Dear readers, has any one of you heard of what a sadhu (Sanskrit: साधु) is?
A sadhu in India
In Hinduism, a sadhu is broadly defined as a religious ascetic or holy person who has renounced all forms of worldly pleasures, and whose sole objective in life is to achieve liberation of the soul via meditation and deep prayer. The term itself is derived from a Sanskrit word which means ‘good man,’ ‘to reach one’s goal’ or ‘spiritual practice.’ Frequently living in total seclusion in caves, forests or temples, sadhus command much respect for their holiness and perceived mystical prowess especially among Hindu populations in rural India and Nepal. It is in fact estimated that there are about five million sadhus living in India today.
Having said that, perhaps one of the most famous sadhus to have ever lived is none other than Sadhu Sundar Singh (Punjabi: ਸਾਧੂ ਸੁੰਦਰ ਸਿੰਘ) (1889 – presumably 1929). Sadhus are conventionally Hindu by definition, and Sundar Singh was himself a sadhu, albeit with a very big difference – he was a Christian one.
Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889 - presumably 1929)
Sundar Singh was born in 1889 into a wealthy Sikh family in Ludhiana (Punjabi: ਲੁਧਿਆਣਾ), then a part of the princely state of Patiala (Punjabi: ਪਟਿਆਲਾ) during the era of the British Raj in India. Since childhood, his mother would frequently bring him to a sadhu who lived in a jungle several miles away in order to deepen his knowledge of religion, besides sending him to a nearby American missionary school where he could learn English. He was always encouraged from young by his mother to seek not personal enjoyment but rather peace and goodness in life, which then became one of his main principles that drove him through later life.
At the young age of fourteen, the teenage Sundar experienced an overwhelming loss when his dear mother passed away, plunging him into much despair that at times led to violent outbursts of rage. Amongst others, he took out much of his anger on the missionaries and other Christians in the missionary school and vicinity where he was in, ridiculing their faith and displaying clear defiance against the compulsory Bible classes in his school. He also once carried out a public burning of the Bible, whereby he tore the Bible and burnt it page by page while his friends stood around and watched.
Amidst the grief and uncertainty that he experienced, Sundar was actively seeking for the truth. He meticulously studied the Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian holy scriptures, besides hearing the teachings of learned men in these religions, but none could satisfy his spiritual emptiness or offer him the solace he much sought. At last, he made a very bold decision to end his life and thus the immense misery that he was experiencing, but not without an earnest plea.
Sundar knew that a train would pass by near his house at about 5 a.m. every morning, and he decided that he would abruptly end his life by throwing himself onto its tracks to be run over by it. He went to bed early the night before, and woke up in the wee hours of the morning to make an earnest plea. He cried out in desperation, “If there is a God, let Him show me the way of salvation, and I will serve Him all of my life. Otherwise, I shall kill myself.” These words he repeated over and over again before his self-appointed time of death.
Nonetheless, just about half an hour before the train passed by his house, Sundar became conscious of a bright cloud that started filling his room, and amidst that cloud he saw a radiant figure of one whom he least expected – Jesus Christ. In an undated account that Sundar himself penned in Urdu, he wrote:
“A bright radiance entered my room and flooded it. In that radiance the Messiah’s beloved and luminous face was visible, and showing me the wounded palms where scars were clearly visible, he said, “Why do you torment me? Behold, for your sake I gave my life on the cross, so that you and the world might win salvation.”
The vision of Jesus that he saw became the turning point of his life, and from then on he found the peace and spiritual fulfilment that he had longed for. He did not commit suicide as he had originally planned to, but instead turned to follow the faith that he had hated and persecuted so much before this. It was, however, not easy for him to follow his newfound faith in Christ, even more so because his family was devoutly Sikh.
Time and again, Sundar was asked to renounce his faith in Christ, lest he should bring disgrace unto his family. He was tempted in many ways to renounce his faith by being offered wealth and many other worldly promises. But when his family saw that nothing they offered could sway him from his strong foundation in Christ, they gave him a farewell feast before disowning him and throwing him out of the house. It wasn’t until shortly after leaving his house when he realized that his food during the feast had been poisoned, and he nearly died from it if not for the help of a nearby Christian community that saved him.
