Kids Corner

Our Heroes

One Man:
The Life-Work of Vir Singh





We all know him as a poet and writer extraordinaire, a mystic who inspires us to soar in the clouds.

But few among us know the full extent of the influence this man had -- single-handedly -- in shaping us, and enabling us to achieve what we did in the 20th century, despite a world of hurdles.

Here is this one man’s story.

*   *   *   *   *

He was born in 1872 in Amritsar, Punjab, the eldest of three sons, to a wealthy and learned family. Normally, the convenience of ancestral affluence proves, more often than not, to be a hurdle rather than an asset: many young men succumb to a life of ease and comfort and fall prey to debilitating distractions.

Young Vir Singh -- pronounced "veer" -- was able to resist such challenges, and instead took full benefit of the gifts he had inherited.

Early on, he immersed himself in the study of Sikhi and its scriptural texts, and mastered Punjabi, English, Persian, Urdu and Sanskrit. Traditional education was balanced by full exposure to English and Western education, when he joined the Church Mission School, Amritsar, and completed his Matriculation in 1891. In the exam, he stood first in the district.

It was while he was still in school that he was married, at the early age of 17, to Chatar Kaur.

It was also while in school that he became aware of the aggressive stance Christian missionaries had acquired in Punjab and were already making inroads through conversions obtained through the political and economic influence they enjoyed via the British Raj.

He quickly realized that the threat was further magnified when, encouraged by the State’s activities, Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists took it as a signal for a free-for-all and began to escalate their own proselytizing in Punjab and preying on Sikh youth.   

Given the ambit of influence his family enjoyed, Vir Singh had the readily available option of sailing into a comfortable and prestigious career in the government, or merely lolling in a life of luxury and leisure.

Instead, within a year after completing his schooling, he helped open a lithograph press. And he began to write and publish school text-books.

Two years later, he founded the Khalsa Tract Society -- he was a full 22 years old by now -- and began to compose, print and disseminate a flood of quality and affordable publications covering a range of subjects: Sikh history, theology, philosophy, literature, culture.

The series appeared under the nom de plume, Nirgunyara (“a person without merit“).

Vir Singh then began to systematically research and compose essays on the lives of the Gurus. One by one, they began to surface in the form of tracts.

He also turned to social commentary, addressing issues of concern in the community and society at large, and pushing for reforms.

It didn’t take long before these simple publications became the staple of Sikh and Punjabi readers everywhere … in the cities, in the towns and villages. There was a mounting clamour for more.

In 1899 -- at the age of 27 -- he started the Khalsa Samachar, a Punjabi weekly, which was quickly to become the leading voice of the Sikhs. Six decades later, I remember poring over its pages as a 10-year old newly initiated into Punjabi, as it arrived every week at our door, a thousand miles away.

One year earlier, in 1898, he had completed his first romance novel, Sundari, which remains, even today, the single most influential book on the Sikh psyche in the 20th century.

The following year, in 1899, he published his second novel, Bijay Singh.

A year later appeared a third novel, Satwant Kaur. On popular demand, a sequel (Part II) would appear almost three decades later.

As the new century began -- he was 27 years old now -- the busier he became, the more essays, stories, books he churned out. It was as if the corporate responsibilities that he had taken on were merely energizing him and feeding his intellectual creativity.         

In quick succession, he began to build seminal institutions in the community: the future pillars on which the whole structure would stand.

He founded the Chief Khalsa Diwan, an institution designed not only to establish, monitor and support community gurdwaras but to actively address religious, educational, cultural and social issues within the community.

He founded the Sikh Educational Society which took on the onerous role of establishing Sikh educational institutions across the length and breadth of the land. 

All of this hyper-activity -- collectively identified in history as the great Singh Sabha renaissance -- needed money.

No problem.

Vir Singh set about to put together a Sikh bank -- The Punjab & Sind Bank. Vir Singh was 36 years old when it opened its doors. It remains today one of the subcontinent’s foremost financial institutions.

While all of these ideas and projects were gestating in Vir Singh’s mind and being turned into reality, a number of parallel series of instalments began to appear either as tracts or in the pages of the weekly Khalsa Samachar.

Novels, histories, romances, scriptural translations and interpretations …

The epic poem, Rana Surat Singh, began to appear in 1905.

