Links in a Golden Chain: C. S. Lewis, George Macdonald, and Sadhu Sundar Singh
The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing
June 1, 1996
Links in a Golden Chain: C.S. Lewis, George Macdonald, and Sadhu Sundar Singh
by Kathryn Lindskoog
For so the whole round earth is every way Bound by gold chains about the feet of God. --Alfred Lord Tennyson
George MacDonald's spiritual influence upon C. S. Lewis is common knowledge, but until now Sadhu Sundar Singh's influence upon C. S. Lewis has been overlooked.1 The earliest hint that Lewis was acquainted with the life of Sundar Singh appears in Book 8, Chapter 2 of The Pilgrim's Regress. Lewis told of a Man who descended to help the pilgrim when he was in great need. "I will give you a hand," said the stranger, and pulled him out of a desolate gorge.2 A few chapters later, the Man helped the pilgrim again. "Then I dreamed that once more a Man came to him in the darkness." The Man said, "Your life has been saved all this day by crying out to something which you call by many names."3 According to Lewis's running headline, the Man was Christ. Lewis seems to have been consciously echoing Sundar Singh's conversion story. Because Pilgrim's Regress is made up largely of references to a wide variety of authors, it is not surprising that Lewis referred to someone else's famous conversion experience when telling of his own.
Sundar Singh was born nine years before C. S. Lewis, in 1889. He was the youngest child in an aristocratic Sikh family (all Sikhs are named Singh) in the village of Rampur in Patiala, India. The Sikh faith combines Hinduism and Islam, and so his mother lovingly taught him the Sikh and Hindu scriptures and urged him to become a holy man. When he was seven years old he knew the entire Bhagavad Gita by heart (not a unique feat in India), and he was filled with longing for santi, peace of soul. Sundar Singh eagerly studied holy books, meditated, practiced Yoga, and did good works. When he was fourteen years old, in 1902, his mother and older brother died. (In 1908, C. S. Lewis's mother, uncle, and grandfather died.) Unlike his mother, Sundar Singh's father thought he was overly religious for his age. Once, the boy's Guru said to his father, "Your son will become either a fool or a great man."4 Sundar Singh sought God in Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. He was exposed to Christianity for a year in a local school provided by American Presbyterian missionaries, but the more he heard of the New Testament, the more he resented it. He quit the school. When he saw missionaries in public he abused them and ordered his father's servants to do the same. He finally burned a New Testament in public to express his outrage.
Later, Sundar Singh saw that his fanatical opposition to Christianity had disguised a secret attraction to it. His father disapproved of his Bible burning as much as his obsession with proper Indian religions and wondered if his son was losing his sanity. Indeed, on December 17, 1904, fifteen-year-old Sundar Singh told his father goodbye and announced that he would commit suicide before breakfast. He fully planned to lie down on the railroad tracks near his house and be run over by the 5 a.m. express train in order to find God on the other side of death. At 3 a.m. on December 18, Sundar Singh arose and took a cold bath according to Hindu custom. He begged and begged God to reveal Himself before the train came. Suddenly such a great light appeared in his small room that he looked to make sure the house was not on fire. Then a luminous cloud appeared, and he saw a Man's face in it -- radiant with love. The Man spoke in perfect Hindustani, Sundar Singh's mother tongue: "Why do you persecute me? Remember that I gave My life for you upon the Cross."5 Sundar Singh wrote later, "What I saw was no imagination of my own. Up to that moment I hated Jesus Christ and did not worship Him. If I were talking of Buddha I might have imagined it, for I was in the habit of worshipping him. It was no dream. When you have just had a cold bath you don't dream! It was reality, the Living Christ!"6 Sundar Singh fell down before Jesus and worshipped him. Peace and joy finally flooded his soul. At breakfast he told his bewildered father, "The old Sundar Singh is dead; I am a new being."7
His conversion was obviously much like that of the apostle Paul, and he told everyone who would listen. Sundar Singh's Christianity was even less acceptable to his father than the previous enmity to Christianity; he considered his son insane. The family pressured him to abandon his new faith, then finally drove him away. It is said that his last meal at home was poisoned. His friend Gardit Singh, who became a Christian at the same time, actually died from poisoned food. In the local uproar, the mission station had to be closed down and village Christians moved away for safety. Sundar Singh went to study the Bible at a medical mission station. Because it was unlawful to be baptized until he turned sixteen, he was baptized an Anglican Christian on his birthday, Sunday, September 3, 1905. His teacher advised him to get theological training, but he felt called to preach the gospel as a traditional Indian holy man instead.
