By G.B. Singh
As I recall, it was in 1987, while standing at one of the major intersections in Augusta, Georgia, two female missionaries approached me. After a few minutes of conversation, they handed me a small paperback book with a photo of a Sikh looking person on the front cover. This was the first time I came to know of a man named Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929). As I read this book at a relatively fast pace my curiosity about the Sadhu deepened. Something attracted me about him and his devotion to Jesus. Though I liked him on a personal level, there were so many questions popping in my mind and over the years many Christians, especially from south India, have opened the subject of Sadhu Sundar Singh with me. With every conversation I had with them, I walked away with more questions. I recognize that Sadhu is well respected and highly revered among many different shades of Christians. I reproduce here his brief timeline copied from one of the websites.
“The Life of Sundar Singh
1889 – Born at Rampur, Punjab
1903 – Conversion
1904 – Cast out from home
1905 – Baptized in Simla; begins life as a sadhu
1907 – Works in leprosy hospital at Sabathu
1908 – First visit to Tibet
1909 – Enters divinity college, Lahore, to train for the ministry
1911 – Hands back his preacher’s license; returns to the sadhu’s life
1912 – Tours through north India and the Buddhist states of the Himalayas
1918 to 1922 – Travels worldwide
1923 – Turned back from Tibet
1925 to 1927 – Quietly spends time writing
1927 – Sets out for Tibet but returns due to illness
1929 – Attempts to reach Tibet and disappears”
It’s hard to fathom today but it’s true: During the first quarter of the last century (1900 to 1925) Sadhu ranked among the four most famous people inhabiting the British-India. The other three, according to Prof. Eric J. Sharpe (1933-2000) in his book “The Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh” were: Tagore, Gandhi, and Radhakrishnan.
Soon after Sundar “met” Jesus Christ in 1904, he was baptized in 1905 and four years later in 1909-10, he spent a whole year at St. John’s Divinity College in Lahore. Thereafter he opted to lead the life of a sadhu (a wandering ascetic) rather than a licensed preacher; thus becoming Sadhu Sundar Singh. In the eyes of church leaders, Sadhu’s name and example is an avenue to promote Christianity especially among the Sikhs with a calculated hope that the Sikhs will follow through. Lately, it has come to my attention that Rampur village in Punjab where Sundar was born now “hosts several Christian cells planted by India-based missions.” Also recently opened is the “Sadhu Sundar Singh Memorial Church” in Doraha, a town near Rampur. The Church of North India has also constructed a “Sadhu Sundar Singh Memorial Church” in Faridkot, about 24 miles from the Pakistan border.
Sadhu’s literature is not extensive. His writings comprise the following: At the Master’s Feet (1922), Reality and Religion (1923), The Search After Reality (1924), The Spiritual Life (1925), The Spiritual World (1926), The Real Life (1927), and With and Without Christ (1928). The English translations appeared soon after each of the original works in Urdu. His works have been translated into forty languages. His writings are difficult to access in the secular settings of the United States. In addition there are a number of books, some of course written for the purposes of witnessing to men like me. Based upon what I have gathered and analyzed, here is my brief “account” of Sundar.
Sundar’s background is unique. According to the popular history texts, Sundar Singh was born on September 3, 1889 in the house of Sher Singh at Rampur village in Patiala State. In addition to two older brothers and an older sister, Sundar had a number of close relatives living nearby. Regarding the kind of family he was raised in, Sundar himself writes, “I was born in a family that was commonly considered Sikh, but in which the teaching of Hinduism was considered most essential.”
To understand how essential Hindu teachings were in Sadhu’s early development it is interesting to note that Sundar’s mother took a special charm in raising her young boy in accordance with Hinduism. Therefore by the age of mere seven, Sundar knew by heart the Bhagavad Gita. By age sixteen, he had read Granth, Koran, and at least fifty-two of the Upanishads. Additionally, his mother hired the services of a Hindu Pundit and an old “Sikh Sadhu” to instruct Sundar in their respective areas of varied scriptures. Sundar’s day started quite early and it seems the entire day was consumed with religious protocols and activities. Sundar himself acknowledges, “I often used to read the Hindu scriptures till midnight.”