The philosophical tome, couched in the form of a biography, Baba Naudh Singh, in 1907.

A play, Raja Lakhdata Singh, in 1910.

The string of essays, later to be compiled to become acclaimed biographies of the Gurus: Guru Nanak Chamatkaar and Kalgidhar Chamatkaar (Guru Gobind Singh), were already several years old.

If I may pause for a moment here:

None of the above appeared with Vir Singh’s name on it. He was still unknown amongst the millions who become his fans.

Because he refused to promote himself, even within the traditional requirement that the author’s name appear on the title page of each novel, for example.

So, the title-page of Sundari read: “By the author of Bijay Singh”.

The title-page of Bijay Singh read: “By the author of Sundari”.

He was utterly selfish in his humility: he would allow no divergence from this rule.

Getting back to his trajectory:

As he delved in these multifarious activities, he invariably found things missing … things that needed to be put into place if a whole picture was to emerge.

Thus, before he began to write, he opened a printing press, and began a publishing house.

Or, when he began to establish institutions which were going to go out and change the world, he started a bank.

And so on and so forth.

So, before long, he began to revise existing texts once he found they were inadequate or needed updating.

While doing everything else, he began to revise and expand Hazara Singh’s monumental dictionary of the Guru Granth.

He then brought out annotated editions of the baanis of the Bhagats, of ancient saakhis and pothis.

The annotation of Bhai Santokh Singh's Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth, runs into almost 7000 pages, over 14 volumes!

Someone pointed out that he had done Guru Nanak’s biography, and Guru Gobind Singh’s, but the remaining Gurus? Hence, the Asht Guru Chamatkar (The Eight Gurus).

As he approached his 50s, he then turned to shorter and lyrical poetry. It opened up another set of flood-gates. It seems as if every year … 1920, 1921, 1922 … brought a new collection of poems. Every issue of the Khalsa Samachar had new creations. Today, no bibliography I come across seems to be complete … each one seems to list newer and different anthologies, dozens of them.

Growing up, I was used to having a parent or elder burst into song, or recital of a verse. “Bhai Sahib,” they would mutter, as if it was all the explanation one needed if one looked puzzled. Which always meant, I learnt before long, “Bhai Vir Singh!”

Have I mentioned Vir Singh’s exegeses of the Guru Granth?

It’s his magnum opus. Even though he often said that all of his life’s work, everything he did, everything he wrote, was but an interpretation of the Guru Granth!

His exegesis, though begun when he was 35, was published posthumously. In 7 volumes. It remains incomplete because it covers less than half of the Guru Granth.

But then, how does a man like Vir Singh ever complete his life-work?

Sadly, his work indeed remains incomplete in more ways than one.

His work remains beyond the reach of the English-speaking world. Not a single decent translation of any of his novels is to found even though more than half a century has passed since his death in 1957, at the age of 84.

Not a single film that does justice to his life or his life-work.

Sometimes I think that maybe we’ve been blessed with too much and it overwhelms us. Surrounded by, nay, buried under the greatest intellectual and spiritual treasures known to man, we have become incapable of action.

It appears we look at all that we have and all that we need to do, and we’ve simply thrown up our hands and surrendered it all to the might and will of God.

There are those amongst us who have many times more material wealth, even in historical terms, than Vir Singh or his family ever had. And more material gifts and opportunities than he ever enjoyed.

Yet, when we do a bit here and a bit there, we wait to see if people have taken notice. If they haven’t, we raise ourselves higher, beat our drums harder, to make sure others know of what we’ve done.

Nothing says more about Vir Singh than when people sought, late in his life, to honour him at a public function in Bombay.

He refused to come to the stage.

And even when pressed, he simply would not give a speech.

He simply remained seated, eyes closed, as if in deep meditation.

The sangat/congregation continued to insist from the floor that he say at least a few words.

Reluctantly, he wrote a few words on a piece of paper -- as the enthralled and anxious audience looked on -- and handed it to the Chair, Hardit Singh Malik. Who then read it out from the podium.

It was a verse from gurbani. Vir Singh remained seated, eyes closed, head bowed, genuinely embarrassed by the attention.