Thirty-three days after his baptism, Sundar Singh put on the yellow linen robe of a celibate sadhu and set out with only a Hindustani New Testament and a blanket which he often wrapped around his head as a turban. He used no money, and he never begged; when no one offered him food and shelter, he did without. He also did without the protective dagger that Sikh men always carry. When someone asked him if stones did not cut his bare feet, he answered that his feet were so hard they cut the stones. As a typical Sikh, Sundar Singh was just over six feet tall, with a full beard and luminous dark eyes. His eyes showed deep inner peace and drew people to him. He stood erect, his body poised. Animals and children were always attracted to him. He loved to play with children, and he had a sense of humor. When Jesus was mentioned, his whole face lit up with a joyful radiance. After his vision on December 18, 1904, he had just one passionate interest-loving and serving Jesus. Thus he wandered around India and to Afghanistan and Kashmir preaching Christ.
He joined Samuel Stokes, an American missionary who had left his wealthy family in order to try to live like Saint Francis of Assisi in India; together the two friends worked in a leper colony and then in the Plague Hospital in Lahore. In 1909 Sundar Singh took the advice of friends and became a theology student at Saint John's Divinity College in Lahore. He remained an Anglican all his life and preached often in Anglican churches, but as a preacher he refused to be bound to one denomination. To him all Christianity was one. Sundar Singh also respected the religions that had nurtured him as a child, and he saw them fulfilled in Christ. He believed in giving people the living water of God in the cup of their own culture, not in a foreign cup. He felt a special calling to preach to the dangerous, inaccessible land of Tibet, and he made many almost impossible trips there on foot.
In 1912 Sundar Singh's fame began to spread across India, and in 1916 the first of several books about him was published. Wherever he went in India, both Christians and non-Christians thronged to see and hear him. In 1918 he also preached in Ceylon, Burma, Singapore, Japan, and China. In Penang, Malaysia, he was invited to preach the message of Jesus in a Sikh temple.
In 1919 Sundar Singh's father received him kindly and said he was ready to become a Christian. They were reconciled at the very time when C. S. Lewis and his father became estranged after World War I. At this time C. S. Lewis was a student at Oxford. Sundar Singh was told by God to preach in England, and his father offered to pay for the journey. In February 1920 he arrived in England and stayed first at a Quaker center. Then he was a guest of the Anglican Cowley Fathers in Oxford and preached in several colleges and Saint John's Church. It is highly likely that C. S. Lewis heard that Sundar Singh was speaking in Oxford at the time, but it is unlikely that Lewis went to hear him. In the first place, Lewis was especially busy that month. He wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves, "I must work like ten devils this term."8 At the age of twenty-one Lewis found Christianity distasteful. Besides that, he had had an upsetting experience early that year after a night talk with a student friend about "shadowy subjects -- ghosts and spirits and Gods." His friend told about many supernatural experiences, and Lewis fell into a fit of terror like nightmarish terrors he had suffered in childhood. As a result, he said, he "conceived, for the present, a violent distaste for mysteries and all that kind of business.''9
From Oxford the Sadhu went to London, where he preached to great crowds in a variety of major churches, including the Baptist Metropolitan Tabernacle. At Church House, Westminster, he addressed a meeting of seven hundred Anglican clergymen, including several bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury. He also spoke at Trinity College, Cambridge, and crossed to Paris to preach. Then he went to Ireland and on to Scotland, where he preached in leading Presbyterian churches in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Sundar Singh was not puffed up by international popularity. He pointed out that the ass that bore Christ into Jerusalem would have been very foolish to think that the palms and flowers decking the road were in its own honor. Likewise, it would be foolish for those who carry Christ to people today to take credit for the response.
