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Text and Context in Dialogue

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Book Review
The Riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh
by Eric J. Sharpe
Intercultural Publications Ltd., A-1/270, Sec. 4, Rohini, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 244

Reviewed by Jamie Bean, Executive Secretary, Rethinking Forum, Pasadena, CA

Sharpe's book is a critical assessment of the life and work of the Indian evangelist and missionary 'Sadhu' Sundar Singh (1889-1929). This Sikh background believer came to Christ through a vision during his teenage years. He lived the remainder of his life as a wandering holy man, or sadhu. Singh traveled around Asia and Europe, and even to North America, until his mysterious disappearance in 1929. Singh expressed his faith and witness in an Indian manner, but there remains much controversy surrounding his life, work and credibility. This is not a tidy little biography, but rather, a serious study that results in more questions than answers.

The early years of Sundar's life, helpful biographical information and past publications are initially mentioned. Sharpe's skepticism of various accounts of the Sadhu is evident as the book continues by critiquing Singh's "spiritual adventures", including his preoccupation with martyrdom and numerous sensational episodes of suspect details. Sundar's heart for Tibet, personal relationships, theological education and denominational issues are also key points of emphasis. The Sadhu's mystical spirituality is the focus of significant debate and controversy. As is the influence of the Swedish scientist and visionary writer Emanuel Swedenborg.

Sharpe resolves that the Sadhu clearly fit the traditional evangelical heroic missionary model without the ability to effectively communicate Indian spirituality to the West. Sharpe says, "The riddle of Sadhu Sundar Singh, then, is whether the Christian West, however much it admired and patronized him, ever knew what manner of man, and what manner of Christian, he really was." He concludes, " might have been better for everyone concerned, had he remained on the Indian Road".

Readers with a dry sense of humor will appreciate Sharpe. Embellished and exaggerated details are countered with sarcasm. In some instances Sharpe assesses why the various authors reported the way they did. In others he allows for the reader to draw their own conclusions. This book is most helpful in that it gives an overview of the critical issues one must address when encountering the Sadhu. At the same time it introduces readers to the available literature on the topic through helpful appendices, footnotes and a bibliography.
bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty