Inculturation in India

August 28, 2009

“…Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya round Cyrene; as well as visitors from Rome – Jews and proselytes alike – Cretans and Arabs; we hear them preaching in our own language about the marvels of God” (Acts 2:9-11)

A Few Words of Introduction
Our coming together of ORIENS and SHTC with a view to look at the cultures of the North-East more closely, seriously and with the desire of serving the evangelizing mission of the Church more competently is indeed going to have far reaching results. Archbishop Thomas has taken this initiative and we are indeed grateful to him and to the other Bishops of the region.

The topic assigned to me is very precise and concrete: “Inculturation in India”. Let me say a few words on inculturation, and then have a brief historical overview of inculturation efforts in India.

“Inculturation”: Some Reflections

  • People are familiar with the term “culture/s”. This familiarity may be limited to its classical meaning of one who has been able to develop his/her human potentialities through education, acquisition of skills and good manners. Such persons are considered “educated” “cultured”. They know how to behave well in public, able to speak well, play music, capable of dealing with people and so on.
  • While not forgetting this classical meaning of culture, our focus here is its anthropological meaning, namely, culture/s understood as a way of life of a people. They may not speak English, play music or may not be able to appear in public. But they have a culture. Their life is governed by a value system, they feel at home among themselves, they have their own store of proverbs, folktales, mythologies, music and dance, their food is tasty, they know how to organize their life, and what they do is meaningful to them. They have a way of life like many thousands of cultural groups anywhere in the world.
  • So what is culture? In simple words, culture is where one feels or makers oneself feel at home. It may be in the area of language, food, living conditions, fine arts, meaning systems, worldview, etc.
  • And what is inculturation? To put it simply again, it is making people feel at home in the Catholic Church, because they hear their own language, see cultural expressions which they are familiar with, live their life as Catholic Christians creatively using their cultural resources to express their faith and, above all, they are able to experience the Good News from within their culture/s.
  • Let me put these two simple ideas into one by saying that the concept and reality of culture and the process of inculturation become easier, when we realize that human needs –physical [food and shelter, for example], social [ the need for love, forgiveness, friendship, gratitude, communication, the need for privacy and above all the need for relationship], and spiritual [meaning in life, the way one perceives the world, himself and the Absolute] are universal. That is, all over the world people have physical, social and spiritual needs. However, the way humans answer these needs are CULTURAL.