In May the Sadhu crossed the Atlantic and spent three months preaching in American cities from New York to San Francisco. Next he preached in Honolulu, then in several places in Australia. In contrast to other traveling speakers from India in those days, Sundar Singh did not seek to explain and praise Indian wisdom; he came to preach only Jesus.
Finally, at the end of September, he returned to India, grieved about the greedy materialism he had seen in the West. In the East many people worship idols, he observed, but in the West people worship themselves. In 1921 Sundar Singh ministered in Tibet again. Then in early 1922 an old dream of his came true; he toured Palestine, tracing the steps of Jesus. From there he went to preach in Egypt; then in France; and then in Switzerland, where he spoke in the hall used by the League of Nations. In Germany he spoke in Martin Luther's own church in Wittenberg. Then he spoke in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Holland. He arrived back in England very tired, and spoke only at the Keswick conference in Wales. That year he turned down pressing invitations to speak in Finland, Russia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Italy, Portugal, the United States, and New Zealand.
In spite of the fame and adulation heaped upon him, Sundar Singh reportedly remained unassuming and humble. He said he came not to preach (the world has plenty of sermons), but to witness to the saving power of Jesus. His one interest was to come nearer and nearer to Jesus, to grow more and more like Him, and to wear out in His service. Indeed, people everywhere were struck by what they perceived as his resemblance to Jesus. Some people were interested in the Sadhu chiefly because of the miracles and marvels in his life, but when he realized this, he quit telling much about them.
What he wanted to emphasize most was prayer. He attributed all he knew and did and experienced to prayer. "Prayer, prayer, and again prayer" was his motto.10 In April 1929, he set off on his dangerous trek to Tibet again in spite of heart trouble and blindness in one eye. After he set off, no one ever heard from him again. Although friends went searching for information about him, no clues were ever found; he had simply disappeared. When the government of India announced four years later that he was officially given up for dead, some suspected that he had withdrawn from civilization in order to meditate and pray in the Himalayas. But most likely he died shortly after he set out on his final missionary journey. For years he had been eager to leave this life in order to get to heaven to be closer to God.
It was almost surely in April or May 1929 that Sundar Singh ended his Christian vocation on this earth. And, oddly enough, that is when C. S. Lewis knelt down in his room in Oxford and reluctantly admitted that God is God and began his own journey in Christian ministry. There can be no question that C. S. Lewis was aware of Sadhu Sundar Singh. In May 1943 Dorothy Sayers' radio play The Man Born to Be King: A Play Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was first published, and C. S. Lewis promptly read it. He wrote later, "For my own part, l have reread it every Holy Week since it first appeared, and never reread it without being deeply moved."11 He quoted from its preface. In that preface Dorothy Sayers included a footnote quoting from The Sadhu by B. H. Streeter and A. J. Appasamy:
The Sadhu's mind is an overflowing reservoir of anecdote, illustration, epigram, and parable, but he never makes the slightest effort to avoid repetition; in fact he appears to delight in it. 'We do not,' he says, 'refuse to give bread to hungry people because we have already given bread to others.' Hence we have constantly found the same material occurring in more than one of the written or printed authorities we have used. 'My mouth,' he says, 'has no copyright.'12
Seven months after first reading the tribute to Sundar Singh quoted by Sayers, C. S. Lewis wrote his preface for That Hideous Strength. In it he advised readers that his new book was not history but "a modern fairy tale for grownups."13 In the story itself, evidently written in 1943, protagonist Elwin Ransom takes on a strange assignment that has come to him indirectly from a man in India, "the great native Christian mystic whom you may have heard of--the Sura," as one character explained to another in chapter five.14 This fictional Sura foresaw a great danger to the human race coming to a head in England, and he left prophetic word that a group of committed people would gather around Ransom to combat the evil. After giving this message the Sura disappeared, and no one knew if he was alive or dead. It has seemed to some alert readers that Lewis expected readers to be familiar with such a figure. What did Lewis mean by the term Sura? In Sanscrit the word means god. In the Hindu pantheon, a sura is a good angel or genie. In Arabic a sura is one of the 114 chapters of the