The Balasuriya case has focused attention on Inculturation' — how far Catholicism should embrace local traditions. Asian expert PAUL MURPHY reports
ToE FIRST part of Mark Tully's BBC series, In the Footsteps f Jesus, showed the new face of the Church in India: Catholic priests who freely admitted an empathy for their Hindu heritage, sat Buddhalike holding Bibles aloft or waved oil lamps at bare-foot worshippers.
In my own travels to churches all over India I have seen much stranger sights. Coconuts at altars, shrines of Jesus or Mary draped in marigold wreathes, priests who play the sitar or tabla, or engage in Bharatnatyam dancing, have all become facets of the Church.
A colourful cultural display involving similar elements was staged for the benefit of Pope John Pau) I/ when he visited Colombo in 1995 the Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka shares much in common with that of predominately Hindu India.
The questions one might raise: is Christian faith different in South Asia? are Christian religious practices different? and does the Roman Catholic Church follow a different form of dogma?
The quick answer, as with most things in India, is that it is difficult to make generalisations in this astonishingly diverse country, which embraces hundreds of languages and cultures. However, a tradition of unorthodoxy withinthe Church goes back to at least the early 17th century when Jesuit Italian missionary Robert di Nobili came to south India. He was greatly attracted by the Indian ideal of asceticism, became a Hindu "sannyasi", speaking Tamil, and travelling in the garb of a sadhu with sandalwood paste on his forehead and a sacred thread on his shoulder. For all his missionary success, the Church in the West was uneasy about his approach which caused great controversy at the time.
Bede Griffiths, a British Benedictine monk who died a few years ago, helped to set up a famous ashram in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu in 1968 which became an important place of ecumenical dialoguebetween different religions: a Christian community following Hindu customs, where people of different religious traditions could meet. There are now such Indian-style Catholic ashrams dotted all over India.
If Western Christians have often become radicals after reaching India, the Indian Church has gone even further down that road. Many of its priests, inspired by ideals of liberation theology, have tried to reach out to the Hindu "untouchable caste" through methods known as "inculturation' for example, depicting Mary in statues as a poor Indian brown-skinned woman of low caste, in some cases astride a camel.
In a deliberate move away from Western stereotypes, the mainstream Catholic Church in India has drawn inspiration from its Eastern religious heritage. All over India, I have come across examples of this from a Catholic priest in Madras who gives courses in Zen Buddhism to a contemplative nun, who in a remote rural spot near the Mahatma's birthplace, designed and built an Easternstyle temple to serve as a chapel.
India's most popular Catholic shrine town, Vailankanni, has adopted the Hindu tradition of tonsuring the heads of pilgrims before they make a vow to Our Lady. So popular is Vailankanni that it attracts tens of thousands of Hindus and Muslims every month who join in the Catholic celebrations.
Catholic priests take a relaxed attiude towards these changes. For example, Fr Stephen O'Donnell, an American who in 1994 helped set up the first branch in India of Opus Dei — an organisation noted for its deeply traditional standpoint — told me: "The Church may be different in India, but then it is refreshing to get away from the West where people go around shouting about the right to have an abortion. India is so different to Western countries where one encounters atheism, agnosticism and scepticism. I have taken Mass in one New Delhi secondary school for girls. In the school chapel there are Hindu girls who will stop to visit the blessed sacrament; such is their reverence that they never turn their back to the tabernacle."
While most Catholics in India have supported, acquiesced or else been quiescent to the changes in the Church which came in the wake of the coun
try's independence in 1947, there have been conflicts between traditionals and liberals. One of the biggest battlegrounds has been in Bombay where a group of traditional Catholic laity since the early 1990s has taken a hostile stance to what they regard as a watering-down of the Church's basic doctrine. This has led to aggressive action, and priests in Bombay have stories to recount of their sermons being taperecorded and then used against them.
However, most of the strife has been caused by a number of evangelical Protestant groups in India, often with backing from Christian organisations in North America, who have been leading a resistance to "inculturation". One of their most articulate spokesmen is Bob Reid, a Canadian who runs the Delhi Bible Fellowship, an interdenominational, evangelical Church based in India's capital. He doesn't talk of inculturation, but uses the perjorative term "syncretism", a concept which charges that the true Christian faith is being corrupted by incompatible ideas that undermine the purity of Church doctrine. In a dissertation he gave several years ago to the American Baptist Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, he mounted an onslaught on the Church in India.
Reid said that he was not convinced that Indian Christians were adhering to basic tenets of the Bible, and criticised "syncretistic" practices both in India's mainline Protestant Church (the Churches of North and South India), and the Catholic Church.
"I attended a Catholic Mass at an Indian pilgrimage town, and in the Church there was a small table instead of an altar," he told me. "Coconut milk was used instead of wine; banana chips or dried pieces of coconut instead of bread. I was particularly bothered by the use of coconuts since they are an integral part of Hindu rituals. The Roman Catholic priest was wearing saffron instead of white vestments. And the priest made use of the Hindu chant 'Om.' During the procession, a Bishop instead of sprinkling holy water threw marigold petals on the congregation. The intent was to make the Church very Indian, but the spectacle deeply worried me."
Marina Netto, Indian president of the Seattle-based Woman's AGLOW, an international Christian organisation, left the Catholic Church in Bombay in the late 1980s, and said many others followed her example at that time. "Priests used to be deeply respected, but the policies of the Church have lost that respect," she said. Mrs Netto cited an example of a Catholic priest in Bombay who chose to wear a red tilak on his forehead for the Christmas Mass. "The red dot is not just a symbol but is one of many devices used by Hindus to enhance supernatural effects, and for that reason must be deplored," she said. Such views have tapped a wellspring of feeling among many ordinary Christian Indians who seek to be different to Hindus. The bitter debate has harmed the Catholic Church since much of the Christian growth in India in the last few decades has come from North American or European-backed Pentecostalists, evangelicals and non-denominational churches which don't hestitate to pour scorn on "syncretism." Not that one should exaggerate the success of this movement. The Christian conversion phenomenon in South Korea in the last few decades has not happened in India where the scale of church growth remains very limited. India remains obstinately 85 per cent Hindu / Sikh/ Jain, 10 percent Muslim and only three to four per cent Christian.
George Abraham, pastor at the Pentecostalist Delhi Revival Church said many Indian Christians were concerned that "syncretism" sacrificed Biblical truth for the sake of culture. "The danger is that the distinction becomes blurred between Hindus and Christians to the point that Christians can't see the difference between the two religions," he commented.
But Fr Vincent Sekhar, director of a Jesuit centre in Madras heavily involved in fighting for the rights of exploited low caste Hindus, argues that as long as the Indian Church retains a 'Western" outlook it will never gain widespread support.
"Vatican II encouraged ashrams like ours to be set up in various parts of India," said Fr Sekhar, who completed his doctoral studies in the Jain reli gion. "We're trying to work towards indigenisation and new forms of inculturation. Before, Christianity was just on the level of religion; now it's also on the level of culture and economics and liberation theology. We have tried to make use of Hindu symbols in the sacrament. When we worship we make use of Hindu and Tamil literature. Instead of Western vestments we may use a saffron cloth which is the choice of colour of the sannyasi the Hindu who has renounced the world. This Christian ashram approach is in touch with mainstream Hindu India and is the only true way forward. "