Health, Meaning of Life, School, Work & Money

“I was a worthless dropout who went on to play music for Presidents and break a travel world record”

By Benny Prasad, as told to Gemma Koh , 30 December 2022

TRIGGER WARNING: This story mentions suicide attempts that some may find distressing.

On my first day of music lessons, the guitar teacher told me I wasn’t fit to be a musician because I could not clap to the right beat or sing to the right tune.

I was just 15 at that time. 

As the firstborn and eldest grandchild on my mother’s side, I was expected to excel and set an example for my brother and three sisters.

But I had very low self-esteem. I thought I was born worthless and useless.

“I lost all hope of any future with my health or studies. At age 16, I thought of committing suicide.”

My struggles with self-worth started when I was six years old. My parents moved me from an English-medium school to a Hindi one when we moved houses within Bangalore.

Suddenly, I was learning all my subjects in a new first language. I kept failing all the way till high school, when I was kicked out. I was a useless dropout.

When you fail your studies in India, it’s as good as you failing in life.

Benny, less than a year old, in the arms of his mum, the assistant director of a Christian radio broadcasting agency. His dad was a highly-regarded aerospace scientist who spent much time drilling Benny in maths and science, but in vain.

When I was 12 years old, a javelin struck my spinal cord. It’s a miracle I survived.

The accident ended my sporting activities and my childhood dream to represent India at the Olympics. Today, I still struggle with the pain.

When you fail your studies in India, it’s as good as you failing in life.

On top of that, I was born with asthma. I was on the wrong medication from the ages of 2 to 16. It damaged 60% of my lungs. My immune system broke down and I developed rheumatoid arthritis.

I came to a point where I lost all hope of any future with my health or studies.

At age 16, I thought of committing suicide.

Nothing to offer? 

Just to please my mother, I went to a Christian youth camp. She was always suggesting I go for such youth gatherings, and praying for an opportunity that would transform my life. 

My plan was to go for three days. And with the money my mum gave me, I would run away because I wanted to end my life. So I packed all my things and stole other items, like my dad’s camera.

Finding no fulfilment in life, young Benny became depressed and rebellious. He was also verbally and physically abusive to his younger siblings. “Stealing and lying became part of my life,” he wrote in his book, Unthinkable.

On the second day of camp, the speaker asked all of us to bow our heads and pray.

I wasn’t interested in praying. But that’s when I heard the audible voice of Jesus.  

He said to me: “Benny, even though you are called useless and worthless, I want you.”

That sounded an excellent exchange: I would give my broken life and He would fix me and give me a new life.

I wasn’t expecting or shocked to hear from Jesus. But I was on the defensive, thinking, “How can this be possible when I have been called ‘worthless’ all my life?”

I argued: “Why do you want me when I have nothing to offer? I’ve failed in my education. I have no character. I have nothing. So what would you get out of a broken person like me?”

Jesus said: “I just want your life. And I will transform you and make you a new person.”

That sounded like an excellent exchange: I would give my broken life and He would fix me and give me a new life.

It was this encounter with God that helped me to quit the idea of killing myself.

People mocked me, saying: “Let’s see how long this new and good Benny will last.”

At that time, I was a very angry person, very violent. I used to beat people up. 

So when I went home from camp, people mocked me, saying: “Let’s see how long this new and good Benny will last.”

Their comments triggered me.

But God gave me the grace to control my anger. Slowly, He transformed my life and I started to read the Bible.

An unwanted guitar 

Then one day, I picked up an old, broken guitar that nobody wanted. I picked up broken strings discarded by other musicians, tied them together, and put them on the guitar.

Nobody was willing to teach me as I had no musical talent. I was 19 at that time.

So I took some chord sheets and practised for seven hours every day.

Benny Prasad Zanbeni

From being told he had no talent, Benny would go on to design three unique guitars (including a 20-string harp/bongo one, pictured) and have 151,000 followers on YouTube. Benny’s wife Zanbeni, a vocalist, often accompanies the instrumentalist in song. (Watch them and friends perform a jazz version of Waymaker, below).

After two months, I performed at the talent night at Bible college. 

My principal told me: “You have talent.”

I had enrolled at Bible college to train as a pastor when I was 17 – not because I wanted to, or had the calling, but because that was all that was available to me at that time. 

Small cafe, big break 

When I was 25, I went to New Mexico in the USA to study how I could use my skills as a musician to share the gospel in a creative way, in secular settings that may include bars and nightclubs.

A few years later, I was invited to attend a global arts conference in Los Angeles. It was organised by a missionary training school and there were 400 participants from 40 nations.

I was given opportunities to perform at the café during break times. It is the worst time as people are not paying attention. You might as well put your picture on your chair and play your CD.

