A Tale of Two Cities
Mike Schrage, Executive Director
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, is the second most widely distributed single volume book ever. In the novel, Dickens compares two cities, London and Paris. The famous phrase, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” was lifted from this book which was set in 1859.
Let me compare for you two very different cities in India. Varanasi has a population of more than a million, and Shillong has a mere 150,000. Varanasi is considered the spiritual mecca for Hinduism and Buddhism, while Shillong has a majority Christian population— indeed a rarity in India.
The crowded filthiness and spiritual darkness of Varanasi, and the feeling of countless people grasping for hope is palpable. There are more than 2,000 Hindu temples along the famous Ganges River in Varanasi. Many royal families built their summer homes with steps leading down to this highly regarded riverfront. The combination of home and steps are called “ghats.” Up to 80 ghats line the Ganges.
One of the strong traditions is to pay for the privilege of delivering the dead to one of the ghats and have “puja” (prayer) recited over the body as it is cremated and eased into the river in hopes their loved one will be fast-tracked to heaven. Though it costs thousands of rupees and days of struggle to transport the body, families have done this continually for a thousand years.
Varanasi is also home to the Sarnath Temple, maintained by Tibetan Buddhists. Believed to be the place where Buddha gave his first sermon, thousands of visitors come daily to spin the prayer wheels and bow down seeking hope and peace.
Compare this to the Northeastern city of Shillong, and the tribal Khasi people who live there. They are small in number and marginalized by the majority of Indians because they are considered a backward people. Yet, their city is clean. The faces of citizens are joyful, the streets are less congested and cleaner. One wonders if the overall pleasant demeanor of the people in this city comes as a result that 70 percent are Christian.
May the tale of these two cities change so the joy and light of Christ in Shillong will one day beam in Varanasi and beyond.