H.E. Msgr. Joseph Powathil Archbishop Emeritus of Changanacherry of the Syro-Malabarians

This article was published in Oasis 9. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:44:08

To many in the West, it may be a surprise, even today, to learn that Christianity took shape in India at the very beginning of the Christian era. That St. Thomas preached the Gospel in India was a fact acknowledged by some of the early Church Fathers themselves. Although contemporary records are lacking in the secular history of India of those days, the convergence of traditions in the Middle East and in India regarding the Indian apostolate of St. Thomas is a convincing testimony to the fact. As one historian put it, perhaps in a striking manner, there is as much evidence on the apostolate St. Thomas in India as there is on St. Peter’s apostolate in Rome. That there has been a community which called themselves St. Thomas Christians or Nazranis from the earliest times is sufficiently attested to by early writers. These Christians had a close relationship with Christianity in Mesopotamia and other places where St. Thomas or his immediate disciples also preached the same gospel. As a result of this close collaboration, they came to share the same liturgy and consequently the same theology and spirituality. The liturgical language was Syriac and the Christians were greatly influenced by the early Jewish Christian traditions. It may be said that these local Churches followed a form of Syriac Christianity. But the Christians in India related as much as possible to local Indian cultures. In building churches they made use of Indian architectural and artistic patterns. In the use of language, in dressing habits etc., they were at one with their neighbours. There was no Christian ghetto in that sense. In fact, St. Thomas Christians have been always fully integrated into the main stream of Indian society. They remained ‘Oriental in worship, Christian in religion, and Hindu in culture’ and have never been seen as aliens, until very recently. One can experience the osmosis between Christian faith and local culture from many visible signs. In their matrimonial traditions the St. Thomas Christians adopted most of the native social elements while maintaining the liturgical Eastern Syrian style. For example, no wedding ring was used here even though it was prescribed in the Eastern Syrian Rite. It may be that the tali, a heart-shaped golden ornament that in Hindu Brahmin marriage is tied by the bridegroom around the neck of the bride, took the place of rings. The Thomas Christians Christianised this tradition by depicting a cross of twenty-one minute beads over the tali. The thread used to tie the tali was drawn out of the mantrakodi, the bridal veil. After tying the tali, the bridegroom put the mantrakodi over the head of the bride, a symbolic gesture announcing the husband’s commitment to take care of her. Furthermore, the Thomas Christians followed the Hindu Brahmin custom of the dowry given by the party of the bride to the bridegroom. It was given in cash and gold on the day of engagement at the house of the bride. A certain percentage of the dowry, which was called pasaram, was to be donated the parish church. The same intermixture between Christian and local tradition occurred in funeral rites and architecture. The dying person was laid on a bed facing east and people around it would chant prayers. The corpse was washed in warm water and anointed a few hours after death. It was then laid out in a prominent place in the house, the face towards the east before the funeral service began. The repast (Pattinikanji), ritual bath (Pulakuli), anniversary celebration of the dead (Cattam or Sradham) are also customs taken over by Christians. The architecture of the St. Thomas Christians, both religious and civil, including domestic architecture, further testifies to the common Hindu culture they have, as proved by the representation of the Indian national bird, the peacock, the national flower, the lotus, and even the national animal, the tiger, in sculptures, paintings, murals as well as metal objects, that one can find in Kerala churches. The most eloquent symbol of the cultural heritage of St. Thomas Christians is the St. Thomas Cross, also known as the Persian Cross, where a lotus flower beneath the blossoming cross represents at the same time both Hindu culture and the Christian faith that they received from the Apostle Thomas. But there was a sharp break with this situation soon after the coming of the Portuguese. The St. Thomas Christians first welcomed them as their own brethren in faith. But at that time the Portuguese could not imagine other forms of Catholicism different from their own. More particularly they could not accept the Syriac form of worship and other eastern liturgical and spiritual traditions. Hence enthusiasts such as Archbishop Menezes (from the West) tried to impose their own tradition on the St. Thomas Christians. At the so called ‘Synod of Diamper,’ Menezes and others managed to impose many changes on their liturgical and social customs and practices. It was a clear attempt to Latinise this Church. This led to strong opposition and finally in 1563 a large section of this Church broke away and later became part of the Jacobite (Antiochean) Church. Before this happened the Church in India was one. But the Church that was shaped by the Portuguese missionaries followed the Latin pattern and adopted many Western attitudes in worship, cultural life and church governance – outside Kerala above all else. Since 1947 there has been an attempt in the Latin Church to Indianise or to inculturate on Indian soil. However, those who were engaged in this attempt have often uncritically accepted many Brahmin practices without sufficient study and preparation. Therefore ‘foreigness’ still remains an argument of the Hindu fundamentalists against the Church in India. Nevertheless, even many of these fundamentalists admit that the Syrian Christians are fully Indian, given that Christianity arrived in Kerala before Hinduism became dominant. ‘The Catholic Church is a communion of particular churches’. This is true also in India, where we have three Churches working together under the common banner of the ‘Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India’. These three Churches are the ancient Syro-Malabar Church, the Syro-Malankara Church (which came into existence in 1931 through a reunion of a section of the Syrian Orthodox Church) and the Latin Church (which came into existence in the sixteenth century). Indian Christianity is an image of world Christianity, with all its divisions – the Syrian Orthodox Churches, the Protestant communities and evangelical groups. So ecumenical activity is a need and the Churches cooperate in many ways. The Syro-Malabar Church has good ecumenical contacts with the other Churches and communities in Kerala. We have official dialogue with the Orthodox Churches. All the Churches together have a common church at Nilackal, a place where St. Thomas first preached the gospel. This is an example of unique collaboration between the Churches. In Kerala we have an Inter-Church Council