Benny Prasad

Benny sharing his story at the convocation of Liberty University in the USA.

But playing in a café was a big thing for me, given my arthritis and having been told that I would never be a musician. 

Despite the lack of response, I gave my best because I was giving it to the Lord who led me there. 

On the fifth day of the conference, I was suddenly asked to play on the main stage during a special time.

“This is impossible. Look at my fingers, I have arthritis. How can I play like Preston Reed?”

I played Tribes by Preston Reed on my guitar. 

God had prompted me to learn that song two weeks ago.

In response, I told Him: “God, this is impossible. Look at my fingers, I have arthritis. How can I play like Preston Reed?”

God said: “Benny, what is impossible for you is possible for me.”

I prayed for strength and motivation and practised this piece for 140 hours in 14 days, learning to tap, hammer on, pull off. My fingers bled.

Benny Prasad panflute

Despite having asthma from birth, Benny purchased a panflute (watch him play it here) when he was in his 30s. In one week, he was able to play his first song. A few years later, Jesus restored his lung capacity from 40% to 95%.

When I played on the main stage, I got 100% attention, unlike at the café.  

At the end of the performance, someone approached me and said: “Benny, next year is the Olympic Games in Greece. Are you interested in performing there?”

It was a childhood dream come true! God was taking me to the 2004 Olympic Games – not as an athlete, but as an artiste! I was so thrilled and excited. 

From failure to the Olympics

I told God that I really wanted to share my story of how He helped me go from failure – suicidal at 16 and written off by my music school – to the Olympics.

But I was told by the organisers that I could not share my testimony there. They only wanted my music. But to me, my music is empty without my story.

God was taking me to the 2004 Olympic Games – not as an athlete, but as an artiste!

So I asked God to help me design a guitar that the world has never seen before. I hoped to attract the athletes to come and look at it and ask me questions. In turn, I would share my story with them.

In Los Angeles, Jesus gave me the idea to buy mini drums.

On newspaper, I drew the outline of a guitar with two holes in it. When I got back to India, I went to Tulsi Guitars to have it custom made, and told them: “Put the mini drums inside.”

The construction of the world’s first bongo guitar, which Benny designed, took a year.

Benny Prasad Olympic Games

Performing at the official welcoming for South African athletes at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

And that’s how my new guitar became the first-ever guitar with drums inside. I played it at the welcoming ceremony for South African athletes at the Olympics, and on various cultural stages over the next 10 days. 

Dreams take flight

Growing up, I lived close to the airport. I would look longingly at the planes landing and taking off, imagining going to faraway, exotic places. 

My dream came true when I went to Sri Lanka for a regional conference for a voluntary organisation in 1998. By God’s grace, they gave me a free ticket there.

I didn’t dare to dream bigger because I thought it would be impossible.

I had no money, but was able to travel there and bless others through my music and testimony.

I prayed to Jesus: “It’s amazing You took me to one country. Can you please take me to one country every year?”

Subsequently, I had the opportunity to travel to England, the USA, Holland, Nepal and Tibet.

I saw that my prayer was working. But I didn’t dare to dream bigger because I thought it would be impossible.

Benny Prasad Antarctica

Getting to Antarctica involved multiple flight changes across five continents and 36 hours 25 minutes in the air. From Chile, Benny boarded an eight-seater charter flight to the coldest and windiest place on earth. He did a mini lunch concert and shared his testimony with geologists, scientists and others stationed at King George Island.

But in 2002, two years before playing at the Olympics, I changed my prayer. I said: “Okay God, enough of me having dreams. What is your dream for my life?”

I heard Him say: “Benny, I want you to travel to every country by 2010.”

Playing for heads of state

On my first visit to Singapore in 2003, friends asked if I would join them to perform and share my story at a church.

Singapore music veteran Clement Chow asked me afterwards: “Benny, would you be open to share your story and your music at the upcoming Orchid Festival?”

Singapore President SR Nathan was its Guest of Honour.

The only way I could get a picture with the Singapore President was if he approached me.

Usually, the general public is not allowed to meet a President because of barricades and protocols. Plus, I was just an ordinary person that no one knew. 

The only way I could get a picture with the Singapore President was if he approached me. 

So I prayed that if it was God’s will, I would get a picture with the President.

After I finished performing, the President walked up to me and said: “Benny, why don’t you bring your guitar? I would like to take a picture with you.” 

Benny Prasad Singapore President SR Nathan

Singapore President SR Nathan was the first of many heads of state Benny performed for in his record-breaking travels around the world. The President autographed and sent him this photo of them together.

The next day, he sent me the photo as a gift. He had personally signed it, too.

President Nathan was the first of many heads of state I played for. 

