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The Church In North Gujarat

The Church In North Gujarat

Becoming a Christian does not imply a Change of Community

While we cannot deny that in the past, acceptance of the Christian faith implied a change of community and culture, it is not necessarily demanded by the acceptance of the faith. Some of the early Church Fathers clearly taught that Christians do not become a new social and civic identity.  Vatican II teaches that: “The Christian faithful who have been gathered into the Church from every nation and are not marked off from the rest of men either by country, by language or by political institutions, should live for God and Christ according to the honourable usages of their race…while rejecting racial hatred or exaggerated nationalism, work for universal love among men” ( Ad Gentes no 15). Once again more attention is focused on this principle by many present day missiologists (Amaladoss 1975:159-171) who hold the theory of Brahmabandhav Upadhyay that Hinduism is a samaj dharma which is open to various sadhana dharma. On the other hand, being a Christian is a matter of sadhana dharma which does not demand a distinct samaj dharma.

Brahmabandhav Upadhyay (1861-1907) had been described as “the greatest Hindu that ever found his way to Christ.” (Animananda 196). He held that we are Hindu-Catholics, for Hinduism is both samaj dharma and sadhana dharma; the former denotes social customs; while the latter is about individual mukti or salvation and has no relation to society. He held that an Indian can be a Christian by faith and Hindu in customs and social belonging. He called himself a Hindu-Catholic. 

The Church in North Gujarat

The missionary activity of the Jesuits in Gujarat for nearly 70 years had been concentrated in Kheda district, with the Vankars who are less than 3% of the population of Gujarat.  Gradually it was felt that the Christian message should not be restricted to just one community; hence it was decided to start work among the various Kshatriya groups which form 40 percent of the population of North Gujarat.

When Father Manuel Garriz, SJ began his apostolate in that region he was aware that in India conversion normally implied a change of community.  He held that it was possible to be a Hindu-Catholic, Hindu by culture, and Christian by faith. (Garriz 6).

Garriz avoids two words: ‘to become’ and ‘Khristi’ (Christian). ‘To become’ entails a change of community; hence he speaks of accepting the message of Jesus without ceasing to be a Hindu. It is not a dharmaparivartan but  panthswikar (acceptance of a panth). “Our conscientious endeavour is that there must not be a ‘separate’ social or community identity for the one who accepts the Gospel. Therefore we want the word Isupanthi to really mean Hindu-Christian, Hindu by culture, by ‘ samaj’, and Christian by faith, by panth.” (Garriz 7 ). Here Garriz follows the insight of Acts 15 where the Gentiles did not have to accept the Jewish culture to be a follower of Jesus.

Christianity and Caste

“Do we accept caste? We accept and strongly believe that a Patel or Thakor Isupanthi must remain….a Patel or a Thakor besides adhering loyally to his faith in Jesus. Naturally we cannot accept caste in the sense of 'higher and lower'....Therefore this is rejected…..But caste has much wider implications than 'high and low' stratification. Caste constitutes ... a harmonious organization of society mainly for the purpose of ‘Beti aur roti Vahevar’.” (Garriz 8). How is caste understood here?

Dr. Francis D'Sa, SJ, considers caste as a metaphor. “A Metaphor has been turned into a menace: what was mystical poetry has been degraded into a system of privilege and power based on dehumanization and destitution - all this masquerading under the name of Dharma”. (D’Sa: 294) The metaphor of organic unity, of organic community is basic to India's religious literature and experience: it is only in the context of such a quest for organic unity that the four castes can be understood. “The hymn has to be seen as belonging to the ‘prophetic’ kind of literature which criticizes the present practice by projecting a future vision.  It is a protesting against a society already indulging in a caste-system…. The question is not about subordination but coordination of functions” (D’Sa 1981: 296-7). What matters is interconnectedness rather than individuality. The division of labour shows the inner organic unity: the diversity of these functions springs from one nature alone and hence are….complementary….the metaphor has to be revitalized because it is a message of unity in diversity. (cfr. D’Sa: 298).

With reference to the Church in north Gujarat it must be said that the Ravals, who are of the 'intermediary caste group', have been able to give up their caste privileges and are able to accept others. They do not see social groups as hierarchical, but as organic. They have been able to reject the varna ideology faster than the South Indian Churches.

Community of faith and inculturation

The Christian community here is a "community of faith, not a community of sociological interests.” (Garriz 12). The Jesus community remains one in faith but diverse in social customs, culture, endogamous marriage practice and the like. It is normal in Gujarat that Syrian Christians, Mangaloreans, Gujaratis all worship together, but as to marriage and other customs they follow their own endogamous patterns. What is envisaged here is that different groups while retaining their jati identity and local jati practices, they would become one homogeneous faith community. “At the moment the Isupanthi Ravals are accepted as full members of their original samaj and some hold responsible positions within their Raval samaj." (Garriz 13). So it is clear that “within the Raval caste it is becoming acceptable to remain Raval by community and Christian by faith” (Garriz 14).

The ‘radical inculturation’ that is envisaged in the Church of north Gujarat involves the following elements. Recognizing the importance of the calendar as an integral part of the cultural identity, apart from Christmas, Easter and the feast of Unteshwari Mata they do not celebrate any feasts. The main festival however is Nauratri (specially the atham - 8th day) dedicated to Unteshwari Mata (Our Lady of the Camels). “ Nauratri is the most popular festival in most parts of Gujarat; hence it is held that Isupanthis should not be absent from this celebration." (Garriz 10). Following the Hindu calendar, the bestu varas after Diwali is celebrated as the New Year day, instead of the first of January. In the area of architecture and iconography an attempt at inculturation has been made in the shrine of Our Lady of the Camels at Unteshwari, inaugurated in 1982.  Marriage laws, customs and ceremonies for the dead are preserved and rituals are being prepared in line with the peoples' practices. The acceptance of strict vegetarianism by priests and religious who have gone to that region and adoption of the guru-chela ( guru-disciple) relationship are part of the inculturation.

In conclusion, a few observations may be made. Even though some Hindus accept a distinction between culture and religion, the division samaj dharma and sadhana dharma may not be acceptable to most Hindus. However this approach has much to its credit. What is intended by samaj - sadhana is that the isupanthis do not become a separate 'civic group', a political identity, as they retain their original caste identity, except for the faith dimension and the discarding of the varna ideology. 

However, the acceptance of caste creates problems, for the CBCI has declared that caste “violates the God-given dignity and equality of the human person (and it is) an outright denial of the fatherhood of God” (Panadan 2011:35). In the light of this statement how does one look at the practice in north Gujarat needs further study and exploration.

Bibliography

Amaladoss, M: Qui suis-je: Un catholique-Hindou, in Christus 1975, 159-171

Animananda: The Blade, Calcutta (no date).

D’Sa Francis: Caste: Symbol or System? In The Indian Church in the Struggle for a New Society, Ed. By Amalorpavadass, NBCLC, Bangalore 1981, 579-608

Garriz, Diaz,M.: Notes on Objectives and Approaches in North Gujarat Mission among Caste People (Unpublished), Ahmedabad 1986

Mattam, Joseph: Land of the Trinity: Modern Christian Approaches to Hinduism, TPI, Bangalore, 1975.

Panadan, Jose: Mission in North Gujarat: the Way Ahead (1990-2011), GSP, Anand, 2011.

Saldanha,Julian: Inculturation, Bombay, St Pauls, 1987

Staffner, H: The Significance of Jesus Christ in Asia, GSP, Anand 1985.

(Published on 11th November 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 46)