It is an assault on the senses. As we walk down the narrow streets littered with trash and discarded food, the air is filled with the aroma of burnt corn, mixed with the waste of free-roaming cows. Every turn provides both a familiar smell and an unrecognized odor. Temples, idols, and creatures that appear to belong in a Hollywood horror film stand guard at the head of every street, their shadows growing longer with the setting of the sun. Each of these weather-beaten idols is decorated with freshly cut flowers from their faithful worshipers. The sounds of drums, chants, rhythmic bells, and high-pitched moaning give our ears no rest. Our feet try to remain stable on the uneven, cobbled, and well-worn street. Our sense of direction is confused by the masses streaming to and from the market place. Monkeys gather around in search of a free hand-out from the people making their way to a sacred destination. Truly, all of our senses are thoroughly engaged.
A tight corridor between two buildings gives way to a set of steps, which in turn lead to a raging river. We have reached our destination: the river Ganges. This Hindu holy site is visited by millions of desperate people each year seeking after the enlightened state of moksha (or nirvana) and the forgiveness of their sins. It is said that the gods created this river so that the ashes of men in the past could be carried away to a peaceful afterlife. Those who visit this site hope these myths hold true even today.
I have heard stories of what takes place in areas such as this—how bodies are burned on piles of sticks and then dumped into the waters. And, if one is poor and cannot afford the body of his loved one to be burned by the Hindu priests, the remains are simply thrown into the river as is, allowing nature to run its course. Those who are sick, those who are feeble, and those who are nearing the end of their lives come to get close to the supposedly magical stream. All the while, men and women bathe in it, drinking its waters and stirring within themselves a behavior that could be likened to the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:26).
These things I expected to see; however, on this day, they are absent. Instead, I witness a muddy, raging river whose banks are overflowing because of the monsoon season. On this day, the water is a coffee-colored flow and is littered with debris, trash, and other items that have been churned to the point that their former purpose is no longer recognizable. People stand on the steps, hypnotized by what their eyes are witnessing, yet not brave enough to go down into the water and wash themselves. The power of the river is evident—anyone who leaves the safety of the shore will easily be swept away, as a piece of paper in a tornado. The place of life, according to the Hindu tradition, is on this day a threat to life; and no one dares approach it.
This, however, does not stop the activities that surround this part of the city. Merchants still seek to make their profit by selling trinkets that rust and corrode. Young children approach those who have congregated in hopes of convincing them to purchase a small wreath made of flowers to toss into the river as some sort of spiritual sacrifice. Drug addicts use this hallowed place to justify their use of narcotics, all in the name of a spiritual experience. Men who look like they have not combed their hair for years sit on the street corners in drug-induced stupors, staring into some unknowable oblivion. Westerners stumble around the marketplace, using this occasion to escape the monotony of their everyday lives as they try to forget personal disappointments through exotic travel or the gratification of the flesh. Though no one has confidence in his or her own strength to brave the flooded Ganges, on its banks, there is nothing new under the sun.
Such was my experience on my recent trip to India. In those moments, standing by the riverside, my heart was deeply saddened and somewhat overwhelmed. “Darkness” was my prevailing thought. Pity was my prevailing emotion. All five of my physical senses, formerly overrun by the madness around me, had given way to a sense of the spiritual reality of these people. The spiritual stupidity, the willful ignorance, and the delight in darkness were undeniably clear. In these moments, I realized that I was standing in the heart of this land, the centerpiece around which the entire Indian culture is built, the Ganges being like a vein of darkness that pumps its blackened waters throughout the land.
There was a greater reality on display here. All of the activities, the myths about this river, the trinkets, the moans, the temples, and the idols find their origin in one place: the heart of man. Ecclesiastes 9:3 states, “the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil, and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives.” The insanity of man’s heart was visible as far as the eye could see: men convinced that this dirty river could atone for their sins, that spiritual experiences could be found through the indulgence of the flesh, and that decomposing stone idols—which had not even the ability to defend themselves from pigeons relieving themselves on them—would plead their cause. Pure insanity.
Darkness lays hold of India because man’s heart is dark. In fact, there is no darker place in the entire universe than the heart of man. No matter where you are in this world, this truth is evident. Whether you are on the banks of the Ganges, or in the back alleys of the red-light district in Bangkok, or in the abortion clinics of the United States, or in the war-torn villages of Africa, or in the Lebanese offices where ceremonies for Islamic contract brides are held, or in the Tibetan temples where monks perform their hidden practices—the sin that breeds in man’s heart is clear. The fruit may vary in shape and size from place to place, but the content of the fruit is always the same: darkness and death. The core of man is full of it.
Such a reality should have left me hopeless and in despair on that day; but it did not. For I was reminded in those moments of the Light—the Light that dispels the darkness and neither moves nor changes. This Light is steadfast and unshakable, and it is the only Light powerful enough to reach and dispel the darkness that pervades the being of man. It is the Light that transforms hearts and causes men to come out of their dwellings of darkness. This Light is the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, who is the “Light of the world” (John 9:5). He is the only Hope and the True and Living Fountain that washes away sin. The gates of hell cannot stop His Kingdom. One day, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess His lordship, as He drags the darkness into the light.
What a privilege and honor it is to take this message into the nations! “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,” to the Hindu priest on the edge of the Ganges, or the “john” in Bangkok, or the broken in America, or the villager in Africa, or the Muslim in Lebanon, or the monk in Tibet (Rom. 1:16). Who will carry this Light to the nations? Who is willing to pay the personal cost? Will you go? Will you send? Will you pray?