From then on, Sundar spent his time living in the Christian Leprosy Home in Sabathu, a small town near the Himalayan foothills. He committed much of his energy into serving the leprosy patients there. On his sixteenth birthday, Sundar was baptized in a church in Simla (Hindi: शिमला), and within the next five weeks he gave away the few possessions he had. He then donned a turban and the saffron robe of a Hindu sadhu, and indeed took the ‘vow’ of a sadhu. Nonetheless, he was a sadhu with a striking difference – a sadhu not of Hinduism, but rather Christianity – for he realized without a shadow of doubt that Christianity could never penetrate deeply into India unless it came in an Indian way.
The town of Simla as seen today
The ‘vow’ he took in 1906, and thereafter he set out as a missionary who tirelessly gave his life to see the gospel spread and shine in India and its northern frontiers. He once said:
“I am not worthy to follow in the steps of my Lord, 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.”
Sundar Singh, now officially christened Sadhu Sundar Singh, began his journey on the missionary path by going back to his home village, in which he received an unexpectedly warm welcome. From there, he made his way northward through Punjab (Punjabi: ਪੰਜਾਬ), over the Banihal Pass (Hindi: बनिहाल दर्रा, Banihāla Darrā) into Kashmir (Kashmiri: کٔشِیر ), and then back through Afghanistan (Pashto: افغانستان ) and into Baluchistan (Balochi: نبلوچستا ), crossing through numerous territories that were almost universally Hindu or Muslim. In 1908, the sadhu even crossed the frontier into predominantly Buddhist Tibet for the first time, pressing through the harsh weather and the mountainous Himalayan terrain for the cause of the gospel. Through all these territories he travelled barefooted and without any protection against the harsh cold, and in all these territories he knew no bounds when it came to spreading the gospel and telling others of Christ.
Sundar Singh's missionary grounds in north India, Tibet and their surrounding regions
Suffering became his common companion, and hostility became his constant adversary, but nothing could waver the sadhu from pressing on for the gospel. From his personal handwritten accounts, the sadhu reported a variety of experiences, both supernatural and material, as well as an array of meetings with both friendly and hostile individuals. Frequently he was stoned or jailed, and frequently he suffered hunger or loneliness, with scarcely any food or safe shelter at his disposal. In spite of all these, he made it a point to maintain his personal hygiene as much as was possible under his circumstances, even to the point of being stoned for it. During his journeys in Tibet, he reported being stoned frequently while bathing in cold water because the people believed that a truly holy man would never need to wash himself.
In one of his accounts of his mission trips, Sundar recounted an experience in which he was imprisoned for his faith in a Hindu village. While he was preaching in the village, a Hindu man began to openly interrupt him with vile words, to which the sadhu responded by giving him a copy of the Gospel of Mark. The man, however, tore it up and lodged a complaint with the local police, which resulted in the sadhu’s arrest and imprisonment for six months. He was thrown into a common jail where thieves and murderers were held, but he did not despair, instead he took that opportunity to preach the gospel to the other prisoners. The prisoners were very receptive to the gospel, and when the warden ordered Sundar to stop preaching, the prisoners defended him by saying that they had been sent to jail to repent of their evil doings, and Sundar’s preaching was convicting them to do just that. They added that the government should instead be happy about his preaching rather than punishing him for it.
The warden found himself unable to answer the prisoners’ argument, and was then ordered by the governor to isolate the sadhu from the other prisoners. So Sundar was thrown into a filthy cowhouse that was so cramped and had no windows, making the stench within it all the more unbearable. And to make matters worse, Sundar was stripped, tied to a post and had leeches thrown all over his body. Nevertheless, he prayed to God, and was granted such great peace that he burst into hymns of praise to God. The crowd heard about this and gathered at the cowhouse to see what was happening, after which Sundar used that opportunity to tell the crowd about the peace he felt in Christ. Among those in the crowd was the man who first lodged a complaint that resulted in Sundar’s imprisonment. He was astonished to see such joy and peace in Sundar’s face despite his suffering. He asked the warden about this, to which the latter replied that Sundar must be mad. The man then responded, “If by becoming mad one could get such a wonderful peace as this, I would like to become mad too. In fact, I would like to see the whole world become mad.” Sundar was soon after released, and he started preaching in the village again. And this time, the man who first lodged a complaint against Sundar approached him to ask for another copy of the Gospel of Mark to replace the one he had previously torn.
