By Dr. Harbans Lal
A prayer is a common practice among couples who are desperate for conceiving a child. This custom is found in most cultures, and is very common in India. Prayers are often offered at a shrine popular for pilgrimages, and they are usually done with the help of the clergy or a saintly person well known to the family. The tradition has been followed for centuries, although it is on the decline with the coming of modern culture
This practice is often the beginning of initiating a child into a particular religion. Among the populations harboring high admiration for Sikhee, this has turned into a praiseworthy tradition – often the parents wish the child to be a Sikh, irrespective of whether they themselves were practicing Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims.
Let me illustrate this tradition with a few stories, including the practice followed in my own family.
SIKH CANTOR HIRA SINGH
Famous Sikh cantor, Bhai Bhag Singh Ragi told a heart rendering story to Bhai Vir Singh, who wrote about it and published it in one of his books (Bhai Vir Singh, 1978). I am going to sketch out the story below.
Once, a prominent Sehajdhari Sikh saint, Bhai Ram Kishan, visited the village of Phirooqa in the Punjabi District of Shahpur. As usual Bhai Kishan ji lodged at the local Dharamsala, as the gurdwaras used to be called then. The Dharamsala head was a Sehajdhari Sikh, Bhai Baba Karam Das.
The following morning on hearing the news of this saintly personality visiting the town, a local Sikh family, Ragi Bhag Singh and his wife, rushed to attend the satsang (the Sikh congregation as it was known in those days) and listen to the visiting dignity. They wanted to use the opportunity to meet the spiritually evolved guest.
At the morning congregation, Baba Karam Das welcomed the visiting saint and requested Bhai Bhag Singh Ragi to sing the Asa-di-Var hymns in honor of the visiting guest.
As usual, the kirtan was chanted and followed by Baba ji’s exegesis on the hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib. The community prayer then concluded the morning service.
At the end of the Gurdwara program, the performers and the attendees usually would go home to attend to their daily chores. But on this day, Bhai Bhag Singh Ragi stayed behind and remained seated along with his wife.
The visiting saint, Bhai Ram Kishan, sensed that the couple had something weighing on their minds. He asked if the ragi was not feeling well. Ragi Bhag Singh bowed his head without any verbal response. Baba Karam Das, the Dharamsala head interjected and explained that the couple had been childless after 18 years of marriage and was seeking Bhai Ram Kishan’s blessings.
Bhai Ram Kishan smiled and said, “If the Guru’s cantors failed to give birth to new cantors, how would the gift of kirtan from Guru Nanak continue to benefit humanity. Guru Nanak would never let this happen.” He advised Bhag Singh and his wife to start daily recitation of Sukhmani Sahib in addition to their daily Nit Nem, the daily Sikh routine of reciting prescribed scripture. For his part, Bhai Ram Krishan assured them that he would pray for the blessing of a son.
Raagi Bhag Singh continued to tell Bhai Vir Singh that his wife had given birth to a son eleven months after Bhai Ram Krishan’s ardas prayer. Bhag Singh was thrilled and happy with the gift of a son. As soon as he could, he took the child back for naming ceremony to the same Dharmsala where Bhai Ram Krishan had offered a prayer for the couple.
Bhai Karam Chand, the Dharamsal head, placed the child at the feet of the Guru Granth Sahib and named him Hira, or diamond, signifying how precious the child would be. The child was to be the future Bhai Hira Singh, the legendary Sikh Kirtaniya (Sikh cantor) of international fame.
Who has not heard of the famous Ragi Bhai Hira Singh and his lifetime contribution in disseminating Gurmat through kirtan in Northern India?
BHAGAT PURAN SINGH
Bhagat Puran Singh is a revered figure among the Sikhs, often called the Mother Theresa of Punjab for his unstinting work lifting up of the sick, old and orphaned. (see Lal, 2008, 2016). He left behind his ancestral religious affiliation to adopt first, a Sehajdhari Sikh identity, and then to initiate into the identity of a khande-de-pahul dhari Sikh. He led his life as an exemplary Sikh, who would inspire many others about his faith and its value system of altruism.
