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Indian culture "castes" its shadow on Christianity
Science & Theology News

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) 

Accept the unaccepted: An estimated 60 percent of Indian Christians are
"untouchables" from the Dalit caste. Converts are attracted to casteless
(Source: Evren Sahin/Flickr) 

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

"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.




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