Sundar’s journey in Tibet was like a dream come true for the young sadhu. Having spent some time in the leprosy home in Sabathu, a small town near the Himalayan foothills, he had a longing to one day travel into the Himalayas for the cause of the gospel. This he did in 1908, but it was no easy feat for a Christian missionary to succeed in any way in a land so heavily influenced by Buddhism. With the help of two other Christian missionaries in Tibet in the initial part of his journey, Sundar was able to overcome the language barrier to a certain extent, but as expected he soon found much bitter opposition to his preaching, especially from the Lamas. This, however, did not mean that he did not find some who were at least willing to hear his message even if they did not accept it or agree with it. In the town of Tashigang, for instance, the chief Lama received the sadhu with kindness, provided him with necessities and even called for a gathering of the Lamas under him to hear the sadhu’s message.
View of mountainous Tibet (with Potala Palace in this picture)
Sundar once recounted a miraculous experience of how he was saved from a death sentence in the town of Rasar in Tibet. He was arrested and capital punishment was meted out to him by the chief Lama of the town for preaching the gospel. He was immediately led away, stripped of his clothes and cast into a deep, dry well, while the top of the well was tightly shut. Many criminals have been cast into the same well to be left to die, and indeed when the sadhu was cast into it, he landed on a mass of human bones and rotting flesh. For days he cried out in desperate prayer, until one night he suddenly heard someone trying to open the tightly sealed cover of the well. He heard the sound of a key turning and the lock being unlocked, and a rope was lowered for him to be rescued. Obeying the soft voice that told him to grasp the rope, he did so, and was slowly pulled out of the well.
When he got out of the well, the cover was fastened in place again and locked. Sundar looked around, but could see no one at all around him or the well. He returned to the town and continued preaching the next morning, and this caused a huge commotion that alerted even the chief Lama. Sundar was arrested and brought before the chief Lama again, and was greatly angered when he heard how the sadhu escaped the death sentence. The chief Lama proclaimed that someone must have secured the key to rescue him, but when he found the key fastened on his own girdle, he was struck by astonishment and fear. He released Sundar and ordered him to leave the town, lest his powerful God should bring disaster upon the town and its inhabitants.
The sadhu returned to Lahore (Punjabi: ਲਹੌਰ) in 1909, in which he was persuaded by other missionaries to begin formal theological training at an Anglican college in the city. This he did willingly at first, but he soon found himself being ostracized by many of his fellow students for being ‘different.’ He also found that the way the gospel was being presented in his course seemed irrelevant as far as his missionary work in India was concerned, as it was heavily tinged with a Western flavour that took little consideration of India’s cultural and spiritual outlook. But what made him leave the following year were the stipulations that came with his ordainment as an Anglican priest, in which, amongst others, he was told to discard his sadhu’s robe and don ‘respectable’ European clerical attire, sing English hymns, and was ordered not to preach outside his parish without permission, which included an implied ban on going to Tibet. To the sadhu, not visiting Tibet would be akin to rejecting God’s call for him in his life.
Sundar’s missionary work brought him not only to India and its northern frontier territories, but also to the outside world from 1918 onwards. His first overseas tour from 1918 to 1919 brought him to south India and Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), as well as other Asian countries such as Burma, Malaya (present-day Malaysia), China and Japan. Longing to visit the Western world as well after that, his wish was fulfilled in 1920 with some financial assistance from the most unexpected of persons – his father, Sher Singh. Sundar’s father, who had previously spearheaded the sadhu’s rejection from his family after his decision to follow Christ, was now a Christian himself and wished to support his son’s missionary efforts overseas. With that, Sundar made two trips to the West; once in 1920 to the United States, Australia and Britain, and another time in 1922 to Europe.
