by Inderjit Bhogal.
I first came across Sadhu Sundar Singh when, aged twenty two , when I came across a photograph of him. It showed him as a bearded man, wearing a turban, a full length robe, and sandals. I took it to be a photo of a Sikh gentleman. I was staggered when I was told he was a follower of Jesus Christ. I determined to find out as much as I could about Sadhu Sundar Singh.
Popularly known as The Sadhu [the term Sadhu means holy person], Sundar Singh wrote a number of books, and many books have been written about him. Most of the books about the Sadhu have been written by western theologians interpreting him as a great Panjabi and Hindi speaking evangelist who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was God’s gift to help hasten the “evangelisation of the world in this generation”.
My interest is in who Sadhu Sundar Singh was, what defined his spirituality, and what he had and has to say. I am intrigued by the fact that some writers have questioned whether his background and upbringing was Sikh or Hindu. An element of this puzzle entered into my mind too. His name, especially his middle name Singh is clearly of Sikh derivation. Singh is the name every Sikh male has. It means “lion”, and goes back to the seventeenth century and specifically to the Tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh. Singh designates Sikh.
I am researching the life of Sadhu Sundar Singh. My research has included visiting the village of Rampur, in Panjab, where Sadhu Sundar Singh was born and brought up. His descendants still live there. I like to meet with them. Most significantly I met with Harpal Singh Mangat, the great grandson of Channan Singh Mangat, the brother of Sadhu Sundar Singh. I discuss with Harpal, my primary source, whether Sadhu Sundar Singh was a Sikh or a Hindu.
Rampur is almost hundred percent populated by the wealthy Mangat family who are all Sikhs and farmers. Harpal has no doubt that Sadhu Sundar Singh was a Sikh, who was deeply influenced by his mother who respected the Sikh and the Hindu faiths, and related well to Hindu and Sikh religious leaders. His immediate family now are “Amritdhari Sikhs” [baptised Sikhs]. A photo of Sadhu Sundar Singh hangs in his family home which has become a place to visit for pilgrims like me. His family hold important memories of Sadhu Sundar Singh. They are “neutral” to Sadhu Sundar Singh, “neither proud nor embarrassed” but honour the fact that “he served Christ, and that is good”.
Sadhu Sundar Singh’s description of himself is clear. “I was born in a family that was commonly considered Sikh but in which the teaching of Hinduism was most essential”. He was familiar with the scriptures of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. He was a Biblical theologian. The reluctance of some scholars to accept his Sikh heritage may be rooted in their reluctance to acknowledge that there are people of Sikh background who have been prepared to follow other Gurus than the Ten Gurus, and the Guru Granth Sahib [the Holy Scriptures of the Sikhs acknowledged as the ultimate living Guru].
The inspiration I find in Sadhu Sundar Singh is that he followed Christ in his own way, refused to be institutionally reduced by the established Church of the western mode, courageously chose to be himself adopting a distinctively Indian spirituality and demeanour, and that he reflected Christ. The Church throughout the world was fascinated and inspired by him. His contemporaries, like his friend Rebecca Parker, commented “how like he is to Christ”.
Sadhu Sundar Singh is remembered as one of the great followers of Christ by the Church in India. He is listed among the commemorated saints and honoured on his birth and baptism date 3rd September [born 1889, baptised 1905].
In the forty three years since I first came across the photo and story of Sadhu Sundar Singh, I have found that one of my biggest challenges in church, ministry and personal life has been to be myself while many people have wanted me to be someone else. The loneliest part of my journey over the years has been that I am the only Sikh born and Panjabi Presbyter in the Methodist Church in Britain. I describe myself as a follower of Christ with roots in the Sikh faith. Sadhu Sundar Singh has been a good companion. I remind myself that Jesus’ first disciples followed him as Jews. Paul found confidence and pride in being a “Hebrew of Hebrews” [Philippians 3:5].