Finding God At



Christ and Karma: A Hindu’s Quest for the Holy

Krister Sairsingh

Born in Trinidad to a priestly Hindu family Krister Sairsingh graduated from Yale University in 1971 and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Religion. The Sairsinghs live in Moscow where Nancy teaches art history, and Krister is a professor at the State University Higher School of Economics where he teaches philosophy and the intellectual history of Europe.


“Who was this Jesus who could break the bondage of karma, who said
he had the power to forgive sins?  I had to know.”

From time to time I am asked questions such as: Why did you become a Christian?  Why did you leave the great and ancient religion of Hinduism with its  deep mystical and philosophical outlook for Christianity, a relative newcomer in the history of religions?  What did Christianity offer that Hinduism did not?

This essay is not a defense of Christianity to its intellectual and cultured despisers but a simple narrative account of my spiritual journey to Christ.  Conversion to Christian faith changed my values, transformed my mind and affected every area of my life. But it was just the beginning of a thrilling adventure of faith, of a journey into the infinite and inexhaustible reality of God.

Although I  was raised with the belief that all religions are valid paths to the spiritual life, my friends and family members took it for granted that only Hinduism, through the disciplines of yoga and bhakti, offered a path to spiritual perfection and divine self-realization.  While we respected other religions as fragmentary manifestations of the divine reality, we believed that only the great gurus and swamis of the Hindu tradition attained that perfect God consciousness which is the true end of religion.  To be holy, so I thought, was to realize one's own divinity, to actualize one's divine selfhood through the disciplines of meditation and yoga, non-attachment and a radical self-renunciation.  The notion that God out of pure love seeks out the human and enters into relationship with the human person was an altogether foreign notion to me.  Holiness had little to do with human relationships, with a dedication to sacrificial service and reconciling love in human community.  Ultimately, these pursuits were just distractions from the true ends of religion.  I understood a genuine liberation of the soul to be a liberation from all forms of personal existence.  Salvation meant deliverance from embodied existence, from the relentless cycle of karma.  

As a young Hindu boy I was fascinated with people who claimed to be holy.  I often visited one such holy man.  He was my uncle.  It was common knowledge that shortly after the conception of their only child, he took a vow of silence and celibacy and entered a trance-like state through meditation and the practice of yoga.

His silence amazed me.  I remember how his son (my cousin, Rabi) and I would gaze into his face hoping for some response — a word or even a smile.  But not once did he turn to smile or speak.  He died without his son ever having heard his voice.

We grew up in the home of our maternal grandfather who was a wealthy and influential leader in the Hindu community which makes up a third of the island's population.  With the daily round of religious ceremonies there was never a dull moment in this large extended family.  When swamis from India stayed at our home, I would take long walks with some of them to the sea just to be in their presence.  For me they embodied the ideal of the holy.  I looked forward to the day when I would have one of these swamis as my guru.

An important event for our family, and indeed the whole Hindu community, was the visit of Swami Advaitananda from India to the island.  He spent a week in our home.  It was during this visit that he became my guru and gave me a mantra — a short Sanskrit prayer to be repeated many times in my meditation.  Although he soon returned to India, I treasured the memory of him and daily adored a picture of him.

My mother and her younger sister began to travel with a group of young women through towns and villages to promote the teachings of the swami.  Both of these sisters had arranged marriages.  Although most arranged marriages seem to work out well, neither my mother's nor her younger sister's turned out as they had hoped.  Eventually both returned to their father's home and, with the assistance of learned gurus and pundits, dedicated their lives to the study of the many volumes of Hindu scriptures and commentaries which we owned.  They were kept in the puja room, a room set aside for the practice of yoga and devotion to Hindu deities, whose images rested upon a specially built altar.  On the wall of the room there hung pictures of some of my heroes — Swami Yogananda, Swami Sivananda of the Divine Life Society, and of course, my guru.

