Religious Reflection without a mirror

{xtypo_dropcap}O{/xtypo_dropcap}ctober 27th 1893: It was late afternoon, slightly after four, as Richard Shandok slowly trudged up the snaking bridle path that led to the large mud house on top of the hill. Already, the sun had sunk below the majestic Himalayan peaks that surrounded the valley, changing the warmth of daylight into the coolness of dusk.

Seven years had passed since Richard had left his native Iowa as a missionary and settled in Bhawa Nagar, a little village deep inside the Himalayan ranges. After a nondescript journey that had brought him from New York to Bombay via London, he had started wandering through the plains of India, preaching the words of Christ to an uncomprehending but gentle populace. In the course of his travels, he had got to hear a lot about the mountain people, living in small village communities hundreds of miles inside the Himalayas. Their inaccessibility had ensured that they had little, if any contact with the rest of the world, but they were reputed to be warm caring people leading simple lives.

Richard had decided that his time would be best spent working with these people. Four months after he had first entered the foothills, he had reached Bhawa Nagar, gaunt and physically undernourished, but in high spirits. He had already decided that these mountains were going to be his permanent home, and as soon as he had set eyes on this village, he had known that this would be the spot. The sight of the small hamlet, nestled on the side of the Sutlej River and surrounded by tall peaks in every direction, had taken his breath away.

Every villager in Bhawa Nagar had known of his existence the first day he had walked into the village. Like all the other places he had been to in the mountains, they had stared at this fair haired, blue eyed stranger with wonder and awe. As he had walked down the streets he could feel their stares and the excited chatter that had followed in his wake.
{xtypo_quote_left}The outlines of the story are actually based on historical facts, whereby a Hindu and a Christian missionary ended up adopting each other’s religion. as a young boy, i would hear this story from the grandchildren of the ex-missionary who ended up marrying an indian woman and starting his own family. Names, details and thoughts are my own imagination – arjun{/xtypo_quote_left}
One of the villagers had gone running to Ram Dass, the priest of the local temple to tell him the news. Ram Dass had digested the information, thanked the farmer for his efforts, and gone back to the temple rituals that had needed to be done before sunset.

The first few months, Richard had been busy getting settled in. With winter approaching, his first priority had been to make himself a dwelling. A mile from the village, he had found a small natural cave. During the day, he would be busy building an extra room covering the cave entrance. In the evenings, he would spend time with the shy villagers, slowly getting to know them and learning their “khadoo” language.

More than six months had passed before he had felt confident enough with the language as well as the people to broach the subject of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Less than a week later, he had met Ram Dass for the first time.

There is an extra bite in the air today, thought Richard as he wrapped his wool muffler tighter around his neck. The seasons are changing, and very soon snow will blanket everything. The howling North Winds will make it unbearable to stay outdoors once the sun sets. With these thoughts, a sense of completeness, belonging and happiness surged through him, bursting from his very core, diffusing through his being, making him feel lightheaded with joy.

Excitement coursed through him, and all of a sudden he was in a hurry to get to the house. He picked up his pace as the adrenal started to flow through his veins. Just a few more minutes, he thought… a few more minutes.

Early one morning, there had been a knock on his door. Shivering and not fully awake yet, Richard had opened it; to find himself facing a thin middle aged man. From his shaven head and the white string around his shoulder, Richard had surmised that he was a Brahmin – a priest.

“Come in please. What can I do for you?” he had said.

“I am Shree Ram Dass, priest of the temple on top of that hill.” He had pointed to the small white building with the domed roof on the other side of the valley. “I must apologize, but I am unable to come in to your house. I will however wait for you outside. Please take your time. I am in no hurry, but I need to talk to you.”

“I will join you in a few minutes then. Can I offer you some tea or something to eat in the meanwhile?”

“Thank you, but I must refuse.” He had said, a small smile reducing the bite of his words. Turning around, Ram Dass had walked over to a nearby rock, where he had squatted, facing his back towards the house, seemingly oblivious to everything but the sun, towards which he had lifted his face.

