This is a very long read but well worth your time. Anjali is our newly illumined catechumen whose baptism video I posted earlier. What has always fascinated me about her is that she grew up as a Hindu and so her journey into Eastern Orthodoxy was quite different from those of us who came to it through the many Western Protestant and Catholic paths. I was surprised to learn as I read this that she had also journeyed through the Baha'i faith. Her insights gained from that experience remind me a lot of how Mormons seem to see themselves as well. I love to be in bible study with Anjali because I find her insights so valuable. Here she has offered this beautiful testimony of how she arrived at Eastern Orthodoxy and allowed me to publish it so all of you can read it too. I hope you find it as fascinating and wonderful as I have! It was originally composed, I think, as a post to an Orthodox forum to which she belongs.
In a nutshell: I was born and raised Hindu, then was Baha’i for 5 years (2002-2007) before becoming Christian and finding the Orthodox church.
How exactly did this happen? Well, as a Hindu, what I learned about other religions were that there are many paths up the same spiritual mountain to reach God. Maybe even the belief that the differences argued about between different religions are like the blind men in a room with an elephant, each feeling a different part and jumping to a different conclusion about what it is - each accurately describing in his own way what one aspect of the elephant was like, but unable to see the whole, and so thinking the others were wrong. So I didn't really care that other religions said different things on certain subjects, I just followed "my" way that I inherited from my family and culture. I believed there was great wisdom in it, and assumed that other religions probably also had great wisdom in them. I became interested in reading about other religions as a hobby - and loved seeing that the core spiritual teachings/messages seemed similar - about love, prayer, detachment, and renunciation of self. It should be noted I wasn't reading about hardcore theology of various religions - I was reading the writings of various spiritual masters, mystical works, mythology, stuff like that. I had no urge to look deeper into this mystery of how there were all these different religions, or of looking more closely at the differences; I thought it was a waste of time, foolish. One thing I didn't realize though, was that that whole blind men and elephant analogy? It assumes that no particular religion truly has an understanding of God - well, I understood that, but it didn't really bother me. It never occurred to me that possibly one of the religions actually sees the whole elephant, rather than only seeing a part. The idea was that it didn't matter - you didn't need to understand the elephant as an elephant to get to God, in fact maybe it was humanly impossible anyway, for people to conceive of these things. It never occurred to me that God might have ever approached us with a very particular way that He wanted us to approach Him, rather my focus was on our imperfect selves trying to reach towards God.
Then I came across the Baha'i Faith - it claimed to reveal the elephant itself, saying that in the past, people were only ready to be exposed to whatever particular part God saw was fit at the time. So all the previous religions were chapters in one book, leading up to this chapter called the Baha'i Faith that reveals the unity of all religions. But not in a mysterious way - it sought to provide distinct proofs for this. This is what finally made me start looking analytically and critically at all the world religions, including the Baha'i Faith, to see how God's web of different religions were really and truly connected. This was key - until I started being more demanding, I was undiscerning in my happiness to just accept all religions as they were, like different flavors of ice cream. I enjoyed what flowed; I ignored what clashed, figuring it was just to be expected, realistically. Different people will see through different lenses. But as a Baha'i, I was told that if I looked really hard, I would see that all the different religions really were one, and furthermore that all of them awaited a Messianic figure whom Baha'is believed to have come in the person of Baha'u'llah in the 19th century, founder of the Baha'i Faith. This fascinated me - and both to better educate myself and also to be able to teach members of other religions about the Baha'i Faith, I started studying.
