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Gyani Ditt Singh and The Great Revival


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After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the treachery of Teja Singh and Gulab Singh assisted the British to defeat Sikh forces in Anglo-Sikh wars. The occupation of Punjab by the British was a great physical and psychological blow to the Sikhs. The scars further deepened by the conversion of Maharaja Dalip Singh, the last King of Punjab to Christianity, and a gloom prevailed over the entire Punjab. The Sikhs felt deeply hurt by the events but were feeling helpless. No leader worth the name came forward to control the situation to guide them in the dark period.

The British thought this period as the best to cement their rule in Punjab by imprinting onto the minds of the Punjabis that the British were a superior race because of their physical, psychological and cultural superiority. They centered on psychological and cultural conversion of Punjabis; specially the Sikhs whose distinct identity was an impediment to their scheme of colonialism. They portrayed their invincibility on a larger screen of religion and culture and established missionary centers all over Punjab. They selected the lower strate and enticed them through petty jobs and financial aid. This systematic planning and sequential implementation bore fruit as large number of people specially from lower castes started converting into Christianity. The inherent weakness of the Sikh body politic, the activities of Christian Missions, the proselytisation by a new Hindu organization known as Arya Samaj and the rationalism that came with the introduction of scientific concepts caused a body blow to Sikhism.

In 1835, an American Presbyterian Mission had been established at Ludhiana. Immediately after annexation, it spread its activities to Malwa and Majha1; the Church Missionary Society opened centers around Amritsar and Lahore and the hill District. The Society for the Propagation of Gospel, the Salvation Army, the Methodists, Episcopalians, Moravians, and several Roman Catholic orders vied with each other in gaining converts.2 Christian Missionaries were actively supported by English officials.3

The conversion of Maharaja Dalip Singh in 1853 was the first feather in the cap of Christian missionaries and a grievous shock to the Sikhs. The same year a Christian Mission School was opened in Amritsar. Following this several Sikh families of note accepted Christianity.4 In 1873, four Sikh boys of Mission School Amritsar announced their decision to turn Christian, causing protest meetings all over Punjab. Sikh preachers talked to the boys and prevented them from abandoning their ancestral faith.5

More serious than the activities of Christian Missionaries, however, was the challenge of renascent Hinduism, chiefly from the Arya Samaj. They believed only in Vedas and ridiculed all other religious books. Guru Granth Sahib was to Swami Dayanand the leader of Arya Samaj, a book of secondary importance, and the Sikh Gurus men of little learning; Nanak he deonounced as a dambhi (hypocrite). Dayanand set the tone; his zealous admirers followed suit.6

Added to these problems for Sikhs came the Brahmo Samaj of Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1771-1833). They opened a branch in Lahore and won a notable convert in Dayal Singh Majithia.7 These events caused decline in the number of Sikhs.8

A famous visionary and writer of that time, Bhai Veer Singh summed up this situation in a few words, "During the Sikh regime, the Sikhism was caught in the web of Brahminism, and after Sikh rule the Christianity started devouring Sikhism smoothly. A powerful force was needed to stop these increasingly dangerous influences and to revive Sikhism. This powerful force emerged in the form of Bhai Ditt Singh, a man with natural ability to react effectively under such situations. Through his pen, speeches and discourses he did such a wonderful job that earned him the title: "the one who brought true awakening among the Sikhs in slumber."9

Born on 21 April, at Kalaur (Patiala state) to Bishan Kaur, wife of Bhai Diwan Singh, Ravidasia by caste10 and a preacher by profession, Giani Ditt Singh was a great visionary, thinker, writer, editor, historian, orator, teacher and organizer, theologist and analyst of Sikh acriptures, social reformer and, above all, a survivalist par excellence.

He adopted preaching as a profession at the very young age. Theme of his preaching was worthless ritualism, on the lines of his father Diwan Singh, "I was just of eight-nine years’ age when I separated from my father and started enlightening people. Wherever I went, I asked the people to stop the ritual worship of graves, tombs, Bhairon, gods or the Vedas. I also visited various educated and enlightened saints, held discussions, learned from them. Soon I gained enough knowledge and the people started calling me Gyani."11 He further mentioned, "I then preached among the brave Majha people and stopped them from worshipping Sakhi Sarwar and various gods. The influence of Sakhi Sarwar or gods’ worship is no more found in Majha."12

As he gained insight into these problem through study Giani Ditt Singh became more serious. He found the lower strata to be the most affected. Maximum conversion was among the lower castes. He had affinity with them and wanted to do something concrete. He wanted to unite them, but this could not be done as they were further divided into numerous faiths. They were engrossed in ritualism of numerous kinds, and worship of various gods, even tombs and graves. They were divided in sub-castes and not united to fight the rising threat.