Not quite sure what all this meant, and feeling a bit apprehensive, Richard had changed quickly, foregoing his daily shave and hot water wash-up. When he had walked out into the bright sunshine, it had been with a mixture of anxiety and resentment towards this cold and distant stranger who had so effectively ruined the harmony of that beautiful morning.

“I am told that you question the integrity and philosophy of the Hindu Scriptures and have some interesting stories of your own regarding Him.” Ram Dass had said without preamble, as he had pointedly refused to acknowledge the outstretched hand. “We are an open minded people, and it is not in our place to know or understand everything He does in his Infinite Capacity. What has been revealed to your people is not for me to question. However, I am given to understand that you tell our people that our Vedas are not the real truth. As a priest and a student of our scriptures, I find that attitude insulting. I also think that you condemn something you know little if anything about. I have come here to understand why.”

“With all due respects, sir, I had no intention to insult you or anybody else. If that has happened, I apologize. You see, I am a Christian missionary. I am to the Christian religion something very similar to what you are to the Hindu religion. Much as it is your duty to light the holy fire – Agni – every morning, it is mine to preach God’s word to all those that have not heard it. I would be failing terribly in my obligation if I did not show the true light to every one here and make them come and walk on the path of God. It is my humble, but very strong belief that the Bible, our Holy Scripture, is the only way to salvation.”

“You speak a strange language, Richard-ji, one that I do not understand. You keep talking about ‘the’ path, ‘only’ path, ‘the’ true light etc. To us, He, in His infiniteness, can be approached and attained by more paths than there are stars in a moonless night. I find your language strange and incomprehensible. I also find it troubling. We, the people of Bhawa Nagar, have lived here for hundreds of years in peace and harmony. Apart from land and water, we have had little to quarrel about. But you, Richard-ji, with your talk of right and wrong paths, of a strange religion with funny names, you are going to tear us apart. You are going to create dissension where there is no need for it. Do you really think that by discrediting our beliefs and trying to replace them with yours, you will make us a better people?”

“It is not to make you a better people that I preach Christianity, sir. There is only one God, and he has, through his one and only son Jesus Christ, made clear to us what we must do to enjoy the fruits of heaven after our life here on earth. It is to provide your people the opportunity to receive salvation that I teach them the Bible. Without it, they have no hope. What I do is not an activity of pleasure, but one of responsibility. You must understand that.”

“I understand only, Richard-ji, that you are a dangerous and conceited man with an alien mythology and belief, an articulate tongue and an attitude of self-righteousness that I find amazing. If I were intelligent, I would have you thrown out of here, back to the flat lands from where you came. The mountains do not need your sort here. However, that would not be right. I shall make you an offer. You may live with us, but only on the condition that you stop your talk on religion with our people. Every evening, after my prayers, we can meet outside the temple courtyard. I shall teach you Sanskrit and our Vedas. You shall teach me your language and your Vedas – whatever you call it. We shall then try to understand deeply, between us, if one is better than the other, or truer. Only at that time, if your religion stands up, and we are both convinced that by talking about it you will not disrupt the tranquility of our village, can you go out and teach it to the others. If these conditions are acceptable to you, you may continue staying, otherwise you must leave.”

For a long time after that, nobody had said anything. Richard had been caught completely unawares and had not known what to say. Ram Dass had seemed to turn oblivious to the world once again, face directed upwards towards the sun.

“I shall need some time to think over your offer.” Richard had said ultimately.

“There is no rush. It is spring now, and you cannot leave until May, when the snow in the passes melt.” Ram Dass had said, as he had slowly gotten up from the rock he had been squatting on. “Contact me in the temple when you have made up your mind.”

“Oh! There is something else I meant to say,” he had added, as if on an afterthought. “I am a Brahmin and you are not even a Hindu, let alone of a low caste. If you do accept my suggestions, it will probably mean that we shall be spending quite a bit of time together. If that is to be the case, it is important that you understand a few things. My religion forbids me to allow you inside my house or the temple. It also forbids me to share my food with you, eat food cooked in your house or to enter inside it. I would become impure if any of these things were to happen. I will arrange, therefore, for a bench to be set up outside the temple courtyard, where we will carry out our discussions. When food is served, you will be given your own special plate. Please do not offer me your hospitality either, as it will just make it uncomfortable for me to have to refuse. I explain this to you now so that there is no opportunity for misunderstandings in the future. Do you have any questions?”

“No. No, I don’t, not right now,” Richard had replied, at a complete loss. It had all felt like a bad dream from which he would wake up and everything would be back to normal. Right then he had just needed to rest and sort through the muddle that his mind had become.

“Well then, I wish you a sound mind so that you make the right decision,” Ram Dass had said as he had started walking away towards the village, leaving behind a bewildered man.

It had taken Richard the better part of two months to make up his mind as to what he was going to do. He had gone up to the temple and told Ram Dass that he agreed to abide by the conditions set.

“Then we shall meet tomorrow evening, when the sun is at that level,” Ram Dass had replied, raising his arm to a thirty degree angle.

“God! Am I out of shape!” Richard thought as he sank down onto a rock on the side of the bridle path, his breath coming out in jagged rasps, making his throat feel on fire. “Four months in the plains. I should have known better. Of course my body is not used to these high altitudes any more. What am I hurrying for any way? It’s not as if I am going to be sitting outside today! Ram probably has a nice fire going inside, and if it gets too late, I can always sleep there.”

Thoughts like these must have played on his mind practically every day, but still, each time they did, he felt anew the tingle of excitement course down his spine and make his heart beat faster. “You’d think I was a little teenager fantasizing about his first puppy love,” he thought wryly, as he stood up and started walking uphill at a more relaxed pace.

They had had their first meeting the next evening. Ram Dass had arranged for a special bench – one of those with a table in the middle and two benches on either side, all attached to form one piece – to be placed outside.

For the first few weeks, they had laid aside their books. All they concentrated on was to explain their religion to each other in the most general terms. “To understand where each of us is coming from,” was how Ram Dass had put it.

The first few days had gone smoothly, but then an atmosphere of tension had slowly started to build up, as they had both started getting to their respective core concepts, where their beliefs were strong and deep.

By the end of the month, the situation had become quite tense, palpably so. In fact, both of them had started to feel the strain and pressure of these discussions, which by that point resembled arguments more than anything else. If it had not been for the fact that both of them had felt committed to portray themselves as reasonable and open-minded people, they would have stopped meeting completely. As it was, neither had wanted to be the first to break off the discussions. Each had been waiting for the other to do it. What made the pressure unbearable was that no matter how strong they had felt emotionally on a particular subject, or how much they had felt attacked by what the other was saying, they had had to keep up a veneer of being rational, objective people.

Then, one evening, in the middle of a very intense, heated discussion, with both of them on edge and very tense, Ram Dass had made a silly comment about how Richard’s Jesus Christ sounded like he must have actually been a reincarnation of Ganesh-ji, sans a trunk!

Somehow the statement, having been dropped in to their discussions, had seemed so completely out of place that it had left both of them at a complete loss of words. They had just sat there, staring at one another foolishly, as the tension had just seemed to drain away completely. Then, Richard had started laughing, with Ram Dass following. They had laughed for a long long time. By the time they had stopped, they had both been sitting on the grass, tears streaming down their faces.

On that day something changed. From being adversaries, they had started to become friends. Over time, suspicion gave way to respect and then admiration for the integrity, intellect and beliefs of the other. Their attitudes changed completely. From trying to convince the other of the superiority of his religion, they had started to read the other person’s scriptures out of genuine curiosity and a real desire to understand.

They had slowly become inseparable, spending all their free time together. They would spend hours studying Sanskrit or English, or reading each other’s texts, one halting word at a time.

Richard had then introduced Ram Dass to chess. Very soon they had been spending as much time on that game as they did studying the scriptures.

As much as their friendship had blossomed, the invisible barrier of Ram Dass’s religion had continued to separate them like the steel bars of a cell door. Whenever Richard would come to Ram Dass’s house, he would have to shout out his name from the porch, unable to go in. When the food used to be served to the two men in the middle of their discussion, it would come in different plates, Richard’s in a specially marked one. When they played chess, they wold use their own set of pieces.

