Thursday, February 18, 1999

Why (and how) I became a Christian

My name is Vijay Aswani. I am a 55 year old male physician, and an Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at the University at Buffalo -- a State University of New York. I hold a Ph.D. in biochemistry and have worked as a professor of biochemistry and a research scientist before entering medicine.

Roots and Early Beginnings

I was born into an Indian Hindu family in Lagos, Nigeria. My family is Sindhi – my parents coming from Hyderabad, Sindh before the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947. My father had grown up abroad and my parents had been outside India ever since they were married.

During my childhood in Nigeria and Liberia, my mother taught me the Hindu prayers. At home, we worshipped the goddess Laxmi, but also prayed to Guru Nanak. Like many Hindu Sindhi households, we worshipped all the Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as followed the teaching of Guru Nanak and Jhule Lal.

I remember learning “He Paramjot Parameshwar” from my mother when I must have been around 7-8 years old. I remember that I was a very naughty child. I am the younger of two children, both boys. My brother was sent off to boarding school at the age of eight because the schools in Nigeria where we were at the time were not very good. Being two years younger, I was not old enough to go yet. As the only child left at home, with my parents missing my brother, I was very loved and got practically everything I asked for or wanted. I guess I was a little spoilt. I still remember being taken by my mother to visit some holy men who had come to talk in the Gurudwara. My mother asked the speaker to pray that I may improve my behavior. He looked at her and told her that “one day this boy may show you the way of God!” I was about 7 years old.

Boarding school and learning Raja Yoga
When I was 10 years old, my parents sent me off to India, to boarding school, with my brother. It was difficult for them to do, but they sent us so far away that we might have a good education. I remember that my first year in school, I cried a lot. Besides the contrast of a militaristic discipline and corporal punishment, seeing the poverty in India for the first time was overwhelming. In view of all this, I also came to see myself very differently from I had before. I had been the only child at home (since my brother was at boarding school). I was used to having my way. I developed a sense of self-loathing for my lack of self-control, my fiery temper and my preoccupation with materiel things. I had taken my loving parents for granted. I resolved to embark on a path of self-improvement.

While in boarding school, I subscribed to a postal correspondence course on Raja Yoga. I did all the lessons and learned about Hindu philosophy and soul consciousness from the course. When I went to Bombay during my summer vacation, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the school of yoga that I had done the course from existed in Bombay as well. My grand-aunt was a leading teacher in one of the ashrams of that very school! I was thrilled. We had many conversations about seeking truth, meditation and spirituality. I read more books and attended meditation sessions at the ashram. I read books by Swami Vivekananda and his teacher Swami Ramakrishna Paramhans and other spiritual masters in India.

My family in India was impressed by interest in spiritual matters at a young age. By then, I was about 14 years old. My grand-aunt believed I may have been the incarnation of a great soul – that is why I developed spiritual interests at a young age. I was intoxicated with Hindu philosophy. It sounded profound and I resolved to be a seeker of truth and develop soul consciousness through meditation and spiritual discipline. I became a vegetarian – a very difficult thing for me to do, since I did not like to eat vegetables.

Inner struggles
Outwardly, a lot changed. Others were impressed by my attendance at ashrams, my meditation and ability to quote the writings of the swamis and gurus I read. Inwardly, the battle for control of passions, lusts, anger and jealousy continued. I felt I knew what I should do: -- eliminate the vices and cultivate the virtues, practice self-control, be non-attached and achieve self-realization. These goals sounded right. I wanted them inwardly, but they seemed like the horizon – the harder I tried to reach them, the further they seemed. My grand-aunt – easily in her seventies at that time, and a practitioner of raja yoga for at least 4 decades told me that the more she lived, the more she saw that there was still more work to do on herself in realizing these goals. That discouraged me. If after so many years of discipline and practice of meditation, she was still working at it, what hope was there for me?

I began to be frustrated. I had started out to become a better person. All I had achieve, I felt, was an outward form of godliness. Inwardly, I was ashamed of my desires, secret jealousies, seething anger and resentments. I no longer gave in to outbursts as I had before, but I steamed within. I felt like a hypocrite. I resolved to work harder at it, since it sounded right. It had to work.

Confronting Christianity

That year, in the 6th grade, a student joined our boarding school. He was a Christian. Now, we were all in a Christian school. To me, Christians were people with western names like Robert, or Frank. They went to church, while I went to a temple or Gurudwara. Their holy book was the Bible while mine was the Gita. In terms of actual living, I felt we were all the same. There were good and bad people in all religions. Of course, I felt that us hindus were superior, since we were vegetarian, and strict practitioners did not drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. Our women dressed more modestly. We were not contaminated by the corrupt western lifestyle, as I saw it. This boy was different. He claimed to be able to talk to Jesus and that Jesus talked back! What an audacious claim, I thought, to imagine that a mere sinful, impure mortal could communicate with God that easily without years of penance, spiritual discipline or purifying rituals and meditation.

