By Ravi Narasimham
(Originally printed in the November/December 1996 Issue of the MCOI Journal)
I was born into a Brahman family 27 years ago, one the most orthodox castes of Hinduism in India. I was raised by parents and grandparents who adhered to high moral standards. As the first grandson born to my loving grandparents, and had the privilege of visiting several sacred Hindu places and participating in rituals with them. My grandparents followed a very orthodox life style: they worshipped gods, fasted, recited slokas (Sanskrit poems) every day by the family altar, visited the Hindu temple, and performed temple rituals every week.
My parents were also religious and always used good reasoning to expose why rituals were performed before performing them. Because of this, I performed rituals with more zeal, If, for some reason, I had no clue why certain things were done, I justified to myself they were done for good reasons only.
As Hindus, we believed in several gods, and our ultimate objective was to realize the unification with “Para-Brahma,” the godhead. Hinduism subscribes to several ways to reach this objective; which fall under four broad categories: Rajah Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Guyana Yoga. Raja Yoga covers all mental exercises, like meditation, contemplation, chanting, and Hata Yoga (the exercise Yoga). Bakthi is the devotion to either concepts or idols. Karma Yoga teaches one to focus on the duties of one’s life. And Guyana Yoga prescribes to knowledge.
None of these methods opposed each other. They simply were the many ways one could choose to reach his final objective. Depending on the way one chooses,his final destination is either Moksha, Samathi Brahman, Mukti, self-realization, pure consciousness, etc. Thus, Hinduism is both pluralistic and pantheistic.
As I entered my teens, my brother and I had to participate in “Upanayanam,” a ceremony that started the second phase of life: bachelorhood. Every Brahman male had to go through this ceremony before marriage. This phase of life was to be dedicated to godly pursuits. We were taught to follow several ritualistic practices to aid us. We performed ritual chanting and special breathing exercises, recited secret mantras hundreds, and worshipped the sun god even day in the morning and evening as a part of a worship allied “Sandya Vandanam.” We performed rituals before and after eating, wore sacred marks on our forehead,and wore a sacrad thread. My entire life style changed considerably in order to keep up with the rituals. In spite of the monotony, the life style was fascinating, because I felt I was on the road to self-realization. This continued for about four years.
Slowly, my life leveled out but still I had not attained “Brahman.” Living in India, I observed others who experienced Upanayanam several years before I did such as my father, grandfather, uncles, temple priests, and other Brahmans. To my surprise, they were in no way closer than l was to the state of self-realization which we were all supposed to attain. This discouraged me. But instead of giving up, I decided to become more serious about my pursuit, because I believed Brahman did exist and the mistake was ours for not being steadfast t in our methods. For some reason, about two after my Upanayanam, the rituals, the underlying purposes behind them, and m> eagerness to reach self-realization thrust me into a spiritual pilgrimage. I seriously searched for the answer in achieving Brahman.
For years, I pursued the methods I learned without compromising common sense. But when I finally took a look at myself I found only deep emptiness. Ending my life, at that point, seemed the greatest suggestion my rational mind could think of. But a terrifying dream about death changed my thinking overnight. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live. I felt if I had to live, I must have a purpose. And if I had a purpose; I wanted to find it. I believed that when I reached the state of complete self-realization I would live out the answer, and my living would reflect my purpose in life.
Being the sole authority of my life, I granted myself an entire lifetime to discover its purpose. This time, I decided to be as sincere as I could in my efforts and use of all my common sense in this pursuit. I also decided to be open to cither options. I assumed one rule to apply to this quest: I should be willing to put effort into it. After all it only seemed logical; if I wanted something, I must work for it. If what I wanted was wrath a tot it would require proportional effort.
I did not isolate myself from my family and friends during this process. I helped others when I chose to and often went out of my way. I respected my parents and other elders when they didn’t interfere with my, admittedly childish objectives. I was not a bad person in my own eyes. Even if I did bad things, the good things seemed to more than compensate for the bad. This made me feel good about myself. Several people thought I was a wonderful child, and this mattered to me a lot. I wanted to be liked by everyone to dull the blows of the terrible inner emptiness. But,however noble serving others seemed, it did not fill my loneliness. Nonetheless, for the next few years I spent several dedicated hours each day toward understanding the purpose of my life.
