The outer rooms of St Stephen’s College no longer resound to the mesmerising voice of Sadhu Sunder Singh but the mystery of the amazing hermit lingers on even long years after his disappearance. The Sadhu was a frequent visitor to the college as principal Rudra was a great admirer and often arranged meetings for him with Mahatma Gandhi at his residence.
Sadhu Sunder Singh, a convert to Christianity, was declared dead by the then Government of India in 1933, but there are people who swear the great mystic is alive and bides his time in the remote Himalayas, knowing the type of man he was and considering the fact that he had a strong constitution. After conversion at a very young age, Sunder Singh took upon himself the task of preaching his newly acquired faith in Tibet, which was up to the beginning of the last century a forbidden land. Every year, he used to go on a one-man mission to teach the gospel to the Tibetans and return after suffering many hardships.
Once the Chief Lama had him whipped and, with his hands and legs tied, threw him into the well of death where criminals met their end. Sunder Singh prayed hard and on the third night some one lowered a rope with a cot tied to it. He managed to get out of the well and when the Chief Lama saw him again he was mad with rage. He looked for the key to the well which was kept only by him, and found that it had not been stolen as he had suspected. Yet the Sadhu was able to escape from that locked pit of death.
Sunder Singh was a strange child and after the death of his mother, he decided to become an evangelist. A tall, bearded man with long hair, a fair complexion and hypnotic eyes, he had the gift of preaching and the power to attract hundreds of people whenever he spoke, not only in India but also abroad. He had toured India, Sri Lanka, Burma, the Far East, Europe and Middle East, besides America, and wherever he went people thronged to hear him speak.
In England once when he reached a house and rang the doorbell the maid rushed to her mistress and said in a terrified voice: “Madam, I think Christ has come”, sending a child to seek cover under a bed. Such was the charm of the Sadhu, but the West was not for him. Many are the adventures of Sadhu Sunder Singh. Once in the Himalayas he was attacked by a tiger while he was meditating. The tiger came right upto his throat but then withdrew suddenly. Similarly a bear which lost its young tried to maul him but like St Francis he whispered a few words: “I know not where thy young ones are my friend go in peace.” And, lo, the bear left on its own.
In Tibet, it is said, he was sewed alive in the skin of a yak, poked with red hot needles and left on the dunghill to die. The vultures started circling overhead but then by some strange power he was able to come out of the skin and crawl to the marketplace to preach one more sermon. At another time while he was lost in a snowstorm he came upon a cave where sat a creature half man and half animal. And when it spoke in an ancient voice only then did Sunder Singh realise it was a man who claimed to be over 400 years old. The Sadhu lived in the cave for several days and also heard that there were others in the vastness of the Himalayas who were even older. There were both Hindu and Christian sadhus, though this one was from Armenia. They had learnt to master death it seemed.
Life of a hermit
Sunder Singh had expressed a wish to lead a life like these sadhus and forget the world in the word of God. When he did not return after his last mission to Tibet in 1929, the Government waited three years to grant the probate of his will and assume him dead. And yet now after so many years there is off and on news that a strange sadhu had been seen in the Himalayan wastes, talking to the birds and beasts and dressed in skins. Is it the amazing Sadhu Sunder Singh, who learnt to conquer death like the ascetics he had met earlier? One does not know but considering the strange man he was who knows Sunder Singh probably still looks down on the plains of Punjab from some Himalayan height and whispers a prayer for his motherland! Those who look after the library in Dalhousie named after him are sure he does so.
But at St. Stephen’s sometimes old timers talk in hushed tones of Sadhu Sunder Singh, who was born on Sept 4, 1889 in Punjab, and sat at the same table every time he came to meet principal Rudra and Gandhiji, who had begun to like him because of his devotion to India and the need to uplift the poor no matter to which religion they belonged. The Sadhu himself never insisted on converting anybody but left it to his listeners to take their own decision after hearing him preach. He was constantly reminding people that true inspiration always came in moments of solitude like that time when he was in his teens and praying in an upstairs room in his house at Patiala. Suddenly, there was a bright shining light and he fell on his knees on seeing a figure reminiscent of Christ that he had once seen in a church. The visitant did not speak to him but just raised his hand in blessing and disappeared.
That was the turning point in his life and he decided to convert despite opposition from his family but his mother sided with him and he was able to realise his wish. It was much later that Sunder Singh read the poem by Leigh Hunt about Abou Ben Adhem and how an angel had appeared to the Chief Tribesman at midnight and asked him whom he loved the most. The reply was, “My fellow-men”. The angel came again with a loud sound the next night and told him that his name had been written right on top in the heavenly book in golden letters. Probably Sunder Singh also had the same distinction by joining Abou Ben Adhem and increasing his tribe!