for Education to look after our educational interests. The Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara Churches have ecumenical commissions to promote Christian unity. The bishops of Kerala meet together once a year to discuss common issues. India has been the cradle of many religions, languages and cultures. Various races have entered India over the course of time. The exclusive set-up of the caste structure (in Hinduism) has added to this multiplicity. Each of these groups has its own identity, its own culture and its own traditions. India is a vast unity in diversity, in which, according to some authors, the splendour of India consists. The Syro-Malabarians have behind them a long experience of peaceful co-existence with the members of other religions. The prevalent tradition has been mutual respect for each other. No one spoke ill of the leaders of other communities. Not only, at various levels, did Christians try to collaborate with others but even in religious festivals there was some exchange of cordiality. In several places, the Hindus, for example, used to extend a welcome to our processions and we used to honour their leaders on similar occasions. This centuries-old inter-religious fellowship continues unabated in Kerala. In many Syro-Malabar parishes and dioceses inter-religious meetings are held as part of festival celebrations, jubilee programmes etc. In early times, the local kings and chieftains used to donate land for our churches and sometimes to our schools and other educational institutions. Our service in the field of education has left a deep impression on other religionists. The majority of students in most of our institutions belong to other religions. In the State of Kerala the majority of educational institutions belong to Christians. It is to be remembered that in earlier times, when even government schools were not open to low caste and underprivileged groups, it was Christian institutions that took them in and educated them. Besides, Christian missionaries made a significant contribution to the development of various languages, for example by writing dictionaries and grammar books, while Christian terms have left their imprint on the various languages of South India. Bible stories also have been taken up by Hindu writers as themes for their literary works. We work together with some of the organisations of the Hindus for protecting our educational interests and human rights. We also collaborate with Muslims, mostly at the local level. The cultural impact of Christianity on Hinduism also cannot be forgotten. The abolition of polygamy and polyandry has been successful because of the witness of our monogamous families. Some of the Hindu organisations have found our parish organisation successful and have tried to follow this pattern in their organisations. In the sector of charitable works and social activity we have given a lead to others. In short, it may be said that until recently we have had a peaceful co-existence of the different religions: Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It was not merely a co-existence, but in several fields there was fraternal collaboration based on mutual respect. For the Indian Christians, especially the oriental Christians, this was only a natural way of living. The dominant idea until the late-twentieth century was that the different cultures have to be respected and promoted. That is why, especially in the field of education, special protection was given by the Indian Constitution to minority religious and linguistic groups. Modern education imparted by the Christians in India had shaped the mindset of many political leaders who were the Fathers of the Constitution and inter-religious harmony was particularly strong and lively in Kerala where Christians had a key role to play in public life. Nowadays things have changed to a large extent, mostly because of the rise of fundamentalism. Though it is often called ‘religious’ fundamentalism, it is in truth a politically motivated affair. Some groups of Hindus and Muslims have been exploiting the religious sentiments of their co-religionists for political purposes, often supported by some religious leaders who protect them without knowing their ulterior aims. In particular, some extremist groups aim at gaining political advantage by turning their guns on the minorities. They want to establish a Hindu State on the model of the neighbouring Islamic States of Pakistan or Bangladesh. Furthermore, we are witnessing the Hindu reaction against some so-called ‘Islamic’ terrorist groups. The latter contribute to the consolidation of Hindu political parties which manage to obtain Hindu votes by playing the religious card. The extremists are totally opposed to the conversion of Hindus and have passed ‘anti-conversion laws’ in the States where they are in command. They try to re-convert new Christians and Muslims; they protect the miscreants who attack churches and Church personnel and carry on a slander campaign against Christianity. They have to some extent created a certain ill-feeling against Islam and Christianity among Hindus. This has led to provocative action and in many places small Christian communities feel really threatened. The groups also rail against Western cultural forms, although they stand for liberal economic policies. In Kerala the situation has been comparatively calm. Here we are a strong minority (about 20%) and we have tried to maintain good relationships with other religious leaders. The evangelical groups here have not been as polemical as in other States. So there is less reason to mount an attack on Christians here. However there have been stray incidents here and there of conflicts between local groups. There are also some small Islamic groups which try to relate themselves to terrorist groups abroad and are sometimes influenced by them. The recent terrorist attacks in India were planned and carried out by these groups, who usually rail against Israel, the USA and the Hindu extremists. The vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving, but there is a section, unfortunately, that adopt fundamentalist positions. What many people do not realize is that besides ‘religious’ fundamentalism, we are also facing a Marxist threat. Marxists are already in power in three States in the Indian Republic. They are also prone to violence and they aim at total control in the political sphere. They are already harassing the Church in many ways in Kerala, especially in the educational sector. They are now trying the parliamentary path only because of the prestige of the Indian Constitution and the prevailing democratic frame of mind in the country. Because of the promises they make and the protection they give to criminals, many youngsters are influenced by them. This Marxist dominance may be a greater threat to our Christian tradition in Kerala than even the religious fundamentalists. Times have changed and the millennia-old Christian tradition is being challenged as never before. The Christian leadership is praying and doing its best to protect the Christian tradition whose continuance is necessary for the building up of a peaceful Indian Society.