We are called Lambadas or Banjaras in the local parlance. In other words, we are gypsies. We live on agriculture and on rearing livestock. We wander in search of greener pastures. In other words, we are basically wanderers. We don‟t live in a permanent place for a long time. We livein groups called tandas1. We worship gods and goddesses made of stone and mud. We slaughter animals in the name of sacrifice to our gods and eat, drink and indulge in revelry. I too lived like a wanderer- in mind and deeds until I met Christ one day.
My parents are shepherds. We rear livestock. It is our livelihood. We live in a tribal hamlet in Andhra Pradesh, India. My parents are illiterate. They take care of cows and buffaloes. We rear cows and sell them in the local market, making a small margin of profit. The forest is our home. It provides us with everything we need to live on. With the small savings he had, my father bought some agriculture land for farming. I spent my childhood taking care of our cattle. My elder brother helped my father in rearing of cows and in farming. We grew foodgrains. I have four brothers and three sisters. I am the youngest in the family. Except my elder brother, the third, the fourth, and myself, all others are illiterate. All my brothers and sisters are married and settled. My father is about eighty-two years old and mother is seventy-five. They live in mynative village.
During my school days, I had Hindu, Muslim and Christian friends. I used to visit mosques and temples occasionally. I used to like Hindu friends and hate the Muslim and Christian friends on account of the food they ate. My childhood ambition was to become an IAS2 officer. An IAS officer was in charge of a district3. He held immense powers and was looked upon with respect by the society. I had the desire to work for the upliftment of my community and to raise their social status in the society.
I studied in the local school in the village run by the government. The medium of instruction was Telugu4- which is the vernacular language. My parents did not want me to go to school as they wanted me to help them in their work. My third and fourth brothers were staying and studying inthe neighboring village. As a three or four year old lad, my job was to take the cattle for grazing. I wore a long shirt which extended down to my knees. I didn‟t wear any shorts. My brothers were given slates to write on. I used to take these slates and put on the khaki pants of my brothers and do rehearsals of going to school.
One day, I told my parents that I did not want to take the cows for grazing but wanted to go to school instead. Having said that, I didn‟t take the cows for grazing and stayed back at home. My mother got angry, taking a stick, she started beating me. She took hold of me by my hair andtook me to the nearby rivulet. Dipping me in and out of the water, she beat me.
The school was about a mile and a half away from my home. When I was taken to the school, I was wearing a long shirt, with no shorts and no chappals. The teacher noticed that I was not wearing any shorts, he called my father and reprimanded him. Then my father got two shorts stitched for me. The school building was a thatched hut with stone pillars in the open. At that time, I knew only the Banjara5 language, which was my mother tongue. I didn‟t know the Telugu language. I was admitted in the first grade directly without studying the mandatory kindergarten. I studied up to the third grade without learning anything. In the third grade, a Brahmin6 teacher who was personally known to my father was posted as the new school teacher. He took personal care and interest in me. He beat me severely. Because of my fear of him, I studied and worked hard. At the end of third grade, I stood first in my class. Ever since, I always stood first in the school until my tenth grade. Up to the fifth grade, I studied in my village. From sixth grade onwards, I was admitted in the hostel where my brothers were already studying. During holidays, I used to go home, take care of the cattle, and help my father in farming. After joining the hostel, I developed a competitive spirit.
Once when I was in the tenth grade, I attempted to commit suicide. I thought, “What does man get ultimately at the end of his life except death?” This thought came to me when I was in seventh grade. And the attempt to commit suicide was made when I was in my tenth grade. I took a bottle of pesticide7 and sat down in a ditch where no one could see me. When I was about to consume the poison, I felt that some unseen hand from behind pushed the bottle down and the poison was spilled over. Discouraged, I returned home and was remorseful.
At first, I wanted to issue tickets in a bus so that I could visit different places. When I was in theseventh grade, I enquired about different jobs from my teachers. They all suggested, that the IAS was the top job and only those who were good at English could expect to make it to the IAS. Since I studied in Telugu medium, I started working on improving my English. Everyone in the school loved me as I excelled in academics.
My friends tried to divert my attention. But I did not allow myself to be diverted. If I did badly in academics, my father would immediately discontinue my studies and ask me to take care of the cows. I was one of the toppers in the school. I finished my school in 1989. To pursue higher studies, I had to go to a neighboring town. My father wanted me to become a civil engineer.
Our family deity is Tulja Bhavani8 who is believed to protect the entire family from all dangers, sickness and blesses us with a good harvest. Every year on a particular day, we would place astone idol of hers under a tree, and sacrifice a goat or a sheep or a hen, singing and dancing praising the deity. The blood would be used to smear the bark of the tree. „Payasam‟9 is prepared, in which the blood of the sacrificed animal is mixed and spread on the fields with the hope of getting a good harvest. The head and the legs of the sacrificed animal would be left hanging on the tree as an offering to the deity.
