Venkateswara and the God of the Untouchables (Telugu)
The God That Demands Hair
"Hare Rama, hare Krishna ... hare, hare. 0 Vankateswara, full of beauty, hear our prayers!"
The soft breeze stirring the cool night air blew the familiar chant like a giant whisper along the seemingly endless line of pilgrims climbing the steep slopes leading to the temple. All night they bad worked their way up the steps cut into the mountainside, breathing heavily with the effort, pausing when need be to rest, then moving on with renewed determination toward their lofty goal. Some held kerosene lanterns high. Others stumbled forward in the darkness with scant help from the thin sliver of moon that hung precariously just above the horizon. The god Vankateswara, whose special abode was this famous temple at the top of the mountain, would smile upon them with favor for making this arduous climb. That hope gave strength to the weary.
Nagarura Vankateswami Gupta stirred uneasily in his sedan chair and sleepily pushed back from his broad forehead the long strands of black hair that had never known scissors in the nine years since his birth. His mother was trudging doggedly beside him, remembering the vows she had made on this very mountain before the birth of her beloved Vankateswami, the apple of her eye, the son Vankateswara had given her. Never could that previous pilgrimage to Vankateswara’s mountain lair be forgotten, which she and her husband bad made as bride and groom right after their marriage. Kneeling fresh-shorn before the god, with every centimeter of their hair lying on the cold stones of the temple courtyard, they had made a solemn vow. If their prayer for a son was answered, they would dedicate him to Vankateswara.
The birth of a healthy, bawling boy a year later convinced them that their pilgrimage had brought its reward. As a seal to their pledge, they named the baby Vankateswami. (Nagaruru was the family name and Gupta the title of their Vaisya subcaste.) In gratitude they had vowed to return with their son as soon as he was old enough to worship at this holy shrine. The fulfillment of that pledge had brought them weary hours by bus and train and foot to join, on this happy night, the thousands stretched out in long column along the mountainside.
The east was red with coming dawn, and scores of pilgrims had already arrived ahead of them when Vankateswami's party of aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, and assorted cousins, reached the summit and paused to rest in awesome view of the holy lake and the soaring, intricately carved towers of Vankateswara's temple just beyond. The jolt of his sedan chair hitting the ground awakened the boy bearing the god's name and he jumped out, rubbing his eyes.
"Are we here, Jaigee?" he called to the old woman crawling out of the chair that had been set down next to his.
Short and stout, and round of face, his father's mother was less stooped than one would expect for her age. Her long hair, rolled in its tight knot, was turning from gray to silver. Gingerly she stretched her cramped limbs, all the while smiling at her grandson, eyes twinkling with good humor and pride. Looking deeper into their dark depths one could seethe glint of shrewdness that made her both feared and respected. Widowed now for some years, she was still the brains behind the scenes, guiding the business empire her dead husband had founded. Vankateswami's father, as the eldest of the six surviving sons, was the acknowledged head of the enterprises; but Jaigee's advice was always sought and followed.
Reaching over to tweak the small boy's cheek good-naturedly, she whispered seriously, "He who follows where the gods lead will reach his destination as surely as the paddy sprouts in its season." Except when she quoted well-known parts of the Vedas, few could discern whether her sayings were her own or something learned from her guru, but all respected her wisdom.
"Did the sun of my life sleep well?" His mother was standing behind him, running her fingers affectionately through the long, luxuriant locks that fell far below his shoulders. This beautiful hair would soon be lying with hers on the temple floor. Clenching her teeth, she drove from her mind the persistently whispered rumors that the hair given to the god found its way somehow to Hong Kong and Korea, where it was dyed blonde and reddish and other strange shades seldom seen in India, and made into wigs to be sold in America and Europe.
Stirring himself from where he had been leaning his tired back against a large rock, Vankateswami's father stood up wearily. "Come!" he said with a commanding tone and sweeping motion of his arm. "We've rested long enough. Look how many are getting ahead of us!" He moved toward the lake, bringing in his wake the many relatives who had gratefully accepted his generous offer to pay all expenses on this holy pilgrimage.
Leaving their sandals just outside with the busy attendants, the exuberant pilgrims filed through the high-arched gate. The cool stones of the temple courtyard felt deliciously refreshing to bare feet. Vankateswami followed in his father's footsteps, holding his hands over the sacred, purifying flame waved in front of him by the sweating, half-naked priest, then quickly putting hands against cheeks to feel the warmth; taking sacred ashes in fingers to make the familiar mark on forehead and neck, touching what remained to the tip of his tongue, murmuring the mantras after his father.
Waiting his turn, holding tightly to his mother's hand, Vankateswami watched the temple barbers work, expertly shaving heads with so few strokes, pausing only to sharpen their razors. The women seemed almost naked without hair. Caressing his own flowing locks, a wave of rebellion swept over him. Why should this god demand to have his hair? What did it do with it? Then he saw his mother's long, black, silken crown falling almost intact to the stones, felt the razor on his own head, and resentment turned suddenly to proud determination. To question the divine will was useless. Jaigee had already told him that many times, just as her guru had told her. The gods had their own reasons beyond the grasp of human understanding. One day he, too, would be a god, free at last from the illusions of fear and sorrow and tangible things.
Vankateswami's mother, looking so strange without hair that he hardly knew her, was holding his hand again, leading him across the courtyard, following his father. Impulsively he ran his fingers over his bare scalp. There was blood! Quickly he pulled his hand away, swallowing the impulsive cry that had started in his throat. He must be brave as his mother had taught him. In contrast to the shamefully averted gaze of the fresh-shaved low-caste women, his mother walked beside him with a proud upward tilt to her head and a look of fierce determination in her eyes that said it was an honor to give one's hair to this god who answers prayer.
He felt a tingling in his scalp. Already the sun god was healing the raw flesh. A good omen.
"The devils have been driven out of Vankateswami!" exclaimed the head priest of the Siva temple in Dugganapalli a few weeks after the pilgrims had returned. His listening subordinates nodded their heads gravely, without attempting, however, to hide the disbelief they still felt. Could shaving one's head really bring such a miracle? There were a number of other young rowdies in the village they would like to see make a pilgrimage to Tirupati!
"He is learning to see the true essence of life," continued the happy Brahmin. "Verily Vankateswara is a god that changes lives! Perhaps we should put up a shrine. A glance about the already crowded courtyard cut that suggestion short. The temple patron, Vankateswami's father, might be agreeable to funding an expansion-but that subject could only be broached at a propitious time. One dared not risk a negative response, for he was a man who stuck with his opinions when once expressed.
The priests in the Rama temple, built by Vankateswami's grandfather and still maintained by his father's largess, were no less astonished and certainly no less relieved by the remarkable change the pilgrimage to Tirupati had made upon this youngster who had been the terror of the temples. No longer did he run through the sanctuary at the head of a herd of rowdy youths, laughing and shouting insults to the gods.
Now all that was in the past. Praise be to Vankateswara! Miraculously a new boy had returned from Tirupati. Vankateswami's regular visits to both temples now brought warm smiles from the priests, and an occasional pat on the head and word of encouragement. The local pundit even predicted he would one day become a famous sadhu. The boy was a serious and earnest worshiper at the Siva and Rama temples and seemed truly devoted to all of the gods.
To the delight of his parents and Jaigee, the years that followed showed no lessening of Vankateswami's new religious zeal. Patient and tolerant of his younger brother, and unfailingly obedient to his parents, he was their joy and delight. By his early teens Vankateswami was paying exceptional attention to his personal dharma, and devoting himself to the path of action to improve his karma for the next life. The tastiest goat curry could not tempt him to break the Vaisya vow of vegetarianism; and so devoted was he to the doctrine of ahimsa that he would not wear leather goods of any kind without a guarantee that the animal had died of old age. His parents' pride in their firstborn was only exceeded by their love for him.
Sometimes Vankateswami felt he must be the luckiest boy in the whole world to have been born into such a happy family-but Jaigee scolded him for such modesty. "It's your karma," she insisted, "accumulated from good deeds in your past life."
