By Suma Varughese
Christianity in India is progressively partaking of Indian beliefs and customs, even meditation systems. The trend has been given a name—inculturation
Where Jesus meets Brahman
By Suma Varughese
“Born a Christian, my real advent into spirituality happened through a secular experience. A cracked relationship had made me feel the need to focus on the other’s happiness. The more I did that, I realized that that was the path of true happiness. A beautiful pattern was thus revealed, and renewed my faith in a benevolent Creator in whose world each was meant to derive joy in serving and loving the other. I bowed in gratitude to the Omniscient One-a free-flowing God, unbound by creeds.
“The reality of my experience went beyond my religious belief. I worked to strengthen my spiritual knowledge by exploring other religions. Hindu philosophy attracted me. Its revelations, that we were divine and part of Brahman (the Creator) seemed to me the ultimate step to integration. Discovering this wisdom in our own backyard awoke in me a passion for India and the Indian way of life. I was Indian whether or not a Christian. I have always loved Indian culture and tradition. I am inspired by our holistic way of life with its reverence for nature and values which emphasize giving, serving, and self-realization. They are so wise that I subscribe to them without hesitation. And for the past few years, I have moved towards a life that is Indian at the core: in values, attitudes and philosophy.
“ I never felt that my roots militated against my Christianity. I find most of Christ’s teachings resonating in the Hindu texts. And his own rejection of organized faith (he drove the moneychangers out of the temple) convinces me that He would not want me to remain swaddled by an inherited faith. The task now is to integrate the Indian in me with the Christian. To return to Christianity, to truly understand my role as an Indian Christian. And, thus, enrich both my church and my country.”
For the love of the Cross
By M.P.K. Kutty
“ Ours was a middle-class Hindu household that followed Hindu rituals as a matter of course. I was educated in Christian institutions, but was never influenced by their religious practices. Yet I believed in a God whose goodwill was necessary for my well-being. Once, during a religious convention I had accidentally landed in, a pastor invited me to attend the Sunday morning prayer meetings at his house. His sermons motivated me to read the Bible more closely. Thus I clearly saw that the human heart is desperately wicked or that ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’. There was a quality of divine wisdom in these pronouncements.
“Later I also learnt that some great people disagreed with the concept of sin or accused Christianity of coercing people into believing by the promise of heaven and the threat of hell. But I feel philosophizing about right and wrong only blunts man’s capacity of moral distinction. Christ offered us, in his Sermon on the Mount, the mysterious prospect of dying in order to live, and turned all the world’s values upside down. The decision to take up the cross is also a decision to consider as ‘rubbish’ what the world trumpets as important.
“ To me, this sermon represents the blueprint for leading a good life. His death and resurrection are central to my faith. Crucifying the self is not easy. I recognize that without His Spirit working in me, I cannot love my enemies. Also, to remain small and poor in a world that worships power and riches is hard. But then, the crux of Christian teaching remains imprinted in my mind: ‘For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it…”
The doorway of the suburban Mumbai flat, in the southern part of India, is festooned with flowers. Strains of religious songs waft out from within. Some 30 women sit cross-legged on the floor facing a silk sari-clad, flower-covered stone idol. Implements for a traditional Indian puja (prayer ritual), including prasad (food offerings to the deity, in this case plates of fruits) sit on either side. Typically Indian, right?
Wrong. For the gathered devotees, this is just another way of celebrating the feast of Mother Mary. Its prime mover Anjali Aranha feels that she is only expressing her conviction that she is a Hindu by culture and a Christian by belief. ‘I am taking back what is mine. Being Hindu is not opposed to being Christian,’ says she. A minuscule movement is transforming Indian Christianity. One that sees Hinduism and Christianity in sync with each other, thereby disentangling the confused strands of identity that make an Indian Christian. ‘Hinduism helped me become a better Christian,’ says Eric Pinto, ‘I found it hard to believe in a vengeful Biblical God who made the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. Learning yoga made me understand that all universal laws operate through God. That made sense.’ But where does Indianness end and Christianity begin? Are Christians betraying their faith by practicing yoga? What is the exact nature of the sin committed by accepting prasad? The questions compel us to inquire into the nature of faith and nationality.