At the time of sacrifice, irrespective of age and sex, we consume „kallu‟10 followed by a feast. During other important occasions, we consume an intoxicating drink called „bhang.‟11 Other deities whom we worship include Hanuman12, Venkateswara13, Rama14, Krishna15, Siva16, Durga17, Kalika18, Sai Baba of Shirdi19 and scores of other Hindu gods and goddesses. Weworship the portraits of these gods which are hung in our thatched hut. My father used to wake up early in the morning, have a shower with cold water and worship the gods. Being the youngest in the family, I was also given training to fall prostrate before these gods. On the occasion of Sriramanavami20, everyone in the family would offer a coconut to the god.
Once every year, my parents would undertake a religious pilgrimage to the abode of Lord Venkateswara or Balaji at Tirupathi21. My father was a firm devotee of Balaji (Venkateswara). Therefore, I was named B…. Even I went to Tirupathi thrice to offer my hair in fulfillment of a vow.
For the peace of the dead, we used to leave a pot of „payasam‟ near the graves of the dead. If anyone in the family would be sick, a „taayat22‟ was tied on the wrist of the sick person. Black magicians and sorcerers would tie the taayat. If anyone was suffering from demon possession, the services of a „Bhagat23‟would be called for. The bhagat had to be given liquor first. Afterwards he would beat the possessed person with a broom making him run for two or three miles until he is able to run no more and falls down. When the possessed person falls down, it is assumed that the evil spirit has left him. Now and then, fortune tellers and sorcerers would come and tell us about our future. A black hen would be given as a fee to them.
I was a devotee of our family deity- Tulja Bhavani. I thought if she is angry and displeased, she had the power to destroy the family. If anyone in the family died or was sick, I thought it was because we didn‟t offer sacrifice to her. At night, we avoided the way where the idol of Bhavani was located. I believed that the spirits of our relatives would come and warn us of impending danger if we were not doing things properly. I believed that she would come in dreams and warn us that we would lose our property or someone would fall sick or die. We believed that our dead would be reborn as our relatives. We also believed that the dead would be reborn as cows. So we used to perform „Gaupuja24‟- a ceremony where cows are worshiped. For us, the cow is holy so we worship it. We also worship dogs as we believe that our dead relatives would be reborn as dogs. We celebrate a festival in honor of dogs and offered a sweet dish made of „sajjalu.25‟
I was devout and had a desire to visit different pilgrim centers. I believed that all the Hindu gods were true. All gods of all religions are the same. The same god took different forms at different times. I believed in rebirth after death either in human or animal form. I believed that we should live a good life in the present life so that in the next birth we would be born in a rich family. I believed in Karma26.
While I was pursuing my engineering studies in Hyderabad, I used to visit the Birla27 temple every Saturday. During the second year of my study, one of my batchmates met with an accident near the college bus stop. While he was boarding a bus, he came under the tyres of the bus and died on the spot. He was a close relative of my friend. In anger, we set the bus on fire. After this incident, I went to my village for a time of change for ten days. When I returned to college, I heard the news that another close friend and a classmate of mine died in a motorcycle accident. I was in a state of shock.
After these two incidents, I had a question. What is the final destination of man? Since we do not know when we would die, I must find out what would happen to life after death. If my life too ends this way, I must be sure of my destiny. I started thinking seriously. These two friends who died in the accidents were getting ready to go to America. Where did they go? Who can answer my question? I asked this question to several people. I went to religious groups, who advised me to think about this question when I grew old. I, in turn, asked them, if they could give guarantee to my life until I attained old age. Finally, I came to the conclusion that no human being can answer my question except the God who created me.
I didn‟t know who my creator was. In this process of thinking, I started thinking whether there was life after death. I started thinking about creation. When I saw the creation, I believed that there is a creator God for sure. Thus my search to know my creator God started. I want to know him. I had to find Him--wherever he may be found, in whichever religion he may be found. I decided to accept him as my God. Being a Hindu, I started visiting temples more frequently to know the creator God.
My neighbors were Christian students who were always glorifying their God through their actions. They got up early in the morning, read the Bible, prayed, listened to messages on the radio, attended weekly Christian meetings, shared with others about their God who is called Jesus Christ. So, as a Hindu , I should glorify my gods. I started taking my Hindu friends to theHindu temple, sit on the steps leading to the temple, sing songs and bhajans28, do meditation and practice yoga for an hour. I bought several religious as well as filthy books and started reading them. My room turned into a library with friends coming to read books.
I bought books written by and on Gandhi, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa etc. The authors spoke highly about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. When I read about Christ, I. became angry. I thought Jesus was not a Hindu god neither did he belong to the Hindu religion, so why should he be mentioned in our Hindu books written by Hindus.
At that time, my Christian friends gave me a biography of a converted Hindu who was a practicing Christian and was preaching the Good News of Lord Jesus Christ. On the front cover was an image of the Cross. When I saw it, I threw the book away. My friends advised me to read and know more about it as the book contained quotations from the Hindu Vedas and the Upanishads29. Hesitatingly, I took the book and read it secretly. I read the book from the first page to the last one. In the book, the author mentioned that the creator God written about in the Hindu Vedas was none other than Jesus Christ Himself. He is the Creator, Redeemer-who saves us from our sins. The book talks about two types of sins- 1. Sin by birth and 2. Sin by karma. We are sinners by birth itself. And we are sinners by our way of living on this earth.