"As the eldest son, some day you will take over the business," Vankateswami's father reminded him very seriously one hot and rainy afternoon as they sat together on the wide front porch, where the business was conducted, talking sporadically during a lull between the comings and goings of customers. "I want you to have more schooling than I got. Education is far more important now than it used to be, and Jaigee says it will become even more necessary."
Vankateswami's face brightened. "Then I shall go to high school in Proddutar?" he asked eagerly. "And live with Jaigee's brother and his family?"
His father nodded. "Yes. I have talked it over with Jaigee and your uncles, and we all agree. You are a bright boy, with a quick mind, and conscientious. You will do well in high school." He leaned forward, looking intently into his son's face. "After that we want you to go on to university to become a lawyer! You know what great advantage it would be with all the suits we have in court every year!"
Jumping to his feet, Vankateswami stood before his father as straight as a Bengali warrior at attention. "I shall not fail you, sir!" he said earnestly, his face flushed with emotion. "I will be the best lawyer the Guptas have ever had! You can count on that!"
The tortured memory of that lofty promise had haunted him during his second year at high school. He had meant it with all of his heart, and had never stopped wanting it to be true. That was what added confusion to the shame that overwhelmed him. In spite of his strongest resolve he had disgraced his family. Something beyond his power --evil forces, Jaigee called whatever it was-had invaded his mind and soul and driven him to a life of dissipation. And at such a young age! There was no controlling the mad compulsions that swept over him. All of his prayers to Vankateswara-and to Krishna, Rama, Siva, and every god he could think of--brought not the slightest change in his prodigal behavior. Indeed, the more he prayed the deeper he seemed to sink into sin and despair. Dharma had lost its meaning, the Vedas seemed irrelevant, and he knew that his karma was a disaster . . . but that affected the next life, and he now cared for nothing but the pleasure he could extract from the present moment.
The first year had gone well, with excellent grades. Then the money his father lavished upon him whenever he asked had made it possible not only to buy books and clothes, but to learn quite by accident how pleasurable it was to feast and drink at cafes until early morning. That had led to an association with bad companions who frequented such places. They drank and smoked heavily, gambled and caroused all over town; and before he knew it, Vankateswami not only had joined in but had become the ringleader. His parents didn't know what was happening, because his great uncle accepted without question his lies about studying late with friends.
Too late he realized that he had been lying to himself too, vowing again and again that "tonight is the last time; tomorrow I'll begin to study like a scholar!" Tomorrow never came. Finally he justified himself with the thought that no amount of studying would help: it was impossible to catch up, so he might just as well enjoy himself. His vow had changed to, "Next year I'll do better." But next year didn't come either.
During the summer vacation he had mentioned casually that he would be taking several of his courses over again. Turning red with sudden anger, his father had demanded a full explanation. Dissatisfied with his son's lame excuses and suspecting now that he was lying, he went to Proddutar to learn the truth. What he discovered turned his anger into wild fury. There was no point in leaving the boy in school any longer.
And so at the age of seventeen Vankateswami found himself doing the tedious bookkeeping for the family business instead of studying to be a lawyer.
"See that you keep accurate accounts . . . and don't touch a rupee!" his father had growled through clenched teeth, like a judge sentencing a criminal.
Sitting cross-legged with the books of account on his lap, Vankateswami had looked at the floor, avoiding the angry eyes. It was true he had failed--but did his father really think he would steal? Never! He had learned his lesson. Everything would be different here away from his old companions. "A lamp in a place sheltered from the wind does not flicker," Jaigee had said without reproaching him. Expounding the virtues of a religious life, she had inspired him to renew his earlier vows.
How he regretted the swaggering and boasting about the court cases he was going to win for his father! It was easy to imagine what people were whispering behind his back; but there was nothing to do except hope that eventually the past would be forgotten.
What he hoped others would forget, however, continued to haunt him. The dream of becoming a lawyer meant too much and had been cherished too long to be relinquished without pain. That fond ambition, now turned to ashes but not forgotten, was like gravel in his throat, choking him with bitterness. What a poor bargain he had made, exchanging a bright future for a few months of sensual folly! His own stupidity puzzled him all the more because he had so fervently intended a much different kind of life.
"There is only one reality, one true Essence, and that is Brahman; all else is maya. You are God . . . you just don't know it yet. Look within and realize that you and Brahman are one, and you will be delivered from the illusion of fleshly passions." Jaigee had taught him this sacred truth before he could understand the words; and now that the words were in his vocabulary, he still couldn't understand. Truly the gods must know how hard he had tried, yet failed. If he was really of the same Essence as Brahman, and thus was Brahman, why then was it so difficult to realize what was true? Why did that which was only illusion seem always so real, so appealing-and the truth, the only Reality, seem so unreal and elusive?
Although his dream of becoming a lawyer would not be fulfilled, he must accept this as his karma. He could still become a good accountant. His father would yet be proud of him: but he must work hard, and honestly, and in time he would earn again the confidence that had been lost.
The business, after all, was interesting. Vankateswami enjoyed listening while his father or an uncle, sitting cross-legged on a mat, would converse with a customer facing them in the same posture.
They were moneylenders, and farmers came from a radius of thirty miles to borrow for a variety of reasons: to buy seed, or to get through a bad season when there had been no rain, or too much of it; or to pay rent when a crop had not come up to expectations. Frequent foreclosure of mortgages had made the Gupta brothers large landholders-which necessitated keeping numerous servants in the fields, plowing, planting, weeding, harvesting. Selling the land and houses they acquired by default was just another business to be diligently pursued for profit. One was not in business to perform good deeds-that was a matter of religion, and the two never met.
As soon as the crops were harvested, many farmers were desperate to sell everything for whatever price they could get. Whether it was rice, corn, cotton, or whatever, the Guptas were ready to buy-at the right price, of course, and carefully sealed everything beneath the house in large storage rooms that extended out under the street. Thick walls of stone and cement not only kept out moisture and thieves, but frustrated even the huge rats that were known to gnaw and claw their way through the sides of buildings. With enough capital to buy in large quantities and the patience to wait, Vankateswami's father was always able to sell at higher prices later. This was not taking advantage of others-it was simply obedience to the law of supply and demand.
No loans were given without ample security, but often the farmer was only a tenant and owned no land. Reaching into his shirt to pull out a bag secured around his neck, from that he would draw out one at a time, reluctantly, gold earrings and necklaces and perhaps even a diamond or ruby, polishing each sadly as he laid it on the mat in front of him. The head of the Gupta enterprises would carefully and expertly examine each, the scrutiny punctuated by grunts and scowls and half-audible remarks about poor workmanship, poorer quality, and doubtful loan value. Gold objects would be mercilessly rubbed against the testing stone to see what mark they left in comparison to gold of known quality. Then followed the usual haggling, often heated and insulting. Though the opponents facing one another on the mat varied, the feints, jabs, parries, and ploys were always the same and invariably the Gupta brothers won. It didn't take Vankateswami long to learn that money was power.
Although his father was very generous about buying clothes or whatever else he needed, he refused to let him have any money to spend. "It was the money I sent you at school that caused your downfall," his father explained when Vankateswami complained. "I won't make that mistake again. No money until I'm sure you're cured!" That was the end of the matter. When his father had decided something, there was no hope to change his mind by argument or reason. Only time could do that, lots of time: but Vankateswami couldn't wait. The more he brooded over the injustice of not having even a rupee to call his own, the more overpowering the desire became to take for himself some of the money that he counted at the end of each day. Fear alone held him back. If he were discovered, that would be a humiliation too great to bear! Then one day, almost like a gift from the gods, came an unexpected opportunity.
"You must bring help! Quick!" An excited and panting farmer from a nearby village had burst into their place of business, his face red from heat and exhaustion.
The head of the Gupta empire seemed too surprised to move. Vankateswami, the only other person there that day, sat transfixed also.
"Don't just sit there!" the breathless farmer shouted. "Get help!"
"For what ... and where?" Vankateswami's father yelled back, finding his voice.
"Your brother, Bawala! They have him tied to a post and are beating him mercilessly!"
The elder Gupta jumped to his feet. "Where is he?" he asked in a voice that shook. His hands were trembling.
"It's Mohan Reddy and his sons. Bawala tried to collect a debt from them. They overpowered him!"
