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India - the Ganges, darkness, and hope

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

India - the Ganges, darkness, and hope

Tom Elenbaas

This week I've had the privilege of being in India with Mission India learning about church planting here and the amazing things that God is doing in the lives of individuals, families, and communities. I've also had the chance to see Hinduism up close. There are so many things I could share about this trip, but at this point on my limited time, I want to share a bit about our visit to Varanasi and the Ganges River. 

The Ganges is the spiritual center for not only Hinduism, but also the birthplace of Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. This river is considered holy by the people here because it is believed to have its source from the gods in the Himalayas. The Ganges is a destination for spiritual pilgrims in Hinduism for a number of reasons. Bathing in the river is said to cleanse a person from their sins and if you die in Varanasi or if your body is burned and your ashes spread in the Ganges, it facilitates Moksha - the release from the cycle of rebirth. 

The pictures shown here are pictures I took from a boat on the Ganges early in the morning. Our visit to the Ganges was memorable... but not in a good way. This is the spiritually darkest place that I have ever been in my life, a place where death hangs heavy in the air, hopelessness seems to rise like fog from the river, and where joy is seemingly sucked into a deep black hole.  The central area where there are pilgrims and gurus bathing is flanked by two large crematoriums (one shown in the picture) running 24/7 with bodies burning in ritual worship atop wooden funeral pyres. Prayers and songs to the Hindu gods, and particularly the god of Varanasi named Shiva echo through the thick air. The heaviness of this place of death and the god of destruction and decay is palpable. Streets are filled with holy cows, and even stepping in their dung is considered sacrilegious because it is considered sacred here. The empty ritual and the joylessness that we experienced in this place alongside the poverty and actual presence of death was overwhelming.  We literally never saw a single smile or heard a single laugh. 

One (of many in my head and heart) reflection on this experience: in my many years interacting with Western religious intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals I've heard many argue that god is god and we serve the same god but use different names. This idea... that the religions area ll basically the same and at base level, god is just revealing himself through different cultural means. Though sometimes this has seemed like an enticing idea to me, after experiences like this, I am more and more convinced that simply cannot be true. By purely empirical analysis deeply tells me that there is very little core commonality between Hindu anthropology, theology, and basic understanding of the good Christian theology. That's from my head based on my experience. And my heart breaks at the dire hopelessness in the eyes of so many people with whom I interacted in that place.

Contrast that with the utter and unbelievable joy that I experience in each set of eyes of a group of women who had come to know Jesus, or the children today who sang and danced their hearts out about the love of God, the smiles, laughter, and compassion of church planters, and the hope and stories of miraculous healing and life in a very poor rural village church where children offered a cup of rice in joy as an offering to God from their few earthly possessions. Imagine the tears streaming down a young women's face as she testifies to her husband's miraculous physical healing and the release addiction to alcohol. Imagine the request from a Hindu women for prayers of healing over her for abdomen and a recent removal of parts of her intestine... a request of a Christian pastor because she has seen and heard for herself of the healing power of Jesus. 

The good news matters. Jesus is alive. In the darkest places of the world - literally - the gospel is ringing out and new churches are bringing hope and healing to the lost and broken. 

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