Since I was the oldest child, my mother diligently taught me from the Bhagavat Gita.  But it was the stories from the Ramayana, and the lives of the great rishis and sages which really captivated me.  I also looked forward to reading  Swami Sivananda's journal, Divine Life Society, which occasionally arrived in the mail.  At an early age I was captivated by  the Autobiography of a Yogi by Swami Yogananda, from which my mother often read to me.  I dreamed of becoming a holy man like him.  Every day, after ritual purification, I would enter the puja room to do japa yoga, offer incense to the deities and chant Sanskrit mantras to Shiva, Krishna and Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom.

As I grew up I took enormous pride in our ancient Hindu scriptures and traditions.  I felt privileged to be part of a prominent and respected Hindu family.  During my  years in high school I cultivated the friendship of Hindu boys who shared my pride in the heritage of Hinduism.  Over lunch we would discuss Indian philosophy and read the poetry of the Indian Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore.  Occasionally we read poems which were written by the leader of our coterie whose literary passion and fierce loyalty to Hinduism deeply inspired us.

During my final year in high school, he became my best friend.  We were both concerned about the threat of Islam and the growing influence of Christianity upon some sectors of the Hindu community.  We took such zealous pride in our religious traditions that we made a pact to devote our lives to a defense of the Hindu way of life.  He went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Indian History at a leading British university  and is now an accomplished academic in the field.

My oldest uncle, a devout Hindu, had obtained his degree in English Literature from the University of London and had returned home with an impressive library which began to open up new literary horizons for me.  I began to drink deeply from the Romantics, especially the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth.  The essays of Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and George Orwell, and the literary criticism of Matthew Arnold deepened my appreciation for the western intellectual tradition.  My uncle  showed me how one could be a scholar well-versed in western literature and also devoted to the spiritual ideals of Hinduism.  He moved within both worlds with remarkable ease.

A younger uncle went on to pursue graduate studies in philosophy and art history at the University of Chicago.  As I look back, his counsel and influence upon me would prove to be decisive in the direction which my life eventually took.

We all grew up in the same family bungalow — grandmother, uncles, aunts, and cousins.  After the death of grandfather, my maternal uncles assumed leadership roles in the family.  Several members of the family, including my mother, had become disciples of Pundit Janki Prasad Sharma, the presiding spiritual head of the Hindu community.  He came to our home frequently to officiate at special religious events.  As he entered our home we would await his blessings while we bowed at his feet.  There was a measure of pride in belonging to this family for whom the quest for the holy was a daily affair.

Towards the end of my final year of high school I had a bizarre experience which caused me to question the efficacy of my faith.  I was sitting on my bed studying chemistry late at night in preparation for final examinations.  I felt a slap on my face as I was thrown upon the bed.  I felt as if something was physically strangling me.  I could not easily breathe or move.  Since I could not speak I began to repeat in my mind the mantra which was given by my guru.  When that did not work I tried the Gayatri mantra, the most sacred mantra of  Hinduism.  But that brought no relief.  I thought that perhaps I had offended Shiva and had fallen under the wrath of this deity of creation and destruction, as he is sometimes referred to.  Perhaps when I danced before his image and offered incense, something which I regularly did, I may have performed my ritual obligations carelessly.  Finally, after much struggle I broke free.  I began to wonder if there were other powers in the universe which could deliver me from the fears that had begun to torment me — fear of death, fear of the unknown.

The next morning I related my experience to Singh, an Indian classmate, a former Hindu who had become a Christian.  I wondered whether he had an explanation of what had happened to me.   I went to Singh for advice because there was something different about him, a light that pervaded his presence.  He struck me as  someone who might be connected with the spiritual world.   He seemed convinced that there was a direct link between what had happened to me and my way of worshipping.  The worship of idols, he argued, made me vulnerable to demonic attack. 

