Bhai Kahan Singh, the Renaissance man

Max Arthur Macauliffe, acclaimed British scholar and author of the six-volume monumental work, The Sikh Religion, had this to say of Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha, whose 161st birth anniversary falls on August 30: “For literary assistance, I must acknowledge my indebtedness to Sardar Kahan Singh of Nabha, one of the greatest scholars and most distinguished authors among the Sikhs, who by order of the Raja of Nabha accompanied me to Europe to assist in the publication of this work and in reading the proofs thereof...”


Macauliffe’s tribute, generous though it may have been by standards of Western scholars acknowledging native scholarship, does not fully reflect Bhai Kahan Singh’s contribution to Macauliffe’s work; for years, he guided the British scholar on every aspect of Sikh philosophy and the study of Sikh scriptures; in the process, he enabled Macauliffe to correct the distortions that had been introduced into the translations of Guru Granth Sahib and other writings on Sikhs by the German missionary, Ernest Trumpp. A measure of this contribution is provided better by the fact that Macauliffe bequeathed the copyright of his work to Bhai Kahan Singh.


Born in a devout Sikh family, Bhai Sahib did not receive any formal education, but he steeped himself in scholarly studies right from childhood. By the time he was in his 20s, he was well-versed in Sikh philosophy and scripture and was a veritable polyglot, having learnt English, Persian and Arabic, besides acquiring a deep knowledge of Indian languages and literature. He had also become an accomplished musician, playing the sitar and the dilruba with distinction.


He so impressed Maharaja Hira Singh of Nabha that he was taken under royal patronage. He served in several capacities in the State, ranging from private secretary to the Maharaja to a judge of the high court, besides being a tutor to the heir-apparent, Tika Ripudaman Singh. He was also instrumental in drafting the Anand Marriage Act that was passed in 1909.


Bhai Kahan Singh resigned from State service in 1912 to devote himself fully to scholarly pursuits. While his oeuvre contains 29 publications, his magnum opus is the Gurshabad Ratnakar Mahakosh, which took him 15 years to complete. Published in 1930 in four magnificent volumes by Durbar Patiala — since the original patron, the Maharaja of Nabha, had been dethroned by then — this encyclopaedia of Sikh thought, scripture, history, ancient Indian classical works, music and so on contains close to 65,000 entries. Illustrated with maps and pictures, the Mahakosh also includes more than 7,000 Persian and Arabic words and their correct derivation and pronunciation. The distinct quality of this work is the unique originality and comprehensiveness of the explanations which explore each word and concept to its ultimate depths. Ninety years later, time has not dimmed the brilliance of the Mahakosh and it remains an indispensable reference work for any student of Sikhism today.


Bhai Kahan Singh produced several other significant works. The two-volume Gurmat Martand (published posthumously) is a compilation of his early works, the Gurmat Prabhakar, Gurmat Sudhakar and Gurgira Kasauti, on theology and philosophy based on Gurbani. Distinguished by meticulous research, this work explains Sikh concepts in a more systemic and lexicographic pattern in order to highlight the real import and meaning of the basic tenets of Sikh philosophy. He also dispassionately argues against the existing malpractices and distortions of meaning and practice.


Bhai Sahib’s breadth of intellect is illustrated by the nature of his later works, such as Guru Mehma Ratnavali, which contains biographical notes on 99 ancient poets as well as examples of their poetry, all based on rare manuscripts. This book could not be completed in his lifetime and was later edited and published by Prof Pritam Singh of Guru Nanak Dev University.


Bhai Kahan Singh also wrote three commentaries on ancient Puranic texts as well as Gurchhand Diwakar, an analysis and elucidation of the poetic form of chhand, a style often used in the Sikh texts as well as other ancient texts. Three of his late works were devoted to an examination of social issues, including Thugleela, a severe indictment of the corrupt and exploitative practices in religious places, and Raj Dharma, an examination of governance, based on his conversations with his royal patron, Maharaja Hira Singh.


His first short volume Hum Hindun Nahin (1897) reflects his personality and thought: he was both a product as well as one of the most prominent members of the Sikh Renaissance and the Singh Sabha movement. This work was a specific response to the prevailing controversy over religious identities at that time, in the wake of the dominant Sanatan Dharam and Arya Samaj thought and the erosion in Sikh values and Sikh identity. Written in a conversational and dialogic style, this work is neither hostile nor aggressive. Rather, it seeks to create peace and understanding between religions. It proved to be a seminal influence in enabling the re-emergence of a clear religious and political Sikh identity in the early part of the 20th century.


In one of my last meetings with iconic historian and writer Khushwant Singh, he gave me one piece of advice: to always have a copy of Bhai Sahib’s Mahakosh at home. I can well understand the wisdom behind that thought.


Bhai Kahan Singh was a scholar of rare literary and spiritual distinction, a thinker whose contribution to the understanding of Sikh heritage remains unmatched to this day, and an aesthete with finely developed artistic sensibilities. His devotion to the cause of education, manifested in his stellar support to Khalsa College, Amritsar, culminated in his presiding over the Sikh Educational Conference of 1931. A true Renaissance man, Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha left a permanent impression on Sikh ethos.