Christianity in India is progressively partaking of Indian beliefs and customs, even meditation systems. The trend is called inculturation, says Suma Varughese
The Indian way. The doorway of the suburban Mumbai flat 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. But where does Indianness end and Christianity begin? Are Christians betraying their faith by practising 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.
For a faith that emphasises 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 Vipassana course. 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 westernised 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 recognised 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… 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. 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 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. 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. 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 practise a form of Christianity that identifies knowledge of God solely within the Biblical context.
The way it works
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.’
And yet, almost all the people interviewed for this article remain ardent Christians. What draws them to the faith? Says Vandana Mataji a Parsi-turned-nun who heads Jiva Dhara, an ashram in Rishikesh, at the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India: ‘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?
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.
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