Born to a wealthy family of Rampur in northern India in 1889, Sundar Singh early promised to keep the five K’s of the Sikh religion: kesh (not to cut his hair), kangha (to keep a comb in his hair), kara (to wear a steel bracelet on his wrist), kachha (to wear soldier’s shorts under his white robe), and kirpan (to always carry a sword). A Sikh, but a thoughtful and quiet boy, he spent his days among the flowers and peacocks of his family’s gardens. Servants did the work while his mother taught him to recite the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit by the time he was seven.
From his mother, Sundar Singh, learned that service to God is the highest pursuit in life. She wanted him to grow up to be a sadhu (holy man). His father, Sardar Sher Singh, taught him, along with this, to be loyal to his people and religion, even to death. But unforeseen circumstances changed the plans of the wealthy Singh family. After Sundar turned fourteen his mother died and his father, planning his professional career, sent him to a mission school.
At school Sundar stayed true to his vows. He loved to swim with the boys in a canal alongside the compound, but he avoided having much to do with them otherwise. He was afraid of what they believed. When his teacher gave him a New Testament he tore it up and burned it.
Nevertheless, the older Sundar grew, the more he wondered whether his own religion was indeed the true one. What if the gods of the Hindus, or the Christian’s God should demand an account of him when he died? By the time he reached his mid-teens, doubts and inner conflict tormented him continually. Day and night they followed him, keeping him from study, food, and sleep. Finally, he woke up one morning at three, had his bath and prayed: “God, whoever you are, reveal yourself to me! If you give me no clue to your identity by the time the sun comes up, I will go lay my head on the tracks in front of a passing train.”
The Lord Christ, seeing the young Sikh in distress, had mercy on him. Some time after Sundar lay down to await that fateful Indian dawn he sensed the room turning light. A bearded man appeared to him and asked kindly, in Hindustani, “Why are you against me? See, I died on a cross for you and the whole world.”
Was Sundar dreaming? Did the Lord Christ appear to him for real? In this life we may never know. What we do know is that his life from that moment onward was utterly, miraculously, transformed. Sundar Singh, the troubled Sikh, became a Christian.
Sundar told his father at once what had taken place. His father was horrified. At the risk of his life Sundar also arranged with a missionary to have Bible classes during the night. Both he and the missionary stood in danger for it because Sikhs, in the early 1900s, did not take kindly to conversion.
Sundar’s final act of commitment was to leave home and cut his hair. His relatives sent food with him. He ate it and within hours felt himself dying of poison—evidently they preferred seeing him dead to disgracing the family as a Christian—but he was not dismayed. Local Christians took him to a British hospital. Sundar told his doctor, a professing Christian, to read the promise in Mark 16: “When they drink deadly poison it will not hurt them at all.”
“I believe that,” he told his doctor who smiled sadly at him, knowing he would be dead by morning. But he was not dead. He miraculously recovered, and the doctor was the first person Sundar led to Christ.
Serious trouble developed at Rampur after Sundar’s conversion. His relatives, some of them in high positions, threatened the missionaries and closed down their school. To find a safe place away from home, Sundar’s friends enrolled him in a school further away. But his father and a great crowd of Sikhs came to get him. First his father cried and begged Sundar to come back. Sundar cried too, but told him he could do nothing other than follow Christ. Then his father became angry and vowed to return and kill him. To escape the danger Sundar moved to Simla in far northern India.
C. F. Andrews, a Christian missionary who came to know Sundar Singh over this time described his first meeting with him:
One day we met Sundar Singh. He was still quite young in age and youthful also in appearance. His wistful shyness had first to be overcome before he could be altogether at ease with us for we were complete strangers to him and he had only recently become a Christian. During the time of transition from his old life to the new he had met with many difficulties and some unexpected rebuffs. Therefore he was diffident and reserved until he came to know us intimately as his friends. Then his whole nature blossomed out in a singularly happy manner and he won our hearts by his gentle goodness.
His face had the look of childhood fresh upon it, in spite of marks of pain which were there also. At first sight, however, it was not so much his face that attracted my attention as his eyes. They were luminous, like the darkly gleaming water of some pool in the forest that a ray of sunlight has touched. While there was a shade of sorrow in them, there was also the light of joy and peace.
During the larger part of the time we were together he seemed almost entirely to be absorbed in his own thoughts. But suddenly there would come into his eyes a flash of quick intelligence as he looked up and said a few words in reply to a question. The discipline of inner self-restraint was noticeable and when he made a remark the effect was all the greater because of his previous silence.
In later years, the dignity of his presence deeply impressed me, but on that first occasion I seemed to see nothing but those eyes of his, looking into my own and offering me his friendship. They seemed to tell me, without any formal words how great a treasure his soul had found in Christ, and how he had realised at a glance that my heart was one with his own in devotion to the same Lord.
On his sixteenth birthday, the earliest possible age for a convert to get baptised in British India, an Anglican missionary performed the rite on Sundar Singh. It was the Lords day, September 3, 1905. One month later he set out on foot to tell India about Christ.
Even though Sundar Singh received baptism in an Anglican church, he had no concept of Western Christian doctrine or denominations. He lived in inner fellowship with Christ and took the Gospels as his only guide.
In keeping with his mother’s desire for him to be a sadhu, Sundar put on the traditional signs of consecration to God: a saffron robe and turban. And like a true sadhu he claimed no possessions or a fixed abode.
Sleeping outdoors, eating whatever the Lord provided and exposed to the elements—dangers in the jungle, in the city, and on the road—Sundar walked to Kasauli, Solon, Dagshai, through the Punjab, to Calcutta, to Madras, and Bombay. At times too sick to walk, or travelling in sandals and a thin robe through Himalayan snows, he rested only until he felt well enough to travel again. For a short while he stayed in a cave above Kotgarh, with a motley group of beggars, two lepers, a blind man and a cripple.
On one occasion Sundar returned to Rampur. He hoped his family would have changed their minds. But they had not. His father refused to touch him and when Sundar asked for water he poured it into his hands from a bowl held high above him. Crying, not for himself but for the hardness of his family’s hearts, Sundar—an outcaste—slept that night under a tree among the farmers’ fields.
In spite of rejection by his own people, Sundar found numberless listeners among the poor of India who gladly received him. At first they were shocked to discover him a Christian, but when they heard his simple teachings they knew he spoke the truth.
Using parables and illustrations from nature, Sundar spoke of the peace that comes from letting go of earthly things, and from returning good for evil. He spoke of eternal life and how to get ready for it:
There was a girl in a village. Every day she dusted the cobwebs in her room. Once while doing this she thought about herself and prayed, “Lord, as I am cleaning my room, clean my heart from all sin.” Then she heard a voice: “Daughter, what is the use of only sweeping away the cobwebs? It is better to destroy the spider that spins them. If you kill the spider there will be no more webs.” Likewise it is not enough that our daily sins be forgiven, but, as the Apostle says, the old man in us must die.
It is a healthy sign to feel that we are sinners. It is dangerous when we do not feel it. Once while bathing in the river Sutlej I sank deep into the water. Above my head were tons of water, yet I did not feel the burden at all. When I came back to the bank, I lifted a pot filled with water and found it very heavy. As long as I was in the water I did not feel the weight. In the same way a sinner does not feel the weight of sin as long as he lives in it.
Observe the cobra, however often it may slough its skin it remains a cobra. In the same way, a sinner, even though he leaves his body, will remain a sinner in the next world. Character does not change with death.
About the necessity of letting every person find his own way to conversion, Sundar said:
A silkworm was struggling out of its cocoon. An ignorant man saw it battling as if in pain so he pulled it out and set it free. But very soon afterwards, it fluttered a bit and died. The other silkworms that struggled without his help suffered. But they came into full life and beauty, with wings made strong for flight by their battle for new existence.
Sundar spoke of repentance as the key to the Kingdom of God:
In the south of Bhutan there is a dense jungle where men hunt tigers and other big game. In one place there is a lodge where they can take shelter in case of danger. The hunters make it a practise to carry the key of this lodge with them. One day a hunter started out, gun in hand. Suddenly he saw a tiger coming after him, and thinking that he could get into the lodge, threw his gun aside and ran toward it. He reached the door and looked for the key. But he had left it behind. Instantly the tiger leapt upon him and killed him. Between where he stood and the inside of the lodge was but an inch—nothing more than the thickness of the door. Yet he lost his life because he had been careless about his key. He would have died if he had been ten miles away from the lodge. He died none-the-less when he was very near to it. Though near the Kingdom of God, many Christians are careless about its key. What is that key? It is repentance and continued prayer.
Regarding the use of this world and its things, Sundar said:
There is no evil or harm in using any of God’s created things, provided we do it with thankfulness, and with a proper sense of their value. But danger lies in giving the Creator’s place in our hearts to the creature. We should give to the Creator the Creator’s place, and to the creature the creature’s. We can neither live without water nor live in the water. We must drink, but not sink. If we do not drink we shall die of thirst. If we sink we shall die of drowning. So we must use the things of the world: in a way that they sustain our bodies but do not become too strong for us and choke the breath out of our lives. That breath is conversation with God.
God wants us to be in the world but not of it, so that living in it we may save ourselves and others. The place for a boat is in the water, but water should not be in the boat. If the boat fills with water, it will sink and those in it will drown. So Christians should be in the world, but the world should not be in them. Only in this way will they, and those with them, be brought safely to their destination in heaven. Therefore, do not be so taken up with your work that you have no time to love God and converse with him.
