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Some seek Indian way to be Christian


AThe Catholic church in India has practiced a Western mode of worship and theology because of its colonial origin (except in the state of Kerala in Southern India, where the Syrian mode of worship has prevailed). But from the 19th century to the present day, there has been a growing chorus of voices calling for a more Indian expression of the church’s truths and beliefs, in what has now come to be popularly called “inculturation.”

In Christian history in India, there have been leading personalities such as Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya and Narayan Vaman Tilak, Sadhu Sundar Singh and Paul Sudhakar, who all tried to find a synthesis between the religion to which they were born and Christianity, the religion to which they converted. Most lived in the early part of the 20th century.

All these figures contributed immensely to India’s spiritual history. Upadhyaya also played a significant part in its cultural and political history. It was he who helped Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel laureate poet, to found the Indian University of Shantiniketan and continued Swami Vivekananda’s efforts to establish chairs of Hindu philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge.

Upadhyaya, through his paper, Sandhya, gave a clarion call to the masses to work for independence from British rule. In fact, the awakening of national consciousness stimulated many reform movements in India, since Indian leaders saw the need of a solid spiritual foundation on which India’s progress and prosperity could be built. Quite a few reformers adopted some Christian principles.

Upadhyaya, who became a Christian through his own study, was deeply attached to all that was good in the Hindu tradition and published a monthly, The Harmony, in which he tried to reconcile the best in Hinduism and Christianity.

He believed that just as the Christian religion, when it spread beyond the confines of Palestine and came face to face with the Greco-Roman culture, gave birth to theologians who established a synthesis between Greek thought and the Christian faith, there was a need in India for a fresh synthesis between the non-dualist form of Indian philosophical and religious thought and Catholic thought.

Upadhyaya believed that Hinduism and Christianity were not mutually exclusive. The Christian religion, he argued, was essentially a way toward union with God, a way of salvation. He felt Hinduism was a social organization or a culture, which left it open to its members to opt for that way of salvation that suited each best. He made an important distinction between two aspects of Hinduism, the one consisting of rules regarding social life, the other aspect pointing to a way of salvation. Upadhyaya felt that Hinduism left him free to profess the creed that appealed to him and therefore had no difficulty in declaring himself to be a Catholic Hindu or a Hindu Catholic. His arguments in this direction did not find much favor with the ecclesiastical authorities.

In Maharashtra state in Western India, the great Marathi poet Narayan Vaman Tilak realized that a Hindu-Christian synthesis was simply not possible unless the Christian religion had deep roots in Indian culture. Tilak’s love of prayer and devotion was formed by the great poet-saints of Maharashtra.

Tilak felt the knowledge of God implanted in his mind by the poet-saints was the best possible preparation for Christ. He was convinced that God had prepared the mind of India for the coming of Christ through the great Bhakti movements of popular devotion that sprang up in Hinduism. He referred to the spiritual teaching of India’s poet-saints as “our Old Testament.”

Tilak’s talent as a poet enabled him to give to the devotional life of the Marathi Christians a genuinely Indian expression. He trained the Marathi Christians to sing bhajans (devotional hymns) and kirtans (a combination of devotional reading, preaching and singing).

In more recent times, there have been other theologians who have advocated giving expression to their Christian faith in a genuinely Indian way. Among them was George Soares Prabhu, who died in a tragic accident in Pune a few years ago. Highly critical of what he called the imitations of the West in the Catholic church in India, he worked for a more rooted and inculturated mode of theology, one that would spring from the many cultures in the local church, such as the dalit (low-caste) culture, tribal culture and urban culture.

The church’s still very Western face has alienated many and created the impression that Christianity is a religion of the West. The Eastern origins of Christianity and its more oriental expressions have been ignored. It will take a lot more of soul-searching, interreligious dialogue and a quest for new methods of theology before a genuinely Indian Catholic church is born.

Jesuit Fr. Hans Staffner, who worked for many years on Hindu-Christian synthesis and wrote several books on the subject, among them Jesus Christ and the Hindu Community and The Significance of Jesus Christ in Asia, said that a Hindu-Christian spirituality would emphasize the interior way of going to God, rather than the outward way. It would help believers to go into their innermost selves, where there is a desire for boundless truth, goodness and beauty.

He felt that this synthesis would also stress God’s immanence, as opposed to popular Western thought, which has put a rather one-sided stress on God’s transcendence. Hindu spirituality has always found its greatest joy and inspiration in the thought of God’s presence within us. This emphasis on the deep inner experience would lead to greater spontaneity in worship. Similarly, he said that with the great reverence shown for people who have renounced all worldly possessions in Hinduism, this synthesis would also lead to a great stress on renunciation.

Staffner argued that when a true synthesis was established of the Christian faith and Hindu culture, it would lead to an increased study of the spiritual treasures contained in the Hindu culture.

Staffner is not a lone voice in India. And the tussle between those who would like to cling to the Western mode of expression in the Indian church and those who see the need to inculturate the Indian church goes on. Sometimes, a superficial borrowing of Hindu rituals and customs and integrating them in worship is attempted in the church, without an in-depth study of their real significance. Much work in this direction needs be done. Perhaps it will take many years and much more effort before the Catholic church in India is able to strike deep roots in Indian culture and Indian soil.

Janina Gomes is communications manager at the Indo-Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mumbai, India. She contributes regularly to the “Speaking Tree” column of the Times of India, a column devoted to philosophy and religion.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000