[This is part 3 of a 5-part interview with Fr. Jose Panadan SJ, an Indian Jesuit missionary. Introduction and links to other parts.]
You have mentioned that the concept behind the north Gujarat caste missions is unique among missions in India. Could you elaborate?
The missions began in 1964, while the Council was in progress. There were was a conscious attempt to utilize the philosophy of the famous early 19th century Indian Christian convert Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya (the Wikepedia link also has the text of a famous hymn composed by him, Vande Sacitananada, which uses Vedic imagery and is popular among Indian Christians), who proposed a “Hindu by culture, Christian by faith” outlook, and even talked of being a “Hindu Christian.” Upadhyaya’s ideas were frowned upon by his contemporary co-religionists, and did not really catch on.
The the north Gujarat missionary approach has developed Upadhyaya's ideas, and distinguishes between samajdharma (which refers to one’s social obligations that the culture would expect) versus sadhanadharma (which is personal faith and devotion).
What were the practical consequences of this approach?
For instance, a person can maintain his caste identity: however, at the time of baptism, converts are asked to make a promise that they will not discriminate on the basis of caste. Other religious markers, such as vegetarianism, and incorporating various Hindu festivals – such as the monthly celebration of the full-moon (poonam), Navratri (a winter festival associated with Diwali) – and reinterpreting them from a Christian perspective. For the celebration of marriage and funerals, the mission has come up with an inculturated rite that involves various Hindu elements. These rites have been approved by the Indian Bishops.
Another example would be the incorporation of the custom of namni, by which the guru is honored. In local custom, the guru has an important role, and is the mediator between the divine and the people. One can see clear parallels with the Christian concept of priesthood. So, after Mass, the priest sits cross-legged, and the bhakta (devotee or disciple) will line up and bow (namni) three times to the priest, after applying rice and kunku (red powder) to the forehead, offering flowers and money (a few spare coins).
I understand that Our Lady continues to have an evangelical role in the lives of the people …
Yes, absolutely. Another example of inculturation would be introducing Our Lady in the place of the kulmata (clan or caste goddess), as a patroness of the new Christians. We do our best to catechize the people about the proper veneration due to Mother Mary. She is venerated as Our Lady of the Camels, Unteshwari Mata. There is a major pilgrimage to her shrine in Unteshwari during the Navratri festival in winter. While the Hindus celebrate Navratri, our people have seven nights of prayer and devotion, culminating with the pilgrimage on the 8th day. Some 15,000 people gather for the festival annually, which has gained prominence among all Christians, even non-Gujaratis resident in the state, and also draws non-Christians.
Last year, we marked 25 years of the Unteshwari Mandir (temple). Indian Catholics – Goans, Keralites – from as far away as Singapore, made a journey to share their testimonies of the power of the intercession of Unteshwari Mata in their lives.
I myself made a special pilgrimage to Unteshwari Mata to ask for a child for my childless brother and sister-in-law. They have since been blessed with children.
In the tribal belt, Our Lady is known by different names as well. She is also venerated around the state under various names: Niradharo ni Mata (Our Lady of the Forsaken), Anatho ni Mata (Our Lady of the Orphans), Vishweshwari Mata (Our Lady Queen of the Universe), etc. Devotion to her is very strong everywhere.
Describe the celebration of the Eucharist with these new Christians
Mass is known as parampuja, the Supreme Puja or prayer. In the tribal belt, we say Mass in their own dialects, elsewhere in Gujarati. When we celebrate Mass in the villages, local tribal customs are incorporated into Mass – for instance, during the penitential rite, a man and a woman from the community bring water to the altar, which is blessed, and then shared among the people. Singing and dancing precede Mass.
Everywhere in the villages with new Christians, Mass is offered in sitting position, which is the traditional Hindu posture for prayer . There are no churches or chapels in the villages, so I have said Mass in lemon orchards and in the fields, with goats roaming around!
Where there are churches or chapels, especially in the well-established communities of the Kheda Christians, Mass would look more traditional.