Believing without Belonging? Some Reflections

By Sahi, Jyoti | International Review of Mission, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Believing without Belonging? Some Reflections


Sahi, Jyoti, International Review of Mission


I have been asked to reflect on the various discussions that have gone on during this consultation, and to respond with some personal thoughts from the perspective of my work in mission, and what has been termed the process of inculturation of the church in India. This process, which was set in motion by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, addressed a new situation that had arisen after the second world war with the disintegration of important colonial empires and the rise of many new nation states. India was one significant example of this new. phenomenon. I am myself very much a child of this independent India; I was born in 1944 towards the end of the war, and just before India gained its freedom.

The church in India had been very much associated with the colonial period. The typical church styles that we find in different places reflect the prevailing cultural forms of the colonialists. Thus, we have the Baroque style of the Portuguese churches in Goa, the imitation Gothic style which was favoured by the French in Pondicherry, or the typical British architecture which copied models designed in London by the architect Christopher Wren. There was very little to be found in the culture of Indian Christians that drew from artistic forms related to the great tradition of Indian art and architecture. In fact, the missionaries had rejected Indian imagery and visual symbolism as pagan or idolatrous.

It is incarnational theology that underlies the idea of inculturation. The church, like the divine Word, has to be incarnated through a process of translation. However, there is also the idea of transfiguration, i.e. a risen Christ who, freed from the limitations of his Jewish cultural identity, can walk with his disciples to distant lands. The Christ who appears to India is not the Jesus of history, but a cosmic Lord who transcends all cultural and historical limitations, and is on this account able to enter into all spiritual traditions.

The problem that we are continually debating is one of identity. "Who am I?" This question relates not only to my own personal, historical narrative but also, at a more profound level, to "not I, but the Christ who lives in me". The questions which I am asked are: "Why do you represent Christ as an Indian?" "Was Jesus an Indian?" These same questions were poignantly put in a somewhat different way by a Hindu who was scandalized by Peter Brooke's famous representation of the Mahabharata. There, a British person acted the lead role of Krishna. "How is this possible?" demanded my Hindu friend, who was living in Leicester, England at the time, "Krishna was an Indian, not a British national!" This brought me with a jolt to my own identity. Am I an Indian? True, I have an Indian passport and an Indian name. But my Indian friend in Leicester, who worships the Lord Krishna, has a British passport.

Some of us struggle with the question of whether we are Christian Hindus or Hindu Christians. Interestingly, there is nothing in Hinduism that would deny either possibility. Hinduism is not defined by any credal formula. Even the Indian constitution does not understand Hinduism as a confessional belief expressed in some creed. A Hindu is a person who belongs to India. I remember the occasion when I visited the sanctum sanctorum of the Madhurai temple, one of the greatest temples of South India. I went with my father, and I was anxious to see the central icons of the temple. The priest who stood at the door of this inner locus of the mystery asked, "Are you a Hindu?" My father immediately answered, "I am a Hindu from Panjab, and this is my son." It was an important moment for me. I had never been defined like that before, especially by my own father. Of course, he was speaking his truth and the Hindu priest was entirely satisfied. He was not concerned with my personal God -- my Ishta Devata, or God of my choic e. He was not even concerned with my family God, or Kula Devata.

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