Sundar Singh: Footprints Over the Mountains

Chapter 1
He Had Saved His Own Life

Sundar Singh gasped a breath of icy, thin air at the summit of the pass. His head was spinning from the sixteen-thousand-foot altitude, his lungs throbbed, and his bare feet had gone completely numb hours before. Another traveler, a Tibetan he had met the day before, trudged along beside Sundar, who was glad for the man’s company. After several minutes of rest, the two men began their descent from the heights of the Himalayan Mountains. They hoped to reach a small village perched precariously on the edge of a steep precipice at the bottom of the trail before darkness engulfed them.

The two men were halfway down the trail when the wind whipped up and the air became bitterly cold. Sundar began to fear that they might not make it to the village, which was still several miles away, especially since the trail had narrowed to a foot-wide, slippery ledge and their going was slow. On previous trips across these mountains, he had come upon the bodies of men frozen to death by such sudden change in the weather, and he hoped and prayed that the same fate did not await him.

Sundar tried not to look down as he clawed his way along the narrow ledge, but as his eyes scanned the rock ahead for his next foothold, something far below caught his attention: a brown object lying on the snow. As Sundar studied the object, he realized that it was the body of a man. Then, surprisingly, one of the body’s arms flailed—the man was alive!

Sundar tugged at the fur jacket of his traveling companion. “Look down,” he yelled into the howling wind. “A man has fallen down there. We must try to rescue him.”

Sundar’s traveling companion shook his head vigorously. “If we try to rescue that man, none of us will reach the village,” he yelled back. “We will all freeze. We must get to the village. That man is already as good as dead. Leave him to his fate.”

“I can’t,” Sundar replied. “Please help me to go down and get him. It will take both of us.”

The traveling companion shook his head again. “If you value your life, you will come with me.” Without even looking back, he turned and continued picking his way along the ledge.

Sundar looked around for a way down to the man. When he thought he had found one, he climbed off the edge of the ledge and hand over hand made his way down the rock face. He willed his numb toes to grip the crevices in the rock. It was treacherous going, and Sundar prayed the entire way, but finally he made it to the bottom of the ravine where the fallen traveler lay.

Kneeling down beside the man, Sundar took a closer look at him. The man’s hair and beard were frozen, and he was barely breathing, but none of his bones appeared to be broken.

“Come on, let’s get you out of here,” Sundar said, standing up and heaving the man onto his back. He pulled his blanket around them both and tied it in front, forming a cradle for the man. Then slowly and painstakingly Sundar inched his way back up the side of the ravine. The extra weight of the man on his back caused Sundar’s numb feet to bleed and throb as they beat against the jagged ice and razor-sharp rock, but eventually Sundar reached the safety of the ledge and began carrying the man along the trail.

Soon Sundar was leaving bloodred stains in the snow with each step, as slowly but surely he inched his way forward. He dared not to stop, even when it began to snow heavily, reducing visibility and making the trail even more slippery. Stopping meant certain death for both of them.

As the daylight began to fade, Sundar wondered whether they would make it to the village before nightfall, when it would be impossible to make out the trail in the darkness. Thankfully, right then the snow let up, and in the improved visibility Sundar could make out a cluster of stone houses a few hundred yards ahead. Relief overcame him, until he took a few more steps. There at the side of the trail lay the frozen body of his traveling companion. The man’s eyes were open, and his hands were frozen to his face.

Since he could do nothing for the man, given the conditions, Sundar trudged on. Soon he and the man he was carrying on his back were safely inside one of the small, round huts, sitting in front of a yak-dung fire. As Sundar sat sipping a cup of hot tea, he realized that he also could well have frozen to death. What had saved him from such a fate was the man he was carrying on his back. The contact of their two bodies had produced enough heat to stave off the savage cold and keep both men warm. In risking his life to rescue the fallen traveler, Sundar had unwittingly saved his own life.

As he drifted off to sleep in front of the fire, Sundar imagined some of the trials that lay ahead of him in Tibet. This day’s ordeal would not be the last life-threatening event on his mission trip; he was sure of that. But he was sure of something else as well: ever since he had been a small boy growing up in the Sikh village of Rampur on the Punjab plain of northern India, God’s hand had been upon him.

Chapter 2
The Path That Will Lead You to God

Sundar Singh squinted against the bright sunlight as he followed his mother across the dusty Punjab plain. Despite the grit in his eyes and the sun beating down on his turban-covered head, Sundar felt like bursting into song. Today, September 3, 1896, was his seventh birthday. Even better than that, it was the day his mother declared him ready to recite the Bhagavad Gita to the holy man, whom they had visited together for as long as Sundar could remember.

As he walked, Sundar thought of his older brothers, who had laughed at him as he and his mother left the house in Rampur village to visit the holy man. “Ha,” they had said. “Too much religion will make a little head like yours pop! How are all those words going to help you become a banker or a lawyer?”

His mother had raised her hand to them. “Stop now,” she said. “Every one of you has his own path to walk, and Sundar has his, too. Only God can tell what he is preparing Sundar for.”

