UJJAIN, India (BP)–At home, Prem serves customers in the antique shop he runs in Mumbai (Bombay). At the grand Hindu festival Kumbh Mela in the city of Ujjain, Prem serves his god.
It’s no burden, insists the intelligent, well-spoken 21-year-old.
“He has given us a chance to serve,” Prem explains, pointing to his god’s temple, one of many overlooking the river in Ujjain. “It’s not what we have done. It’s what he has done.”
Prem’s god — a latter-day incarnation of the Hindu deity Shiva — is a deceased guru his grandparents knew and served personally. This holy man, they taught, meditated for 12 years in the water, 12 years in a cold land and 12 years in the baking desert. He lived well past the age of 100.
He lives on, Prem believes, in the hearts of his followers.
At the Kumbh Mela camp in Ujjain dedicated to his god, Prem rises each day at 5:30 a.m. He brushes his teeth, then “awakens” the idol representing his deity. He brings it to the sacred river, dips it five times and returns to camp, where he and other devotees chant to the god.
Then he serves food to wandering holy men who visit the camp, feeds the poor — and finally feeds his fellow disciples.
“Each of us has some work,” Prem says. “It lessens our sins.”
Later he returns to the river for another “bath with the god,” then returns to camp to relax or play cricket. In the evening, the god sleeps. Prem and the others sing a lullaby to the idol and serve him milk, then eat and prepare for the night’s rest.
Why does Prem believe in this god?
“Because he is there,” Prem replies, eyes shining. “Whenever I’m in trouble he helps me. He comes when I call his name. You have to believe. If you have faith, he will come and help you. If you take one step toward him, he will take 10 steps to you. He doesn’t force you to come. He says, ‘Everyone in the world is my child.’”
He reflects for a moment, then adds, “You need a pure heart when you believe.” Prem certainly believes, and he wants his heart to be pure.
He seems close to the Kingdom of God — but as far away as eternity.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.