Naturally I was deeply offended by his simple-minded explanation.  Although I made it clear that I did not accept his attack on my religion, I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to prevent the re-occurrence of that terrifying experience.  Singh suggested that I consider Jesus.  That sounded harmless enough.  Accommodating  Jesus within the pantheon of divinities which I worshipped should not be too difficult, I thought.  Like most of my Hindu friends, I believed that whatever power Jesus displayed, he acquired it from the great gurus of India.  But Singh was claiming much more for Jesus than I could accept.  Jesus, he said, had power over all other powers in the universe, including the Hindu deities and all the swamis and gurus who had ever lived.  Although I found this to be a most arrogant and offensive claim, I thought that if it were true, it would mean giving Jesus a place of primacy within my Hindu worship.  The idea was mind-boggling.  And yet there was something attractive about it.  Could this Jesus possibly rescue me from the terror and dread which had enveloped my soul?

At the urging of Singh I began to read the gospel accounts of Jesus to learn more about him.  He struck me as utterly unique, different from anyone I had known or read about.  In the New Testament I soon discovered what my soul longed after, someone  who  could lighten the load of karma or even break its bondage forever by nullifying its power.

There remained, however, a curious mixture of attraction and ambivalence towards Jesus and his claims.  When I read his saying, "All power is given unto me in heaven and earth" (Matt. 28:18), not only did I  feel drawn to the bearer of such power; I was also perplexed because of its disturbing implications for the entire edifice of Hindu gods and goddesses.  Did Jesus really have more power than Shiva or Krishna?  I wanted to know.

What astounded me most was Jesus' claim to have power to forgive sins.  I understood the fundamental principles of my religion well enough to know that within the Hindu scheme of things there is no such thing as forgiveness for one's wrong actions.  The law of karma — that whatever wrong we do we will have to pay for in some other life — rules out the very idea of forgiveness.  According to the law of karma, reincarnation is therefore necessary in order to pay for the sins of a previous life.  One's present life is determined by one's previous existence while one's future existence is shaped by one's present life.  Each soul is held to be responsible for its own destiny.  The law of karma offered a simple and attractive explanation of the mystery of suffering in the world.  People suffer because of their own evil action.  But reincarnation as a necessary working out of the law of karma was never good news to me — even though I knew it undergirded the whole fabric of my religious and moral world.

Like many other Hindu families we nurtured a hope that ritual baths in rivers or the ocean on certain holy days might lighten the load of karma and procure some sort of remission of sin.  But I was never convinced by that.  I knew fully well that the grim and relentless law of karma said otherwise.  There was no way out of the endless cycles of birth, suffering, and death except through the perfection of holiness and God-consciousness.  This could be attained, so I believed, through a renunciation of the world, the extinction of all human desires, and the dissolving of the mind and its state of ordinary consciousness through a lifetime of yoga.  Such rigorous asceticism called for a radical rejection of any belief in the goodness of the created order.  It would require that I deny this life rather than celebrate it.  I thought of my uncle who had renounced the world, his wife, child and all human relationships in his quest for holiness and spiritual release (moksha).

As I read the Gospels I became much more aware of my human failings, that I was a creature governed by unruly desires rather than the virtues of compassion and generosity.  It dawned on me that I was often unkind to the numerous beggars who knocked at our gates.  Whatever charity I showed was born not out of compassion and kindness but out of a desire to build up good karma, to secure a better birth in the cosmic wheel of existence.  I began to see how hard I had tried to distance myself from the uncultured lower caste Hindus and how much I distrusted and despised Muslims.  There was a feeling of desperation because I knew that I would have to suffer the consequences in some other life for all my evil actions.  In some ways the teachings of Jesus even compounded the feeling of distress because he taught that we would be judged for our thoughts, attitudes and words, not just our deeds.  I knew the depths of my prejudice and bigotry.  Spiritual liberation — release from the cycle of birth and death — seemed humanly  impossible.  I could only conceive of a downward spiral.  I felt there was no way out.

Who was this Jesus who could break the bondage of karma, who said he had the power to forgive sins?  I had to know.  I delved deeper into the gospels.  Over the next six weeks I went into the sugar cane fields to pray hoping that something of God's truth would be revealed to me.  More than anything else I wanted the truth.

