Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What shapes my perspective?

The introduction to this blog talks about exploring and celebrating life from my unique perspective. So what is this unique perspective? Answers to this question can be attempted at many levels - from very material ones to very mystical ones. To put it in another way, it can range from those from the point of view of my self to those from the point of view of my Self - 'self' meaning my 'personality' and 'Self' meaning my 'ultimate Self'. This post is essentially at the level of 'personality'. It is also the level of my biases, prejudices and assumptions. I feel that exploring the factors that that have shaped my perspective is an essential part of exploring and celebrating life. This series of posts strives for a deeper understanding and appreciation of these factors.

I feel that one of the key factors that influences my perspective is my double heritage - that of being a Christian and an Indian (a Syrian Christian from central Kerala to be precise). I am not sure about the extent to which this has influenced/biased my perspective. After all, exploring oneself is a tricky venture.

If we examine Christianity in Kerala, it has some very interesting dimensions. Syrian Christians in Kerala claim 2000 years of Christian heritage - dating back to the arrival of St.Thomas in India. Now this 2000 years of coexistence has influenced both Kerala and Christianity. The impact of Christianity in Kerala is quite apparent - especially in fields like education. For example the word for school in Malayam is 'pallikootam'. 'Palli' means a church building and hence pallikootam literally means an annexe/extension/wing of the church.

What is not so obvious is the influence of the Kerala culture on Christianity. While this influence might not be obvious, I feel that the influence runs quite deep. For example, though Christianity reached Kerala 2000 years ago, only about 20% of the population in Kerala is Christian. I feel that one of the key factors that has influenced this is the basic Hindu philosophy of 'universal acceptance'. It was this cultural context/background that welcomed Christianity in Kerala. Thus culturally speaking, the Christian 'way of life' was assimilated into the mainstream of Hindu 'way of life' to a large extent and this made the need of having to forge a very distinct cultural identity less pressing. While a somewhat distinct cultural identity evolved over the centuries, the identity was not radically different in most dimensions. Again, as mentioned earlier, this Christian way of life also influenced the mainstream Hindu way of life - making the cultural distinctions even less pronounced. For example Christmas is celebrated across Kerala and 'Christmas stars' would be found in many non-christian homes also. Similarly Christians also celebrate 'Onam'. While Onam is a harvest festival, the mythology that underlies Onam is a distinctly Hindu one (that of Mahabali and Vamana). But this has not in any way affected the enthusiasm with which Keralite Christians participate in Onam celebrations. It is interesting to note that Keralire Christians are quite open to study/learn (and also open to let their kids study/learn) the religious texts/ philosophies of other religions. In Kerala, knowledge is given high importance/status. Most of the Keralite Christians view the religious texts/ philosophies of other religions essentially as knowledge - and hence worth studying/ learning ! I feel that knowledge of other religions would enable us to understand our own religion better.

Another relevant factor here is the 'bed-time stories' told to young children in Christian households in Kerala. They hear stories based on Hindu mythology in addition to the stories from the Bible. I feel that this leads to greater understanding, appreciation and respect for the Hindu way of life. May be, more religious harmony gets created through these stories than through the formal initiatives of the religious leaders!

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