Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889 - 1929), born in Patiala State, India, became an Indian Christian missionary whose life and message had a far ranging impact. Born into a Sikh family, Sundar grew up a faithful Sikh. When a boy, he converted to Christianity, incurring the rejection by his father. Sundar withdrew from a Christian seminary after refusing to cast off his Sikh clothing and wear Western clothing. That set the direction of his ministry, seeking to wear the clothing and speak the terminology of the Sikh while conveying the Christian message. Sundar's impact went far and wide, influencing important spiritual leaders, such as Mahatma Ghandi and C.S. Lewis. He is believed to have died in the foothills of the Himalayas in 1929, although his body was never found.
The international Christian missionary press focused upon Sundar Singh's Christian message, even giving some attention to the Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist terminology. His universalism message though received little or no attention from the missionary Christian community. His writings were widely published, revealing his view that so-called heathen Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs will go to heaven as surely as a faithful Christian. Sundar, reflecting on an international trip he made to the West during the 1920s, shared his view that many more Indian and Asian people have profound faith than those in the West.
During Sundar's lifetime, Great Britain ruled India, but he paid little attention to that political situation. He focused his mission on reaching Indian and Tibetan people with the life example and message of Jesus Christ. Reflecting on his way of life, the thought presents that if Jesus Christ could have sent his disciples to India during Jesus' lifetime, they would have lived and worked as Sadhu Sundar Singh had. His life displayed how the lifestyle and message of the New Testament can integrate seamlessly into the life style of a Sikh, Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist holy person.
Sundar Singh had been born into an important landowning Sikh family in Patiala State in northern India. Sikhs, rejecting Hindu polytheism and Muslim intolerance in the sixteenth century, had become a vigorous nation with a religion of their own. Sundar Singh's mother took him weekly to sit at the feet of a Sadhu, an ascetic holy man, who lived in the jungle some miles away. She also sent him to a Christian mission school where he could learn English.
The death of Sundar Singh's mother, when he was fourteen years old, plunged him into violence and despair. He turned on the missionaries, persecuted their Christian converts, and ridiculed their faith. In final defiance of their religion, he bought a Bible and burned it page by page in his home compound while his friends watched. Three nights later he went to his room, determining to commit suicide on a railway line.
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Before dawn, he wakened his father to announce that he had seen Jesus Christ in a vision and heard his voice. Henceforth, he would follow Christ forever, he declared. Still only fifteen, he utterly committed himself to Christ and for the next twenty-five years of his life he witness extensively to Jesus Christ. His father pleaded and demanded that he give up his conviction. When he refused, Sher Singh gave a farewell feast for his son, then denounced him and expelled him from the family. Several hours later, Sundar realized that his food had been poisoned. A nearby Christian community helped him, saving his life.
On his sixteenth birthday, he participated in a public Christian baptism at the parish church in Simla, a town high in the Himalayan foothills. For some time previously he had been staying at the Christian Leprosy Home at Sabathu, not far from Simla, serving the leprosy patients there. It was to remain one of his most beloved bases and he returned there after his baptism.
In October 1906, he set out walking a road, wearing a yellow robe and turban. The yellow robe designated the "uniform" of a Hindu sadhu, traditionally an ascetic devoted to the gods, who either begged his way along the roads or sat, silent, remote, and often filthy, meditating in the jungle or some lonely place. The young Sundar Singh had also chosen the sadhu's way, as a Christian.
I am not worthy to follow in the steps of my Lord," he is recorded as saying, "but, like Him, I want no home, no possessions. Like Him I will belong to the road, sharing the suffering of my people, eating with those who will give me shelter, and telling all men of the love of God.
He at once put his vocation to the test by going back to his home village, Rampur, where he received an unexpectedly warm welcome. The sixteen year old Sadhu set out northward through the Punjab, over the Bannihal Pass into Kashmir, then back through Muslim Afghanistan, and finally into the brigand-infested North-West Frontier and Baluchistan. His thin, yellow robe gave him little protection against the snows, and his feet became torn from the rough tracks.
After a few months had passed, the small Christian communities of the north referred to him as "the apostle with the bleeding feet." From the villages in the Simla hills, he faced the long line of the snow-clad Himalayas, and the rosy peak of Nanga Parbat. Beyond them lay Tibet, a Buddhist land that missionaries had long failed to penetrate with the gospel. Sundar had felt called to Tibet, and in 1908, at the age of nineteen, he crossed its frontiers for the first time. He encountered poverty and unsanitary conditions far worse than his native home. Sundar went back to Sabathu determined to return the next year.
