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Dr. Harnam Singh Shan: A Life Dedicated to Faith & Scholarship

An Obituary by MANMEET KAUR



Dr. HARNAM SINGH SHAN [1923 - June 9, 2011]


"All his works on history of religion, folklore and secular literature are more of dedication rather than occupation," Prof John Burton Page of London University had once said of Dr. Harnam Singh Shan.

Dr. Harnam Singh Shan devoted his life and soul to the exploration, study, and preservation of Punjabi.

Son of late Sardar Sarban Singh and Sardarni Tej Kaur, Harnam Singh was born in 1923 in the village Dhamyal of
Rawalpindi, now part of West Panjab, Pakistan.

The name 'Shan' was minted by his teacher and village in grade school. Given an assignment to use a few Punjabi vocabulary words in different sentences, he came to class with a handful of poems. Amazed by his lyrical talents, the teacher announced to the class, “We have a Shan1 here!” His pronouncement was followed by a chant from his classmates, and from that point onward, the village began to call him 'Shan' in honor of his literary aptitudes and his commitment to learning.

['Shan' - literally, a light that shines uniquely amongst others.]

A true Sikh, Harnam Singh went on to live his life as a “disciple” and student of Sikh scholarship. He went to England in the 1960s, a time when few Indians traveled abroad to study, to conduct research about the language, history, and ideas of his home, Punjab. He mastered seven languages - Punjabi, Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Braj Bhasha and
English - in order to translate original writings related to Sikhism across languages to multiple audiences.

He was not merely an academic, but a sevadar who left Punjab and the Sikh community with the greatest gift - a preservation of its history, language, poetry and access to its heritage.

In his life, he was awarded numerous national and international awards - including the Sahitya Shiromani and the Pothohar Shiromani. He held over 100 positions within literary organizations, participated in over 200 conferences and delivered innumerable talks.

He often quoted a line for Guru Nanak, loosely translated to English as “God has put a foolish man to work.” And work he did.

Tirelessly devoted to his life’s mission, Dr. Harnam Singh Shan published a book for each year of his life, with 88 published and five left unfinished at his death (which his family will send to press on his behalf). In addition, he published scores of articles, letters and poems (many of which were lost during partition).

He started his career as an editor in the Punjab University (1948-58) while it moved through Shimla and Jalandhar, and then settled in Chandigarh. He rose to the position of Professor and Head of the Department of Punjabi Studies (1959-62) at Chandigarh and then as Guru Nanak Chair and Head of the Department of Sikh Studies (1972-84).

In the spirit of Guru Nanak, he traveled the world extensively uncovering various places of note in Sikh history, delivering lectures, meeting writers and scholars, visiting gurdwaras and sangats, and attending conferences. He traveled to the United States, the United Kingdom, Iran, Germany, Egypt, Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Mexico, Canada, Japan and more.

On his recent ninth visit to Turkey in 2007 for the 38th International Congress of Asian and North African Studies
meeting, he retraced steps taken by Guru Nanak that were mentioned in the Janamsakhi. His knowledge about the places, periods, names and moments in Sikh history and Punjab was encyclopedic and irreplaceable.

His world travels started early in Punjab. In the 1940s and 1950s, he visited villages throughout Punjab before and after Partition to collect books, manuscripts and writings about the Sikh religion and Sufism, literature, poetry, and so forth. People from various villages would come to the train station bearing books to pass on to him.

Throughout his life and travels - across the subcontinent and internationally - he built a collection of about 13,000 books on Punjab, literature, poetry, history, and religious studies about Sikhism and Sufism.

One of his main goals was to make the writings from the Guru Granth Sahib more easily accessible and comprehensible to the Sikh community and the rest of the world. He felt particularly strongly about this considering the vastness of the Sikh diaspora and the importance of applying the simple, pragmatic wisdom of the Gurus to daily life. In
contrast to contemporary academic approaches to historical analysis and religious study, he focused less on criticism and more on excavating and embellishing the histories surrounding the religious scriptures and inviting readers to continually learn and discover meaning for themselves.