Now rather than leaving it all up to mystery, I said the Baha'i faith had specific explanations as to how all the religions are different paths to one God, right? This was critical - in the Hindu mindset, I would never had tools/measuring sticks that I expected to actually work in this undertaking, so I would never seriously have undertaken it, or would not have had a way of disproving/testing/evaluating any of these beliefs about religions being essentially equal. At best, I would have prayed like Sri Ramakrishna, who claims that Jesus, Mohammed, and other figures came to him when he prayed, and so he believed whomever you prayed to, God would come to you in that form - he experienced that, so he believed that, never thinking maybe it was a delusion. As Orthodox monks say, you can have delusions, or you can even have demons that approach you as angels of light! Anyway, back to the story. The Baha'i Faith stated that all the different religions have the same, unchanging, essential, ethical and spiritual teachings about God and soul and our purpose, but have different social teachings about externals, or even about things like marriage - these changing teachings are meant to suit the particular people/culture/time to whom the religion is brought by a Prophet/Manifestation. However, sometimes even the unchanging spiritual teachings are lost or corrupted over time, and that also explains for some of the differences. We could only tell what was right by measuring it against Baha'u'llah's explanation of all that was true and false, for he had come to restore truth. This starts a nice and neat process of circular thinking for determining what was true and what was false in all the various world religions, to make them all match the Baha'i Faith. It can be used to explain away anything, to make night appear to be day - in fact, Baha'u'llah even says that you mustn't question the Prophet/Manifestation, that you should even accept that day is night if he tells you that. Then he also says we must be independent investigators of truth, listening to no one - all these contradictions, but everyone denies they are contradictory, believing all these paradoxes are true in some mysterious spiritually wise way.
Well. So there I was, studying along, when I hit on just one event that could not be explained away by Baha'i cleverness. The Resurrection. Here at last, was the only and most effective measuring stick of truth, to sort through the claims of religions unity. The Baha'i Faith, Islam, and Christianity clearly taught different things about who Jesus was. Well, the Baha'i Faith claimed to be able to reconcile these differences, but it was too contrary to all evidence. Christians claimed that Jesus was God, was the Son of God, and all this stuff about a trinity, which really I had no idea what they were talking about. They claimed this resurrection, which made no sense to me - not that I didn't believe Jesus couldn't rise from the dead if he were God, but I had no idea what possible relevance that could have, since I didn't know/understand about the Fall, sin, the Final Resurrection - I assumed these were all myths, with no more relevant deep meaning than a fairy tale, except maybe metaphorical spiritual meanings. I wasn't even interested, because I never understood what importance that event should have to me. No Christian had ever explained that to me - they'd just say crazy stuff like, "I've been washed in the blood of the Lamb, and now I'm saved! Jesus died for your sins! Don't you want to be saved?" then they'd paint portraits of Hell - it all made zero sense to me, just as though someone said, "My red balloon popped and then candy canes fell out of the sky, your rabbit is winking at me, doesn't all this make you want to buy a new Nissan??" I am not exaggerating - this nutshell "Gospel message" makes absolutely no sense to a non-Christian, no real meaningful sense, anyway. You just have no idea what they are so excited about - so Jesus rose from the dead, big whoop, so what? Good for him, but....so what? He healed people...he was loving, kind, innocent, born of a virgin, sinless.... so what? I didn't even grow up with same concept of sin as Christians do, so "sinless" vs. "sinner" didn't mean the same things to me as to a Christian anyway. In other words, we lacked the same language/doctrine/context, so the whole message was being lost in translation. The same things happen when Americans decide they are interested in Hindu things - I am always suspicious when I hear people throwing around words like karma and dharma, etc. Do they really understand what they are talking about? It also makes me suspicious that I here more Americans talking about tantric sex and other exotic things, whereas the Indian Hindus I knew were just taught to be devoted to God and pray and go to the temple. Sex was a taboo topic, maybe too taboo. Anyway, the point of this tangent is, I always felt very misunderstood by Christians who had these wild orgy type images of what it must be like for my family to be Hindu, and I felt almost equally misunderstood by Westerners who rejected their Christian upbringing to come to Hinduism thinking along similar lines.
