Avtar Singh Vahiria

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Avtar Singh Vahiria, polemicist and scholar of Sikh texts, was born on 12 June 1848 at Thoha Khalsa, a village in Rawalpindi district, now in Pakistan. As a small boy, he learnt to recite the Sikh psalms from his mother and maternal uncle, Prem Singh. After he had learnt Gurmukhi in his own village, he went to school in Rawalpindi. At the age of eight years, he took pahul at the hands of Baba Khem Singh Bedi. Baba Khem Singh was to become the focus of his adult life and, in 1869, he took him as his mentor and dedicated his career to him. He shifted his business to Rawalpindi to be close to his spiritual guide.

When a Singh Sabha was formed at Rawalpindi in the early 1880's, Avtar Singh was among the first to join it. In 1883, there was a proposal sponsored by Baba Khem Singh Bedi in the Khalsa Diwan, Amritsar, that Singh Sabhas be called Sikh Singh Sabhas so that Sahajdhari Sikhs could also be enlisted as members. The proposal met with opposition in the Diwan, but was readily accepted by the Rawalpindi Singh Sabha. Avtar Singh became assistant secretary, and later secretary of this Sabha. Serious dissensions had cropped up in the Khalsa Diwan over the question of giving a special pontifical status to Baba Khem Singh Bedi. A monthly magazine, Sri Gurmat Prakashak, was launched from Rawalpindi in Baisakh 1942 Bk/AprilMay 1885 by the partisans of Baba Khem Singh Bedi. Avtar Singh was its manager cum editor. The opponents led by Bhai Gurmukh Singh, chief secretary of the Khalsa Diwan, Amritsar, set up a separate Khalsa Diwan at Lahore on 1011 April 1886. At Amritsar Bhai Ganesha Singh became the chief secretary in place of Bhai Gurmukh Singh. He was assisted by Avtar Singh, who along with his journal Sri Gurmat Prakashak shifted to Amritsar. The magazine was made a fortnightly in April 1887. Avtar Singh drafted the new constitution for the Khalsa Diwan, Amritsar, which was approved on the Diwali day of 1887. His views on Sikh rites and ceremonies were too conservative even for the traditionalist Khalsa Diwan of Amritsar, and he had serious differences with its new chief secretary, Giani Sardul Singh. Avtar Singh and his supporters formed a separate association called Anin Sikhi di Sangat Bhaichara, parallel to Sardul Singh's Khalsa Sat Sangat Sabha. In 1894, Avtar Singh Vahiria brought out Khalsa Dharam Sastra:Sanskar Bhag. To secure the approval of the takhts, gurdwaras and of the leaders of the Panth, the work was subsequently enlarged and published in 1914 under the patronage of Tikka Sahib Sodhi Ram Narain Singh Ji, as Khalsa Dharam Sastra, with a subtitle in English, Sikhs' Religious National Law.

In 1898, Avtar Singh formed Chalda Vahir, a moving band of preachers, to tour villages and towns exhorting Sikhs to preserve the prevalent religious ceremonial and not to be 'misled' by the 'newfangled' ideas of the Singh Sabha. The Vahir which earned him the epithet Vahiria, leader of the marching column, lasted for two years. Thereafter Avtar Singh returned to preaching his ideas through the printed word and produced his 8 volume Khalsa Sudhar Taru (the Tree of Sikh Reformation) and a series of other books and pamphlets. The death of Baba Khem Singh Bedi, on 10 April 1905, deprived him of his principal patron. It was a personal calamity for him as well as a loss to the Sikh Panth, which he lamented in the Shok Pattar, or statement of grief, published in 1905. He shifted his residence back to Rawalpindi and spent the rest of his days in comparative oblivion. But he kept up with his writing. His Gur Darshan Sastra, a work interpreting the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib according to his own conservative views, was published in 1916.