The sunlight speckled with jungle shadows paints leopard spots on the hermit’s yellow robe. The hermit, the old sadhu, the holy man sits cross-legged on a leopard skin, one with the skin, one with the leopard, one with the jungle.
At the feet of the sadhu sits Sundar, a boy fleeing maya – illusion – and hungry for certainty and knowledge – jnana. The boy is devout. He is a Sikh, a devout Sikh, a devout among the devout, a lion among the lions. But he is restless.
Sikh priests have taught him all they know, but he is not satisfied. He can recite the entire Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, but it does not quench his thirst. He can recite the Upanishads, the Darsanas, the Bhagavad Gita and the Shastaras of the Hindus; the Qur’an and the Hadis of Islam are known to him by heart. His mother fears God and sees in him a pilgrim; she sees in him the making of a sadhu. His father is worried. He asks Sundar: “Why do you torment yourself over religious questions? You will twist your brain and ruin your sight.” The boy answers, “I must have santi. I must have peace.”
In his quest, the boy has come to the old sadhu in the jungle:
Sadhu-ji, you say my hunger and my thirst are illusion, tricks of maya. Only Brahma is truth. Brahma is the divine source of all things, you say; Brahma is God. You say I will see that I am part of Brahma, and that once I do, my needs will cease to concern me. Forgive me, Sadhu-ji, and do not be angry with me, but how can this be? If I am Brahma or have even a part of it, how then can I be deceived by maya? How can illusion have power over me? For if illusion has power over truth, then truth is itself illusion. Is then illusion stronger than truth? Is illusion stronger than truth?
Sadhu-ji, you say I must wait. You say I will gain knowledge of spiritual things as I grow older. My thirst will be quenched. But can it be so? Is not food the answer to hunger? Is not water the answer to thirst? If a hungry boy asks for bread, can his father answer, “Go and play! When you are older, you will understand hunger and you will not need bread?” If you, Sadhu-ji, have found the understanding I seek, if you have found certainty and peace, please tell me how I can find it. If not, then tell me so, and I will continue my search. I cannot rest until I have found peace.
Something is wrong. Why do the Shastaras no longer come alive before my eyes? Why does our holy book now seem so distant? Why do I return from the peace of yoga meditation to find my heart still burdened with unrest?
An adolescent boy struggles to hold onto all that his mother taught him. It was so natural and so simple while she was alive, but since her death the spiritual exercises require so much effort. Faith has become clouded by doubt. The words of the old sadhu in the jungle sound like hollow promises, with boldness he questions the sadhu’s teaching. The words of the Vedas and of Guru Granth Sahib no longer answer his seeking. Instead, question after question stumble over one another, and all is confusion. The lives of those around him seem fraught with hypocrisy. Where is the fire and clarity of the early Sikh believers? And now Christian missionaries bring still another truth, but their arrival brings Sundar only further, deeper confusion.
This is not the truth of my mother, of our ancestors, of our culture. This is a foreign truth, one brought to us by outsiders who do not understand our ways. But why then does Father make me attend the Christian school? I would rather go to the state school at Sanewal. I am ready to walk the six miles through the desert. I am a Sikh. I will show them. I will show Father what I think of these colonialists and their western ways, their foreign faith...
When the elders come to him, Sardar Sher Singh cannot believe his ears. There must be some mistake. Quiet, respectful Sundar throwing stones at his teachers, disrupting classes, and mocking the missionaries – impossible! When Sardar Sher Singh goes to see for himself, he cannot believe his eyes. Yet there, in the courtyard of his own house, a group of teenage boys gather around his son, who first tears the Christian’s holy book to shreds and then, in a frenzy of rage, hurls it into a fire. Never in the history of the village has anyone publicly burned a sacred book of any faith! And his own son! He rushes out in confusion and anger. He seizes Sundar:
Are you insane? Why would you do such a thing? Is this the respect for sacred things you learned at your mother’s breast? Is this your thanks to those who teach you? You will not commit such blasphemy in my presence. As your father and head of this household, I command you to stop such insanity. There will be no more book burning here!
Peace is gone. No one is left. Mother is dead. Father is shamed. The sadhu in the jungle has no more to say. The holy writings are remote and foreign. Meditation offers escape, but no resolution, no realization. The ritual bath cleanses the body, but all is still dark within. The familiar words of the scriptures whirl in his mind. There is Guru Nanak: “I cannot live for a moment without you, O God. When I have you, I have everything. You are the treasure of my heart.” And there is Guru Arjim: “We long only for you, O God. We thirst for you. We can only find rest and peace in you.” That is the only hope. If there is a God, then let him reveal the way to peace. If there is no God, then there is no point in living.
The fifteen-year-old boy rises long before the sun. With solemn ritual he bathes and chants the ancient invocation as he has done every morning for as long as he can remember, just as his mother taught him. This morning will be the last time. He thinks of his mother and wonders if he will find her in the world beyond. At 5:00 a.m. the express train to Ludhiana will pass. It will pass over the tracks near the edge of Sardar Sher Singh’s property. It will pass over the body of a desperate, confused young man. It will crush all doubts and drive all questions from his heart and head.
