By Suma Varughese December 1999 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’. WHY INCULTURATE? 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
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