In honesty I must admit that I can’t think of another example that can match Sundar. If true, Sundar in 1896 C.E. knew by heart the Bhagavad Gita, which he read in the Urdu language. That is certainly incredible. But is it true? Bhagavad Gita (hereafter referred as Gita) had never existed as a separate text until 1785 C.E. when it was published in London. It took another one hundred years for western introduced Gita to return to British India, and Gita’s first Urdu translation didn’t appear until 1868 C.E. published from Gujranwala in Punjab. Theoretically it is possible for Sundar to have read and regurgitate Gita but it appears quite unlikely.
At that time, Gita was not a scripture of popular and intellectual Hinduism and definitely for a Sikh family residing in a remote village of Punjab, the reading of religious literature amounted next to nil. In addition there is no evidence that both Sundar’s mother and the hired Hindu Pundit instructed Gita lessons to Sundar. Could Sundar’s mother and father or siblings read and write Urdu enough to have taught him and were they themselves knowledgeable of the contents of these texts and other scriptures like the Quran. And if Sundar knew the Gita, as claimed, then there should be some evidence to support it. My search has resulted in nothing that can lead one to believe that Sundar knew the Gita well. This makes sense because among Hindus of that time there existed a superstition against Mahabharata (Gita being a miniscule part of it) that to keep this “war document” at home brought klesh (misery) to the family.
In his book The Search After Reality, Sadhu wrote roughly three pages on “Bhagvad Gita and Krishna,” and reading this account leaves an impression that Sundar’s knowledge of Gita was minimal, and whatever little he knew is strictly from the Christian vocabulary and interpretation. In other words, the evidence suggests that Sundar learned portions of the Gita probably at the Divinity College and not during his early years at Sher Singh’s house. About the fifty two Upanishads the Sadhu is claimed to have read, there is no evidence of it either and neither is there any evidence of the names of these alleged Upanishads having been read.
With respect to Sundar reading “Hindu scriptures till midnight,” I wish he had named at least one of these Hindu scriptures and after reading the chapter on Hinduism recorded in The Search After Reality my doubts have grown. Evidence suggests that in all likelihood Sundar was instructed on Hinduism while at the seminary and not at his father’s house.
What about Islam? In another Christian-prescribed biography I read that Sundar could recite through memory not only the Quran but also the entire Hadith literature. Whether he had read “Granth” meaning Guru Granth Sahib along with one-on-one instructions by the old “Sikh Sadhu” is also doubtful. If you are wondering what “Sikh Sadhu” means, I will discuss it at the end of this article. According to Sundar it was his mother who had exercised such a strong religious influence on him and it was her wish that he should live the life of a Hindu sadhu. As reported she even had him instructed in yoga and after due practice, Sundar would stay in trance and perform other psychical feats.
A tragedy struck in 1902 when Sundar lost his beloved mother. Soon thereafter he lost one of his older brothers and understandably the pain and anguish were too deep for Sundar to bear. His years of religious yearning were also failing to give him everlasting peace and nobody could answer his questions to his satisfaction, and only recently the American Presbyterian Mission had opened a school in the village where Sundar was learning Christianity via studying New Testament in Urdu.
Things didn’t go smoothly for Sundar because we are told that he hated Christianity and exercised some concrete steps to show his anger and hate. He even went to the extent of burning the Christian Gospels in his house’s courtyard. This incident happened in the middle of December 1904. Therefore, at the age of 15, we are led to believe, Sundar was in a mess and there seemed to be none to help him. Finally, three days later, on the night of December 18, 1904, the situation had become unbearable. He got up at three in the morning, took a cold bath and prayed to “God to reveal Himself” which he hoped would end the unrest within.
Sundar had made up his mind that in case God fails to listen to his prayer; he would commit suicide by placing his head on the railway line by the incoming 5 o’clock train. But, luckily for him, at 4:30 A.M., Jesus Christ appeared and that event dramatically changed the course of Sundar’s future, as described by him in detail and I post here description of the events:
1. In a book titled, The Sadhu: A Study in Mysticism and Practical Religion published in 1922, the authors, Streeter and Appasamy, have recorded Sadhu’s own words from his speech that he delivered in one of his “Kandy addresses” in Sri Lanka:
At 4.30 A.M. I saw something of which I had no idea at all previously. In the room where I was praying I saw a great light. I thought the place was on fire. I looked around, but could find nothing. Then the thought came to me that this might be an answer that God had sent me. Then as I prayed and looked into the light, I saw the form of the Lord Jesus Christ. It had such an appearance of glory and love.
