By Pradeep Krishnan
Dr Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan, the world’s first centenarian bishop, talks to Pradeep Krishnan about his views on God, spirituality and the true essence of human life
n April 27 this year, Dr Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan (rank given to the senior most bishop), the senior most bishop of the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian church, celebrated his 100th birthday. Serving for over 63 years, he is the longest-serving bishop in India and the first bishop worldwide to reach the age of 100.
Born as Philip Oommen to K E Oommen and Sosamma in 1917, Mar Chrysostom became a priest in 1944 after his graduation, and a bishop on May 23, 1953. On October 23, 1999, Mar Chrysostom was appointed as supreme head of the Mar Thoma Church but in 2007, he relinquished his post. Today, he is ‘Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan’ and continues to travel extensively and share his wisdom as part of his calling. An outstanding personality, he is known for his brilliant ideas and sense of humour. A strong refuge for those in distress, Thirumeni's (a title of respect given to Mar Chrysostom) deep concern for the socially and economically backward is noteworthy. Well-known for his modern views, Mar Chrysostom has a warm personality and his presence is sought not only at church gatherings but also various other religious and cultural events. He is particularly famous among Keralites for his witty sermons and has a specific reason for opting to use humour. “There is no need to be more serious than necessary,” he says. “I realised that when I used humour, people regarded me as a friend and felt free to come and talk to me.”
I reached the Bishop’s residence, Jubilee Home in Maramon in Kerala situated on the banks of the quietly flowing river, Pamba. As I waited in his spacious drawing room, I noticed different pictures of Jesus Christ adorning the room. I was amazed to see an idol of Sri Krishna playing flute in an adjacent room. After about an hour, a smiling Valiya Metropolitan walked in with his usual calmness and charm. I rushed to touch his feet in reverence and he immediately hugged me. He kindly asked me if I had had my lunch and enquired how my journey from Trivandrum had been. Even after I told him I had had my lunch, he instructed his attendant to serve me coffee and snacks.
The excerpts from the exclusive interview.
Tell us about your spiritual journey. How did you choose this path?
Ours was a priestly family; my father and his brother were priests. That paved the way for me becoming a priest. In 1940, when the church authorities were looking for someone to work in Ankola, Karnataka, I decided to join and worked there till 1942.
What ought to be the purpose of human life?
Man is not a solitary being. It’s only when you live in harmony with others that you become human. While it’s good to move away from the crowd occasionally, you must not completely cut off from society. Sometimes, misused relationships result in disappointment, anger, frustration and other problems but it is only when you love the one you dislike or whose ways you can’t accept, do you become human. That makes life dynamic and beautiful.
What according to you is true spirituality?
True spirituality is accepting the other as he or she is. Living for your friends and others is true spirituality.
What is your concept of God?
God is man in perfection. The Bible says, God created man in His own image, but I say that man created God in his image. I am of the view that man can rise to God’s level; that consciousness is not impossible to attain. In all religions, God has become human and therefore man can definitely become God; just like the Indian concept of avatars, various incarnations. When God becomes man, without giving up His godliness, you can see God in your neighbour. Then you will realise that everything is God, God is everything.
What is your understanding of Jesus Christ?
I believe that Jesus Christ is God. He has not done anything which a human being cannot do. He was man in perfection and goodness. I do not accept the saying ‘to err is human and to forgive is divine’ because it is possible for man to not do wrong. We can all become like Gandhiji. Years ago, when Mohandas was born in Porbandar, nobody ever thought that one day he would become Gandhiji. When he did the unthinkable, he became Gandhiji. That is true of you and me as well because we all have the inherent potential. Usually we do not see the goodness in others. When our opinions
differ, we say we are right and the other is wrong. It’s important to understand that there is always some truth in what others say and when we discover this truth for ourselves, one which we have not experienced so far, we become god like.
All Christians follow the same God and holy book. Why then do different sections in Christianity exist?
Different schools of thought, sects, religions, etc, are part of nature. Nature has designed human beings to co-exist with different ideologies. Look around and see how many different varieties of flowers, trees, fruits there are. Understand that the universe is a beautiful combination of different species.
Do you believe that one can attain liberation only through Jesus Christ i.e. an individual who hasn’t been baptised can never attain God?
I will never say that all should become Christians. We should accept Christ who is within everyone. I do not agree with those who say that Christianity is the only right and true path. Even among Christians, nobody is living the way Christ wanted them to live. I am a Bishop in the church and I am not living the way Christ wanted me to live. You must live as Christ lived, depending on your own understanding of Him. Different religions have different concepts about God. Hinduism doesn’t cloud Christ, rather wholeheartedly accepts Him. There is Krishna and Rama within me and I will become a true Christian only when I discover the Krishna within me. Likewise, you will become a true Hindu only when you discover the Christ within you. We must understand that even if we address God by different names, there is only one reality and that is God.
Do you think there is growing intolerance in India?
Intolerance is not a new phenomenon and has been around since time immemorial. In Christianity, different sections are quarrelling among each other for supremacy. The reason for intolerance is because I do not like the ways of others and want others to like me and follow my ways. It’s important to understand other’s opinions. Instead of insisting that others follow our ideas, we must be willing to learn from them.
What are your views on religious conversions?
Forcing one to adopt another religion is bad. Conversion must happen within everyone.
What is the secret behind your enthusiasm and charm even at this age?
I feel that God controls the whole universe. I realise that I cannot control anything in this world. While I am travelling in an aircraft, my role should only be to enjoy the journey. as the pilot knows how to drive the plane to the destination.
Do you believe in reincarnation?
I believe that one’s life will not end by death. Death is only an event in one’s life. Man lives and overcomes death. Our life is like a tree, even when one branch is cut off, it still bears fruit.
How to end human suffering?
Good or bad, accept it fully. A mother undergoes a painful process to give birth to a child, but seeing the baby she rejoices.
Likewise, suffering draws one closer to God. All suffering is because of one’s attitude toward life. Change the attitude and feel blissful for what God has given to you.
What values have you imbibed from Indian culture?
In India, everybody, rich or poor, believes in God. Here, even the uneducated masses have volumes of wisdom to share.
Moral concepts like living for others, sharing your belongings with others and atithi devobhava (Guest is God) are unique to our glorious culture.
Are we born as sinners?
I do not think that we are born as sinners. You become a sinner when you do not accept others.
Any message that you’d like to share with our readers?
We should always help others. Discard selfishness. Live for others and you will always be remembered. Make others happy. Strive to provide basic amenities to all; education, dwelling and health. Share your things with others. If someone steals, understand that we have made him a robber.
As we reached the end of our interview, I held the great bishop’s hands while bidding good bye and said, “I feel I am blessed.” True to his humble character, Mar Chrysostom replied, “I am also blessed.”
Marthoma Church: History
Jawaharlal Nehru in his ‘Glimpses of World History’ (1934) wrote, “You may be surprised to learn that Christianity came to India long before it went to England or Western Europe, and when even in Rome it was a despised and proscribed sect. Within 100 years or so of the death of Jesus, Christian missionaries came to South India by sea. They were received courteously and permitted to preach their new faith. They converted a large number of people, and their descendants have lived there, with varying fortune, to this day. Most of them belong to old Christian sects which have ceased to exist inEurope.”
The Christians of Malabar lived peacefully with the natives for quite a long time. However, the advent of the Portuguese in India with the coming of Vasco De Gama in AD 1498, had far reaching effects of the missionary adventures of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church wanted to bring the Church in Malabar under the supremacy of Rome. In the synod held at Udayamperoor in 1599, the representatives, the Syrian Christians of Malabar (the Malankara Church), were forcibly made part of the Roman Catholic Church under the Pope. For half a century, the Malankara Church was under Roman yoke. After 54 years of withstanding the oppression, in AD 1653, with the ‘Oath of Coonen Cross,’ the Church in Malabar that wanted to remain loyal to their ancient faith and traditions, declared their independence and subsequently, in 1665, the title of ‘Mar Thoma,’ conferred, paving way for the establishment of Mar Thoma Church. The reformation movements within the Mar Thoma Church finally made it an independent Church.
Pradeep Krishnan, a seeker based in Trivandrum, is deeply attracted to the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Nisargadatta
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