Harking Back: Punjabi ‘sadhu’ whom the Pope accepted as a saint

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, May 7, 2017

Description: Sadhu Sundar Singh  — Wikipedia
Sadhu Sundar Singh — Wikipedia

The year was 1905 and a tall and handsome 16-year old Punjabi Sikh in saffron robes walked into the Divinity College at Nila Gumbad and declared that he was the walking Christ. It was the beginning of a remarkable journey.

My interest in Sundar Singh sprang primarily from the fact that while studying stained glass masterpieces, a classic book pointed to a unique church window with the Art Gallery of South Australia in Melbourne that has three saintly figures standing erect. The figures are those of the Prophet Isaiah, the Apostle Saint Peter and a Sundar Singh, who had studied and lived in Lahore. What was a Lahori doing among the saints of Christianity? How did this man locked in a deep dark well by Nepal’s chief Lama and left to die, manage to escape in a miracle that still baffles the mind? Why did the Pope, finally, consecrate him as a saint? This person had to be explored and what emerged was an amazing story that should be told.

He is known as Sadhu Sundar Singh and was born in September 1889 in Rampur village of Patiala. He belonged to a well-off rural family who studied Hinduism in depth. By the age of seven, much to the shock of the local temple Brahmin priest, he had learnt by heart the entire Bhagwatgita and the four Vedas. He had also become a Hafiz of the Quran and also started studying the Bible. As he had learnt yoga he donned saffron robes and set off to see the world, living off charity with no worldly possessions.

But soon he realised that he needed a better education and because his mother had known the women at the Ludhiana Mission School, he enrolled there. Very soon he realised that the Christianity being preached there was not what Christ had preached. So, allegedly, he tore up the school bibles and threw stones at preachers for being frauds out to make money. A highly disturbed Sundar Singh contemplated suicide and he lay on a railway track near his home. He shouted: “If God exists, show yourself”. He then claims that a blinding light came before him and Christ stood there in its midst. “How long will you search for me. What you prayed for was correct. Set forth to serve the poor.”


So it was that the spiritual journey of Sadhu Sundar Singh began. He walked to Simla, where he was baptised and then he set off, on divine orders he claimed, for the ‘city of learning’ Lahore. Sundar realised that the appearance of Christ meant that he was alive, for his return on the Day of Judgement is mentioned in the Quran and also the Bible, and his logic was that everyone must realise that the path to peace was to accept this ‘fact’ as he called it. Finally he was at peace with himself. He walked towards Lahore on the advice of his friends. So it was that he entered the College of Theology at Nila Gumbad and was met and taught by the Bishop of Lahore, George LeRoy.

Within a year he had learnt by heart all the scripture books prescribed, and reached the conclusion that what they were being taught had nothing to do with the ‘living’ Christ, who he always claimed lived ‘within him’. He refused to give up his yellow saffron robes, much to the annoyance of the formal structure of the church, more so the colonial British Christian worshippers of Lahore. He decided that the time to set off had come. So bare-footed in yellow saffron robes he set off for Nepal where he started preaching in a strict Buddhist environment. The local Lama of Rasa arrested him and condemned him to death, throwing him in ‘a death well’ by locking the iron cover top.

For three days and nights he lay there in the dark among stinking corpses. Then in nothing short of a miracle one night a stranger unlocked the well cover and helped him out. As he stood up to thank him he found the stranger had disappeared. The Lama’s men arrested him again and presented him to his court. The head priest wanted to know how he had escaped from a locked ‘death well’. Sundar Singh boldly said: “You have the only key to that lock, it was the ‘Living’ Christ who helped me out”. A shocked priest searched his pocket and found the key. He ordered him out of Nepal immediately.

So back to Lahore came Sadhu Sundar Singh and was one of the five founding members of the Cathedral Church of the Resurrection on the Mall, which also houses on its premises the famous Cathedral High School. But being the only non-white member he soon realised that his name was never mentioned, and that what was being preached was an elitist version of Christianity, not what Christ stood for, that is the poor. He declared: “All Prophets represent the poor only. The world is poorer because the priestly classes, all of them, only make money for themselves, not to help people in poverty”. He walked away never to return.

From this point onward we learn of this unique Punjabi Christian ‘sadhu’ travelling the world. He walked to the southern tip of India and crossed over to Sri Lanka. From there in 1918 he reached Malaysia and then went to Japan and finally China. Everywhere he went he faced trouble from the established church. At every juncture he was saved by amazing ‘miracles’ that brought him still more followers. He decided to head for Europe and visited almost every European city, preaching and gathering followers. Finally he headed to the land where Christ was born. There he informed visiting Christians that they had located the birthplace of Christ incorrectly. Amazingly it was only in 1997 that scientists discovered that he was correct.

At this juncture he decided to find a ship to Australia where he on landing in 1922 informed the authorities that Christ was very unhappy at the treatment the white population was meting out to the ‘saintly original inhabitants’. He claimed that they had been there for 50,000 years. Amazingly it was only recently that archaeologists have carbon-dated this to be true.

But then he returned and set off for Tibet, where in a remote cave he met another sadhu named Kartar Singh, who legend had it had been sitting in one position for over 300 years. It turned out he was known as the Maharishi of Kailas. They became friends and it emerged that they were from the same village. From him he learnt that the ‘Christ within never dies’, we only disappear from human eyes.

In 1926, as accounts put it, Sadhu Sundar Singh set off into the forests towards India. He was never seen again. Amazingly, never again was Kartar Singh seen. Do they still roam around us in another form is a question I have no answer to. The person nearest Sadhu Sunder, in a secular sense, in our lifetime was, probably, Edhi of Karachi, to whom the poor looked up to.

But the fact that the Pope finally accepted Sundar Singh’s sainthood is testimony to his stature in the world of Christian theology. That masterpiece in Melbourne is proof enough that in every corner of the world the man who founded the Cathedral Church of the Resurrection of Lahore is a respected ‘saint’, unique that he was to our formal worldly perspective.



Back To Majid Sheikh's Columns

Back To APNA Home Page