If it had been some Hindu incarnation I would have prostrated myself before it. But it was the Lord Jesus Christ whom I had been insulting a few days before. I felt that a vision like this could not come out of my own imagination. I heard a voice saying in Hindustani, “How long will you persecute me? I have come to save you; you were praying to know the right way. Why do you not take it? … When I got up, the vision had all disappeared; but although the vision disappeared the Peace and Joy have remained with me ever since.
2. In a booklet titled Life in Abundance published in 1980, there appeared some sermons that Sadhu had delivered earlier while in Switzerland in March 1922. On March 5th, Sadhu said:
I want to repeat the details of my conversion; how I became Christian. Many of you don’t know that I was an enemy of Jesus Christ, I used to tear up the Gospel and burn it; I used to think “This is a false religion, our Hinduism is the only true religion;” but I was not satisfied with my religion…. One day I got up early in the morning, I took a cold water bath and began to pray …. After an hour and a half I saw something which I could not recognize.
It was December 18th when I saw Him, while I was praying in my room…. I was not prepared to believe in Him because I used to hate him. He died on the Cross; how can He save me? But on the 18th, early in the morning, when he revealed Himself to me in such a glorious way, when He spoke to me: “I died for thee, and I am the Savior of the world,” then I found my Savior, my all. I got up; He had disappeared, but there was a wonderful peace in my heart….
3. In With And Without Christ, Sadhu elaborated the incident without giving the actual date:
On the third day, when I felt I could bear it no longer, I got up at three in the morning and after bathing, I prayed that if there was a God at all He would reveal Himself to me, …. I remained till about half-past four praying and waiting and expecting to see Krishna, or Buddha, or some other Avatar of the Hindu religion: they appeared not, but a light was shining in the room. I opened the door to see where it came from, but all was dark outside.
I returned inside, and the light increased in intensity and took the form of a globe of light above the ground, and in this light there appeared, not the form I expected, but the Living Christ whom I had counted as dead. To all eternity I shall never forget His glorious and loving face, nor the few words, which He spoke: “Why do you persecute me? See, I have died on the Cross for you and for the whole world.” These words were burned into my heart as by lightening, and I fell on the ground before Him….
From another reference, I copied Jesus’ words in Hindustani: “Tu mujhe kyun satata hai? Dekh main ne tere liye apni jan salib par di.”
4. In his article God’s Lion: Wisdom of the Sadhu, Tim Comer brought to my attention to another of Sadhu’s direct quote with respect to what transpired on that early morning:
Though at the time I had considered myself a hero for burning the Gospel, my heart found no peace. Indeed, my unrest only increased, and I was miserable for the next two days. On the third day, when I could bear it no longer, I rose at 3:00 A.M. and prayed that if there was a God at all, he would reveal himself to me. Should I receive no answer by morning, I would place my head on the railroad tracks and seek the answer to my questions beyond the edge of this life. I prayed and prayed, waiting for the time to take my last walk. At about 4:30 I saw something strange. There was a glow in the room.
At first I thought there was a fire in the house, but looking through the door and windows, I could see no cause for the light. Then the thought came to me: perhaps this was an answer from God. So I returned to my accustomed place and prayed, looking into the strange light. Then I saw a figure in the light, strange but somehow familiar at once. It was neither Siva nor Krishna nor any of the other Hindu incarnations I had expected. Then I heard a voice speaking to me in Urdu:
“Sundar, how long will you mock me? I have come to save you because you have prayed to find the way of truth. Why then don’t you accept it?”
It was then I saw the marks of blood on his hands and feet and knew that it was Yesu, the one proclaimed by the Christians. In amazement I fell at his feet. I was filled with deep sorrow and remorse for my insults and my irreverence, but also with a wonderful peace. This was the joy I had been seeking. This was heaven …Then the vision was gone, though my peace and joy remained.
There might as well be more of these Jesus and other testimonies given out by Sundar just like this one: “I am Christ whom you are persecuting. There is salvation only through Me. If you believe Me now, you will be saved. If you don’t believe Me you will be damned forever.” What transpired on this fateful day cannot be verified since Sundar is the sole witness. With several accounts available one wonder’s if his testimony is reliable. Sadhu’s psychological make-up is prone to seeing visions which is fraught with many pitfalls. In one of the above accounts Sadhu has mentioned the date as December 18th without giving the year. C.F. Andrews, who had known Sadhu personally, mentioned it as “December 1903” and Cyril J. Davey, a Christian biographer for Sadhu has given the date as “December 3, 1903.”