My family was closely knit – my uncles and grandparents played a major role in several family matters. The issue that concerned them most was my education. In order to help me focus on my high school studies in Madras, India my uncle decided to enroll me in a Transcendental Meditation class. After a few weeks, I experienced several seemingly good effects: I slept for only two to three hours a day and felt fresh throughout the day, my pulse rate went down into fifties: I seemed to have more energy, and l was able to spend more time studying. While I liked the effects, the emptiness I felt inside remained the same. I was hoping the emptiness would disappear after some time but, the meditation started unraveling its side effects: vibrations in my body and restlessness.
I was aware that some people who practiced Transcendental Meditation wound up losing their sanity. I knew I had to stop right away. There were other ways to self-realization, so I switched to Simplified Kundalini Yoga (SKY) which, seemingly, had the answers. I also took up martial arts class after being impressed by the peaceful looking master in the movies. It seemed they knew the purpose of life. I was serious about both SKY and martial arts and received my Back belt and also took a course to teach SKY.
Being rooted in Indian methods, trying to look for the solution in Christianity was totally out of the question. I thought many Christians were hypocrites who conveniently changed their belief system to accommodate anything they wanted to do. In fact, a lot of my friends perceived Christians in India as people without conscience, mostly because of the British rule in India for 200 years, from which we did not hear a single good story about the Christian faith.
In 1991,I moved to Chicago to pursue my Master’s Degree in Computer Science at Northern Illinois University (NIU). I was 21, and I was accustomed to failures in my pilgrimage and was almost convinced I could spend a few more years in my spiritual quest and it would have got me nowhere. But not quite . . . I decided to turn to the Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures for answers. I remember my mother having said to me that our family was to follow the Rig Veda, so I found some books in a library that explained the Rig Vedas. They made no sense to me. One particular book, however, was deep and fascinating and supposedly simplified the Vedas. The author elaboratedthe fundamental concepts of Hinduism, yet he never answered my deepest question.
So, I turned to science for my answer. I became interested in some of the best sellers on Quantum Theory, written by an Indian doctor. The author elaborated the seeming truths of the universe from a Hindu perspective. His books caught my attention, and I spent several months reading them.. He even used his experience from Transcendental Meditation to explain several concepts I thought I had missed out on these teachings during my meditation days. Nevertheless, I was terrified by the recollection of the effects of Transcendetal Meditation and never wanted to try it again. The author claimed he enabled cancer patients to respond well to chemotherapy by removing their guilt from their minds. He established the connection between mind, body, and the presence of intelligence in every cell of the body. There were many more things he claimed to be true.
The only thiing I really learned from his books was that guilt would catch up with us someday, somehow before we died. This is simply the law of Karma. I knew I had done at least a few things wrong in my life. But, whenever they bothered me, I just shut them out. On the other hand I thought, “What if there are no absolute standards for right and wrong? Or. what if I could rationalize my guilt by blaming my wrongdoings on circumstance, my childhood pear pressure, or on something else?” Then I need not be guilty of anything. It seemed like a great idea but never seemed to work. I believed there must be some absolute standard somewhere. But even so, guilt was not the major issue in my life then: self-realization was.
Since I could not find any answer to convince me of the truthI sometimes challenged my friends with the question, “What is the purpose of your life?” It struck some like a lightning bolt. Some gave answers but usually I quickly discounted them as false. I was surprised no one gave an answer that made me even consider his or her reason. Deep inside I longed to reach the end of my quest.
It was in 1991 when I happened to meet Sophia. She was a Christian from India. We worked at the computer lab at NIU and became good friends in a short time. Sometimes, during casual conversation, our differences in religious beleifs surfaced. One time I asked her my favorite question. “What is the purpose of your life?” “ To glorify God” she replied sincerely and casually, as if it was so simple. I was astonished. My ego was so big, I ignored her answer and asked more questions to cover up my surprise.
That day, deep inside me, I felt a heavy jolt. What Sophia said seemed plausible. Maybe there really was a God, external to me, who knew anything including my emptiness and the reason why I exist? But I was so caught up with self-realization, I had no concept of an external God separate from me. To glorify this God would mean to live a life worthy of the reason I exist I thought. Is it possible it’s so simple I’ve missed it? I had heard a few noble answers to my question, “What is the purpose of your life?” such as: To help others,”” To serve my family,” “To become rich and give to the poor,” and a few others. But I knew deep within me, even when I did such acts of kindness, the motive was to demonstrate to others that I was good, so I could feel good about myself. Thus, my sacrificial services were selfish.
A multitude of questions and thoughts welled up within me. How could a simple religion like Christianity, with one God, so easily explain everything; whlte Hinduism, the ancient religion with several million gods, several schools of thought, several ways, and several rituals obscure things??? If Hinduism had the answer, how could I have missed it after so much effort? And what about the millions of other Hindus?
