an Internet Discussion Forum relating to a conference at Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan in New Delhi provided an insight into the pervasive ignorance among most of the otherwise a ‘very well informed on Sikhi’ Group about the actual Bhai Vir Singh and his contribution though all displayed a deferential attitude towards Bhai Sahib, more instinctively or based on hearsay. This prompted me to revisit some of Bhai Sahib’s writings and share my impressions to renew the connection of Bhai Sahib with a cross section of the contemporary searchers of Sikhi and Sikhs.

Bhai Vir Singh was conferred Doctor of Oriental Learning [Honoris Causa] by Punjab University on Sep. 1, 1949. In the preface to the Punjab University publication, Bhai Vir Sigh: Life, Times & Works [1973], Attar Singh, co-editor writes ‘But what is perhaps the biggest paradox of contemporary Punjabi literary history is that although Bhai Vir Singh played the most crucial role in defining through his voluminous creative production, the essential identity of modern Punjabi literature —  and dominated the literary scene in the language for over half a century, neither a definitive biography to provide a comprehensive chronicle his life and times, nor any exhaustive critical evaluation of his writings have so far been undertaken.’ Unfortunately this is true even today.

Vir Singh got his schooling at Church Mission High School, Amritsar – finishing in 1891 at the age of 19. Soon thereafter he established Wazir-a-Hind Press in partners with Wazir Singh.

Sikhs at that time were in the midst of a multi pronged struggle to survive and grow in the face of various pressures. The British had exiled leading Sardars, confiscated their properties, taken control of Gurdwaras and were suspicious of Sikhs on account of some zealotry by Kookas and attempt by Duleep Singh to return and claim his ancestral property. Assimilative pressures were strong from Arya Samajists, Christian Missions, Ahmediyas et al. On 3 June 1900 the Arya Samajists publically shaved the heads and beards of thirty tahtia Sikhs at Vachhovalli Temple in Amritsar. In addition most of the Sikhs were educationally backward and economically weak.

The Khalsa Diwan Society [est. 1886] had started its newspaper Khalsa Akhbar in Jun 1886. Vir Singh started writing a religious tract every month and his first publication was nirguniara in 1893 that contained the tracts he had written till the time. Khalsa Tract Society was formed in 1894 and they adopted nirguniara as their official organ and continued to publish tracts on Sikhi, their history and social issues.

He started Khalsa Samachar in 1899 and wrote most of its editorials, especially on the occasion of birthday Gurpurbs of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh that subsequently were publidhed as collections Sri Guru Nanak Chamatkar in 1928, Sri Kalgidar Chamatkar in 1925 and Asht Guru Chamatkar in 1952. Khalsa Samachar was a purely religious paper that strongly propagated the ideal of Guru Granth as the continuing, eternal Guru of Sikhs.

Vir Singh was a poet, scholar and exegete, a major figure in the Sikh renaissance and in the movement for the revival and renewal of Punjabi literary tradition. For his pioneering work in its several different genres, he is acknowledged as the creator of modern Punjabi literature.

Born on 5 December 1872, in Amritsar, Bhai Vir Singh was Dr Charan Singh’s son. Apart from his sustained involvement in literary and scholarly pursuits, mainly as a Braj poet, Punjabi prose-writer, musicologist, prosodist and lexicographer, Dr Charan Singh took active interest in the affairs of the Sikh community, then experiencing a new urge for restoration as well as for change.

His maternal grandfather Giani Hazara Singh compiled a lexicon of Guru Granth Sahib, and wrote a commentary on Bhai Gurdas Varan. As a schoolboy, Bhai Vir Singh used to spend a great deal of his time in the company of Giani Hazara Singh under whose guidance he not only learnt the classical and neo-classical languages, Sanskrit, Persian and Braj, but also received grounding, both theoretical and practical, in the science of Sikh exegesis.

Parallel to the developments foreboding gradual appropriation of Sikhism by the Hindu social order emerged a powerful end towards Braj classicism in the Sikh literary and scholarly tradition. The response arose in Sikhism several movements- Nirankari (puritanism), Namdhari (militant protestantism), Singh Sabha (revivalism and renaissance) and Panch Khalsa Diwan (aggressive fundamentalism) .

Bhai Vir Singh learnt Persian and Urdu from a Muslim Maulawi  and Sanskrit and Sikh literature from Giani Harbhajan Singh, a leading classical scholar. He then joined the Church Mission School, Amritsar. Through his English courses, he acquired familiarity with modern literary forms, especially short lyric. While still at school, Bhai Vir Singh was married at the age of 17 to Chatar Kaur daughter of Sardar Narain Singh of Amritsar.

