ATAR SIṄGH, SANT (1866-1927), of Mastūāṇā, the most charismatic figure in latter-day Sikh piety, was born on 13 March 1866 in the village of Chīmā, in Saṅgrūr district of the Punjab. His father, Karam Siṅgh, was a farmer of modest means and could not afford to send him to a school in town. So Atar Siṅgh was apprenticed to Bhāī Būṭā Siṅgh, head of the Nirmalā ḍerā or monastery of Bhāī Rām Siṅgh, in his own village. He acquired proficiency in the Sikh religious texts and also read philosophical treatises such as the Vichār Sāgar. Side by side with his progress in Sikh learning, he developed a deeply religious cast of mind. While tending his cattle, he would become absorbed in reciting hymns from the Gurū Granth Sāhib.
At the age of seventeen, Atar Siṅgh enlisted as a gunner in the Artillery, later getting himself transferred to the 54th Sikh Battalion stationed at Kohāṭ. There he received Sikh initiation in the cantonment gurdwārā and continued his study of the Scripture under the guidance of its granthī, Bhāī Jodh Siṅgh. He was still in the army when he took a vow not to marry.
This was a stimulating period of time in the Punjab. English education and Christian missionary activity had created a new ferment. The Ārya Samāj was the Hindu response to the situation and the Siṅgh Sabhā represented the Sikh reaction. Atar Siṅgh became involved in the Siṅgh Sabhā's dual concerns of restoring the purity of Sikh belief and custom and rejuvenating Sikh society and of promoting Western education among the Sikhs. In the first instance, he went on a pilgrimage to Srī Hazūr Sāhib at Nāndeḍ, sacred to Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. In 1888, Atar Siṅgh was placed in the reserve list and, in 1891, he got his name finally struck off the rolls of the army to devote himself solely to preaching the holy message of the Gurūs. He toured extensively in Jammū and Kashmīr, Sindh and the North-West Frontier Province. In the Poṭhohār region, many Sikhs and Hindus received pāhul at his hands. Master Tārā Siṅgh, who later became famous as a political leader, and Bhāī Jodh Siṅgh, eminent and educationist, were administered the rites of Khālsā baptism by him at Ḍerā Khālsā. In Jammū and Kashmīr, he visited Srīnagar, Mīrpur and other towns which had Sikh populations. At Peshāwar, in the North-West Frontier Province, he was received with honour not only by the Hindus and the Sikhs, but also by the Paṭhāns. Sant Kalyāṇ Siṅgh of Peshāwar became a devotee. In Sindh, he visited Sakkhar, Hyderābād and Karāchī. In 1902, he established his main centre in the Mālvā region, at Gursāgar Mastūāṇā, near Saṅgrūr. By his extensive tours and his melodious and resonant recitations of the Gurūs' bāṇī before vast audiences, he created a new religious fervour in the Sikh community. Many were impressed by his gentle and spiritual manner and were drawn into the fold of Sikhism. To receive baptism at his hands was considered especially meritorious. New gurdwārās sprang at in several places in the wake of Sant Atar Siṅgh's visit.
After 1920, Sant Atar Siṅgh focussed his attention on the area around Damdamā Sāhib where Gurū Gobind Siṅgh had sojourned in 1706 before proceeding to the South. At Damdamā Sāhib, he raised a magnificent buṅgā and turned it into a major centre for the propagation of Sikhism. He sent abroad four Sikh young men --- Tejā Siṅgh, Amar Siṅgh, Dharmānant Siṅgh and Harī Siṅgh Basrā --- for the twin purposes of receiving higher education and spreading the Gurūs' message. Tejā Siṅgh set up in London the Khālsā Jathā of the British Isles, and later went to the United States of America. He took his Master's degree at Harvard University and lectured on Sikhism widely in America and Canada, besides espousing the cause of Punjabi immigrants. Dharmānant Siṅgh received his Ph. D. degree from London University specializing in Platonic studies.
The Khālsā College Committee, Amritsar, requested Sant Atar Siṅgh to represent it at the Delhi Darbār in 1911. However, he went to Delhi as a guest of the Mahārājā of Jīnd. He was a distinguished participant in the ceremonial procession taken out from Paṭiālā House in Delhi in which, apart from the people in general, the chiefs of Paṭiālā and Jīnd participated. As he rode on an elegantly caparisoned elephant, he looked the very picture of holiness. He was naturally the centre of attention, overshadowing the princes. The sacred hymn he was reciting on that occasion of extraordinary display of imperial power and panoply contrasted the infirmity of worldly rulers with the omnipotence of the God Almighty. The opening lines ran :
None of the sovereigns equals Hari the Almighty;
All these worldly rulers last but a bare few days.
False are the claims they set up.
Equally with preaching the Word of the Gurūs, Sant Atar Siṅgh concerned himself with the promotion of modern education among Sikhs. He associated himself actively with the Sikh Educational Conference and participated in its annual sessions, presiding over that of 1915 at Fīrozpur. He helped found several institutions such as Khālsā High School, Lyallpur, Khālsā High School, Chakvāl, Missionary College, Gujrāṅwālā, Gurū Nānak Khālsā College, Gujrāṅwālā, Mālvā Khālsā High School, Ludhiāṇā, and Akāl College, Mastūāṇā. In 1914, he went to Banāras at the invitation of Paṇḍit Madan Mohan Mālavīya to participate in the ceremonies for laying the foundation of the Sanskrit College. Mahārājā Ripudaman Siṅgh of Nābhā, who was an admirer of Sant Atar Siṅgh took him to Vārāṇasī in his own saloon. Under the tent near the site of the college, Sant Atar Siṅgh performed a series of five akhaṇḍ pāṭhs, or continuous, uninterrupted readings of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, Mahārājā Ripudaman Siṅgh saying the Rahrāsi every evening. As these recitations of the Gurū Granth Sāhib were concluded, Mahārājā Gaṅgā Siṅgh of Bīkāner offered concrete in a silver plate and Santjī laid the foundation of the building by applying it to the eleven bricks of gold supplied by the Rājā of Kāshī. After the ceremonies were over, Sant Atar Siṅgh remained in Vārāṇasī for a week as the guest of the Rājā who treated him with deep reverence.
Sant Atar Siṅgh shared the Sikh community's wider social and religious concerns. He supported the Gurdwārā reform movement, and took part in the dīvān held at Nankāṇā Sāhib by the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee in honour of the Nankāṇā Sāhib martyrs in 1921. He was invited to attend the Bhog ceremonies at the conclusion of the Akālī morchā at Jaito. In a report prepared in 1911 by the intelligence department of the Government of India, Sant Atar Siṅgh was described as the inspiration behind the Tatt Khālsā movement among the Sikhs. It was to this school of reformist Sikhs that the origins of the Akālī movement can be traced.
On 31 January 1927, Sant Atar Siṅgh passed away at Saṅgrūr. His body was cremated at Mastūāṇā where now a handsome monument in the form of a gurdwārā perpetuates his memory.
Surjīt Siṅgh Gāndhī