Cordileone’s pilgrimage to India
I write these final thoughts at 38,000 feet, speeding
on my way back home to resume my “normal” life. I certainly
have a lot of experiences to process, and need to discern the lessons
learned from them.
I came to India with a great deal of curiosity. It is a country that is
a subcontinent unto itself: in Asia, but not part of the Far East, nor
the Middle East, nor even Middle Asia.
Its diverse and complex religious and cultural makeup has always intrigued
me. I’ve learned a lot, and am still trying to figure out all that
I’ve learned. This trip has been a privileged moment for me to get
to know this different world, and thanks to our Indian priests in the
Diocese of Oakland, especially Fathers George Alengadan and Paulson Mundanmani
and their relatives and friends and the generosity of all of them, it
was everything I could have hoped for.
Of course, my reflections necessarily cannot go all that deep. Seventeen
days in a first visit to any country, let alone one as complex as India,
cannot do that. But with that caveat, I come away with some perplexities
that I need to ponder. I wouldn’t say that India is a study in contrasts,
but there are certain paradoxes I noted here, and other areas which, in
my own albeit limited view, are challenges for the future.
I would categorize these issues within three main areas:
1. The interplay between religion and culture, and the question of
the merging of different beliefs, sycrentism, vs. inculturation.
I spoke often of the religious devotion and sensitivity of the people
here. This is shown in many ways, such as participation in each other’s
religious festivals. The country also has a law that forbids the destruction
of any place of worship or prayer, be it a temple, church or mosque. It
cannot be torn down or even moved, even to accommodate a road. That is
considered sacred space. In many places I saw a wayside Hindu temple or
Christian chapel in the middle of the street, with the traffic having
to be diverted around it.
Everywhere and in a myriad of ways I saw examples of how customs, practices
and mentalities of a religious tradition shape and permeate the culture
of a nation and affects the habits, practices, and innate instincts of
everyone, regardless of their religion.
For example, the classic Hindu oil lamp is everywhere. This is a gold
basin atop a gold stand of about four feet high with grooves around the
rim; oil is placed in the basin and wicks in the grooves, which are then
lit by the devout in Hindu temples. But the practice has taken on many
manifestations, such as at homes and in public places (restaurants, hotels,
etc.), where the wicks are lit by visitors. They are also quite common
in Christian churches, where a cross is placed on top of the stand.
There are other Hindu practices I saw replicated in different ways. The
removal of shoes before entering a church is one example of which I spoke.
Hindus also wash their hands before entering the temple at a special sink
placed outside the entrance. I noticed these types of washing facilities
also in some of the people’s homes and religious houses that I visited.
Hindus typically touch the ground and then make a gesture of praise to
the divine by lifting their arms to the heavens and then holding their
hands together in a posture of prayer in front of their chest, especially
before a dance or other such performance. I saw this in the dances that
were performed for me, but there the dancers would conclude the gesture
by making the Sign of the Cross.
All of these are examples of inculturation of the Christian faith. The
Church has done this in every age and place she has brought the saving
Gospel of Jesus Christ: understand the culture, the mentality of the people,
their system of symbols and beliefs, and then adapt them in ways that
express the truths of revelation.
The challenge is to do this in a way that teaches the Christian faith
integrally, rather than changing the faith to fit into a wider culture.
Where Christianity is not the predominant force shaping the culture –
as Hinduism is in India – then people of the Church can easily be
affected by the mentality of whatever force it is that does shape the
dominant culture. Hinduism is a very eclectic religion.
Hindus have no problem worshipping in other people’s religions or,
for example, praying to our saints. That is why it is very difficult for
a Hindu to convert to Christianity. The idea of conversion does not really
figure into the equation; it would be seen as giving up their own religion
and praying to their gods, and not gaining anything in return. As a Hindu
would see it, if they can pray to our saints and join in our religious
celebrations, anyway, then what is the point of conversion?
In the midst of this cultural mindset, the challenge for the Church is
to avoid the temptation to syncretism, that is, the blending of religious
teachings and traditions which deviate from the integrity of the Christian
faith. The goal is inculturation of the faith, not syncretism.
I have already given many examples of inculturation, in which connections
are found between the symbols, beliefs and culture of Christianity and
the local indigenous culture, and these are used to portray the truth
of Jesus Christ. But, for example, to present Christ as one guru among
many with great wisdom and teachings to help us gain spiritual maturity,
and nothing more to it than that, would be pure syncretism.
Our claim on Jesus Christ is unique: he is God and man, he died and rose
in his human body so that we could do the same with him. This is the very
foundation of the Christian faith, and to weaken it would be to undermine
the religion itself.
I can cite one real life example from history which I learned about here
that demonstrates how difficult it can sometimes be to know where to draw
The founder of the Madurai Mission in the state of Tamil Nadu in the early
17th Century, the Jesuit Father Robert de Nobili, adopted the way of life
of an Indian sannyasi (a Hindu ascetic who renounces the world) in order
to integrate himself into the Brahmin caste culture of the society.
The Church, understandably, has had great success in the conversion of
those in the lowest castes, as they find in Christianity an affirmation
of their human dignity and hope for a better future and, indeed, a better
Father de Nobili, however, decided to concentrate exclusively on converting
the Brahmins, thinking that, with their influence, then all of the other
castes and sectors of society would follow suit. Thus, he wore the robes
of the sannyasin and took up their practices of keeping to a strict vegetarian
diet of one meal a day, living in a little mud house covered with straw,
and so forth.
However, at a certain point the authorities of his Jesuit province were
unfavorable to his practices, and eventually forbade him even to baptize
any more people. This put a stop to the success he had experienced up
to that point.
The debate about his methods continued for a few years, until Pope Gregory
XV decided the question in de Nobili’s favor. He therefore was able
to resume his missionary work, although he was not able to regain the
momentum he had had previously.
This is just one example to demonstrate that the questions about inculturation
of the faith – how far one can go, where to draw the line, what
is legitimate adaptation and what is contrary to the authentic Christian
spirit, etc. – are not new in the Church. My observations in India,
though, made it even clearer to me that inculturation is not a matter
of practices and policies that can be decided by a committee.
Rather, it takes generations, even centuries, in an organic, incremental
process of discerning what to adapt, what to reject, and what to correct.
India is the ideal study of this all across the spectrum of this process,
from the Christian presence in Kerala dating back to apostolic times,
to the areas evangelized by St. Francis Xavier and others dating back
to the 16th Century, to the first evangelization being carried out by
Father Britto and many others in many other parts of the country.
2. Moral standards and personal morality
I have spoken frequently of the traditional standards of public morality
that are still the cultural norm in India. Families are still intact,
with divorce being uncommon and still having a stigma attached to it.
I saw examples of these standards lived out in many other distinctive
ways, such as: in all of my time here, I saw only one advertisement that
could be considered risqué, and a few a bit suggestive, but the
vast majority were quite modest; similarly, I did not see any clubs or
bars offering lewd forms of entertainment; people’s behavior in
public and manner of dress are modest, reflective of traditional moral
standards; even the lines for the security check in airports are segregated
by sex, as it involves a hand search of each passenger.
With all of these in place, one might think the society would be well
ordered and functioning. However, such is not the case. I mentioned the
observations of my Delhi guide, Joseph, on the eroding moral values in
families, and of how both he and Father Britto spoke at length about the
problem of corruption.
Another paradox here, and an especially striking one, at least to the
western mind, is the problem of public urination. I saw this everywhere,
and it was quite open, something seemingly incongruous in a society sensitive
to standards of public morality.
Most troubling of all, though, is the tragic problem of the street children
and those who abuse them. Most of these children do not run away from
home simply to seek an adventure in the big city; rather, the majority
are fleeing an abusive family situation in their homes.
In at least some cases, there seems to be a discrepancy between public
behavior and what goes on in the privacy of the home. This is a puzzling
matter to which I need to give much more reflection.
3. A traditional society with a developing economy
I saw lots of examples of the blending of the old and the new, a couple
of which I mentioned. As India continues to develop its economy, the question
is, will it be able to hold onto its religious sense and devotion, its
public standards of moral values and its intact family life? Or, will
it fall victim to the pitfalls of affluence that so many other societies
have, resulting in broken families in a culture driven by consumerism
and finding themselves, ironically, with increasing poverty and violence?
This, though, is not the only challenge for India with its developing
economy. As I have already mentioned, the caste system is still a part
of the culture in many ways. It is not possible to pass a law and eradicate
in a few years an institution that has been integral to a culture for
Much progress has been made, but much more needs to be done. The challenge
is to pass the prosperity down to those trapped in the lower echelons
of the traditional caste system. The mentality is still in the institutional
memory, which can be seen in many ways.
I have already mentioned some examples, but another one worth mentioning
is the advertisements. I took note that in all of the advertisements I
saw, without even one exception, the models were all fairer skinned Indians.
Perhaps anyone other than an American would not have even noticed, but
for me, coming from our society in which advertisers go to great lengths
to portray models of all races and skin colors, it was quite startling
and, to be honest, a bit disturbing. I cannot help but wonder what it
says about what is deep within the psyche of the society.
India, nonetheless, has the opportunity to teach the world that family
breakdown, corruption of public morality, the loss of faith and a materialistic
and narcissistic culture do not necessarily have to follow in the wake
of growing affluence. This, of course, will require great discipline,
restraint, and a sense of the common good. These challenges are already
present, but if India can hold onto these values and preserve its sensitivity
to the role of religious faith in public life, it will provide a great
service to the world. India is among the few nations in the world that
are in a position to do this at this time.
I came to India with intense curiosity, a curiosity that has been building
within me for nearly four decades. I have learned much and gained much,
and will be eternally grateful for this pilgrimage and to all those who
made it possible.
I must say, though, that I come away with my curiosity more nourished
than satisfied. There is so much more to learn, to discover, to figure
out. This is a country of unending fascination, and given its ancient,
deep, broad and diverse spiritual and cultural heritage, I don’t
believe that even a lifetime dedicated to studying it would exhaust all
of the riches it has to offer.
I do, though, hope to mine more of them in the future, in whatever ways
and opportunities may present themselves.