Sadhu Sundar Singh

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Sadhu Sundar Singh
Born(1889-09-03)September 3, 1889
Ludhiana, India
EducationAnglican College, Lahore
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Sadhu Sundar Singh
Born(1889-09-03)September 3, 1889
Ludhiana, India
EducationAnglican College, Lahore

Sadhu Sundar Singh (Punjabi: ਸਾਧੂ ਸੁੰਦਰ ਸਿੰਘ, Urdu: سادھُو سُندر سنگھ; Hindi: साधु सुन्दर सिंह) (September 3, 1889, Patiala State, India) was an Indian Christian missionary. He is believed to have died in the foothills of the Himalayas in 1929.



Early years

Sundar Singh was born into a Sikh family in the village of Rampur (Punjab state) in northern India. Sikhism, founded about 1500 AD, is a religion that teaches belief in one God and rejects the caste system; it had become one of the established religions in the area, standing apart from both Hinduism and Islam. Sundar Singh's mother took him to sit at the feet of a sadhu, an ascetic holy man, who lived in the jungle some miles away, while also sending him to Ewing Christian High School, Ludhiana, in order to learn English.

The death of Sundar Singh's mother, when he was fourteen, pitched him into violence and despair. He took out his anger on the missionaries, persecuted 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 while his friends watched.

Conversion to Christianity

Sundar felt that his religious pursuits in Sikhism and the questioning of Christian and Hindu priests left him without ultimate meaning. Sundar resolved to kill himself by throwing himself upon a railroad track. That very night he had a vision of Jesus who opened Sundar's soul to the truth. Sundar announced to his father, Sher Singh, that henceforth he would follow Christ. His father denounced him, and his brother Rajender Singh attempted to poison him. Sundar's life was saved by the help of a nearby Christian community.[1]

On his sixteenth birthday, he was publicly baptized as a Christian in the parish church in Simla, in the Himalayan foothills. Prior to this he had been staying at the Christian Leprosy Home at Sabathu, near Simla, serving the leprosy patients there.

Life of servitude

In October 1906, he set out on his journey as a new Christian, wearing a turban and the yellow robe of a Hindu sadhu, an ascetic devoted to spiritual practice. Singh viewed himself as a sadhu, albeit one within Christianity rather than Hinduism, because he realized Christianity could not penetrate India unless it was in an Indian way.

"I am not worthy to follow in the steps of my Lord," he said, "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."

After returning to his home village, where he was given an unexpectedly warm welcome, Sundar Singh travelled northward through the Punjab, over the Bannihal Pass into Kashmir, and then back through Muslim Afghanistan and into the brigand-infested North-West Frontier and Baluchistan. He was referred to as "the apostle with the bleeding feet" by the Christian communities of the north. He suffered arrest and stoning for his beliefs, and experienced mystical encounters.

In 1908, he crossed the frontier of Tibet, where he was appalled by the living conditions. He was stoned as he bathed in cold water because it was believed that "holy men never washed."

In 1908 he went to Bombay, hoping to board a ship to visit Palestine but was refused a permit, and had to return to the north. On this trip he recognised a basic dilemma of the Christian mission to India. A brahmin had collapsed in a hot, crowded railway carriage and was offered water by the Anglo-Indian stationmaster. The brahmin could only accept it in his own drinking vessel. Sundar Singh realised that India would not readily convert to Western-style Christianity, although people had responded to his sadhu's robe.

Formal Christian training

In December 1909 Singh began training for the Christian ministry at the Anglican college in Lahore. According to his biographers, he did not form close relationships with fellow students, meeting them only at meal times and designated prayer sessions. He was ostracised for being "different".

Although Singh had been baptized by an Anglican priest, he was ignorant of the ecclesiastical culture and conventions of Anglicanism. His inability to adapt hindered him from fitting in with the routines of academic study. Much in the college course seemed irrelevant to the gospel as India needed to hear it. After eight months in the college, Singh left in July 1910.

It has been claimed by his biographers that Singh's withdrawal was due to stipulations laid down by Bishop Lefroy. As an ordained Anglican priest, Singh was told to discard his sadhu's robe and wear "respectable" European clerical dress, use formal Anglican worship, sing English hymns; and not preach outside his parish without permission. To not visit Tibet, however, seemed to him an unthinkable rejection of God's call.

Helping others

Stories from those years are astonishing and sometimes incredible. Indeed there were those, who insisted that they were mystical rather than real happenings. That first year, 1912, he 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 into a dry well full of bones and rotting flesh and left to die, but three days later he was rescued.[2]

At these and at other times Singh was said to have been rescued by members of the "Sannyasi Mission"—secret disciples of Jesus wearing Hindu markings, whom he claimed to have found all over India.

The secret Sannyasi Mission is reputed to have numbered around 24,000 members across India.[3] The origins of this brotherhood were reputed to be linked to one of the Magi at Christ's nativity and then the second century AD disciples of the apostle Thomas circulating in India. Nothing was heard of this evangelistic fellowship until 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.[4]

Whether he won many continuing disciples on these hazardous Tibetan treks is not known. Singh did not keep written records and he was unaccompanied by any other Christian disciples who might have witnessed the events.

