Growing from a Christian Foundation
By Vijay Mathias
Raised as a Christian in India, a young man discovers the eternal religion, the jewel of his cultural heritage.
In June 2001 I joined the training department at AurionPro Solutions, a software company in Mumbai. One day, a smiling man entered the office and introduced himself as Satish More. He worked there but had been away, and since I was a new employee, we had never met. After getting to know each other a little, he gave me some sweets. He said he had just returned from a two-week trip to Jagannatha Puri, Orissa, where he had attended the famous Rathayatra festival. He had brought the sweets from the festival for everyone in the firm.
After that meeting, I noticed that when leaving the office or arriving, Satish was always murmuring something, with his right hand in a small cloth bag. When I inquired about it, he told me the bag contained sacred beads and that he was chanting a mantra. I was raised in the Christian faith and had seen my family members chanting prayers on rosary beads, so the concept was familiar. But seeing a twenty-two-year-old professional openly chanting on beads was unusual. I was amazed.
Questions and Answers
I started to observe Satish more closely. Almost everyone in our firm drank tea, but when the boy who delivered tea would approach Satish, he would refuse. This intrigued me, as I was a tea addict, drinking six cups a day. He was also a vegetarian, and he wore beads around his neck that seemed connected to his religion.
We shared part of our commute, and on our way home together we discussed philosophy. I considered myself a fairly pious person and questioned him on his practices. One question led to another, and many times I challenged him based on my limited knowledge of Hindu theology. Satish would answer all my questions patiently. I challenged him about such things as vegetarianism, deity worship, chanting, offering food, and drinking tea and coffee, and he defeated me again and again with his in-depth analyses and references to scriptural texts. I used to delight in nonvegetarian food, and was bowled over by his conviction that vegetarianism is good for spiritual progress and the greater good of humanity. He told me he regularly visited the ISKCON temple, where the members practice Krishna consciousness, or devotion to Lord Krishna. It is also known as sanatana-dharma, the "eternal religion," he told me.
Our discussions on Christianity and Krishna consciousness went on for six months. I began to realize that all religions essentially teach the same thing and lead to the same ultimate goal. I gave up my previous misconception that Christianity is the only way to salvation. I had watched people of different faiths, and Hinduism appeared to me to be a mix of people worshiping different demigods, each claiming their god to be supreme. My discussions with Satish changed my perspective, and I became receptive to the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. I began to understand the importance of finding a guru. Satish mentioned that his spiritual master, His Holiness Radhanatha Maharaja, was Jewish by birth but had taken up Krishna consciousness. I was surprised, and keen to meet Maharaja.
Introduced to ISKCON
Satish became a friend I could trust and share anything with. I told him of my desire to visit the temple, and he invited me one Saturday. At the temple he served me kicchari and halava. I had never tasted anything so wonderful in my life. I saw the deities of Sri SriRadha-Gopinatha and bought a couple of small books written by Srila Prabhupada, as well as Christianity and Krishna Consciousness: Conversations Between the Rev. Alvin V. P. Hart and Satyaraja Dasa Adhikari.
I had read a number of books on religion and philosophy, and I noticed how each author tried to prove that his faith is superior to others. When I started reading Srila Prabhupada's books, however, I noticed that he seemed to be motivated by something else. For example, I was surprised to read, "Jesus Christ is the son of God, the representative of God . . . our guru . . . our spiritual master." I realized that Krishna consciousness is nonsectarian and that all the names by which various religions address God refer to the same Supreme Personality of Godhead. Srila Prabhupada writes, "To practice bhakti-yoga means to become free from designations like Hindu, Muslim, Christian, this or that, and simply to serve God." This statement shook the foundations of my spiritual thinking. Srila Prabhupada's explanations removed the weeds of my incorrect understanding of religious philosophy.
One day I attended the Sunday Feast and was amazed to see so many people joyfully jumping and dancing in the temple. I had attended several retreats and faith-healing seminars (known as Charismatic Group) in churches where we also used to raise our arms and pray, but this was extraordinary. Just an amazing experience. While leaving the temple I got more books to read. When my mother saw these "Hindu" books, she became curious and wondered what was happening to me. I pacified her by saying I was interested in yoga and was learning about it.
Soon I started chanting japa. To avoid trouble at home, I didn't chant on beads but kept track of the number of mantras on a mechanical counter. I found that japa is the best form of personal prayer. I stopped drinking tea and coffee and reduced my intake of nonvegetarian food. My parents became more and more curious about these changes and kept trying to persuade me to drink tea and eat meat. I blamed my lifestyle changes on yoga. Occasionally, I would have to yield to their pressure, but mostly I stood my ground, all the time remaining kind and polite in my dealings with them.
Soon after I had begun chanting regularly, Satish accepted spiritual initiation and received the name Sri Kishora Dasa. He left AurionPro and became a professor at an engineering college. Although I was sad that I would no longer meet him so often, he came to my home regularly, and we would discuss the teachings of the Bible and correlate them with the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita. I found Vaishnava philosophy to be a progression from Christian theology because it gave more information about the nature of the soul and our relationship with God. My mother was impressed to see Satish, a Hindu boy, taking such an interest in Christian teachings.
Going to church on Sundays is mandatory for everyone in my family, so it was a challenge to also attend the Sunday Feasts and other temple functions without alarming my parents. But somehow I managed. To get encouragement and good guidance, I started to associate more with devotees.