We should live in the world like a diver who when diving for pearls in the ocean, either holds his breath that water may not enter his lungs, or else continues to breathe through an air tube as long as he is in the water. We must be in the world, but not of it. We must be like these two kinds of divers. We must stop breathing the air of the world. If we are dead to it we are alive unto God, and by means of the tube of prayer that reaches him, we breathe his Holy Spirit. Doing this while in the world, we shall find the precious pearl of Salvation.
Because Sundar Singh claimed no possessions he could not lose any. About the owning of possessions he said:
One day I passed through a street. I saw all the doors locked up. No one was around. At once it occurred to me that as long as the heart is locked up against the Lord who made it, it is necessary to lock doors to save property. But if the heart is opened to the Lord, then there is no need to lock doors because there are no thieves.
It did not take Sundar long to discover that many who professed Christ did not know him at all. About them he said:
Christ’s servants are like the moon that borrows its light from the sun and gives it only indirectly to the world. Sometimes it comes between the sun and the earth and causes an eclipse. So the unworthy lives of his servants come between him and the world, and cause his face to be hidden from men.
Those who know about Christ but do not know him as a friend, may preach with the tongues of men and of angels. But witness can only be given by those who know him personally.
Before we may know Christ our spiritual powers and inner senses deadened by sin must be stirred to new life. One bitterly cold day a blind man was trying to read his Braille Bible, but his finger tips were so numbed he could not make out a single word. He went to the fire and began to rub his hands. In a few minutes the circulation returned and he was able to read. In this way, through prayer and meditation the fire of God’s Holy Spirit quickens and warms our inner senses. Then we are able to feel him and enjoy his presence again.
The fact that Christians had divided themselves up into organised sects made no sense to Sundar Singh and he refused to identify himself with any. In conversation with an English Christian he said, “Sects are strange, unnecessary things. There is one God. How can there be different creeds? Peace and quiet come from knowing Christ. Why cause dissension afterwards?” He also said:
People are continually introducing changes in worship and creating new sects. But they are not satisfied with any of them. The real need is not for us to adopt new forms. It is that through Christ, rivers of living water should begin to flow through us. When the water of a Himalayan mountain stream reaches the plains men dig canals for it. But up in the great mountains it makes its own way over cliffs, among the rocks, and through ravines. No one digs a channel for it. So the new life at first makes its way through the lives of individual Christians and they feel no need of organising channels for it. But when it flows through entire groups of people they will organise channels, or churches, for it to meet their needs. The time will come when man-made sects will have to disappear, and there will be only one church of the Living Christ. Then there shall be one fold and one shepherd (John 10:16).
Sundar Singh had a clear vision of how Christians relate to others:
Real Christians live in Christ and he lives in them. . . . Like him they do not live for themselves but for others. Men’s social instincts demand that besides having fellowship with God they seek the intercourse of their fellows—and on their interest in one another’s welfare, common happiness depends.
Common happiness is poisoned by selfishness. Therefore Christ said, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” True love expresses itself in concern for the welfare of others, and it asks from others only that treatment it is ready to give. In this way, in the presence of the Heavenly Father, the common happiness of his children is maintained.
Wherever he travelled through India the message of Sundar Singh, the Christian sadhu, bore fruit. Then he made his way through Ceylon and Burma to Singapore, Vietnam, China, and Japan. He was not a great orator, but spoke quietly, seriously, to the crowds who gathered to hear him.
A great joy came to Sundar, back in India, when his father repented and found Christ. He also visited Mohatma Gandhi and made friends with a foreigner living in a Christian ashram: E. Stanley Jones. Following contacts with him and others, Sundar travelled to England, Canada, the United States, and Australia, circling the earth by ship, in 1920.
As in the east, Sundar Singh carried nothing with him on his journeys but a bag with one extra robe and a New Testament in the Urdu language. Like a Sikh he carefully bathed every morning, and spent much of his time in meditation. He ate sparingly, but of whatever was set before him. On his return to India he said:
There is much Christianity in America, but not enough. A thirsty man cannot quench his thirst though drowning in the sea because its water is laden with salt. So a spiritually thirsty man cannot quench his thirst in America because its Christianity is laden with materialism. In America our Lord would have to say, “Come unto me all who are heavy laden with gold and I will give you rest!”
During the 1920s Sundar made other trips to Europe and the Middle East. But as his warnings to Western Christianity grew more direct, the enthusiasm of those who invited him waned. Criticism mounted against him and he returned to spending most of his time in northern India.
There, as in his childhood home in the Punjab, he constantly felt the challenge of the snow-crowned Himalayas and the closed land of Tibet beyond them. In April, 1929, he set out on foot for the north and was not seen nor heard from again.
The Lord Christ knows the complete story of the Christian sadhu, Sundar Singh. To many his Indian ways and thoughts seemed strange, and questions remain unanswered. But his words and example live on in the body of Christ.
Singh, Sundar, With and Without Christ, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1929
Streeter, B. H. and Appasamy, A. J., The Message of Sadhu Sundar Singh, Macmillan, New York, 1922