Vankateswami's father was already going out the door. "Come on!" he called, motioning to his son. "We'll get the constable in Proddutar on our way! May the gods bring us there in time!"
Pushing the two bullocks as fast as they could pull the cart, they had gone less than half the distance to Proddutar when another cart approached. Hunched beside the driver was Bawala, so badly beaten that they hardly recognized him. He was a husky man with a hot temper, known as a vicious fighter, and apparently hadn't gone down easily.
"You're all right?" Vankateswami called anxiously.
"Do I look it!" he retorted, climbing down stiffly from the other cart. Paying the driver, he pulled himself up beside them. As the bullocks lumbered back toward home, he recounted the events of that memorable afternoon, speaking with great difficulty through swollen lips.
"The 10,000 rupees they owe us had been overdue for two months. I haven't been able to find them… until today." He wiped at a small trickle of blood oozing from his nose. "The devils! I gave them three days more, or we would take them to court and have their land. That was when all five of them jumped me. They didn't get off free. I put up a good fight!"
"How did you get away?" his elder brother interrupted.
"I didn't. They let me go. At first they threatened to kill me, and I thought they would do it. Two of them had big knives and murder in their eyes. They talked about where to hide the body. Then the old man had an idea. They offered me my freedom if I would sign a promissory note for 20,000 rupees."
"Of course I did. And so would you.
Vankateswami, sitting behind the two men, nodded his agreement.
"I would have signed a note for a million rupees to get away. It's worthless paper. Let them try to collect!"
"We won't wait for that! I'll see them in jail before dark!"
The excitement, with constables coming and going, lasted for days. Vankateswami's father was busy making reports, and the house was full of relatives from far and near expressing their sympathy to Bawala, who seemed to enjoy the notoriety. There was whispered speculation out of Bawala's hearing whether he might not have participated in giving just such a beating to a helpless victim in his last life, and karma was catching up with him. Vankateswami trembled when he thought of what karma would do to him in the next life.
In all of the confusion it had been easy to take twenty rupees from the safe that first afternoon after his father had gone for the constable. He regretted not taking more. No one checked the books that day, nor the next, nor the next. All attention was on Bawala and the coming court case against the culprits, who had been quickly apprehended.
Vankateswami kept reminding himself that he had only taken a very little of what would one day be his. And it was for a worthy cause. There was a new movie he had to see in Proddutar. Driving there on the bullock cart a few nights later, he promised himself that he would avoid his old friends and come home directly after the show. The film was supposed to be a good on~about a monk who everyone thought was a reincarnation of Krishna, but who turned out to be the incarnation of a demon. A story like that was too important to miss.
In Search 0f Salvation
"Sneak thief! Robbing your own family!"
"I'm sorry ... I didn't mean to do it!"
"Like I don't mean this!" His father gave him another hard slap across the face.
"He didn't mean to doctor the books either. His pen just did it by itself," growled his uncle Terukalaya sarcastically. The plants from which indigo was extracted grew profusely in the fields around Proddutar, and Terukalaya sold the hardened cakes of concentrated dye to cloth merchants in the Bombay area. Returning from a trip, he had been looking through the business records and happened to discover the latest embezzlement.
When the first twenty rupees he had taken had gone undiscovered, Vankateswami had been encouraged to do the same thing again and again. Soon it had become a way of life. His father had eventually caught him and slapped him around the porch with the help of his uncles until his face had burned with the stinging blows. But the smarting pain of shame within had been far worse than the throb of his swollen cheeks. He had promised never to do it again, and had meant it: but his highest resolve was no match for the morbid craving to have his own money that dominated his life. Weary of this continual inner struggle, he would give in on the condition that this would be "the last time." Of course it never was.
Far worse, however, than the shame and guilt and inner turmoil was the fear that the horrible prediction his father made each time he caught him would indeed come true: "If you keep this up, you're going straight to hell! Do you hear me? Straight to hell!"
Vankateswami would stand with drooping shoulders, head bent forward, eyes to the floor, trembling inside. It wouldn't be long, however, until everyone would be jovial again as though all was forgiven and forgotten. His father would pat him on the back and tell him to cheer up . . . but Vankateswami couldn't get the thought of hell, nor the fear of it, out of his mind. Once he had been confident that karma would make him something better in the next life, perhaps even a Brahmin. Now he feared that his evolution could only be downward, to become a rat, or hated scorpion, pushed ever lower by his karma . . . to drop at last into the flames of hell with no escape. Hadn't Jaigee herself said that transmigration of the soul could be downward as well as upward?
The family had recently made a pilgrimage to Benares on the banks of the Ganges where the elderly waited to die, hopeful that if their dead bodies were committed to its sacred waters they would go directly to heaven. He had bathed in that Mother of all rivers, but felt no sense of purification from sin. The old fear of hell still haunted him, yet he hadn't stopped stealing. Indeed he couldn't. Should he return there to drown himself in the Ganges? Would that assure him of nirvana? If he could only be certain . . . but there were so many divergent opinions from hundreds of gurus all claiming to be the present living reincarnation of Rama, Krishna, and Christ. There was, however, another way to escape hell that almost all agreed upon. Some of his cousins had paid large sums to the priests for special pujas to get their cremated parents into nirvana. But what if there wasn't enough money . . . or suppose his heirs weren't willing to pay the price?
"How are you seeking salvation?" he asked Jaigee very earnestly one evening in private. Less interested in the business and more concerned with preparing for the next life, she was growing daily more feeble, but her mind was still sharp.
"There are many paths," she replied thoughtfully. "Yoga is the best, but few are able to practice such strict discipline. Each must seek his own dharma. If one does more good than evil, at least the progression is upward from one life to the next.
"And if one's evil deeds outweigh the good ...?" he interrupted. She looked at him sympathetically. "Speak and worship the sacred syllable Om. This is the Supreme Brahman. It is said that Om is the bow, one's Self is the arrow, Brahman is the target.” By repetition of Om and meditation you will find your true Self."
"I repeat it more times than I can count--and all the best mantras--but still I have no peace. I am afraid of hell!"
"Manu has said, 'Nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, purity, sense control-this is the dharma of all four castes.' Follow this rule."
"I have tried without success." Suddenly he felt angry. Others had failed too. "No one fully follows the Vedas!" he grumbled. "Not even the Brahmins. It is no secret about the girls who stay so long in the temples. In our own village I have heard
"It's certain that stealing is wrong!" she interrupted sharply, cutting off any further accusations against the priesthood, though she knew there was justification. "It is unbecoming for a thief to accuse others!"
"I take nothing that isn't my own, what my father refuses to give me. Just wages. He is unreasonable."
"It is stealing," she said firmly, but the sharpness had left her voice. He was her favorite in spite of recent events.
"Sometimes it is right to steal," he argued defensively. "Even the gods have stolen. It is said that Krishna steals the women's saris when they bathe."
"It isn't the same!" she said indignantly. Her voice softened again. "You will change. I have much faith in you."
This was not the subject he had intended to talk about and it made him uncomfortable. "You didn't answer my question," he reminded her. "How do you seek salvation?"
"I have hope that my karma will bring me to nirvana within five more reincarnations. So my guru tells me . . . but nothing is certain except writing the sacred name of Rama. I have filled books with his name. Perhaps some day you could count them for me."
"Of course. How many times do you wish to write it?"
"It is said that anyone who writes Rama 100 million times will reach nirvana without fail."
"That is a lot of writing," said Vankateswami thoughtfully. "Far easier to die beside the Ganges so one's body could be given to the sacred waters."
"I have written it five thousand times in a single day, but my fingers grow ever more stiff with age. I do not count very high, but others say I have already written five million. If you would do a favor for an old woman, tell me the true count."
Always quick with figures, Vankateswami had been calculating rapidly in his mind: 5,000 a day was about 1,8oo,ooo a year, which left more than fifty years to go. It would not be a kindness to an old woman to tell her that. "Someday I will count them for you," he said absently.
"Jaigee! Jaigee! Where are you?"
Vankateswami's mother pushed her way through the curtain hanging across the open doorway and hurried to Jaigee, wringing her hands. "Your youngest brother . . . they don't think he'll live!" She burst out crying, unable to talk anymore.
"He's only fifty!" Jaigee wailed, on her feet now, looking puzzled and alarmed.
