India has produced many dynamic men and woman of God who have labored for the extension of His kingdom. One of the foremost among them is Sadhu Sundar Singh. His story is a saga of Christian faith and discipleship. Sadhu Sundar Singh is a living example of what it really means to follow Christ. His saintly life had a profound influence on people all across the globe. His life and testimony speak volumes of his commitment to please his Master. This paper attempts to portray the life story of Sadhu Sundar Singh, his call to Christian service and his immense contribution to the ministry of the Lord.
EARLY LIFE OF SUNDAR SINGH
Sadhu Sundar Singh was born on 3rd September, 1889 in a rich Sikh family in Punjab. His mother was a very pious woman who had a strong influence in his life. Her prayer was that her youngest son Sundar should renounce the world and become a Sadhu or saint. She nurtured Sundar Singh in the Sikh and Hindu Scriptures. Her death when Sundar was only fourteen years dealt a severe blow on him. He started desperately longing for peace because of a deep unrest in his heart and began reading all religious books and even practised Yoga. His father put him in a Christian mission school in his village where Sundar developed a profound hatred for Christians. He went to the extent of tearing the Bible and burning it into pieces and was admonished by his father.
Sundar’s conversion experience is quite dramatic and it started of a life long relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Sundar made a despairing resolve to commit suicide if he failed to get a revelation of the living God. Early in the morning on Dec 18th 1904, he started pleading to God to show him the way of salvation and determined to end his life on the railway track if his prayers were unanswered. At half past four a bright light shone in his room and he had a vision of Christ. Sundar heard Christ speaking to him, “How long will you persecute me? I died for you, I gave my life for you.” Sundar Singh fell at His feet in worship and surrendered his life to Christ. This vision forever convinced him that he had seen the true God and it sustained him in the midst of the coming persecution. When he cut his long hair to renounce his religion, it was considered as a shame on the whole Sikh race and an unforgivable disobedience. His family poisoned the food he ate and sent him out of the house. He was miraculously saved by the grace of God and timely treatment given by nearby Christian villagers. On the 3rd of September,1905 when he was sixteen years old he was baptized on his birthday in the church of England in Simla.
LIFE OF A SADHU
On October 6, exactly after 33 days of his baptism, Sundar Singh began his life as a Christian Sadhu. He always had that aspiration in life which was instilled in him by his spiritual mother. He was distressed to see the Indian church inculcating Western culture and imitating their customs and failing to present the gospel in Indian terms. Sundar Singh knew that a life of a Sadhu was the best way to present the gospel message of Christ to Indians. His yellow robe won him admission into many villages and people listened to his messages earnestly. Unlike the old Hindu Sadhus who were dirty and smeared themselves with ashes, Sundar Singh was clean, tall and well built and just sixteen years old.
The life of a Sadhu was a chosen life of self denial, suffering and cross bearing. Brought up in luxury in a rich family, Sundar Singh as a Sadhu wandered barefooted, without any possessions except his thin linen garment, a blanket and a New Testament in Urdu. Sundar Singh preached the Gospel in his native and surrounding villages and he wandered through Punjab to Afghanistan and Kashmir, lands where Christian mission work had hardly begun. At this time, Sundar Singh met with Mr. Stokes, a wealthy American who came to India for missionary work and joined with him for some time in ministry. He learnt from him the ideals of St. Francis of Assisi and his life as a preaching friar inspired him.
MINISTRY OF SUNDAR SINGH
Sundar Singh was always convinced that the water of life should be offered in the Indian cup. His short stint to equip himself with theological training at St. John’s Divinity College in Lahore in 1909 was largely unfruitful. Sundar considered that religious knowledge of the highest kind is acquired not by intellectual study but by direct contact with Christ. He even surrendered his preaching licence from the Anglican church as he did not want to be restrained to a diocese. His call was to be a free agent without holding any office and take the message of Jesus Christ to all churches and people of all faiths.
Ministry in Tibet
Tibet had always been a closed land for Christian missionaries as it is a strong Buddhist nation. Sundar Singh had a special burden for ministry in Tibet. It became his mission field and between 1908-1920 he is said to have made not less than twenty risky trips to this country. Inspite of stubborn opposition from the Lamas, his message was received in the important town of Tashigang and he preached the Gospel there. It was during his travel to Tibet he met members of the Sanyasi Mission who were a secret Christian brotherhood numbering around 24,000. His prophetic word, “I never expect to return from Tibet” came true as this place turned out to be his last journey.
Ministry in South India and Eastern Countries
Sadhu Sundar Singh came down to Madras in 1918 intending to visit a few places. By this time, his fame had spread far and wide and he was flooded with offers to preach all over South India. Thousands of people flocked for his meetings with a keen desire to hear Sundar Singh. Conventions were conducted in Travancore where he was invited as a speaker. Sundar Singh went on to Ceylon and conducted spiritual meetings of great power for six weeks . He was greatly disturbed by the caste system prevailing in these regions and condemned them severely. His ministry to the Eastern nations extended to Burma, Malaya, Penang, Singapore, China and Japan.