Sophia’s answer to my question, “What is the purpose of life?” was not unique, because Hindu temple priests would have given the same answer. They would have said their purpose was to glorify god too. But, what they meant was vastly different their gods were idols. The temple priests cleaned, decorated, and even put their gods to steep.
I fully understood what Sophia said. She meant her purpose in fife was to glorify Jesus Christ. What troubled me now the most was that if there was a God, glorifying this God could very well be the purpose of my life. And this would mean that I should know who this true God was.
I had read some history books and knew Jesus was a man like any of the thousands of saints in India. In India, there are several gurus who claim they are god, or claim to have contact with god, or can show you the way to self-realization. I assumed that Christ was like one of the gurus. Having been stumped by Sophia’s answer, I wanted to prove to Christianity was false by proving Jesus Christ was just another good guy whom people had given life to and made their God. So I set out to prove Christ was a gimmick by investigating Christian practices.
I attended a few church services and tried to stump the pastors with tricky philosophical questions. If they couldn’t answer me right away, I never bothered to give them another chance. I threw rocks at Christianity. But in spite of this I learned a few Christian facts like: Christ was brutally killed on a cross; Christ claimed that He died for the sins of humanity; He supposedly came back to He in three days; and He was kind and loving.
Sophia invited me to a Christian retreat where an Indian pastor took time to explain a major difference between any religion and Christianity. He said that in all religions we make the effort to go to god; while in Christianity, God comes to where we are. I thought to myself “WOW!!!” This caught my attention. How I wished this was true! After 12 years of search, I now heard that the omnipresent God was right by me. Even before I could start to imagine this possibility, my family, culture, tradition and heritage flashed before me. How could I even think about believing this? I hated Christianity, and my parents and several others I knew in India had similar opinions. In spite of the fact that I felt his explanation could be true , I chose to deny the possibility. I stopped asking tricky questions. I was afraid I might find the answer in Christianity.
A few weeks passed and I still could not ignore the fact that Christianity might have held the answer for me. The truth is, I was too scared to find out because of the cultural taboo. But I reasoned, if this God existed, He would resolve all my problems. He could take care of the consequences of my quest. If l ever find this, God the True God, I will never have to worry about be cultural consequences. Even after thinking through this, I did not remove my guard completely. I made a final attempt to find fault with the Bible. Someone had given me a copy of the New Testament.
After reading the first chapter from the book of John, I understood Jesus was the Word of God, God’s expression. Chapter two talked about Jesus’ miracles, so I figured He was not an ordinary man. In chapter three, Jesus talked about being born again – this was truly fascinating. The concept of reincarnation, as I understood it was not a physical birth and death but a mental one. When Jesus said we had to be born again, ii made a lot of sense to me. I knew He was telling me about a new life – like starting a new resolution on New Year’s Day except this time,for real – with a brand new nature of Jesus.
I began to realize I would have to submit to Christ and forfeit self-realization for Christ realization. This, I reasoned was a great exchiange. The Bible also mentioned that “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” When I read chapter four, where Jesus talked to the woman at the well and told her if she drank His water, streams of living water would f l o w from within her. so she wouldn’t have to keep traveling to the well, it all clicked. I was running around trying to fill my emptiness, and Christ was saying He would not only fill it but fill it in such a way that it would overflow. So if I accepted Christ’s he lpI need not seek other things to fill my emptiness. This was the solution I was looking for.
Jesus claimed that by just believing in Him, this was possible. The ransom had been paid in full for all humanity. The Way had been paved for everyone to pass through death. Since God is omniscient, He knew my thought process. He was very near. All I had to do was take one step of faith. I felt as if Christ was waiting on me just to take this step. In the silence of my heart, with all sincerity, I said, “I believe in You Jesus, as You have revealed”
This happened early in the morning on March 5, 1994. Words cannot express what happened at that moment .My emptiness was gone, just as if it never existed. I felt a deep sense of cleansing, a great peace and satisfaction. I knew this is what I looking for, for 12 years. Now, after locking into the Bible and who Christ is, I am convinced this is what the many different ways in Hinduism have been trying to achieve.
More than two years have passed since I came to Christ. An additional blessing walked in my life through Sophia, my wife. We got married one year after I came to Christ. Now having known Christ, our hearts go out to all those who have not come to know Him the way He ought to be known. Christ fills our spiritual emptiness by giving the Holy Spirit when we believe in Him. Only the Holy Spirit can satisfy this longing.
My thanks goes to Christ, my Master, for saving a wretch like me.