Koran. Lewis must have known all this when he chose the word. I believe that Lewis used the word sura because he was hinting at the word sadhu, which means a holy man in India. (As an adjective in Sanscrit, sadhu means straight.) If Lewis had actually called his Christian mystic the Sadhu, some readers might have believed that his tale was a true account about the famous Sadhu Sundar Singh. When Lewis wrote That Hideous Strength, Sundar Singh had been missing only fifteen years and would have been fifty-four years old if still alive. He was the Mother Teresa figure of his day. On October 24, 1949, Queen Wilhelmina of Holland wrote, "I never met him. I know him only from his books and books about him. I belong to those who are deeply impressed by his life and teaching and I am sure the way he manifested his radiant love for Christ and His peace, and in general his teaching, was a real help to me in the worst episodes of the terrible catastrophe that was the last war."15
To check my conviction that C. S. Lewis's Sura was really meant to represent Sadhu Sundar Singh, in 1987 I contacted Lewis's Oxford pupil and lifetime friend Dom Bede Griffiths, since 1955 a Benedictine monk in India. I explained my theory and asked him what he thought. (Griffiths, like Sundar Singh, wore the traditional robe of an Indian holy man.) "As regards Sadhu Sundar Singh," Griffiths wrote on June 12, 1987, "I know his life well and have always admired him. Lewis would have admired him especially for his nondenominational or 'mere' Christianity. I don't recall C. S. Lewis ever mentioning him, but I think it is almost certain that the reference in That Hideous Strength is to him."16 "I don't suppose that anyone has made the link between Lewis and Sundar Singh before," Bede Griffiths continued in another letter on July 27, 1987. "On reflection I feel that it is very likely that Lewis heard of him through the Cowley Fathers with whom he was very close. In any case, Sundar Singh needs to be more widely known."17 (The Cowley Fathers were the devout Anglicans who had hosted Sundar Singh during his 1920 visit to Oxford.)
Sundar Singh may have influenced C. S. Lewis in several ways. For example, the name Singh comes from the Sanskrit word for lion. Because Sundar Singh was popularly perceived as the most Christlike man in Lewis's day, it is possible that Sundar Singh was in the back of Lewis's mind when Aslan the lion came bounding into Lewis's first story of Narnia. (Aslan is the Turkish word for lion.) C. S. Lewis and Sundar Singh happened to express the same idea about the relationship between wishes and truth. Sundar Singh taught that every desire we have is given for a special purpose, and we would have no desire to believe in God unless he exists. "The capacity for religion is . . . rather like thirst . . . Just as thirst has been created to make men use water, so the religious thirst has been created to make men come to God."18 In comparison, Lewis wrote: "But what does the existence of the wish [for God] suggest? At one time I was much impressed by Arnold's line 'Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.' But surely, tho' it doesn't prove that one particular man will get food, it does prove that there is such a thing as food! i.e. if we were a species that didn't normally eat, weren't designed to eat, would we feel hungry?"19
It seems that George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, and Sadhu Sundar Singh all converged in the pages of The Great Divorce. (On July 20, 1956, when I told Lewis how much I loved that book, his eyes lit up; he said that it was his Cinderella--much better than The Screwtape Letters, in his opinion, but far less popular.) The Great Divorce is the story of a busload of disgruntled residents of hell who travel to the outskirts of heaven, where they are welcomed in vain. Most of them prefer to get back on the bus and return to hell. In Chapter 9, C. S. Lewis (like Dante encountering Virgil in The Divine Comedy) encounters the wise, holy figure of George MacDonald on the outskirts of heaven. MacDonald explains to Lewis that "the damned have holidays-excursions, ye understand."20 Most of them take trips to earth, but some take trips to heaven and refuse to stay. "Milton was right. The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words 'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.' . . . Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends."21 "All that are in Hell, choose it."22 When he put those words into the mouth of his mentor George MacDonald in The Great Divorce, Lewis might have been thinking of the following words of Sundar Singh: "Men were not created for Hell and therefore do not enjoy it, and, when there, desire to escape into Heaven. They do so, but they find Heaven even more uncongenial than Hell, so they return."23 These words appeared in 1921 in The Message of Sundar Singh, co-authored by B. H. Streeter, an Oxford professor impressed by Sundar Singh's visit the year before.
