"If you want to know what water is, don't ask the fish." So goes an old Chinese proverb. In other words, total immersion deprives the mind of a counterperspective and, for that matter, an honest evaluation.
To be born in India is to arrive into the world swimming in religion.
I was born in the southern city of Chennai and raised in the northern city of Delhi—more correctly New Delhi. My father was from Kerala, located in the deep south, my mother, from Chennai. My ancestors belonged to the highest caste of Hindu priests called the Nambudiris. When we read of the apostle Thomas going to India, he seems to set out with the goal of reaching the Nambudiris, since reaching the priests would reach the people. Thomas paid with his life. In Chennai stands a memorial to Thomas, and Kerala hosts other landmarks of his work. Despite the fact that only 6 percent of Indians today identify as Christians, the gospel arrived in India very early in church history.
Growing up, I knew nothing of this tradition. My family and I went to church, celebrated Christmas, and observed certain rituals on Good Friday, but I was never taught the gospel or its significance for my life. I attended more Hindu festivals and celebrations than I did Christian ones. Only many years after coming to Christ did I learn, from a grand-aunt, the backdrop to our ancestral story: Several generations ago, through the work of German Swiss missionaries of the Basel movement, a young woman was the first from our branch of the Nambudiris to profess Christ as Lord. I like to think that the missionaries gave the new surname Zacharias to represent and honor her priestly background.
My earliest encounter with "holiness" was watching a sunburnt mystic with matted hair and coarse skin soiled by the dirt on the road. He was a lanky figure with piercing eyes, his voice bellowing from the streets as he literally rolled the full length of his body under that torrid sun. As a young boy I would watch him in terror from behind a barred window. He was "a holy man," I was told, ever seeking to draw near to God. Carts and pedestrians alike would roll by or walk around him, each keeping a busy pace surrounded by a religious outlook on life. Such is India.
A Quiet Exit
While all of this holy activity formed a backdrop, it was never the focus of my life. By the time I was a young man, I lived with two deep struggles: I longed to become a cricketer, and I performed miserably in school. Cricket and tennis were all that I lived for. In India, this was a formula for failure. Indian children are raised to live with books and get to the top of the class, or else face failure and shame. My dad used to say sarcastically of me, "Center forward in football, fullback in studies." I was relieved when he said this only in jest. His fury over my report cards incited humiliating thrashings, one of which was so severe that had my mother not intervened, I'm not sure what irreparable harm would have come.
Whenever our family went to church, my one thought was the cricket match that would follow. I did well in sports but I am certain I would not have made it in professional sports either, as nothing in my life had gone well. I often pondered life's meaning. I was the jokester of the group and knew all the funny stories to tell. Rich in friends, impoverished when alone, I was well on my way to an isolated me.
As young teenagers, my sisters were invited to a Youth for Christ rally. I was not sure what it meant but joined them for the promise of refreshments. It was at one such rally that I first heard the gospel. The preacher was a man named Sam Wolgemuth. When the invitation was given, I walked forward. I didn't know what it meant, but I knew that I wanted what he had. A kind of half-hearted commitment was made, like a speck of salt being dropped into a vast tub of water. Still, my life of failure in studies continued to haunt me.
I don't know when I made the decision—sometime at age 17—but when I did, it came firmly and calmly: A quiet exit will save my family from further shame. I was neither depressed nor impulsive. I had seen it coming for some time, perhaps always lurking in my mind as the final escape. Some cultures lend themselves more to the thought than others. My culture was one of them.
When I arrived at university that morning, I walked to the empty chemistry lab. Somehow I got into the locked cupboard where the chemicals were stored, and pored over the shelves until I came to some packets marked poison. I stuffed several into my pockets.
The next morning, I waited for my family members to leave for school or work. Our house servant was in the kitchen cleaning up breakfast. I filled a glass from the kitchen tap and took it to the bathroom, then bolted the door behind me. I poured the toxic packets into the glass, pushing all thoughts of my mother aside, and started drinking as quickly as I could.
Fighting back nausea, I took another salty gulp, but my body revolted. I collapsed, vomiting the poison and everything else in my stomach. I could feel my strength leaving me. Instinctively I called out for our servant.
After he burst through by finally snapping the bathroom door off its hinges, he rushed me to the ER. Two or three days passed before I regained any strength. The details are hazy, and I never knew if the servant hid the evidence of my attempt; my parents and I never discussed why I was lying there in the hospital.
It was in that hospital that a Youth for Christ director, Fred David, brought me a Bible. Seeing that I was in no shape for talking, Fred handed the Bible to my mother and flipped to John chapter 14. "This is for Ravi." Once he left, my mother read aloud the passage.
"Because I live, you also will live."
Live? The word hit me like a ton of bricks.
"Mom," I interjected, "who is that speaking?" I learned whom the words belonged to.
"Jesus," I prayed inwardly, "if you are the One who gives life as it is meant to be, I want it. Please get me out of this hospital bed well, and I promise I will leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of truth."
Five days later the attending doctor came to sign my discharge papers. As he looked over the documents, he asked an odd question: "Do you really want to live?"
Live? I looked up at him. He only continued to scribble. I didn't answer.
Then he stopped writing and turned to me. "Do you really want to live? We can make you live again by getting the poison out. But we cannot make you want to live."
… you also will live, said Jesus.
I let the doctor's question settle in—but I already knew the answer.
Five days after being wheeled into the ER, I left a changed person. Youth for Christ quickly became my spiritual home. My closest friend, a Hindu, attended one of the ministry's Bible studies with me and also gave his life to Christ. One day later, he and I were walking by the neighborhood garbage dump and noticed a book lying on top: Commentary on Romans, by W. H. Griffith Thomas. My friend and I studied it cover to cover, and we led the Bible studies with the other teenagers. To this day I've kept the book, covered with notes scribbled in the margins.
Today as an apologist preaching in more than 70 countries, I can say only that God is the Grand Weaver, capable of creating an unexpected and beautiful pattern out of a broken life. My parents also went on to make a public commitment to Christ. The change in my father—who saw what Jesus had done for his children—was the most dramatic conversion I have ever witnessed. For a man of his pride to pledge to conform to Christ was only the work of God.
Only now do I fully understand what it meant to be immersed in a culture of religion without asking questions, yet encountering Jesus Christ, who rescues us from the illusion of religion to the promise and hope of receiving life from our Creator and Savior.
Ravi Zacharias is an international preacher and apologist and author most recently of Why Jesus? Rediscovering His Truth in an Age of Mass Marketed Spirituality (FaithWords, 2012).