In Plato's Phaedo, Socrates is reported to have said, " If you will take my advice, you will think very little of Socrates and much more of the truth.”  But with Jesus it was altogether different.  I soon came to recognize that according to the teachings of the gospels, the question of ultimate truth is inseparable from the person of Jesus. Jesus said that to be free one must know the truth.  But the truth was not some metaphysical construct, not some esoteric concept.  The truth was enfleshed in the person of Jesus.  I had to reckon with the gospel teaching that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.  The logic was clear.  In order to know the truth, I had to know Jesus.            

As the weeks went by the person of Jesus began to exercise a powerful hold upon my imagination.  I could not easily evade his call to follow him.  It became clear to me that he was no mere seeker after God; he bore witness to God.  In him the truth of God's reality could not be denied.  As I read his words in the gospels, I thought that he was speaking directly to me.  It was as if he were telling me that he could actually come to me and forgive my sins, undo the past, and dispel my fear of death.

Death was a terrifying reality.  I had gazed upon the dead body of my grandfather and my great-grandmother to whom I was deeply attached.  Her death ruptured the magical world of my childhood.  From then on I lived with its terror.  In reading the gospels I began to think that Jesus could loosen me from the terrors of death, break the bondage of karma and make me truly free.

For a while I tried to incorporate Jesus into the pantheon of deities arrayed on the altar of the puja room.  Each morning, after I offered incense and chanted mantras before the altar, I would then turn to recite the mantras to the picture of Jesus beside that of Gandhi and other gurus whose pictures lined the wall of the puja room.  I had begun to include Jesus in my prayers.  But I had the uneasy feeling that Jesus did not belong to their company, that he was without equal, and that he would not wish to be honored in a way that made him one among many, just another avatar among others.  It soon dawned on me that he did not belong to the company of the gurus or even the deities on the altar.  He was unique, utterly different.  I did not know how to worship and honor him.  And yet in the depths of my heart, I desired to adore him.

One night, after meditating on the account of the death and resurrection of Jesus in John's Gospel, I asked Jesus to forgive my sins, to set me free from the bondage of karma and to become the Lord of my life.  I had come to believe that he was the only one who could do that.  In the puja room I recited the Gayatri mantra to Jesus, but that night I confessed my sins, surrendered my life to him, and worshipped him as Savior and Lord.  I knew that something eventful, something life changing, had happened.

When I awoke the next morning I walked towards the puja room.  As I looked at the images on the altar, I knew there and then that I could never return to them. They instantly lost all attractiveness for me.  I closed the door of the room with the deep conviction that I belonged to Christ and that from then on my devotion and affections were to be set upon him.  It was not to religion but to Christ I was drawn.

I had never been inside a church building.  I knew that the one to whom all power in the universe has been given had drawn me to himself, forgiven me, taken away my fears and given me a peace and joy I had never known.  But even so, I was reluctant to identify myself publicly as a Christian.  What would I say to my Hindu friends and relatives?  Shortly before surrendering to Christ, my closest friend made it clear that if ever I became a Christian, we could no longer be friends.

I began to confide in the Indian classmate who first urged me to read the Gospels.  When he learned of my decision to follow Christ, he introduced me to the minister of a house church in our town.  The minister, a former Muslim, invited me to attend the service.  On my first visit I felt a little out of place because nearly all of the people there were either former Hindus of a lower caste or former Muslims.  There were some people of African descent.  My upbringing, such as it was, had predisposed me to avoid close contact with such people.  But they had a love for one another that cut across racial and religious lines.  I was surprised to discover that my dislike and distrust of these people had vanished.  And soon I began to embrace them as my own brothers and sisters.  It was there, in that house church, with the encouragement and Biblical preaching of Rev. Hamid, that I was taught, baptized, and nurtured in the Christian faith.  I became a keen participant in the life of the church.

