Down the valley from Kathmandu, the ancient capital of Nepal, rests an even older city. In Bhaktapur, the timeworn traditions of Hinduism sink as deep into the dry soil as the white-capped Himalayan Mountains rise in the background.
Bhaktapur looks like it was built one brick at a time. Narrow, brick-paved city streets are lined on both sides by three-story brick buildings built into each other over time to become a continuous wall of homes and stores. An occasional small tractor or motorcycle putters slowly by, joined for a few steps by a wandering goat or chicken or dog.
Delivery men on bicycles snake through the streets, weaving past groups of children walking in school uniforms, past women washing clothes in a street gutter, around bent laborers carrying huge bundles of straw on one shoulder or men crouching and forming spinning clay into a bowl, past groups of unemployed young men with nothing better to do than stand around, past tranquil street merchants waiting for customers, past holy statues of bronze rubbed gold by the touch of its worshipers, past sacred cows tied up, past large silent temples attracting the cameras of a few tourists, around small and active roadside shrines flowing goat blood into the street, and under the eyes of quiet gawkers hanging their heads from upper story windows to watch it all.
These poor, dusty and lost streets of Bhaktapur were once haunted and hunted and bloodied with human blood by a homegrown thug named Suraj Kasula.
Rise of a Gangster
Suraj, now 27, was an unlikely gangster. He was born into an orthodox Hindu family that still worships and offers blood sacrifices to their 330 million gods and goddesses.
“My childhood had very strong similarities to the Old Testament,” Suraj said, “especially in regard to the ceremonial laws. Like every orthodox Hindu family, every year our family’s sins were transferred onto a male goat and then we sacrificed it. We collected and sprinkled its blood on the doorposts of our house.”
But the sacred bloodshed and religious devotion were powerless to stop Suraj from the allurement of a life of crime, which began when he was sixteen. With jobs hard to find in the city, the notorious life of a thug appealed to him, and Suraj turned to armed robbery and formed a knife gang. “It’s very easy to form a gang in Bhaktapur because most of the youth don’t go to school or have jobs. We kept an arsenal of knives and steel rods in case a fight broke out. The gang and the crime became my satisfaction. I found joy in it.”
But mostly he was after money, not blood. “We mainly threatened people, and demanded money. Then we would threaten them that if they told the police, we would kill them. We raised protection money from local startup businesses in our area. We would go into someone’s flat and ask for money and they would give it. If there was nobody home, we would steal it without any threat. We used the money to buy marijuana. Nobody would say anything. Over time, I became locally well known, and the people in my village were afraid of me. Everybody knew I was a thug. My bad name and fame began spreading.”
Praying for His Death
His notorious thug life was spreading intimidation, but it was also incubating anger and hate in his heart. “I grew angry. If a man walked down the street and stared at me, I would beat him. One time a man was staring at me with no reason, which provoked me. I approached him, but he went up into a city bus. I ran in front of the bus and made it stop. The driver became scared and stopped. I went inside the big crowd; I pulled the man out and beat him on the street. He was crying for help but nobody dared to help him. Apart from an occasional fight with a rival gang, fighting was rare, because most people were scared of me.”
Suraj rode the city buses but never paid a full fare. Once, a conductor of a bus confronted him. Bad move. Suraj’s rage took over. He battered the conductor inside the bus and then stepped out and calmly walked away with the conductor’s blood all over his shirt. His wrath was responsive and proactive. Any whiff of a gang reprisal from others was preempted by his own attack.
Suraj tattooed his body, a cultural display of a thug’s hardness, meant to accentuate his intimidation. No respectable person in Nepal has tattoos. The marks on the surface of his skin were the outer evidence for the gnawing decay within his soul.
He broke the hearts of his family members who watched his decline. “My family and whole village wanted me to die because I was ruining their children’s lives. Everybody knew people were coming to our gang, which eventually grew to sixteen. Our parents were powerless to do anything. My family was very unhappy, and the whole village would offer prayers to their gods that I would be killed in a knife fight.”
Hating, Being Hated
Suraj made a living off his hatred. Hating came naturally, especially when it was directed at cops.
His gang stored weapons, mostly knives and machetes and steel rods, in the home of a local shopkeeper who also supplied Suraj and his gang with pot. Benefitting from the protection, the shopkeeper was loyal, but his wife was uninformed of the weapons in her home. One day she discovered the weapons hidden in the bedroom. She called the police, who showed up in civilian clothes just as Suraj was arriving at the shop for a new supply of marijuana. The police appeared and immediately suspected Suraj as the owner of the weapons. He was arrested on the spot.
“As soon as I entered the police station, every cop beat me as if I was a football. Then I was locked behind bars. In Nepal there are few human rights for criminals; they can kill you. They tortured me and put me in prison for a month until my family came and paid my freedom, what was for them six-month’s salary.”
His release caused further tension in his family and more angry fights with his father. And the police beating did nothing to entice him away from the gang life. It actually fueled his rage and unlocked new depths of hate.
“When I came out of jail, because of the torture, I knew I would kill the police officers who did this. Every year in Nepal, there’s an annual festival to celebrate the new year, a big festival that often results in riots and fights with police. In past years some policemen were found dead in the street gutters. I planned to do the same, and went to the celebration looking for the policemen who brutally tortured me in jail. I didn’t find them, but my rage had now spread against the whole police force. I started throwing stones randomly. Police were hurt and were furious, and they pursued me and I ran. Eventually they trapped me, surrounded me, and nearly killed me with another round of beatings. They were hurt and furious. I nearly bled to death. Some of the policemen stopped the beating because they assumed I would die in the street.”
Suraj was taken from the street to the hospital and recovered enough to be arrested and thrown in a holding cell for twenty-six days. “My family, who is not rich, brought more money to set me free again.”
After his second arrest, his infamous reputation reached new heights of intimidation. Never was it easier to recruit, never was it easier to mug for money.
But after his second imprisonment, and with little hope of a third financial release from his family, Suraj took his mother’s advice and returned to school. He found ways to get into fights there, and would often just wait for a teacher to get deep into a lecture before jumping out of the classroom window to waste the day with drugs and drink. Only the fact that a police station was next to his school deterred him from beating teachers.
By this point, the joy and thrill of the gang life was eroding, exposing a dark despair in his heart.
“I often thought about killing myself,” he said. “I took no pleasure in my life. I had no satisfaction. I had no love from my family. I fought often with my father. I knew I was going to hell based on Hindu teaching. I was a disgrace to my gods and to my family and to my village. They were praying for my death. Everyone was telling me I was not worthy to live, but I could not kill myself because I was more afraid of death and hell. I had no hope.”
Suraj was too empty to live, too scared to die, too despised to be loved. “When I was most detested,” he recounted, “God acted on me.”
Collision with Cow-Eaters
Joy came to Suraj by surprise, through a classmate and local neighbor he walked to school with, a closet cow-eater.
“Cows are sacred in Nepal, and Christians are cow-eaters. Since all Westerners are Christians, they were all cow-eaters. That was my background. I honored cow as a goddess and worshiped her. But my neighbor and I became friends, and then eventually one day he told me about Jesus. When I discovered he was a cow-eating Christian, I got so angry I almost knocked him down. But because he was very humble and kind, I did nothing to him. He told me Jesus could forgive my sins. I argued with him and tried to provoke his anger by accusing Christianity as a religion of money, since most churches in Nepal are supported by Americans. But nothing I said could provoke him. That amazes me to this day.”
The intimidating hatred of Suraj had met unflinching courage.
This same friend invited Suraj to church for Christmas, a risky move with unpredictable consequences. But Suraj agreed. More than anything, he was enticed by the modern music. He was drawn to American bands like Nirvana, and to instruments like the electric guitar and drums, sounds rarely experienced in Nepal.
“So I went to the church during the Christmas of 2006 to see the instruments and hear the music and to see the musicians — especially the girls. I walked in the church, for the first time, dressed like a thug and with tattoos, and the congregation was frightened. But they did not cast me out. I was the outcast — a disgrace to my gods and goddesses and to my family. But this church cared. I started going to church every week, but I firmly rejected Christianity and kept my focus on the instruments and the music. But I could feel something in my heart, a voice drawing me. But I suppressed it.”
The God Who Turns His Cheek
The pastor of the church gave Suraj a copy of the Bible to read. “One night as I was reading the Bible, just as ordinary literature, and studying Matthew’s Gospel, something amazing stopped me that I had never ever seen or heard before: ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also’” (Matthew 5:39).