"O Lord, you know only too well who I really am,

I but wander the streets, worthless and insignificant,

It's only thy proximity, thy grace, that gives me recognition."



February 23, 2013


Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 23, 2013, 10:03 AM.

It was in 1945 perhaps, when my sister, Bhen ji Pritam, decided while waiting to get married to sit for the Gyani examination. She had Vir Singh's 'Matak Hullarey' prescribed in her course. She would sing the unforgettable lines - "supnay vich tussee(n) millay assaanu, assaa(n)dhaa gullwukri paa-ee / nira noor tussee(n) huth na aey sadi kumbdee rahee kallaa-ee". As a child this was subliminally recorded on my mind, although I wasn't quite so sure about her dreams. Years later when I read those books, it brought back a flood of memories. This is how I was weaned on Bhai Sahib's works. Every Thursday (vir-vaar!) my sisters would wait for the postman to bring the weekly Khalsa Samachar that was read and re-read by all. "Pyaarey Jio" from Guru Nanak Chamatkar is now available in audio and recently, "Gurmukh Sikhia' as well. "Sat Aukhiaa(n) Rataa(a)" from "Baba Naudh Singh", and Kalgidhar Chamatkar are now added as audio files. The credit goes to S. Guldeep Singh Sethi of New Jersey, USA, for this labour of love. The site for ease of reference is: Please check, it may have become outdated. Whatever is written or said about Bhai Sahib would fall short of full justice to the subject. He was an epoch in himself. With him began modern Punjabi language. Prof. Puran Singh, the restless soul who had gone astray under the influence of a swami, was brought back to the fold with just one meeting with Bhai Shaib. In the words of Prof. Puran Singh, "Having seen him, I realize how the touch of the foot of the great Rama freed the imprisoned Ahilya. His writings are spiritual in effect. They do not stimulate intellect as much as the soul. He is modest, like a virgin, hiding his passion in the deepest recesses of his heart. His life is vowed in love to God. He is invisible to the vulgar eye. His touch alone can make a poet. I have seen unlettered men and women glowing with poetry when sitting near him. After seeing him I find myself a beautiful thing worthy of my own homage and love and admiration. I feel like worshiping myself. I find myself intensely creative, and when he thinks of me ardently I am inspired a new passion for life. He is seen only indirectly through the inspired consciousness that is induced by his goodness in others that go near him."

2: Ari Singh (Rostov, Russia), February 23, 2013, 1:02 PM.

Incredible personality. No wonder he has eyes of a saint.

3: N Singh (Canada), February 23, 2013, 2:53 PM.

Wow! Thank you for this.

4: Raj (Canada), February 23, 2013, 3:08 PM.

We were lucky to have such a great and complete personality amongst us. There're few other contributions of Bhai Sahib that Sher Singh didn't include in his article. They are: establishing the Sikh Orphanage, teaching visually impaired persons to sing kirtan and publishing research on understanding and structure of the Raag Mala. I am lucky to have all his publications in my study and there's one book called "Pyarey Jio". It's not published by him, but its contents are written by him. Let me explain: back then, knowing he was an enlightened person, people used to write to him for advice. He would reply back their letters and often address them as "Pyarey Jio". Hence, the title of the book: it contains a number of these letters from private collections. It's compiled in sections, explaining meanings of gurbani and Waheguru. There's another book called Bhai Vir Singh Shataabadi Granth. It's commentary of his contemporaries about him. He was a true gurmukh. I hate to use the word, "Saint", but some have called him Sant-Kavi - the Poet-Saint.

5: Dr.Mohinder Singh (New Delhi, India), February 25, 2013, 5:57 AM.

Dear S. Sher Singh ji: I read your piece on Bhai Vir Singh on and would like to forward it to our Council members and other admirers of Bhai Vir Singh. It is so well written and so moving. I wish in the near future there are some good translations of Bhai Vir Singh's writings so that his message reaches the larger audience. If you permit, we would like to publish this in our weekly, the Khalsa Samachar. [EDITOR: You have our permission ... it'll be our honour.]

6: Jaspal Singh Kohli (Mumbai,.India), February 25, 2013, 6:57 AM.