Bhai Vir Singh began taking active interest in the affairs of Singh Sabha movement. To promote its aims and objects, he launched in 1894 the Khalsa Tract Society. In November 1899, he started a Punjabi weekly, the Khalsa Samachar. He was among the principal promoters of several of the Sikh institutions, such as Chief Khalsa Diwan, Sikh Educational Society (1908) and the Punjab and Sind Bank (1908). In this engagement and, at the same time, in his eschewal of political activity, the Christian missionary example was apparently his model.

In determining the basic parameters of the modern phase of Sikhism, Bhai Vir Singh stressed the autonomy of Sikh faith nourished and sustained by an awakening amongst the Sikhs of the awareness of their distinct theological and cultural identity. Secondly, he aimed at reorienting the Sikhs’ understanding of their faith in such a manner as to help them assimilate the different modernizing influences to their historical memory and cultural heritage. Education of the masses was the first requirement for the fulfillment of these objectives. Bhai Vir Singh through his single-minded cultivation of Punjabi language as the medium of his theological, scholarly and creative work resolved the cultural dilemma which the Sikhs faced at the turn of the century. The tracts produced by the Khalsa Tract Society introduced literary Punjabi remarkable for lightness of touch as well as for freshness of expression. In this writing lay the beginnings of modern Punjabi prose.

The Khalsa Tract Society made available under the title Nirguniara lowcost publications on Sikh theology, history and philosophy and on social and religious reform. Rana Surat Singh, the novel Baba Naudh Singh, and the lives of the Gurus Sri Guru Nanak Chamatkar and Sri Guru Kalgidhar Chamatkar were originally serialized in its columns.

In literature, Bhai Vir Singh started as a writer of romances – Sundari (1898), Bijay Singh (1899), Satvant Kaur (published in two parts, I in 1900 and II in 1927)- were aimed at recreating the heroic period (eighteenth century) of Sikh history.  

In 1905, Bhai Vir Singh started serializing through tracts Rana Surat Singh, the first Punjabi epic, written in blank verse of Sirkhand, variety. This long narrative of over 14,000 lines is a  spiritual voyage of Rani Raj Kaur, the main protagonist of the poem, in the form of a fantasy of spiritual ascension – she symbolized the total ethos of Sikhs at that historical moment when they were emerging out of their sense of defeat and despair into an era of a fresh beginning.

Soon after the publication of Rana Surat Singh in book form in 1919, he turned to shorter poems and Lyrics. In quick succession came Dil Tarang (1920), Earel Tupke ( 1921), Lahiran de Har (1921), Matak Hulare (1922), and Bijlian de Har (1927). Following at some distance was Mere Saiyan Jio (1953). In this poetry, Bhai Vir Singh’s concerns were more aesthetic than didactic, metaphysical or mystical. He refined the old verse forms and also naturalized in Punjabi the Urdu Rubai, English.

He revised and enlarged Giani Hazara Singh’s dictionary, Sri Guru Granth Kosh, originally published in 1898. The revised version, published in 1927, gave evidence of Bhai Vir Singh’s command of the classical and modern languages. Monumental in size and scholarship was his annotation of Bhai Santokh Singh’s magnum opus, Sn Gur Pratap Suraj Granth, published from 1927 to 1935 in fourteen volumes covering 6668 pages [Bhai Jodh Singh, p. 105+]. He published critical editions of some of the old Sikh texts such as Sikhan di Bhagat Mala (1912), Prachin Panth Prakash (1914), Puratan Janam Sakhi (1926) and Sakhi Pothi (1950).

His scholarship is evident in all the critical works that he wrote, edited or annotated. He is credited to have discovered the source Tuzak-i-Jahangiri that has shed new light on the cause of martyrdom of Guru Arjun. In his rendering of Guru Nanak Chamatkar based primarily on the various versions of Janam Sakhis, he has quoted two instances from Muslim hagiography that the Kabba has moved from its site to to grant sight to chosen devotees who could not be there in person. [Talib, p. 14]

Bhai Vir Singh launched on a detailed commentary on the Guru Granth Sahib. His exegesis is expansive and goes into the depth of each word, its origin, context and meaning. He devoted himself unsparingly, but it remained unfinished. The portion of commentary on nearly half of the SGGS that was completed, was published in seven volumes.

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