He mentioned the same in his writing. "The Doaba people came under the influence of Peers and forgot their own religion……. In Majha, those who called themselves Singhs, worship Sarwar whenever, they are in trouble….. In Lamen (Puadh) the people run to Deras. Whenever someone’s son gets sick they pray to some Peer to save the child…"13

He thought of enlightening the people of these ills and to encourage them to remove to these parochial rituals, have faith in one God and to unite as one to fight against the British. He remarked: "Brahman, Jat and Chamar should make a great union to remove these ills."14

His methodology was very convincing and touching the hearts of the listener. He wrote books to propagate what he preached and used both prose and verse for the purpose. He commented on the existing systems very systematically and dramatically, touching the core of the hearts of listeners/readers. A sample is presented here from his book Guga Gapoda. During the dialogue he makes his listener to accept the futility of worshipping the dead, through his knowledge of the facts; the facts that are revived by a few touches here and there to enlighten.

"We learnt in our childhood about this Guga Peer. We don’t know what type of person is he. This Guga Madi belongs to the ancient times; time unknown. A fair is held these days to pay him obeisance and offer money. The thieves (the pujaris) share the money after squabbling. For the remaining year this place is deserted or is occupied by dogs and jackals. When rain comes, the visitors or the gambling boys take shelter and move after the rains. We don’t know more than this…. This shows that the Guga Madi is worth living for dogs jackle and gambling boys. What type of god is he who cannot stop spread of evil, or for that matter, his own protection from dogs and jackals shit and urinate around him? This Guga story is merely a hoax. Only the ignorant believe him and have become follower of the dead."15

He not only preached but also continued learning where he went. He held discussions with various authorities on religion and saints of the time. He accepted whatever pleaded his conscience, but objected very forcefully if it was against the truth. He propagated removal of parochialism, fundamentalism and ritualism and created a sense of oneness among people. His deep knowledge of Vedas and Sikh scriptures helped him to counter the wrong teaching. He joined those who helped him in achieving his goal. Bhai Jawahar Singh was one such person with whom he could converse his mind openly and who later become his lifelong guide and companion.

Arya Samaj was, initially, an institution working towards removal of casteism and ritualism. He along with Bhai Jawahar Singh joined this movement.16 Swami Dayanand was the torch-bearer of this movement. He however soon found that Arya Samaj Chief Swami Dayanand’s faith in the infallibility of Vedas was as uncompromising as that of the Muslims in Koran.17 He did not believe in the existence of any religion other than Hinduism. This was, again, a narrow parochial approach. Both Bhai Jawahar Singh and Giani Ditt Singh planned to set the things right.

During one such event in 1877 at Lahore18, he visited Swami Dayanand along with Bhai Jawahar Singh ‘to know his mind and to know his ideals’19. During discussion the questions and answers with Swami Dayanand that followed are quoted as under in the words of Gyani Ditt Singh himself:

"Q: Who is the Creator of this universe?

A: The Lord (Ishwar)

Q: Does the Lord create the universe from Himself or from something else?

A: How can the Lord create the universe from Himself? He is without form (Nirakaar). He creates the world from four atoms.

Q: Wherefrom does the Lord bring these atoms?

A: The Lord joins the atoms floating in the sky and creates the universe.

Q: How many atoms help making this universe and how does the Lord create the universe around them? Can you explain - sequentially and systematically?

A: The atoms of earth, water and air roam around freely in air that the Lord mixes them as per the requirement and creates the universe, e.g., he creates earth from earth atoms, water from water atoms, fire from fire atoms and air from air atoms.

Q: Were these four elements existing earlier than the Lord of were created by the Lord?

A: The Lord is non-existent that he could create the solid elements from His soul. The elements of these four atoms existed already which the Lord united to create the universe.

Q : From your statement the Lord appears to be like a mason who collects and joins bricks, sand, lime, and wood, etc., to make a house. He is not a creator of atoms but creator of a structure from these items? ….. He is like a women who cooks food from various items?"

Hearing these comments Swami Dayanand became angry. The dialogue continued but, at the end, he said angrily, "Go and say that I (Gyani Ditt Singh have won and Swamiji has lost."20

This showed the shallowness of Swami Dayanand’s knowledge. Gyani Ditt Singh held three such discussions with Swami Daya Nand with the same results. The details of these discussions are available in his book Sadhu Daya Nand Naal Mera Sambad. Swami Dayanand stood exposed in all these discussions. This made a great impression of Gyaniji on the listeners and he became very popular and acceptable among Sikhs.

He found that the Hindu ritualism was too parochial to change according to the needs of the times. In turn he found that Sikhism was more close to the needs of the people and was more acceptable to bring in the desired psyche of the people. He embraced Sikhism along with Bhai Jawahar Singh at the hands of the five beloved ones - ‘panj piaras’ who included Bhai Gurmukh Singh.21 Bhai Gurmukh Singh, Bhai Jawahar Singh and Gyani Ditt Singh soon turned out to be the new forces in religious revivalism of Sikhs. They opened a chapter of Singh Sabha at Lahore; initially a chapter of Amritsar Singh Sabha but later became independently a rallying point for all Sikhs.