THE INDIAN WAY
For a faith that emphasizes the need for belief, these are radical questions. Yet more Indian Christians are looking to ford the twin halves of their identity. Some institutions, such as the Fr Agnel ashram in Pune, India, will not ordain priests unless they take a Vipassanacourse. Most Indian seminaries even have courses on Indian philosophy. In many Christian ashrams in India today, you may encounter a vegetarian kitchen, Sanskrit verses, even meditation and yoga. Some ashrams follow Indian architecture. Some present Biblical stories through Indian dance and music. Many Christians adopt Indian names. The term for this trend is inculturation, and it is primarily happening within the westernized segment of the Catholic Church in India. Inculturation is inspired by the enlightened edict of the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65. In essence, the Vatican recognized the validity of other faiths and directed local churches to align themselves to prevailing cultures. To quote: ‘All nations form one human family; all of them are guided by the one God, all of them have the same destiny… The church exhorts Christians to preserve and promote the moral and spiritual goods found among the people.’
IN THE BEGINNING
Ironically, inculturation was the basic nature of Indian Christianity long before the West entered. Christianity here is believed to have been introduced in AD 52. This is when Thomas the Apostle came to Malankara, Kerala (a southern Indian State). Thomas converted many caste Hindus and established a church that, in every way save religious, was Indian. Belief in the divinity of Jesus went hand in hand with belief in karma, reincarnation, lighting of lamps and distribution of prasad. Clearly, the early Indian Christians made a distinction between religion and culture.
When the Portuguese came to Kerala in the 16th century, they gave Christianity a western orientation. In 1599, they eliminated Indian elements and introduced the Latin rites of Roman Catholicism even though not all Kerala Christians chose to give allegiance to the Pope. In Goa too the Portuguese influenced the people’s cultural moorings. This trend towards fusing religion and culture was reinforced by the British, who brought with them the Anglican Church, to which the Churches of North and South India are aligned. However, there were protests. As far back as in the 19th century, Brahmanbandhab Upadhyay, a passionate Brahmin convert and freedom fighter, wrote that the Christian’s faith was ‘too… mixed up with beef and pork, spoon and fork, too tightly pantalooned and petticoated to manifest its universality’.
In many ways, inculturation is a profound phenomenon. It reflects the willingness within even the highest echelons of church authority to re-examine the truisms of the Christian creed. The clergy, at least, accept that it is old-fashioned to insist that salvation lies only through Christ. Naturally, there is no longer a compulsive need to convert. Says Fr Thomas Malipurathu, director of a Catholic center of mission and missionary work: ‘Evangelizing has a wider meaning than conversion. It should be a means to translate into reality what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God.’
Why this hue and cry over conversions then? The answer lies in the pluralistic nature of Indian Christianity. Even as mainstream Catholic churches are pulling back, Indian Christianity is being influenced by the Pentecostal believers who originated in the USA.
Going under names such as Born Again Christians, they practice a form of Christianity that identifies knowledge of God solely within the Biblical context. In contrast, inculturation focuses the discourse within the Christian body, not outside it.
THE WAY IT WORKS
Fr Hillary Fernandes of the Bombay diocese in Mumbai has done trailblazing work in inculturation. Among his novel reforms was the translation of the worship from Latin to Marathi. He celebrates major Indian festivals with a Mass, of course Indianized. Dressed in Indian clothes, this modest priest says: ‘Christianity has remained foreign for 2,000 years. But spirituality can never be foreign. Because of the religion’s identification with a foreign culture, its spirituality has been rejected.’
Fr Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, was among the front-runners of inculturation. Through one of his first published works Sadhana (Contemplation), he helped several Christians realize that Indian forms of contemplation were not only compatible with Christianity, but also complementary. Integration is clearly one of the key benefits of inculturation, for it gives Christians a sanction to discover their Indian roots. Says Fr Michael Rosario, who teaches Indology at St Pius: ‘As an Indian priest, Indian spirituality is my heritage and culture.’ Fr Michael Gonsalves goes a step further: ‘We must substitute the Old Testament of the Bible with Indian history, scriptures and arts. For us, the Holy Land should be India; the sacred river the Ganges; the sacred mountain the Himalayas, the heroes of the past not Moses, or David, but Sri Ram or Krishna.’
