wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fits in the impression made by
the first. I owe to Hinduism the original landscape of my religious
imagination, those towns and rivers, battlefields and forests, holy
mountains and deep seas where gods, saints, villains and ordinary people
rub shoulders, and, in doing so, define who and why we are. I first
heard of the tremendous, cosmic might of loving kindness in this Hindu
land. It was Lord Krishna speaking. I heard him, and I followed him. And
in his wisdom and perfect love, Lord Krishna led me to meet one man.
I was fourteen years old –
and a well‑content Hindu on a holiday when I met Jesus Christ.
It was not often that
Father took time off from the zoo, but one of the times he did we went
to Munnar, just over in Kerala. Munnar is a small hill station
surrounded by some of the highest tea estates in the world. It was early
May and the monsoon hadn’t come yet. The plains of Tamil Nadu were
beastly hot. We made it to Munnar after a winding, five‑hour car ride
from Madurai. The coolness was as pleasing as having mint in your mouth.
We did the tourist thing. We visited a Tata tea factory. We enjoyed a
boat ride on a lake. We toured a cattle‑breeding centre. We fed salt to
some Nilgiri tahrs – a species of wild goat‑in a national park. (“We
have some in our zoo. You should come to Pondicherry,” said Father to
some Swiss tourists.) Ravi and I went for walks in the tea estates near
town. It was all an excuse to keep our lethargy a little busy. By late
afternoon Father and Mother were as settled in the tea room of our
comfortable hotel as two cats sunning themselves at a window. Mother
read while Father chatted with fellow guests.
There are three hills
within Munnar. They don’t bear comparison with the tall hills –
mountains, you might call them – that surround the town, but I noticed
the first morning, as we were having breakfast, that they did stand out
in one way: on each stood a Godhouse. The hill on the right, across the
river from the hotel, had a Hindu temple high on its side; the hill in
the middle, further away, held up a mosque; while the hill on the left
was crowned with a Christian church.
On our fourth day in Munnar,
as the afternoon was coming to an end, I stood on the hill on the left.
Despite attending a nominally Christian school, I had not yet been
inside a church –and I wasn’t about to dare the deed now. I knew very
little about the religion. It had a reputation for few gods and great
violence. But good schools. I walked around the church. It was a
building unremittingly unrevealing of what it held inside, with thick,
featureless walls pale blue in colour and high, narrow windows
impossible to look in through. A fortress.
I came upon the rectory.
The door was open. I hid around a corner to look upon the scene. To the
left of the door was a small board with the words Parish Priest
and Assistant Priest on it. Next to each was a small sliding
block. Both the priest and his assistant were IN, the board informed me
in gold letters, which I could plainly see. One priest was working in
his office, his back turned to the bay windows, while the other was
seated on a bench at a round table in the large vestibule that evidently
functioned as a room for receiving visitors. He sat facing the door and
the windows, a book in his hands, a Bible I presumed. He read a little,
looked up, read a little more, looked up again. It was done in a way
that was leisurely, yet alert and composed. After some minutes, he
closed the book and put it aside. He folded his hands together on the
table and sat there, his expression serene, showing neither expectation
The vestibule had clean,
white walls; the table and benches were of dark wood; and the priest was
dressed in a white cassock‑it was all neat, plain, simple. I was filled
with a sense of peace. But more than the setting, what arrested me was
my intuitive understanding that he was there – open, patient – in case
someone, anyone, should want to talk to him; a problem of the soul, a
heaviness of the heart, a darkness of the conscience, he would listen
with love. He was a man whose profession it was to love, and he would
offer comfort and guidance to the best of his ability.
I was moved. What I had
before my eyes stole into my heart and thrilled me.
He got up. I thought he
might slide his block over, but he didn't. He retreated further into the
rectory, that’s all, leaving the door between the vestibule and the next
room as open as the outside door. I noted this, how both doors were wide
open. Clearly, he and his colleague were still available.
I walked away and I dared.
