MUMBAI, India – Conversion stories abound in Christian literature. The modern conversion story is less well known, especially in places not associated in the Western mind with Christianity such as India.
Yet India is an enormous place and there are millions of Christians, even though they remain a small minority in an overwhelmingly Hindu nation.
That’s one of the reasons the story of Radha Krishnan Iyer is so compelling, as she is someone who was a member of the Brahmin caste, the highest category in the traditional Indian system.
As a Brahmin, she grew up with certain expectations of what she would do and whom she would marry. Yet she defied them all, not only converting to Catholicism but also entering a convent. She willingly chose to go from the highest echelon of society to the lowest, all for the love of God.
Iyer was born in 1948 into a staunch Hindu family. She says of her younger life that she “would go often to the temples, very fervent in observing all the Hindu festivals and customs, praying morning and evening Sanskrit prayers, making 40 prostrations each time.”
As someone from a reasonably well off family she went to Catholic school and thus had many Catholic friends. She said that she “would visit the Basilica of Mount Mary’s Bandra for the Feast and the fair. The beautiful church with the great masses of people thronging, it touched me deeply.”
She was so infatuated with the scene that in her room she “hung on the wall a beautiful image of Mary, which I explained to my mother was for its artistic value.”
These experiences were not just artistic for Iyer, as she was starting to feel the pull of another faith. After secondary school she attended St. Xavier’s College, a Jesuit school, and on the Feast of St. Francis Xavier she attended a Mass for the first time.
She said that “the beautiful singing, and the communitarian worship, touched my heart. Everyone, sat, stood and knelt together. It was a wonderful experience…By my third year in college, I developed a great interest in Christianity, and became a regular Mass-goer.”
She was not ready to come out of the closet quite yet, however. She said her parents didn’t suspect anything, as they thought she was merely going on early morning walks.
The real difficulty began after her graduation when she started receiving marriage proposals.
Her parents consulted astrologers, who, she said, according to Hindu customs, study the horoscopes to find the best match. Her father set up interviews with young men who were thought to be good matches, and at first she was happy about it.
“I used to get very excited, and would deck myself up and would be well dressed. I had great dreams and great plans for my future life.” But, she said, she had a change of heart. She said that, “After [a prospective match] finished the visit to my house, I used to feel a sort of uneasiness, a kind of dissatisfaction. I did not pay attention to it. But this same experience was repeated each time a particular boy came to interview me.
“Then I questioned myself, ‘Why should this happen. Here I am wanting to be married and at the same time not wanting these interviews.”
She said it was at this point that she felt “the very definite call of God…somehow I wanted to stop these interviews for the time being.”
To stop the marriage process, she told her father that she wanted to get a degree in education and enrolled in school, thereby keeping her options open.
On March 23, 1971, she finished her last paper for her degree, and two days later she was baptized in secret on the feast of the Annunciation. She took the name Radha Maria Krishnan, and said, “God gave me the grace to join the Canossian Daughters of Charity.”
She is now celebrating 40 years in the Carmelite monastery of cloistered nuns, which she joined in 1977. She did, she said, because “God saw my desire for greater knowledge and deeper experience of Christianity and gave me the grace to join the Carmelite cloistered nuns.”
Iyer describes the joys and tribulations of cloistered life. Through the ups and downs she believes it has all been worth it, and she remains enthusiastic about her choice. One of the greatest difficulties was the possible sacrifice of her family.
“When I got baptized secretly and ran away from home to join the convent, my family, specifically my parents, suffered excruciatingly. For a Hindu Brahmin to become a Christian is to reduce yourself to the lowest caste.”
Luckily, she said, her three brothers and sister who are Hindu, “have come to accept me and they are happy to see that I am happy and contented in the way of life I have chosen.”
In the end, Iyer said, all she asks is that people “pray for me that I may respond to the graces God is showering on me at each moment in my life.”