Sadhu’s life is full of seeing visions which of course has fortified his standing among many Christians and for those looking for modern day mystics. Among Christians it is miracles and visions that make a saint. As I read of these visions, so many thoughts came to my mind, which I will share at the end. In the early pages of his book At the Master’s Feet, Sadhu wrote the following “First Vision”:
Once on a dark night I went alone into the forest to pray, and seating myself upon a rock I laid before God my deep necessities, and besought His help. After a short time, seeing a poor man coming towards me I thought he had come to ask me for some relief because he was hungry and cold. I said to him, “I am a poor man, and except this blanket I have nothing at all. You had better go to the village near by and ask for help there.” And lo! even whilst I was saying this he flashed forth like lightning, and, showering drops of blessing, immediately disappeared. Alas! Alas! it was now clear to me that this was my beloved Master who came not to beg from a poor creature like me, but to bless and to enrich me (2 Cor. viii.9), and so I was left weeping and lamenting my folly and lack of insight.
And this “first vision” is followed immediately by a more complex “Second Vision”:
On another day, my work being finished, I again went into the forest to pray, and seated upon that same rock began to consider for what blessings I should make petition. Whilst thus engaged it seemed to me that another came and stood near me, who, judged by his bearing and dress and manner of speech, appeared to be a revered and devoted servant of God; but his eyes glittered with craft and cunning, and as he spoke he seemed to breathe an odor of hell.
He thus addressed me, “Holy and Honored Sir, pardon me for interrupting your prayers and breaking in on your privacy; but is one’s duty to seek to promote the advantage of others, and therefore I have come to lay an important matter before you. Your pure and unselfish life has made a deep impression not only on me, but upon a great number of devout persons. But although in the Name of God you have sacrificed yourself body and soul for others, you have never been truly appreciated. My meaning is that being a Christian only a few thousand Christians have come under your influence, and some even of these distrust you. How much better would it be if you became a Hindu or a Mussulman, [Moslem] and thus become a great leader indeed? They are in search of such a spiritual head. If you accept this suggestion of mine, then three hundred and ten millions of Hindus and Mussulmans will become your followers, and render you reverent homage.”
As soon as I heard this there rushed from my lips these words, “Thou Satan! get thee hence. I knew at once that thou wert a wolf in sheep’s clothing! Thy one wish is that I should give up the cross and the narrow path that leads to life, and choose the broad road of death. My Master Himself is my lot and my portion, who Himself gave His life for me, and it behooves me to offer as a sacrifice my life and all I have to Him who is all in all to me. Get you gone therefore, for with you I have nothing to do.”
Hearing this he went off grumbling and growling in his rage. And I, in tears, thus poured out my soul to God in prayer, “My Lord God, my all in all, life of my life, and spirit of my spirit, look in mercy upon me and so fill me with Thy Holy Spirit that my heart shall have no room for love of aught but Thee. I seek from Thee no other gift but Thyself, who art the Giver of life and all its blessings. From Thee I ask not for the world or its treasures, nor yet for heaven even make request, but Thee alone do I desire and long for, and where Thou art there is Heaven. The hunger and the thirst of this heart of mine can be satisfied only with Thee who hast given it birth. O Creator mine! Thou hast created my heart for Thyself alone, and not for another, therefore this my heart can find no rest or ease save in Thee, in Thee who hast both created it and set in it this very longing for rest. Take away then from my heart all that is opposed to Thee, and enter and abide and rule for ever. Amen.”
When I rose up from this prayer I beheld a glowing Being, arrayed in light and beauty, standing before me. Though He spoke not a word, and because my eyes were suffused with tears I saw Him not too clearly, there poured from Him lightning-like rays of life-giving love with such power that they entered in and bathed my very soul. At once I knew that my dear Savior stood before me. I rose at once from the rock where I was seated and fell at His feet. He held in His hand the key of my heart. Opening the inner chamber of my heart with His key of love, He filled it with His presence, and wherever I looked, inside or out, I saw but Him.