Bhai Ditt Singh by then became a well-known figure who could discuss ably and write effectively. He decided to express himself through the popular medium and took over as the editor of the first Sikh paper, the Khalsa Akhbar. He used it as an effective tool for educating and revival of the Sikhs. Under the editorship of Bhai Ditt Singh, the Khalsa Akhbar became an efficient and powerful vehicle for the spread of Singh Sabha ideology22 and turned out to be a leading light for the Sikhs. He not only contradicted the enchanting theories of the Christian Missionaries, Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj effectively but also highlighted the true worth and the greatness of the Sikhism. His efforts to remove the vices of Hinduism which had also creeped into Sikhism are laudable. The most prominent were casteism and ritualism. Writing against casteism, he questioned the types among Sikhs in a very intelligent and dramatic manner:

"Kaun Sikh hunde ho bhai? Ji main Arora, ih hai Nai. Teri Singha ki hai jaat? Nami Vanshi main han Bhrat. Tera janam kinah de ghada? Main ji Mehra pani bharda."

i.e., ‘Which type of Sikh are you, O brother?’ ‘I am Arora; he is barber.’ ‘O Singh! What is your caste?’ ‘I am from Nami Vansh, Bhrat by caste.’ ‘In whose house were you born? I am water carrier’s family.’

Bhai Gurmukh Singh and Giani Ditt Singh’s stand on equality in Sikhism without caste and creed was not tolerated by the dominating Sodhis, Bedis, Sirdars, Jagirdars and Raja-Maharajas. They could not think of "untouchables" sitting along with them. They also did not appreciate the control of Lahore Singh Sabha in the hands of Bhai Gurmukh Singh and Giani Ditt Singh. They considered both Bhai Gurmukh Singh and Giani Ditt Singh a danger to their superiority. The pro-Hindu ideologue Sikhs, Baba Khem Singh Bedi, Raja Bikram Singh the ruler of Faridkot, etc., joined on March 1887, to get Bhai Gurmukh Singh excommunicated. The fearless, determined and committed Giani Ditt Singh did not accept this injustice. He issued a supplement of Khalsa Akhbar on 16 April 1887, in which appeared a part of his ‘swapan lok’ or Dream Play, a thinly veiled satire, ridiculing the Amritsar leaders and their supporters. Baba Khem Singh Bedi did not take it kindly. He through his nephew Bawa Udey Singh Bedi filed a defamation suit against Giani Ditt Singh in a Lahore Court. Gianiji was sentenced to pay a fine of Rs.5 but was later acquitted by the Sessions court on 30 April 1888. This not only vindicated his stand but also showed his resilience. Though the financial condition of the paper suffered, and it had to be closed for some time, yet it came out again on 1 May 1893.23

His thought of awakening Sikhs through teaching/propagating Sikh History. He wrote number of tracts and books on brave Sikhs like Bhai Taru Singh, Bota Singh, Shabegh Singh, Mehtab Singh Mirankotia, etc. which deeply touched the sentiments of the Sikhs and caused an instant awakening.

Gyani Ditt Singh’s powerful pen in prose and verse created a wave. His articles were published not only in his books and Khalsa Akhbar but all the other papers which appeared later. His poems were sung on various religious gatherings.

Some 40 books have been listed by Bibi Sandeep Kaur Sekhon in her synopsis for Ph.D. on Gyani Ditt Singh that she is presently pursuing. Most of his books deal with cultural and religious revivalism; the Sikh tenets as expounded by the Sikhs remained the centre of his writing.

Another aspect that needs highlight is his contribution to the education of Sikhs. As per Ibbetson’s Survey of Punjab Castes, Sikhs were the lowest educated.24 Giani Ditt Singh offered his services to Oriental College, Lahore where he was appointed professor. He taught Gyani and other Punjabi courses. His students always appreciated his commitment and dedication. He also encouraged his students to spread education among the Sikhs. He encouraged Bhai Takhat Singh to open a girls school at Ferozepur. Bhai Takhat Singh attributed the establishment of Sikh Kanya Vidyalaya, the first institution for Sikh women education to Gyani Ditt Singh’s guidance. His role in establishment of the first Khalsa College at Amritsar is again laudable. He took out a special Khalsa College number of Khalsa Akhbar on 23 October 1871, which is a not only a appreciation of establishment of Khalsa College but also provides the true guidelines for Sikh Education, which are applicable even today.

