Kami L. Rice concludes her guest series, Heading East, this week.
Standing in an ancient Hindu temple that honors Vishnu—or perhaps it was a temple for one of the other Hindu gods, or maybe it was for one of Vishnu’s avatars; it’s hard to remember for sure because it’s so very hard to keep Hinduism’s less-than-codified beliefs straight—and watching people seek blessings from whichever god’s statue it was that was open for business at that time of day, I felt an unexpected desire to wretch.
The temple, located in the temple city Kanchipuram outside Chennai, the capitol of Tamil Nadu, was at least 1,500 years old, which means that for 1,500 years people have been coming to that place to worship and seek blessings from variously-imaged gods. More than that, it means that for more than 1,500 years the people of India have been enslaved in a belief system that most don’t know enslaves them.
The memory of viewing and touching the huge temple’s intricately carved stone is a souvenir that returned to America with me this week. That souvenir is a reminder of the depth of the spiritual strongholds that persist in India, strongholds that elicited that physical instinct from me to wretch over what was represented there.
A few days later, one of my new Indian friends, a Christian, noted over dinner that one of the challenges of sharing the Good News in India is Hinduism’s deep roots. I understood her comment so much better for having toured temples a week earlier. You can’t separate India’s ancient cultural achievements from its history of worship of these gods. The gods and their images seem to permeate nearly everything.
A few years ago, soon after completing an article for a Nashville arts magazine about the history and current state of the Judeo-Christian tradition’s relationship with the arts, I was in London wandering through the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. Courtesy of my recently completed crash course in art history, I was primed to notice how much Christian religious imagery dominated earlier paintings, in particular. Wandering through temples and cultural sites in India, I was struck by the contrast in belief that’s recorded in India’s art.
During dinner, my new friend noted that sharing Christ with Hindu friends must be done delicately. If someone comes and tells you that what you’ve always believed is wrong, you’re going to be defensive, she said, noting that God must first open their hearts and make them curious.
At Bishop Appasamy College, I met the Christian Leadership Team, a student group that plans chapels and receives training in ministry leadership. In response to a question from me about how they share their faith, one student replied that it’s not about telling people about Jesus but about living it. Another student added that people don’t want to hear about Jesus, they want to see Him.
The anti-conversion laws in some of India’s states (laws that officially are intended to curb “forcible conversions” but that often include dangerous and unjustly wide interpretations of “forcible”) cause many believers in India to have legal and personal-protection incentive for recognizing the delicacy of sharing the gospel with their Hindu friends and for living their faith more than talking about it. Nonetheless, it still seems these particular brothers and sisters of ours are quite matter-of-fact about something we can sometimes ignore because we live in a place that doesn’t have anti-conversion laws.
My dinner friend also mentioned the importance of prayer in the process of sharing the gospel. She has first-hand experience of its power. After her older sister became a believer through the work of the IFES group in India, UESI (Union of Evangelical Students of India), my friend followed, and then both girls prayed for the rest of their family to accept Jesus. Within a few years, their parents and other two sisters had done just that. Now they’re praying for their extended family.
Still, by and large, in my conversations with Indian believers these past few weeks, I actually found most often that despite the existence of anti-corruption laws, despite being a minority religious group in India, despite living in a place with such a very deep foundation in another belief system, Indian believers really aren’t so different from American believers. They aren’t necessarily any more spiritual than us. They struggle with many of the same things we do, such as being diligent in studying God’s word, diligent in prayer, and discerning in how to be Christ’s ambassadors in their workplaces and neighborhoods and families.
The details of our cultures are different, but much about our life in Christ is similar. In many ways, that should make it easier for us to pray for each other.
I’ve come away from India more fascinated by the place, more aware than ever that a few weeks is not long enough to really understand its context, and more convinced of the necessity of God’s power, accessed through prayer, to break India’s spiritual strongholds.
All photos by Kami L. Rice.