Sundar Singh

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Sadhu Sundar Singh by Sundar Singh was born on September 3, 1889, in Rampur, a village in the Punjab, into a well-to-do Sikh family. Educated at a nearby Presbyterian mission school, he abhorred the “colonial religion” of his teachers until a deep and mystical encounter with Yesu (Jesus) changed him—and left him seeking to follow him. He was baptized in Simla on his sixteenth birthday. Thirty-three days after this he took on the ascetic lifestyle of a sadhu, or wandering holy man. Sundar Singh’s significance does not lie in place-names and dates, however, but rather in the devotion and selflessness with which he spread the Gospel, and in the sincerity with which he lived what he preached. As a Christian witness, he was both welcomed and persecuted. Thousands were struck by the simplicity of his faith. Yet by many missionaries and even Indian Christian leaders he was considered a highly eccentric convert, completely out of step with contemporary Christianity as he wandered the roads in his yellow robe and turban. On the road as a Sadhu, he was often mistreated and persecuted. Sundar Singh’s spirituality is best approached against the backdrop of his religious upbringing. When Sundar was seven his mother arranged for a Brahmin pundit to come to the house to teach him Sanskrit and to initiate him into the teaching and requirements of Hindu dharma, or religious duty and devotion. A Sikh granthi, a reader of the sacred Granth, also came to teach him gurumukhi, the Punjabi script in which the Granth is written, and to give him instruction in their way of worship and devotion. At the feet of numerous sadhus, he became a devout Sikh, but was still restless. Growing into adolescence, Sudar struggled to hold onto all that his mother taught him. Spiritual exercises now required a great deal of effort; faith had become clouded by doubt. The lives of those around him also seemed fraught with hypocrisy. Adding to Sundar’s confusion, Christian missionaries in the area had brought still another truth—a foreign truth introduced by outsiders who did not understand the ways of his ancestors. Grieving the loss of his mother, who had recently died, he couldn’t understand why his father made him attend the Christian school. Bitter and full of inner torment, he was going to show his family what he thought of these colonialists and their western ways, and their foreign faith. One day Sundar began throwing stones at his teachers, disrupting classes, and mocking the missionaries. Later, in the courtyard of his own house, a group of teenage boys gathered around him as he tore a Bible to shreds and then, in a frenzy of rage, hurled it into a fire. That night he returned to his room to mediate and pray. The familiar words of the scriptures whirled in his mind. From Guru Nanak: “I cannot live for a moment without you, O God. When I have you, I have everything. You are the treasure of my heart.” And there was Guru Arjim: “We long only for you, O God. We thirst for you. We can only find rest and peace in you.” That was his only hope. If there was a God, then he had to reveal the way to peace, or else there was no point in living. Sundar recounts what would be the most decisive experience of his life:

Though at the time I had considered myself a hero for burning the Gospel, my heart found no peace. Indeed, my unrest only increased, and I was miserable for the next two days. On the third day, when I could bear it no longer, I rose at 3:00 A.M. and prayed that if there was a God at all, he would reveal himself to me. Should I receive no answer by morning, I would place my head on the railroad tracks and seek the answer to my questions beyond the edge of this life. I prayed and prayed, waiting for the time to take my last walk. At about 4:30 I saw something strange. There was a glow in the room. At first I thought there was a fire in the house, but looking through the door and windows, I could see no cause for the light. Then the thought came to me: perhaps this was an answer from God. So I returned to my accustomed place and prayed, looking into the strange light. Then I saw a figure in the light, strange but somehow familiar at once. It was neither Siva nor Krishna nor any of the other Hindu incarnations I had expected. Then I heard a voice speaking to me in Urdu: “Sundar, how long will you mock me? I have come to save you because you have prayed to find the way of truth. Why then don’t you accept it?” It was then I saw the marks of blood on his hands and feet and knew that it was Jesus, the one proclaimed by the Christians. In amazement I fell at his feet. I was filled with deep sorrow and remorse for my insults and my irreverence, but also with a wonderful peace. This was the joy I had been seeking. This was heaven…Then the vision was gone, though my peace and joy remained.