As Sundar thought of his mother’s words, he loved her even more for saying them. She was known as one of the holiest women in the region, a bhakta, or saint, some people called her. Although Sundar’s father, Sher Singh, was not particularly interested in religious matters, Sundar knew that he, too, was proud of his mother and her gentle ways. Although the family was Sikh, his mother often said, “God speaks in many ways and through many faiths.” As a result, she encouraged Sundar to understand the good in all religions.

That is why on this particularly hot September afternoon Sundar and his mother were on their way to visit the holy man, or sadhu, as holy men were called, to recite to him not the Sikh scriptures but Hindu scripture.

Most seven-year-old boys living in India in 1896 had not yet learned much about their faith, but Sundar was an exception. He spent hours listening to various religious teachers in the Sikh temples. In addition to memorizing the entire Bhagavad Gita, he knew large tracts of the Sikh scriptures, the Granth Sahib. He also knew that Guru Nanak had started the Sikh religion in 1496. The guru had been born into a simple Hindu family and worked among Muslims, and by the time he was twenty-seven years old, he had started a religion. He worshiped one eternal God and rejected the Hindu caste system, insisting instead that, in God’s eyes, men and women, rich and poor, were all alike. Now, four hundred years later, the Sikh religion was thriving in North India. And its followers still believed that there was one benevolent God.

Sundar and his mother followed a winding path that led them to the edge of a forest. There, sitting in the shade of a tree, was the sadhu, clad in a yellow robe. The sadhu welcomed the two of them warmly and then proceeded to ask Sundar some questions. As Sundar answered, the sadhu’s eyes lit up, and finally he said, “Now you must recite the Bhagavad Gita for me.”

The holy man sat cross-legged on the ground, his back straight as he waited for Sundar to begin. Sundar cleared his throat and began to recite the Hindu text in Sanskrit. At first he was nervous, and the words tumbled from his mouth in a halting, high-pitched voice. But as his nervousness subsided, his words started to flow with confidence.

Sundar got so caught up in the recitation that he was not sure how long he had been speaking when the holy man finally raised his hand. “You may stop now. You have done well,” he said.

With that, Sundar stood tall and thrust out his chest.

Then the sadhu spoke again. “You have recited well, yes, but you are proud at having done so. Pride is the enemy. You must learn humility as well as the Bhagavad Gita. Humility is the path that will lead you to God.”

Sundar knew that the holy man was right. Pride was exactly what he was feeling. He was proud at having recited the Bhagavad Gita so well. As he thought about the sadhu’s words, his shoulders slumped, and he diverted his eyes to the dusty ground.

“What does the Bhagavad Gita say is the way to please God?” the sadhu asked.

“It tells us that the way to pleasing God is by keeping all the laws that have been handed down to us by our forefathers.”

“And?” the sadhu questioned further.

“It also tells us that to please God we must practice the way of meditation and self-denial. That we must cut ourselves off from the ideas of men and think only on the things of God,” Sundar said.

“You have spoken correctly,” the holy man said with a look of satisfaction. Then he added, “If you do these things, the day may come when you, too, can call yourself a sadhu. Now it is time for you to go. But do not forget what we have spoken of.”

“I will not,” Sundar replied as he and his mother turned and set out for home.

That night, and for many nights afterward, Sundar thought about what the sadhu had told him. He wondered about how he might become holy. He read the Sikh scriptures for hours at a time, until his father complained that so much reading and religious thinking was bad for his health. Despite his father’s objections, Sundar could feel something tugging at his heart—he wanted to find the way to God. He determined that part of finding his way to God would be to do good whenever the opportunity arose.

One day not too long afterward, Sundar’s father gave him a rupee to spend on whatever he liked at the local bazaar. Sundar took the money and ran off, trying to decide which of his favorite sweets he would buy. At the edge of the bazaar Sundar saw a beggar woman. She was skin and bone, her hair was matted, her dark eyes were glazed over and sunken, and she was shivering uncontrollably. Sundar had seen her before but had never stopped to really look at her. Suddenly he remembered his decision to do good wherever he could. Here was a woman who desperately needed help, and he could help her. He slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out the rupee his father had given him. He could do without the sweets.

“Here, take this,” Sundar said, handing the woman the rupee.

Tears formed at the edges of the woman’s sunken eyes as she reached out and took the coin and thanked Sundar for it.

A warm feeling of satisfaction swept through Sundar at his kind deed. But was there more he could do? Yes, there was. Sundar turned and ran back to the family compound.

“Father, Father,” he called as he ran in the gate.

Sundar found his father inside sitting at a table making entries in a ledger.

“Father, I need ten rupees,” he began breathlessly. “There is a beggar woman at the bazaar. She is very sick and needs our help. I gave her my rupee, but it is not nearly enough. With ten rupees she can buy food and a blanket to keep warm.”

Sher Singh put down his pen and looked directly at his son. “Sundar, I cannot give you ten rupees. First, it is a lot of money. But if I give you the money to give to this woman, every sick beggar in Rampur and the surrounding area will be coming to our gate expecting the same treatment. No, that will not do. I will not give you the money. You have done what you can; now let someone else take care of her.”

“But—” Sundar began.

His father raised his hand to stop him. “Enough, Sundar. I have spoken.”