Then did I know that man’s heart is the very throne and citadel of God, and that when He enters there to abide, heaven begins. In these few seconds He so filled my heart, and spoke such wonderful words, that even if I wrote many books I could not tell them all. For these heavenly things can be explained only in heavenly language, and earthly tongues are not sufficient for them. Yet I will endeavor to set down a few of these heavenly things that by way of vision came to me from the Master. Upon the rock on which before I sat He seated Himself, and with myself at His feet there began between Master and disciple the conversation that now follows.
Sadhu in the capacity of a missionary traveled world-wide; his travels included places beyond the length and breadth of British India to include the United States, Europe, Palestine, Australia, Japan, Malaya, Afghanistan, Tibet, and so forth. From 1908-1929 it is believed that Sadhu made at least twenty trips to Tibet — an extremely risky religious adventures walking on foot. Often with arduous fasting and prayers, his travels in the mountain terrains took a devastating toll on his health and further compromised his psychological wellbeing. In the course of one of his fasts, Sadhu saw Jesus “with pierced hands, bleeding feet and radiant face.” At another time he made Jesus look far better at least in my eyes: “He had a beard on His face. The long hair of His head is like gold, like glowing light.”
With unending stream of supernatural visions, Sadhu has left for us enough evidence to question his mental health. For example in a cave 13,000 feet above the sea level on the Kailash range of the Himalayan mountains, Sadhu met an ancient “Christian Rishi” named “Maharishi of Kailash.” This Rishi showed Sadhu a marvelous account of his own immense age and wonderful powers and imparted Sadhu with a series of visions of an apocalyptic character. Incidents such as these alerted men like Principal Susil Kumar Rudra of St. Stephens College who on occasions conversed with C.F. Andrews about his ever growing skepticisms of Sadhu’s visions.
During his first visit to the West, while in England along with Willie Hindle, Sadhu insisted on going to France and spent the whole day searching in a poor section of Paris for someone. As it turned out, earlier the Maharishi had described to Sadhu a poor girl’s house in Paris and he went out looking for her but failed. At another occasion some woodcutters found him in the jungle half-dead and rescued him and delivered him to Indian Christians where he was nursed back to health — only to leave again for another dangerous journey to Tibet. There are so many of these bizarre visions of Sadhu that it is not worth the extra time and effort to bring them here. The examples mentioned above should be sufficient for addressing my concerns and bringing them to the readers.
Sadhu was a unique Christian; it is hard to find another one like him. The Bible was his precious possession. However, his knowledge of the Old Testament was minimal at best. It was the New Testament (in Urdu) that he mastered and the four Gospel accounts of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John were his spiritual food. During one of his European tours he came to know of the “Higher Criticism” — a growing field of scholarly critical evaluation of the Bible. There is no evidence in place if Sadhu learnt anything from this scholarship. To my surprise he held to this self-serving view, “The Holy Spirit is the true Author of the Scriptures, [Bible] but I do not therefore say that every word, as it is written in the Hebrew or the Greek, is inspired.”
Sadhu fine-tuned the details, “The language used by the authors of the Bible was the same language as that of ordinary life, and therefore was not really adequate for spiritual things.” Thus was the need for Sadhu’s visions through which Angels and Saints can communicate the true spiritual message being deciphered straight out of the Bible!
Sadhu loved Jesus with a tremendous passion and just about every facet of his life was fashioned to follow Christ to the minutest details. So much so that he went on pilgrimage to the Christian holy places in Palestine in the hope of dying at exactly the same age Jesus was crucified. Poor Sundar was greatly disappointed when he lived through the thirty-fourth year of his life without the anticipated death. Why? Because Jesus was thought to have died at the age thirty-three and Sadhu was unable to duplicate through intensive meditation the age of death of his Savior on himself.
Sadhu had worked out his interpretations of the Bible in such way as to allow no room for Jesus to be depicted as less than favorable. For a serious student of the Bible, these are fascinating stories to read. I present only one example. The case in point is one of Jesus’ ethics — “Resist no evil” from Mathew 5:39.
Many critical scholars have not been kind to Jesus for uttering so many of his “un-ethical” points including “resist no evil.” Sadhu was not going to take it lying down and he therefore provided an alternative interpretation to cast Jesus in a better light than the critics. These are Sadhu’s words:
If we resist evil men, who would do us harm, then neither part is likely to be profited; probably both will be injured, as in the collision of two trains both are shattered. But if, by not resisting, we suffer, then, on the one hand, the cross-bearer is benefited spiritually, and on the other hand, the oppressor will be impressed by the forgiving spirit, and will be inclined towards the truth. It has been shown that by treatment of this kind the lives of many wicked men have been changed. Here is an example.
