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"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.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ayyappa devotees' vows copied by Andhra church's new rules

March 11, 2008
Nazirite Vow Helps Andhra Catholics Observe Lent

HYDERABAD, India (UCAN) -- One recent night at a Marian shrine in southern India, a group of Catholics in maroon shirts and black trousers gathered to rehearse the Way of the Cross ahead of Good Friday.

"We are all in deeksha (fasting)," Sudhakar Reddy told UCA News while pointing to his attire on Feb. 13, a week after Lent began on Ash Wednesday.

According to him, some 40 men and women from his parish's 300 families have vowed to wear maroon, symbolizing sadness, during Lent this year. They also have undertaken penance such as fasting by having only one meal a day.

Reddy is a member of the Our Lady of Fathima Shrine community in Hyderabad archdiocese's Suraram parish. The 30-year-old electrician, who will play the role of Christ for the Way of the Cross, has been rehearsing with a 30-kilogram cross. Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh state and base of the archdiocese, is 1,500 kilometers south of New Delhi.

Danthika Johannes, 33, another parishioner, told UCA News they began the unique Lenten practice four years ago after "our parish priest encouraged us to fast in this way."

Parish priest Father Yeruva Thomas explained the maroon clothing reminds people "that they are fasting and helps them keep away from temptations." He told UCA News that people abstain from alcohol, smoking and other bad habits during this time. Prayer and fasting, he added, help people come closer to Jesus.

The priest narrated how practicing deeksha helped change a 40-year-old alcoholic Catholic. G.I. Bhaskar, was able to give up drinking and pray while fasting, Father Thomas said. Bhaskar now joins the parish's deeksha group to visit one family every evening and pray with them, and "participates in the Way of the Cross daily."

The priest dismissed the allegation that the Lenten penance resembles practices among the devotees of Ayyappa, a bachelor god in Hinduism. Thousands of Hindus from Andhra Pradesh visit the Ayyappa temple situated inside a dense forest in Kerala, another southern Indian state. Devotees wear black and go barefoot for 41 days before visiting the temple. They also undertake fasting and abstinence during the pilgrimage season, which ends on Jan. 14.

Father Thomas claims the Lenten practice he promotes has roots in the Old Testament. "Our deeksha finds its origin in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 6, where the Nazirite oath is mentioned," he explained.

Among many stipulations, the Nazirite vow forbids consumption of alcohol and "strong drinks," and shaving or cutting hair during the period. Those under the vow should stay away from a deceased's house, even if a relative dies.

Catholics in other dioceses in Andhra Pradesh follow similar customs during Lent, the season leading to Jesus' death on the cross, commemorated on Good Friday, and his resurrection on Easter. Some people wear white, saffron or brown clothing.

In Vijayawada diocese, deeksha practitioners gather for an all-night vigil at Gunadala, a Marian shrine on a hilltop. This year the vigil is scheduled for March 14, the Friday before Good Friday. Easter Sunday falls on March 23.

Jojappa Kathula, a parishioner of Vijayawada's Nunna parish, told UCA News by phone that his diocese has listed 22 rules for observing deeksha.

These include weekly confession, eating food only once a day, doing two good things daily and attending diocesan prayer meetings meant for Lenten deeksha practitioners. They also are supposed to go barefoot and sleep on a mat. Other rules include attending daily Mass and attending the Way of the Cross on Wednesdays and Fridays. "They must carry on with their daily work, and if they are married must abstain from sex," Kathula explained.

Joji Reddy, a parishioner in Hyderabad, says the special enactment of the Way of the Cross on Good Friday is also "an occasion to spread the faith."

The 39-year-old Catholic said Hindus at Our Lady of Fathima Shrine poured water on the route last year. "They believe that by doing so, they will get a share in the blessings," he explained.


At 6/13/2008 07:28:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

It is absolutely ridiculous to claim that a tradition and way of life of Christians which has been followed for about 2,000 years now has been copied from Ayyappa's devotees. Perhaps the critic should understand traditions of the church better, especially the practices followed worldwide during the Lenten season before he writes.


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