The prophecy of the Sikh priest nears fulfillment, for had he not said to Sardar Sher Singh: “Your son is not like the others. Either he will become a great man of God, or he will disgrace us all by going insane.”
Though at the time I had considered myself a hero for burning the Gospel, my heart found no peace. Indeed, my unrest only increased, and I was miserable for the next two days. On the third day, when I could bear it no longer, I rose at 3:00 a.m. and prayed that if there was a God at all, he would reveal himself to me. Should I receive no answer by morning, I would place my head on the railroad tracks and seek the answer to my questions beyond the edge of this life.
I prayed and prayed, waiting for the time to take my last walk. At about 4:30 I saw something strange. There was a glow in the room. At first I thought there was a fire in the house, but looking through the door and windows, I could see no cause for the light. Then the thought came to me: perhaps this was an answer from God. So I returned to my accustomed place and prayed, looking into the strange light. Then I saw a figure in the light, strange but somehow familiar at once. It was neither Siva nor Krishna nor any of the other Hindu incarnations I had expected. Then I heard a voice speaking to me in Urdu: “Sundar, how long will you mock me? I have come to save you because you have prayed to find the way of truth. Why then don’t you accept it?” It was then I saw the marks of blood on his hands and feet and knew that it was Yesu, the one proclaimed by the Christians. In amazement I fell at his feet. I was filled with deep sorrow and remorse for my insults and my irreverence, but also with a wonderful peace. This was the joy I had been seeking. This was heaven... Then the vision was gone, though my peace and joy remained.
When I arose I immediately went to wake my father and tell him what I had experienced – to tell him that I was now a follower of Yesu. He told me to go back to bed. “Why, only the day before yesterday you were burning the Christians’ holy book. Now you say you are one of them. Go and sleep, my child. You are tired and confused. You will feel better in the morning.”
Sardar Sher Singh tried to be understanding and patient, for he felt the boy was still distraught from the loss of his mother. So he discreetly avoided discussing Sundar’s strange experience. Sundar in turn spent most of his time in solitude and meditation, seeking penance and wondering how to atone for his mockery of the One who had revealed himself to him. Deep within, he sensed that release would only come if he was prepared to serve Yesu as one serves a master – to publicly declare himself a follower of the very being he had publicly insulted.
No one could have foreseen the outcry that followed. Robbed of their ringleader, Sundar’s peers turned on their Christian teachers (and on Sundar himself), hurling abuse, accusing them of forcibly converting the boy, despite Sundar’s repeated assertions that the teachers knew nothing of what had happened. Feelings ran so high that the school had to be closed, and the missionaries escaped to Ludhiana.
At home Sardar Sher Singh tried everything he could to dissuade his son from his new-found faith. At first he exercised patience. Then he appealed to the boy’s honor:
My dear son – light of my eyes, comfort of my heart – may you live long! As your father, I appeal to you to consider your family. Surely you do not want the family name to be blotted out. Surely this Christian religion does not teach disobedience to parents. I call on you to fulfill your duty and to marry. I have chosen your bride, as is our custom, and everything is prepared. As an engagement present I will give you a legacy of 150,000 rupees that will provide enough interest for you and your family to live comfortably for a lifetime. Your uncle will add to it a chest of gold.
I am not an unreasonable man, my child. But if you refuse me, I will know that you are determined to dishonor your family and I will have no alternative but to disown you. You wear the bracelet of the Sikh, you wear your hair uncut as is the sign of the Sikh, you bear the name of a Sikh. Have you forgotten the meaning of the name that our fathers adopted? Have you forgotten what it means to be a Singh?
No, Father; the name means “lion.”
You know the meaning of your name, yet act like a jackal of the desert. Why? The time has come for you to make your choice.
Sundar Singh returned to his room and prayed. Then he cut off his hair.
The face of Sardar Sher Singh was dreadful to behold. Rage born of frustration, desperation and shame reddened his eyes. In the presence of the entire household, his heart heavy with grief, he led his son to the door as darkness was falling. Already death had taken his wife and one son; now he was to lose his beloved Sundar. But he saw no choice: the boy had made his decision. Now he spoke the fearful curse: “We reject you forever and cast you from among us. You shall be no more my son. We shall know you no more. For us, you are as one who was never born. I have spoken.” The door closed behind him.
I will never forget the night I was driven out of my home. I slept outdoors under a tree, and the weather was cold. I had never experienced such a thing. I thought to myself: “Yesterday I lived in comfort. Now I am shivering, and I am hungry and thirsty. Yesterday I had everything I needed and more; today I have no shelter, no warm clothes, no food.” Outwardly the night was difficult, but I possessed a wonderful joy and peace in my heart. I was following in the footsteps of my new master – of Yesu, who had nowhere to lay his head, but was despised and rejected. In the luxuries and comforts of home I had not found peace. But the presence of the Master changed my suffering into peace, and this peace has never left me.