It was like cold water to his face. Suraj was familiar with gods of wrath and the warning of the Hindu god Krishna, who promised to descend to earth in order to “deliver and rescue the pious and to annihilate the miscreants” (Vedas 4:7).
“I had heard of many gods who love righteous people,” Suraj said, “but never had I heard of a God who loves sinners and says, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,’ and, ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also’” (Matthew 5:39, 44).
“But above all, I would never expect a God who would die for sinners! Having read the love of Christ towards sinners, I could make a sharp distinction between Krishna and Christ. All the teaching I ignored in the church powerfully overwhelmed me. Krishna came into the world to destroy sinners; ‘Christ came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). Krishna hates sinners; Christ loves sinners and died for them (Romans 5:8). The night I read Matthew 5:39, I could no longer resist God. His invincible grace overcame me, and I burst into tears, and I trusted Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”
A New Reputation
The outcast — hated by his gods, despised by his village, a disgrace to his family — was now embraced by Jesus Christ.
His reputation as a thug was infamous, and rumors of his transformative conversion spread quickly. Suraj’s mother could not believe the change. She wanted to meet the pastor of the church to tell him: “My son was dead, you made him alive” — words of high praise from an orthodox Hindu woman with a lifelong suspicion of cow-eaters.
“The despair I felt in my life before Christ, all those suicidal thoughts, were replaced by a joy and delight in Christ,” he said. “I began to love this God who gave me new life! The spiritual refreshment of that night has been springing up in my heart ever since.”
God’s amazing grace became obvious to everyone who knew Suraj. His new reputation began drawing others to the church. A neighbor of his, a young woman preparing to become a Buddhist nun, witnessed Suraj’s conversion, attended his church, believed, and was baptized. At school, he met and fell in love with a young woman, Roshani, with whom he shared the gospel. She was converted, and later became Suraj’s wife (they have been married for five years). Most of her family was converted soon after.
Twenty souls eventually came to Christ because of Suraj’s testimony.
The changes were dramatic in his life. Suraj’s love of alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes stopped immediately. It’s not something every convert experiences, but he did. “My parents were very happy, my family and village were all happy. My gang was broken and disbanded. All the people in the village were shocked at the change, and some of them even came to faith, not because I evangelized, but simply because they saw my life and were drawn to my church.”
Suraj looks back on his conversion with a new zeal to minister the word of God in Nepal.
“Like many people in my village, I was raised in orthodox Hinduism, with 330 million gods, all of them who came to destroy or to teach morality, but none who came to save sinful mankind. Above all, no one died and sacrificed like Jesus — not Buddha, not Muhammad, not any gods or goddesses. Jesus came to give life, and he is God who incarnated to come down from heaven. God came to touch the untouchable sinners when Christ took on human avatar! Had I followed Buddha I would have been a better or moral guy, humanly speaking, and would have avoided a life of crime, but I would not have found forgiveness for my sins or new life. In Jesus I got new life and a wonderful Savior who took my sin, and in return he gave me his perfect saving righteousness, free of charge. This is the great message Nepal needs.”
This is the message Suraj plans to bring back.
Reformed in Scotland
To do this, Suraj believes he is called to plant Reformed churches.
“Despite my gang life, I was good at studying — I don’t know why.” Now, it is clear God had plans for his natural academic gifts. Suraj wanted to study theology in America, but his visa request was denied. His request was granted by the UK, and he settled on studying at Edinburgh Theological Seminary in Scotland, where he encountered a robust Reformed theology. There he was introduced to the sermons and books of John Piper. He says the books Desiring God and Spectacular Sins were especially helpful. He downloads all the free books and many sermons from desiringGod.org, and he encourages friends back in Nepal to listen to episodes of the Ask Pastor John podcast.
Reformed theology was not something Suraj came to understand until God opened doors for his studies in Scotland. But Calvin only helps put words to his personal experience. “I believe in irresistible grace,” he said of the I in the Reformed acronym TULIP. “I resisted. God overwhelmed me, overpowered me, and I could not resist it even by my hatred of Christianity. The voice of God is insuppressible! As I have studied in Scotland, especially under Dr. Donald Macleod, it has become very clear, my election was not accidental or coincidental but ‘he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world’ (Ephesians 1:4). My conversion was by irresistible grace.”
But even for Christians in Nepal, Reformed theology will be a hard, slow, long sell, as those believers grow from theological milk to solid food.