Dr. Harnam Singh is considered an authority on Punjabi medieval literature, Sikh theology and history. His earlier work included comparative Sikh and Sufi literary and religious study and thought. Some of his main earlier works in Punjabi include Roti Beti de Saanjh (1959); Punjabi Parakh Parchol - Janam te Viaks (1960); Puran Sikh da Punjab Piar (1968); Bhai Vir Singh te Unahan di Dein (1972); Bhai Vir Singh da Sandesh (1973); and Guru Nanak da Shahakar Japji (1975).

His Ph.D. thesis, “Romance of Sassi – A Critical and Comparative Study,” completed at the University of London in England in 1964, was the first academic study of the famous folk love story of Punjab, Sassi and Pannu.

Dr. Shan’s later works focused more on the Sikh religion and the writings of the Gurus. Many of them were written in English, and they include the Sayings of Guru Nanak (1969); Guru Nanak in His Own Words (1970); Guru Nanak’s Moral Code (1970); God as Known to Guru Nanak (1971); Guru Nanak: The Man and His Mission (1974); So
Said Guru Amar Das
(1985); and the most recent, Select Sayings of Guru Gobind Singh (2008), amongst many others.

Of his unfinished work, the most prominent is the “Guru Granth Sahib – An Analytical and Comprehensive Dictionary of the Thought of the Sacred Sikh Scripture”, running into 1428 pages and spanning over a decade of work.

In an eloquent profile on Dr Harnam Singh Shan entitled A Life Dedicated to Faith, the renowned scholar, P.D. Shastri, remarks aptly: "Dr. Harnam Singh Shan’s house looks like a house of books, rather than of bricks. It is books, books all over - from the floor to the ceiling. Each room has a separate table for a separate project with the relevant books.”

He made his books, his home, his company and his heart open to any one with an interest in Punjabi language and literature, ethics, philosophy, culture, lexicography, folklore, and history, as well as to Sufi thought.

Despite the fact that Dr. Harnam Singh had traveled the world extensively, had uncovered countless manuscripts, places in history, and ideas about Sikh thought and history, and keenly followed politics and social issues, he was ever amazed by new things.

He shared his endless amazement with life’s wonders with his wife, Prakash Kaur. He looked to her for guidance and wisdom, as she looked to him for the same. They embodied the saying by Guru Nanak, “Truth is higher than everything, but higher still is Truthful Living.” Prakash was the driving force behind his pen, the ink well that moistened his well, and his partner in living a truthful life. He pushed himself intensely after her passing in 2009 to complete his remaining projects.

Despite the fact that he continued to compose letters a few nights before his passing, the ink well ran dry on June 9, 2011.

Dr. Harnam Singh Shan is survived by his four children, Tejinder Kaur Bindra, Inderjeet Kaur, Kuljeet Singh Shan, and Pushpinder Kaur Singh. He will be missed dearly and remembered eternally, both for his contributions and his larger than life presence.


[The author is a grand-daughter of Dr. Harnam Singh Shan, and resides in New York, U.S.A.]

Edited for

June 12, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), June 12, 2011, 7:31 AM.

I, too, have fond memories of Harnam Singh Shan. I remember when I was barely in my teens or a bit earlier in Simla, he used to come to the local central gurdwara to speak. His speech was always laced with citations from Farsi literature, as well as Punjabi. The depth of his knowledge was unmistakable, even though I understood little then. I have also had the benefit of meeting him on many of his visits to California and New York over the years. Now I can appreciate much, much more of his writings and I have many of them. He will be missed.

2: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), June 12, 2011, 7:43 AM.

I met him a few times during his visits and listened to his lectures on Sikhi in Maryland, even last year. He was very humble and full of knowledge about Sikhi and Punjabi. We all will miss Dr. Harnam Singh ji Shan. May God bless his soul.

3: Sonia Sachs (New York, U.S.A.), June 12, 2011, 12:59 PM.

Manmeet, your grandfather was an amazing intellectual and a kind man; exactly the type of person I would have back-extrapolated from knowing his grand-daughter.

4: Bhupinder Singh (Mohali, Punjab), June 16, 2011, 5:21 AM.

The depth of his writing will be an asset for the coming generations, especially for seekers of the Sikh message. He was a rare example of a combination of towering scholarly stature endowed with humility, as a Guru's blessed Sikh.

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