Bhagat Puran Singh
Bhai Puran Singh (June 4, 1904 – August 5, 1992) was born in Rajewal (Rahon) Ludhiana district, Punjab. Born into a hindu family, he was given the name Ram ji das as a child. Later, after witnessing hindu hypocrisy, malpractices and inequality, he choose to become a Sikh. Though he never finished his basic schooling, he became a writer, a (self) publisher, an environmentalist, and a philanthropist. He is perhaps best remembered for the home he founded in Amritsar, India, named Pingalwara, a home which long after his death, is still tending to the castaways of society: the sick, disabled and abandoned forlorn people.
As a young man, using his Sikh principles, Puran Singh decided to dedicate his life to the 'selfless service of humanity'. Puran Singh founded Pingalwara in 1947 with only a few patients, the neglected and rejected of the streets of Amritsar. An early advocate of what we today refer to as the 'Green Revolution', Bhagat Puran Singh was spreading awareness about environmental pollution and the problems of increasing soil erosion, long before such ideas became popular. Pamphlets with his writings on various subjects, such as environmental awareness, were printed on re-used paper and freely distributed.
Puran Singh was honoured in 1979 by the Government of India with the Padma Shri award, given for exceptional and distinguished service in any field. He was among the citizens of India who returned their awards and medals after the Indian army's attack and massacre of innocent Sikhs at Sri Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple) in 1984. He died on 5th August 1992 in Amritsar.
After the death of his father, his mother encouraged him to finish the matric level of education, which would allow him to fill a Government job. His mother worked as a domestic help in the house of a doctor at Montgomery (Sahiwal), in part to earn the money for her son's education. Later, she moved to Lahore where she cleaned utensils in households. Puran Singh was sent to a hostel where he was sent ten rupees every month by his mother.
Unfortunately, he failed his class tenth examination. Later, he was called back to Lahore and admitted in a local school, but he was not interested in studying his course books, which he felt were filled with hypothetical and theoretical knowledge with absolutely no connection or applications to everyday life. He, however, would spend hours browsing books in the Dyal Singh Library, trying to gain as much knowledge as he could.
While in Lahore, he would often visit Gurdwara Dehra Sahib to do voluntary service, where he would provide water for the visitors to the gurdwara to do the necessary cleaning before entry, and help in managing the cattle that provided milk for the Gurudwara's Langar, the common kitchen, in which he helped by cleaning the utensils, making chapatis or distributing food to the sangat (people coming to the Gurdwara). He even cleaned the floor of the Gurudwara in the evening. He would clear the streets of Lahore and cremate the unclaimed dead. He took care of the destitute and took the sick to the hospital for treatment.
One day, someone fell from the roof of the Gurdwara and was badly injured. Bhagat Puran Singh immediately rushed him to the local 'Mu Hospital'. Experiencing inner joy after helping the patient, he took a man with badly bleeding leg, full of vermin, to a hospital where he expressed his thanks to Ramjidas telling him, "Son! Now I can die a peaceful death." With this incident, the service of humanity became the mission of his life. Now he would wander here and there finding the injured, physically handicapped persons, taking them to the hospital. He also took care of them as his pocket and capability allowed. Once, he even washed the clothes of an old, poor beggar who was suffering from diarrhea.
On a moonless night in 1924, someone left a four year old child, a boy stricken with leprosy at the door of Gurdwara Dehra Sahib. After performing prayers for the child's wellbeing, the then Head Granthi of the Gurudwara, Jathedar Acchar Singh, handed him over to Ramjidas, who named the boy Piara Singh. Rather than handing the child over to a center for lepers, if any existed, Bhagat Puran Singh decided to care for and raise him himself. This incident was to completely transform Puran Singh's life.
Bhagat Puran Singh with Piara Singh
After the partition of India in 1947, Bhagat Puran Singh reached a refugee camp in Amritsar which housed over 25,000 refugees with just 5 annas (0.3 rupees) in his pocket. A large number of refugees were critically wounded and incapable of nursing themselves. The government didn't make any arrangements to take care of these refugees. Bhagat Puran Singh took the initiative, he took some chloroform and turpentine oil and started treating the wounds of these refugees. He would often go in the nearby colonies to get food for the hungry and medicine for the ill.
