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Shivani, The Born-Again Hindu

September 12, 2019

It has now been more than a decade since I wrote this for my Quaker meeting, yet I have come back to it many times.  It describes one of my foundational experiences of mutualism, the idea that “an admixture of truth, error, and incompleteness of revelation exists in all religions, and we need one another to understand and find the truth,”[1]  While remaining grounded in the Christianity that sustains my spiritual life, I have drawn enormous wisdom, insight, and fellowship from those who follow different paths, including no traditional religious path at all.  As Quakers say, there is that of God in each person, but each of us has only been granted a measure of the Light, so only by sharing our piece with each other can we come to know God more fully.

Shivani, The Born-Again Hindu

“In very truth I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he has been born again … from water and from spirit.” (John 3:3)

“I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me.”    (John 14:6)

“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep.  They know my voice. I call them by name and lead them.  But there are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold; I must lead them as well, and they too will listen to my voice.  There will then be one flock, one shepherd.”  (John 10: 14, 16)

This story isn’t really about me, but for it to make sense I have to disclose this one fact:  I consider myself a born-again Christian.  Not a “take me to the river, drop me in the water” type; much more the “Paul on the road to Damascus” type (Acts 9).  For the first 34 years of my life, “born-again Christian” is about the last descriptor I’d have thought would ever apply to me.  But, then, Paul didn’t exactly see his moment coming either.  God can be like that …

The person I really want to introduce to you is Shivani.  Shivani is a woman of exceptional intelligence and spirit who lives in New Delhi, and who served as a guide to that city for the small group with whom I visited India in February.  In that role, Shivani provided historical and cultural context for the amazing sites we visited, telling the stories behind their construction and explaining the significance of their design and ornamentation.  Perhaps even more enjoyable, she offered herself up for candid question-and-answer sessions about modern Indian life, including such topics as the structure of the Indian family, arranged marriage (and the role of astrologers in them), and the aspirations of her teenage children and their peers.

Of course, this being India, many of the conversations were about some aspect of Hinduism, and for a while it was not clear just what relationship Shivani had with Hinduism:  was it just cultural familiarity, or ritual observance, or believer – or did the phrase “believer” even make sense in the context of Hinduism?  But one of her stories led into a personal tragedy of her own, when in a very short period of time she lost both of her parents and watched as her only brother was brought to the brink of ruin.  She said “It was as if God slapped me across the face and said ‘Wake up, and follow me.’”  And I said to myself, “Well, that’s exactly what God said to me,” and I told Shivani of my own experience when we had a private moment.

What ensued from that point forward was a spirited exploration of the dimensions of each of our experiences of God’s slap and its aftermath.  What did it mean to follow God?  What were our prayer disciplines?  What are the similarities and differences between Hindu meditation and Quaker silent centering?  Unlike Judaism or Islam, Hinduism is not simply another branch on Christianity’s family tree, and the stories in Hinduism’s sacred texts can seem not just unfamiliar but downright bizarre to the Western mind.  Yet the more we talked, the more we became in awe of the common nature of the God that we followed.  If I was a born-again Christian, then Shivani was surely a born-again Hindu – and we had been born again in a common Spirit.

So what does my experience mean for the text “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me”?  I have often heard this text used to limit salvation to those who follow narrow and specific view of Christianity.  Yet, given the meaningful touchpoints between Shivani’s God and mine, I find I must take a more expansive view of the risen Christ.  And my heart finds peace in a new reading of the story of the Good Shepherd.  I invite you to read it again through new eyes …

“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep.  They know my voice. I call them by name and lead them.  But there are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold; I must lead them as well, and they too will listen to my voice.  There will then be one flock, one shepherd.”

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theology_of_religions#The_Mutuality_Model

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One Comment
  1. Greg, I love this passage and only heard the part about “other folds” very recently which confirmed that which I had always believed…all of us worship the same God who speaks to us in culturally appropriate ways. Thank you as always!

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