Last year, in the hills in India, while a godly Indian Christian was praying in his house alone, three thieves stealthily entered his room, and took away all they could get. When the man had finished his prayers he noticed that all his goods had gone, except the box over which he had been bowing in prayer. This box contained money and valuables. This “man of prayer” took some cash and valuables in his hands, and ran after the thieves, calling, “Wait! Wait! You have left some valuables behind. I have brought them to you. Perhaps you need these things more than I.” When the thieves, heard this, at first they thought it was a trap, but when they saw that he had no weapon and that he was alone, they came back to him.
The man said to him, “Why did you not tell me at first that you needed these things? I would have gladly given you whatever I have; now you had better come home with me, and whatever you want you may take away.” The thieves, seeing the strange life of this man of prayer, were so affected that their lives were changed forever and they began to say, “We never imagined that there were such people in the world. If you are so wonderful, then how much more wonderful must be your Savior, Who has made you into such a wonderful and godlike character.” There we have the result of not resisting the evil ….
In Sadhu’s multiple calculations we see that his Jesus was perfect and sinless. For Sadhu, Jesus was also a great role model to follow. Because, Sadhu tells us, “Whatever He [Jesus] taught He Himself first acted on, and He gave no teaching of which He did not give the proof and example in His life. In other words He preached what He practiced, and practiced what He preached.”
Take the case of poverty. Whether Jesus lived in poverty or not is not the issue of debate here. The question is whether Sadhu adhered to the biblical dictates on poverty. I certainly don’t know how many Christians of today would agree with the Sadhu’s literally adopted “Christian lifestyle” of a wandering hermit. Was Sadhu wrong? You be the judge. Read the following pronouncements of Jesus:
(a) “…none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up everything he has” (Luke 14:33)
(b) “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor and you will have riches in heaven” (Matt. 19:21)
(c) “Sell your possessions and give alms” (Luke 12:33)
(d) “But give what is in your cups and plates to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41)
(e) “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt,… But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…. for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21)
(f) “How hardly shall they that have riches enter to the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23)
(g) A certain ruler told Jesus that he had obeyed all the commandments from his youth up. But, Jesus said, “Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22, Mark 10:21), and
(h) Paul said, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8 RSV)
I doubt not what Jesus is preaching here; if there is a hidden non-literal meaning pointing to something else then I am at loss. I believe Sadhu was correct by living in strict accordance with what Jesus said. Apparently it has been mentioned that Sadhu owned his Bible, his blanket, and nothing else much beyond that. In his case he didn’t have to give up much since he was thrown out of his father’s house without anything after his conversion.
And if Sadhu opted for voluntary poverty to follow Jesus then he would truly had been unique among the Christians-—in fact he should be considered a “true Christian” as opposed to the pseudo Christians we encounter on a daily basis not to mention the names of Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Rex Humbard, and Robert Schuller. The list is an excruciatingly long one. Of lately, I have received a copy of the Will of Sadhu Sundar Singh. The details of his Will have left me wondering if Sadhu was indeed a hypocrite. According to his Will (drawn on November 30, 1925), Sadhu’s trust fund was worth Rupees 12,000. This is a large amount of money considering the times around 1925 C.E., and I wouldn’t shirk from calling our Sadhu a millionaire by standards of today.
Sadhu’s Mental Health
Thanks to C.F. Andrews for bringing to my notice that early on, Sundar’s father and his uncle regarded Sundar as mad. This was based upon the facts they possessed in their hands. His siblings kept themselves away and it seems because of Sundar’s eccentric behavior he was rendered aloof. After Sundar had adopted Christianity he was let go and his family connections were cut off.
Sadhu, being a famous evangelist, was on a ride which he would have never imagined had he not left Rampur village. If Sadhu indeed had suffered from some psychiatric disorder, I suppose it might have been pointed out in his missionary journeys worldwide at least somewhere within the Christian circles. Come to think of — it did. Here are some of their views:
1. Father Hosten, a Jesuit at Darjeeling, writing in The Catholic Herald of India (1923-1925) elaborated his impressions that the Sadhu was a “shameless imposter, who has invented the greater part of his life-story in order to win the reputation of sanctity.”
