The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Indian Church Divided on Inculturation Strategy to Entice Hindu Converts

Mario Rodrigues
The Statesman
Nov 2 2005

A conclave of priests and bishops at the Papal Seminary in Pune last week called for the renewed “Indianisation” of the Catholic Church and the adoption of Hindu rituals, including aarti during Mass, studying Sanskrit and the Vedas, experiencing ashram life and so on. The conclave discussed this and other issues besieging the Church and the laity in the new millennium.

According to one report in the media, a seminary spokesman said: “The Catholic Church plans to adopt a number of Indian traditions and practices which will give us a feel of being an Indian.”

The issue, however, is not as simple as reports made it out to be. In the first place, the question of what “Indianisation” is and the limits to which it can be encouraged are a moot point.

For a vast number of Indian Catholics, “Indianisation” does not mean “Hinduisation” of the Brahminical variety, which is what reports seemed to suggest.

Putting the issue in perspective, Fr Tony Charangat, editor of the influential Church weekly, The Examiner, clarified that this was not a call for performing Hindu puja during Mass.

“We’re only for the use of rituals, myth and culture as the best means of communicating the message of Christianity in the Indian context,” he told The Statesman. He added that this process of inculturation was important because through it “we will be able to understand our own experience and our own culture better”.

European missionaries like Roberto de Nobili (the “Roman Brahmin”) and John de Britto, who came with the early Portuguese colonisers, were the earliest “Indianisers” who practised what they preached. Their message was kept alive by their disciples down the centuries but overall, the practices of Indian Christianity were decidedly Western till Independence.

But realisation dawned that the Church must become less Europeanised and more Indian to relate meaningfully to the social milieu in which it existed.
This process was fast forwarded by the epochal Vatican Council II (1962-65) when Rome shed its triumphal bearing and embraced ecumenism, inter-faith dialogue, inculturation and religious liberty.

This allowed the use of local languages (in place of Latin) and customs in Church services all over the world. It also gave a licence for a creative and radical reinterpretation of the Gospels, which in turn was responsible for the genesis of liberation theology in Latin America.

Christians form less than three per cent of the overall population of India and this includes Catholics (who subscribe to five rites), mainline Protestant denominations, other evangelical sects and the Orthodox churches of Kerala, both Catholic and otherwise.

Kerala churches have been proactive in their Indianisation tendencies and activists of the Syro-Malabar liturgy once tried to forcefully put this on the agenda when the late Pope John Paul II visited India a few years ago. In recent times, the process has acquired urgency because of the spate of attacks on Christians and Church institutions by the loony Hindu fundamentalist brigade that peaked during the “saffron raj” of the NDA at the Centre.

Today, Indianisation of the Church has come a long way. How far down the road of Indianisation the post-Conciliar Church here has travelled can be deduced from the fact that new-age churches are modelled after temples, the “Indian rite mass” (conceived by Cardinal Parecattil of the Syro-Malabar Church and the Jesuit Dr Amalorpavadas of the Latin Church, “masterminds” behind the inculturation movement in India) incorporates (Brahminical) Hindu rituals such as the chanting of Vedic and Upanishadic mantras.

Prayers begin with “OM”, readings are taken from the Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagvad Gita, tilak is applied to foreheads of priests and people, priests wear a saffron shawl instead of a cassock and sit on the ground at a table surrounded by small lamps rather than stand at the traditional altar.

In addition, Indian music is played at Church services, the entrance procession for the Mass has girls dancing the Bharatnatyam, kirtans and bhajans are sung at Communion. Priests and nuns are encouraged to adopt Indian religious values and customs in their religious practices and participate actively in Hindu festivals such as Ganesh-visarjan (immersion) and Raas Lila.

Many priests and nuns have anyway renounced their Western names and taken on Indian ones and many Church institutions now bear Indian names such as Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune (Pontifical Institute of Philosophy and Religion), Sadhana meditation centre, Lonavla, Satchitananda Ashram, Trichy and so on. Priests and nuns are besides encouraged to live in ashrams and experience divinity through the practice of disciplines such as yoga, vipasana, transcendental meditation, reiki, pranic healing and so on. Diehard conservatives in the clergy have been appalled by the changes and one searing critic has described this process as a “scandalous ecumenism with Hinduism”.
Such attempts have also not gone down well with sections of the laity. “The leadership wants to inculturate and have been contextualising theology to suit the Indian milieu but lay people are not willing to change,” Fr Allwyn D’Silva, director, Documentation, Research & Training Centre at the St Pius College, Mumbai, said.

He felt this was the “main block” faced by the Church in several regions, especially in a city like Mumbai where the population is cosmopolitan.
But this is not the only problem. Another stumbling road block is the question of what is Indian and whether Brahminical Hinduisation should be the dominant theological and liturgical trend in the Church.

There has, in fact, been stiff opposition to the advance of “Hinduisation” from radical Dalit theologians such as the late Rev Arvind Nirmal, the Rev M Azariah and the Rev James Massey, who have accused the high caste-dominated Church leadership of “Brahminising” Christianity in the name of “Indianising” the church.

“The current or traditional Indian Christian theology, which is based upon the Brahmanic traditions of Hindu religions did not/does not address itself to or reflect the issues which the majority of Christians faced either before or after they became Christians. It is because this _expression of theology is based upon the religious traditions of the minority even among the Hindus, because Brahmins (priestly caste) represent 5.22 only of the total population of India,” Rev Massey has argued.

These Dalit theologians have made a stinging critique of the Church’s internal power structures and its alliances with the ruling elite and vested interests, leading to sections of the clergy and laity challenging these oppressive structures both in Church and society and demanding empowerment.

This is one reason for the recent attacks on Christians orchestrated by upper caste-led leaders of the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal. Dalits, who form about 70 per cent of the total Indian Christian population, are still discriminated against even in the Church, and their ideologues and leaders would surely oppose such Brahminical trends being imposed from above.

Not that the Church is not aware of these problems. “Christianity does not mean uniformity and has taken into account cultural diversity,” concedes Fr Charangat, while acknowledging the existence and importance of several little cultures and liturgies such as tribal liturgy and subaltern liturgy which have to contend with the “greater culture” (Brahminism).

“For them (Dalits), adopting these things would be anathema since they are fighting against hierarchy,” he avers.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of India, with a view to accommodating contrasting tendencies, has left it to regional bishops to decide what is appropriate Indianisation, informs Fr Charangat. “It is a struggle and a challenge for us how to Indianise,” he says. Indeed, it is. The recent _expression of resolve at Pune amply demonstrates that the battle continues.

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