Media excerpts: INDIAN CURRENTS, Issue 15 , 6 - 12 April 2 009

CANDID CORNER

Jesus in Dharma

A.J. Philip

 

 

I am not a Catholic but I look forward to listening to or reading the Good Friday prayers of the Pope next week. This is because, according to a report in The Hindu (March 30), Archbishop of Guwahati Thomas Menamparampil has composed the prayers. It is the first time an Indian bishop has written the prayers, which will be used for the "Way of the Cross" at the Vatican.

Millions of people the world over will witness the Good Friday service through television, radio and the Internet. It would be easier for me to follow the service as my friend Fr Benedict Vadakkekara had played a perfect host while giving me a guided tour of the Vatican and explaining the various stations of the "Way of the Cross" when I visited Rome during the Jubilee Year 2000.

The Archbishop has been quoted as saying that he has incorporated in the prayers the essence of the ahimsa teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the ideal of Nishkama karma (selfless action and detachment in service) of Vaishnavite saint of Assam Srimanta Sankardeva.

Menamparampil adds, "Ahimsa as a concept is much deeper than non-violence, revealing fullness of its meaning in Jesus as he confronts violence with serenity and strength. Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva’s teachings of Nishkama karma is also realised best in Jesus. There are several other Indian values like the sense of the sacred, contemplation, silence, spiritual depth, family and community loyalty, spirit of renunciation, which stand out in the life of Jesus in the most edifying manner. They are not only valid for India but also for the whole world".

The Archbishop is not the first to see the fulfillment of the best ideals of Hinduism, hereafter referred to as Dharma, in Jesus Christ. That brings us to the question of what is dharma. "In Indian thought, an entity is known by its attributes, or lakshanas, and not by its arbitrary "definitions". Dharma is manifest in its three main attributes: prabhava, dharana and ahimsa".

Now let us turn to the Mahabharata (Santi-parva) to know how dharma is explained: "All the sayings of dharma are with a view to nurturing, cherishing, providing more amply, enriching, prospering, increasing, enhancing, all living beings; in one word, securing their prabhava. Therefore, whatever has the characteristic of bringing that about, is dharma. This is certain.

"All the sayings of dharma are with a view to supporting, sustaining, bringing together, and in their togetherness upholding, all living beings; securing, in one word, their dharma. Therefore, whatever has the characteristic of doing that, is dharma. This is certain.

"All the sayings of dharma are with a view to securing, for all living beings freedom from violence, ahimsa. Therefore, whatever has the characteristic of not doing violence, is dharma. This is certain."

Conversely, whatever has the characteristic of depriving, starving, diminishing, separating, uprooting, hurting, doing violence, debasing and degrading, is the negation of dharma. Whatever brings that about, is, in one word, adharma. Small wonder that Chaturvedi Badrinath, a Brahmin from Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh and a philosopher who served in Tamil Nadu as an IAS officer for 31 years, begins his book Finding Jesus in Dharma: Christianity in India (ISPCK) with this statement: "For me, Jesus Christ is a perfect embodiment of dharma".

Later, he explains: "The meaning of Jesus is manifest in the truth, as he expressed it both in his life and in his teachings, that "it is love, and not the laws, that has the power to redeem and to save. For, it is love that nurtures, cherishes, enriches, enhances, brings together, sustains, supports, and brings freedom from fear and from violence. Jesus, in being an embodiment of love, is the embodiment of its attributes as well. Seen in this clear light, the meaning of Jesus is the meaning also of dharma: of which, in his attributes, he is a perfect embodiment."

Recently, I and my son, a reporter with PTI, met Aji Sebastian, a Catholic priest, who is known as Isai Baba, when we had gone to Dharma Jyoti Vidyapeeth, a theological college near Faridabad in Haryana. He wears saffron, sports a beard and has an ashram-like set-up, which is always kept open to all the needy. He is an ayurvedic practitioner and is immensely popular in the area. He is a permanent invitee to all the functions in the village, whether it is related to birth, marriage or death.

Fr. Aji Sebastian

When the story about the "Catholic priest in saffron" appeared in many newspapers, hate postings appeared in some websites and blogs run by the Sangh Parivar adherents. I was shocked when I read some of them. They called him a cheat who is out to proselytize the gullible Hindus of the area. The worst comment was: "He may wear saffron but he will have beef for dinner, washed down with the choicest wine". The writer never cared to find out what he ate: roti and dal like most of the poor villagers among whom he lived like a mendicant.

Again, it is not the first time that a Christian religious person, who tried to imbibe the best from Hinduism and live accordingly, has been demonised. The first to do so, as many readers would know, was Robert de Nobili, who came to India in 1605. He took to the traditional dress of a Hindu sanyasi. He wore on his person the conspicuous mark of a Brahmin – the sacred thread. He grew a kudumbi or a tuft of hair on a shaven head – another mark of a Brahmin. He abandoned leather shoes and used only wooden sandals.

He gave up wine and meat and lived frugally as would a Hindu mendicant. Above all, he avoided, like a true sanyasi, all contact with women. He discoursed in fluent Tamil, learnt Sanskrit, and interpreted Christian doctrines in the language of Dharmic scholasticism. All this was neither hypocrisy, nor fraud, although he was accused, like Fr Sebastian, of both.