Gyani Ditt Singh became a torch-bearer for the modern Sikh writers. Bhai Veer Singh, Karam Singh Historian, Bhai Takht Singh, and many such writers owe their directions and writing style to Bhai Ditt Singh. Bhai Veer Singh adopted the same style of publishing Khalsa Samachar as was adopted by Giani Ditt Singh. He continued writing about religious revivalism and removal of ills among Sikhs and the general masses till his death, which ultimately came on 6 September 1901 art Lahore.25

Bhai Veer Singh wrote touching tributes at his demise. One such poem published in Khalsa Samachar captures the core of Gianiji’s achievement :

"Jago jago ji Ditt Singh piare, Qaum baithee sirane jagawe.

Kion kiti neend piaree, kion jaag tuhanun na aave.

Kadi qaum jagaayee si taine, lame kaddh kaddh vain te haave. Han!

Jagaike qaum bhulakad, aap saun gaye hoi bedawe.26

i.e. Wake up, wake up, O Ditt Singh ji dear,

The nation (Sikh qaum) is sitting near you pillow.

Why don’t you wake up?

Once you awakened the entire nation.

By praying, crying, howling and growling,

Now after awakening the forgetful nation.

Yourself have gone to sleep unattached.



1. Rev. John Newton and Rev. Charles W. Forman vistied Lahore in 1849-Maconachie, R. Rowland Bateman, London Church missionary Society, London 1917.

2. Imperial Gazeteer of India 1908, xx, 291-92.

3. Bateman’s biographer records a meeting at Lahore on February 19, 1852, with Archdeacon Pratt of Calcutta in the chair, where it was stated that, "Henry and John Lawrance, Robert Montgomery; Donals McLoad, Herbert Edwards, Reynall Taylor, Robert Cust, Arthur Roberts, William Martin, C. R. Saunders and others, were all interested in starting the Punjab Missionary Association." Maconachie, Rowland Bateman. Pp. 12-13.

4. Raja Harnam Singh, brother of Maharaja of Kapurthala and Sadhu Sunder Singh were the two among these personalities who converted to Christianity.

5. Khushwant Singh, A History of The Sikhs, OUP, Delhi, 1977, 138.

6. The Arya Samachar, an organ of the Samaj, published the following lines :

"Nanak Shah fakir ne naya chalaya panth. Idhar udhar se jor ke likh mara ik granth Pahle chele kar liye, pichhe badla bhes. Sir aur safa bandh ke, rakh line sabh kes."

(Nanak Shah the kind of fakirs, founded a new community.

He collected an assortment of writings and put them in a volume.

He gathered a few disciples and then changed his garb.

He wound a turban round his head and grew his hair long)

Ganda Singh, A History of the Khalsa College, Khalsa College Amritsar, 1949, p.7

7. Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, p.140.

8. Denzil Ibbetson, Punjab Castes, Census Report of 1881, Originally published in 1883, Reprint Languages Department Punjab, Patiala, 1995, "The Sikhs are the most uneducated class in the Punjab… On the whole there seems reason to believe that notwithstanding the stimulus of the Kabul compaign, Sikhism is on the decline."

9. Bhai Veer Singh, Bhai Dit Singh ji di Hasti in Giani Gurdi Singh edited ‘Giani Ditt Singh Jeewan te Rachna’ Dharam Parchar Committee, SGPC, Sri Amritsar, 2000, p. 139.

10. Harbans Singh, Encyclopedia of Sikhism, Punjabi University Patiala, 1995, p. 588.

11. Gyani Ditt Singh: Sadhu Daya Nand Naal Mera Sambad, as included in Gyani Gurdit Singh (ed.) : Gyani Ditt Singh Jeewan to Rachna, Dharam Parchar Committee, SGPC, Sri Amritsar, 2000, p.45.

12. Ibid, p. 47

13. Gyani Ditt Singh, Sultan Puada, reprinted in Singh Sabha Patrika, Chandigarh, p.41-42.

14. Ibid p. 42.

15. Gyani Ditt Singh Guga Gapoda, Lahore, reprinted in Singh Sabha Patrika, p. 49, 101.

16. Harbans Singh (ed.): The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, Vol.I, Punjabi University Patiala, 1995, p. 589.

17. "I regard the Vedas as self-evident truth, admitting of no doubt and depending on the authority of no other book; being represented in nature, the kingdom of God. ‘Dayanand, Handbook of the Arya Samaj. P.35.

18. Ibid.

19. Gyani Ditt Singh, Sadhu Daya Nand Naal Mera Sambad, p. 49.

20. Ibid, p. 50-51

21. Encyclopedia of Sikhism, p. 589.

22. Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, p. 589.

23. Ibid p. 590.

24. Denzil Ibbetson, Punjab Castes, Census Report of 1881, "The Sikhs are the most uneducated class in the Punjab…."

25. Encyclopedia of Sikhism, p.290.

26. Giani Gurdit Singh, Giani Ditt Singhi da Jeewan te Rachna, p. 143.

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