Insights Into a Life Well Lived

Bhagatji’s life beautifully highlights the basic ingredients of a life lived truly meaningfully, one spent in service of God and God’s creatures. It provides us guidance for how we can spend our own life in a meaningful way. By Joshua Jasvir Insights Into a Life Well Lived! Bhagatji’s life beautifully highlights the basic ingredients of a life lived truly meaningfully, […]

Bhagatji’s life beautifully highlights the basic ingredients of a life lived truly meaningfully, one spent in service of God and God’s creatures. It provides us guidance for how we can spend our own life in a meaningful way.

By Joshua Jasvir

Insights Into a Life Well Lived!
Bhagatji’s life beautifully highlights the basic ingredients of a life lived truly meaningfully, one spent in service of God and God’s creatures. It provides us guidance for how we can spend our own life in a meaningful way.
By Joshua Jasvir
A life well lived is a life lived in devotion to God and service to God’s creation. People who lead such lives provide valuable inspiration for those who seek to live meaningfully. Some of us may be blessed with the good fortune of personally meeting such people and being able to learn from them by being in their presence.  But even if we don’t get to personally meet such people we can still be inspired by their example—through reading accounts about them.
Published accounts of the lives of men and women of God are a great way to gain inspiration and ideas for leading a more meaningful life.  Irrespective of what our own beliefs may be, we can benefit immensely by reading about the lives of men and women of God from various religious and spiritual traditions, for goodness and wisdom know no religious or ideological barriers.
“His Sacred Burden: The Life of Bhagat Puran Singh”, authored by Reema Anand, is is an account of one such person. which tells the story of a Sikh man from Punjab who did some wonderful things with his life.

Lessons in Love and Compassion
Bhagat Puran Singh, or Bhagatji, was born in 1904, in a village in Punjab and was given the name Ramji Das. His mother, Mehtab Kaur, was a pious woman. From her, Ramji Das learnt lessons in love and compassion. She taught him, for instance, to look down while walking so that he wouldn’t step on little insects. Mother and son would spend the afternoons tending to the cattle. Mehtab Kaur was fond of trees, and Ramji Das would help her plant saplings. He would watch his mother pick up sharp nails, thorns, fruit peels and big stones that lay about. Following suit, he would ask her why she did so. She would explain that thorns and nails might pierce someone’s feet, while the stones might obstruct people’s path. The caring attitude towards humans and animals that Ramji Das’s mother cultivated in him became more pronounced as time went by. (Ramji Das’ once wealthy family suffered great economic loss, compelling Mehtab Kaur to work as a domestic help in someone else’s home in a distant place in order to earn, but even then she never let up on her loving concern for her child, saving her meagre earnings to enable him to continue with his education.)

Sewa in Gurdwara
A major transformation occurred in Ramji Das’s life around the time when he had appeared for his matriculation exam, when he felt drawn to the Sikh faith on meeting some compassionate Sikhs and visiting a Gurdwara. He soon shifted to Lahore, where he started going to the Gurdwara Dehra Sahib daily. He now came to be known as Puran Singh.
A new chapter in Puran Singh’s life began as he began doing sewa or voluntary service in the Gurdwara. He started working in the hall where the langar, the community kitchen in every Gurdwara that is open to one and all, was held. His duties included kneading the flour, lighting the fire, cleaning the hall and washing utensils, for none of which he accepted any monetary reward. Then, after his duty hours were over, he would rush to a library, where he would devour books on a wide range of issues. Even though he failed to pass the matriculation examinations after repeatedly trying, he loved reading.
In 1934, two Sikh landlords visited Gurdwara Dehra Sahib. They brought with them a three year-old boy who was partially deaf and dumb, and mentally handicapped and left him at the Gurdwara’s entrance. The child fell sick with dysentery. The next day, Bhagatji bathed the child, dressed him in clean clothes and carried him on his back to the Gurdwara. He informed a doctor about the child’s condition, and with proper medication and affectionate care, the child’s health began improving. Bhagatji named the boy Piara Singh, ‘the loved one’. Piara gave Bhagatji a reason to live, and for 13 years, Bhagatji roamed the streets of Lahore with Piara on his back.

Partition-Related Violence
In the middle of August 1947, when Lahore faced the frenzy of Partition-related violence, Bhagatji and Piara, along with many others, were forced to relocate. They shifted to Amritsar, where huge numbers of refugees had taken shelter. Bhagatji had not much money or a roof above his head and had Piara to look after.  But this man of God did not lose hope or a sense of mission. He went to the huge refugee camp at the Khalsa College, where he began looking after handicapped people who were in a terrible state. Many of these people around the college grounds lay in their own excreta, covered in soiled and stinking clothes. Bhagatji’s main task was to keep them clean and arrange for food for them.
The Khalsa College refugee camp in Amritsar was full of misery. Bhagatji lived on roadsides for almost a year and a half, “like a beggar”, Anand writes, asking for food for his patients. He had a bell around his neck—he would ring it and go from house to house and obtain alms.  Later, Bhagatji set up his own camp, near the Amritsar railway station, for physically challenged destitutes. He wanted to set up a centre for handicapped people, where he would tell his sewadars, “there will be no physical or religious discrimination against anyone. All will be welcome; whoever shall need me, I will be there for him.”
Bhagatji’s main task till 1951 was washing the stinking clothes, soiled with faeces and pus, of the destitute and handicapped people he was tending to. He would also clean up their stools and urine himself. No discrimination was made on grounds of religion or caste: its inmates included Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. Anand observes that emotionally and physically ostracized humans were taken care of in the Pingalwara irrespective of their religion, caste, class or gender. She explains that Bhagatji took to begging on the streets and outside places of worship, asking people to help the needy. He had no grants or institutions to back him, she says, but his faith in God, as well as in his fellow humans, “was unshakable”.
When in 1950 Bhagatji shifted to an abandoned cinema hall, he had 90 invalids in his care. The complex gradually expanded, with new rooms being built and people making financial contributions for the noble cause. The Pingalwara became a refuge not only for people in distress but also stray or sick animals. Today, many years after Bhagatji’s death (in 1992), it still continues as a home that tends to the castaways of society: the sick, disabled and abandoned, forlorn people.                                   
Bhagatji’s life beautifully highlights the basic ingredients of a life lived truly meaningfully, one spent in service of God and God’s creatures. It provides us guidance for how we can spend our own life in a meaningful way.

Some Learning Lessons From Bhagatji’s Life:
As Mehtab Kaur’s relationship with her son shows, mothers have a key role to play in the spiritual formation of their children. They need to pay particular attention on passing on the right values to their children through their own personal example and sacrificial love.
Experiential knowledge is important, not mere academic knowledge (Bhagatji didn’t complete his basic schooling, but yet grew into a wise and compassionate man).
A meaningful life is one based on devotion to God, which must be expressed through service to God’s creatures, especially the needy.
Love for God’s creatures must be universal, transcending boundaries of religion and caste. As Bhagatji’s example shows, it should embrace all creatures of God, including animals and plants.

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