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Given how the Sikh community is viewed by the general public, scholarship is not something that immediately springs to mind. But the community has also produced some eminent historians who not only left behind great literary legacies but exemplified in their personal lives what it meant to be a scholar sage.  Bhai Gurdas, Bhai Mani Singh, Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha, Bhai Vir Singh, and more names spring to mind as examples from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Professor Harbans Singh, whose birth centenary occurs on March 6, is prominent among them.

About Prof Harbans Singh 

Prof Harbans Singh, born in the Bathinda district village of Kotha Guru, brushed elbows with cerebral luminaries like Harvard's Wilfred Cantwell Smith, yet carried himself with such casual ease that he left a lasting effect on all who met him. A Canadian academic once said that to know such a person is to emerge a bigger, better person oneself. 

His strongest lessons, as an embodiment of Nanakian morality, were imparted not through seminars or books, but by example. When SGPC president Gurcharan Singh Tohra and Parkash Singh Badal presented him with a cheque for Rs 25,000, a substantial sum in those days, he refused to accept it, urging that the money be utilised to promote Sikh studies instead.

His professional journey 

Prof Harbans’s first significant academic position—as the department head—came even before he was even 23 years old. His passion, however, was for scholarship rather than administration. His first significant work in English, a complete biography of Guru Gobind Singh, was published in 1966. The book was not only translated into most Indian languages, but its Sanskrit version also received the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award. 

Three years later, he published Guru Nanak's biography. It was yet another significant accomplishment. The book, 'Guru Nanak and the Origins of the Sikh Religion,' was described as "the best short study of Guru Nanak's life, and an outstanding example of current Sikh scholarship" by the Times Literary Supplement in London.

Notable works 

Other works of similar nature followed. He lectured in Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, and the United States. Most men would be content to rest on their laurels, but not him. In 1972, he began work on an encyclopaedia of Sikhism. It was an unbelievably ambitious goal, even for him . There were many who doubted him. "I don't know where he will get 4,000 contributors with the discipline required to create factual, accurate, and unbiased pieces in the exact number of words prescribed," Khushwant Singh wrote.

Undaunted, Harbans Singh surrounded himself with a team of writers and researchers. He diligently collected and reviewed every article, artefact, and piece of data before editing and condensing it into short entries. Months progressed to years, and years to decades as the job stretched into the late 1990s, but he persevered. The intellectual and lay communities were impressed, and they finally took notice. Guru Nanak Dev University bestowed an honorary doctorate upon him.

He received a special award from the SGPC. Even Khushwant Singh had grown fond of him by this point. He wrote, “A start has been made at Patiala to produce the Encyclopedia of Sikhism. Harbans Singh… its editor-in-chief, is the right man for the job. How many professors are there who turn down offers of Vice-Chancellorships? Harbans Singh refused one that was offered to him on a platter.

Nearing the dusk of his life 

The Professor gave up much more  than a distinguished position for his great obsession. He persisted despite suffering a paralytic stroke and losing his devoted wife. He passed away on May 30, 1998, just days after finishing his great accomplishment. He was gone, but his legacy will go on. Later that year, the Prime Minister himself would release four volumes.

Posthumous acknowledgements continued. The society bestowed upon him the 'Order of the Khalsa' in 1999, and Punjabi University afterwards established a full-fledged Department in his honour. Yet a more recognisable source provided the greatest tribute. In 2019, Prof. Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh, his daughter, published a book on Guru Nanak - a suitable homage to a noble father.


*Based on an article by Rupinder Singh Brar, published in The Tribune on 6th March 2021


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