In September 1889, Sundar Singh was born to a wealthy, devout Sikh family in Patiala northern India. From a young age, he was drawn by holy things and memorized the Bhagavad Gita at age seven. Soon after he gained familiarity with both Hindu Vedic scriptures and the Islamic Quran.
His mother, an ardent seeker of truth, encouraged him to become a wandering sadhu and seek his peace, rather than follow in the footsteps of his business-oriented brothers, but he didn’t do that right away. Instead, his mother’s connections opened up an opportunity for him to attend a Christian school operated by Presbyterian missionaries.
The mission school included Bible readings as part of their daily lessons. Although Sundar was drawn to the love and grace of Jesus Christ, he resisted the Christian religion as a whole.
Then when he was only fourteen, Sundar Singh’s mother died. She’d been a saintly and compassionate woman, and her loss grieved him deeply. In his anger, he publicly burned a copy of the Bible and afterwards prayed to know the truth of God by a certain time, or he would throw himself in front of a train due to arrive at that time and end it all.
The results of his desperate prayer surprised him. He was met by a light-filled vision of a man with wounds in His hands: the Christians’ Jesus Christ, the “foreign” god. It was the beginning of a series of direct encounters with the living God who entered into our suffering, and it changed the course of his life. These visions are detailed more completely in Sundar Singh’s words, along with many of his prayers and other thoughts, in his book At the Master’s Feet.
Very quickly, he requested baptism and refused family pressure to recant his profession of faith. His father formally disowned him, and Sundar Singh had someone cut his hair, which, as with other Sikh men, he’d kept long as one of the marks of a martial Sikh.
At one point, he began studies in a Christian seminary, but he felt a disconnect between the standard method of communicating Christianity and the ways of Indian culture. So in this he honored his dead mother’s wishes: he became a sadhu, wandering through communities in his thin, yellow robe, holding his begging bowl.
Much like the original disciples of Christ, he took neither food nor money for the journey — only himself and his faith. And as the charity of kind people filled his bowl with food, so the sadhu filled their hearts and minds with the light of Jesus, and people would come to listen to him teach.
Sadhu Sundar Singh’s ministry wasn’t limited only to the towns and villages of India. Eventually, prominent Christian leaders, including archbishops, invited him abroad where he talked with them, preached, and visited church services in places like Berlin (Germany), Jerusalem (Israel), Amsterdam (the Netherlands), and Lima (Peru), as well as towns throughout Malaysia, Nepal, Tibet, Japan, and Australia.
There, too, he discovered a need for a more simple connection with the truth of Christ. For if Indian Hindus worshipped idols in temples, so, too, the Western Christians who’d had the benefit of Jesus’ teaching for centuries worshipped comfort and made idols of themselves. He said:
"While sitting on the bank of a river one day, I picked up a solid round stone from the water and broke it open. It was perfectly dry in spite of the fact that it had been immersed in water for centuries. The same is true of many people in the Western world. For centuries they have been surrounded by Christianity; they live immersed in the waters of its benefits. And yet it has not penetrated their hearts; they do not love it. The fault is not in Christianity, but in men's hearts, which have been hardened by materialism and intellectualism."
He poured himself out to share Christ in daily life and did much to express a Christianity that was distinctly Indian and was believed to have had unusual gifts of healing and power over animals. It is, however, worth noting a few more universalist quirks to his thinking, gained perhaps in his early years in Sikhism, which is a somewhat universalist faith.
Even with these deviations, it’s important to note the significance of his contribution to Christian faith and missions in India, as well as the beauty of the visions of Christ he shared with those he met at home and abroad. And while his early attempts to minister in a more traditional Western fashion fell flat with many he encountered — it’s said he was once pulled from a tree and beaten for singing hymns — the way he lived out the love and forgiveness of Christ changed lives.
Those same people who assaulted him when he sang hymns were convicted and redeemed when he immediately forgave them and refused to return evil for evil. Likewise, long years after disowning his son, Sundar Singh’s father was captivated by the Jesus he saw living through his son and became a Christian, even funding some of Sundar’s mission trips abroad. Sundar Singh’s brother Rajinder also became a Christian.
It is believed Sadhu Sundar Singh died in 1929 in the Himalayas during a summer trip to Tibet to preach. He was last seen leaving a village called Kalka (near Shimla) with a group of yellow-robed Hindu mendicants. What happened to him after that is unknown, but it is possible his growing frailty and poor health rendered him unfit for this last journey.
“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.” (from At the Master’s Feet)