Professor Puran Singh
Professor Puran Singh (17 February 1881 - 31 March 1931) was a famous Sikh poet and scientist born on 17 February 1881 at village called Salhad in Abbottabad District (now in Pakistan) in an Ahluwalia Khatri family. His mother's name was Parma Devi while his father was Kartar Singh who worked in the revenue department at Salhad, though their ancestral home was in the village of Dera Khalsa in Rawalpindi district, also now in Pakistan.
Puran Singh’s whole life was passed in writing activity that may be called ‘feverish’ without the implication of a mere metaphor. A vast mass of work poured out from his pen in various fields – on the science of biochemistry in which he held a professorship at the Imperial Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun; English belles; letters expressive of fervent devotion to the holy Gurus of Sikhism and their teaching, and of warm humanitarianism.
In addition, towards the last decade of his life cut short so cruelly, while most of his writings were primarily in English, he poured out loads of writings in Punjabi, prose and poetry, that have acquired the status of classics in the language. The total mass of what he wrote is truly astounding and it might be said that his entire working life was devoted to writing, while no doubt in his sleeping hours his mind must have lived with his themes in dream.
Unfortunately, too soon he caught the fatal disease of tuberculosis during the last years of the decade of the 1920's; and this assuming ‘galloping’ character passed away at the end of March, 1931.
Earlier life and education
A strikingly handsome young man, Puran Singh passed the high school examination in 1897 from Rawalpindi and his Intermediate examination from the D.A.V. College, Lahore, in 1899. He was still reading for his B.A. when he got a scholarship to study abroad. In April 1900 he proceeded to Japan to specialize in industrial chemistry. He learnt Japanese and German before entering Tokyo University on 28 September 1900. One of his favourite extramural activities at the University was making public lectures, which were usually critical of British rule in India. He expatiated on this theme in a novel that he wrote.
He published for some time an English monthly, the Thundering Dawn, which also mainly addressed itself to the theme of British repression in India. Puran Singh completed his education in Japan in September 1903, and returned to India. Before he left for India, he had met the Indian mystic Swami Rama Tirath who had made a deep impression on his mind.
Under his influence, Puran Singh had shaved and taken the vows of a sarinyasi. His mother travelled to Calcutta to bring him home. But he declined. Ultimately he was persuaded to visit his home to see his ailing sister. He ultimately returned to the householder's way. On 4 March 1904 he got married to Maya Devi.
Four crucial events; his Japanese experience, his encounter with the American poet Walt Whitman, his discipleship of Swami Ram Tirath, and his meeting with the Sikh savant Bhai Vir Singh, left permanent marks on his impressionable mind.
As a student in Japan, he had imbibed the ethos and aesthetics of a beautiful people. He had been wholly charmed by their ritual and ceremony, industry and integrity. The openness of their nature and the holiness of their heart's responses made him forever a worshipper of life's largeness and generosities. He was greatly influenced by the romantic aestheticism of Okakura Kakuzo, a Japanese artist and scholar.
Walt Whitman, the American poet, had left a deep impress on his poetics and practice as on his world view. It was in Japan that he came under the spell of Ram Tirath, who regarded Puran Singh as an echo or image of his own self. The power of this spell was so strong that Puran Singh became a monk. Although he eventually returned to Sikhism, this was much too profound an experience to be entirely washed out of his consciousness: he subsumed it in the dialectics of his Guru's creed.
The meeting with Bhai Vir Singh in 1912 at Sialkot proved the final turn of a spinning soul in search of certitude: it was after this meeting that he regained his lost faith in Sikhism. Perhaps he had strayed to return with greater vigour and conviction; his bursting creative energy had now found its focus and metier.
Poet and Scientist
Puran Singh shifted between science and literature with ease. His achievements in both fields are equally significant. He spent a great deal of his time on his scientific experiments and gave his time freely to visitors, monks and revolutionaries, who thronged his hospitable home from different parts.
There is about his writings a dreamy, other-worldly quality, a strong urge to escape from the bases of the mundane reality of profit and loss and the machiavelian diplomacy of self-aggrandisement. All which makes them ‘romantic’ in the basic and primary sense of what is opposed to everyday reality.
His fervour and passion carry the reader along on a powerful wave, so that irresistibly he is made to touch certain heights and depths of experience that leaves the heart and the imagination bathed in fervent passion. Passion is his element and in that he abides. A kind of intellectual inebriation habitually grips him, and it is under the heady influence of that he wields the pen.
He was a lover of nature and beauty, and wrote beautiful and tender poetry both in English and Punjabi. Apart from his verse, the range of his prose writing in English is bewildering. More important among his poetical works, are:
- The Vina Players,
- The Wandering Minstrel,
- The Burning Candles,
- The Himalayan Pines and Other Poems,
- The Rose of Kashmir,
- An Afternoon with Self,
- Unstrung Beads (1923),
- At His Feet and
- The Sisters of the Spinning Wheel (1921).
His prose works are:
- The Spirit of Oriental Poetry (1926),
- The Story of Swami Rama,
- On the Path of Life,
- Walt Whitman and the Sikh Inspiration, Excerpt from Article
- Vision of Guru Gobind Singh,
- Bhai Karam Singh,
- The Spirit of the Sikhs 2 volumes, Part 1
- Sundri (a translation of Bhai Vir Singh’s novel),
- The Fleeting Image of Punjabis’ Life,
- A biography of Guru Nanak,
- The Book of Ten Masters,
- The Spirit Born People,
- Bhagirath (novel),
- Prakasina (novel).
