Christianity in India – Challenges ahead
Dr. V. George
Two thousand years ago, in the land of Judea there walked a man who wielded tremendous powers on the people who came in contact with him through his gentle words, tender love, compassion, healing touch and revolutionary teachings. He revealed the path of salvation and eternal life to mankind in a dialect easily understood by the common man devoid of the intricacies of the languages of the learned of his time such as Latin and Greek. He lived with poor, the down trodden, the working class, the fisher man, the tax collector and he knew their pains, anxieties, worries and their thirst for eternal life. Great was his power that with a simple exhortation ‘follow me’ he made ordinary men leave their means of livelihood, their boat, their fishing net, their family, their everything. They surrendered themselves to him and accepted him as their Teacher and Master. Together with his disciples, this man went round the country side, shared the sorrows and anguishes of the people, healed their sick and preached the good news of the kingdom of God. He transformed his disciples who hailed from the lower strata of society to men of extraordinary courage, will power, adventure, knowledge and devotion. After his death these men travelled beyond the borders of Judea and preached about their master, Jesus Christ, His work, teaching and about the kingdom of God to which their Master ascended after His death and resurrection.
Thus, it is believed that one of his disciples, Thomas came to Mussiri, on the Malabar Coast, which is now known as Kodungallur. Centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, Mussiri and other places in the Malabar coast had trade relations with the Arabs and the Egyptians. There are archaeological evidences which indicated the flourishing trade between Malabar and the Arab world. Pots containing pepper, Tablets with Tamil writings and coins have been discovered during excavations in ancient ports of Egypt. Malabar coast was well known among the Arab world of the pre-Christian era as the source of black pepper, cardamom, ginger, cinnnamon, ivory, teak, sandalwood etc. and pepper, it is said, was traded for double its weight in gold. Ships which could carry more than 75 tonnes of cargo were employed for the trade and during non monsoon seasons, with the wind in their favour, more than 150 ships visited the Malabar coast annually. The foreign traders and businessmen settled down in the towns nearer to the ports.
Thomas, who must have travelled in one of the trading ships landed at Mussiri in A.D 52. He travelled along the coast, preaching a new God, new religion and about the life and work of his master, Jesus Christ. Several people got attracted to his teaching, accepted the new faith, and became Christians. He established several churches. As per tradition seven and a half churches were built by him along the coastal region of present day Kerala. Some of these churches though rebuilt many a times, are still in existence. St. Thomas acquired martyrdom at Mylapore near Madras. The followers of Thomas are known as St. Thomas Christians. Though, there are a number of denominations among the present day Christians of Kerala most of them claim to be descendents of the original forefathers who accepted Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.
In a caste driven society, Christians enjoyed royal patronage in Kerala. They were allowed most of the privileges allowed to upper caste Hindus of that time – travel on elephant back, use of umbrella, shaven forehead with kudumi, loin cloth and upper cloth etc. The Christians though they left their old religion integrated themselves with the rest of the society. They did not isolate themselves from the culture and civilization of their ancestors. Their social behaviour, customs, practices, lifestyle etc. were deep rooted in the Indian culture. With their roots in the local culture, they developed skill and capacity to appreciate and adapt a foreign religious culture which was unknown to them till then. Thus, in a way they could develop a multicultural attitude avoiding conflict with the culture, practices and customs of their fellow countrymen. The Hindus, on the other hand, keeping in view the spirit of the Vedic philosophy Vasudeva Kudumbakam appreciated and integrated the positive aspects of the new religion. This harmonious integration led to the development of a healthy society based on the principles of mutual respect, tolerance and above all love for each other.
It is a matter of great pride to all the Indians that a global view of human consciousness existed in ancient India, much before the westerners thought of globalisation. With deep roots in our own culture and spiritual values, the Indians welcomed and appreciated alien faiths and customs and thus India became a melting pot of several religions and cultures, integrating them in to the body politic of the motherland. Such a fusion helped in the harmonious co-existence of diversity. In fact, distinctive cultures and their diversity are the real asset of our nation with a unifying spirit of universal brotherhood of mankind.
In a tolerant, congenial environment, the Christian community flourished in Kerala. They are found to excel in all areas of human endeavour. The community was mostly liberated through education. The Maharajas of Travancore, Kochi and the Samoothiri of Malabar and the Christian missionaries from the west started a number of schools as early as the second half of the 19th Century. These schools and higher centres of learning opened up new avenues and the Christians took maximum advantage of the new opportunities. This helped them to migrate to different parts of the world in pursuit of better opportunities and to settle down in their newly found countries.
In spite of its long history in India, Christians form only 2.2 % of the total population of the country. Out of nearly 1,100 million Indians, only 22 million are Christians. However, one may feel Christian presence throughout the length and breadth of the country, especially through the schools and colleges, which in most cases are Centres of Excellence in education and the hospitals and medical missions which are rendering charitable services to the poor and the down trodden.
Until beginning of the 21st Century, the Christian community enjoyed the confidence, support and good wishes of their fellow countrymen. However, during the past few years there have been stray incidence of violence involving Christians especially in the States of Orissa, Jharkhand, Karnataka and at few places in Kerala. In Orissa, there were mass destruction of Christian places of worship, killings, rape, brutal manhandling and beating up of priests, nuns and the laity following the murder of a Hindu Sanyasi and three office assistants. Thousands of people were manhandled, brutally beaten up, tens of men, women and children were killed, hundreds of churches, educational institutions and charitable hospitals and social service organizations were destroyed, burnt to ashes and several hundred thousands of people fled with children and the very young to the nearby forest and hills. The miscreants are still at large and the law enforcing authorities did not help the suffering people.
Immediately after the Orissa riots, similar assault on Christians took place in Karnataka and a few places in Kerala. In all these incidents one can perceive the hands of certain intolerant, militant communal organizations which are bent upon destroying the fragile fabric of communal harmony carefully nurtured by the founder fathers of the nation.
In spite of extreme provocations, the Christian community especially its leaders did not loose their sense of balance and fair play and they invited the leaders of the Hindu community for a dialogue. The dialogues are continuing and we hope that secular India survives, wherein every citizen has the freedom to follow and preach the faith of his choice.
It is not conflicts and confrontations, but confluence and dialogue that we need to have lasting peace.