Just around the time of my conversion, my mother was offered a privileged position.  The leaders of the Hindu community had chosen her to take up a resident position at what was then the largest Hindu temple in Trinidad.  There she would have to give lectures on special occasions and see to it that the temple's daily ceremonies were properly conducted.

Dedicated to the cause of the Hindu Women's Federation and rigorously ascetic in her quest for self-realization (the knowledge that the real self within is divine), she became an influential voice for the renewal of Hindu piety.  Pundits and gurus often came to her for the clarification of obscure sacred texts.  She was looking forward to life at the temple and had made the necessary arrangements for the care of the younger children.

I pleaded with her to wait a few weeks before taking up residence in the temple. Her suitcases had been packed; she was ready to go.  Perhaps it was because I was her eldest son — but why she agreed to wait at all still remains a mystery to me. Everyday for the next three weeks, however, I read from the gospels to her as we discussed the teachings of Jesus, his power, and the significance of his death and resurrection.

My mother later admitted that she was baffled by the sudden transformation of my life.  She noticed that I was no longer fearful; ferocious thunderstorms no longer terrified me.  Quietly she would watch me as I followed the lightning patterns in the sky from my bedroom window and sang hymns to the Creator.  She told me she could not understand how such joy could have filled my life in just a few weeks, while she who had spent her whole life in meditation and yoga still felt oppressed by the burden of karma.

My mother normally would begin her daily meditation and yoga at four every morning.  But now, she later told me, she would prostrate herself on the floor of the puja room crying out for the truth.  Within three weeks she too had become convinced by the teachings of Jesus.  She asked Jesus to forgive her sins and become the Lord of her life.  She thought that it would be enough to follow Jesus as a secret disciple.  And for a while tried to do so.  She knew however that what had happened to her, the experience of conversion and the attendant joy of belonging to Christ, meant that she could not assume the position in the temple.

It was a scandalous affair in the Hindu community.  Friends and relatives were shocked and outraged.  Pundits and priests came to the house to find out if the rumor was true.  The leader of the opposition party in the national government, a devout Hindu, attended a religious festival across the street from our home and from there, on the loud public address system, he launched a verbal attack upon our family — for by then, within six weeks of my conversion, my grandmother, mother, brothers and sisters, and my cousin Rabi, an aspiring guru, had all openly professed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives and Savior of the world.

My cousin Rabi and I removed the altar and all the images from the puja room and converted it into a sanctuary for Christian reflection and prayer.  The Bible, the Imitation of Christ of Thomas a Kempis, and the Yellow Robe, a biography of Sadhu Sundar Singh, an Indian Christian, were the only Christian writings we had in the puja room.

What had been a deeply devout Hindu household was now a place frequented by African Trinidadians, former Muslims, and lower-caste Hindu converts.  What was even more astonishing — they were eating at the same table with us.  The singing of hymns and late night prayer meetings with these people had become common practice in our home.

My mother’s youngest sister came from India to take the position at the temple.  Naturally she was saddened by the changes which had taken place in the home.  It was from that very home she had left over a decade earlier, after her husband's death, for Banaras Hindu University.  She had entrusted her only child, Rabi, to the care of my mother.

My oldest uncle was even more displeased.  He was the head of our home and executor of my grandfather's estate.  He left home and moved with his wife near the university where he taught English literature.  I recall his last words to us: "Let Jesus Christ take care of you.  I am leaving." 

One of the dreams of my life was to follow in the footsteps of my uncles and study abroad at a great university.  Most of my high school friends had left for universities in the United Kingdom and Canada.  It appeared as though I would have to spend the rest of my life teaching at the elementary school in a small village not far from home.  But then something unexpected happened.

My mother's youngest brother interrupted his graduate studies in art history and philosophy at the University of Chicago and returned home to relieve me of the responsibility for our family.  He began to open up new worlds for me.  My uncle encouraged me to read Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Tillich, the Saturday Review and the New York Review of Books which arrived in the mail every couple of weeks.

