[This is part 4 of a 5-part interview with Fr. Jose Panadan, an Indian Jesuit missionary. Introduction and links to other parts.]
What are some challenges that mission in Gujarat faces today?
Well inculturation: The identity of the new Christian remains very ambiguous. We have introduced new religious concepts (praying to Ishu (Jesus), or venerating Mata Mariya) into a traditional Hindu culture. However, so many elements of the original culture remain, and it becomes difficult to determine what elements ought to be displaced, or even can be displaced.
Caste: How to fight against the inherently discriminatory caste identity and build a sense of belonging to a Church which transcends caste identity – this is perhaps the biggest challenge facing not just the Gujarati missions, but the entire Church in India, where, in some places, caste discrimination has been practiced by Christians for centuries.
Even the word Khristi (Christian) in these areas has a very derogatory connotation among non-Christians. It is associated with being Dalit, and has a pejorative sense. We do not use this word with our people in north Gujarat, who are not Dalit, but caste Hindus, (even though at the lower end of the caste hierarchy).
Christianity is referred to as Ishupanth, the Way of Jesus (which is also very biblical, of course!). These castes are used to having various panths or religious paths, such as Kabirpanth or Nirantpanth. Our people are the Ishupanthis.
In the north Gujarat mission, there is a slow – very slow – change in the caste mindset. For instance, the concept of roti vyavhar (breaking bread only with one’s caste members) is slowly breaking down. However, this process will take generations.
Vegetarianism: In the north Gujarat missions, we are dealing with a strictly vegetarian community, which is also very poor and illiterate. How does one introduce biblical concepts, such as animal sacrifice, or even the consuming of Christ’s blood and body, in a world where vegetarianism is integral to their social & religious identity?
Child marriage: the castes are strictly endogamous, and marrying children off by the age of 10, though illegal, is a common practice, that is extremely difficult to challenge.
Worshipping the old gods: it is very common to go the villagers’ houses, and see images of the Hindu gods. In fact, we hardly see any Christian images. If we give them free calendars with icons or pictures of Jesus, they throw them away!
In what sense, can these new Christians – who may have been baptized, and may have learned how to pray to Ishu (but, even that, not exclusively) – in what sense can these people be called Christian? What kind of conversion – in the broadest sense of the word – has taken place?
Exclusivity of worship is a very alien concept to Hinduism. So, though these people may have accepted Christ as the purnavatar (fullest incarnation of God), there is no sense that this means that one ceases to worship the other gods. This calls for a certain pastoral sensitivity from the missionaries.
Conversion as a call to a transformation of life and outlook: we can certainly see developments in this area, especially among the children who are in our residential schools, as well as those who have graduated. For instance, caste barriers are definitely breaking down, there is less discrimination, even forgiveness and reconciliation.
The mission has also been involved in various socio-economical development activities: providing housing, watershed management programs, forming women’s cooperatives, which are also having a positive impact on the lives of these people.