I entered the church. My stomach was in knots. I was terrified I would
meet a Christian who would shout at me, “What are you doing here? How
dare you enter this sacred place, you defiler? Get out, right now!”
There was no one. And
little to be understood. I advanced and
observed the inner sanctum. There was a
painting. Was this the murti? Something about a human sacrifice. An
angry god who had to be appeased with blood. Dazed women staring up in
the air and fat babies with tiny wings flying about. A charismatic bird.
Which one was the god? To the side of the sanctum was a painted wooden
sculpture. The victim again, bruised and bleeding in bold colours. I
stared at his knees. They were badly scraped. The pink skin was peeled
back and looked like the petals of a flower, revealing kneecaps that
were fire‑engine red. It was hard to connect this torture scene with the
priest in the rectory.
The next day, at around the
same time, I let myself IN.
Catholics have a reputation
for severity, for judgment that comes down heavily. My experience with
Father Martin was not at all like that. He was very kind. He served me
tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch;
he treated me like a grown‑up; and he told me a story. Or rather, since
Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story.
And what a story. The first
thing that drew me in was disbelief. What? Humanity sins but it’s God’s
Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father saying to me,
“Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas.
Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the
camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who’s
to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has
become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only
way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.”
“Yes, Father, that would be
the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up.”
“Hallelujah, my son.”
What a downright weird
story. What peculiar psychology.
I asked for another story,
one that I might find more satisfying. Surely this religion had more
than one story in its bag – religions abound with stories. But Father
Martin made me understand that the stories that came before it – and
there were many – were simply prologue to the Christians. Their religion
had one Story, and to it they came back again and again, over and over.
It was story enough for them.
I was quiet that evening at
That a god should put up
with adversity, 1 could understand. The gods of Hinduism face their fair
share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers. What is the Ramayana
but the account of one long, bad day for Rama? Adversity, yes. Reversals
of fortune, yes. Treachery, yes. But humiliation? Death? I
couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped,
mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified – and
at the hands of mere humans, to boot. Id never heard of a Hindu god
dying. Brahman Revealed did not go for death. Devils and monsters did,
as did mortals, by the thousands and millions – that’s what they were
there for. Matter, too, fell away. But divinity should not be blighted
by death. It’s wrong. The world soul cannot die, even in one contained
part of it. It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar die.
That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is
to die, it cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human
tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The
death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was. But
once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have
the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by
it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father.
The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not
leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is; beautiful, spoil
what is perfect?
Love. That was Father
And what about this Son’s
deportment? There is the story of baby Krishna, wrongly accused by his
friends of eating a bit of dirt. His foster mother, Yashoda, comes up to
him with a wagging finger. “You shouldn’t eat dirt, you naughty boy,”
she scolds him. “But I haven’t,” says the unchallenged lord of all and
everything, in sport disguised as a frightened human child. “Tut! Tut!
Open your mouth,” orders Yashoda. Krishna does as he is told. He opens
his mouth. Yashoda gasps. She sees in Krishna’s mouth the whole complete
entire timeless universe, all the stars and planets of space and the
distance between them, all the lands and seas of the earth and the life
in them; she sees all the days of yesterday and all the days of
tomorrow; she sees all ideas and all emotions, all pity and all hope,
and the three strands of matter; not a pebble, candle, creature, village
or galaxy is missing, including herself and every bit of dirt in its
truthful place. “My Lord, you can close your mouth,” she says
There is the story of
Vishnu incarnated as Vamana the dwarf. He asks of demon king Bali only
as much land as he can cover in three strides. Bali laughs at this runt
of a suitor and his puny request. He consents. Immediately Vishnu takes
on his full cosmic size. With one stride he covers the earth, with the
second the heavens, and with the third he boots Bali into the
Even Rama, that most human
of avatars, who had to be reminded of his divinity when he grew
long‑faced over the struggle to get Sita, his wife, back from Ravana,
evil king of Lanka, was no slouch. No spindly cross would have kept him
down. When push came to shove, he transcended his limited human frame
with strength no man could have and weapons no man could handle.
