As villagers watched Ritesh exchange the emptiness of worshiping idols for a relationship with the one true God, they accused him of converting his family to Christianity.
For 35 years, Ritesh regularly performed puja at a temple in southern India. Like millions of other Hindus who practice the ritualistic prayer, he lit sticks of incense, displayed colorful flowers, listened to meditative music and worshiped various Hindu idols.
He often spent more than an hour in the temple meditating on Hindu texts. But as much as he longed for spiritual growth through these rituals, he and his family never felt a connection with their gods or found the peace for which they were yearning.
Then, one day in 2016, a local shopkeeper named Pascal gave him a Bible after a lengthy discussion about how to know God. Ritesh read the book daily … and soon learned that finding peace with the true God would mean losing peace with his neighborhood.
finally meeting god
On an invitation from Pascal, Ritesh attended his first church service a few months after receiving the Bible. He was deeply moved by the Scripture readings, the sermon and the way the Christians worshiped.
“It was like something interesting for me … a miracle of God,” he said. “He came to life. He came into the world and gave His life. I heard all those things. This is something interesting, not like the other things. That made me interested, and I started going to church.”
Ritesh’s wife, Vanya, joined him at church about four months later, and his three children began to attend on alternate Sundays so neighbors wouldn’t realize they were going to church.
Despite his precautions, however, one Sunday morning Ritesh noticed a villager quietly monitoring his family’s activities. Another Sunday several villagers seemed to be watching, and finally the whole village was talking about them.
Pascal had started a Bible study with Ritesh around the same time, and one evening they studied Psalm 115. Ritesh was immediately struck by the contrast between Hinduism’s lifeless idols, which “have ears but cannot hear,” and the living God who hears and answers our prayers. After several months of reading the Bible, he abandoned the idols and their empty rituals to take up his cross and follow Jesus.
“I knew there is the real God and the things we were worshiping were created from Him,” Ritesh said, “so I decided to stop worshiping the created thing and start worshiping the creator God.”
Pascal, who had experienced persecution from relatives and neighbors because of his Christian faith, then warned Ritesh about the cost of following Christ. “Knowing God is not so easy,” he told him. “You will face a lot of trouble and problems. In this village you have to be very careful.”
But Ritesh courageously accepted the idea that he might one day face persecution. “Whatever problems will come,” he said, “let them come soon.”
pressured to deny christ
Under the watchful and scornful eyes of his neighbors, Ritesh and his family continued to grow in faith. They enjoyed going to church because, for the first time, they felt God’s presence there.
“The first time when I went to church, … God spoke to me and I had peace in my heart,” Ritesh’s daughter said. “I used to get angry very much. I had a short temper and it all went away.” The family read the Bible together from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. every day, and as they grew closer to the Lord, they saw Him bless their family in a variety of ways. At the same time, however, they also experienced increasing hostility from their neighbors. One day, men from a local Hindu temple warned Ritesh that if he and his family did not return to Hinduism, they would be reported to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization that advocates for a purely Hindu nation. The RSS often deploys large mobs of angry Hindus to intimidate and beat newly converted Christians.
A few days after receiving the warning, a large group of RSS members and Hindu leaders gathered at Ritesh’s house around 7 p.m. When he came to the door, the Hindus reinforced their previous warning, giving him and his family four days to reject Christianity. One of the men even entered Ritesh’s home, taking his Bible, journal and cellphone. When the group left, Ritesh noticed that about 60 of his neighbors had also gathered outside, and vicious rumors about his family quickly spread throughout the village.
Then, six days later, Ritesh arrived home from work to again find a large crowd outside his house. Suddenly, some men grabbed Ritesh, his wife and their children and dragged them to a local temple.
Once inside, they were forced to sit down in a row facing 10 Hindu leaders. “Who do you worship,” they demanded, “Jesus or the Hindu gods? Are you a Hindu or a Christian?”
As the family sat in silence, one of the Hindu leaders clarified their intent. “We will kill you if you don’t leave Jesus,” he threatened.
The men then began beating Ritesh and Vanya, while the terrified children began to cry. One of the leaders threw Ritesh’s Bible on the ground. “Who is the person who gave you this Bible?” he asked. “Tell us!”
Ritesh remained silent.
Finally, after several hours of harassment, the Hindu leaders let the family go home. But their ordeal wasn’t over. People outside the temple had told police that Ritesh was a criminal who converted his family to Christianity, so the authorities soon arrived at his house to arrest him.
After Ritesh was taken to jail, the Hindu leaders continued to intimidate Vanya, suggesting that her husband could be killed the next day and she would have no one to take care of her and the children. They again ordered her to return to Hinduism.
“No,” she replied. “Whatever my husband does, we are going to follow it. We will not go back.”
Police held Ritesh at the police station for a while, before walking him outside to a waiting jeep. Fearing what might come next, Ritesh began to pray.
“I am surrendering my life to You, Lord,” he prayed. “If I die, I will die for You. If I live, I will live for You.”
To Ritesh’s relief, the police officers drove him to his home. They then questioned him and his family for four hours, asking them why they had left Hinduism to become Christians.
The curious villagers again gathered at Ritesh’s home, many taking photos and videos as police interrogated them inside. Finally, the officers walked them out of the house and led them back to the temple, where they tried to force them to perform a Hindu ritual and return to Hinduism. When the family refused, the police let them go.
While Ritesh and his family may never again be accepted by their neighbors, God has restored some sense of normalcy to their daily lives. VOM helped them find a new home where they feel safe and provided Ritesh with a rickshaw so he can better support his family as a rickshaw driver.
Ritesh occasionally sees some of his former persecutors when they use his rickshaw services, but they usually stay quiet when they recognize him. He simply shows them love, because he wants them to know the love of Christ that has given him peace with God.