2. German Jesuits published a series of accusations in a paper entitled Stimmen der Zeit (1924-1926) calling Sadhu an “Oriental deceiver, a childish visionary, who confounds the creations of his fantasy with reality.”
3. Father Hosten and Dr. O. Pfister wrote a book titled, The Legend of Sundar Singh (Berne, 1926). Pfister regarded Sadhu as a “neurotic person whose sense of reality has been impaired, and who therefore tends, although unconscious that he is doing so, to misrepresent historical facts.” Pfister also believed to have discovered other morbid traits, such as sadism, in the Sadhu’s psycho-physical life. From the point of view of a psychoanalyst, Pfister believed that Sadhu’s love to Christ was “rooted in repressed infantile sex-complexes.”
4. Jarrell Waskom Pickett (1890-1981) was the Bishop of Bombay in the Methodist Church. His decades long career as a prominent missionary in British-India was visibly remarkable along with his regularly published magazine, The Indian Witness. The Bishop’s views of the Sadhu are no less pertinent than any intelligent critic’s firsthand knowledge of the Sadhu. In accordance with his 1980 published book, “My Twentieth Century Odyssey,” we read that:
The Roman Catholic priest … sent me enough material to fill a half-dozen issues of The Indian Witness. Stanley Jones, Bishop Bradley, Bishop Chitambar, and many other trusted advisors urged me not to publish any of the material. They all admitted that much of what he [Sadhu] had said seemed to be untrue, but they thought that he probably believed that all he [Sadhu] had said was true. I am not sure that I did the right thing in repressing my belief that he [Sadhu] was indulging in fantasies and falsehoods and should not be accepted as a Christian saint.
In recent years there have been major advances in the field of psychology and psychiatry. I believe we will all benefit from “Psychiatric Autopsy” conducted by a trained group of psychiatrists on Sadhu. This autopsy is possible given the availability of entire Sadhu’s writings as well as other documents written by the other Christians who had firsthand knowledge of him. My own impression is that Sundar suffered from a mental disorder, which was detected early on by his family members, but was left untreated, as there was no cure for mental disorder at that time.
A number of senior Church leaders also detected Sadhu’s underlying mental disease and failed to get Sadhu the appropriate treatment. It is tragic to look back and see what precipitated Sundar’s propensity to pursue dangerous journeys to Tibet all for the purposes of committing suicide. In 1929, that’s exactly what happened. Sundar took off for Tibet and never returned.
All along he was showing signs of suicidal behavior and yet no Christian leader in India took decisive step to stop him and thereby protect him. Tragedy is double fold: We lost Sundar prematurely and the Church looked the other way. Why? Because Sundar was a unique evangelist in the native hermit’s robes and doing the job of evangelizing in the remote sites in the Himalayas that nobody else in the Church would care to undertake.
Was Sadhu a Sikh?
Not once Sadhu called himself a former Sikh. Not once Sadhu mentioned Sikh doctrines let alone forsaking them. In his writings only at one place he referred that he was “born in a family that was commonly considered Sikh.” But then qualified it: That for his family “the teaching of Hinduism was considered most essential.” This was written in his book With and Without Christ, published in 1928, merely a year before Sadhu’s own death. Frankly I am puzzled at all of this. How could his family be Sikh but practice diehard Hinduism? Why would he wait for so long to reveal his family links as Sikh?
Was Sadhu and church cohorts putting up a smoke screen —- killing two birds with one stone so to speak? Why? Was Sadhu, as a Christian with an attached Sikh name, leading an ascetic Hindu way of life, a ticket too attractive for the evangelical church?
History texts tell us that Sadhu’s mother was really the genius behind to plant ideas in his mind of leading a life of a wandering hermit. For someone to be that important in Sundar’s upbringing without being named anywhere in the literature is mind-boggling! His mother had hired the services of a Hindu Pundit and an old “Sikh Sadhu” to teach Sundar. Sadhu Sundar Singh in his book With and Without Christ has devoted more than one page under the heading The Sadhu and I explaining his quandary over the questions with this supposedly “Sikh Sadhu.” Reading this questionable page, I realized that there is not a single word mentioned giving me any hint that Sundar was talking of the Sikh religion.
