SANT BABA ATAR SINGH JI, (1866-1927), of Mastuana, the most charismatic figure in latter-day Sikh piety, was born on 13 March 1866 in the village of Cheema, in Sangrur district of the Punjab. His father, Karam Singh, was a farmer of modest means and could not afford to send him to a school in town. So Sant Atar Singh Ji was apprenticed to Bhai Buta Singh, head of the Nirmala ḍera or monastery of Bhai Ram Singh, in their own village. Sant Ji acquired proficiency in the Sikh religious texts and also read philosophical treatises such as the Vichar Sagar. Side by side with progress in Sikh learning, sant ji developed a deeply religious cast of mind. While tending to cattle, he would become absorbed in reciting hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib Ji.
At the age of seventeen, Sant Atar Singh Ji was enlisted as a gunner in the Artillery, later getting himself transferred to the 54th Sikh Battalion stationed at Kohaṭ. There he received Sikh initiation in the cantonment gurdwara and continued his study of the Scripture under the guidance of its granthi, Bhai Jodh Singh. 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 Arya Samaj was the Hindu response to the situation and the Singh Sabha represented the Sikh reaction. Atar Singh Ji became involved in the Singh Sabha’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 Sri Hazur Sahib at Nandeḍ, sacred to Guru Gobind Singh Ji.
In 1888, Atar Singh Ji 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 Gurus. He toured extensively in Jammu and Kashmir, Sindh and the North-West Frontier Province. In the Poṭhohar region, many Sikhs and Hindus received pahul at his hands. Master Tara Singh, who later became famous as a political leader, and Bhai Jodh Singh, eminent and educationist, were administered the rites of Khalsa baptism by him at Ḍera Khalsa. In Jammu and Kashmir, he visited Srinagar, Mirpur and other towns which had Sikh populations. At Peshawar, in the North-West Frontier Province, he was received with honour not only by the Hindus and the Sikhs, but also by the Paṭhans.
In Sindh, he visited Sakkhar, Hyderabad and Karachi. In 1902, he established his main centre in the Malva region, at Gursagar Mastuaṇa, near Sangrur. By his extensive tours and his melodious and resonant recitations of the Gurus’ baṇi 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. New gurdwaras sprang at in several places in the wake of Baba Atar Singh Ji’s visit.
After 1920, Baba Atar Singh focussed his attention on the area around Damdama Sahib where Guru Gobind Singh had sojourned in 1706 before proceeding to the South. At Damdama Sahib, he raised a magnificent bunga and turned it into a major centre for the propagation of Sikhism. He sent abroad four Sikh young men — Teja Singh, Amar Singh, Dharmanant Singh and Hari Singh Basra — for the twin purposes of receiving higher education and spreading the Gurus’ message. Teja Singh set up in London the Khalsa Jatha 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. Dharmanant Singh received his Ph. D. degree from London University specializing in Platonic studies.
The Khalsa College Committee, Amritsar, requested Baba Atar Singh to represent it at the Delhi Darbar in 1911. However, he went to Delhi as a guest of the Maharaja of Jind. He was a distinguished participant in the ceremonial procession taken out from Paṭiala House in Delhi in which, apart from the people in general, the chiefs of Paṭiala and Jind 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:
ਕੋਊ ਹਰਿ ਸਮਾਨਿ ਨਹੀ ਰਾਜਾ ॥
None of the sovereigns equals Hari the Almighty;
ਏ ਭੂਪਤਿ ਸਭ ਦਿਵਸ ਚਾਰਿ ਕੇ ਝੂਠੇ ਕਰਤ ਦਿਵਾਜਾ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
All these worldly rulers last but a bare few days.
False are the claims they set up.
(SGGS Ji, Ang: 856)
Equally with preaching the Word of the Gurus, Baba Atar Singh 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 Firozpur. He helped found several institutions such as Khalsa High School, Lyallpur, Khalsa High School, Chakval, Missionary College, Gujranwala, Guru Nanak Khalsa College, Gujranwala, Malva Khalsa High School, Ludhiaṇa, and Akal College, Mastuaṇa.
In 1914, he went to Banaras at the invitation of Paṇḍit Madan Mohan Malaviya to participate in the ceremonies for laying the foundation of the Sanskrit College. Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, who was an admirer of Baba Atar Singh took him to Varaṇasi in his own saloon. Under the tent near the site of the college, Baba Atar Singh performed a series of five akhaṇḍ paṭhs, or continuous, uninterrupted readings of the Guru Granth Sahib, Maharaja Ripudaman Singh saying the Rahrasi every evening. As these recitations of the Guru Granth Sahib were concluded, Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner offered concrete in a silver plate and Santji laid the foundation of the building by applying it to the eleven bricks of gold supplied by the Raja of Kashi. After the ceremonies were over, Baba Atar Singh remained in Varaṇasi for a week as the guest of the Raja who treated him with deep reverence.
Baba Atar Singh shared the Sikh community’s wider social and religious concerns. He supported the Gurdwara reform movement, and took part in the divan held at Nankaṇa Sahib by the Shiromaṇi Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in honour of the Nankaṇa Sahib martyrs in 1921. He was invited to attend the Bhog ceremonies at the conclusion of the Akali morcha at Jaito. In a report prepared in 1911 by the intelligence department of the Government of India, Baba Atar Singh was described as the inspiration behind the Tatt Khalsa movement among the Sikhs. It was to this school of reformist Sikhs that the origins of the Akali movement can be traced.
On 31 January 1927, Baba Atar Singh Ji passed away at Sangrur. His body was cremated at Mastuaṇa Sahib.