Putting it in theological language:
  • The Church exists in order to evangelize (EN 14), namely, to make all what she does “good news” to people. Though it sounds simple, it can become complicated since the evangelizing mission of the Church is carried out not in the abstract, but in the concrete situations of time and space, in people’s socio-political, economic, and religious and cultural settings. The complexity is felt all the more, because of the confusion surrounding the rich concept of culture.
  • The concept of culture includes the whole way of life of a people – the world of symbols and meanings, peoples’ history understood not in its chronological aspect only, but as the integral present-living with its roots in the past. We also know that the social, economic, political realities of a people too are very much part of their culture. And the culture of a people cannot be divorced from their religious beliefs, since religious values form the core of culture. As humans we are cultural beings. We cannot escape culture or cultures. Our life is intercultural.
  • The incarnate God in Jesus Christ did not escape culture. He was born in Jewish culture just as each one of us is born in a culture. Since we are born in a culture, but not with a culture, we are free to accept and grow into it or grow in another culture.
  • The mode in which we grow in our own culture or into another culture is through dialogue which is also the mode in which evangelization takes place.
  • The FABC (the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences) speaks of a four-fold dialogue: dialogue of Life, Action, Theological exchange, and Religious experience.
  • This fourfold dialogue is carried out with three partners: the Asian peoples [in our case, the peoples of the North-East of India], their cultures and their religions.
  • Since the concept of culture is gaining importance all over the world, and since the evangelizing mission of the Church is inseparably linked to it, the future of the Church in the North-East will depend on how seriously we take the process of inculturation of the Good News in the different cultures of the region.
  • In other words, how will the Church in the North-East transform cultures from within with the Gospel of Jesus Christ? How will she make it “heard, seen and experienced” in people’s cultural flesh and blood, so as to reenact a new Pentecost (Acts 2:8)? How will the peoples see Jesus and his Good News in their proverbs, stories, folktales, mythologies, initiation and sacrificial rites, their history, politics and socio-cultural life?
  • All this would mean how can the people be fully Indian, and authentically Catholic Christian?
  • Putting all these together, how can we germinate the Good News in the good soil at the heart of each culture?
  • Inculturation is always interculturation, since it is an encounter of at least three cultures –the Bible, the Catholic Christian tradition and the people to whom the Gospel is proclaimed.
  • Genuine inculturation involves the whole people of God, and not just a few experts only (RM54).
  • Inculturation is linked with weighty theological issues such as the salvific nature of religions other than Christianity, the universal presence of the Holy Spirit, Christ as the universal and unique Saviour, the relationship between the local churches and the Universal Church, the nature of the veneration/ worship of ancestors, and the nature and function of popular religious practices.
  • Inculturation has been the Church’s way of evangelizing since her very beginning as she moved from her Jewish matrix into the Greco-Roman and Franco-Germanic, Celtic and Slav cultures. And today the Church faces a greater challenge as she moves into a multicultural digital world.
  • The spirit and teachings of the Second Vatican Council are still very helpful to guide us.
  • The urgent task for the Church in the North-East is not just being a Church in the North-East, but also of the North-East to enrich the Catholicity of the Church Universal. Hence, our task is not just transplanting a Church, but becoming a truly local Church so as to give birth to a new society that is transparent, a society in which the Church becomes a sign of and effective instrument for the saving presence of the reign of God. The challenge in other words, is to give birth to a truly local and indigenous church: a communion of communities, a participatory church, a witnessing church, a prophetic sign Church, in the North-East with a Mission of Love and Service to all peoples enriching the Catholic Communion of Communities.

Some may comment saying we are still young, not yet strongly planted:
  • Well, there are very few Catholic communities in India in a favourable situation for inculturation of the Good News as the ones in the North-East.
  • The task before us is not only to apply the concept and reality of inculturation in some external ways as it happened in some parts of India, but to become aware of the presence of the Risen Lord and of his Good News from within the cultures of the North-East, and to acknowledge him in people’s history, their cultural heritage of proverbs, stories, folklore, mythologies, traditional religious practices, etc.
  • This process will bring about not only the conversion of individuals and communities, but also the evangelization of cultures themselves, that is, the Gospel values of justice, peace, solidarity, reconciliation, forgiving love, and a sense of sharing and harmony will transform the cultural, political, social, and economic structures of the North-East.
  • Then only evangelization will become evangelization of Cultures (Evangelii Nuntindi 20). Inculturation of the Good News is the way to it. There is no alternative to inculturation.
  • All this is linked to the great change which the Second Vatican Council injected into the Church, namely, evangelizing mission is a personal responsibility in each baptized. This awareness should accompany the process of inculturation on the level of individuals and communities and institutions to have a sustained and lasting inculturation.
  • For the local Church this would mean not just inculturation but inculturations as we have mentioned earlier, since the infinite variety of cultures in the region claims equal rights in all respects.
  • Such a development can be both stimulating, enriching, and at the same time a “bewildering” experience for the Churches in the North-East.
  • This indeed is my prayerful wish for our region.

Incultration in India: A Brief Historical Overview
  • Christian message has been in India for nearly twenty centuries. According to tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle preached in India. He died in the South. He is venerated as the Apostle of India, and his tomb is in Mylapore.
  • In spite of this very ancient and strong tradition and notwithstanding the substantial presence of Christians and Christian services in the country, Christians are still considered a foreign presence. Born in Asia, present in India, “Jesus is often perceived as foreign to Asia[ read India] “ (EA 20), and Christianity itself appears to be western than Indian for the vast majority of people in our country.
  • Here are a few lines from someone who has reflected on this theme sufficiently and who has authored Beyond Inculturation: Can the Many be One? He writes, “The predicament of the Christians in India is that they are not only considered foreign by others, but that they themselves feel that they belong to two different worlds. They are not totally at home culturally in their own country. There may not be a difference between them and the followers of other religions in the street, in the school, in the market place and in political life. But when the Christians cross the threshold of the Church-compound they enter into a different world … The texts of their official worship is a translation from sources in Latin or Syriac, so that even when the language is their own, the thought patterns are foreign to them. The art that decorates their Churches and nourish their devotion is imported from Italy, Spain or elsewhere in Europe from where the original missionaries came. The official life-cycle rituals and festivals are so unsatisfactory, that, besides the ‘official’ ceremonies, people have more elaborate rituals at home, personally and socially more significant and satisfying. No wonder if they do not feel culturally integrated” (M. Amaladoss, Delhi:ISPCK, 2005, 3).