“In Nepal we didn’t know about Calvin or Reformed theology or even Pelagius. Christianity in Nepal is naturally very Arminian (without the label). The main reason behind this is that most of the people confuse Calvinism with Hindu fatalism — wrongly thinking everything in life is the consequence of your actions in a previous incarnation. This is man-centered fatalism, not grace-centered predestination. For those with a Hindu background, Calvinism is nonsense.”
The Call to Nepal
Suraj is a realist. It will take a lifetime of labor, and probably more, to see robust Reformed theology take root in Nepal. He is patient. He recently finished his bachelor’s degree, which cost Suraj and his wife all the money they had. He admits his education creates a financial hardship. And he admits pastoral jobs in Scotland are appealing. Why not just make a home in Edinburgh and work for a local church? “But my wife and I are convinced — we are called to return to Nepal. So many people’s lives are being destroyed. Their hearts have been blackened and darkened by sin. The light of the gospel can only expel this. We are called by God to Nepal. We must return.”
This costly commitment to Nepal excites John MacLeod, a professor and the Vice Principal of Edinburgh Theological Seminary. “Many students come from abroad to study in the UK, and are loathe to go back to serve the Lord in their own country,” he said. “Suraj, by contrast, has a deep longing to engage in mission in Nepal, mission that is rooted in Reformed theology and squarely based on the word of God. That thrills my soul.”
Suraj would prefer to stay in Scotland long enough to finish his master’s degree. Time is not the problem, nor academics. The trouble is finances. The master’s degree comes at a cost of £15,000 ($25,130), which he and his wife cannot yet afford. His bachelor’s degree cost £12,000 ($20,100). He works full-time during the summer months as a hotel room attendant (housekeeper) at The George Hotel, a luxurious eighteenth-century inn in Edinburgh. Roshani works at the hotel full-time all year. “She really supports me, and wants me to study more. We are happy. Our sacrifices are nothing in comparison to the amazing grace of God.”
Dreams for a Nation
Never before have the people of Nepal more desperately needed trained pastors and robust theology. Current numbers are not easy to find, but it is estimated that nearly 1 million believers now live in Nepal, making it the fastest growing country for Christianity in all of Asia, and quite possibly in the world. It’s a poor country. Pastors are poor. And Christianity comes at a cost. Localized persecution is not uncommon.
But despite the present hardships, and the hardships sure to come in the future, Suraj is eager to return with a vision as real as the brick streets of Bhaktapur. Brick by brick, believer by believer, Suraj is committed to building the church in Nepal.
He dreams of planting his first church in the heart of Nepal’s capital, a mother church to plant and reach the other cities and towns across the country. The church will be explicitly Reformed in its theology. In his words, “There is no church in Nepal that truly understands the Reformed theology of the Westminster Confession.”
He dreams of translating the Westminster Confession of Faith into his native tongue. He dreams of creating a network to financially support young Christians who want to attend good Bible colleges. He dreams of a modern band traveling Nepal to bring the gospel message through God-glorifying music followed by evangelistic preaching from Scripture. He dreams of bringing 600 Reformed books back to Nepal as the seed of a Reformed library for local pastors and seminary students. He dreams of writing books on Christology to combat certain heresies he perceives in the rapidly growing Christian communities in the nation.
He even dreams of a Reformed seminary one day in Nepal.
“All of this will take a very long time, but Reformed theology is biblical, and it must be taught and introduced as Christianity rapidly grows in Nepal. Some people may feel my plans are too big, but it’s all for the glory of God. I hope you understand; there are lots of things to be done in Nepal to win many people in Christ.”
But not yet, not for him. For now Suraj remains in Scotland to study theology. Provided he can find a way to support the financial cost of his master’s degree, his thesis will be devoted to how the body of Jesus is the true Temple where humans meet God (John 1:14; 2:19). This is the message Hindu temple goers in Nepal most need.
No later than November of 2015, Suraj Kasula and his wife plan to bring this hope of the true Temple back to the brick streets of Nepal lined with shrines spilling goat blood. It will be a sweet homecoming for a former thug — the most unlikely church planter in Nepal.
UPDATE: Due to an outpouring of support from readers in the US and UK, the Kasulas will remain in Scotland. Suraj begins work on his masters degree in September, 2014.
Previous biographical features by Tony Reinke: