As a boy reading Rudyard Kipling and hearing stories of the mysterious land of India I always hoped I could go there one day. After I became a Christian in 1962 I began to ask God to make it possible for me, somehow, to realize some of my boyhood dreams of adventure and travel. Little did I realize how often God grants our requests! It was Jesus who said, "I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly."
The following is a report of a real-life month-long trip to India my good friend Ted Wise and I were privileged to take in 1971.
Ted Wise, a young Christian and I came back home from a month in India. Three years ago while speaking in Detroit (1968) I met K.V. Cherian of Kerala, who subsequently invited me three times to come to South India. Last June he suggested it should be for this year's Keswick Conference. The whole trip was made a matter of much prayer, debate and discussion. At the last moment God supplied the necessary funds for Ted (an artist and former hippie leader) and myself in an unusual way. (For example, a group of Christian high school students in Palo Alto from the Jesus Movement raised the first $400) Peninsula Bible Church commissioned us with a laying-on-of-hands service in December and we were off for New York, Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, Athens and Bombay, thirteen and one-half time zones away. Bombay at 0100 the second day was dark and foreboding.
On the way in from the airport we got the first of a series of awful cultural jolts: people were sleeping everywhere on the filthy streets in misery and rags. The smells of the city combined sewage with harbor fuel oil, and rotten garbage mingled with wood smoke (in the capital city of Delhi the morning and evening pall is thick, greasy dung smoke). We had five days in Bombay at the Taj Mahal, the finest hotel which was tolerably good. We talked to dirty, disillusioned hippies from London, Paris, Sydney, San Francisco. No hidden esoteric wisdom of the east for them here, just hashish, dysentery and disease. Next door, the new 21-story Intercontinental was under construction. At all odd hours women laborers were carrying concrete up rickety scaffolds in flat pans on their heads for which they earned the usual one or two rupees (13-26 cents) for a hard day's work. (Incidentally, you ought to see the way they manufacture gravel for roads in hot sun and dust by women with small hammers chipping tediously away at large boulders until they become small chips.) The average income we learned, was a hundred rupees a month and the unemployment so high one working man must often feed three dozen relatives. India barely exists from one day to the next. We wanted to stop it all and start over. The problems were too great and everything seemed in need scrubbing with Clorox and hot water. A pensioner in America would be upper middle class.
Bombay is not a pleasant place. But all say it is first-rate compared to Calcutta where between 600 and 800 thousand people live their whole lives in squalor and starvation on the streets, where brutal murders by the radical communistic Naxalites occur daily. We were told that 10,000 people make their permanent homes in the Calcutta railroad station, and that every morning great trucks roar through the streets to gather hundreds of street corpses for firewood in the city crematorium.
Christmas morning found us enjoying a nice breakfast in our luxury hotel. The omelets were garnished with parsley and a tomato. I was ready to eat when a large green inch worm emerged from my tomato and marched triumphantly across my omelet and boldly over the white linen table cloth.
We visited the 8th century Hindu temple at Elephanta Island, a Jain temple in an affluent part of town where ivory idols are daily bedecked afresh with gold and silver foil and flowers, the Towers of Silence where India's 100,000 Parsis (Zorastrians) leave their dead to be devoured in two hours by hideous vultures. Right in the heart of Bombay this ghastly feast takes place near some of the best hotels. The Parsi Fire Temples, with Assyrian winged bulls in front, preserve some of the most ancient idolatries known to man. We were in an ancient land for sure.
Indian Airlines was on strike, the antiquated British Railways (ca. 1870?) were booked solid for weeks so we despaired of reaching Kerala, south a thousand miles. We prayed. God led us to an obscure "luxury, deluxe air-conditioned" (open window) bus (covered with dried vomit outside and crud inside). We bussed 27 hours to Mangalore! Traveling recklessly and dangerously right down the center paving for 27 hours we dodged ox carts day and night (millions, yes millions of ox carts), women walking with huge burdens on their heads giant trucks each with a Hindu name on the front and painted rose buds on the rear.
The villages were appalling. Open sewage in the streets, sacred cows eating and dropping according to free will choice, fly specked fluorescent bulbs everywhere to push back the darkness ever so slightly. Pictures of green, purple and blue monkey-faced Hindu gods, incense and fresh flowers on Ganesh's picture--a picture--a voluptuous female deity with an elephant nose. No special distinctions made between eating and defecating, living and dying. Tragic beggars everywhere. At Mangalore Ted guarded our bags, while I hired a taxi for one rupee per mile. A sacred cow knocked Ted belligerently off the curb. A crowd gathered at the incident, but we got safely out of town for 13 long night hours of driving south 400 miles to Cochin and Tirevalla. Sunday morning, 0900, shot to pieces, we arrived at the Cherian's. A shower, breakfast, subtropical breezes, the warmest reception and we were there, thank God!
The Keswick Conference was good, and thousands were in attendance. The native Christian music was deeply moving and the people everywhere humble, gracious, and very, very polite. The Cherians fed us royally and we met some of the Christians of South India (they are four million strong). Kerala State is one-third Christian, though India is only 2.5 percent Christian. We found ourselves, as it were, in the very presence of St. Thomas (let alone our Lord Jesus Christ), for the historic church in South India, tradition tells us, was started about AD 60 by the apostle Thomas himself. We were on the very Malabar Coast where Solomon's ships once traded (2 Chron. 9), and Vasco de Gama (1500 AD) had been. Soon we were speaking at high schools, colleges, teacher training schools and public meetings morning, noon and night. I suppose we spoke 25 times or more at Kottayam, Ernakulum, Quilon, Alwaye, Trichur. (We spoke in English but often with Malayalam or Tamil assistance.) Thousands heard our life-stories, the news of God's complete love for them in Christ, about east and west and student unrest and the soon-coming consummation of history in the Middle East.
The first Sunday in 1971 (we missed Christmas and New Year's day altogether-they passed virtually unnoticed for us), I spoke to the ancient historic Mar Thoma congregation at Kozhencheri. Ted was at first up-tight about the ancient two-hour Syrian liturgy complete with high ritual and incense, but soon we saw the spirituality of it all and to our utter amazement we found these Indian Christians are very outspoken evangelical Christians! Here in South India these devout men were godly, fatherly, patriarchal Catholic, Mar Thoma, Syrian bishops with long gray beards, colorful robes and strong evangelical zeal. Our minds were blown completely! Our American arrogance and naiveté came crashing to a halt. I, a Christian of just eight years, and Ted but five, from a nation scarcely two centuries old: who were we to instruct a 2000 year-old Bride about the ways of love with her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ?
Here in South India we found what we do not find at home: a living, unified, Body pure in spirit, a living Church two millennia old; from deep wellsprings here one can drink the clearest sparkling living water of life and gaze in awe in the mysterious oases and gardens of the spiritual kingdom of God. This is the East, and the Bible an Eastern Book. We were strangers in an unknown land. We Americans may take claim to Logos, the logical, rational, analytical, scientific Truth, but the Indians seem to have the Sophia, the Wisdom side of Christ (personified in Proverbs by a woman). They are the experts in inner space, we the experts on outer space. "East is east and West is west and never the twain shall meet," Kipling said.
Another thing was suddenly obvious in India. The families are together: Divorce rate: 1 in 10,000 (compare U.S., 30 50 percent)! We found virtually no sexual immorality anywhere (but we were told it certainly was common in the big cities). Some said the famous pornographic carvings on the Hindu temples. apparently aren't meant to arouse but to teach about life's side trips to nowhere. Marriages are arranged in India by the parents. We had trouble adjusting to the separate seating in schools, cinemas, church--men on one side, women on the other. Yet the system works and girls never worry about becoming old maids. Dating is almost unknown (and we like it better here at home for sure), but the family unity, devotion of children to the fathers, loving family spirit was overwhelming. Many Indian families rise at 5:00 a.m. for family hymn singing. Bible reading and daily prayer.
We were awakened at the Cherians daily by their family devotions, or those of the servants in the back, and this we said was very good. In America we aren't a living family tree. The inner conduits of the spirit are broken, fragmented. We aren't connected to our parents, to history, to mother earth, to one another beyond a generation or two. Cherian confirmed our suspicions reluctantly and with godly grave concern, telling us he'd never seen a healthy Christian home in all his three lengthy U.S. visits. We had to agree that mere restoration of form in marriage (husbands leading, wives following and children obeying) was not enough. One godly Christian told us he never touched his wife without devout prayer and seeking after God. The conceiving of children, he said, was unthinkable to him and his wife without first a total offering of themselves to Jesus Christ. The half-redeemed, nominally committed, worldly Christians we all call "spiritual" here at home would in India be dismissed immediately as substandard and counterfeit!
The people work hard, too--they're diligent, not like our American college eastern mystics. This is not to say the Indian Christians don't have problems. They do. There is a lack of vision. The Hindu view of time and history is cyclical, mythological, vague. This view pervades all India. We Americans see world issues through satellites in the sky, the Indian's world view is ten or twenty miles in extent. There are no prophets in India to rebuke the idolatry and corrupt leadership. Mother India is all too tolerant of all religions; Syncretism abounds. The lack of Logos means the people need to be spoon-fed constantly by their pastors. Though they know their Bibles well, they are reluctant to move out by faith to purge the age-old idolatries from the land, (See 2 Kings l7).
The families are too extended, we thought. All too easily one's identity and security come from parents or church rather than from God. Leadership and responsibility are rare, born only through great trials of fire. The people aren't as individuated as we are. Some of the most beautiful women of the world are Indian, however. We asked them to export their femininity to our country. Not only are the saris colorful and attractive, but the spirits, manners and stately, modest conduct of the women commanded our immediate awe, respect and reverence. And the men were really men, too, affectionate, open and warm, yet strong, with convictions and a strong sense of responsibility to God and family. Male/male and female/female relationships were natural and affectionate with no evidence of perversions. And wherever in India the Church is found (what we call the "Church" is not the same thing in India), we saw cleanliness, neatness, beauty even in the midst of great poverty. There were orphanages, hospitals, homes for the destitute and the finest of schools (the Hindus have learned to copy these things: they build hospitals and schools, now too!). Wherever idolatry reigns without the light and salt of Christ's Church we saw filth, squalor, uncleanness, wretchedness both spiritually and physically.
We were moved while speaking at a large orphanage at Alwaye to learn that $15 a month through Christian Children's Fund actually saves the lives of otherwise hopelessly destitute children. (This school admits only one-fourth the applicants because of lack of space and funds. ) Wherever we walked crowds of children followed us. Our smiles at them were contagious and redemptive. They worshiped us like gods. We wanted to bring them home with us. They wanted to come.
India has too many people (550 million) and too many cows (240 million). 25 percent of all children born die before five, life expectancy is still only 53 (up from 38, twenty years ago). Family planning has resulted in eight million voluntary vasectomies, but six times this many are needed to turn the tide. Hybrid rice has doubled the food supply, but if rain fails, if Mother Nature falters in the slightest, millions starve and that's that. Practically all of life's energies in India must go into the constant desperate search for one daily meal. One gets ahead only at the expense of someone else. Caste influences still hold sway in India.
One is always in a crowd. There is never any hope. No human ingenuity can solve the nightmare of Calcutta, or Bombay. In the Mirror of the East, America seemed to us a Paradise. Pagan though we too may be as a nation, we have a chance. Bathed in opulence, wealth, leisure and overabundance, we have time to consider God, to philosophize. We have time, money, energy, resources to change the world. The worst of our domestic troubles in drugs, riots, racism or finance aren't worth talking about compared to the great eternal, infinite anguish of India. The very earth of India seems drenched in blood, pestilence, decadence. Underneath are deep burning fires. India can absorb a million missionaries, a billion tons of food, a trillion dollars and still the need is there. Yet to keep her own life, we believe, America must lose it (Matt. 16:25-27), and we're convinced that we American Christians must pour ourselves for the hopelessly lost in India (and elsewhere) if we are to regain vision and direction from God and enjoy from Him any further blessings.
In Bombay Ted and I saw a leper. The street was very crowded and we were honking our way along in a taxi. This man wore the dirtiest, blackest robes I have ever seen. There was an aluminum cup attached to the stumps of his hands for begging. Where his mouth should have been was an aluminum funnel. He was drooling and slobbering. But what got me were his eyes. I looked for one eternal moment into those deep brown eyes burning with pain, with anguish, with total hopelessness, with his own and his nation's unbearable misery. I have been haunted by those eyes ever since. They are with me wherever I go. I see them at night in bed as well as in the daytime. They are the eyes of Jesus, I know that now. Jesus crucified. Jesus Christ as He is identified with every man..."We are convinced that one has died for all, therefore all have died. And He died for all that all who live might live no longer for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised." Christians should do something about India, and do it now.
Ted Wise's Essays and Messages
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