Crucial to inculturation is the language. Says Fr Fernandes: ‘You cannot inculturate in English. The language is important to access your culture.’ In the Vasai diocese in the southern state of Maharashtra, India, weddings are conducted the Indian way. A church proclaims its name in Marathi, the Maharashtrian language. Credit for this peaceful integration goes to Archbishop Roberts of Mumbai, who opened a number of Marathi-medium schools in all the parishes of Vasai 60-70 years ago. The bishop of Vasai, Thomas Dabre, tells me, ‘There is no alternative to inculturation. Christians must live in accordance with the culture of the local people.’
RETURN TO SELF
Inculturation strikes a strong chord among its votaries. Many look for ways to relate Christian and Hindu concepts. Fr Lancy Perreira, rector of St Xavier’s Institute of Education, has authored a book that traces the spirituality inherent in Christianity, Indian music and science, his three passions. He sees no contradiction between being an Indian and a Christian. ‘For me,’ he says, ‘Christianity is first and foremost a way of life. Through Jesus, I am open to everything that is human.’ Fr Perreira echoes the thoughts of many others when he says that Christ was a Jew of his time and we are Indians of our time. Others emphasize Christianity’s Asian origin. Says Vandana Mataji, a Parsi-turned-nun who heads Jiva Dhara, an ashram in Rishikesh, at the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India: ‘Jesus was an Asian. We have no right to live, think and pray like western Christians.’ Through inculturation, the Indian Christians, so far torn between religion and nationality, are clearly being helped to clarify their identities as Christians and Indians, and to fuse the two without betraying either.
In looking for integration, many question what it means to be a Christian. Many realize that, essentially, being a Christian has little to do with creed and all to do with remaining faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Fr Saldanha sees this as ‘loving God and one’s neighbor and striving to live in union with Christ’. Such a definition eliminates all conflict between nationality and religion. When you love your neighbor in the true Christian sense, you cannot withhold her/his right to live or worship her/his way.
Few have carried this examination to as rigorous lengths as Russian writer and mystic Leo Tolstoy. In his The Kingdom of God and Peace Essays, he repudiates the entire superstructure of western civilization as being incompatible with the teachings of Christ. Using Christ’s injunction to resist not evil, he points out the incongruity of Christian nations with military institutions or law courts. He says: ‘Christianity, in its true sense, puts an end to the State.’ Arguing against the association of Christ with Christianity, he says: ‘In our time it has reached its logical climax… in a demand for blind belief, not in God or in Christ, or even in the teaching, but in a person (as in Catholicism) or in several persons (as in the Orthodox Greek faith) or in a book (as in Protestantism). So… a man no longer believes in God or in Christ as they have been revealed to him, but in what the Church commands him to believe in.’
This insistence on belief as opposed to experience is perhaps the greatest limitation of the way Christianity has been interpreted. Christ himself was totally opposed to organized religion. He had thrown the moneychangers out of the temple. There are other anomalies too—inability to blend with other faiths, exclusivity and sectarianism. Even in India, many find themselves squirming under questions raised by Christianity. Siddhartha, a Buddhist, was born a Syrian Christian. Christened George Kurien, he was uncomfortable with the exclusive aspects of Christianity. Says he: ‘Christianity is scared of losing itself if it gets into a close dialogue with Hinduism and Buddhism.’ The externalization of faith makes Christians unable to plumb into the living center of all religions, where alone lies synthesis.
And yet, almost all the people interviewed for this article remain ardent Christians. What draws them to the faith? Vandana Mataji speaks for many: ‘I fell in love with Jesus Christ. I became a Christian because I found him fantastic.’ At the living heart of the faith is the person of Jesus Christ—a towering figure of love, compassion, and wisdom. How does one remain unmoved by his preference for the poor, the prostitute and the publican? How to remain unchanged by his injunction to love the other enough to turn the other cheek?