Moreover how could a “Sikh Sadhu” be a Sikh? Something is amiss here; keep in mind, Sadhu had three elder siblings born from the same un-named mother. It is apparent from the literature that this mother didn’t impart Hinduism to any of her first three children. If so why would she pick Sundar, her youngest child, for this special exotic religious training? I cannot help but reach a conclusion that Sadhu was not a Sikh and had no links with the Sikh religion in any fashion whatsoever. This only further deepens the mystery of Sundar. Who was he then?
Was Sadhu a Hindu?
On a number of occasions Sadhu had described himself as a former Hindu, and more than once mentioned of his Hindu heritage by pointing out doctrines that are without question of Hindu origin. Sadhu made it clear, “Christianity was fulfillment of Hinduism. Hinduism has been digging channels. Christ is the water to flow through these channels … There are many beautiful things in Hinduism; but the fullest light is from Christ.”
In 1922 while Sadhu was journeying overseas. In a letter dated January 28, 1922, Sadhu addressed to Rebecca Parker, stating:
On the 20th and 21st of January I was staying with Mr. M.K. Gandhi, he invited me to [come] & see him & we both went into a jungle & had a long talk about many different things. He is a good man & admirer of Christ. He says that if there will be bloodshed or violence in India by my [= his] followers; then I will not cooperate with them & I will leave them & go into jungle or cave, but he thinks that there will be no bloodshed. He does not believe in Christ as the only incarnation of God or Savior, but he says that Christ was a great spiritual leader & God revealed himself through Him more than through any other prophets.
Hardly any surprise here, at the same time period, Sadhu expressed reservations about Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha tactics, was published: “[Sadhu] made quite plain his profound disapproval of Mr. Gandhi’s method telling him in so many words that they can lead India to nothing but ruin and useless suffering.” I learnt from Gandhi’s reply that Sadhu and Gandhi had met more than once. According to Gandhi, talking of Sadhu, “We had the closet communion…. We had long discussions over all these and other matters and he certainly left on me the impression that for a religious man no course left open.” Was Sadhu involved in politics with Gandhi? Evidence suggests he was.
How reliable was Sadhu even on personal levels? Hardly any, if you pay attention to those who had the opportunity to examine him at a close distance. Take the example of Bishop Pickett:
The Sadhu was a charismatic figure and completely controlled the confessed belief of many Christian high school and college students. At least ten of these students told me with great joy that they were to meet the Sadhu at the end of the Rohikhand and Kumaun Railway line in Kathgodam at the foot of the mountains and go with him to Tibet. I asked how much money they would have for the trip. They said that the Sadhu never took money with him, but that God supplied his needs abundantly and the Sadhu said that they, too, should go by faith and totally without money. Most of the boys went to Kathgodam but the Sadhu was not there. One boy said he believed that the Sadhu had said that they should meet him at Pithoragarh about 60 miles away from the nearest railway station. Two of them went on there but learned that he had been there two weeks before and had gone on alone into Nepal saying that he would be back after three months. The boys felt let down and all but two turned completely away from Sundar Singh.
Something is amiss and I suspect that the Sadhu’s real history might be altogether different. With so much of efforts invested by his mother why Sundar failed to mention her name is very strange? Could it be that Sundar was a Hindu boy raised by the missionaries and trained to carry out a double deception with respect to his allegedly hybrid “Hindu-Sikh model” as a conduit to proselytize the masses who had grown resistant to Christ’s message?
Sadhu’s story reminds me of Apostle Paul. Both he and Paul shared incredible similarities. Like Paul, Sundar also says he “persecuted” the Christians. Like Paul, Sundar also experienced a vision in which Jesus said, “Why do you persecute me? ….” Like Paul’s details of the vision, Sundar’s vision is also contradictory. Like Paul, Sundar’s life is consumed to evangelize the un-reached populations with extensive travels to his credit. In short, what we have here is Sundar reliving Paul’s dramatic version of salvation history.
Based upon what has been presented, it is obvious there are too many problems associated with Sundar’s popular history. I ask for his accurate history. The Christian Church in India should be held responsible and asked to appoint a committee of concerned scholars to gather all material on Sadhu and critically evaluate them. This committee should be tasked to write an accurate history of this unique man of “questionable origin.” In the meantime I hope that the church will refrain from marketing Sundar any further thereby preventing any further mockery of his life and his tragedy. He deserves far better treatment, at least after his death. Let him rest in peace.