He had a great desire: To visit Palestine and re-live some of the experiences in Jesus's life. In 1908, he went to Bombay, hoping to board a convenient ship, but failing to receive a permit from the government, he returned to the north.
In December 1909, he began training for the Christian ministry at the Anglican college in Lahore. He refrained from forming relationships with fellow students, meeting them at meal times and designated prayer sessions. From the beginning he found himself tormented by fellow students for being "different." Although Singh had been baptized Anglican, he had never learned the teachings and traditions of Anglicanism. His inability to adapt to Anglican life hindered him from fitting in with the routines of academic study. Much in the college course seemed to Singh irrelevant to the gospel as India needed to hear it. In July 1910, after eight months in the college, Singh decided to leave the seminary.
Singh's withdrawal from ministry training may have been due to remarks made by Bishop Lefroy about the requirements of an ordained Anglican priest. Singh had been told he must discard his sadhu's robe and wear "respectable" European clerical dress, use formal Anglican worship, sing English hymns, and never preach outside his parish without special permission. Never again visit Tibet, he asked? That would be, to him, an unthinkable rejection of God's call. He left the college, still dressed in his yellow robe, and in 1912, began his annual trek into Tibet as the winter snows began to melt on the Himalayan tracks and passes.
In 1912, Sadhu returned with an extraordinary account of finding a three-hundred-year old Christian hermit in a mountain cave-the Maharishi of Kailas, with whom he spent some weeks in deep fellowship. According to Singh, in a town called Rasar, he had been thrown in a dry well full of bones and rotting flesh and left to die. Three days later, a rope descended to him and climbed out to safety. Another time, Singh reported having been rescued by members of the "Sunnyasi Mission," secret disciples of Jesus wearing their Hindu markings, whom he claimed to have found all over India. Legend traces the origins of that brotherhood to one of the Magi at Christ's Nativity and then the second century C.E. disciples of the apostle Thomas circulating in India. The fellowship came to light after William Carey began his missionary work in Serampore. The Maharishi of Kailas experienced ecstatic visions about the secret fellowship that he retold to Sundar Singh, and Singh himself built his spiritual life around visions. Since Singh never keep a diary, and he traveled alone, his success at wining disciples during the hazardous annual Tibetan treks remains unknown.
In his twenties, Sundar Singh's ministry expanded. His name and picture became familiar throughout the Christian world. He described in terms of a vision a struggle with Satan to retain his humility but, in fact, he had been typically humane, approachable, and humble, with a sense of fun and a love of nature. That, with his "illustrations" from ordinary life, gave his addresses great impact. His talks and his personal speech sprang out of profound early morning meditation, especially on the Gospels. In 1918, he made a long tour of South India and Ceylon, and the following year he visited Burma, Malaya, China, and Japan.
One of the stories from those tours related that he had Christ-given power over wild animals, like the leopard which crept up to him while he stood praying and crouched as he fondled its head, and over evil, typified by the sorcerer who tried to hypnotize him in a railway-carriage and blamed the Bible in the sadhu's pocket for his failure. He claimed even to have power over disease and illness, though he never publicized his gift.
Sundar Singh had been a Christian universalist; he believed that all people would, eventually, attain salvation. Writing in 1925 he argued:
If the Divine spark in the soul cannot be destroyed, then we need despair of no sinner… Since God created men to have fellowship with Himself, they cannot for ever be separated from Him… After long wandering, and by devious paths, sinful man will at last return to Him in whose Image he was created; for this is his final destiny.
In 1929, before his final mission, some theology students in Calcutta asked him about the doctrine of eternal punishment. He said: "There was punishment, but it was not eternal," and that "Everyone after this life would be given a fair chance of making good, and attaining to the measure of fullness the soul was capable of. This might sometimes take ages."
For years, Sundar Singh had wanted to visit Britain. He decided to go when his father, Sher Singh, came to tell him that he too had become a Christian, wishing to pay for his trip to Britain. He visited the West twice, traveling to Britain, the United States, and Australia in 1920, and to Europe again in 1922. Christians of many traditions welcomed him, his words touched the hearts of people dealt with despair in aftermath of World War I. Sundar felt appalled by the materialism, emptiness, and irreligion he found, contrasting it with Asia's awareness of God. Once back in India, he continued his ministry, though his health began to fail.