Works in Punjabi,
- Khulhe Maiddn, Khulhe Ghund (1923),
- Khulhe Lekh (1929), and
- Khulhe Asmdm Rang (1927).
Quality and dimension
Puran Singh was a mystic and an aesthete. He had drunk deep at the source-founts of poetry. He enjoyed the folk-songs that his “Sisters of the Spinning Wheel” sang in Trinjin. He reveled in the romantic escapades of Heer on one hand and the abandon with which Puran Bhakta ignored the worldly ties. He admired Jaya Deva of the Gita Govind, Omar and Hafiz, Shah Husain and Bulleh Shah.
And last but not least, every word uttered by the Sikh Gurus seems to send him into ecstasies. He retold the romance of Puran Bhakta in his inimitable verse and devoted most of his literary acumen translating Gurbani into English. The language whether it was Punjabi or Hindi, Japanese or English, was a mere tool, a slave in his hands. He moulded it in the manner he fancied. When he commanded, phrases and idioms, metaphors and similes came rushing to hint. Every word that he wrote is inspired.
A talented poet of great eminence, Puran Singh was an image of self-denial. He remained a disciple all his life. He was happy at the feet of his master whether it was Swami Ram Tirath or Bhai Vir Singh. He sang the praises of mystics and rendered their utterances into English with a devotion that is seldom to come by in a translator in the annals of literature. It is not a faithful word-for-word translation even if he was handling the Sacred Scriptures. He had an uncanny eye for the Kernel, he communicated the spirit of the original and invariably succeeded in it eminently.
Puran Singh started the distillation of essential oils in Lahore in collaboration with Ishar Das and Rai Bahadur Shiv Nath. He prepared thymol, and fennel and lemon oils. Owing to deceitful dealings on the part of his collaborators, he threw up the business and, in a fit of temper, demolished the kilns and migrated to Dehra Dun where he stayed for some time with Jyoti Sarup, a disciple of Svami Ram Tirath. He was soon back in Lahore to take up, in December 1904, the principal-ship of the Victoria Diamond Jubilee Hindu Technical Institute. It was at this time that he restarted his monthly publication Thundering Dawn from Lahore. His contacts with revolutionaries, Har Dayal and Khudadad, also go back to these days.
Bhai Vir Singh's influence
Amongst his contemporaries, Puran Singh was closest to Bhai Vir Singh, the saint poet of the Punjab. It was Bhai Vir Siugh who brought him back to the Sikh fold, fostered in him love of the land of five rivers and the charming lore of the Punjab folk. An exclusive volume entitled Nargas contains translation into English of Bhai Vir Singh’s select verse. Ernest Rhys, the noted English poet of the time, wrote a forward to this collection. Puran Singh as a translator, catches the imaginative atmosphere and recreates it with the magic of his words. He enters as if into the soul of the original and it is a reincarnation, as it were, in another tongue.
Puran Singh was a “God-inspired” man. When he came back to the Sikh faith, it was like a torrential tributary rejoining the great ocean. He has an enormous volume of the rendering of the Sikh Scriptures obtaining in a number of his works. It seems he translated the original by way of his homage to the Holy word. He wished to share the bliss of it with the world at large. He chose English as his medium so that the message could travel to as many people as possible.
Listen to Note Patit Ubaar - A Note by Bhai Vir Singh Patit Ubaar - A Note by Bhai Vir Singh
Books on Sikhi and the Gurus
Also, he wrote a number of books on the Sikh Gurus, their teachings and the religious history of the Sikh faith. While talking about the Sikh ideals, Puran Singh works himself to such an emotional pitch that his writings read like lyrical effusions. He seems to have been greatly influenced by Carlyle, Emerson and Ruskin.
In Spirit of the Sikhs, his magnum opus published by the Punjabi University posthumously in three volumes, Puran Singh observed: “Everywhere we see ignorance, misery, struggle, distress, hunger, disease, death, treachery, deception and parasitism, the strong robbing the poor. In all conscience, to call this dark would something admirable, to be in any way thankful for, seems to be the height of human imbecility and impotence. To feel that we are cooped under the lid of the sky like the chicken brood destined for someone’s food, is surely not a prospect pleasing to any serious contemplator of life.”
Resigns as principal in 1906
He resigned the Principalship in November 1906 to establish at Doivala (Dehra Dun) a factory for soapmaking but soon sold it off to a minister of Tihri to join in April 1907 as a Forest chemist at the Forest Research Institute, Dehra Dun, from where he sought retirement in 1918.
He had stints in the princely states of Patiala and Gwalior. At Gwalior (1919-23) he turned the scorching desert into a fragrant oasis of rosha grass and eucalyptus, interspersed with fruit trees. He gave up his appointment at Gwalior to join Sir Sundar Singh Majithta's sugar factory at Surayya (1923-24) where he discovered a special method for purifying sugar without mixing it with charred bones.
In 1926, he moved over to Chakk 73/19, near Nankana Sahib, where he got a plot of land on lease from the Punjab Government to grow rosha grass grass on a commercial scale. In 1928, his plantation suffered a heavy loss owing to floods. Yet he rejoiced that he had been able to salvage the manuscripts of his books. He took his losses in a philosophical spirit and wrote a poem expressing relief at the devastation of his property which had rid him of many of his worries. In 1930, he fell ill with tuberculosis and had to leave his farm for Dehra Dun where he died on 31 March 1931.