Sister Namita addresses a class of sisters in Trivandrum, Kerala. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Father Tomi speaks with a group after class. (photo: Sean Sprague)
A young women performs a dance interpretation of a Hindu myth. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Offering incense at a family Hindu shrine. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
I do not expect the India of my dreams to develop one religion, to be wholly Hindu or Christian or Muslim, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side, said Mahatma Gandhi.
Such a vision, however, is far from the reality of modern India, which suffers increasingly from communal violence. For decades conflicts between Hindus and Muslims plagued the subcontinent and led to its partition into India and Pakistan.
Recently, Hindu extremists have grown antagonistic toward Christians, leading to frequent flare-ups and the deaths of hundreds of poor Christian villagers and religious. Some of these attacks have occurred in northern India, especially in the states of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Some of the attacks against Christians over the last few years have grabbed the headlines in newspapers around the world. Father A.T. Thomas, S.J., was decapitated in October 1998 and his body found in a jungle near Hazaribagh, Bihar. He championed the poor, supporting the rights of the Dalits, or untouchables. This murder followed another incident in Bihar in which a Catholic priest was stripped and paraded through the streets.
At the same time, four Indian Catholic nuns were raped in the state of Madhya Pradesh after a gang broke into their convent and took them one at a time to a nearby field. The sisters had been working with poor tribal communities in the neighboring state of Gujarat.
Last March, Hindu extremists and Christians clashed in Orissa and 157 of the 250 Christian homes were torched. Christian villagers interviewed by reporters blamed Hindu extremists, who were reported shouting, Victory to Lord Ram, as they set the fires.
The body of Brother Luke Puttaniyil, 46, a member of the Missionaries of Charity, was reported missing from Calcutta on 22 March. He was later found buried next to railroad tracks in Novada, Bihar, with bullet marks on the head and back. He was accompanying a truckload of supplies for leprosy patients from Calcutta to Patna when he was reported missing along with the truck and its driver.
Hindu extremists have also disrupted Christian gatherings, prayer meetings and processions in the city of Ahmedabad. Last November, Christian leaders there reconsidered the tradition of singing Christmas carols at the homes of parish members for fear of violence.
With CNEWAs support, one fledgling organization in the more tolerant southern state of Kerala is trying to address this problem of religious intolerance.
With the encouragement of Cyril Mar Baselios, Syro-Malankara Catholic Archbishop of Trivandrum, Father Tomi Thadathils Catholic-Hindu formation and dialogue program faces up to the communal issues challenging India by educating people about the conflict, confronting these issues head-on. Father Tomi believes that understanding, open debate and dialogue among Hindus and Christians can replace the violent conflict.
Father Tomi explains some of the reasons for the increase of attacks on Christians. Politics, he believes, is involved, and the present government, which was elected in 1989, rules India with a distinct Hindu nationalist flavor. Also, Christianity is viewed as a foreign influence and part of a Western conspiracy to destroy traditional, that is, Hindu, culture. But, as Father Tomi points out, Christianity in southern India goes back almost 2,000 years. In many ways, it is as indigenous as Hinduism.
What has upset Hindu extremists is their view of the activities of southern Indian Christians, many of them Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara priests and sisters, in the impoverished communities of the north. These extremists accuse the missionaries of exploiting the ignorance and poverty of tribal and untouchable peoples, offering jobs, education and health benefits to entice them to convert.
In the past, large numbers of tribal communities were converted by missionaries, who introduced fine schools, hospitals and other benefits. They also helped the underprivileged castes gain titles to lands they lived on for generations. When the missionaries encountered communities who already embraced Christianity, often by foreign missionaries, the priests offered pastoral service as well.
While evangelization may be a goal of these priests and sisters, so is social welfare. These days, conversion is not a requirement for having a chance at a better life. But alleged victims of conversion, through the efforts of these Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic religious, are getting a chance to exit the inescapable drudgery of being forever the lowest of the low in a caste-ridden Indian world.
Ironically, these outcasts of Hindu India are finding empowerment through their consciousness-raising association with Christianity. Reactionary elements among the Hindu elite, however, view this empowerment as a threat.
Father Tomi is a priest of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which originated in the first century in southern India. He studied in Bangalore and earned a doctorate, specializing in the link between Eastern Christian theology and the ancient Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads.
Father Tomi is helped in his work by Sister Namita, who displays an awesome intellect. Born a Hindu, she entered the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church at the age of 22 and went through the excellent Catholic universities in Kerala, gaining postgraduate degrees in economics, history and sociology.
At 29 she entered the Bethany Sisters and continued her theological studies on Lucien Le Grande at St. Peters Pontifical Seminary. Her doctorate on mission work and the Gospel of John led to her licentiate, which she earned at the Biblical Institute in Rome.
Sister Namita is Father Tomis primary foot soldier: she goes out into the community to lead seminars on Hindu-Christian dialogue, working principally with religious sisters in formation. She also works with lay people as they learn more about their own faith and how it relates to the world at large and to other religious communities living in their midst.
I attended one of Sister Namitas groups, where a class of about 20 lay people, mostly Catholics, were participating in a lively discussion. She confessed that she harbored hopes her students in dialogue would bring a message of brotherhood and fellowship to places where religious are forbidden to work.
Christ, who lives in our hearts, is greater than anyone who lives in the world, explains a member of Sister Namitas group, T.I. Zacharia.
Here in India we encounter many non-Christians, and we tell them what is our belief, what is Christ, what is Christianity. Here Hindus are the majority, more than 80 percent we live and work with them. We must set an example, and open a dialogue with Hindus. But unless we know something about our own faith, it is impossible to teach them.
All of us were Catholics at birth, adds group member Abraham George. Now we get a chance for deeper insight and knowledge.
The students are urged to share Father Tomi and Sister Namitas convictions: An understanding and acceptance of other peoples beliefs and traditions is an essential requisite to peaceful coexistence, and ultimately to ones own spiritual development.
In the true spirit of Gandhi, one student concludes, Through this course we have learned how to have a better relationship with people. Until now, we saw things differently we didnt know each other.
Since participating in these classes, we realize that all people are in search of God. We are all really on the same path. We can avoid conflict.
Sean Sprague frequently travels to India for Catholic Near East.