Vankateswami's father had entered the room and was standing just inside the door, beckoning for his mother. "I've called for the bullock cart," he said quietly. "Come. I'll go with you.
It was late that night before the two returned from Proddutar, exhausted and heartbroken, with a strange tale. Jaigee's youngest brother had been famous for his accomplishments in yoga, and was a well-known wrestler, excelling in a sport that the Moslems had too long dominated. Vankateswami had seen very little of this famous man who seemed always to be secluded in his room practicing yoga or away in the gymnasium where the local wrestlers gathered. But he remembered well what Jaigee had so often told him.
"He's a great yogi!" she had often said with ill-concealed pride. "Sitting in lotus position, by the power of his mind he can lift himself almost to the ceiling!"
"Have you seen him do it?" Vankateswami had asked in awed tone when he first had heard this as a small boy.
She had nodded gravely. "I . . . and very few others. It is a sacred practice, not for the eyes of the world."
Now he was dead. Apparently he had decided upon a public demonstration of his powers. With a crowd of people watching he had attempted a front flip from the top of the roof, but had landed on his face and never regained consciousness. Some thought he had reached nirvana. Others said it was a premature death, and therefore his spirit must wander, haunting family and friends. No one knew for sure.
Unfortunately the funeral came at a very busy time for the money-lenders. Business, of course, was always first, as Jaigee well knew; so she carried her six sons' apologies to Proddutar when she paid her last respects to her brother's ashes. Vankateswami was secretly glad he couldn't go. He had developed a strong aversion for funerals, with their long processions, drums beating, mourners waiting, Brahmin priests chanting mantras and waving the sacred flame. It left him unnerved for days, viewing a corpse and how could one avoid that at a cremation ceremony, with the body laid out on the carefully stacked logs soaked in kerosene or dotted with camphor, to be ignited by the eldest son, the widow beating her breasts and wailing unconsolably just behind him. It always reminded him that one day his body, too, would lie lifeless on a pile of logs, leaping flames turning it to ashes . . . while his soul would doubtless be tormented in the depths of hell by even hotter flames.
"You're obsessed with hell," one of his uncles suggested. "There is no such place-so don't worry. Vedanta teaches that this life is but a dream from which we will awaken to oneness with the Absolute. Life, death, heaven, hell, good, evil-none of them really exist. So don't take this dream so seriously."
"Then why do you scold me for stealing?"
"One has to be practical also," he said irritably, and broke off the conversation.
Vankateswami had already tried to adopt the view that all was maya, but without success. It didn't help to tell himself that his thievery was just an illusion-the torment of guilt and fear of hell were still there. Regularly at the temples, perambulating around the shrines in the courtyards, giving money to the priests-money he had stolen from his father-Vankateswami found no peace. The gods seemed unable, or unwilling, to help him. When the wind caught a sari, making it cling to a girl, outlining her hips or thighs or breasts, he would hate himself for the thoughts that filled his mind. Hands stretched out to the warmth of the sacred flame extended by the priest, then fingers pressed firmly against his forehead, he would pray fervently to the gods, without success, for strength to overcome the evil that raged within him.. . and for salvation from hell. It was the latter that concerned him the most.
Then one day while Jaigee's guru was visiting her, Vankateswami decided to seek his advice. When he heard the familiar sounds of farewell, he entered the room where they had been talking and prostrated himself before the Master, a man about sixty years of age. The guru's long gray hair was matted with dirt, and his full white beard, framing a rather pleasant wrinkled face, covered most of the black beads hanging down the front of his saffron robe.
"I know your desire," he said, motioning to Vankateswami to arise. "Your grandmother says you fear hell and seek salvation."
"Yes, Master. I have tried the path of action, but my bad deeds grow faster than the good. Truly I need your help!"
"You are too young to have such heavy concerns," the guru replied soothingly. "Is there not much happiness in youth?"
"I do not wish to be happy now only to land in hell!"
"In the Vedanta it is said, 'For him who knows the true Self both good and evil are alike; indeed, both do please the Self for him who knows thus. This is the secret teaching.'
"I do not understand."
"You concern yourself too much with good and evil and karma, and have neglected the way of knowledge."
"Yes!" exclaimed Vankateswami eagerly. "That is because I have no guru to teach me!"
Bowing toward Jaigee, her guru started for the door. Vankateswami jumped into his path. "Holy Master! I will be your follower, cook your food, wash your clothes . . . only lead me on the path of divine enlightenment!"
Palms together in front of him, smiling, the holy man half bowed again. "What do you know of the Scriptures?"
"I know many mantras and have read the Vedas, perhaps not as diligently as I should Vankateswami hung his head.
"The Bhagavad-Gita is the Book of books. Read it faithfully every day for six months... and then I will examine you. If you are worthy, I will be your guru.
That promise was like a benediction and gave Vankateswami new hope. The family's only copy of the Bhagavad-Gita was in Sanskrit. Determined to learn all he could, he read it aloud each morning when the business opened, and his father and uncles would correct his pronunciation and explain the deeper meanings. Six months would pass quickly, and then he would be a follower of this great guru, and his salvation would be assured. It troubled him somewhat that Jaigee, who had been taught by this guru for years, seemed so uncertain of her own salvation. But his case was different: He was younger, and could do what she could not. There was hope, for the first time in months.
He was familiar in a general way with the Bhagavad-Gita but reading it daily brought new appreciation. Indeed it was the Book of books. He fell in love with it. The narrative style made the truth much easier to grasp. Krishna would forever be his favorite among the gods.
Then one morning, with several customers standing about listening as he read, in one terse sentence in chapter 4 his beloved Bhagavad Gita snuffed out that last ray of hope he had been nurturing, leaving him in darkness and utter desolation:
Lord Krishna came to save the righteous and to condemn the sinners.
Reading the words again, Vankateswami asked each of his listeners who knew the Sanskrit well to explain the meaning. When all had agreed with what he himself had easily understood, he closed the Book of books in despair. His doom was sealed. Lord Krishna was the kindest, the closest to man of all the gods, the reincarnation of Vishnu the Preserver, who came to show men the way of salvation…but he had come to save only the righteous and to condemn the sinners! No salvation for sinners? Then there was no salvation for him!
Walking slowly into the house, he put the Bhagavad-Gita in its place on the shelf beside the family gods. Then he went back to the books of account, but the figures on the page were blurred and meaningless. Something inside him had died.
The drums had been beating for over an hour. Looking up from his work, Vankateswami had a perfect view of the goddess Moolamma's temple facing his house from the other side of the small square. With growing excitement he had watched the farmers and their families-running, laughing children, wives and young women in dazzling, multihued saris-arriving in a steady stream through the port gate to his right, gathering in front of the temple, which was far too small to accommodate the large crowd on this annual festival day. In his younger years the executioner's slashing sword and spurting blood used to frighten him-but this had become Vankateswami's favorite religious festival. Certainly it was the most exciting. Perhaps its very gruesomeness and violence made it peculiarly appealing in a society where the devout wouldn't kill an ant or a fly and everyone was dedicated to nonviolence, inspired not only by the ancient writings, but of late by the courageous example of Mahatma Gandhi, who was slowly breaking Britain's grip on India by passive resistance.
There was nothing passive in this ritual. At last! There it was, the day's sacrifice, being pulled and pushed by three men through the crowd until they were in front of the image of the goddess, where they held it-a large buffalo, the gray mud scrubbed from its back until it was shining and clean.
Of course the law of ahimsa was supposed to be followed at all times by all Hindus; but as Vankateswami had already learned, there were exceptions to every rule. What devout Hindu did not revere Kali, consort of Siva, at whose temple in Calcutta animals were sacrificed by the hundreds, ahimsa notwithstanding? Was not Kali's beauty in her bloodthirstiness? Often pictured with freshly severed human heads and hands hanging as garlands about her, a goblet of warm human blood in her hands, she lived by killing her sons and daughters among men. Who could therefore doubt that a blood sacrifice was what, above all, she wanted? Ramakrishna himself had been one of her most adoring devotees, and who was a greater Hindu or a truer one than he?
