The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 24, 2002

Punjabi literature
Spiritual journey of Prof Puran Singh
Jaspal Singh

PROF Puran Singh, born in 1881 in Pothohaar, now in Pakistan, in an Ahluwalia family, is universally acclaimed as one of the founders of modern Punjabi poetry. As a poet he was deeply influenced by English Romantics and the American poet of vitality Walt Whitman. In the beginning of the 20th century he went to Japan for higher studies in pharmaceutical chemistry, where he came in contact with Swami Ram Tirath and some Buddhist theologists. Thus, Vedanta and Buddhism became the basis of his philosophical meditations, which he carried along, when inspired by Bhai Vir Singh he came back to the Sikh fold.

He returned to India in 1903 and worked as chemist at various places like Lahore, Dehradun, Gawalior, and Jarhanwala, while retaining his passion for literary and spiritual pursuits. He wrote a lot—some 25 publications in English and 10 in Punjabi. Two of his collections Khulle Ghund and Khulle Maidan in blank verse are the trendsetters in Punjabi poetry.

When Puran Singh died in 1931, he had become a literary and spiritual celebrity. Many people have written about him, though Prof Kirpal Singh Kesel, a life-fellow of Punjabi University, Patiala, has dedicated some 30 years exclusively on studying, compiling, translating, editing and publishing his works. Kesel recently brought out in Punjabi translation in a single volume Puran Singh’s Spirit of the Sikh—a three-volume work. This translation is titled Sikhi di Atma (Lahore Book Shop, Ludhiana), covering nearly 700 pages and is a veritable spiritual journey of a true Sikh who is totally dedicated to the Sikh tenets as enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib. The three parts of Sikhi di Atma are Yugan Yugantaran di Sanjh (The Kinship of Ages), Atma da Sangeet (Music of the Soul) and Chintandhara (Meditations).


In Yugan Yugantaran di Sanjh Puran Singh emphasises the dialectical relation of form and content. While presenting a profile of the Sikh persona, he says that Sikhism always gives due importance to conventional signs and symbols, without which no cartography of the Sikh personality is possible. In fact, signs in a religious formation are worshipped since they are never devoid of content. Sign without a semantic dimension is lifeless like a body without soul. No religion can survive without its semiology. The father of modern linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure has also expressed such views in a different context when he defines sign as a signifying ensemble of the ‘signifier’ (form) and the ‘signified’ (content), which are inseparably associated with each other in the manner that they always appear simultaneously in the process of signification.

Kesel has brought forth such postulates in the writings of Prof Puran Singh. Even the sun, the moon and the stars appear as the personification of the cosmic power in his poems. At one place he addresses the sun thus, "My sun, my darling. I am a pearl of dew resting on a leaf of grass, waiting to be soaked up, consumed and ingested by you."

Puran Singh gives his unique characterisation of a true Sikh. He affirms that in the struggle for existence the Khalsa never foregrounds his own selfish interest in order to boost his own tiny ego since with the grace of the Guru his own "I" has transformed into the vast "I" of mankind. Nobody should be afraid of the Khalsa of Guru Gobind Singh since "he never sucks the bones of material things." The categories of the universe for him are the variegated forms of the inscrutable Divine Being pervading the cosmos. Guru Granth Sahib, he states, is the history of the Sikh spirit and "the Khalsa is the ideal future international state of man…."

Puran Singh has meditated over every school of thought that developed in India, though he was more captivated by Advait Vedanta. He states, "Vedanta’s fascinating philosophy of Maya—Illusion, is the prior condition of every Indian mind, and no Sikh can escape, even if he so desires, the fascination of the Vedantic theory of Maya—so entrancingly put in Yoga Vashishta. Vedanta is the background of all religions of India." Guru Granth Sahib for him is "the new Veda and the new Gita and new Upanishads, if they are to share in the great life-urge of the modern world."

Time and again, Puran Singh castigates empty ritualism and religious fanaticism. He believes that religious ritualism is a heavy burden on the shoulders of an average Indian that does not let him follow the path of true religion that leads to salvation (mukti). The first few decades of the 20th century is the time of India’s cultural renaissance. Swami Vivekandanda, Rabindra Nath Tagore, Aurobindo Ghosh, Swami Ram Tirath, Mohammad Iqbal, Bhai Vir Singh and Prof Puran Singh are the main exponents of this cultural resurgence in North India. Prof Kirpal Singh Kesel, despite his blindness for many years now, has done a marvellous job by making these wonderful works available to Punjabi readers.