When the family learned of Sundar’s experience they treated it as a joke. When neither ridicule nor mockery moved him, they became alarmed. They were determined not to let his newfound faith bring shame on their honor. Sundar’s family pleaded with him not to disgrace them. They ridiculed and abused him mercilessly. Members of every caste in Rampur village took part in persecuting him. His relations promised him wealth and prestige if he would change. But he refused. For eight months the family continued to assail him. Then, as a public declaration that he had rejected the Sikh religion for once and for all, he cut off his long hair. At this his family cut off all ties with him. He was made to sleep under a veranda. Food was given to him there as if he were an untouchable, and in short order they turned him out from his home. He was dead to them. Sundar was now excluded from caste and home with nowhere to turn for help. Not knowing where to go, he headed thirty-five miles up the canal bank to Rupar, where a few of the Christians there had founded a leprosy home. On the way he had eaten food his sister-in-law had surreptitiously packed for him—only to find out that her apparent generosity was a ruse. The food was poisoned, and soon after his arrival in Rupar, he became violently ill, gripped by painful spasms and bleeding from nose and mouth. Then, all of a sudden, the illness departed, like a cloak sliding from his back. He felt God’s healing hand upon him and his pain immediately subsided. By morning, though still weak and unsteady on his feet, he was restored to health. His troubles, however, did not come to an end. Shortly after arriving in Rupar, arrangements were made for him to attend the Christian Boy’s Boarding School at Ludhiana, where he stayed for a few months. He was shocked to see the godlessness of the students, and of some of the local Christians. Moreover, attempts were made to abduct him forcibly, and once police protection was required to restrain a mob of delinquents who came to the compound to carry him off by force. In the hot weather holidays he was sent to the hills at Subathu, where he was baptized at St. Thomas Church. Nine months had passed since his vision of Christ. Thirty-three days after his baptism, in the quiet of the pinewoods of Subathu, he appeared in the saffron robe of a beggar-monk. His journey had begun; but not as a quest for perfection through renunciation as it was for so many other sadhus, but out of a longing to share the message of Christ to his countrymen. Recognized by their traditional yellow robes and ascetic lifestyle, Indian sadhus (literally “poor man” or “beggar”) forsake creature comforts to live lives of devotion and prayer. The intense, mystical encounter that had led to his conversion left him forever changed and gave him an unwavering dedication to Christ. For him, Jesus was the Truth—the completion and fulfillment of the deepest human longings for inward and outward peace, and it was unthinkable to keep Jesus to himself. As a sadhu, Sundar Singh found a ready welcome in most of the places he stayed, though reactions varied when it was discovered that he was a follower of Jesus. When this was discovered, he was often treated as an outcast, being refused food and shelter. Sundar quickly put his vocation to the test by going back to his home village, Rampur, where he was shown an unexpectedly warm welcome. Scarcely fit enough to meet physical hardship, the sixteen-year-old boy went northward through the Punjab, over the Bannihal Pass into Kashmir, and then back through the fanatical Muslim Afghanistan and into the brigand-infested Northwest frontier and Baluchistan. His thin, yellow robe gave him little protection against the snows, and his feet became torn from the rough tracks. Not many months had passed before the little Christian communities of the North were referring to him as “the apostle with the bleeding feet.” This initiation showed him what he might expect in the future. He was stoned, arrested, visited by a shepherd who talked with strange intimacy about Jesus and then was gone, and left to sleep in a wayside hut with an unexpected cobra for company. Meetings with the mystical and the material, periods of persecution and times of success, would all characterize his experience in years ahead. Beyond the villages in the Simla hills, lay Tibet, a closed Buddhist land that Christian missionaries had long failed to penetrate with the gospel. Ever since his baptism Tibet had beckoned Sundar, and in 1908, at the age of nineteen, he crossed its frontiers for the first time. The state of the people appalled him. Their airless homes, like many of their inhabitants, were filthy. Nor were they open to the message of a strange outsider. Everywhere he went in Tibet he instances of hostility. In 1909, out of love for his bishop, Sundar Singh went to St. John’s Divinity School in Lahore with a view to ordination. Not surprisingly, he felt like a fish out of water. A mystic at heart, he found the required studies too intellectual and left after nine months. From 1912 on, Sundar began to visit Tibet regularly. He knew from personal experience that the preaching of the Gospel was forbidden there and that Christian missionaries were likely to be persecuted and martyred. But to him this only gave the prospect of traveling there a greater appeal. On more than one occasion he visited Kailash, the sacred mountain of the Hindus. Sometimes violent fanatics attacked Sundar while on his travels. Once he was arrested, tossed into a dry well strewn with dead bodies, and left to die—but was later rescued by a mysterious stranger. Sitting amidst rotting flesh, the stench of which made breathing almost impossible, he felt that God had forsaken him. Yet, on the third night he saw the cover opened and a rope let down. He slipped the noose over his arms and was pulled out and lay senseless by the well. Gradually the air revived him, and in the morning he made his way back to the village. There he was seized and brought before the official who demanded to know who had released him. As Sundar did not know, a search was made for the key, but it was found to be in its rightful place. Amazed and in superstitious dread, the official released Sadhu. When Sundar returned to India from Tibet in 1913, he went to Hardwar on the Ganges to carry out a plan that had long been in his mind. He would enter a forty day fast, seeking to imitate his Master before the onset of his ministry. He had a spiritual vision of Jesus, the Master, and was given an unusually deep sense of peace. It would mark a turning point in his spiritual life. As soon as his strength was restored, Sundar set out again. After years of traveling in India, Tibet, and Nepal, Sundar set his sights further afield. In 1919 he journeyed to China, Malaysia, and Japan. Then he set his sites to the West. It had become a widely accepted idea in India that Britain had become so materialistic and immoral that, for her, Christianity was no longer a living force. Sundar wished to find out if this were true or not. In January, 1920, he left Bombay. He was halfway to England before his friends there heard of his coming. Yet his personality and his message so caught the imagination of all classes that his announcement that he was to speak was enough to fill any of the largest halls or churches. After three months in England he went to the United States, where, as in England, he addressed many large audiences. The relentless chase after wealth he found among all the hurried and hassled “Christians” disturbed him tremendously. He would often say to the people, “Christ would say, ‘Come unto me all you that are gold-laden, and I will give you rest.’” In 1922 he traveled throughout Europe, holding public addresses in Geneva, Oxford, London, and Paris, and numerous other cities in Germany, Holland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Everywhere he went, large audiences and prominent leaders— religious and secular alike—received him enthusiastically. In many countries he visited, special trains were organized to transport tens of thousands of listeners to the cathedrals and sports arenas where he spoke. The emergence of a more tolerant liberalism in Christian theology explains part of his widespread appeal; on the other hand, many Europeans were simply curious to see a “real” Eastern mystic firsthand, especially one whose very manner and appearance evoked traditional images of Jesus. There was also his reputation as a miracle worker—something he worked tirelessly to dispel. More than anything else, however, it was Sundar Singh’s simple faith and authentic practice of Christ’s teachings—something utterly out of sync with western materialistic intellectualism—that his audiences found so compelling. At the same time, Sundar Sing was regularly admonished for his lack of familiarity with twentieth century science. Then there was his attitude to money. Sundar Singh refused to accept it, which bothered people, even when he needed it, and when someone forced a gift on him he gave it away. There was also his unorthodox attitude to matters such as church membership, of which he said:

I belong to the body of Christ…to the true church, which cannot be understood as a building of tiles and stones. It is a body of true Christians, living and dead, visible and invisible…If the living Christ is really near us and lives in our hearts, why should we reject him—the kernel of our faith—and cling to a dried-up outer shell?

Inevitably, such views drew criticism from ecclesiastical authorities and even evoked open hostility in certain quarters. A few attacked his character as well, suggesting that he was little more than a charlatan and publicity seeker, which in turn led friends and supporters to defend his reputation. All this confirmed Sundar Singh’s own suspicion that while western Christianity might be rich in organization, the¬ology, doctrine, and tradition, it was poor in spirit and sorely needed re-centering on the foundation from which it had strayed: the living Christ. The tremendous strain of months of large meetings and endless hours of conversation with spiritual seekers, took a terrible toll on Sundar Singh’s health. After his return from his European tour he was never the same man again. He had frequent heart attacks of severe pain, and was more than once unconscious—once for a day and a half. After a meeting he almost always had such spells. He also had trouble with his eyes and had to undergo an operation. In these circumstances he no longer accepted invitations to other parts of the world. Even in India he hesitated to promise to speak at conventions (he remained a welcome speaker) and only accepted when his health permitted. During his last years Sadhu had a burning desire to go again to Tibet, but ill-health made it impossible. In April 1927, however, he started from Rishikesh with some Tibetan traders, intending to cross the Niti Pass into Tibet, but when he had traveled only forty miles up the road he had a very severe hemorrhage from the stomach, and was carried back by the Tibetans to the railway in a semi-conscious condition. Two years later, again in the Spring, he left for the last time for Tibet. No news was heard from him. Some say he died of exhaustion, others claim he was drowned. All the efforts his friends made to trace him were futile. After Sundar Singh disappeared in the Himalayas in 1929, admirers from around the world mourned. Though only thirty, his wanderings had led him through at least twenty countries on four continents. He had profoundly influenced tens of thousands of people. Indeed, in the first half of the last century, no spiritual teacher from the East was better known.

Adapted from: Charles E. Moore, “Introduction,” Sadhu Sundar Singh: Essential Writings (Orbis Books, 2005).

Submitted by Charles E. Moore

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