Nigerian president

“Thank you for sharing your testimony and your music,” said President of Nigeria Olusegun Obansanjo, who hugged Benny. He then invited Benny to join his 72nd birthday celebrations at his home.

Honestly, even till today, I don’t have the capacity and ability to arrange these meetings. God was the orchestrator of each one of them.

Lessons on pride

Many times, I thought I was responsible for my success. But God stepped in to show me how wrong I was.

In 2003, I was in a 12th century cathedral in Latvia playing It is Well with my Soul on the guitar. Then I noticed the ambience and the sound and thought it was just so amazing.

For a second, I thought: “Wow, Benny, it’s your hard work that has brought you here!”

Suddenly, I lost my memory of how to play the song (I don’t read music) and had to leave the stage. I was so embarrassed. 

Benny designed this double-sided 54-string guitar (a combination of six instruments) to impress the audience – rather than share the impact of Jesus in his life – at the FIFA World Cup 2006 in Germany. It malfunctioned during his performance. “It was embarrassing and demeaning and I repented of my pride,” he said.

world travel record

Another lesson from God: While touring Europe in 2008, Benny earned €6,000 (about S$11,300 at that time) in sales of his CDs, which he attributed to his own hard work. The usually thrifty man bought a train ticket for a first (instead of second) class cabin, but let his guard down as he slept. The money disappeared. But his laptop and stack of passports (pictured) were untouched.

Repentant, I said: “God, I’m really sorry for my actions.”

The patriot’s brown hat

I didn’t know that a world record for travelling existed – until 2009, when a fellow countryman broke the world record for travelling to all 194 sovereign countries in the world in the shortest time.

I looked at the list of countries I had travelled to and realised I was just short of seven countries, and still had a year left to go.

Benny Prasad panflute

Benny with his panflute at the Caesarea Amphitheatre in 2016, in Israel. A famous Israeli artiste (in background) was finishing his sound check at the performance venue that was built in 1BC.

I’ve seen God’s hand in my visits to each country. For instance, He miraculously orchestrated a chance meeting with two men from the Pakistani parliament in a large hotel in North Korea. Through them, I was able to get that impossible-to-get visa to Pakistan – the last country on my list. (Watch video below.)

This enabled me to set a new world record in November 2010 for being the fastest person to travel to 245 countries – 194 sovereign countries, 50 dependent countries and Antarctica – in the shortest time.

To me, my music is empty without my story.

When I landed in Delhi, CNN news channel was the first to cover the news.

I had a hat that said: “Thank U Jesus”. They told me to remove the hat because it was a religious statement and they are a secular channel.

I did the interview, but I was saddened. Because I really wanted to give the rightful credit to God. Without Jesus, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I had achieved – getting visas, money, protection. 

Benny Prasad

Benny and his brown hat. He set the world record for being the fastest person to travel to 245 countries in six years six months and 22 days, between May 2004 and November 2010.

Later, I asked the Lord for wisdom to design a hat that would be politically correct, diplomatically correct, and at the same time, glorify Jesus.

So that’s when He gave me the idea for a hat that says “Thank U Jesus I’m an Indian” because this hat is very patriotic. So if anyone stops me from using it, they risk being called a racist. 

A listening ear for students

After travelling to 257 nations over 13 years, God pointed me in a new direction.

In Dubai, doctors told a boy who had an issue with his hand that he will never be able to play the guitar. After listening to Benny’s testimony, he prayed: “God, if Benny can play with arthritis, can you do that miracle for me?” And he was able to play the guitar.

In 2015, I built a 400-seater cafe and community space in Bangalore – dubbed the suicide capital of India – to reach out to the college students who are depressed and lonely. 

Chai 3:16

Chai 3:16 (pronounced “hai”, it means life in Hebrew) offers a listening ear to students and only serves tea (the students decide what to pay).

One evening at 5.30pm, a boy came in to Chai 3:16. He told us he had been on the verge of committing suicide.

His father was an official who got laid off. Life came down hard on his family. Father and son argued a lot.

God loves you and you are never too bad or sinful for Him to give you a new joy in life.

Earlier, the boy had planned to jump in front of an oncoming train. But as he sat down by the railway tracks, his thoughts kept rolling – to the point where he suddenly realised that he had forgotten to jump in front of the train that had come and gone.

That’s when a voice told the boy: “Go to Chai 3:16.”

He didn’t know where this address was, but God led him to the cafe.

That very evening, the boy gave his life to Jesus. He went on to finish his college studies and is doing well today.

I thank God that I didn’t end my life but chose to live through shame and failure so that I can be a blessing to others around the world.

Remember, God loves you and you are never too bad or sinful for Him to transform and give you a new joy in life.

A version of this story first appeared in Salt&Light.

Read more about Benny Prasad’s travel experiences in his book Unthinkable and on his YouTube channel.


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