From Kali to Christ

Visiting a Hindu temple, and then a simple Christian church, brings a fresh appreciation for one particular sacrifice.

From the outside, the temple looked as I thought it would.
The ornately decorated outer walls allowed us only to see the
blue, yellow, and green roof of the actual temple building. But I
was not prepared for what I would witness after I removed my
shoes and entered into the temple courtyard.

The small inner courtyard of the temple was crowded with
people. Just to my left stood the temple building itself. From the
outside I saw the Kali idol in the front of the sanctuary, black in
color with her multiple arms stretched out. Smoke floated out
the doorway, and I caught a glimpse of the worshippers praying
on their knees. Here and there around the courtyard, local
merchants were selling trinkets to be used for worship. Bright
yellow and red flowers littered the streets. I found the pungent
smell of incense overwhelming. Off in the distance I heard the
desperate bleating of the sacrificial goats.

It all combined for an oppressive overload of the
senses.

I made my way to a small fenced-in area at the back, where
a sacrifice was about to take place. There, a man stood with his
arm around his wife and two children. Friends and fellow
worshippers continued to shake the man’s hand and
congratulate the family. Though I couldn’t tell for sure, I
gathered from their countenance that they were offering a
sacrifice as thanks to Kali.

While watching this family, out of the corner of my eye I saw
people making their way up to the altar, symbolically placing
their heads between the two blood-stained iron blocks where
the goat’s head would be placed.

The family seemed to be growing concerned because they
couldn’t find a priest to perform the ceremony. Eventually, a
man, who was not at all what I envisioned a priest would look
like, made his way up to the altar. Dressed in sweat pants and
wearing a ratty t-shirt, he glanced briefly at the family. The
piercing look in his dark eyes was anything but kind or
welcoming. Without speaking to the family, he motioned to his
assistants to bring the goats his way. I turned around to see two
black goats being dragged our way. They tried to dig their
hooves into the ground to prevent being taken, but they found
little help from the brick streets. As they neared the square, they
began to bleat even louder and were beginning to lose
control.

In the meantime, the priest in the middle had picked up a
large curved blade attached to a long pole, and handed it to one
of his assistants. He gave a broad smile as the goats were led
into the square. Showing interest for the first time, the priest grabbed
the first sacrifice. He led the crowd in a tantric chant as the goat
began to tremble uncontrollably in his grasp. As the chanting
got louder, he lifted the goat up in the air, grotesquely bending
the legs back and slamming the goat on the altar, all in one
motion. With one swift move the blade came down on the goat’s
neck, and the body was tossed to the other side of the square.
The second goat quickly met the same fate. The sound of frantic
bleating had come to an end.

When it was over the family walked over to the altar, dipped
their fingers in the blood, and then placed the blood on their
foreheads.

* * *

It was February 2004, and I was in India for a couple of
weeks with my family and a group of 30 others. Our schedule
had us spending two days in Kolkata, the former capital of India
and the city that has produced some of the nation’s greatest
minds. Sadly, the many positive qualities of the city have largely
been lost amidst the immense hardship. Though the government
is making a concerted effort to change the tragic situation in this
seminal city, the numbers are still staggering.

When we first left the airport shortly after our arrival, our
noses were assaulted with the burning combination of dirt and
fuel from the gasoline cooking fires. The city’s magnificent
buildings were hidden by a smoky haze that night, leaving us
only able to see streets packed with people curled up against the
curb. As we drove through the city, we passed “neighborhoods”
of those fortunate enough to have been able to construct some
tin into a shack to cover their heads. Between 1 to 2 million
people live on the streets of Kolkata, and an equal number of
homeless live in slums.

I turned away from the car window, unable, or perhaps
unwilling to come to terms with the hurt and lost-ness of this
city. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t think this place had
anything to teach me in the two days I had before me.

But God had other plans.

* * *

I hadn’t been excited about the trip in the days leading up
to my departure. But what I experienced in those two weeks in
India would change my life forever. Not only did I gain a love of
and loyalty towards my Indian heritage, but I gained a powerful
and poignant understanding of the Christian faith. And it
happened in one of the most unlikely places — the Kali
temple. Kali is the Hindu goddess of destruction and her temple
located in Kolkata is one of the remaining sites to still perform
animal sacrifices. It was in her temple where I had found myself
that day.

Our group left through the temple gates in complete
silence. No one knew what to say. It was an
indescribable feeling of both oppression from what we had
witnessed, and deep heartache and compassion for the people
inside. As we filed on to the bus, we all sat in our silence trying
to comprehend what we had just experienced. Never before had
I been in a setting where the evil was felt in such a tangible
way.

But the next stop we made would have an even greater
impact on our now-heavy hearts. We had originally planned on
going straight from the Kali Temple to lunch, but a last minute
change that morning had us going directly to Carey Baptist
Church.

William Carey was a Baptist missionary who spent over 40
years ministering in India. Named after him, this little church
was tucked away behind several buildings in the heart of
Kolkata. We pulled off the road and went through a small gate in
the fence surrounding the church property. The white walls of
the building stood in stark contrast to the dusty buildings
around them. Atop four pillars on the front stood a tall cross,
and the words Jesus Saves in English and Hindi.

We passed through the glass pane doors and into the
building.

Soft sunlight was bordered by the green slatted shutters as
it shone through the windows. Except for the quiet creaking of
the dark wooden pews as we all took our seats, the sanctuary
was silent. There, in the midst of a foreign city filled with so
much promise, yet darkened by so much evil, I suddenly felt at
home inside those tranquil church walls.

My heart and mind felt renewed as I sat there. Not by the
building, but by what its walls stood for. As I replayed the events
that I had just witnessed, sitting quietly inside the church, I
came to see a clear picture of what Jesus has done for the
millions in and on the streets of Kolkata, and what He has done
for the family inside the Kali temple, and what He has done for
me. To save us from the evils of this world, He sacrificed His life.
And now He stands as a bright white building in the midst of a
dreary world, welcoming any who desire to come through its
gates.

It puzzles me when people say that all religions are the
same. “Why is Christianity any different?” they ask. They might
find their answer if they were to make the same journey I did.
Passing from the ominous walls of a Hindu temple to the aging
walls of a tiny church, they, like I, might find themselves startled
by the hope given us through a sacrifice far greater than those
that take place in the Kali Temple.

Copyright 2006 Nathan Zacharias. All rights reserved.