Just a few snapshots from history may be helpful at this point:
  • At the earliest stage Christian mission was Jewish in culture.
  • When it spread to other cultures the converts lived the Christian message in their own cultures.
  • In fact the first five centuries of the history of Christianity were a “period of great improvisation and creativity in liturgy”.
  • But this creativity suffered as Christianity was becoming more and more a “finished” product in the western form. It suffered further because of theological and political Eurocentrism.
  • The two sui iuris Churches in India –the Syro-Malabar and Malankara- are “reproductions” of inculturated local churches of Syrian Christianity which spread to countries like Mesopotamia, Persia, Central Asia, and China. Fr. Placid J. Podipara puts it succinctly underlining also inculturation efforts: He writes, “… The Thomas Christian have not contributed anything towards the formulation of an Indian Christian theology. They have, however, contributed very much in terms of a way of life and mode of worship” [this latter, namely, way of life and mode of worship” is cultural] (Jose Kochuparampil, “How far inculturated is the Syro-Malabar Liturgy? Further Possibilities of Inculturation” in Bosco Puthur, ed., Inculturation and The Syro-Malabar Church, Kochi: LRC Publications, 2005, 106)].
  • The lack of local vocations for these Churches in Kerala for centuries may be attributed to their “foreign” face. Foreign face, imported liturgy and lack of indigenous leadership were also the reasons for their lack of missionary spirit too till the recent recent decades.
  • The oft-cited description of these Churches as “Hindu in culture, Christian in religion and oriental in worship” is a misunderstanding of culture. Culture is a way of life that should touch every aspect of life including worship.
  • In the measure in which the St. Thomas Christians in Kerala tried to integrate their Christian life to the socio-cultural life of Kerala, it was inculturated.
  • Coming to the period of the proclamation of the Good News by missionaries of the Latin Church in the 15th and 16th centuries onward, we must admit that it was inevitable that their evangelizing efforts were influenced by their respective cultures of origin - Portuguese or of other European countries.
  • In some instances the European culture was imposed on the new converts.
  • It was in this context that the Jesuit pioneer Robert de Nobili (1577-1656) [like his fellow Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) in China] became a trail blazer in South India in the area of inculturation of the faith and “asserted the right of the Indians to follow their social and cultural way of life”. At one time de Nobili was accused of “favouring idolatry and diabolical practices”. Others after him who followed the example of de Nobili were Thomas Stevens (1549-1619), John de Britto (1647-1693), and Constance Beschi (1680-1746).
  • But these efforts were halted by the suppression of the Malabar and the Chinese Rites in 1704 and 1707 respectively. The missionaries had to take oaths against the two rites. Even though the oaths required of the missionaries were withdrawn in 1939 [in the case of the Chinese Rites] and in 1940 [in that of the Malabar Rites] the effect of the suppression and the burden of history continued to weigh heavily in the collective conscience of the community. Among the Indian pioneers of what we would call “inculturation” today mention could be made of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861- 1907).[1]
  • Reflecting on what he did, he says, “So long as the Christians of India do not practice their faith on the platform of Hindu life and living and Hindu thought and thinking, and elevate the national genius to the supernatural plane, they will never thrive.” 1 People like Brahmabandhab Upadhyay and Sadu Sundar Singh (1889-1929) attempted to live their Christian faith in tune with Indian spiritual traditions.
  • Brahmabandhu Upadhyaya’s plan to found an Indian monastery was stopped. [Today we have many indigenous religious congregations. But they are for the most part structured on western models].
  • The attempt to live the Christian faith in the Indian tradition of the Sannyasi was realized by Swami Dayananda (Bede Grifiths [1906-1993]) first at Kurisumala along with Francis Acharya its founder, then at Shantivanam along with Abhishiktananda (Henri le Saux [1910-1973]). Today there are nearly 108 Chrisitan Ashrams in India.
  • In the latter part of the 19th and the first part of the 20th centuries we see Hindu reformers integrating the moral teachings of Jesus into Hindu contexts (Ram Mohan Roy, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi); of missionaries seeing Christianity as the fulfillment of Hindu Religious teachings; and finally, some Indian Christians understanding their Christian faith in the Hindu context, namely, Christianity as bhakti marga (a way of love) in contrast to the ways of knowledge (jnana) and action (karma).
  • In the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council the vast majority of –Christians, however, had a negative approach to non-Christian religions and religious traditions and of non-Catholic traditions.
  • The Council’s teachings changed our approach and our attitude to other religions and religious traditions.
  • The anthropological concept of culture as a way of life rather than the classical definition of culture as “factors that help human development” began to change our approach to cultures. All cultures came to be respected in as much as every cultural group has its own way of organizing life.
  • Every culture received its rightful autonomy. And religious values formed the core of culture providing cohesion to all other aspects of life.
  • The Council’s statements that everyone has the civil freedom to practice any religion according to his/her conscience, that “the seed of the Word” and “true and holy” elements are found in the religions and religious traditions of other peoples helped to remove several suspicions and negative attitudes. The road to Gospel Culture Encounter became clearer.
  • The immediate implementation of the use of indigenous languages in Catholic celebrations and the eagerness to study other religions helped to promote dialogue with religions and cultures.
  • Still, we know that there is long ways to go, before indigenous cultural expressions become part of Catholic Celebrations and life: Study, Research and legitimate permissions need to be speeded up.
  • The joint meeting we have today augurs great things ahead for the Church in the North-East. We can prove to be a beacon of light for the rest of India weighed down with the burden of history and distinctions of caste and colour.
  • The need to link up theological and non-theological studies for the evangelizing mission of the Church [because the Church by nature is missionary] is still a far cry in many a formation house.
  • The role NBCLC (National Biblical Catechetical and Liturgical Centre), Bangalore, has played over the years deserves a special mention here because of the sustained effort it made in the area of inculturation particularly under the guidance of its founder-director Fr. D.S. Amalorpavadass [or Fr. Amalor, as he was affectionately known].
  • The All India Seminar of 1969 to implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council gave a good start for inculturation.
  • Amalor spoke, wrote and animated through various programmes like seminars and courses in NBCLC and in the different parts of the Church in India. He highlighted “important areas of inculturation such as spirituality, worship, ministry and catechesis, theological reflection, cultures and proclamation” thus underlining the all embracing role of inculturation. Fr. Amalor also pointed out the three chronological dimensions of inculturation: it is oriented towards the future, it is involved in the reality of the present and is rooted in the cultural heritage and religious traditions of the past” (The Contemporary Theologicans, Banglore:ATC, 2006, 18).