Writes Tolstoy: ‘The Christian teaching consists in indicating to man that the essence of his soul is love, that his happiness comes not because he loves this or that man but because he loves the source of all, God, whom he recognizes in himself through love, and so this love will extend to all men and also all things.’ Those who take the trouble to struggle out of the conventional truisms of Christianity and discover its spiritual core, which Tolstoy calls ‘progress along the appointed path towards inward perfection by an imitation of Christ, and towards outward perfection by establishment of the kingdom of God’ become much more tolerant. Says Fr Fernandes: ‘There is only one God. Let us have a worship where we can all come together.’
THE ROAD AHEAD
If inculturation reaches its logical conclusion, what kind of Christianity can we expect? Upadhyay had long postulated a Christianity, where ‘Christian truths’ are ‘formulated through Vedantic (ancient Indian scriptures) thought’.
Adds Raimondu Pannicker, author of A Dwelling Place for Wisdom: ‘If we as Christians… could succeed in undergoing the Advaitic experience… then Christians, at least of Indian origin, would be automatically enabled to live an advaitic-Christian faith, which makes possible both a fully Hindu and a fully Christian life—without the pain of a split personality.’
Advaitic Christianity sounds rather good. When Christianity can become one more Indian sect, such as Jainism or Sikhism, seeking union with God through Jesus Christ, yet with an undisturbed fidelity to the cultures and lifestyle of the land, inculturation will have completed its task.
But inculturation is still to penetrate the masses. Says Fr Gonsalves: ‘The European missionaries in the past have instilled an aversion in the minds of the Indian Christian to whatever smacks of Hinduism.’ Brought up to believe that salvation lies solely within the church and to think otherwise is blasphemy, it is not easy for Christians to shed the conditioning of a lifetime.
Another factor inhibiting this delicate process of expansion is the aggressive anti-Christian stand adopted by fundamental Hindu organizations. Inculturation will integrate Christianity within the Indian ethos, but it must be allowed to happen in its own pace. Changes are occurring—slowly but surely.
Much of the West itself has already penetrated the value of Indian spirituality. It won’t be long before Indian Christians do likewise and take back their own heritage with pleasure and gratitude.
CHRISTIAN ASHRAMS: SANCTUARY FOR THE SOUL
Nowhere is the impact of inculturation more evident than in India’s 50-odd Christian ashrams. A pioneer here is Bede Griffiths, a British Benedictine monk who recognized the profundity of Indian philosophy and pursued its integration with Christianity. Along with another monk, he set up the Kurusumala ashram in Kerala before taking over the Shantivanam ashram in Tamil Nadu.
Shantivanam was started by two French priests who adopted Indian names, wore saffron, and lived spartan lives. Under Griffith, the ashram became a melting pot of Hindu and Christian thought with emphasis on contemplation.
A three-headed figure at the entrance represents the trinity of both Hinduism and Christianity. Then comes the cross, enclosed in the wheel of dharma (Buddhist spiritual symbol). At the center of the cross is the sacred Hindu word Om and it rests on a lotus. The liturgy is Indian. Other well-known Christian ashrams in India are the Jiva Dhara at Rishikesh run by Vandana Mataji, the Anjali ashram at Mysore, run by Fr Amolorpavdas, and the ‘Christa Prema Seva’ started by Jack Winslow, a Protestant, in Pune. In Jive Dhara, Ashramites wake up at 4 a.m., practice yoga and meditation, and stick to a vegetarian diet. The routine even includes noble silence. On my visit to the Christa Prema ashram, I find it undergoing a change of guard. In the dining room with seats on the floor, a Sanskrit sloka hangs framed on the wall. In one of the two chapels (one set in the garden), straw matting covers the ground. A lamp burns before pictures of Christ. There are flowers by the lamp. Instead of the distant sense of awe that most altars convey, this arrangement makes God seem approachable. As an Indian Christian, I find myself deeply satisfied, for here is a form of worship I can relate to. ‘It’s a deeply human place,’ says Sr Brigitta, the outgoing head. I couldn’t agree more.
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