In fact, real Sikhee became known to many others only through Puran Singh’s life and mission. He nourished the roots of Sikhee through living a true Sikh life that was spent serving others.
Bhagat ji had a Hindu father named Chaudhari Chibu Mal, who introduced Bhagat ji to the routines of Hindu worship at a local Hindu temple. Bhagat ji, in his childhood, fasted for 3 days a week, and worshiped Hindu deities like Hanuman, Shiva, and Vishnu. His father, who was a local trader, was active in many altruistic endeavors. He served the poor, made periodic pilgrimages, and undertook construction of water wells for surrounding populations. He was well respected for his charity and God fearing personality.
Bhagat ji’s father had never gone to a Gurdwara until the time when he was led to the same in order to pray for a gift of son that the couple had been seeking for years impatiently.
Bhagat ji’s mother, Mehtab Kaur, came from a Sikh family. She was a devout woman. She recited daily Sikh prayers at home and was a frequent visitor of the local Gurdwara.
When the couple was unable to conceive a child, Mehtab Kaur took her husband to Sri Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, where tradition dictated that they pray for a baby. This was his first visit, and thus, the first introduction of Bhagat ji’s father to a place of Sikh pilgrimage.
Bhagat ji was then born a few months after that prayer and was named as Ramji Das, indicating his father’s wish for his son to be a servant of God. Ramji learned the teachings of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib from his mother and personality of altruism from his father.
As destiny would dictate, Ramji Dass was once turned off by a Hindu temple because it failed to provide food to the hungry, whereas a local Gurdwara served those in need and to the wider community on a daily basis. Thus, Ramiji was attracted to an opportunity to practice altruism through the local Gurdwara that eventually led to his conversion to Sikhism.
Once Bhagat ji was given his first opportunity to serve langar (a community kitchen providing meals to all at no cost and with no discrimination), he used that occasion as an opening to visit the Gurdwara daily and provide service to the visitors. From then onward, adopting the Khalsa Rehat became easier, and the rest of the story is well known.
After living a life of a Sehajdhari Sikh for many years Bhai Ramji Dass was initiated into the rank of khande-da- pahul dhari Sikh, presently described as a Khalsa Sikh. Thereafter he voluntarily adopted his new Khalsa name, Puran Singh.
BHAI MANORAJ SINGH
Manoraj Singh was a friend of late Dr. Balbir Singh, brother of Bhai Vir Singh. Balbir Singh described Manoraj as “one of a few such persons who molded their lives in accordance with the following precept preached by Guru Nanak,
(Those who serve humanity in this world get a place of honor in the next).
Manoraj told Dr. Balbir Singh, “I am a Sikh by birth, though I was born Hindu.” He was born after his Hindu parents bowed before Guru Nanak to ask for a child.
PROFESSOR AMRIT KAUR RAINA
A famous Sehajdhari Sikh, the late Professor Harnam Das of Ambala, told me a similar tale of his own family. Being a Sehajdhari Sikh he took his wife to Sri Panja Sahib for a prayer for the gift of a child. Soon after the baby girl was conceived; the newly born daughter was named Amrit Kaur in the Sikh naming ceremony held at the same Gurdwara.
A few years ago, Amrit retired from a position of the Principal of S.D. College, and is currently publishing books and papers on the youth education based upon doctrines of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Her recent book, The Educational Philosophy of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is a classic (for review see, Lal, 2010).
Bhai Harnam Dass continued to live as Sehajdhari Sikh who authored many articles and several books on Sikhism. Many of his articles were published in the Sikh Review. He was an ardent supporter of the Akali Dal programs and frequently visited Master Tara Singh in the days of the Sikh struggle for a Punjabi speaking state within India.
MY PARENTS AT PANJA SAHIB
The prayers of my own parents at the Gurdwara Sri Panja Sahib for my own birth was my first introduction to the House of Guru Nanak. My parents felt the frustration of not having an off-spring. My mother had failed to conceive in nine years of marriage. My father, a physician himself, sought medical advice and help. Together, they sought guidance from local and visiting holy men of various religious.