Ministry in the West
Sundar Singh had the joy of leading his father to Christ in the year 1919. His father sponsored him for his first journey to Europe. Sundar Singh was eager to find out the truth of the accusation that Christianity in the West has lost its splendour. He set off on a tour to England on 16th January, 1920. He stayed in England for three months and went to America and Australia. He addressed huge gatherings everywhere to crowds of all denominations. Sundar Singh found the West to be indifferent to spiritual values and materialistic in their world view. While some sections criticized him for his frank judgements, many were challenged and converted by his preaching. Sundar Singh made a second trip to Europe and visited Palestine to satisfy his long cherished dream of seeing the Holy Land. He preached in most of the European countries to big audiences. It is indeed noteworthy to see an Indian presenting the message of the gospel to the Western world. However, Sundar Singh was disillusioned by the nominal Christianity and immorality of large sections of people in Europe. The Sadhu preferred the hardships of Tibet to the adulation of the Christian countries of the Western world.
MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES AND VISIONS
Sadhu Sundar Singh experienced numerous miracles in his life saving him from grave dangers. The stories of his deliverance are breathtaking and unbelievable. Once when he was in Tibet in a place called Risar, he was arrested for preaching a foreign religion and ordered to be cast into a dry well outside the village. The well-pit was foul with rotten bodies and the top cover was locked. For two nights he was in such a despairing situation without any hope of survival. But the third night he saw the cover open and rope being let down and he was pulled up. The Sadhu was convinced that it was an angel of the Lord who helped him. Similarly, he experienced divine help many times when he was beaten up and persecuted.
Sundar Singh also experienced the visions of the spirit world. His spiritual life was in constant communion with Christ. He received ecstatic gifts from God when he saw visions as frequently as eight to ten times a month and it lasted an hour or two. They were not in a dream state and the Sadhu was conscious of what was happening. His spiritual eyes were opened to see the glory of the heavenly sphere and walk there with Christ and converse with angels and spirits. This resulted in severe criticism and he was even called as an impostor and his imaginations as product of a deceased mind. But those who knew the Sadhu personally and witnessed his spiritual life never doubted his sincerity.
LAST PART OF SUNDAR SINGH’S LIFE
In 1923, Sundar Singh bought his own house in Subathu where he rested for almost three years because of heart attacks, trouble in eyesight, ulcers and several other complications which confined him to his home. The busy tours abroad and constant travel and preaching engagements had its toll on him.
The Sadhu started contributing to articles in magazine and also writing his own books which amounted to seven thin volumes written in Urdu and translated into English with the assistance of his friends. The bulk of his writings contained messages that he received through visions. His writings were influential and touched the lives of many people.
The Sadhu had a burning desire in his heart to visit Tibet again. He was strongly advised not to do so because of his ill health. When he attempted to go to Tibet in 1927, he suffered from severe haemorrhage of the stomach and had to be brought back. In April 1929, at the age of 39, Sundar determined to make another attempt to reach Tibet. He left instructions about his will and bid farewell to his friends. It was his last journey to Tibet and he was never to be seen again. Anxious friends made the efforts to trace him but to no avail. The speculations of his disappearance vary widely. He might have joined the Sadhus in Kailash, died of heart failure, cholera epidemic, fallen from a precipice or even been martyred to death which was his greatest ambition. Cyril J. Davey rightly says, “His death added one more mystery to a life which few people completely understood.”
SADHU SUNDAR SINGH’S CONTRIBUTION TO INDIAN CHRISTIANITY
The contribution of Sundar Singh’s life is phenomenal considering the fact that he founded no work, established no order or was he of any political significance. The Sadhu was not technically a theologian but his writings and sayings were full of Indian Theology. Sundar Singh was deeply convinced that Christianity will make its entrance into Indian hearts only when it is presented in Indian form. He serves as an indigenous ideal to the Indian church through his life as a Sadhu. The methods adopted by Sundar Singh provide the framework for an Indian to express his Christian commitment within his culture. His teaching method was through parables drawing examples from every day life. Sundar Singh never attempted for syncretism but was emphatic on the uniqueness of Christ. Thus, Sundar Singh challenges the Indian church today to take indegenisation seriously.
Just like apostle Paul, Sundar Singh became a proponent of the religion which he once persecuted and tried to destroy. His life is a model of sacrifice and commitment at its highest. The underlying message of his short span of life was his undying love for Christ. The passion and zeal he had to follow in the footsteps of his Master led him to the path of a Sadhu. His contribution to Christian ministry extends not only to India but to the whole world. He expressed a simple faith on the Lord who revealed Himself to him in a vision and picked up the cross to follow Him as his disciple to the very end. He always sought to glorify the Lord and never cared for personal honour. The life of Sadhu Sundar Singh is a call to Christians to demonstrate Christ likeness and a pathway for all religious seekers to find truth and reality about God.
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Cyril J. Davey, The Yellow Robe (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1957), 17.
Friedrich Heiler, The Gospel of Sadhu Sundar Singh (Delhi: ISPCK, 1989), 42.
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Phyllis Thompson, Sadhu Sundar Singh (Kent: OM Publishing, 1992), 182-183.
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By Ashwin Ramani