Getting back to the story: Since I didn't have a firm grasp on what Christians were saying, it was easy to let other religions explain it to me. Hindus told me that Christ was an avatar just like any other Hindu avatar, or that Christ was actually a great yogi who had achieved self-realization. Indeed, when I read the Gospels as Hindu, that’s exactly how it came across when I was left to interpret things myself (so much for sola scriptura). The Baha'i Faith stated that Jesus was a Prophet/Manifestation, just like Mohammed and Baha'u'llah, Moses, Abraham, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Adam (I knew nothing about the Old Testament, so I had no idea that the specific way in which these figures were being likened to each other was highly dubious). He was born of a virgin, he was killed by crucifixion, but he was not physically resurrected. Some Baha'is are shocked to learn that it is in Baha'i scripture that there was NO physical resurrection or appearance to the disciples at all - most Baha'is think nothing is said about this subject other than if it happened, it wasn't significant anyway, what mattered was a "spiritual" resurrection of the dejected disciples, who after 3 days regained their faith and bravery and went out to teach the Gospel. I found it in scripture - NO physical resurrection. Mohammed taught that Jesus was not even crucified - how could a prophet of God be given a shameful death? No, he wasn't crucified at all, God took him up to heaven instead, and someone else was crucified in his place and made to appear to be him, tricking all who viewed it. And yet, if they were tricked to think it was Jesus, why are they being chastised by God for believing it was Jesus? That question is not answered, and yet this frightening Jesus is waiting till the end times to return and break all the crosses, judge all the Christians for believing in it, and to proclaim Islam as the true religion after all. In fact, Mohammed teaches that Jesus was a Muslim. Okay, this was getting too bizarre even for me, with my ability to rationalize any contradiction thanks to Baha’i mental gymnastics skills. Baha'u'llah said that Mohammed meant that Jesus' spirit could never be crucified, only his body - but I really felt that Mohammed meant exactly what he adamantly said.... so that made the first crack in my faith in Baha'u'llah's teachings. Also, the Baha'i Faith sought to explain the true meaning of the trinity, whereas Mohammed ranted about the trinity concept being a huge mistake - and described a false understanding of it to boot. So this stuff wasn't adding up.
To make it even more shocking, I started reading about evidence for Christ's resurrection - not only did I feel there was more evidence supporting this event than we have for other events which we take for granted as being historically true, from reading the Gospels and knowing the horrible deaths these apostles underwent, it became very clear to me that they really believed in a physical resurrection, and they were dying for something more than this “be nice to each other” message. The Baha'i explanation was that superstitions arose about the nature of Christ and his resurrection, whether it was shortly after Christ's death or as later belief, which caused people to re-interpret these historical happenings, to give a false interpretation of the Bible. Paul himself is quoted by Baha'is as evidence against the physical resurrection of Jesus or anybody else for that matter. I've even heard a Baha'i quote the story about doubting Thomas as evidence against the resurrection - pointing out that though Thomas asked to place his fingers into he wounds, when Christ appeared and offered, it doesn't state that Thomas actually DID.... the implication being that Jesus was not truly physically present and that had Thomas tried, he wouldn’t have managed to touch the wounds - guess Jesus just outsmarted him! Probably the only reason he “tricked” him was because (as with the rest of Christ's ministry, as described by the Baha'i faith) miracles were necessary for these backwards people. But later prophets, like Mohammed and Baha'u'llah, didn't give miracles, not because they didn't have power, but because people were supposed to be more mature than that. :-P
