Indian converts often retain their pre-conversion rituals, traditions and non-converted relations, and some see their Christianity as ancient and embedded in culture
By Chhavi Sachdev, (April 17, 2006)
In largely Hindu India, the number of Christians is on the rise. Despite being a child of the West, Christianity in India is growing up with its own identity.
“Indian Christians, because they live in close proximity with other religions, tend to take other religions seriously and bring them to their theological discourse, which the Western Christians do not need to do,” said Kuruvilla Pandikattu, a Jesuit priest and physicist. “By and large the perspective is similar,” Pandikattu said.
Certain areas in India have always been strongholds of Christianity, such as Goa, a former Portuguese settlement on the West Coast, and Kerala on the East, where the Apostle Thomas is believed to have settled in the first century.
While the landing of Thomas is hard to prove or disprove, “there is definite evidence of a thriving Christian community in Kerala by the third century largely because of Syrian spice merchants who stayed in Kerala and intermarried,” said Corrine G. Dempsey, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“A conservative estimate is that 60 percent of all Christian Indians come from Dalit and lower classes,” said Albion University’s Selva Raj.
Missionaries, though banned by the government, gain a foothold thanks, largely, to the entrenched caste system in society. Although casteism has been officially outlawed since 1950, rural society runs along strict caste lines. The lowest caste, Dalits or Harijans, previously called “untouchables,” faces widespread discrimination along with economic and educational disadvantages.
India has a quota system, similar to the American affirmative action, but the realities of rural life are removed from it. Sociologists and anthropologists agree that a casteless religion is, therefore, attractive to indigenous tribals.
Yet, it is hard to determine whether faith precedes the desire for socioeconomic mobility, or vice versa, said Raj.
Evangelists also influence Christians from the mainstream churches or from other sects, said Rowena Robinson, an associate professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. “It is difficult to judge from attendance at evangelical ceremonies, the measure of actual conversions. The two should not be confused. Many may attend healing rituals etc without aligning themselves on a more permanent basis,” continued Robinson, who authored Christians of India and Religious Conversions in India: Modes, Motivations, and Meanings.
Those who do convert soon discover that Christianity is also rife with discrimination, Raj said. Even after adopting Christian names that have no obvious caste markers like Hindu names do, it remains obvious they are converts and, therefore, a step below. “Until 30 years ago, Christian cemeteries had separate burial grounds for Dalit converts,” said Raj, whose forthcoming book is called Dealing with the Deities.
Converts tend to retain their pre-conversion rituals, traditions and non-converted relations. “In all conversions almost everywhere, it is unlikely that the past will be completely eradicated. Cultural retentions are always there, including in terms of kinship structures, marriage patterns and ritual elements,” said Robinson.
Even in educated circles, the influence of preconversion and their neighbors’ Hinduism abounds. Christian brides in India wear white but eschew dresses for saris. At Kerala’s Syrian Christian weddings, the climax of the event is the tying of the tali around the bride’s neck, like at Hindu weddings, said Dempsey. The tali is a gold leaf-shaped ornament worn on a gold chain. Christian talis often have crosses on them to distinguish them from Hindu talis. “Syrian Christian churches often have prominently displayed gold lamps similar to lamps you see in Hindu temples,” she said.
Additionally, “Saint festivals look very much like festivals at Hindu temples, particularly when it comes to processions in which the saint’s statue — like the Hindu murti, or statue — brings up the rear.”
Syrian priests even used to provide astrological advice, though Dempsey said this has fallen out of favor in the past half century. Nevertheless “some Christians still quietly visit astrologers and pay attention to muhurtham, or auspicious timing, when it comes to travel or arranging major events such as weddings,” she said.
“Kerala Christians don’t see themselves as hanging onto Hindu practices as a sign of semi-conversion,” said Dempsey, who with Raj co-edited Popular Christianity in India: Riting Between the Lines. “Rather, they understand their Christianity as being embedded in the culture and are proud of the fact that their Christianity is ancient, integrated and different from more recent converts.”
Sonjharia Minz, a professor of theoretical computer science at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, is the daughter of a Christian pastor, but her family is originally from the indigenous Oraon tribe in northern Jharkhand state. Minz has been exploring the similarities in tribal religion and Christianity, focusing on the elements that made conversion easier. “Pre-salvation rituals are very similar,” she said, “as are myths, practices and attitudes toward all of creation.”
“Theology emerges from concrete, lived reality,” said Raj. “For [Indian Christians], these are discrimination and poverty.”
“Western people are more radical,” said Ram Surat, a convert from a middle class Hindu family who works as an evangelical social worker with a “holistic ministry to people who are dealing with AIDS, casteism and sexism” on the side. “Our psyche is different.”
Chhavi Sachdev is international editor at Science & Theology News.