In Lewis's invented plot in That Hideous Strength, the Sura in India passed on a spiritual assignment to Ransom in England, whom he had never met. Is it possible (I wonder) that in real life the Sadhu in India unknowingly passed on a spiritual assignment to C. S. Lewis in England? Such synchronicity would be in keeping with the Sadhu's strange and marvelous life. (The Bible speaks of such a transfer in the story of Elijah and Elisha in 2 Kings 2.) George MacDonald died on September 18, 1905. Just then the young Sundar Singh decided to become a wandering Sadhu, and less than three weeks after MacDonald's death he set out on his twenty-four-year ministry. When Sundar Singh died in the spring of 1929, C. S. Lewis dedicated his life to God and gradually began his own remarkable ministry. All three of these men ministered by public speaking, by writing, and by deep and constant prayer. Perhaps the chronological links between the prayer and teaching ministries of George MacDonald, Sundar Singh, and C. S. Lewis were only a coincidence. Life is full of coincidences, and George MacDonald believed that we don't even notice most of them. But he believed that they are all significant. C. S. Lewis no doubt failed to notice the chronological coincidence that linked his ministry to the ministries of Sundar Singh and George MacDonald. But in 1948, just three years after publishing his fictional tribute to Sundar Singh in That Hideous Strength, Lewis published his little book titled George MacDonald: An Anthology. One of the insightful passages he decided to include was from MacDonald's novel Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood: "And if we believe that God is everywhere, why should we not think Him present even in the coincidences that sometimes seem so strange? For if He be in the things that coincide, He must be in the coincidence of those things."24
A Short Bibliography of Sundar Singh
Andrews, C. F. Sadhu Sundar Singh: A Personal Memoir. Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1934.
Appasamy, A. J. Sundar Singh: A Biography. Published by Lutterworth Press in London, 1958. First Indian edition, 1966.
Heiler, Friedrich. The Gospel of Sadhu Sundar Singh. First published in German in 1924, then published in English in 1927. First Indian edition published by the Lucknow Publishing House in Lucknow, India, 1970. Abridged English translation by Olive Wyon.
Parker, Rebeccah. Sadhu Sundar Singh, Called of God. Published by the Christian Literature Society in Madras and the S. C. M. Press in London, 1920.
Singh, Sundar. The Complete Works of Sundar Singh, including At the Master 's Feet (1922), Reality and Religion (1923), Search After Reality (1924), Spiritual Life (1925), Spiritual World (1926), Real Life (1927), With and Without Christ (1928), and Life in Abundance (first published in 1980). Published by the Christian Literature Society in Madras, 1986.
Singh, Sundar. Visions of Sadhu Sundar Singh of India. Foreword by Bishop LaFroy of Lahore, India. First published by Anker G. Dahle in 1926. Now published (no date) by Osterhus Publishing Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Singh, Sundar. With and Without Christ. Introduction by the Lord Bishop of Winchester. Harper & Brothers, New York, 1929.
Streeter, B. H. and A. J. Appasamy.The Message of Sadhu Sundar Singh: A Study in Mysticism on Practical Religion. Published by Macmillan in New York, 1921. (The Sadhu: A Study in Mysticism and Practical Religion. Published by Macmillan in London, 1922.)