All these, however, were minor irritants compared to the frustration they would both feel, when, in the middle of an interesting discussion or a good game of chess, they would have to stop because of the cold. Unable to go indoors, either in to Richard’s or Ram Dass’s house, they would have to end their sessions once the sun set.

At times, the pain and frustration this would cause the two men was almost physical. With the approach of winter, the hillsides ablaze with the color of fall, they would start to suffer from bouts of depression. The shorter, colder day meant there would be even less time for them to spend together. Every spring their spirits would soar.

One bitterly cold winter day, as Richard had started packing his chess pieces in the middle of an exceptionally good game, Ram Dass had in a fit of anger sworn that if ever this barrier between them could be broken, he would stick the bench they were sitting on edge down in to the mud.

“A monument to the follies and traps we humans allow ourselves to fall into,” he had said.

Richard had reached the last hillock, the other side of which lay Ram Dass’s big sprawling mud house. All of a sudden he was feeling nervous. He had dreamt of this moment for over a year and now it was actually on hand. He wondered how it would all turn out.

How should he act? Should he go over and give Ram Dass a big hug? Should he enter the house, or should he just holler from the courtyard’s entrance, as he had always done in the past? How will this new equilibrium affect their friendship?

The questions raced through his mind in an endless stream.

Then he was over the top. Nothing seemed to have changed in the time he was gone. There, on the right, was their bench, it’s edge stuck into the soil. The way he and Ram Dass had left it the day before he had left for the plains. The table’s surface facing him seemed as if someone had started building a wall and then changed his mind half way through. The vegetable patch on the left still had its tomato and cucumber plants.

Richard walked over to the courtyard entrance, almost walked in – hesitated – then changed his mind. He hollered as usual, “Ram Dass-ji, it is I!”

“Richard-ji, is that you?” the excited voice of Ram Dass had come from somewhere inside. “You are back! That is wonderful. I will be out in a minute!”

Richard leaned against the wall, waiting. Each second seemed like an eternity. As he slowly turned around to rest his back against the wall, his eyes taking in the familiar sights, he noticed it.

Hanging under the doorway was a small cross.

The first signs of change had appeared approximately two years before. Richard had been spending a lot of time studying the Bhagavad Gita, trying to understand its deepest meanings. One evening, during a yoga and meditation session with Ram Dass, he had felt a transformation deep within himself. By the time he had come out of his meditation, for the first time in his life he was no longer completely sure of his beliefs in Christianity.

He had felt disturbed by what had happened, but had decided against confiding in his friend at that time. Over a period of months, however, the doubts and questions had continued to grow. Some of the Hindu philosophy – which had initially seemed an interesting intellectual exercise – had started to have a profound impact on him and the way he looked at life.

The change in perception that his intense study, and understanding, of Vedantic philosophy led to, coupled with deep meditation sessions that seemed to transform his very core, had left him further and further in doubt.

Ram Dass had noticed the change in Richard quite early, but had felt that it was not in his place to broach the subject. During the sessions when they would study the Bible, Ram Dass would notice that his friend had lost some of his surety and confidence while explaining a point or answering a question.

The break had finally occurred last winter. They had been studying The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, Ch 8:2:7 “But there is not knowledge in every one. For some until this present, with conscience of the idol: eat as a thing sacrificed to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” Ram Dass had been questioning the theological validity of this statement, when, without warning, Richard had broken down.

“Ram Dass-ji,” he had said, “I cannot carry on like this any more. When I reach chapters like this one, it shakes the very foundations of my belief. Your Vedas, the yoga and meditation you have taught me… how can the Bible say they are not true paths to God? I FEEL the peace, I FEEL the contact. I can no longer accept that the Bible is completely true, and therefore, are God’s own words. In fact, I cannot even call myself a Christian. I believe in the Vedas, and I believe in everything they say. If anything, I consider myself to be a Hindu.”

Ram Dass had been expecting discussions on doubts. But this! That Richard wanted to become a Hindu! Ram Dass had been completely taken aback.

They had sat and talked about it. Not for a day or a week, but over a period lasting more than a month. Again and again, Ram Dass had questioned Richard. Was he sure? What made him feel that he would make a good Hindu? Does he accept everything in the Vedas? Was this a phase or something more permanent?…

At the end of it all, Ram Dass had been convinced that Richard had really converted to Hinduism. They had celebrated Ram Dass’s acknowledgement by getting drunk on the local brew and talking and joking late into the night.

From then on, the discussions had slowly shifted focus. How to completely ‘purify’ Richard so that he could become a Brahmin and drop his current status as an untouchable. Richard’s head would need to be completely shaved… and there was the thread knotting ceremony to be carried out… and not to forget the Agni puja and… The list had seemed endless. The culmination of all this would be Richard traveling to the Plains, to the holy city of Haridwar. There he would take a bath in the mother of all rivers, the Ganges. In that final act, he would become a complete Hindu.

And then! Imagine all the things they would be doing! Eating together. Cold weather – so who cares? They would carry on their game of chess in the warmth of the house, with a crackling wood fire keeping them company. Oh! And if it ever got too late, Richard could always sleep on the spare cot.

They had completed all the ceremonies that Richard had needed to do during the winter itself. At his mundan – head shaving – ceremony, the whole village had come to attend. They had cheered and shouted when, to the accompaniment of Ram Dass’s chants, the local barber had applied the first stroke of the razor.

With the thread knotting ceremony, Richard had finished all that could be done in Bhawa Nagar itself. Now, it was only a question of waiting for summer, when the passes would open up again, so Richard could travel to the Plains to complete his final act.

In the month of May, Richard, leading a pack mule, had left a village of waving, smiling people on the last part of a journey that would finally make him one of them. A Hindu.

During all this time, Ram Dass had stuck to his bargain. He had never stopped studying the Bible or asking Richard for explanations when he could not understand something. Unlike Richard, he had not yet reached any conclusion. He also found a lot that he liked as he had continued studying it and was in no hurry to put the book down.

“Surprised Richard-ji? Yes, that really is a cross.” The soft voice broke his concentration. He had been staring at the cross so intently, he had not even heard Ram Dass walking across the courtyard.

“Why are you staring at me like that Richard-ji?” Richard could not believe what he was seeing. There was a silvery crop of hair covering the bald shaved pate that Richard had remembered his friend having.

“Ah! You must find I look funny with hair,” Ram Dass said, running his hand through his hair self-consciously. “You see, richard-ji, in the months you have been away, I continued reading the bible. I could not make up my mind what to believe and what to discard any longer. Then, maybe a couple of months after you left, I had a dream. In that dream, God spoke to me and I realized that the Bible is right. There is only one God, and the Bible is the only way to reach Him. Yes, Richard-ji, i have become a Christian. Isn’t if funny. You have taken my religion, and I yours.”

Richard just stood there shocked – completely, absolutely shocked. He felt like Ram Dass had just slapped him across his face.

“So, what happens to our being able to spend evenings in each other’s homes?” he had whispered at long last. “what about eating, and sleeping and all the other things we have been talking about, dreaming about, thinking about? What happens to all those plans?”

“Well, Richard-ji, all that will remain the same. You were the one who always told me how stupid it was to keep somebody out of your housejust because they held beliefs different to your own. You always condemned this whole pracitce of untouchability, and Christianity does not talk about it anywhere. So, even as a Hindu, you will be welcome into my house and to share my food.”

Tears slowly welled up in Richard’s eyes, and he felt his very insides being wrenched apart, as he slowly turned around and headed for the up-turned table.

“you, of all people, should understand what I am doing,” he said, as he knelt and slowly began scraping off the soil that was holding the table upright. “I think we are going to need this table again. I am sorry… so very, very sorry… for both of us.”

The outlines of the story are actually based on historical facts, whereby a Hindu and a Christian missionary ended up adopting each other’s religion. as a young boy, i would hear this story from the grandchildren of the ex-missionary who ended up marrying an indian woman and starting his own family. Names, details and thoughts are my own imagination – arjun

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