Though not as famous as Kali, Moolamma, too, required fresh blood. Often goats would be slain for her by plunging their necks down onto the sharp stake that stood upright in front of her temple. Once every year, however, when the paddy was planted a buffalo had to be offered, and prescribed ritual followed in order to assure the blessing of Moolamma, goddess of fertility, upon the surrounding fields for another season.
Absorbed in the excitement and intricate ritual unfolding before him now, Vankateswami forgot momentarily the despair that had gripped him since reading in the Bhagavad-Gita that there was no salvation for sinners. Although he had watched this every year since childhood, today again the whirling, frenzied dancers fascinated him as always, and the drums and horns made his foot tap with the steady rhythm. The beat quickened, and every eye was riveted upon the stalwart young sword-wielding farmer who had joined the priest in front of the goddess and the victim. This year's executioner, as always, had been chosen for his unusual strength, for the thick neck of the pawing buffalo must be severed with one blow.
The highly polished, glittering sword, sparkling like a diamond in the sun, suddenly flashed in lightning-swift arc. A heavy shudder went through the buffalo's body, and then without a sound its knees buckled and the stricken creature rolled over onto the ground, quivering, the severed head coming to rest a few feet away. Quickly the sacred vessels were placed to catch the precious blood draining from the neck. The chanted mantras and blessings of the priest accompanied by the murmured responses of the worshippers were punctuated by the now slowed and softened beating of the drums as uncooked rice was stirred into the warm blood. Farmers pressed forward eagerly to take their share as one by one they left to spread this red-stained offering on their fields. There was power in that blood. Power to bring forth healthy plants from the ground and to assure a good harvest, the special blessing of goddess Moolamma . . . unless the monsoon god, or the god of drought, or the god of blight interfered with a stronger power.
Several days later a white man he had never seen, accompanied by several Untouchables, invaded the Vaisya community through the port gate and stood in the square in a small group facing Vankateswami's house, their backs to Moolamma's now deserted temple. While one of the Indians played a harmonium and two others kept time with a tambourine and a tiny drum, the group sang loudly several incomprehensible songs about a strange god called Jesus. Their drab performance seemed a pitiful contrast to the exciting and colorful ritual that had been acted out on this square so recently. The tall white man was obviously a missionary. Vankateswami had heard of such people, but had never come into contact with one before.
Vankateswami knew nothing about Christ, only that there was a community of the followers of this strange god outside nearly every village he had ever seen. Even his own village had a small community of Christians, removed by half a mile from the main settlement because they were Untouchables. It was the Law of Manu to isolate such people, who were despised by the gods themselves. That was reason enough for every caste Hindu to reject Christ; but worse yet, Christians called the Hindu gods myths, and ate the meat of the cow, the sacred Mother of us all!
Vankateswami had been absorbed in trying to cover in the books his most recent theft. The loud singing distracted his thoughts and made it difficult to add the figures. Dropping his pen with a grunt of disgust, he straightened up and began wearily rubbing his tired back. The words ringing across the square were offensive to anyone who adhered to ahimsa, as every Hindu must:
Would you be free from your burden of sin? There's power in the blood…
…the precious blood of the Lamb!
Not only was the song offensive, but it made no sense. A lamb was much smaller than a buffalo. Obviously white men knew nothing about the goddess Moolamma. Trying again to concentrate upon his work, he was distracted by another song:
O the blood of Jesus, the precious blood of Jesus!
O the blood of Jesus, that cleanses from all sin!
Blood that cleanses from all sin? He could understand the logic of bloodstained rice bringing fertility to the land it was sprinkled upon, for the rice itself was of the soil. But how could the blood of a lamb cleanse from sin? And this Jesus . . . was he after all a lamb and not a god? It hardly mattered--the god of the Untouchables was no god for him. And with millions of gods, why should any Hindu want another?
The singing stopped. Vankateswami picked up his pen again and tried to concentrate on his work. The missionary's loud, booming voice made that impossible. He was waving a black book in his hand and shouting to the whole world that it was the revelation of the true and only God, the Creator, telling the way of salvation. Opening it, he began to read:
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15)
To save sinners! Vankateswami was hanging onto every word, his work forgotten. Could there really be salvation for sinners? For him? A small crowd had gathered, perhaps thirty or forty Sudras and Vaisyas. Even a Brahmin was hovering near the edge of the square, trying to look as though he wasn't listening. The stranger with the pale skin was explaining that this Jesus was the very God that created the entire universe; yet he had come to this earth as a man to save sinners. There it was again-to save sinners! He had lived a perfect, sinless life, healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, teaching men to love even their enemies-but he had been hated. Men had nailed his hands and feet to a cross, plunged a spear into his side, and there he had died as a sacrifice for our sins willingly, because he loved us. On the third day he had been resurrected-not reincarnated -and had gone back to heaven, but was coming again to this earth to set up his kingdom.
"There is power in the blood of Jesus to deliver from sin's penalty," the missionary explained. "Sin is rebellion against our Creator, taking our own way instead of living as he intended. God said, 'The wages of sin is death. . . .' [Romans 6:23.] We rebel again and try to escape this righteous penalty, clinging desperately to life, afraid to die. But Jesus was willing to die for us all. He said, 'Follow me to my cross, accept my death as your very own, die with me, and you will share in my Resurrection, for I will live in you.' [See Matthew [6:24, 25.] You need have no fear of hell. The penalty has been paid. Believe this good news and you will have the peace of those who have been forgiven."
For hours after the stranger left, his words were still ringing in Vankateswami's ears. It was too good, too simple, to be true. According to the Bhagavad-Gita, salvation was much more difficult than that. Krishna would not save the sinners, but they might save themselves, for he had said to Arjuna, "Even if thou art the most sinful of sinners thou wilt cross over all transgression by the raft of divine knowledge." But there was no clear explanation of how to attain this knowledge, and the gurus gave many interpretations. It was thought to come by yoga, for Krishna had said again, "There is no purifier on earth equal to divine knowledge. A man who becomes perfect in yoga finds it in himself in the course of time." Yet yogis who had practiced all their lives still sought oneness with Brahman. If Christ's offer seemed too simple, surely yoga was too difficult. Self-realization was attempted by many, but who had ever really achieved it? Certainly no one in his village, nor anyone he had ever heard of, not even the priests, nor Jaigee's younger brother. Would simply believing that Christ had died for his sins give that inner peace that he had sought unsuccessfully? It seemed preposterous. And yet, if God would forgive.
Indeed, if there were forgiveness, then karma was obsolete, and the whole idea of reincarnation was meaningless. The cycle of rebirth into future lives was only a means by which karma could exact its due. But if God could forgive sinners because Christ had died for them, then karma had nothing to exact. His head throbbed.
Closing the books, Vankateswami walked outside, leaving his father and uncles absorbed in their conversations with customers. The smell of jasmine was thick in the air. He breathed deeply, and watched two blackbirds pursue a squawking crow out of sight. There was only one thing to do. He must read this book for himself. Clapping his hands, he called a servant and sent him to the Untouchables' village to borrow a New Testament.
At first he read secretly. Much he didn't comprehend, but it took no great understanding to see that the main message of the New Testament was salvation for sinners through Christ's death and Resurrection. The more he read, the louder his conscience seemed to say, "This is the salvation you have been seeking. Why don't you receive it? Krishna came to save the righteous, but what salvation did they need? Who will save sinners-like you-if not this Jesus?" He wrestled with that question for weeks.
Eventually he began reading the New Testament aloud each morning when the office opened for business, just as he had once read the Bhagavad-Gita. His father and uncles paid little attention and made no complaint. Customers would linger on and listen as long as he kept reading. Villagers, and even strangers, crossing the square and hearing his loud voice would come and stand in front of the house, seemingly drawn by the story of Jesus.
In contrast to the Bhagavad-Gita, which had seemed mystical, obscure, and at times contradictory, this Jesus spoke so simply and directly-and not of religion or philosophy, but of himself: "I have come to seek and to save the lost . . . I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father but by me. . . I and my Father are one.. . before Abraham was, I am . . . search the Scriptures, for they testify of me. . . come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest . . . if any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. . .1 am the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep I am the resurrection and the life . . . the hour is coming when all that are in the graves shall hear my voice and come forth . . . and then many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, haven't we done miracles in your name?' And I will say to them, 'Depart from me, I never knew you.' . . . for not every one who merely calls me Lord will enter into the kingdom, but those who do my Father's will . . . and this is his will, that you believe on me.
