Sadhu Sundar Singh
Patiala State, India
) was an Indian Christian missionary
. He is believed to have died in the foothills of the Himalayas
 Early years
Sundar Singh was born into an important landowning Sikh
family in Patiala State in northern India
, 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 week by week to sit at the feet of a Sadhu
, an ascetic holy man, who lived in the jungle some miles away, but 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, 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 determined to commit suicide
on a railway line. Sitting on the railway track, Sadhu loudly asked who is the true God. If the true God didn't show Himself that night, he would commit suicide. It is said that finally before the break of dawn and shortly before the arrival of the train, God finally came to Sadhu.
 Religious awakening
However, 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 no more than fifteen, he was utterly committed to Christ
and in the twenty-five years left to him would witness extensively for his Lord. The discipleship of the teenager was immediately tested as his father pleaded and demanded that he give up this absurd conversion. 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 realised that his food had been poisoned, and his life was saved only by the help of a nearby Christian
On his sixteenth birthday he was publicly baptised as a Christian
in 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.
Part of a series on
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E. Stanley Jones
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Indian Rebellion of 1857
Interactions with Ayyavazhi
Krishna Mohan Banerjee
Michael Madhusudan Dutt
Sadhu Sundar Singh
Jashwant Rao Chitambar
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 Life of servitude
Then, in October 1906, he set out from it in quite a new way. He walked onto the road, a tall, good-looking, vigorous teenager, wearing a yellow robe and turban
. Everyone stared at him as he passed. The yellow robe was 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, but he would be a sadhu
with a difference.
"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 was shown an unexpectedly warm welcome.
This was poor preparation for the months that were to follow. Scarcely tough enough to meet physical hardship, the sixteen-year-old sadhu went 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
. 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 way-side hut with an unexpected cobra
for company. Meetings with the mystical and the sharply material, persecution and welcome, would all characterize his experience in years ahead. From the villages in the Simla hills, the long line of the snow-clad Himalayas
and the rosy peak of Nanga Parbat
, rose in the distance. Beyond them lay Tibet
, a Buddhist
land that 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. Any stranger entering into this closed territory reputedly risked both terror as well as death. Singh took the risk with his eyes, and his heart, wide open. The state of the people appalled him. Their airless homes, like themselves, were filthy. He himself was stoned as he bathed in cold water because they believed that "holy men never washed." Food was mostly unobtainable and he existed on hard, parched barley. Everywhere there was hostility. And this was only "lower Tibet" just across the border. 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 happenings in Jesus
' life. In 1908 he went to Bombay
, hoping to board a convenient ship. But, to his intense disappointment, the government refused to give him a permit, and he had to return to the north. It was on this trip that he suddenly recognised a basic dilemma of the Christian
mission to India
. A brahmin had collapsed in the hot, crowded carriage and, at the next station, the Anglo-Indian stationmaster came rushing with a cup of water from the refreshment room. The brahmin -- a high-caste Hindu
-- thrust it away in horror. He needed water, but he could only accept it in his own drinking vessel. When that was brought, he drank and was revived. In the same way, Sundar Singh realised, India
would not widely accept the gospel of Jesus
offered in Western guise. That, he recognised, was why many listeners had responded to him in his Indian sadhu's robe.
 Formal Christian training
There was still sharper disillusionment to come. In December 1909 he began training for the Christian
ministry at the Anglican
college in Lahore
. Some of Singh's biographers depict his experience at college as one of an unhappy misfit. He did not form relationships with fellow students, and only met them at meal times and designated prayer sessions. From the beginning he found himself being tormented by fellow students for being "different" and no doubt too self assured. Certainly he appeared to fellow students as very conspicuous.
Although Singh had been baptized by an Anglican priest, he was ignorant of the ecclesisatical culture and conventions 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 to be irrelevant to the gospel as India
needed to hear it. After eight months in the college Singh decided to leave in July 1910.
It is sometimes asserted by his biographers that the cause of Singh's withdrawal from ministry training was due to remarks made by Bishop Lefroy
about the requirements of an ordained Anglican priest. The strictures, as the biographers report it, is that Singh was told he must now 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. However, his biographers omit to state that the stipulations laid down by the Bishop were normative for all Anglican priests of that day in India.
With deep sadness 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.
 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 in a dry well full of bones and rotting flesh and left to die. However three days later a rope was thrown to him and he was rescued. The difficulty with this account is that Singh is the sole witness to report this event. As Singh has been represented by some biographers as a suffering preacher, it is worth recalling that the three days spent down the well bears resemblances to the gospel narratives concerning the death and three days of burial for the Christ before his resurrection from the dead. 
At these and at other times Singh was said to have 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
One of the difficulties with the evidence to support this story of the secret Sunnyasi Mission is that this brotherhood was reputed to have numbered around 24,000 members across India.
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 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.
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.
 Footsteps of Christ
As Sundar Singh moved through his twenties his ministry widened greatly, and long before he was thirty years old his name and picture were familiar all over the Christian
world. He described in terms of a vision a struggle with Satan
to retain his humility but he was, in fact, always human, approachable and humble, with a sense of fun and a love of nature. This, 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." Yet all 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 was invited to Burma
, 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 publicised.
Sundar Singh was 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, he was asked about the doctrine of eternal punishment by some theology students in Calcutta. He said that "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."
 Travels abroad
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. Sundar 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
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.
against all his friends' advice, 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 who were beginning their own trek to one of Hinduism's holy places some miles away. Where he went after that is unknown to many people. Whether he fell from a precipitous path, died of exhaustion, or reached the mountains, will remain a mystery. It was also said that Sadhu was murdered and his body was thrown in the river, another account says he was caught up into Heaven with the angels.
But more than his memory remains, and he has continued to be one of the most treasured and formative figures in the development and story of Christ's church in India.
 Biographical controversy
There have been several biographies written about Sundar Singh, many of which emphasize his piety, humility and Christian witness. The late Eric J. Sharpe
has surveyed the various 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 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."
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
(1688-1782) 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."
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 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."