  • He also affirmed that from an “anthropological perspective inculturation is an encounter and interaction between the Gospel and culture on an equal footing and in a dialectical process of reciprocity and mutual respect” (Ibid.).
  • Amalor was instrumental in proposing a creative and inculturated Mass for India which finally ended up in the 12 points of adaptation (Ibid., 19) for the creation of an Indian Liturgy.
  • Paul Puthanangady writes, “As Director of NBCLC, Fr. Amalor tried to translate [the] … theology [of inculturation] into action. Every sector of the Centre’s activity was permeated with this spirit and every initiative in the Centre was guided by this principle of inculturation” (Third Millennium, April-June, 1999, 115).
  • In this connection, besides the many other initiatives, the “Inter-disciplinary Research Seminar” on the use of the scriptures of other religions in Christian Liturgy in 1974 is an important landmark. [it highlighted the religious authority the scriptures provide for the respective communities, the more we are familiar with them the deeper shall be our insights into the word of God, it provides new contexts for religious dialogue, it underlines God’s speaking in various ways in the past, it shows more clearly the Mystery of God, and finally, our eagerness to study the other scriptures is a form of openness to the Holy Spirit...].
  • It is everyone’s knowledge that the NBCLC initiatives for inculturation were focused very much on Brahminic and Sanskritic levels.
  • It is up to us today to carry it further and with more effectiveness into Dalit and Tribal areas.
  • Ecclesia in Asia speaks of “a wider inculturation of the Gospel at every level of society in Asia [read, India-North-East in particular] (EA,22). This would mean that the concept and reality of inculturation must embrace the whole of life.
  • Inculturation is particularly applicable to Basic Christian Communities. The
  • role of the laity in inculturation process is imperative. But this will depend very much “on the appropriate formation which the local Churches succeed in giving to the laity” (EA, 22).
  • Cultivating cultural sensitivity to people will fetch great dividend in all our efforts at inculturation.
  • Genuine inculturation must begin with people’s struggle for justice and fight against of anti-social and oppressive situations.
  • Poverty, denial of justice, corruption in high and low places; communalism and negative effects of globalization continue to disturb the cultural landscape of the poor, the tribal peoples and those lacking a voice in decision making.
  • Our effort at inculturation in the North-East has its own history and results. I need to study further this area. However, allow me to mention what has been achieved here in the archdiocese of Shillong. What follows can be applicable to the other areas with due changes: The earnestness shown in the study of local languages and customs [though of late it is diminishing, I am told], a deeper understanding of the various mythologies, for example, the Lumsophetbneng myth of the Khasi-Pnar [which highlights the role of God in creation, the special relationship of God with human family, the appearance of evil, the longing for light, the deep desire for a redeemer, the presence of elements of sacraments] can throw light in understanding and experiencing more personally several aspects of the Good News.
  • Here we can also mention the work of the Khasi Liturgical Inculturation Research Committee which studied the role of kmiekha (paternal aunt) in Baptism, of kni (maternal uncle) in Catholic marriage, the preparation of special Khasi prayers for funeral rites, the use of lasir (a sacred plant) for sprinkling holy water, the placing of water and food at the tomb of the departed to symbolize the journey beyond death, the expression bam kwai ha iing U blei (eat beetlenut in God’s House in the company of the ancestors) meaning “death”, the wearing of the white turban by male adults and the crown by female adults after baptism, the wide use of monoliths and the symbol of cock standing on the stump of a tree [signifying that the place of the cock has been taken by Christ the perfect victim who gave his life for the salvation of the world], and so on are a good start.
  • Here let me also add the VISION and MISSION of the Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures at Mawlai [which is commonly known as Don Bosco Museum]. Its vision is none other than to see a North-East where each and every culture is appreciated, studied, and promoted to reach a HARMONY of Cultures at the service of the Good News. All what DBCIC does is to realize this vision by making it a KNOWLEDGE SHARING CENTRE with the application of multi-media.
  • Before I conclude, I would like to briefly mention two eminent figures among hundreds of others in our region: one is Bishop Marengo who could with certain ease speak many languages of the people of this region and who can be described as the Bishop of the people, and the other is Fr. Nama (or Fr. Mathew Narimattam) whose latest publication He made Assam His Home is a simple but forceful reminder of his dedication to and love for the various cultures of Assam. His “gentle ways” which continue to win the hearts of people is a reminder for us that the never-ending process of inculturation truly begins there. His book has many instances of real examples of inculturation. The very title of the book He made Assam His Home sounds perfect incarnation which allowed the author to inculturate the Good News he shared with his people.
  • One of Nama’s close friends Sri Jiten Barthakur of Jorhat had the following to say on one occasion:
  • “Friend, see, I have read the Gospels, and I love Jesus Christ. But I do not like the Church or Churches, for they impose too many rules and restrictions on people … As regards the Church in the North-East and Assam in particular, please allow me to tell you that we Assamese people would find ourselves like fish out of water, if we were to become Christians. We will have to sacrifice our culture and ways of living which we cherish so much. Our ways of worship are so much Indian and appealing to us emotionally. Most of you Catholics here in Assam have a culture of their own with some sort of allegiance to outside church authorities … A few years ago I happened to visit one of your churches on a Sunday. To be very frank, I should tell you that I did not feel at home with the service conducted there. And as for the North-East, Jiten continued, you will agree with me that we Assamese Hindus are much better than most of the tribal Christians. Promiscuity and drug-taking are much more prevalent in the Christian states of Nagaland and Manipur than in Assam … you tend to become very much un-Indian …[you] are first Roman and then Indian” (Mathew Narimattam, He made Assam His Home, Dimapur: Don Bosco Publications, n.y., 170-171).
  • Nama’s passionate love for Assam and her cultures is expressed in the name he gave to the cassette that was released in May, 2006 Xunar Axhom, “The Golden Assam”, and the book The Valley in Blossom he published on Assam Vaishnavism and the peoples of the Brahamaputra Valley in 1988 is yet another tribute to the cultures of Assam and an affirmation of the need of inculturation. Agradoot, an Assamese Daily sums up the inculturaton attitude of Nama when it wrote, “Nama has fallen in love with Assamese language and culture” (Ibid., 288).
  • Such a passionate love for people and their cultures is a sine qua non for any inculturation process in India.