Jesus was not preaching a path of knowledge, nor of difficult works, nor self-realization through yoga and endless repetition of the syllable Om. That was abundantly clear. His statements were staggering in their simplicity and frightening in their blunt directness: "Judge not, lest you be judged . . . he who hears my words and obeys them not is like a fool building a house without foundation on sand . . . the words that I have spoken will judge you in that day . . . lam the light of the world." All men stood condemned in his presence, yet he forgave those who repented and believed in him.
Everything Jesus said contradicted the religion Vankateswami had been taught, and that troubled him. The truth of truths for every Hindu was that he was God: but Jesus taught that he alone of all men was God, and every other man was separated from God by sin. The great objective of Hinduism was God-consciousness through divine knowledge: Jesus urged men to receive the benefits of God's love through faith in him. Yoga was a set of methods for looking within oneself to find God: Jesus taught that men must turn from themselves to him. Hinduism was a system of do-it-yourself salvation through prayer, ritual, pilgrimages: Jesus said that men must admit the impossibility of saving themselves and accept his sacrifice for their sins. Krishna had taught Arjuna that everything but Brahman is illusion, and assured him that it wasn't wrong to kill because one only kills the unreal body and not the Self, which cannot be killed. But Jesus taught men to love even their enemies, and to lay down their own lives, not to take the lives of others.
Weeks stretched into months and still he read the New Testament aloud each day, now thoroughly convinced that Christ and Krishna were not merely different manifestations of the same God. Hundreds of gurus in India claimed to be the latest reincarnation of the "Christ spirit." They couldn't all be right. Were any of them? Not according to this Book, which claimed that Christ's birth through a virgin in Bethlehem had brought him for the very first time to earth, not as an avatar, but as God becoming man only once to die for our sins, finishing the work of salvation once for all.
Jesus claimed to be the only way ... and if that was true, then Krishna was wrong. They couldn't both be right. Vankateswami mulled over that for weeks, seeking desperately to escape the logic of it. Gandhi had admired Jesus while remaining a Hindu. Pondering that deeply, Vankateswami concluded that, as much as he respected Gandhi, it didn't make sense. If Jesus was just another god, then why bother with him at all? Hinduism already had more than enough gods. It was his uniqueness that made Jesus desirable. He alone had died for our sins, been resurrected, and promised forgiveness and eternal life to all who would believe in him. There was no other god like that! If Jesus was who he claimed to be, then all the rest were frauds.
That was the rub. It was bad enough to embrace the Untouchables' God. But if accepting Jesus' death for our sins was the only way, then the perfect practice of yoga, holy baths in the Ganges, offerings to the idols, the pursuit of mystic knowledge and god-consciousness through meditation could only be what Jesus called "climbing up another way, as a thief and a robber" (see John io:i). It was like dying to accept this Jesus, dying to life as one would have lived it. No wonder Jesus had said that to be his disciple one must deny himself, take up the cross, and follow him. Vankateswami was afraid. To accept this Jesus would cost him everything.
Great crises are often resolved in unexpected and simple ways. He was reading aloud from the New Testament as usual, with several customers listening, and had reached the eighth chapter of Hebrews. The twelfth verse, like a number of others throughout this book, had been underlined by the owner in red ink. Vankateswami read it twice because it seemed so important. "For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more." He let his eyes run over the words again, and something inside him said, "Yes, I'll believe that. God can forgive me because Jesus died for my sins."
"I will be merciful to their unrighteousness He had struggled so long and so hard to become righteous, without success. How he needed God's mercy and forgiveness! He needed a salvation that didn't depend upon his own merits but upon the sacrifice of one who had been able to die in his place. " . . . their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more." That promise took away his fear. It had been settled forever.
"Thank you, Lord," he said under his breath. "Thank you." The crisis had passed almost without his realizing it.
There was no longer any reason to march around an idol shrine, nor to offer coconuts to gods that couldn't eat them, nor to mark his forehead and neck with ashes and prostrate himself before images of wood and stone. He worshiped no more the family idols enshrined in their corner of the dining room, avoided the family puja, and went outside to talk with his heavenly Father when the pundit arrived on his weekly rounds to bless the business with special incantations for a fee. The fear of hell had vanished like the morning mist under a burning sun.
The New Testament became like food to his soul, but there was also much he didn't understand as he read. Like the verse he noticed in Mark 16 one day: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned" (verse 16). The word "baptized" had been left untranslated because there was no Telugu equivalent. How could he find out what it meant? Whatever it was, he must do it.
Inexpressible emotions surged and tumbled around in Vankateswami late that afternoon as he made his way resolutely through the Untouchables' village toward the chapel, attracting many a wondering eye along the route. Opening the low gate, he stepped hesitantly into the narrow yard and stood eyeing uncertainly the black stone building with its high peaked roof. Two small boys were chasing each other back and forth along the side of the church, and Vankateswami called to them, asking where he could find a priest. He was not sure whether that was the proper term to use, but it was all he knew. They apparently understood, and disappeared immediately behind the building, returning in a few minutes with a short, stocky man of about fifty, whom Vankateswami recognized as the headmaster of the small school next door to the church. He had sometimes come to buy provisions from his uncle Terukalaya.
"Yes?" he intoned, obviously puzzled by the visit of a high-caste Hindu, and the son of a wealthy moneylender at that.
"I want to be a Christian," Vankateswami said, in an effort to get right to the point. "I believe in Jesu--but I haven't done this yet." He held out the New Testament he had opened to Mark 16:16 and pointed to that word he didn't understand.
The headmaster's puzzled expression had turned to amazement mixed with unbelief. "You want to be baptized?"
"Yes. What does it mean?"
"The priest puts water on your forehead ... and you join the church. . . . Is that what you want?" His look of unbelief had turned to open astonishment.
Vankateswami nodded. "Whatever that word means, that's what I want to do!"
"I'm only a catechist," he replied apologetically. A smile was beginning cautiously to spread over his lac~a look of happiness still mixed with wonder. "I can't baptize anyone. Only the priest does that."
"Yes ... the priest. That's who I asked the boys for
"He isn't here. Only comes once a month.
"Oh," Vankateswami half groaned. "I wanted to do it today. Right now!"
"I'm sorry. Would you like me to call you when he comes next?"
He had been home less than an hour when a message came that the priest had arrived unexpectedly and was waiting to see him. Vankateswami hurried from the house and arrived at the chapel in record time, breathless and excited. A tall, thin man in a long, white robe, which was tied around the waist, was standing in the doorway of the small church, talking with the schoolmaster. Looking up when Vankateswami came through the squeaky gate, he smiled at him warmly. His full beard made him look like a guru.
"Ah, you must be the one," he said in a kind voice. "You want to be baptized, is that it?"
"Yes! I believe in Jesus, but I haven't done that yet, and the Book says I must."
"That's true ... but we can't baptize you yet. First you must learn the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, the catechism. In about six months
"I'll learn all those things," Vankateswami promised earnestly, gripping the priest's arm. "But if should die before six months, then who will be responsible for my disobedience? No! I must be baptized now!”
The priest looked like a cornered man. "That would be very irregular. Six months isn't that long."
"I must do what the Book says!" Vankateswami insisted. "Please don't make me disobey!"
Looking helplessly at the catechist standing open-mouthed beside him, then back at Vankateswami's determined expression, the perplexed priest sighed resignedly and said in a low voice, "All right, I've never done such a thing, but...." He turned to the catechist. "Ring the bell for the congregation to gather. We'll have a baptism!"
And so the rules established by the hierarchy in England were set aside to allow a zealous young man to obey a higher Authority. It was indeed an unorthodox way to join the Church of England-but Vankateswami didn't know he was joining anything. Having turned from the false gods he had served with such poor success for so long, he knew little except that he wanted to obey this Jesus, who was now his Savior and Lord.
The custom was to give former Hindus a Christian name when they were baptized. Because of this young man's unusual zeal, Pastor Joseph named him Paul after the famous apostle. The name meant nothing to Vankateswami. He knew only that he had obeyed the Book and his Lord, and he returned home unspeakably happy.