In their struggle to seek help, they were led to the woman Granthi of the local Gurdwara in the town of Haripur Hazara. Until the time of partition of India, this Gurdwara, located in the North West Frontier Province, a few miles from Islamabad and Gurudwara Sri Panja Sahib, was a vibrant place of Sikh services. It was managed only by two Sikh women.
Isatari Sat Sang Sabha, as the Gurdwara in Haripur was named, was where my mother, Ramkali Devi, paid daily visits to learn and practice Gurmat or Sikhee. With all efforts at conceiving having failed, my mother turned in desperation to Bhen (Sister) Narain Ji and Bhen Dhanwanti Ji, the granthis (caretakers) at the Gurdwara.
My parents were told by these two women angels that since all efforts were visibly failing, they should accept the divine schema of not having any child incorporated in their karma. In their wisdom, these women also came up with an unusual proposal: adopt a child from the family of Guru Nanak!
The woman granthis told my parents that, as an alternate to seeking their own child, they could seek to borrow a child from the family of Guru Nanak as a gift assigned to them for care and associated enjoyment. It was like an adoption proposal. The granthis told my parents that Guru Nanak had large family at his discretion. It is so as to engage the family members in his mission by gifting them to others but in fact to serve his purpose and mission on this earth.
On the surface the advice might sound like a fairy tale, but it was a commonly held belief, and still is. My parents accepted the proposal as it thrilled them with renewed hope. They decided to immediately proceed following the guidance of the granthis.
On the advice of the granthi women, my parents visited the famous Sikh place of pilgrimage, Sri Panja Sahib, located in the Western hills of what now is Pakistan. It was the beginning of their monthly travels to the shrine for their obeisance and to pray for a child who would advance Guru’s mission in his mortal life.
The prayers were offered in the Gurdwara along with donations for sacred puddings, Karah Parshad, and sacred community kitchen, langar. Mind you that my father had rarely gone to a Gurdwara before then.
My parents’ prayers came to fruition. A year later, I was born in the town of Haripur Hazara on January 8, 1931. Thereafter, my mother took me to the Panja Sahib Gurdwara every month, and to the local gurdwara on a daily basis.
The stories about Ragi Hira Singh, Bhagat Puran Singh, Amrit Kaur and my own are not isolated; there are many more. They are the tales of many families who were at one time without a child. If Hindu, these families invariably became Sehajdhari Sikhs when they visited a Gurdwara either in their desperation or as guided by a local granthi or through visiting a saint.
Most of the time, the first son grew up to be a Sikh. Often he/she was initiated to be a Khande-da-Pahuldhari Sikh. I was left alone to grow up as a Sehajdhari Sikh. I will elaborate more on this aspect in another article.
Bhai Vir Singh, Sant Gatha, Part 1. Khalsa Samachar, 1978.
(Bhai) Harbans Lal. Bhagat Puran Singh: A Bright Luminary of the Sikh Identity, Studies in Sikhism and Comparative Religion, 27 (1): 75-95, 2008.
Lal, (Bhai) Harbans. Educational Philosophy of Guru Granth: Samuhik Sikhiya Sanchar Da Sadhan (Dr Amrit Kaur Raina), Abstracts of Sikh Studies, 12: (1), pp. 2010. http://sikhinstitute.org/jan_2009/3-harlal.htm.
Harbans Lal. Compassion and Perseverance: Two Sikh Values Upheld by Bhagat Puran Singh, https://seekingwisdomblog.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/compassion-and-perseverance-two-sikh-values-upheld-by-bhagat-puran-singh/
(Updated from, Lal, (Bhai) Harbans. “Prayer for a Child: Inspiring Sikh Tradition”, Sikh Review, 59: (5), 37-41, 2011.)
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Harbans Lal, PhD; D.Litt (hons)
Emeritus Professor and Chairman, Dept of Pharmacology & Neuroscience, University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Professor Emeritus, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India.
President, Academy of Guru Granth Studies.
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