Sadhu Sundar Singh - First Indian Christian Missionary, Apostle and Wanderer for Christ
DURING his 1920 tour of Europe, the Indian convert to Christianity Sundar Singh (1889–1929?) was proclaimed a living “Apostle and a Saint.” As one Oxford scholar put it, “we feel from knowing him, we understand [St. Francis and St. Paul] better.”
Such praise and adulation, however, were only faint echoes of the devotion Sundar Singh had inspired in India, where he had wandered robed in the style of a sadhu (ascetic “holy man") preaching Christ for 15 years. His Indian admirers proclaimed “How like Christ he is!” wherever he went. This likeness, they asserted, reflected a deep, mystical union: “It is no sin to call Sundar Singh ‘Swami’ [i.e., Lord] for Christ himself dwells in him.”
What was it about Sundar Singh that inspired many Indian and European Christians? Like Paul, he claimed that his conversion came through a vision of Christ and that he travelled to the “third heaven” in ecstasy. Like Francis, he imitated Christ’s life of poverty, wandering, and preaching. And like Christ himself, he taught in parables and suffered persecution.
Sundar was born into a Sikh family in Punjab where he grew up questioning Christianity & Hinduism. Sikhism is a sect within Hinduism that teaches belief in one God and rejects the caste system and idolatry. But, in his deepest sorrow, in the darkest of nights, Sundar saw Jesus in a vision and his life was never the same again! Like Paul the Apostle, from opposing Christianity he found Christ and discovered what it truly meant to be a Christian.
Sundar attended an American Presbyterian Mission school where the New Testament was read daily as a textbook. He refused to read it because he thought it was false and yet something about the gospel always attracted him. His crisis of faith took over when he was fourteen, his mother passed away. He was very close to his mother and her passing left a deep void in his heart, he desperately longed for peace, and in his outrage, he even burnt a Bible.
However, after becoming a Christian he strongly believed in spreading the hope & peace he found in the gospel, to Indians in an Indian way. Like Jesus, he had no possessions and called the road his home. Stories are still told of the amazing miracles that God did through Sundar. Though there have been many life-threatening attempts to poison him, imprison him and stone him, but there have been even more miracles.
He stood out from other Christians as he always wore a saffron turban and a saffron robe. He was known as, “the apostle with the bleeding feet” for he walked far and long.
From the northern mountains of Shimla & Tibet to the southern plains of Tamil Nadu. He has also preached in Ceylon and in other nations around the world.
“The true Christian is like sandalwood, which imparts its fragrance to the axe which cuts it, without doing any harm in return…”
After conversion at a very young age, Sunder Singh took upon himself the task of preaching his newly acquired faith in Tibet, which was up to the beginning of the last century a forbidden land. Every year, he used to go on a one-man mission to teach the gospel to the Tibetans and return after suffering many hardships.
Once the Chief Lama had him whipped and, with his hands and legs tied, threw him into the well of death where criminals met their end. Sunder Singh prayed hard and on the third night someone lowered a rope with a cot tied to it. He managed to get out of the well and when the Chief Lama saw him again he was mad with rage. He looked for the key to the well which was kept only by him, and found that it had not been stolen as he had suspected. Yet the Sadhu was able to escape from that locked pit of death.
Sunder Singh was a strange child and after the death of his mother, he decided to become an evangelist. A tall, bearded man with long hair, a fair complexion and hypnotic eyes, he had the gift of preaching and the power to attract hundreds of people whenever he spoke, not only in India but also abroad. He had toured India, Sri Lanka, Burma, the Far East, Europe and Middle East, besides America, and wherever he went people thronged to hear him speak.
In England once when he reached a house and rang the doorbell the maid rushed to her mistress and said in a terrified voice: “Madam, I think Christ has come”, sending a child to seek cover under a bed. Such was the charm of the Sadhu, but the West was not for him. Many are the adventures of Sadhu Sunder Singh. Once in the Himalayas he was attacked by a tiger while he was meditating. The tiger came right up to his throat but then withdrew suddenly. Similarly a bear which lost its young tried to maul him but like St Francis he whispered a few words: “I know not where thy young ones are my friend go in peace.” And, lo, the bear left on its own.
In Tibet, it is said, he was sewed alive in the skin of a yak, poked with red hot needles and left on the dunghill to die. The vultures started circling overhead but then by some strange power he was able to come out of the skin and crawl to the marketplace to preach one more sermon. At another time while he was lost in a snowstorm he came upon a cave where sat a creature half man and half animal. And when it spoke in an ancient voice only then did Sunder Singh realise it was a man who claimed to be over 400 years old. The Sadhu lived in the cave for several days and also heard that there were others in the vastness of the Himalayas who were even older. There were both Hindu and Christian sadhus, though this one was from Armenia. They had learnt to master death it seemed.
Sunder Singh had expressed a wish to lead a life like these sadhus and forget the world in the word of God. When he did not return after his last mission to Tibet in 1929, the Government waited three years to grant the probate of his will and assume him dead. And yet now after so many years there is off and on news that a strange Sadhu had been seen in the Himalayan wastes, talking to the birds and beasts and dressed in skins. Is it the amazing Sadhu Sunder Singh, who learnt to conquer death like the ascetics he had met earlier? One does not know but considering the strange man he was who knows Sunder Singh probably still looks down on the plains of Punjab from some Himalayan height and whispers a prayer for his motherland! Those who look after the library in Dalhousie named after him are sure he does so.
At St. Stephen’s College, (now a part of the University of Delhi) sometimes old timers talk in hushed tones of Sadhu Sunder Singh, who was born on Sept 4, 1889 in Punjab, and sat at the same table every time he came to meet principal Rudra and Gandhiji, who had begun to like him because of his devotion to India and the need to uplift the poor no matter to which religion they belonged. The Sadhu himself never insisted on converting anybody but left it to his listeners to take their own decision after hearing him preach. He was constantly reminding people that true inspiration always came in moments of solitude like that time when he was in his teens and praying in an upstairs room in his house at Patiala. Suddenly, there was a bright shining light and he fell on his knees on seeing a figure reminiscent of Christ that he had once seen in a church. The visitant did not speak to him but just raised his hand in blessing and disappeared.
That was the turning point in his life and he decided to convert despite opposition from his family but his mother sided with him and he was able to realise his wish. It was much later that Sunder Singh read the poem by Leigh Hunt about Abou Ben Adhem and how an angel had appeared to the Chief Tribesman at midnight and asked him whom he loved the most. The reply was, “My fellow-men”. The angel came again with a loud sound the next night and told him that his name had been written right on top in the heavenly book in golden letters. Probably Sunder Singh also had the same distinction by joining Abou Ben Adhem and increasing his tribe!
Between 1920 and 1922, Sadhu Sundar Singh toured Britain. Widely renowned in the global Christian community in the interwar period, Singh was notorious for certain stories of miracles, for his appearance and for the ways in which he epitomised Eastern Christianity. The British audiences were attracted to Singh because of his appearance and ethnicity and because he conformed to stereotypes of essentialised Indian spirituality despite his Christian faith.
He visited the West twice, travelling 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. And thus he disappeared, as historian Eric Sharpe put it, “into the brilliant darkness of legend.” 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.
Authentic Christianity never needs advertisement or publicity. It gives off a fragrance and a fascination that attracts people like flies are attracted to honey. Is everyone attracted to authentic Christianity? Absolutely not! Many people are antagonised and even outraged when they discover what Christianity is truly about. But in general, the initial character of authentic Christianity is one that attracts crowds and compels admiration. Sunder, was a man who lived just like that.