"supnay vich tussee(n) millay assaanu, assaa(n)dhaa gullwukri paa-ee / nira noor tussee(n) huth na aey sadi kumbdee rahee kallaa-ee", is from the book - KAMBHDI KALAAEE - by Bhai Vir Singh ji. Whenever you read his books, again and again, you find something new, always. He is ever fresh!

7: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, USA), February 25, 2013, 8:14 AM.

Prof Puran singh had become a Buddhist monk. Bhai Vir Singh was one whose personality brought Prof Puran Singh back to Sikhi. There was the Sikh Educational Conference at Gujranwala (now in Pakistan) and Bhai Sahib invited Puran singh as a special guest even though he had drifted away from Sikhi. From then on their contact grew and Prof Sahib became a Sikh again.

8: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 25, 2013, 9:54 AM.

Here is the translation of the "supnay vich tussee(n) millay assaanu ..." lines: "I saw thee in a dream, beloved! / I flew into thy arms / But thy figure was of lightning made / Beyond my poor embrace / Only my arm bereft trembling with unfulfilled faith / I bowed my head to thy feet / But my forehead touched nothing / Thou wert like a vision high above me, / And I could not reach / I ran to catch the edge of thy garment / But it was the fluttering flash / I could not hold it in my up-spread hands / The flying one, thou, the radiant figure of love / Flying above, thou didst burn me with Thy luminous touch / Thou has kindled a fire in my heart / My dead clay has blazed up with life / And every hair shines now with soul ..."

9: Pritam Singh Grewal (Canada), February 25, 2013, 9:53 PM.

Bhai Vir Singh's humility is truly captured in this line from gurbani, which you have translated to conclude your article: "hum rultay phirtay ko-ee baat na poochchta gur satgur sung keeray hum thappay".

10: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA..), February 26, 2013, 5:49 AM.

Bhai Vir Singh had read in Bacchitar Natak references to Hemkund - re Guru Gobind Singh tapasya. Bhai Sahib financed an exploration into the Himalayan region, as a direct result of which, Hemkund as we know today was identified as the site in question.

11: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 26, 2013, 7:50 AM.

Re Dr. Mohinder Singh's comment #5: The following books are available in English - 1) "Bhai Vir Singh" by Harbans Singh; 2) "Bijay Singh"; 3) "Cosmic Symphony"; 4) "Guru Baalam Sakhiaa(n)"; 5) Guru Granth Sahib and Its Context"; 6) "Guru Nanak Chamatkar", Vol 1 & 2; 7) "Nargis"; 8) "Navee(n) Paneeri" in 4 parts; 9) "Guru Kalgidhar Chamatkar, Vol 1 & 2; 10) "Satwant Kaur"; 11) "Sundari"; 12) "Bhai Vir Singh: Sixth River." Most of them were sponsored by the Sadan. You can check them out at:

12: Sukhindarpal Singh (Penang, Malaysia), February 26, 2013, 8:34 PM.

It is time for to be set up as a comperdium for all that is related to Bhai Sahib's writings. He epitomizes the closing slok (p 1430) of the Guru Granth Sahib.

13: Sarjit Kaur (Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.), February 27, 2013, 3:29 PM.

Upon researching The Punjab & Sind Bank ... So typical of the Indian govt to today take credit (Govt of India Undertaking?) for a bank founded by Bhai Vir Singh and his colleagues.

14: Harpreet Singh Wahan (New York, USA), March 02, 2013, 9:56 PM.

Guru Nanak has written a beautiful line: "Nanak nirgunn gunn karey gunnvanteya gunn dey", meaning "He showers those who don't possess virtues with such blessings, and He replenishes those who possess them!"

15: G.S. Tucker (USA), March 19, 2013, 1:13 PM.

I have read all the famous English poets/writers like Shakespeare, Milton, Taylor, etc. I think they are no match to what has been written by Bhai Vir Singh. He wrote what he saw and experienced. His writings are not just writings for writing's sake, but visionary expressions of spirituality. He has left little to add on the subject.

Comment on "One Man:
The Life-Work of Vir Singh"

To help us distinguish between comments submitted by individuals and those automatically entered by software robots, please complete the following.

Please note: your email address will not be shown on the site, this is for contact and follow-up purposes only. All information will be handled in accordance with our Privacy Policy. Sikhchic reserves the right to edit or remove content at any time.