It wasn't easy to go back to that church filled with Untouchables, but Vankateswami began to do it regularly every Sunday. As far as he knew, he was the only high-caste Hindu in the whole world who had left his gods to follow Jesus. Sitting in a comer of the small church by himself, he kept his distance from the others, while joining in the prayers and songs. Whether his family knew where he went, or simply didn't care, he wasn't sure; but no one asked any questions.
A number of months after his baptism, while reading the borrowed New Testament aloud with customers and villagers listening, another verse underlined in red caught Vankateswami's attention. He wondered why he hadn't noticed it before. "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). Later as he worked on the records he pondered that verse, asking himself whether it was true of him. He believed in Jesus-but was he a new person? Looking back he could see that everything had changed. He hadn't stolen a rupee since Jesus had become his Lord, and he no longer had any fear of hell. A peace beyond comprehension seemed to guard him day and night. "I must really be a Christian!" he thought. "My old life is gone. Just like the Book says, I'm a new person!"
Certainly it was too good to keep to himself. He must tell others how they could have eternal life too.
"I've found the salvation I was searching for!" he said eagerly to Jaigee the next morning when he found her sitting in the yard worshiping the sun.
She turned and stared at him coldly. Lately her eyes seemed to be covered with a dull film. Yet at times one could still see the old shrewdness deep within. She spoke sharply. "When one monkey is spoiled, he will spoil all the rest!" Spitting on the ground, she turned back to her sun worship again. Waiting patiently while she repeated over and over, "Om Siva, Om Siva, Om Rama ... Rama, Rama, Rama," he thought of Jesus' words to his disciples: "When you pray don't use vain repetitions like the heathen, who think they will be heard if they say it enough times" (see Matthew 6:7). It pained him to watch her pursue this hopeless ritual. Fingers lately too crippled to write Rama's name, she whispered it and the names of other gods and the syllable Om most of the day.
She stopped speaking and turned to blink at him, apparently surprised that he was still standing beside her. "What is spoiled about this monkey?" he asked.
She said nothing, just stared at him disdainfully, so he persisted. "When I failed my studies, kept bad companions, drank, and stole and lied to cover it up. . . wasn't the monkey spoiled then? Are you not happy that I have changed?"
She turned away. "You have joined this low-caste religion!" she said over her shoulder in a contemptuous tone. "Do you think none of us know where you go? It is a disgrace to our family!"
"I do not touch the Untouchables, sol am within the Law of Manu. I sit in a corner by myself far from the others."
"It is their religion you have touched, and that is worse. Contamination of the body is cleansed with one reincarnation, but the diseases of the soul take many lives to cure."
"I have found the true God!" he said earnestly. "I have peace! There is no fear of hell, and you know how I was tormented by that." He touched her arm gently. "Jaigee, there is salvation without writing Rama's name 100 million times. The true God, Jesus, died for our sins. Believe in him! There is forgiveness!" His sudden boldness startled him. It was unthinkable that he should speak to her like this, but a wave of pity had swept over him. She was growing weaker every month and must have realized that she would never be able to write Rama's name enough times. He wanted her to have the salvation he had found.
She had begun praying again, "Hare Krishna, hare Rama louder now, her face uplifted to the sun, and he knew that further conversation was futile. Why had she become so angry? She herself had told him many times how very tolerant Hinduism was of all religions.
Jaigee had not wanted to hear. . . but were there not many others in the village who were anxiously seeking salvation? He did not know of anyone who had really found the peace he sought through temple ritual. He must try to tell them the good news that had changed his life. "This is a faithful saying ... Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners!"
Since he had first heard of salvation for sinners from someone preaching in the streets, he assumed that this was the proper way to tell others. The day after Jaigee had rebuffed him, when nothing was happening in the business and his figures were up to date, he took the New Testament outside and stood in front of the house facing the open square and began to sing loudly a hymn he had learned at the little church. In no time a crowd of curious villagers had gathered. He opened the Book, read the first fourteen verses in John's Gospel, and began to explain what it meant.
There seemed to be little response either for or against what he was saying, judging from the passive expressions among his listeners. Feeling inadequate to explain the Bible as the missionary had done, Vankateswami told what had happened to him personally: how he had tried everything in Hinduism without finding peace, and how Jesus had saved him. Suddenly a burly farmer from the adjacent Sudra community stepped out of the crowd and grabbed him roughly by the arm.
"We don't want the god of the Untouchables!" he yelled, hitting Vankateswami in the face. No one made a move to intervene, and Vankateswami did not resist. Wasn't this what Jesus said would happen? "Go live with the Untouchables where you belong!" the farmer screamed, hammering more blows that knocked him to the ground.
"Stop!" Half conscious, he heard his father's loud voice shouting. "Get away from him!"
Turning painfully toward the house, Vankateswami saw his father pushing his way through the crowd, followed closely by two of his uncles, and he became aware that his attacker had fled.
"No more talk of this Jesus! Do you hear?" Vankateswami's mother was daubing at his bleeding nose with a damp cloth, while his father paced angrily back and forth, speaking sternly. "You have disgraced the Gupta name! If you want to stay in this house, you must never do again what you did today. Do you understand?"
Vankateswami nodded. "I understand, father."
For several days a battle raged in Vankateswami's conscience. He ought to obey his father. . . but he also ought to tell everyone about Jesus so they could have their sins forgiven too. In an unexpected way, a few days later, the decision was taken out of his hands.
He had gone to the Sudra community just outside the Port Gate early in the morning to get milk. Suffering from a high fever, the dairyman's wife was so weak that she could hardly get out of bed to bring him the milk. "You are sick?" he asked with great concern when she came with the pail full. "I see fever burning in your cheeks."
"Yes, it came upon me last night and it's much worse today."
"I know someone who heals the sick!" he said eagerly without thinking. Only the day before he had read aloud from the New Testament how Peter's mother-in-law had been ill with a high fever, and Jesus had healed her.
Putting a hand upon her forehead, Vankateswami prayed a simple prayer. "Lord Jesus, this woman has a fever just like Peter's mother-in-law had. Please, Lord, show her your love by healing her too. Amen."
"I'm well!" she exclaimed, beginning to laugh with joy. "Husband!" she called loudly. "Come here! I'm well! The gbds have healed me!"
"It was not the gods," Vankateswami replied quickly. "There is only one true God, the Creator of us all. He came to this earth as a man to die for our sins. His name is Jesus. He came out of the grave and is alive today. He healed you. Give thanks to him!"
Within hours the news of this miracle had spread through the village. The sick began coming to Vankateswami for prayer, and were healed. Wherever he went in the village, people crowded around asking questions about this god Jesus who could heal the sick. Vankateswami found himself preaching in front of his house again, and on other streets in the village. When Pastor Joseph made his next monthly visit to the nearby chapel, Vankateswami had a surprise for him. About twenty-five Sudras wanted to be baptized. The congregation sat in silent awe watching Pastor Joseph, himself an untouchable, touch his wet fingers to the Sudras' foreheads, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Feeling a new enthusiasm such as he had not known in years, Pastor Joseph stood talking to Vankateswami long after everyone else had gone. "Next week I'm going to visit another village nearby. You must come with me and we will preach there too. Many Sudras live there. They will listen to you more than to me because of your caste."
Vankateswami was pleased. "Yes, I would like to go. My heart is bursting to tell everyone what Jesus has done for me!"
With deep gratitude Vankateswami told in the next village how the Hindu gods and sacred writings had given him no help, his life had only grown more sinful and empty . . . how he then had found the true God who had died for his sins, and was now forgiven and had the peace he had sought for so long. About thirty Sudras in that village believed, and they, too, were baptized by Pastor Joseph.
"Why must you tell everyone about this Jesus?"
Vankateswami had been so absorbed in his work that he hadn't heard his father come in from the street. Now he looked up from the books, startled by the anger in his voice.
"Is it not enough that you yourself have stooped to take the Untouchables' religion? Must you persuade others to do the same?"
"I have found the salvation that all men seek, father. How can I keep this good news to myself?"
"You do not go to the temples anymore. It is said in the village that you despise Rama and Siva and call them false gods."
