Attar Singh, Sant
A great Saint and Educational Reformist (1866-1927)
Sant Atar Singh of Mastuana, the most charismatic figure in latter-day Sikh piety, was born on 13 March 1866 in the village of Chima, in Sangrur district of the Punjab. His father, Karam Singh, was a farmer of modest means and could not afford to send him to a school in town. So Atar Singh was apprenticed to Bhai Buta Singh, head of the Nirmala dera or monastery of Bhai Ram Singh, in his own village. He acquired proficiency in the Sikh religious texts and also read philosophical treatises such as the Vichar Sagar. Side by side with his progress in Sikh learning, he developed a deeply religious cast of mind. While tending his cattle, he would become absorbed in reciting hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib.
At the age of seventeen, Atar Singh enlisted as a gunner in the Artillery, later getting himself transferred to the 54th Sikh Battalion stationed at Kohat. There he received Sikh initiation in the cantonment Gurdwara and continued his study of the Scripture under the guidance of its granthi Bhai Jodh Singh. He was still in the army when he took a vow not to marry.
This was a stimulating period of time in the Punjab. English education and Christian missionary activity had created a new ferment. The Arya Samaj was the Hindu response to the situation and the Singh Sabha represented the Sikh reaction. Atar Singh became involved in the Singh Sabha’s dual concerns of restoring the purity of Sikh belief and custom and rejuvenating Sikh society and of promoting Western education among the Sikhs.
In the first instance, he went on a pilgrimage to Sri Hazur Sahib at Nanded, sacred to Guru Gobind Singh. In 1888, Atar Singh was placed in the reserve list and, in 1891, he got his name finally struck off the rolls of the army to devote himself solely to preaching the holy message of the Gurus. He toured extensively in Jammu and Kashmir, Sindh and the North-West Frontier Province. In the Pothohar region, many Sikhs and Hindus received pahul at his hands.
Master Tara Singh, who later became famous as a political leader, and Bhai Jodh Singh, eminent theologian and educationist, were administered the rites of Khalsa baptism by him at Dera Khalsa. In Jammu and Kashmir, he visited Srinagar, Mirpur and other towns which had Sikh populations.
In Jammu and Kashmir, he visited Srinagar, Mirpur and other towns which had Sikh populations. At Peshawar, in the North-West Frontier Province, he was received with honour not only by the Hindus and the Sikhs, but also by the Pathans. Sant Kalyan Singh of Peshawar became a devotee. In Sindh, he visited Sakkhar, Hyderabad and Karachi.
In 1902, he established his main centre in the Malva region, at Gursagar Mastuana, near Sangrur. By his extensive tours and his melodious and resonant recitations of the Gurus’ bani before vast audiences, he created a new religious fervour in the Sikh community. Many were impressed by his gentle and spiritual manner and were drawn into the fold of Sikhism. To receive baptism at his hands was considered especially meritorious. New gurdwaras sprang at in several places in the wake of Sant Atar Singh’s visit.
After 1920, Sant Atar Singh focused his attention on the area around Damdama Sahib where Guru Gobind Singh had sojourned in 1706 before proceeding to the South. At Damdama Sahib, he raised a magnificent bunga and turned it into a major centre for the propagation of Sikhism. He sent abroad four Sikh young men – Teja Singh, Amar Singh, Dharmanant Singh and Hari Singh Basra – for the twin-purposes of receiving higher education and spreading the Gurus’ message.
Teja Singh set up in London the Khalsa jatha of the British Isles, and later went to the United States of America. He took his Master’s degree at Harvard University and lectured on Sikhism widely in America and Canada, besides espousing the cause of Punjabi immigrants. Dharmanant Singh received his Ph.D. degree from London University specializing in Platonic studies.
The Khalsa College Committee, Amritsar, requested Sant Atar Singh, to represent it at the Delhi Darbar in 1911. However, he went to Delhi as a guest of the Maharaja of Jind. He was a distinguished participant in the ceremonial procession taken out from Patiala House in Delhi in which, apart from the people in general, the chiefs of Patiala and Jind participated. As he rode on an elegantly caparisoned elephant, he looked the very picture of holiness. He was naturally the centre of attention, overshadowing the princes.
The sacred hymn he was reciting on that occasion of extraordinary display of imperial power and panoply contrasted the infirmity of worldly rulers with the omnipotence of the God Almighty. The opening lines ran:
None of the sovereigns equals Hari the Almighty; All these worldly rulers last but a bare few days. False are the claims they set up. (SGGS, 856)
Equally with preaching the Word of the Gurus, Sant Atar Singh concerned himself with the promotion of modern education among Sikhs. He associated himself actively with the Sikh Educational Conference and participated in its annual sessions, presiding over that of 1915 at Firozpur. He helped found several institutions such as Khalsa High School, Lyallpur, Khalsa High School, Chakval, Missionary College, Gujranwala, Guru Nanak Khalsa College, Gujranwala, Malva Khalsa High School, Ludhiana, and Akal College, Mastuana.
In 1914, he went to Banaras at the invitation of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya to participate in the ceremonies for laying the foundation of the Sanskrit College. Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, who was an admirer of Sant Atar Singh took him to Varanasi in his own saloon. Under the tent near the site of the college, Sant Atar Singh performed a series of five akhand paths, or continuous, uninterrupted readings of the Guru Granth Sahib, Maharaja Ripudaman Singh saying the Rahrasi every evening. As these recitations of the Guru Granth Sahib were concluded, Maharaja Gangs Singh of Bikaner offered concrete in a silver plate and Santji laid the foundation of the building by applying it to the eleven bricks of gold supplied by the Raja of Kashi. After the ceremonies were over, Sant Atar Singh remained in Varanasi for a week as the guest of the Raja who treated him with deep reverence.
Sant Atar Singh shared the Sikh community’s wider social and religious concerns. He supported the Gurdwara reform movement, and took part in the divan held at Nankana Sahib by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in honour of the Nankana Sahib martyrs in 1921. He was invited to attend the Bhog ceremonies at the conclusion of the Akali morcha at Jaito.
In a report prepared in 1911 by the intelligence department of the Government of India, Sant Atar Singh was described as the inspiration behind the Tatt Khalsa movement among the Sikhs. It was to this school of reformist Sikhs that the origins of the Akali movement can be traced.
On 31 January 1927, Sant Atar Singh passed away at Sangrur. His body was cremated at Mastuana where now a handsome monument in the form of a Gurdwara perpetuates his memory.