Romantic stories. Americans have always loved them. Especially popular are stories that tell of heathen people saved from their heathenness by Christian missionaries who have bravely trekked into the lands of idolaters. The stuff of national legend has often been found where such tales have combined with the liberation of unenlightened people through the introduction of western democracy (by force if necessary) and the salvation of the lost through the life-giving gospel of capitalism.
During the early part of the the 20th Century there came to American ears the remarkable story of a young Sikh man living in the far reaches of India who had experienced a dramatic and miraculous conversion to the Christian faith, a conversion not unlike that experienced by the Apostle Paul when the Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus. So great was his faith, said the papers and popular speakers in the lecture halls, that he lived the life of a sadhu (holy man), owned no property save the thin gown that covered his otherwise naked body, and traveled barefoot through the frozen Himalayas to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the people of Tibet, Kashmir, Afghanistan and every other remote place to which the Lord directed him.
The “Apostle to the East” and “Paul of India” he was called by enthralled Christian readers of American newspapers and monthly magazines. And on Sundays millions of congregants from New York to San Francisco were kept spellbound in their pews by tales of this romantic eastern figure who represented western culture’s triumph over “Satan’s religions.”
Sadhu Sundar Singh was his name.
When in 1920 news spread that the famous sadhu was coming to America on a trip sponsored by an Anglican friend, requests for speaking engagements overwhelmed the young teacher. Everyone, it seemed, was eager to see this modern day Christian apostle from the mysterious land of Vishnu, and the national vanity was perked and bristled with excitement in anticipation of the sweet praise and compliments all knew Sadhu Sundar Singh would have for the great Christian nation of America, its divinely ordained culture, and God-given prosperity. What they received was a man of God who shamed the conscience of American believers with the the piercing clarity of his perceptions, the simple honesty of his words and the love that ever presently exuded from this man filled with the love of God.
The Sadhu’s thoughts on the Christianity of the west are yet worth reading today. They are, perhaps, even more relevant today than when he offered them almost a hundred years ago. The following material is excerpted from an interview with the Sadhu which is included in the “Wisdom of the Sadhu.”
Christian: Sadhu, you have personally experienced Jesus to be the Master who leads us to inner peace and salvation. Don’t we have an obligation to bring this truth to heathen peoples everywhere?
Sadhu: We must break the old habit of calling people of other faiths “heathen.” The worst “heathen” are among us. We should love people of other faiths, even agnostics, and atheists, as brothers and sisters. We need not love everything they believe and do, but we must love them.
Even an idolater worshipping a stone may experience something of God’s peace. This does not mean that there is any consoling power in the stone, but for some, it may be a means of concentrating their attention on God. God grants to all people peace in accordance with their faith.
The danger, of course, is that the worshipper will not advance spiritually, and will become more and more attached to the material object rather than to the living God – ultimately becoming as lifeless as the stone. Such a person will no longer be able to recognize the author of life who alone can fulfill the longing of our hearts.
Christian: But don’t we have an obligation to profess our faith and share it with others? You yourself heard about the Master from missionaries who went to India.
Sadhu: When we have really encountered the Master and experienced release from sin, then sheer joy impels us to share it with others. We cannot sit silent about what God has done; we must give witness to it.
Anyone who has experienced the Master’s peace – whether man or woman, boy or girl, rich or poor, laborer or farmer, writer or priest, judge or official, doctor or lawyer, teacher or pupil, government official or missionary—he or she is only a follower of the Master to the extent that they witness to the truth. But bearing witness does not necessarily mean preaching in the market or from a pulpit. We have opportunities of giving witness to the Master wherever we are. We can do this through an upright life, a blameless character, through integrity of behavior, by our enthusiasm, and by our love for the Master, sharing with others what he has done for us. Every person, not only with words but with his life, can be a witness for the Master.
A Sufi mystic was on a journey. He had with him a quantity of wheat. After being on the road for several days he opened his bags and found a number of ants in them. He sat down and pondered over their plight. Being overcome with pity for the little lost creatures, he retraced his steps and returned them safely to their original home.
It is amazing how we humans can show so much sympathy to such little creatures. How then is it possible to lack sympathy and fellow feeling in our dealings with one another? Many have gone very far astray and do not know the way back. Surely it is our duty to guide the lost back to the way of righteousness and to help them find their eternal home.
There are many people in India and around the world who would like to hear about the Master. These people need witnesses to the truth but not Western culture. Indians desperately need the Water of Life, but they do not want it in European vessels! The Master chose simple fisherman as his followers because he had a simple message, not a philosophy. The world has enough of teaching and philosophy.
Christian: Haven’t you visited America and western Europe? What did you think of our Christian witness and heritage?
Sadhu: What homesickness I had in Europe! I felt like a bird in a cage. The whole atmosphere was heavy for me. Many people thought I suffered from the cold climate, but this was not so. I have experienced far greater cold in the Himalayas. It was not the physical atmosphere that oppressed me, but the spiritual atmosphere.