"I do not despise those who worship them. But they are all false gods-for they cannot even move but must be carried everywhere so how can they help others, when they cannot help themselves?"
"Stop! You blaspheme the gods! They are all Brahman!"
"If I blaspheme, then let the gods judge me--but they cannot. I am not afraid of them. I have found salvation in Jesus, the true God."
"Jesus is the God of the Untouchables. He's not for our caste!"
"He is for everyone, because he is the only Savior!"
A sadness had come into his father's voice. "I remember you well as a child upon my knees, when I first told you the story of Hanuman rescuing Rama's wife and you clapped your hands, exclaiming how beautiful a tale it was. Now look at you, forsaking the gods that Hindus have always worshiped!"
Looking around, Vankateswami saw his mother and Jaigee standmg in the doorway. His uncles had stopped talking to their customers. Everyone was watching and listening. "You know the devotion I have always had for the gods," he replied earnestly. "The pilgrimages I have made, how regular I was at the temples. But the gods did not help me. Nor did I find salvation in our sacred writings. You know how I read the Bhagavad-Gita aloud
"I had hope for you then," his father interrupted.
"But I saw it written there that there is no salvation for sinners… yet who else could need salvation? Then I learned that Jesus came to save sinners! Do you not think that was good news?"
"So you go about the streets shouting to everyone to believe in this Jesus. You have taken Sudras to the Untouchables' church, where they have been touched by the leader of the Untouchables! Now I hear that you have gone to another village with this outcaste, riding in the same bullock cart, eating the same food.
"I have eaten nothing that he has prepared or touched, in spite of the lies that are told. But is there not a change in my life that makes you glad?"
"Glad? Glad to hear the complaint of our relatives that you have brought shame on our name? You have disgraced us all! For that I should be glad?"
"I do not steal anymore!" Vankateswami replied softly but earnestly. "Search the books. Add every column of figures. You know that I no longer steal!"
"You never took much.”
"But it was stealing. Are you not glad that I have changed? That I no longer lie to you? The fear of hell that tormented me day and night is gone. I have peace. My sins have been forgiven. Should I not tell others how they can have this peace too?"
"No, you must not! I have warned you before to stop talking about this Jesus or leave the house!"
That was an order Vankateswami found impossible to obey. Whatever the consequence, he must tell everyone who would listen about the salvation he had found, the peace with God, the joy of knowing that his sins were forgiven and that heaven was his home. There were more angry warnings from his father, but they came less frequently, and gradually his family seemed to accept with a certain fatalistic resignation what they called his new religion. Some of the relatives said it was his karma: for having mistreated Christians in his past life, he had been destined to suffer as one of them.
He continued to keep the books for the business. No one tried any longer to persuade him to join in the family puja. There seemed to be less tension… and then one morning he was not called to breakfast. Others were told to eat, but he was not. Perhaps it had been an oversight. The family custom was very clear that everyone was to be invited. He said nothing. But at noon the same thing happened. Now Vankateswami realized that he was purposely being excluded. The family also ate supper without him; and that night he wept softly in his bed before falling asleep. When he had disgraced the family by his conduct at high school, and even when he stole from his father, they still had loved and forgiven him. But now that he no longer stole nor drank nor told lies, and had become the kind of son he thought his father had always wanted . . . they seemed to hate him. Yet it was always said that Hinduism, unlike Islam, accepted all religions. Then why did his family seem to hate him for becoming a Christian?
When he was not called for breakfast the next morning, Vankateswami took his New Testament and walked sadly out through the village gate, down the dirt road, then across the paddy fields by a narrow path to a low hill half a mile away. It was covered with dwarf trees and thick, scrubby brush. In a small clearing he found a pile of baked mud on which the farmers placed their ovens when they cooked the saffron that was planted every few years for crop rotation. Sitting there without shade, he read the New Testament, gazing now and then across the fields to his village where he could just make out the roof of his house near the gate. Often during the day as he prayed, his eyes filled with tears. It was devastating to be rejected. Far better to face angry threats than to be ignored.
Returning before supper, he waited in vain to be called. The family ate without him. Breakfast and lunch were the same again the next day. Sitting on that pile of baked mud most of the afternoon, Vankateswami read that Jesus had said, "I came not to bring peace, but a sword. And a man's enemies shall be those of his own household he that loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me . . . except a man deny himself, take up his cross and follow me he cannot be my disciple" (see Matthew 10:34-39). The words on the page blurred, and he wept.
As the sun grew tower on the horizon the evening breeze flipped the pages to Romans, chapter 8. Verse 32 seemed to be a promise from God directly to him: "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" Why should he fear? God would supply every need. Could he ask more than that? Feeling comforted and strengthened, he made his way slowly back across the fields. Going directly into his room, he knelt beside his bed and quietly thanked God again that he was in his hands.
"Shh! I must tell you something!"
Turning at the voice, Vankateswami saw his uncle Bawala leaning over him, a finger across his lips. He had not heard him enter.
"They will ask you to eat tonight," he whispered, "but don't do it. Your life is in danger!" Turning quickly, he tiptoed from the room.
Staggered by what he had just heard, Vankateswami felt suddenly numb. Did they intend to poison him? If they believed what Krishna had told Arjuna, then it was not wrong to take his life it would just be spinning the wheel of reincarnation, and he would come up again in a new body to make a fresh start toward oneness with Brahman. Still it was hard to believe that his own family would want to kill him!
He heard his mother calling other members of the joint family to the table; and then familiar footsteps padded softly into his room. It was Jaigee. Palms together in front of her face, she bowed in the characteristic Hindu greeting when he looked up. "You have not eaten for a long time," she said with apparent concern. "Please come to supper."
"Tell my father I'm not eating tonight," Vankateswami replied quickly.
She hesitated in the doorway. "But this is the third day you have not eaten!"
"I have not been called-but tonight I shall not eat."
She bowed again and left. Soon he heard the heavy, resolute footsteps of his father entering the room, followed by others. Vankateswami didn't look up until his father spoke.
"You do not wish to eat?"
"No, father, not tonight."
"If you will not eat in this house, then you must go!" He had made that threat before under different circumstances, yet it had not been carried out. This time, however, his father was pointing toward the door leading to the porch and street, and-it was obvious that he meant what he had said.
"You mean . . . I must leave - …right now?" Vankateswami asked in a weak voice, unable to believe it.
"You have brought this low-caste god into our house. You have disgraced your family. The relatives complain. You refuse to change."
"I have changed, father, for the better."
"Don't mock me! If you don't eat, you must go. Will you eat with us tonight?"
Bawala's words were still echoing: "Don't eat-your life is in danger!" Slowly Vankateswami shook his head.
"Then go! Now!"
Vankateswami seemed frozen to the bed, too stunned to move or think. Almost audibly he heard the promise again: "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" God would take care of him. Feeling new strength, he stood to his feet.
With tears streaming from his eyes, he looked at the family facing him from across the room. His mother was just behind his father, an anxious expression on her face. Jaigee was next to her, staring blankly. His uncles and their wives and his brother were near the far door, watching him as though he were some rare species. Looking from one to the other, Vankateswami felt his heart must break. How he loved his family! But they were telling him to leave. He could see that single purpose in every eye. His mother was beginning to cry softly, wiping her face on a corner of her sari: but he knew she agreed with what her husband was doing.
"I love you very much," he said, looking into each face. "But I cannot deny that Jesus is the true God, the Savior of sinners. If for that I must go…” His voice broke and he had to turn away.
When he had regained control of himself, he looked directly into his father's angry eyes and said in a clear voice, "I would rather have Jesus than all of your riches!"
"It's your karma," said his father grimly, pointing to the front door. "It's your karma!"
His mother's sobs grew louder as Vankateswami walked slowly through the living room onto the porch where the business was conducted, then down the steps to the street. In the middle of the small square he paused and looked back. He could see no one peering out of the house. It was dark and the streets were empty. Where should he go? The only possessions he had with him were the dhoti skirt and shirt he wore and the borrowed New Testament clutched tightly in one hand.
This account is true and is excerpted from the book, “God of the Untouchables,” by Dave Hunt. The publisher is Fleming Revell, 1976. All rights remain with the author and HBI Global Partners.