In 1923, Sundar Singh made the last of his regular summer visits to Tibet and came back exhausted. His preaching journeys concluded, during the following years, he gave himself to meditation, fellowship, and writing in his own home or those of his friends in the Simla hills.
In 1929, Sundar determined to make one last journey to Tibet. In April he reached Kalka, a small town below Simla, a prematurely aged figure in his yellow robe among pilgrims and holy men beginning their own trek to one of Hinduism's holy places some miles away. Where he went after that remains unknown. Whether he fell from a precipitous path, died of exhaustion, or reached the mountains, will remain a mystery. Sundar Singh had been seen for the last time. His memory remains as one of the most treasured and formative figures in the development and story of Christ's church in India.
Several biographies have been written about Sundar Singh which emphasize his piety, humility and Christian witness. Eric Sharpe surveyed the biographical studies of Sundar Singh and discerned a number of significant discrepancies in chronological details, in the accounts of his Christian conversion, and the accounts of his travels to Tibet. Sharpe indicates that writers in continental Europe, England and the United States of America constructed different portraits of Sundar Singh. He argues that the different portraits disclose much about the way Westerners thought about India in the 1920s and 1930s. Sharpe remarks:
When in the spring of 1920 an Oxford don and his young Indian tutee conceived the idea of writing a book about Sadhu Sundar Singh, it was in their minds to interpret him to the West in terms that the West could grasp and according to a scale of values that the West could affirm.
Sharpe pointed to significant omissions of detail between the biographies of A.J. Appasamy, B.H. Streeter, Janet Lynch-Watson, Cyril J. Davey and Phyllis Thompson. Perhaps the most glaring differences concerns the influence of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1782) and Swedenborgian writers on Sadhu Sundar Singh. Sharpe refers to correspondence between Singh and A.E. Penn, the secretary of the Indian Swedenborgian society, in which Singh stated that he had contacted Swedenborg in the spirit world: "I saw him several times some years ago, but I did not know his earthly name. His name in the spiritual world is quite different just according to his high position or office and most beautiful character." Sharpe also refers back to Singh's endorsement of Swedenborg as recorded by Appasamy:
Swedenborg was a great man, philosopher, scientist, and, above all, seer of clear visions. I often speak with him in my visions. He occupies a high place in the spiritual world … Having read his books and having come into contact with him in the spiritual world, I can thoroughly recommend him as a great seer.
Sundar Singh's correspondence with the Swedish Lutheran bishop Nathan Soderblom in November 1928 further confirms that he claimed visionary contact with Swedenborg.
For western evangelical Christians, Swedenborg has long been regarded as an unorthodox teacher. Some, such as the Christian apologist Walter Martin, have classified Swedenborg and his followers among the cults. In light of the evangelical rejection of Swedenborg's theology, the omission of Sundar Singh's endorsement of Swedenborg's teachings from evangelical biographies has significance. Singh's confirmation of contact with Swedenborg in the spirit world compounds the difficulty for evangelicals. That visionary form of contact with an unorthodox deceased teacher clashes with the portraits of piety drawn by later evangelical biographers such as Cyril Davey and Phyllis Thompson.
The results of Sharpe's survey of the various biographies, articles published in Indian and European periodicals, and the extant correspondence of Sundar Singh's, discloses a complex web of western images that portray Singh in contradictory ways: Evangelical missionary, ecstatic visionary, and ascetic pilgrim. Sharpe stated: "It is time to rescue his memory from oblivion on the one hand and romantic adulation on the other, to protect him from a few of his patrons, and give him his rightful place among those of whom he himself wrote."
As a Christian witness, he had been rejected as well as welcomed, persecuted, and even left for dead. By many missionaries, and even Indian Christian leaders, he had been regarded as a highly eccentric convert, totally out of step with contemporary Christianity as he wandered the roads in his yellow robe and turban. Some of his biographers estimate that, even though he never heard the later vogue-word "indigenization," he had done more than any man in the first half of the twentieth century to establish that "Jesus belongs to India." He made it clear that Christianity constitutes not an imported, alien, foreign religion but is indigenous to Indian needs, aspirations, and faith. He remains one of the permanently significant figures of Indian Christianity.
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