In India, one feels everywhere – even through idols and altars, pilgrims and penitents, temples and that there is a desire for higher things. In the West, however, everything points to armed force, great power, and material things. It is this power of evil that makes me so sad.
India is more and more seeking the Master’s truth. The West is in danger of becoming more and more indifferent. And yet the West owes so many of its blessings to Christianity. At one time the ostrich could fly, but because the ostrich stopped using its wings, it became unable to fly. So are the people of Europe and America – they do not appreciate the faith of their forebears and are fast losing it.
The West is like Judas Iscariot, who ate with Jesus, only to later deny him. The West ought to fear the fate of Judas, lest it hang itself on the tree of learning. You have so many privileges. We in the East have to give up many things when we become Christians. For you, it is not so. Therefore be careful that you don’t lose your only possibility for eternal happiness.
I am reminded of the hunter who was pursued by a tiger. He had no fear because his hut was nearby and he was sure that he had the key in his pocket. On reaching it, however, the key was gone, and although there was only the thickness of the door between him and safety, he was lost.
Once when I was in the Himalayas, I was sitting upon the bank of a river; I drew out of the water a beautiful, hard, round stone and smashed it. The inside was quite dry. The stone had been lying a long time in the water, but the water had not penetrated the stone. It is just like that with the “Christian” people of the West. They have for centuries been surrounded by Christianity, entirely steeped in its blessings, but the Master’s truth has not penetrated them.
Christianity is not at fault; the reason lies rather in the hardness of their hearts. Materialism and intellectualism have made their hearts hard. So I am not surprised that many people in the West do not understand what Christianity really is.
Many modern thinkers in the West do not believe in the miracles of our Master. To my mind, it’s already a miracle that there are still spiritual people in the West at all. In America, for example, one sees a good deal of Christianity, but it does not address the spiritual needs of the people. Just as salty seawater cannot quench thirst, much of American religion cannot satisfy a spiritually thirsty person because it is saturated with materialism.
The Master’s words, “Come unto me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” are true as regards the East, but I think that for America, he would say, “Come unto me all who are heavy gold-laden and I will give you rest.”
Looking at the motto “In God We Trust” on the American dollar one might think the Americans are very religious people, but the motto should read, “In the dollar we trust.” Americans are seeking the almighty dollar, not the Almighty God.
Although America is a “Christian” nation and there are many sincere Christians in America, the majority of the people there have no faith. There, where it is so easy to have religion, where religion is offered on every side and no one is persecuted for their beliefs, life should be peaceful. Instead, there is a mad rush and hustle and bustle after money and comfort and pleasure.
In India, many Christians suffer bitter persecution but continue to find happiness in their new faith. Because it is so easy to have faith in America, people do not appreciate what a comfort there is in faith.
Christian: What advice do you have, Sadhu-ji, for Christian churches in the West?
Sadhu: A scientist had a bird in his hand. He wanted to find out in what part of the bird’s body its life was and what the life itself was. So he began dissecting the bird. The result was that the very life of which he was in search mysteriously vanished. Those who try to understand the inner life merely intellectually will meet with a similar failure. The life they are looking for will only vanish.
When I returned from Europe, I began reading the writings of the German mystic Jakob Boehme and was attracted to him as soon as I had read the first two or three pages. This simple, uneducated shoemaker had an experience of God that has influenced millions of people. I may be wrong, but I am more and more convinced that simple people like Boehme have a pure intuition and grasp easily and readily the Master’s profound spiritual truths. Educated people, especially those I met in the West, repress their native intuition and substitute in its place a kind of artificial rationalism.
That is why the Master called simple fishermen as his disciples.
I studied theology in a theological seminary. I learned many useful and interesting things no doubt, but they were not of much spiritual profit. There were discussions about sects, about Jesus Christ and many other interesting things, but I found the reality, the spirit of all these things, only at the Master’s feet. When I spent hours at his feet in prayer, then I found enlightenment, and God taught me so many things that I cannot express them even in my own language.
Sit at the Master’s feet in prayer; it is the greatest theological college in this world. We know about theology, but he is the source of theology itself. He explains in a few seconds a truth that has taken years to understand. Whatever I have learned has been learned only at his feet. Not only learning, but life, I have found at his feet in prayer.
I do not condemn theologians wholesale, but it is unfortunately the fashion in Western thinking to doubt and deny everything. I protest this tendency. I never advise anyone to consult theologians, because all too often they have completely lost all sense of spiritual reality. They can explain Greek words and all that, but they spend too much time among their books and not enough time with the Master in prayer.
It is not that I oppose all education, but education without life is certainly dangerous. You must stop examining spiritual truths like dry bones! You must break open the bones and take in the life-giving marrow.