Saturday, September 23, 2017

Celebrating Onam in the Church

We celebrated Onam in our Church with the traditional onasadya (the traditional Onam feast) and games. Many of us also wore the traditional Kerala dress as onakkodi (the traditional Onam dress) to mark the occasion. There were some 'murmurs' about the appropriateness of celebrating Onam in the Church. But a vast majority of the church members were strongly in favor of conducting Onam celebrations in the church. For a Malayalam church outside Kerala, the church is also the strongest link to our homeland, our mother tongue and to our culture! 

The discussion about the appropriateness of  celebrating Onam in the church prompted me to think more deeply about the aspects involved. Onam is the most popular festival in Kerala. While it is essentially a harvest festival the underlying mythology of Onam is distinctly Hindu, about the benevolent asura King of Kerala named Mahabali and Vamana who is considered to be the fifth avatar of Vishnu, though the complex* (even secular) nature of the narrative is exemplified by the fact that it is Mahabali and not Vamana who is welcomed back on the Onam day. Onam is celebrated with joy and enthusiasm by Keralites of all communities as a cultural festival. Celebrating Onam in the Church is also an accurate reflection of the cultural identity of the St. Thomas Christians (also known as Syrian Christians)  in Kerala (the community I belong to). 

The population in Kerala is about 55% Hindu, 25% Muslim and 20% Christian. When I grew up in Kerala, my friends were from all the three communities and I used to visit their homes. I used to feel more 'at home' when I was in the homes of my Hindu friends as compared to that of my Muslim friends. I was not sure why. It was surprising as Christianity and Islam are monotheistic religions (as opposed to Hinduism which is polytheistic)  and they even worship the same God (the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob in Christianity; the God of Ibrahim, Ishaq and Yaqub in Islam). Then it came to me in a flash. I am culturally Hindu while being Christian by faith. This is very much aligned to the way of life of St. Thomas Christian's in Kerala. 

Christianity hasn't been perceived to be a foreign religion in Kerala. Kerala has had the advantage of receiving Christianity very early(from AD 52, with the arrival of the apostle St. Thomas). Another great blessing was that Kerala received Christianity from its original source (Middle East)  without getting westernized. The westernization of Christianity (most visible in the westernized images of Jesus and some of the rituals that are more reflective of the western culture than of anything fundamental to Christianity) is so impactful that many people don't realize that the historical Jesus was an Asian and that Christianity originated in Asia. Anyway, Saint Thomas Christians have lived in harmony and in close interaction with their Hindu brothers in Kerala for the last 2000 years. 

This has led to the current situation where most of the Christians in Kerala practice a way of Christianity that is very much aligned to the local ('Hindu') culture. For example, 'thalimala' is used in the weddings very similar to the mangalsutra used by Hindus (with a cross inscribed of course). Also many of the Churches have lamps very similar those used by Hindus (with a cross added) and the bishops of some churches have saffron robes. Again, typical St. Thomas Christian names are 'Indigenized' versions of Hebrew names. Also, a high degree of respect for other faiths is shown. Many of the bed time stories told to the children in Christian households are from the Hindu puranas and to me this facilitates cultural integration more than anything else. (Please see here for an amazing example of respect for other traditions- Catholic priests arranging a Brahmin priest for a funeral and participating in the ceremony!)

Kerala is the state with the highest number of Christians in India (a remarkable feat considering that Kerala is a small state in terms of overall population). It is also a state where Christians have had a huge influence in most spheres of life. Apart from the 'traditional' fields for Christian influence like Education (word for school in Malayalam is 'pallikootam'. 'Palli' means a church building and hence pallikootam literally means an annex of the church) and Healthcare, it is evident in the political sphere also. For example, the previous Chief Minister (Oomman Chandy) is a Christian even though Christians constitute less than 20% of the population in Kerala. So the 'Kerala model of Christianity' has been very successful - at least more successful than most of the other models of Christianity in India. 

Of course, the Christians needs to be careful not to bring in aspects like the caste system in Hiduism into the Christian community. This is a real problem as many of the Syrian Christian families in Kerala have the habit of maintaining a kudumba charithram (family history) that traces their origins to a Namboothiri ('high' caste Brahmin) household that 'adopted' Christianity based on the interaction with Saint Thomas himself. They consider themselves superior to the Christians (mostly from 'lower' castes) who were 'converted' to Christianity by the British missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries. So the word 'Syrian' has acquired a caste dimension through it was originally meant to signify the allegiance to the Church in Syria at an earlier period in the history of the Christian Church in Kerala. Of course, there is no way of validating the accuracy of the kudumba charithram (family history) mentioned above. However, this 'smuggles in' caste system into a religion that doesn't support any sort of caste system!

So what does all this mean? To me 'being culturally Hindu while being Christian by faith' seems to be sustainable model. So celebrating Onam in the Church is very much appropriate so long as we know what exactly are we are doing and why!

* The beauty of Hindu mythology is that it supports multiple interpretations and even multiple truths (as opposed to clear black and while definitions of right and wrong). Even in the case of the Onam myth there is no clear oppressor or victim. See here for more details.

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