Anyway, the trouble is, as some Baha'is were forgetting, according to Baha'i scripture, there was no physical resurrection or reappearance of the material form of Jesus at all whatsoever. So the real, official Baha’I explanation is simply that the resurrection only means that the disciples regained their faith and courage after 3 days to go out and proclaim the Gospel. It was thus a “spiritual resurrection”. The Gospel (according to Baha'is) was simply Christ's spiritual teachings of how to lead a good life and to love God, and that he himself was a Prophet/Manifestation, so better listen up. And any tales of any other type of resurrection or Gospel were the result of later misinterpretations. However, Baha'u'llah states that the Bible is not corrupted; rather it is wrongly interpreted (unlike Muslims, who believe the Bible text has been corrupted itself - another difference between Baha'is and Muslims, despite Baha’i claims that both religions are one). So basically, the Gospels are supposed to be full of allegory, including the story of the resurrection. Here's the thing though, there are glitches. For example, Baha’is believe the virgin birth actually happened (Muslims believe this too). The healing/feeding miracles – Baha’is say some happened, but they should always be understood in a spiritual sense, since that is what is important, not these material things, of course! (Muslims just believe Jesus was granted the ability of miracles by God). The resurrection of Christ though – this miracle is flat out denied. Why is this the only miracle that is taboo to both Muslims and Baha'is? I wanted to know - why would all the other miracles be okay to believe, but not the resurrection? Also, if the Baha'i teaching that the New Testament is mainly allegory and spiritual teachings, not literal at all.... well, why did it read so matter-of-factly? It doesn't read like a mystical, symbolic work at all - it is very direct, simple, and to the point. I simply couldn’t believe that it was not intended to mean exactly what it said - and that the earliest martyrs did not believe in this resurrection - in fact, based on my research, the resurrection seemed to have been the most important part of the story, not relegated to the back-burner behind Christ's spiritual teachings, the way Baha'is would have it. If it were a false belief, what kind of God would corrupt the teachings so quickly? What would be the point? And back again to the question - what is the big deal about this resurrection? Why is everyone seeming fixated on this one crucial point that can't be agreed on, that simply must be denied by both Muslim and Baha'i scripture? I mean, he's already being born from a virgin, so what if he also rose from the dead?
This is what really made me start to feel suspicious that maybe the Gospel was more than the good news that this great Prophet named Jesus had come along to tell everyone to love each other and to love God. Not to belittle that message, but there was more to the story. I didn't know what that whole message was, but I decided I ought to find out what all this ranting and raving about the resurrection was all about and why I should care.
By this point I had already seen all the holes poked into the Baha'i Faith, so I officially resigned from the Baha'i Faith on July 7, 2007, and became a "Christian" by default. I know that is really weird, but that's exactly how it happened! I guess I labeled myself Christian, but I didn't know really what the Gospel was about - just that there was this guy Jesus who seemed to have been born of a virgin and died and then lived, and everyone was excited about it. It wasn't a religious experience or even a true understanding, so I don't know if I was really a Christian. I do know that I don't think any of this would have happened if a Christian friend of mine hadn't prayed for me at that time - seemed like I was lost in my happy web of delusion until after he prayed for me and it all came crashing down. So that gave me faith in this religion too. Basically, for the past year since resigning from the Baha’i Faith, I've just been studying. I wanted to find out what the original teachings of the apostles were, and what Jesus really meant to say to us, since this entire journey had made me keenly aware of the issue of corrupted teachings versus true teachings. And lo and behold, it turns out there were tons of books written by scholars ever since that event happened, trying to sort all of this out. I was glad the books were there, but I was even more confused – if this Resurrection was supposed to be so important, how could people have lost the original message of what it meant and what Jesus really wanted us to believe, what the apostles really taught? Why were people today still looking to uncover the original church of Biblical times (“based on the latest research!”) – I mean, how in the heck could they have lost that information if it was so important? How could they go around getting everyone (myself included) all riled up about worried about this, and then not be able to tell us what we needed to know about it?