Throughout his tours in the Western world, the sadhu was engaged in many cities, churches, seminaries and Christian conferences as a guest speaker. Christians of various denominations came together in those meetings to hear what they thought was ‘a rare Christian voice from India.’ Even until today, it is somewhat difficult to say if the large crowds that the sadhu’s sermons attracted were the effect of a great spiritual accomplishment or merely the fulfilment of immense public curiosity for this ‘rare Christian voice from India.’ Indeed, some even went to the extent of labelling him a ‘mystic’ in view of not only his unorthodox appearance and dressing for a Christian missionary of those times, but also the supernatural experiences and visions that he often shared from his own life. But perhaps some of the excerpts from news reports and church bulletins of those times bear testimony to the impact that the sadhu must have had on the Western Christian world:
“This tall strong young man has come from India to tell the world of Christianity again. He has an entirely ageless look of both youth and age in one; joy, energy, wisdom…He has a high glad way about him. He is said to look like the pictures of Christ, and he does; but there is a greater vitality and joy about him than is ever represented in the pictures of Christ. Perhaps the pictures are wrong.” – The New York Evening News
“The atmosphere is instinct with expectancy. Slightly before the time announced there enters the strange figure of Sadhu Sundar Singh. He is as a man from another world. His sermon went to the heart of things. To men was given the inestimable privilege of witnessing to Jesus Christ. The angels could reveal truth, could make plain hidden mysteries, but they could not witness; man alone out of his own experience of God’s love and mercy could do that. So the angel spoke to Cornelius, but sinful Peter witnesses. Nothing I can say here can convey the impression I could wish – that of a man apart, renouncing great possessions, exulting in the saving grace of his Master and speaking with the utmost simplicity. His complete freedom from any self-consciousness made even the bishops’ gaiters seem a bit ridiculous.” – The Church Times (March 12, 1920)
“I agree with the newspaper reporters of America who interviewed him, “Nearer to Christ than any living man we have seen.” The leading papers gave him ample space. His pictures appeared in the movies, and he was able to reach influential and lay circles in the various cities. He is Spirit-taught and has almost a medium-like gift of sensing people and situations. He brings the message of the Supernatural, which this age needs. Men simply flocked to hear him that he had scarcely time for his meals. I have just received a letter from the Headmistress of a leading preparatory school. She said there was a veil of light on every boy’s face as he left the Sadhu’s meeting. He said a true word when he predicted that America would have no spiritual leaders fifty years hence if she kept up her present pace. He has a practical message for America.” – Mr. Frank Buchman, Hartford Theological Seminary
Sundar’s return to India after his tours to the West drained much of his energy, and his physical health was starting to fail him despite his young age. Nonetheless, his spirit was never dampened, and he was determined to make another missionary trip to Tibet in 1923, returning shortly after to his home in Sabathu. For several years after that, he spent most of his time in his own home, committing himself to prayer, fellowship and writing books.
His deteriorating health at that time clearly meant that he could no longer make regular missionary trips to Tibet and other parts of India as he had done in his earlier days. In spite of that, he decided that he wanted to make one last journey to Tibet in 1929 against the advice of his friends and missionary colleagues. He remained adamant on this, and was able to make his way to Kalka (Hindi: कालका) at the Himalayan foothills before setting off for the mountains beyond. That was April 18, 1929, and that was the last anyone saw of him in recorded history.
Until today, Sadhu Sundar Singh is revered as one of the most influential and revolutional figures in the growth of Christianity in India. Being the very embodiment of Christ in India, Sundar preached the gospel as how India needed to hear it, and it was through him that many Indians saw how Christianity could in fact be universal and native to India rather than being the ‘Western and foreign religion’ in which it was hitherto portrayed and perceived. Dubbed ‘the apostle with the bleeding feet’ due to the fact that he walked barefooted whenever he travelled on his missionary trips, Sadhu Sundar Singh’s humble life and preaching has undoubtedly changed the landscape of Christian missions in India and Asia as a whole.
Drama entitled Journey to the Sky depicting the life and missionary work of Sundar Singh