I was impressed with his life though. He seemed to radiate a joy I did not have. I was working hard to be spiritual. He did not seem plagued by the same struggles as I and yet, I was no more spiritual then he was in living. When I asked him about it, he told me about he believed that Jesus died on the cross to take away the sins of the whole world and that we could have a right relationship with God through Him. I did not understand. How could one man hanging on a piece of wood somewhere in the obscure middle-east take the sins of every person on earth in a few hours? That did not seem proportionate to the burden of sin. No! We had to work ourselves out of the cycle of birth and rebirth until we paid all our karmas and got moksha (deliverance) and nirvana (eternal bliss or state of nothingness). I mocked him. I got better grades in class than he. He was just stupid. Compared to the complex hindu philosophy I had read, which was deep, structured and tried to answer the questions of suffering, this sounded like nonsense. It was not profound enough. No, I thought, the answer cannot be here.

A decision

Later on that year, I got to go to a 3 day camp being held at a center outside our boarding school. It was a camp organized by the missionary organization called Scripture Union. I went because (1) I got to go away from school for a few days, (2) there was hiking, swimming and fun activities. At the camp, young students like me talked about their relationship with Jesus. I remember the campfire on the last night of the camping trip. Several students stood up and talked about the state of their inner lives before they came to Jesus. I blushed as these boys talked about the very struggles I was having, but was too ashamed to admit. How could they bare their souls like this? Everyone’s story seemed to end the same way: once they realized they were miserable and stuck in a quagmire of sin, they came to Jesus. At the end, someone came forward and asked us if anyone wanted to “ask Jesus into their heart”. I was confused. How do you do this? What would happen? Was I going to give up the path of the ancient hindu spiritual masters for this? In the end, I reasoned, what had I to lose? I was not making much progress on the path I was on. I reasoned I would try this. If Jesus could do for me what he done for these students and my friend at school, then I stood to gain the very goal I wanted all along. After all, I wanted to be a better person, to overcome my struggles with sin within my body and mind and spirit.

That night, someone led us in a simple prayer. It went something like this: “Lord Jesus, I thank you for dying on the cross to pay the penalty of my sins. I accept I am a sinner – born in sin and a slave to sin. Please forgive my sin and wash me clean. Come into my heart and life as my Savior and Lord. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

We went to bed soon after that. The next morning, we boarded the buses that took us back to our boarding school. I cannot quite explain what happened next. It was as if someone opened the windows of my heart and let sunlight and fresh air in. I had nothing to hide anymore. I understood that the reason I could not overcome my struggles and master my desires was because I was a slave to them in sin. I was not a holy soul who simply needed to realize who he was. I was a slave to sin and needed rescuing. And I had been rescued. My boarding school was located in a hilly village, with lots of open spaces and fields. I went for long walks and talked to Jesus. In the beginning, I thought I had to meditate on him. I asked my friend for a picture of Jesus so that I could picture him, just like I had statues and pictures of my hindu gods before. He explained to me that God was a spirit and was to be worshipped in spirit and truth. It took a while to get that concept, but once I did, it was liberated.

Knowing God
I did not need to be in a special place, or posture to talk to God. I could do it anywhere. I did. I felt God talked back to me, in my heart. I had found a heavenly father and a best friend.

I began to read the Bible. I told other kids at boarding school about what Jesus had done in my life. Looking back, we had kids with some real problems. We had kids who were abused at home, some with chronic sicknesses, some with psychiatric problems. In the next few years, we had a group of 15 children, ranging in age from 12 to 16 that had begun to believe in Jesus. Parents of non-christian children wrote angry letters to the principal when their kids wrote to them that they began to follow Christ. The principal was confused, since neither he nor his staff tried to make anyone follow Christianity. It was eventually traced to my friend and myself and we were warned. Of course, we did not listen. We felt we were not doing anything wrong. We were simply sharing our lives with our friends and fellow students.

Becoming a follower of Christ or a Christian?
Over the course of the next few decades, there were changes in my life. I finished high school and went off to college. I was drawn to science and research and went on to get a bachelors, masters and Ph.D. in microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Bombay, India. During this time, I attended a local church in Bombay that met for most of that time in the hall of a local school.

Through reading the Bible and discussions with others, I realized that Jesus did not come to change our names to ‘christian’ names. He did not come to change our culture – to make us eat with knives and forks or wear pants and shirts, if we wore dhotis and kurtas. He did not come to give us ‘western’ values. In fact, he was middle-eastern and probably had more in common with the culture of India I was used to.