At the time, I only had access to Protestant books, and they certainly helped some, but they still left me feeling that a lot was unexplained or random or didn't make sense. I didn't really start to understand the "Good News" until I was led to the Orthodox Church just this past April, on Good Friday. I was loaned the book "The Orthodox Church", and the rest was pretty much history - it convinced me that not only was the original faith of the apostles uncorrupted, that in that same line of reasoning/faith, the ancient church was still alive - and almost as proof, that book finally made the Gospel start to make sense to me! I definitely believed in the importance of the Holy Tradition - I never understood the sola scriptura thing I was reading in the Protestant Books - they didn't seem to realize there were large gaps in what they considered to be simple teachings/knowledge, because they were all interpreting according to some mysterious code that I hadn't been exposed to, but claiming it was just all "written in the Bible". Having read the New Testament first as a Hindu and then as a Baha'i, I knew firsthand that there are all kinds of different ways to sincerely misinterpret scripture. So I was grateful to finally come to a church that had the holy tradition guided by the Holy Spirit to explain things. Also, to know what we don't know too. My experience with the Baha'i faith and investigation into corruptions, etc., had built up my faith in what these earliest Christian people taught.... and I didn't understand why Protestants couldn't have this same faith? They lacked faith, and called it true faith. I didn't believe their idea that the church was corrupted until the first Protestants showed up.... it reminded me of the Baha'i way of thinking, a lack of faith, a hole which is later stopped up with creations/hopes/interpretations of one's own, all under the false pretense of "true knowledge" and "faith", when really they seem to be weaving a web of their own liking, without even realizing it. An unconscious denial of the power of the Holy Spirit, to either think the Holy Spirit has checked out, is too mysterious to know His workings, or to reduce His workings to only babbling, despite Jesus' promise to send the Holy Spirit who would lead to all truth, these seem like strange beliefs for people who really have faith in Christ and the Bible to believe.
Another thing I noticed that the few times I went to a Protestant non-denominational church prior to finding the Orthodox church, while I liked the sermons and I learned to like some of the songs, it distinctly felt like a memorial service for Christ. Well, he did say, "do this in remembrance of me", so that's exactly what it felt like...and the communion seemed really random. Like, well, this was the eccentric thing that Christ wanted us to do, so let's do it! I don't think the members of the church thought it was eccentric, but really - with no other meaning than the symbolic one, it just all seemed kind or strange to me - like some antiquated practice that withstood the test of time, the bread and wine eventually transformed to a cracker the size of a cheezit and a shot of grape juice, the same way the gladiatorial displays in the Roman coliseum have maybe been transformed into modern day football games in stadiums. I am not saying this at all to laugh about it or to make fun - I wasn't amused, I was just mystified, but willing to go along with it and figuring this was just the way it was. At the Orthodox church, it wasn't like a memorial service for someone who had passed on to the next world, it was worship - worship the way Hindus worship, truly believing that God was present, singing to God, not about him, not singing to ourselves, not singing for fellowship, not worshiping his idea, but actually presenting worship as a sacrifice within the presence of God. - and not being casual in his presence, but having a sense of holiness and respect - not because people wanted to be goody-two-shoes, but because if you actually believe that God is present, you'll be alert, rather than coming up with excuses about how God shouldn't care about this or that or the other, but naturally wanting to do your best in the presence of God out of love and respect and acknowledgment of his holiness. I don't know...I guess I felt like, as much as I liked the Protestant church (the minister was great!), I felt they were talking about something, about learning about something, whereas at the Orthodox Church actually had it present. I also instinctively felt that the Orthodox Church housed the wisdom of elders, whereas the Protestant church housed the rebellious self-confidence of a teenager. Also, whereas when I was growing up, I felt that Western Christians just looked down on Hindus as being completely wrong and ignorant, I felt the Orthodox church revealed the true way of worship, the true reaching out to God, that Hindus had been trying to do. It makes me think of what Paul said when he was in...Athens? That there was this idol of the unknown God, that they Greeks already tried to worship, well Paul was here to finally teach them who this God was, in the same way I feel that Christianity has brought to light what Hindus have tried to do from times before the Christ the Light came to earth, if that makes much sense? So maybe Hindus do in the dark what Christians do in the light? While fumbling and some wrong perceptions can be experienced, learned, and propagate even more of such wrong teachings in the dark, once you turn the light on, you realize - wait a minute! I thought I knew how this whole room was set up and how everything worked, but in reality, now I see it is different! Some is the same, but now I can go about things the way they were intended. Now, I no longer hold an elephant's trunk thinking it's a snake and once in a while wondering what else there is to it - now the lights are on, and I can see that wow! There is an elephant in the room! Such is the differing result of humans striving for truth in our spiritual darkness, vs. what happens when God himself bringing us the truth with his light.
