Christians in danger? Look at Kerala - India Abroad on March 19, 1999

One of my early childhood memories is of being woken up on a particular day every month to be told to visit three homes in our close neighborhood. I did not understand the full import of these visits. I would be warmly received by the lady of the house who would wake up the whole household to see me. I would sit down for a moment, receive something sweet to stuff my pockets with and leave without bothering what the ritual meant.


I did notice that these homes had pictures on the wall which were different from those in my own home. We had pictures of Saraswati and Krishna while they had either a bearded man hanging on a cross or a young woman with a little baby who had a halo around his head. It did not matter to me then that they were Christians. I took their style of dress and worship in my stride. Just as I did not challenge Hindu rituals even though I did not understand their meaning.


I did not wonder why they went to church every Sunday and buried their dead instead of burning them. What mattered to me was their warmth whenever I saw them. I somehow liked the idea that they found it auspicious for them in they saw me first on the first of every month.


My favorite place of worship even today is a small temple in my neighborhood which houses Durga, a mighty goddess, often portrayed in her fury as she destroys evil demons. As children, we used to say that our mother had taken the form of Durga when she was furious with us. One of the offerings that pleased the goddess was the firing of loud firecrackers, a kind of gun salute.


We would go to a house outside the compound wall of the temple and pay a few coins and someone from the family would come out and light firecrackers, the sound and number of which would depend on the amount of money paid. Unlike the other offerings for which the temple authorities would collect the charges, this particular offering had to come from the Christian family next door.


That family performed the deity's favorite ritual and earned a living. Nobody challenged it ever, as nobody wanted to see the fury of the goddess directed against him. Nobody could also explain how the custom originated.


Stories of this kind are legion in Kerala where St. Thomas himself is said to have propagated Christianity 2,000 years ago. Social status or money were no incentives then, because it was the upper castes that converted to Christianity in the early days. A few years ago, it became fashionable for famous Christian families to get their family histories written. Each of these histories traced these families to aristocratic Namboodiri or Nair origins. Christian teachings of brotherhood and love rather than any material incentive must have lured them to the new religion, in a caste-based society, they may even have sacrificed certain privileges to join the Christian fraternity.


Hindus did not look upon the new religion as a threat. No crusades were fought to propagate Christianity in Kerala. There was nothing in the new religion that challenged the fundamentals of the Hindu faith, ironically, tolerance rather than confrontation contained the spread of Christianity just as it contained the spread of Buddhism and Jainism. The Hindus accommodated the Buddha in the Hindu Pantheon as an incarnation of the supreme God. Christ is treated with the same respect and devotion.


Hindus and Christians do not live apart in Kerala. Like my three neighbors, Christians live side by side with the others, sharing the festivals and festivities of all faiths. Onam, the national festival of Kerala, is a secular festival. In a reversal of roles, as a Hindu God becomes a villain in the Onam legend because he destroyed a benevolent monarch of Kerala.


Onam is celebrated not with prayers, but with purely Epicurean rituals such as feasting and merrymaking.


The religious pundits of the time must have given greater weight to communal harmony than to religious bigotry and allowed such a tradition to develop. Even today, Onam is celebrated as a secular festival and on Hindu fanatic challenges it.


As for religious festivals, everyone joins in or simply accepts them as the expressions of the faith of others. I remember going from house to house in the middle of the night singing Christmas carols. When the Goddess came visiting us from the neighboring temple, our Christian friends joined us in the reception line.


In keeping with the tradition, missionaries and priests work unhindered in Kerala. Schools, colleges and hospitals built by the missionaries serve all communities. Some years ago, the Hindus got together, not to challenge the Christians, but to emulate them. The new institutions that came up did not bar anyone just as the older ones had thrown open doors to everyone.


I did not think twice before I decided to teach in a Christian institution even though I knew that the highest positions there were reserved for priests. We did not challenge that tradition, which we considered natural, but we helped shape a secular rather than a sectarian institution.


I recall how my young brother, as a student in a missionary school, actually housed in a functioning church, was dressed up as Krishna and beat several Christian characters in a costume show. When the time came to educate my own children, the natural choices were the Loyola School and the ST.Stephen's College.


Caste plays a role in politics in Kerala, but not a decisive one, The only political party which is predominantly Christian has one of the strongest Hindu group in it. Christians are considered conservative, but the first communist government of Kerala had more than a sprinkling of Christians. Caste and community are exploited for the purpose of nepotism, but no religion or community claims any superiority. No party is the monopoly of a particular community. In the name of religion, no party has come to power.


The tradition of Kerala of acceptance and tolerance of Christianity is shared by the rest of India and, therefore, till recently there was never an incident of violence. But by their very nature, these cannot spread too far and wide in India since no one considers Christianity as foreign. They are as much an inalienable part on the cultural tapestry there as any other religious group.


In India, when we speak of tolerance of religions or secularism, we speak not of tacit acceptance of reality, but of our deep conviction that India is composed of all its constituent faiths. India's strength lies in its composite culture and anyone who challenges it does harm to the country as a whole rather than to the group that is targeted.


Those who panic about a threat to Christianity in India do not know India enough. They do not know Kerala enough.


(T.P. Sreenivasan is the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of India in Washington. He served earlier as Ambassador to Kenya and Fiji.)