One day Sri Kishora informed me that his spiritual master, His Holiness Radhanatha Swami, was coming to India after his annual trip to the USA. I grabbed the opportunity and decided to attend his morning Srimad-Bhagavatam class. Maharaja's personality and lecture had a profound impact on me. He referred extensively to the Bible and quoted from it. The words I had read in the Bible and heard during Gospel readings at church came alive through his explanations and realizations. He exalted Jesus Christ and explained how Jesus preached devotional service to the people.
Revolt Against Family and Friends
At that time I never chanted japa at home, but always chanted while I was commuting to work. But this japa had little value because the surrounding noise hardly enabled me to focus on the mantra. So I got a bead bag with beads and started to chant eight rounds at home, very softly at night, when everyone was sleep. But inevitably my mother saw me chanting and got upset. She told me I had become a blasphemer and that it was sacrilege to pray to other gods. I pacified her, saying it was just a mantra to help calm the mind. The argument ended, but by now my whole family was aware that I was really into something else. She became angry at Sri Kishora, whom she now realized was responsible for my change of faith. She banned him from our home.
In the meantime I took up kitchen service at the temple, soon learning how to cook tasty meals without adding meat, onions, or garlic. Slowly I started chanting sixteen rounds of japa and completely stopped eating nonvegetarian food. I also stopped using bad language and going to restaurants that served alcohol and meat. Sundays, which had once been dedicated to cricket and football, now took me to the temple. Some of my childhood friends were sarcastic: "Till yesterday you were eating chicken with us, but now you are acting strangely." But I would remain quiet unless someone questioned my faith. Then I would vigorously defend Krishna consciousness with neophyte enthusiasm. This strained my relationships with my friends, and slowly I found myself without their company. But I was making new friends at the temple, and I began to like my new life.
Moving Away from Home
In June 2005 devotees were planning to attend the Rathayatra in Puri. I wished to attend but did not know how to tell my parents. So I told them I had to attend a training session outside Mumbai, and with this excuse I escaped. When I returned to Mumbai, I was shocked to discover that my beads and other devotional paraphernalia were missing from my home. Somehow my mother had come to know of my pilgrimage and taken the opportunity to seize my belongings.
She took me to the church to meet the parish priest. He asked me to stop going to the temple. I refused. There was no way I could explain to him what I was feeling, and my parents were not going to understand why I was trying to follow an alternative way of life. I decided to leave home and move in with a group of young unmarried devotee men. This helped me solidify my faith, and in their company I began to understand and appreciate the nuances of devotional service.
A fortnight later my mother called to say she had come to terms with my spiritual practices. I should come home, she said. She would even cook vegetarian food for me. I agreed, and after having lived with the devotees for six months, I returned home. Although my mother was true to her word and less aggressive now, both she and my father were extremely watchful of my activities. Then I got a job with IBM and had to move to Bangalore. This was a welcome change as it allowed me to practice Krishna consciousness freely, without being questioned. I got in touch with the local devotees and began visiting ISKCON's Sri Jagannatha Mandir regularly.
Then my family started pushing me to get married. When my mother came to Bangalore to look for a match, she was upset to see that I was now practicing Krishna consciousness openly, visiting the temple and inviting devotees to my home. She went to Saint Anthony's Church and enrolled me in a faith-healing program. The priest and nuns told her I had been brainwashed and needed help. Such comments made her anxious. After that, priests came regularly to my home to discuss my reasons for joining the Hare Krishna movement. I would answer them, and then they would pray for me and leave. The more this happened, the more intensely I prayed to Krishna, Christ, and Lord Nrisimha to protect me from this torture.
Out of respect for my mother I continued to go to church and faith-healing seminars. At the seminars, I would see people fall to the floor when the preacher would cry out loudly. The preach would then declare how they had been healed. My mother would glance at me from the corner of her eye to see if there was any transformation in me. The only way to stop this, I realized, was to get married. My parents insisted I marry a Catholic girl; a devotee girl was completely out of the question. But I doubted I could find a Christian girl who could understand my way of life.
A New Phase
I enrolled in the church's Marriage Bureau. I insisted the girl be vegetarian, and the priest and sisters only raised their eyebrows and gave me puzzled looks. Some girls I met looked at me as if to say, "What on earth is this guy doing?"
I finally met Vilma, now my wife, and told her I was practicing the Vedic way of life. Fortunately, she was accepting. Her childhood neighbors had been Gujarati Vaishnavas, so she had some idea what I was following. Although initially apprehensive, she managed to put her fears to rest after hearing my explanations. My mother was happy. She now handed to Vilma the baton to convert me back to the Christian faith.
Vilma observed me closely and asked many questions. We visited the ISKCON temple regularly, and in 2008 went together to Jagannatha Puri. After three years of marriage, she has almost given up eating meat. She read the book Krishna and has started to chant one round of japa daily. I am glad she has been cooperative and supportive of my spiritual life. We have both realized that a God-centered family makes our life sublime and blissful.
I am now working for a bank in Saudi Arabia. Practicing Krishna consciousness in this country has its challenges. I hope I will soon be able to go back to India to engage myself in serving the devotees. I am grateful to my parents and the church for providing me the fertile ground of a spiritual environment by which I was able to grow the seed of bhakti. The journey so far has been rough but worthwhile, and my life has been transformed from nominal religionist to spiritual practitioner through the sublime process of chanting the holy names, remembering Krishna, relishing tasty prasada, and associating with loving devotees.