That is God as God should
be. With shine and power and might. Such as can rescue and save and put
This Son, on the other
hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is
sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with
followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him – what
kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what.
There are miracles, yes, mostly of a medical nature, a few to satisfy
hungry stomachs; at best a storm is tempered, water is briefly walked
upon. If that is magic, it is minor magic, on the order of card tricks.
Any Hindu god can do a hundred times better. This Son is a god who spent
most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who
walked, a pedestrian god – and in a hot place, at that – with a stride
like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along
the way; and when He splurged on transportation, it was a regular
donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and
laments. What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this
Love, said Father Martin.
And this Son appears only
once, long ago, far away? Among an obscure tribe in a backwater of West
Asia on the confines of a longvanished empire? Is done away with before
He has a single grey hair on His head? Leaves not a single descendant,
only scattered, partial testimony, His complete works doodles in the
dirt? Wait a minute. This is more than Brahman with a serious case of
stage fright. This is Brahman selfish. This is Brahman ungenerous and
unfair. This is Brahman practically unmanifest. If Brahman is to have
only one son, He must be as abundant as Krishna with the milkmaids, no?
What could justify such divine stinginess?
Love, repeated Father
I’ll stick to my Krishna,
thank you very much. I find his divinity utterly compelling. You can
keep your sweaty, chatty Son to yourself.
That was how I met that
troublesome rabbi of long ago: with disbelief and annoyance.
I had tea with Father
Martin three days in a row. Each time, as teacup rattled against saucer,
as spoon tinkled against edge of cup, I asked questions.
The answer was always the
He bothered me, this Son.
Every day I burned with greater indignation against Him, found more
flaws to Him.
He’s petulant! It’s
morning in Bethany and God is hungry; God wants His breakfast. He comes
to a fig tree. It’s not the season for figs, so the tree has no figs.
God is peeved. The Son mutters, “May you never bear fruit again,” and
instantly the fig tree withers. So says Matthew, backed up by Mark.
I ask you, is it the fig
tree’s fault that it’s not the season for figs? What kind of a thing is
that to do to an innocent fig tree, wither it instantly?
I couldn’t get Him out of
my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The
more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned
about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.
On our last day, a few
hours before we were to leave Munnar, I hurried up the hill on the left.
It strikes me now as a typically Christian scene. Christianity is a
religion in a rush. Look at the world created in seven days. Even on a
symbolic level, that's creation in a frenzy. To one born in a religion
where the battle for a single soul can be a relay race run over many
centuries, with innumerable generations passing along the baton, the
quick resolution of Christianity has a dizzying effect. If Hinduism
flows placidly like the Ganges, then Christianity bustles like Toronto
at rush hour. It is a religion as swift as a swallow, as urgent as an
ambulance. It turns on a dime, expresses itself in the instant. In a
moment you are lost or saved. Christianity stretches back through the
ages, but in essence it exists only at one time: right now.
I booted up that hill.
Though Father Martin was not IN – alas, his block was slid over – thank
God he was in.
Short of breath I said,
“Father, I would like to be a Christian, please.”
He smiled. “You already
are, Piscine – in your heart. Whoever meets Christ in good faith is a
Christian. Here in Munnar you met Christ.”
He patted me on the head.
It was more of a thump, actually. His hand went BOOM BOOM BOOM on my
I thought I would explode
“When you come back, we’ll
have tea again, my son.”
It was a good smile he gave
me. The smile of Christ.
I entered the church,
without fear this time, for it was now my house too. I offered prayers
to Christ, who is alive. Then I raced down the hill on the left and
raced up the hill on the right – to offer thanks to Lord Krishna for
having put Jesus of Nazareth, whose humanity I found so compelling, in
The Life of Pi,
by Yann Martel,
Vintage Canada Edn., 2002