What did my family think of all these changes? At first, my parents reasoned that this was a fad (like my Bruce Lee kung fu phase). Soon however, it was clear that not only was it not fading, but I was making important decisions based on my faith and commitment to Jesus. For example, when my british citizenship was cancelled (connected to the passing of an immigration act in 1971 in the U.K.), my family suggested that I go to India and apply for an Indian passport. Of course, the ‘easier’ thing to do was just fill out an application form for an Indian passport and lie with regards to place of birth and prior citizenship. After all, who would know? And documents like birth certificates could be falsified or obtained by bribery. I refused. My commitment to Jesus meant I could not lie. It took me three years to become a naturalized citizen of India. I was told that I would have to bribe officials to move my file along, that I would never be able to go through the whole process without lying or bribery. I did.

I was offered a seat in a medical college in south India, if I paid a capitation fee. I refused, even though I really did want to do medicine. My parents were appalled that I would make an important career decision on the basis of ‘principles’.

Changing religions?

Other concerns my family had was regarding why I was ‘changing my religion’. As I read the Bible more, I did not call myself ‘christian’ because that word meant the same thing to them that it had meant to me previously. I wanted to establish that my culture, my respect and honor of my elders and my way of life from a cultural standpoint would not change. My heart had changed. I described myself as a follower of Christ. Jesus was my Guru – just like others followed Radhasoami or Sai Baba.

There were conflicts over attending temple worship with them on Hindu holy days such as Diwali and Holi. I refused to participate in the house prayers in front of idols, or to eat the ‘prasad’ – food offered to the Hindu gods. This was viewed as an insult to my elders. It was an affront of their traditions. They were my elders. I was a young boy. How could I disrespect them by not obeying when they called me to the house worship? How dare I insult them in this way on auspicious occasions and holy days? Those were difficult times.

I loved my family and respected my elders. But the Bible clearly taught me that I was not to worship or bow down to idols or partake of food offered to idols. I tried to point out that I was only trying to be a good disciple of Jesus and obey his teachings and that I meant no disrespect or dishonor to my elders. There were times when I was told to choose between following them or following the Bible. Arguments were made that “all religions are the same” and that “the Bible does not teach you to disrespect your elders”. I cried many tears of frustration and pain before the Lord in prayer as I chose to obey the Bible’s instructions in the matter, while trying to reaffirm in every other, that I still loved and cherished my elders. It took years before the cumulative, consistent actions and my life on a daily basis convinced my family that I honored and loved them.

The present

Through the different phases of my life – child, student of science in university, scientist and now physician, I have met different challenges to my life in Christ. There were intellectual challenges to the existence of God, to whether the Bible’s teaching were true, to whether Christ and his teaching can claim exclusivity to God. There were family and society challenges – what is like to be a hindu follower of Christ who rejects Hinduism and yet does not accept the culture of ‘christians’ in an eastern culture. How does one live in the world between Christian culture and hindu culture without compromising one’s integrity of faith while not becoming culturally converted?

In the end, the Bible answered the questions of my heart. Here are some of the passages that have transformed my thinking and life. When the reader looks through them, he or she will see their connection to some of the experiences I have described above.

I am not ashamed of being a follower of Christ. The Lord Jesus is lover of my soul, the captain of my life and my leader. I am a disciple, a love slave and an indebted follower for life, forever. He is the foundation of my life, the fortress from where I fight life’s battles, my secret hiding place in the storms of life. He guards my heart. He fills my spirit with dreams, desires and visions that my life is given to fulfill.

I live in the real world. I hold a job, pay rent, participate in sports, music, watch movies, laugh at comedy shows and struggle with all the challenges of daily life as everyone else. However, just as the strength of a house is dependent on its foundation and the steel girders that hold its structure together, the Lord Jesus is that to me. It may not be evident when you see me in clinic or in the lab or in the supermarket, but scratch below the surface and it will become evident quite soon, where I come from.

The struggle within us:
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

Romans 7:14 – 8:4
The ‘foolishness’ of the message of Christ:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

I Corinthians 1: 18 – 25
The Exclusivity of Jesus as the way to God

Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10: 7 – 10
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 14:6

An invitation
I have an invitation and a challenge to set before you, the reader. What response will you make to what you have just read? The Bible suggests, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” This is my invitation – the same I received: taste. If you are willing to change your life for the better, I invite you to try praying the prayer I did. Here it is once more:
“Lord Jesus, I thank you for dying on the cross to pay the penalty of my sins. I accept I am a sinner – born in sin and a slave to sin. Please forgive my sin and wash me clean. Come into my heart and life as my Savior and Lord. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
What do you do next? I believe that God will meet with you – an astounding claim to make. You could seek out someone who you know who follows Christ and tell him or her what you have done. You could email me ( or and I will be glad to help you.

I end with this question: what is your response to this personal testimony to the message of Jesus? Please answer the question in your mind. Enunciate your response to yourself clearly.
What will you do?