Helpful Inculturizing Attitudes
  1. Anyone who wishes to work with a people must understand and keep on understanding their culture, starting with the language and slowly moving into the core of their attitudes, belief systems and world views.
  2. This requires some apprenticeship in a spirit of humility, openness to learning and a lot of patience.
  3. There is need of recognizing and acknowledging Jesus Christ from within a culture: its history, cultural expressions of proverbs, stories, folklore, fine arts, music, mythologies, rituals and sacrifices, etc. which sum-up both the natural and the spiritual as a continuum.
  4. This calls for room for creativity and freedom… to “incarnate” Christian living in a specific people’s way of life.
  5. This would also mean the way in which Christ is preached and encountered will be different for different backgrounds. That would mean not only inculturation, but inculturations.
  6. The task of inculturation is the work of everyone in a given culture – the teaching authority of the Church guiding, encouraging and accompanying the entire process in prayerful listening to the Holy Spirit.
  7. Since the concept and reality of culture touches every aspect of a people’s life, genuine inculturation should be seen in a transformed life.
  8. The transformed life results in promotion of justice, openness to other cultures, and a richer religious experiences leading to communion of communities.
  9. The desire to share faith in an attitude of dialogue leading to mutual enrichment need not be divorced from the process of inculturation.
  10. The process of inculturation is never ending since it touches the soul of a people.
  11. For bringing about a real encounter between people and Christ, inculturation is a must.