Bhagat Puran Singh set up a centre at Amritsar. First, he had a few tents to accommodate the poor and the sick. Soon he got a plot of land and constructed a three story building to house 250 patients. The unclaimed bodies of those who die in Pingalwara are taken to the local medical college for teaching anatomy.
Bhagat Puran Singh was nominated for the Nobel Peace price in 1991. Bhagat Puran Singh won many prizes for his humanitarian work, he always invested any money received for the poor and destitute.
Bhagat Puran Singh was a tall, shabbily dressed man, who was found tramping with his wooden sandals or riding a rickshaw, along with an invalid. He always carried a brass bell hanging by his side and announcing his arrival. He found great solace and inspiration in the teachings of the Sikh Gurus.
From 1947 till 1958, Bhagat Puran Singh did not have a permanent dwelling. He could be seen outside the chief Khalsa Diwan, post offices, railway stations or under the tree outside the office of the Civil Surgeon. He would wander in the streets, asking for donations to help the needy. Some people offered to help him, but most did not.
At last, he founded and registered 'The All India Pingalwara Charitable Society' whose annual budget at that time was approx. 12.5 million rupees. Even today, this institution, headquartered at Tehsilpura, Grand Trunk Road, Amritsar, works for helping the poor, the diseased and the physically and mentally handicapped. Bhagat Puran Singh became joti jot in 1992.
Bhagat Puran Singh embraced Sikhism and took up the name Puran Singh. He was greatly inspired by the teachings of Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the Sikh Gurus.
He realized Sikhism via a simple observation. Whilst he was a child his family used to travel, from village to village. They took up residence in Mandirs (hindu temples) and Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in each village.
In the Mandir, the high-caste priest (Brahman) ordered him to clean the temple, whilst the priest ate food in front of him without offering any.
Whilst in the Gurdwara, the priest (Giani) gave the boy (Puran Singh) food without asking for anything in return. It is these subtle observations that changed his life. Unfortunately, it is also for these reasons that Sikhism has been viewed as such a threat to hindu and muslim faiths.
Puran Singh was a mature environmentalist and visionary. He initiated tree plantation drives, organised talks and lectures on various issues concerning the environment and social life, and also wrote a large number of books regarding the same. Some of his famous works include "Education of man", "Righteousness alone exalts a nation", "Plant or Perish", "The Way", "The Increasing Population", and many others.
Bhagat Puran Singh
Puran Singh distributed free pamphlets and books to make the people aware of the impending dangers to the environment and society through the Pingalwara Society.
Garland Around My Neck: The Story of Puran Singh of Pingalwara, by Patwant Singh & Harinder Kaur Sekhon, DTF Pub. & Distrib., Birmingham, U.K. (with UBS Pub. Distrib., New Delhi), 2001, ISBN 1-901363-40-6
"The thoughts of great men are the common heritage of humanity and let our countrymen receive inspiration and guidance from these thoughts."
"Freedom is not an achievement but an opportunity."
"Those who die for their country are martyrs and those who live for their country are greater martyrs."
"Dignity in death is a birthright of each living thing."
"All Punjabis should sow trees of "Bohar"(Banyan), "Pippal" and "Neem", which are essential to our eco-system."
"Stop these mockeries and do not talk, but live. Do not be anxious to save Sikhism. Rest assured that Sikhism can take care of itself. Your only anxiety should be to save yourself."
When Puran Singh merged with god on 5th August 1992 in Amritsar, humanity lost a truly remarkable soul. Puran Singh was a shining example of Sikh values.
Sikhs and gurdwara's, both in India and abroad, collect funds and send them to the Pingalwara. Pingalwara receives grants from the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar and similar charitable institutions.
Bhagat Puran Singh is an institution in himself. He was an unassuming and dedicated Sikh, who reminds one of Bhai Kanhiya, a Sikh of the Tenth Guru. Puran Singh is a true Sikh in the old tradition and has won public esteem for his humanitarian work all over India. He is called by various epithets - 'Mother Tereasa of Punjab', 'the bearded saint of Amritsar', 'Bhai Kanhiya of the twentieth century'.
If you are ever fortunate enough to visit India, please make time and visit your nearest Pingalwara branch. Just arrive, go to reception and ask to be shown around. Pingalwara volunteers always willingly help. Any donations and/ or gifts (large or small) are gratefully received by Pingalwara.
Most likely, you will remember the visit for the rest of your lives.
Gurmat Gyan (Knowledge)
Other Gurbani Contributors