Syncretic or Heretic

During my talk with one Hindu ‘covert’ to Christianity, he lamented the lack of understanding in contextualization and to the need of ‘converts’ by the Christians.  He thought that I too will agree with him and say something in support of his view. But my support to the Christians came as surprise to him.  I said:

Why the church and Christians should adjust and accommodate to the need of the converts?  They have every right to have their tradition in which they feel comfort and have conviction in their church orthodoxy.  If a Hindu wants to become a ‘Christian’, then she should adopt and adapt to the church life and Christian community’s demands than expecting the church and Christians to show some concession to her out of sympathy.

For me Hinduism gives immense freedom to worship the Lord by remaining as a Hindu.  There is strong support for this in Muktiveda and Hindu tradition.  And if any Hindu wants to give up this freedom as a birth right and opted to sell it for whatever reasons to become a Christian, then she should not expect the church and Christians to change in order to accommodate her among them.  (Though I never told this illustration, it will help to emphasis my point.)  If any Indian wants to become the American citizen, (here I don’t talk about others who stay there temporarily) then she should accept the Law of that country.  She cannot expect the American govt., because of her Indian origin to give some concession in civil and criminal laws.  She has to officially give up her Indian citizenship and become an American.  Of course in India, she might have the status as an NRI, yet in America, at least legally she should become an American, however she might struggle to integrate with their life and values.  Likewise a Hindu can remain a Hindu and become a bhakta of the Lord or should become a ‘convert’ to Christianity.  Of course she will have this new tag as ‘Hindu convert’ (which they take as a credit) or First Generation Christian.  And imitating other caste group among Christians like ‘Nadar Christian’, ‘Dalit Christian’, these converts could have their own caste identity as ‘Brahmin Christian’, ‘Mudaliyar Christian’, ‘Reddy Christian’ etc.  But she cannot expect some kind of an NRI status back in her family and community.  Of course some ‘converts’ manage to handle both the group by remaining ‘Hindu back in their home’ and ‘Christian in their Church’ and there by enjoying the best of the both worlds but not identifying with the struggle of any one.  May be they are the one who strictly follow the Sevanand’s (Paul) principle of ‘becoming all things to all men’.

I also said that from the beginning I understood the gospel as a Hindu.  So there is no need for me to contextualize the gospel.  Once I allowed the gospel to incarnate within my Hindu worldview, then my understanding of bhakti in the Lord became natural and spontaneous one.  Of course I struggled a lot to articulate it openly though I had some understanding about it from the early time.  That is why even from 1982 I began to record my thoughts in my diary under the heading: Where we failed; why we failed and how we failed in communicating the gospel.  But I never shared with anyone because of the fear of being misunderstood.  Though I began to write Tamil Bhajans from 1980, I never used or shared even one of them with any Christians, except sharing my thoughts with few individuals (like Kannan, Sudharsan etc.)  Later it was Rajesh who encouraged me to share my writing with others (that too only after 1992), which resulted, with his help in publishing few articles and (two) books.

After he left, I further reflected on these points, which is the title of this article.  A Hindu has two choices before her: either to remain as a Hindu and worship/follow the Lord.  Or become a Christian.  And she cannot run away from all kinds of struggle in both these steps.  But a hostile home is better than a suspecting but friendly neighbor.  Church and Christian communities are that suspecting friendly neighbor.  Irrespective of all hostility and struggle in her home situation, keeping Hindu identity is her god given birth right.

But every Hindu bhakta of the Lord will be branded as a ‘syncretistic’ by the Church and Christians.  And any Hindu ‘converts’ who fight to contextualize her bhakti in the Lord within the church tradition and orthodoxy will be branded as a ‘heretic’.  Those who want to avoid these two labels should give up their birth right and settled as a ‘compromiser’ within the church.  Many converts do it for their own reasons.  Others—both the Hindu bhaktas of the Lord and ‘contextualizing’ converts, will be branded by these names.

About the danger of ‘contextualization’ within the frame of a church (by any Hindu convert) I would like to give one illustration—but not with any intension to hurt anyone, particularly Seventh Day Adventists.

How the name Seventh Day Adventist (SA) can be contextualized in Tamil?  As they ‘WORSHIP’ the Saturday more than ‘worshiping’ the Lord in Saturday, if a new convert to SA, wants to give a Tamil name to her denomination what she could do.  ‘Yezhaam naal varuhai kararhal’ (saatvaan din aanewala in Hindi) in Tamil won’t communicate anything to anyone outside Christianity.  As Hindus too have this concept of giving importance to ‘days’, like Friday and Tuesday to go to temple, and doing puja to certain deities on certain days etc., then can a SA convert call her denomination as ‘Sani Sabai(mandali)’ (Saturn Church)?  But this will look worst in the eyes of the Hindus (and also to the Christians in general and SA in particular) as the word ‘Sani (Saturn)’ is connected with the planet Saturn, which is considered as inauspicious one.  So the SA convert has to settle with the title of her denomination as ‘Yezhaam naal varuhai kararhal’ or ‘Yezhaam naal sabai’ than dare to contextualize the name of her denomination.

Whereas I as a Hindu bhakta I don’t feel any compulsion to contextualize the gospel or my bhakti.  As I understood the gospel as a Hindu, I can freely use the words and symbols of my own Hindu tradition, which are not distorting my understanding of the gospel.  Of course this is not acceptable to other Hindu converts to Christianity or to the Christians.  But it is not my problem.  Even as I am branded as a syncretistic, ignoring them I continue my pilgrimage in the Lord as a Hindu.  So I would better remain a ‘SYNCRETISTIC’1 (according to the Christians only) than selling my birth right to become a ‘heretic’ within a church try to contextualize the gospel and by bhakti within the frame of Church tradition.



November 5, 2012
The following two points will help us to understand the word Syncretism.  First from Nicholson:

1.. …Although “syncretism” in modern English usage refers to the merging of religions or philosophies that are properly separate, the original Greek term synkretismos used by Plutarch meant something different. It referred to a custom of people on the isle of Crete to overcome local feuds and to form a sacred alliance in order to withstand foreign aggression {Jan Assmann, “Translating Gods.”  In The Translatability of Cultures, edited by Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser, 25-36. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. 1996. 34}….— Andrew J. Nicholson. Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History, Ranikhet, Permanent Black, (2010), 2011. p. 190

The next one by N. T. Wright will help us to understand from the seva of Sevanand:

…in 2 Corinthians 10:5, that of ‘taking every thought captive to obey Christ’.  This line of thought has been explored often enough in terms of Paul picking up his opponents’ slogans in order to do something new with them.  What is not so often noted is precisely what it is that he does with them.  He seems to have believed what he (or someone else) wrote in Colossians 1:17—all things were created through Christ and for Christ.  He need not be afraid, then, in taking over, and using, key concepts from opposing systems of thought.

This does not lessen his opposition to the system in question.  It does not mean that he has compromised, that he has taken a step down the slippery slope towards syncretism…. whatever faults Paul may have had, syncretism was not one of them.  But Paul’s theology of creation was sufficiently robust for this not to be a problem.  He took the high ground: all truth was, for him, God’s truth, and when he took on an idea from pagan culture he made sure it was well and truly baptized before it could join the family.  He claimed the high ground of the creational monotheist, not the split-level world of the worried dualist.  Confrontation does not simply mean head-to-head total disagreement.— N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said,: Was Paul of Tarsus the real founder of Christianity, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997, p.81