Indian rituals in the church
By Rajendra Prabhu
It is rather painful for me to join issue with my friend and colleague in many a movement that we have jointly worked for working journalists, Shri Balbir Punj. But his observations in the article ?Hindu rituals in Church? published in your issue of November 13 call for some response if only to correct their implications. I come from Kerala where the message of Jesus was implanted in the very first century of Christianity, much before it reached many parts of Europe. The missionaries beginning with the Apostle Thomas came there with no purse or any other support but found welcome even by the Hindu local kings. When they found some people even from among the elite castes ready to accept Jesus, they never asked for giving up any of the cultural expressions or dress. I still remember a small community in my native Cochin (Kochi now) which was Syrian Christian but which claimed descent from high caste Namboodiris and continued to practice all their social customs including ?purdah? (veil) for their women using the palm umbrella to hide their faces when they moved out. Also I must add when the Portuguese came to the Kochi coast in the 15th century and surrounded the Kochi fort for days together they could not enter till they could entice a Hindu Nair nobleman of the King to betray his sovereign in exchange for a fortune. The Christians inside the fort did not betray their local king.
That apart, let me assure Shri Punj that ever since Christian missionaries came to South India, this question of expressing Christianity through local culture had been dealt with in different ways. In Tamil Nadu, even now in local language they call the church and temple by the same name of Kovil. In Kerala among the most ancient churches the practise still is to use the brass lamps. The arrival of missionaries from Europe in the 15th century onwards did bring Western or rather Latin influences and some of them tried to impose a certain westernisation. But even then many like De Nobili experimented with adaptation of Indian (Hindu) cultural practices. When the Roman Catholic Church accepted the local Christians into its fold, it allowed them to retain their local rites. Within the Vatican there was a separate division to look after the Eastern churches and their rites.
In Kerala among the most ancient churches the practise still is to use the brass lamps. The arrival of missionaries from Europe in the 15th century onwards did bring Western or rather Latin influences and some of them tried to impose a certain westernisation.
In the post-independence era, the issue of an entirely Indian cultural expression of Christianity was pushed forward by two eminent Cardinals, Cardinal Lourdswamy of Tamil Nadu and Syrian Christian Cardinal of Ernakulam. The two cardinals pointed out that many of the Christian rites were influenced by Greco-Roman environment in which the Catholic Church got established. Earlier, scholar, scientist and priest Fr. Raymundo Panikkar had written extensively on the truths of the Upanishads and how they compare with the core of the Christian theology. The Catholic Bishops Conference even appointed a committee of scholars headed by Father Amalodbhavadas (a Sanskrit scholar) to develop a Mass that was more culturally attuned to the Indian environment. This Mass was evolved and is still undergoing experimentation as nothing can be changed overnight and local people have to be taken into confidence. It does not state the Mass in Sanskrit as Shri. Punj thinks; it adopts many of the Vedic and Upanishadic slokas as also a few from Tagore'sGitanjali into the general Christian Mass. However, it must be noted that this phase of the Church history also coincides with the great reform movement in the Church called Vatican-II. Under it the Church decided after a lot of internal debate to reach out to local cultures and more specifically to all other religions and seek their truth for adoption as far as possible into the Christian ethos. This is known as inculturation. Many priests, especially Jesuit scholars of Sanskrit have been working on such adaptation for decades now and I would request Shri. Punj and others interested to please refer to Christian publications like Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection published from 23, Rajnivas Marg and many other similar publications. He would find that they seek out the truths in the Hindu texts with great reverence and humility. Therefore, the Church deciding to adopt Sanskrit slokas and Indian mores in its worship is not a ?swindle? as is made out. It is a continuing development over centuries to express Christianity ( that is, Jesus? salvific role and as fullness of truth and loving kindness) in local terms and local idioms as well as reach out to other religions believing they too have experienced truth in their own way as Vatican-II documents affirm.
I suppose that those who claim to be advocates of ?cultural nationalism? are urging the retention of all that is noble and good in Bharatiya culture state not be a Hindu with another avatara to worship. If that is so, they should welcome the different religious groups in India trying to express themselves and their worship in Bharatiya mores without the need to accept the core of the Hindu philosophy. Non-Hindus could be pardoned if they consider some aspects of local culture like Varnashramdharma to be against their core beliefs while many others are noble and elevating. If ?cultural nationalism? means accepting Hindu philosophy in toto, then why call themselves Christians (or Buddhists or Muslims or anything else)?
(The writer can be contacted at email: [email protected])