Not convinced, I wanted to find out what the Quran said about the creator God and about the redeemer. So, I read the Quran and several books written by Islamic scholars. Even the Quran talks about Jesus Christ in the chapter on Sura Mariam.
As both the major sacred books, namely the Hindu texts and the Quran talk about Jesus Christ, a doubt arose in my mind as to how these books are talking about Jesus. Among the great Hindu philosophers, Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi also talked about Jesus Christ. Maybe he is the creator God for whom I was searching. I concluded thatcompared to other gods, there is something about Jesus Christ that I didn‟t know. I decided to know this Jesus. So I bought a Bible and started reading it. I started reading from the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Before reading the Bible, I thought I was a sinless person as I did not commit any grave sin or wrong.
The words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Saint Matthew chapter 5 verses 21-30 where Jesus speaks on murder and adultery, had a deep impact on my heart. It was then that I understood what a great sinner I was as per the biblical standards. I was watching filthy movies to satisfy my lustful desires. I realized, if I had committed suicide during my tenth grade, I would have surely gone to hell. (since I did not believe in the existence of hell at that time)
As a sinner, I realized that I need to be forgiven not by my father or my mother but only by Jesus, since he alone died in my place as a substitute for my sins. In Matthew chapter 27, verses 45 to 50 describe the death of Jesus on the cross for my sins. I understood it is the blood of Jesus Christ alone that can cleanse me from my sins and not the blood of animals. I came to the conclusion that Jesus paid the price for my sins by dying on the cross. By reading Matthew chapter 28 verses 8 to 10, I understood that through his resurrection, he justified me and made a way for me to go to heaven. .
One day, I did not go to college but stayed back in my room in order to pray and confess my sins to Jesus. I sought a lonely place. After all my roommates left for college, I closed the door of my room and knelt down, closed my eyes and started recollecting all my sinful, wicked deeds committed since my childhood. I started confessing them one by one to Lord Jesus. As I was confessing my sins, I could feel that my heart was becoming lighter and lighter.
I felt the burden of sin which I was carrying like a heavy load all these years was being removed from my heart. I was in tears. I found the joy which I never had before. I no longer had a guilty conscience as Jesus forgave my sins. Jesus assured me that he forgave me through Isaiah chapter 43 verses 24 and 25. “You have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offences, even I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake and remember your sins no more.”
All my old, dirty habits vanished. My desires were changed. My attitude toward fellow human beings and towards God completely changed. I could understand the real purpose of my life on this earth through the Epistle of Ephesians chapter 2 verses 8 to 10. “…. for we are God‟s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works …..for the praise of his glory”.
After coming to know Lord Jesus as my personal savior, I started reading the Bible intensely, in order to understand God and His purposes for my life. All these years I have lived life as I desired but now I decided to live as God wanted me to live as specified in the Bible. I started praying and asking God to give me a right understanding spirit. I understood that God loves me and He speaks to me. He helps me in my everyday life. Before taking any decision, I ask God to help me to know His will regarding my life and future. If it is according to His word, I will proceed further in a particular matter. If it is not according to His word, I would simply drop it, whatever it may cost. This way, I am enjoying God‟s help in many aspects of my personal lifelike my career, my job and now in my ministry among my tribesmen.
GOD BLESS YOU!
1 tandas=tribal hamlets
2 IAS=Indian Administrative Officer
3 District= a portion of a country
4 Telugu= a language spoken by the natives
5 Banjara=the spoken language of the gypsies
6 Brahmin=a person who belongs to the upper caste
8 Tulja Bhavani=a female tribal deity
9 Payasam=a sweet porridge
10 Kallu=country made liquor
11Bhang= a concoction of country made liquor and intoxicating herbs
12 Hanuman=the monkey hero who helped Rama recover Sita
13 Venkateswara or Balaji=a god of the hindus
14 Rama= hero of the epic Ramayana; worshiped as a god; the incarnation of Vishnu
15 Krishna=an avatar of Vishnu sometimes worshiped as Vishnu himself
16 Siva= the third member of the Hindu Triad or Trinity worshiped by the Saivas
17 Durga=a female goddess, the divine shakti, in the form of goddess; the Divine Mother
18 Kalika=a female goddess, shakti, in the form of Divine Mother
19 Sai Baba=a god-man worshiped by his devotees
20 Sriramanavami= the celestial wedding of Ram with Sita
21 Tirupathi=a divine shrine; a pilgrim town
22 Taayat=a sacred thread tied on the wrist
23 Bhagat=a witch hunter
25 Sajjallu= a foodgrain
26 Karma=literally, action; the law of causation applied to the moral realm showing that all actions have inevitable moral consequences in this life or the next; sometimes used in the sense of the effect of past deeds, or the stock of merit or demerit arising from past deeds which causes rebirth
27 Birla=an Indian business tycoon
28 Bhajans= songs of devotional love
29 Vedas and Upanishads=primary scriptures of Hinduism