When a Catholic church was built in Kurukshetra, where the Mahabharata war is believed to have taken place, the architect wanted it to look like a chariot and the authorities concurred. It is one of the most unusual churches that I ever visited. When the Orthodox Syrian Church at Parumala, associated with the Parumala Thirumeni, was rebuilt recently, the famous architect Charles Correa was not guided by western Christian architecture. He wanted the church to be accommodative, not imposing.

Readers would have heard about Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya, who was baptised in the Catholic Church in 1891. Two years ago, on the occasion of the centenary of his death, a meeting was organised by my young friend Ashish Alexander in Chandigarh in remembrance of this great savant. I was surprised that a lot of people turned up for the meeting held without much fanfare.

This is how Ashish introduced Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya: "The force of his personality was felt and acknowledged by the stalwarts of Bengali, or even Indian, renaissance such as Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Keshabchandra Sen, Pratapchandra Majumdar and Aurobindo Ghosh.

"Ashis Nandy — who calls Upadhyay ‘Tagore’s political double’ — mentions that aspects of Upadhyay’s character found their way into the protagonists of at least two of Tagore’s overtly political novels, namely, Char Adhyay and Gora. Nandy, in fact, adds Ghar-Baire to this list and states that these three novels can be ‘read as a record of Tagore’s attempt to grapple with his ambivalence toward the complex, melodramatic personality of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay."

Though the Indian Church has had such leaders as K.T. Paul and Joseph Cornelis Kumarappa, who were staunch nationalists, there are some people, notably in the Sangh Parivar who believe that Christianity is an alien religion. How far from the truth is this assertion is borne out by the fact that the religion reached the shores of India within 50 years of crucifixion and gained respectability in the country, at least 300 years before the persecution of Christians stopped in the Roman Empire and Christianity became a state religion.

Parumala Church

This is a historical truth. References to Indian Christians were made by numerous travelers, lay and missionary, who visited the West Coast – from Cosmos Indicopleustes in the 6th century to Tho.Herbert early in the 17th. In other words, Christianity is older than Hinduism as it is understood today. As L.W. Brown puts it, "It was in existence when Adi Sankara expounded Advaitism and Ramanuja and Madhwa their Dwaitism. It was in existence before Alwars flourished and Saivaite Acharyas rose". Also, the fact that it is an Asian religion, like Hinduism and Buddhism, cannot be overemphasised.

Yet, many consider Christianity as a foreign religion that has been forcibly planted in the country. As a regular churchgoer, I can vouchsafe that, more often than not, the stories and incidents mentioned during sermons are usually derived from Western sources. I often wondered why stories from the Hindu scriptures could not be used to explain particular situations. For instance, what could be a better story about friendship than that existed between Krishna and Kuchela? What could be a better example of brotherly love than that existed between Rama and Lakshmana?

The pity is that Christians know little about Hinduism and Islam as Hindus know little about Christianity and Islam. How costly such ignorance was brought home when a contestant in the highly popular television programme Kaun Banega Crorepati failed to answer the question: What is the last word Christians utter when they pray? Among the four options was "Amen". He failed to answer the question and lost Rs 25 lakh on account of his ignorance. I routinely receive messages to wish me on the "happy occasion" of Good Friday from some of my non-Christian friends.

It is against this backdrop that I felt thrilled to hear about the initiative of the Archbishop. It would have been a surprise if he had not included Srimant Sankaradeva’s teaching when he prepared the Good Friday prayers. How can anybody who has lived in the Northeast for so long not know about Sankaradeva, a Bhakti saint of the 15th and 16th centuries who worshipped Vishnu.

I first heard about Sankaradeva when my friend Dileep Chandan, who edits Asom Bani, a popular Assamese weekly, told me about his novel based on Majauli, the world’s largest riverine island. Later, I had an occasion to visit the island in the company of Dileep and Northeast expert Sanjoy Hazarika. The Brahmaputra was in spate when we boarded a motorboat to reach Majauli and it, therefore, took longer to reach the idyllic island.

As the story goes, Shankaradeva, born at Bardowa in Naogang district in Assam in 1449, was the son of a local chieftain. He turned religious at a young age, though he was forced to marry. And when his wife died, he went on a pilgrimage and on return, he spent all his time in a temple, composing verses of devotion and reading and discoursing on sacred texts.

When his clan, the Bhuyans, faced problems from rival clans, he moved to Majauli where he set up Satras, Vaishnava religious centres or monasteries, for organising and spreading Vaishnavism in Assam. A visit to one of the Satras, where we had a simple but tasty Assamese lunch, is still etched in my memory. Satras are also institutions that help retain some of the cultural heritages of Assam.

Sankaradeva grew up in warlike conditions in Assam. He did not approve of the prevalent religious tradition, which was based on tantric rites and animal sacrifices. His philosophical base was Vedantic, but he believed in Bhakti, prayers and worship. He practiced Nishkama karma and treated everyone equally, irrespective of caste. Thus, he was also a social reformer like Sri Narayana Guru, who preached ‘One Caste, One Religion, One God’. Sankaradeva is to Assam what Adi Sankara is to Kerala.

By incorporating Sankaradeva’s teachings in the Good Friday prayers, the church has underlined the point that Jesus, who is beyond history and theology, is the perfect embodiment of Dharma. After all, faith, trust, caring, love and truth are the meaning of Jesus, as they are of Dharma as understood by Mahatma Gandhi and Srimant Sankaradeva. My congratulations to Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil.

(The writer can be reached at ajphilip@gmail.com)