“I don’t know,” replied Shanti. “If he keeps the tiki, people will think he is still a good Hindu when, in fact, he has become a Christian and taken baptism. But if he doesn’t keep the traditions, he will alienate his family and the whole village!”
No part of the Bible had yet been translated into this language of South Asiawhen Santosh and his wife, Shanti, had arrived in the area. After a few years in which they became fluent in the language and built good relationships with local people, they were ready for the task of translation. As they searched for a reliable language assistant, they eventually thought of Jai Ram, a young man who lived in a nearby village. Jai Ram had been born into a highly respected traditional Hindu Brahman family. As a child, he was taught the customs of his family and his parents hoped he would become well settled in life. They made sure he received the best education they could afford, and Jai Ram was a good student who was well liked in his community.
On graduation from the local college, Jai Ram was looking for work and so agreed to help check the first draft of the Gospel of Mark which Santosh and Shanti had translated into his native tongue. It was during this work that the story of Christ gripped him, and he decided to become his disciple. At first, declaring his new path of devotion was not problematic.
“So long as you continue to follow our customs, babu,” his mother said, “it doesn’t matter who you worship.”
Three years had passed. Now one of his close relatives had died, and his uncle had just visited his home to tell them. This meant that the Death Feast would soon be held in the deceased relative’s village to honour him. In that Brahman tradition, the family of the deceased hosts large feasts on the eleventh and twelfth days after the family member has died. It is believed that the more people they feed on these days the more spiritual merit accrues to the person who has died and the better the quality of life they experience in their next reincarnation.
Jai Ram was troubled. He would be expected to come to the Death Feast to show respect for his dead relative. Before the feast he would be expected to have his head shaved in the traditional fashion of a relative of the deceased, leaving a tuft of hair at the back of the head - a tiki. Could he do that now that he was a follower of Jesus? Furthermore, what should he do about the feast? Could he miss the feast without it being considered terribly disrespectful? Dishonour would be brought on his family.
In the morning, the young man walked over to the next village and set to work on the translation as usual. Over lunch he discussed his problem with Santosh and Shanti.
“Why don’t you attend the feast but not shave your head?” suggested Santosh.
“But,” replied Jai Ram respectfully, “that would be even worse than not going at all, as it would be showing disregard for an important part of our traditions.”
“Then why don’t you just have a barber shave your wholehead and not leave a tiki?” asked Shanti. “That way everyone will realize you are not a Hindu anymore because you won’t have a tiki.”
“But there is nothing in the Bible condemning keeping the tiki, is there?” asked Jai Ram.
“True,” said Santosh, “but doesn’t the Bible tell us to avoid even the appearance of wrong? What I am inside should match what I am outside.”
“What about any other rituals?” asked Santosh. “The head shaving is just the preliminary part. Won’t you also be expected to join the others at the ‘holy area’ by the pond, where the priest reads from the Hindu scriptures, and offer flowers, incense and sweets to the gods?”
“I know,” sighed Jai Ram, “and my family would be very unhappy with me if I bring shame on them by not participating.”
“Could you go along to the feast but skip being involved in any rituals?” asked Shanti.
“Of course, being there and taking part in the feast is the main thing,” replied Jai Ram. “I could try to explain that I can’t take part in the actual religious rituals. But nobody’s done that before. There is bound to be opposition. It will look like I don’t respect my elders.”
“Look, we’ll pray about it tonight and we’ll talk about it again in the morning, Jai Ram brother,” said Santosh.
That evening, as Jai Ram wandered back to the village, he agonized about what he should do. He remembered that even the apostle Paul had shaved his head (Acts 18:18). He wondered what he could do without compromising his own convictions and conscience. To make it more complicated, however, the following week, he was scheduled to give some instruction to a group of new believers from a Hindu background. They would be sure to realize what he had done, when he turned up with just a few days’ hair growth. Maybe they would thinkhe had compromised his faith even if his conscience was clear. Would this cause some of them to stumble in their faith?
Santosh and Shanti also discussed the situation late into the evening. They realized this decision also had repercussions for them. If Jai Ram upset everyone in the village by his actions the villagers would assume they had instructed him that he should not follow their customs. Would this ruin their relationship with the village and discredit their work? On the other hand, if he did indeed shave his head in the traditional way and this became known among believers in the nearby town, would it ruin the relationship and trust they had with other believers and church leaders?
There was no easy answer. Santosh and Shanti agreed that the issue really came down to the significance of the head shaving and tiki, and that of the feast. In the morning, they would walk over to the village, go over the biblical principles with him and see what he did.