Recalling Ecclesia in Asia
“The penetrating insights into peoples and their cultures, exemplified in such men as Giovanni da Montecorvino, Matteo Ricci and Roberto de Nobili, to mention only a few, needs to be emulated at the present time.” (EA 20).

“Culture is the vital space within which the human person comes face to face with the Gospel.” (EA 21).

“…the Kingdom of God comes to people who are profoundly linked to a culture, and the building of the Kingdom cannot avoid borrowing elements from human cultures.” (Ecclesia in Asia, 21).

[1]One of his great concerns was to develop an educational pattern that would incorporate what is best in Indian tradition and at the same time open to modern achievements, especially scientific….He came to realize that the Catholic Church never taught that the converts should give up their national customs and habits… later in life , he took to the style of a Hindu Sannyasi going barefoot and wearing a saffron robe… worked relentlessly to give a Hindu basis for the reception of the Gospel. “The Catholic Christianity we have is a western phenomenon and therefore alien to Hindu minds.” Upadhayay’s hymn Vande Saccidanandam indu sannyasi going barefootHindu is a marvelous expression of Catholic thought with traditional Hindu resonances. He wanted also to found a Christian monastery on Hindu lines.


A paper presented by Fr. Joseph Puthenpurakal SDB at the "Oriens-SHTC Seminar on Inculturation in North-East India" on Thursdat 27th August, 2009.

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