He urged me to apply to liberal arts colleges in America to study philosophy and theology.  He promised that if I did not receive a scholarship he would sell part of his inheritance to come up with the money.  I had no difficulty choosing where to study since the only university which admitted me with a full scholarship was Yale. The cultural officer of the USIS office of the American Embassy knew me since I often went there to read the  journal Christianity Today as well as books by Carl F.H. Henry.  With great excitement she immediately took me to meet the ambassador, and the embassy bought me a plane ticket.

Nothing could have prepared me for culture shock at Yale.  During my first year, an emeritus professor, Kenneth Scott Latourette, recognized this and, for much of the year, sat with me for Sunday breakfast.  In a lecture hall full of upper classmen and graduate students, I was the only freshman enrolled in Hans Frei's course on "Contemporary Christian Thought." 

One morning during a lecture on Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments, he was able to tell from the look on my face that I understood little of it.  At the end of the lecture he walked towards me and said "come along with me to my office.”  I felt that Frei could understand me and guide me through the wilderness of modern theology.  Before leaving he asked me to come to his office every two weeks with all my questions from the lectures and readings.  He became my mentor and eventually the adviser of my senior thesis on Bultmann's historiography.  During the writing of this essay, he allowed me access to his unpublished writings, including  the manuscript of The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, now an enduring classic in the field of hermeneutics.

One Yale professor whose writings, personal example, and friendship had an enduring impact upon me was the Hegel scholar, Merold Westphal.  Professor Westphal was the faculty adviser of the Yale Christian Union which provided  Christian fellowship during my college years.  He was an example to us of the Christian as a rigorous academic with a deep commitment to Biblical Christianity.  With his encouragement I stayed on to teach for a year in the religious studies department at Yale as a Carnegie Teaching Fellow.  After that I  enrolled in the Ph.D. program in the Study of Religion at Harvard University.  Under the direction of Richard Niebuhr, the son of H. Richard Niebuhr, I completed a dissertation on the subject of the idea of the Divine glory in Edwards' trintarian theology.

Whether preaching at Harvard Memorial and area churches, or speaking to the Socratic Club, Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship, or Veritas Forum, two themes have become central.  They are the holiness of God and the uniqueness of Christianity among the religions of the world.  The writings of Jonathan Edwards have decisively shaped my understanding of these issues.  Here in Moscow, Russia, where I now teach theology and world religions, I find myself returning to Edwards' trinitarian vision again and again as I try to expound the Christian doctrine of God in my lectures.

The God of Christian faith is not, what one philosopher called, "the Alone with the Alone."  God does not exist in eternal and splendid isolation.  The God of Christian faith exists eternally in relationships.  God is an internal fullness of love that is perfectly expressed within the Trinity.  If God is holy, it is because of the beauty of communion and the perfection of love relationships within the Trinity.             

According to Edwards, America's greatest religious philosopher, the quest for true spirituality, for the holy, has less to do with a renunciation of God's good creation and more to do with being in rightly ordered relationships.  And if we humans are to attain any measure of holiness, it must be through our relationship to the triune God as well as living in rightly ordered relationships with our fellow humans.

The divine love is expressed not only internally within the trinitarian  relationships; there is also an outward expression of the divine love.  In this outward expression of love God creates, preserves and redeems.  The God of Christian faith is not trapped in heaven.  The God of Christian faith is free to come down, show his face, save fallen human beings from sin and death, and bring lost humanity into glorious communion with God.  The love of God means that God in Christ has offered himself for us and in so doing has reconciled to himself those who in faith repent and turn to him.  This is the good news of the gospel which drew me to Christ, which changed my life, and which, I believe, offers the only real hope for the whole world.

From Finding God at Harvard: Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians.  (Monroe Kullberg, IVP)


The first Yale "Lux et Veritas" forum, l to r: Kay Coles James, Lamin Sanneh, Richard John Neuhaus, N.T. Wright, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. 1996.