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Sadhu Sundar Singh
Born September 3, 1889(1889-09-03)
Died unknown in unknown
Education Anglican College, Lahore
Title Sadhu
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Sadhu Sundar Singh (Punjabi: ਸਾਧੂ ਸੁੰਦਰ ਸਿੰਘ, Urdu: سادھُو سُندر سنگھ; Hindi: साधु सुन्दर सिंह) (September 3, 1889 Patiala State, India) was an Indian Christian missionary. He is believed to have died in the foothills of the Himalayas in 1929.




Early years

Sundar Singh was born into an important landowning Sikh family in Patiala State in northern India. Sikhs, rejecting Hindu polytheism and Muslim intolerance since the sixteenth century, had become quite established in the area. Sundar Singh's mother took him to sit at the feet of a Sadhu, an ascetic holy man, who lived in the jungle some miles away, while also sending him to Ewing Christian High School, Ludhiana in order to learn english.

The death of Sundar Singh's mother, when he was fourteen, plunged him into violence and despair. He took out his anger on the missionaries, persecuted 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 while his friends watched. Three nights later he took a bath before going to the railroad track to commit suicide. While he was bathing, Sadhu loudly asked who was 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 Singh saw a vision of Christ with His pierced hands.[1]

Conversion to Christianity

Before dawn, he awakened his father to announce that he had seen Jesus Christ in a vision and heard his voice. He told his father that henceforth he would follow Christ forever. 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 community .[2]

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.

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Life of servitude

In October of 1906, he set out on his journey as a new Christian, wearing a yellow robe and turban. 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 desired to be a sadhu of a different sort. This brought him a good deal of attention.

"I am not worthy to follow in the steps of my Lord," he said, "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."

Quite soon he put his new faith 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 cold, and his feet became torn from the rough paths. Not many months had passed before the small 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 frontier for the first time. The state of the people appalled him. Their 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 ship to the region. 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 harder disillusionment to come. In December 1909 he began training for the Christian ministry at the Anglican college in Lahore. Singh's biographers depict his experience at college as that 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.

Although Singh had been baptized by an Anglican priest, he was ignorant of the ecclesiastical 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 irrelevant to the gospel as India needed to hear it. After eight months in the college Singh decided to leave in July 1910.

It has been claimed by his biographers that the cause of Singh's withdrawal was due to remarks made by Bishop Lefroy about the requirements of an ordained Anglican priest. The strictures, as the biographers report it, are 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. The stipulations laid down by the bishop, however, 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. He claims, however, that three days later a rope was thrown to him and he was rescued. 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. [3]

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.

The secret Sunnyasi Mission is reputed to have numbered around 24,000 members across India.[4] 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.[5]

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

During his twenties, Sundar Singh's ministry widened greatly, and long before he was thirty, his name and picture were familiar all over the Christian world. He described 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, Malaya, China, 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 publicized.

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

In 1923 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.

In 1929, against all his friends' advice, Sundar determined to make one last journey to Tibet. He was last seen on the 18th of April 1929 setting off on this journey. 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. Whether he died of exhaustion or reached the mountains remains a mystery. Some said that Sadhu was murdered and his body thrown into 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."[6]

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 (1688-1772) 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."[7]

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."[8]

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.[9] 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."[10]


  • 1889 - Born at Rampur, Punjab
  • 1903 - Conversion
  • 1904 - Cast out from home
  • 1905 - Baptised 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 - Final attempts to reach Tibet
  • 1972 - Sadhu Sundar Singh Evangelical Association formed.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Mrs. Arthur Parker, Sadhu Sundar Singh: Called of God,(London: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1920) p. 28-29.
  3. ^ Parker, Mrs. Arthur, Sadhu Sundar Singh: Called of God (London: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1920), p. 64-65
  4. ^ Eric J. Sharpe, The Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh (New Delhi: Intercultural Publications, 2004 ISBN 81-85574-60-X), p.64.
  5. ^ Sharpe, Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh, p. 65.
  6. ^ Sharpe, Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh p. 91.
  7. ^ Sharpe, Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh, p. 152.
  8. ^ Sharpe, Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh, p. 153.
  9. ^ Walter R. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), pp. 241-251.
  10. ^ Sharpe, Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh, p. 179.

Further reading

  • Paul Gaebler: Sadhu Sundar Singh, Leipzig 1937 (German).
  • Appasamy, A. J. Sundar Singh. Cambridge: Lutterworth, 1958.
  • Benge, Janet & Geoff Sundar Singh: Footprints Over the Mountains
  • Davey, Cyril J. The Story of Sadhu Sundar Singh (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963); reprinted as Sadhu Sundar Singh (Bromley: STL Books, 1980).
  • Francis, Dayanandan, ed. The Christian Witness of Sadhu Sundar Singh. Alresford: Christian Literature Crusade, 1989.
  • Streeter, Burnett and A. J. Appasamy. The Sadhu: a Study in Mysticism and Practical Religion. London: Macmillan, 1923.
  • Thompson, Phyllis, Sadhu Sundar Singh (Carlisle: Operation Mobilisation, 1992).
  • Watson, Janet Lynn. The Saffron Robe. London: Hodder and Stoughton,1975.
  • In Australia KOORONG Books do an excellent little paperback called "Sadhu Sundar Singh"
  • Woodbridge, John. More Than Conquerors. Australia, 1992.
  • Benge, Geoff and Janet. "Sundar Singh: Footprints Over the Mountains" (Christian Heroes: Then and Now Series)
    • Much of the above detail was provided by this book.
  • Andrews, C. F. Sadhu Sundar Singh: A Personal Memoir. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1934.
  • Joyce Reason. The man who disappeared: Sundar Singh of India. London: Edinburgh House Press, 1937

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