Bhagat Puran Singh, born in 1904, was the son of a Hindu father whose second wife or mistress, Mehtab Kaur, was a Sikh. His step brothers refused to accept their Khatri father’s liaison with a Jat Sikh woman. Under the influence of his mother, the boy turned from Ramji Das to Puran Singh. He spent his adolescent years in Lahore, dividing his time serving in the city’s main gurdwara, borrowing books from different libraries and reading them in his spare time.
He took to nursing sick beggars and wearing khadi. When Partition riots broke out, he barely escaped with his life and trudged barefoot carrying a cripple on his back across the border to Amritsar. It was in Amritsar that he decided to devote the rest of his life to the sick and uncared. He had no money to build a hospital or procure medicines. His hospital comprised a few charpoys in the shade of a tree.
Every morning he sat outside the entrance of the Golden Temple with a begging bowl. With what he got, he bought food and medicines for his patients. He rented a haveli. Some people volunteered to help him. So began his Pingalwara for the sick and the destitute. He had black tin boxes, with slits on their covers and the simple word Pingalwara written on them, put up in different parts of the city. People began to put money in the boxes. When he came to be better known, people made donations on the occasion of weddings in their families or in memory of their loved ones. Sewa was Puran Singh’s bhakti and he came to be known as Bhagat Puran Singh.
Puran Singh did not go in for religious ritual but imbibed the essentials of religion. He did not discriminate between those who came to him for help:
Manas kee jaat sab ek hee pahchaantoo (regard all mankind as of one caste, Guru Gobind Singh had exhorted his followers).
To Bhagat Puran Singh’s Pingalwara came Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims for shelter and treatment. He subscribed to the creed that service to the suffering was the greatest form of prayer:
Bin sewa dhrig hath payr, hore nehphal karni (fie the hands and the feet that are not used in the service of others, every other activity is fruitless).
At long last the Punjab Government became conscious of Puran Singh’s existence. The Pingalwara was given a grant and Puran Singh honoured with a Padma Bhushan. He returned it as a protest against Operation Bluestar.
I took advantage of Sushma Swaraj’s presence at the launch of Reema Anand’s “His Sacred Burden” and asked her to try out all the channels of her TV set. Every third is devoted to broadcasting sermons by sadhus, sadhvis, swamis, godmen, pracharaks — the lot. Hour after hour, they go on telling us about the soul, spiritual life, meditation, truth, love, tales from the Puranas and lives of saints. They draw large audiences. It is talk, talk and more talk. They echo the ethos of our people: we have become a nation of talkers and not doers. There are hundreds of men and women scattered in remote parts of our country who like Bhagat ji devote their lives to the service of the poor, illiterate and the disabled. If their lives were depicted on our TV channels, we might turn from a nation of sermoners to a nation of doers.