Travels abroad

During his twenties, Sundar Singh's ministry widened greatly, and long before he was thirty, his name and picture were familiar all over the Christian world. He described a struggle with Satan to retain his humility, but people described him as always human, approachable and humble, with a sense of fun and a love of nature. This character, with his illustrations from ordinary life, gave his addresses great impact. Many people said, "He not only looks like Jesus, he talks like Jesus must have talked." His talks and his personal speech were informed by his habitual early morning meditation, especially on the gospels. In 1918 he made a long tour of South India and Ceylon, and the following year he was invited to Burma, Malaya, China and Japan.

Some of the stories from these tours were as strange as any of his Tibetan adventures. He claimed power over wild things. He claimed even to have power over disease and illness, though he never allowed his presumed healing gifts to be publicized.

For a long time Sundar Singh had wanted to visit Britain, and the opportunity came when his father, Sher Singh, came to tell him that he too had become a Christian and wished to give him the money for his fare to Britain. He visited the West twice, travelling to Britain, the United States and Australia in 1920, and to Europe again in 1922. He was welcomed by Christians of many traditions, and his words searched the hearts of people who now faced the aftermath of World War I and who seemed to evidence a shallow attitude to life. Singh was appalled by what he saw as the materialism, emptiness and irreligion he found everywhere, contrasting it with Asia's awareness of God, no matter how limited that might be. Once back in India he continued his ministry, though it was clear that he was getting more physically frail.

Final trip

In 1923 Sundar Singh made the last of his regular summer visits to Tibet and came back exhausted. His preaching days were obviously over and, in the next years, in his own home or those of his friends in the Simla hills he gave himself to meditation, fellowship, and writing some of the things he had lived to preach.

In 1929, against all his friends' advice, Singh determined to make one last journey to Tibet. He was last seen on the 18th of April 1929 setting off on this journey. In April he reached Kalka, a small town below Simla, a prematurely aged figure in his yellow robe among pilgrims and holy men who were beginning their own trek to one of Hinduism's holy places some miles away. Where he went after that is unknown. Whether he died of exhaustion or reached the mountains remains a mystery. Some said that Singh was murdered and his body thrown into the river; another account says he was caught up into heaven with the angels.

In the early 1940s Bishop Dr. Augustine Peters, a native missionary of South India, sought out Sundar's brother Rajender Singh, led him to the Christian faith and baptized him in Punjab. Rajender referred to many miracles performed by Sundar Singh and people converted to Christ under his ministry. [5]

Sadhu Sundar Singh is treasured by many as a formative figure in the development of the Christian church in India.

Biographical controversy

Through the 1920s controversies raged about many of the fantastic claims that we made by and/or about Sundar Singh. Particularly the Roman Catholic scholar Henry Hosten, S.J., exposed inconsistencies and impossibilities in the accounts. Singh's Protestant friends rallied to his side without careful examination of rather damning evidence. Several Protestant biographies have since been written about Sundar Singh, generally emphasizing his piety, humility and Christian witness without examination of evidence that tells against the traditional account presented above. The late Eric J. Sharpe surveyed the various biographical studies of Sundar Singh and pointed out many of the same problems that had been highlighted earlier, but without the questionable zeal evident in Hosten. Among these problems are significant discrepancies in chronological details, varied accounts of his Christian conversion, and the dubious nature of accounts of his travels to Tibet and of the secret sannyasi mission.

Sharpe points out that different portraits of Sundar Singh were constructed by writers in continental Europe, England and the United States of America. 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."[6]

Sharpe also points 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 (1688–1772) and Swedenborgian writers on Sadhu Sundar Singh. Sharpe refers to correspondence between Singh and A. E. Penn who was the secretary of the Indian Swedenborgian society where Singh stated that he had contact with 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."[7]

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."[8]

Sundar Singh's correspondence with the Swedish Lutheran bishop Nathan Söderblom 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.[9] In light of the evangelical rejection of Swedenborg's theology, the omission of Sundar Singh's endorsement of Swedenborg's teachings from evangelical biographies is very significant. The difficulty for evangelicals is compounded by Singh's confirmation of contact with Swedenborg in the spirit world. This 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 pleaded:

"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."[10]


Works by Sundar Singh

Sundar Singh wrote eight books between 1922 and 1929. His manuscripts were written in Urdu, and later translated into English and other languages.

A number of his works were compiled and edited by others:


  1. ^ Mrs. Arthur Parker, Sadhu Sundar Singh: Called of God, (London: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1920) p. 28-29.
  2. ^ Parker, Mrs. Arthur, Sadhu Sundar Singh: Called of God (London: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1920), p. 64-65
  3. ^ Eric J. Sharpe, The Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh (New Delhi: Intercultural Publications, 2004 ISBN 81-85574-60-X), p.64.
  4. ^ Sharpe, Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh, p. 65.
  5. ^ Life Message of Bishop Augustine Peters 1930 to 2010
  6. ^ Sharpe, Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh p. 91.
  7. ^ Sharpe, Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh, p. 152.
  8. ^ Sharpe, Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh, p. 153.
  9. ^ Walter R. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), pp. 241-251.
  10. ^ Sharpe, Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh, p. 179.

Further reading

External links