While I think the stereotypical attitude of some Christians about Hinduism being totally corrupt and demonic and awful is unrealistic, I have, now that I am beginning to finally understand some of Christianity (thanks again, to the Orthodox church), I am starting to see troubling things that I had been blind to before. I came across a series of articles, which point out some fundamental differences which may have seemed irrelevant to me before becoming Christian, harmless when I first became Christian by default, and now are starting to seem troubling in a very real way. I don't know if I agree 100% with the articles, but they bring up some good points.
Right now, I am still overwhelmed by trying to learn and participate as much as I can as a catechumen - it's all very recent, after I attended the EO church for the first time on Good Friday, I became a catechumen on Pentecost - so it's all happening very fast. But eventually, I would like to write about Hinduism and the Baha'i Faith from an Orthodox perspective. Particularly the Baha'i Faith - I have even kept the core books of the Baha'i faith, some which are hard to come by actually, so that in the future I'll have them as reference. If you're at all interested in discussing more about this, the youngest of the world's religions, a messianic one where the founder claims to be the Return of Christ, I'm planning on adding a thread about it in the OC group "Battling Christian cults".
I feel very lucky to have been brought to the Orthodox Church. I feel lucky that it all happened so quickly once I became Christian, involving little effort on my own part, whereas others have searched many years as Christians before finding it. I feel convinced that it was definitely beyond my doing - I'm still amazed by it all. It has really made me believe in the power of sincere prayer in bringing others to Christ. Though I don’t feel ready to adequately bring anyone else to Christ right now, I firmly believe in praying for that to happen, praying really does have an effect that no amount of talking/reasoning can do. I would never have come on my own I think, despite all the arguments I encountered - I really believe it was because my friend prayed for me, and God brought it about. Until then, I was very happily lost in illusions with a nimble way to deflect anything a Christian might have said to me, to stay steeped in my beautiful cocoon, and a very hip one, at that - one that seemed very attractive on many sides. God had to wake me up to make me realize that beauty and wishful thinking are not the same as truth, which is even more beautiful (and terrible!) than someone lost in his or her illusions can even begin to imagine. There is so much wrapped up inside of Christianity that you really don't suspect from the little flyers people hand out on street corners:-) At least that's how it seems now that I feel I am being guided in the Orthodox way.
I know this was a really long-winded and winding story, but I hope that reading it will remind you again to pray for others to come to Christ, pray that God will lift them above the many, many layers of illusion and denial that keep them from Him, even those who might sincerely think that they do believe in Him when they really don’t. That’s the state that I was in when I was Hindu and Baha’i. I was more interested in my concepts of Him than in what He wanted me to believe. Also I hope that this account may have brought some points to mind that will help you become an even better teacher of the Gospel when you are approaching someone who comes from a completely non-Christian background. To not only bring them to Christ in a meaningful way, but to also bring them to the Orthodox church, because I truly believe that Eastern Orthodox Christianity is so incredible and can have a much stronger impact on a person (particularly of Eastern background perhaps?), whereas the Western approach to Christianity may just leave them wanting and wondering and thirsting still. This is a big generalization, but I worry that the Protestant or Catholic way of spreading the Gospel can do more harm than good, driving people away from Christ, whereas the Orthodox can bring healing and joy and understanding, drawing people towards Christ. Of course what do I know, I may be totally (or at least partially) wrong about this, but it’s a thought worth considering.