INTERRELIGIOUS INFLUENCE IN SPIRITUAL FORMATION INDIAN CONTEXT

Shajan Pudussery, CM[1]

Introduction

India is a land of many religions. Some originated in India and others were attracted to Indian land. About 75 percent of Indians are Hindus belonging to different sects and casts. There are also Hindus who are members of reform movements that began in the 19th century. The most significant of these is perhaps the Arya Samaj, which rejects divisions of caste and idol worship. About 12 percent of the Indian population practices Islam. This also is divided into several different communities. The major division in the Muslim population is between Sunni and Shia branches.  India’s other major religious groups include Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists (0.7 percent), Jains (0.4 percent), a small number of Zoroastrians (or Parsis), and a few thousand Jews. Christians live primarily in urban areas throughout India, with major concentrations in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nādu, and Goa. Christians are a majority in three small states in the northeast: Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya. Local communities of all these religions maintain institutions such as places of worship, schools, clubs, and charitable trusts that bring them together. Larger associations of religious groups also exist, including political parties.

It is very difficult for an Indian to live without being influenced by different doctrines and practices of other religions. Consciously or unconsciously one is influenced by other religions in his spiritual formation. The social and political conditions play a vital role in this aspect.

 

Types of dialogue and Spiritual formation

 

The Pontifical council for interreligious dialogue defines dialogue as “a two-way communication. It implies speaking and listening, giving and receiving, for mutual growth and enrichment. It includes witness to one’s own faith as well as openness to that of the other. It is not a betrayal of mission of the Church, nor is it a new method of conversion to Christianity”. Dialogue with other religions always helps a person to grow spiritually.

Though there are different kinds[1] of inter-religious dialogues, an ordinary person gets involved in three types of dialogue which help in spiritual formation.

 

–          Human Dialogue or the Dialogue of Life: This kind of dialogue involves courteous interactions with persons of other religions that are encountered. One sees the other simply as human being rising above the different religious traditions that separate them. This is very common dialogue when we interact with people of other faiths.

–          Secular Dialogue or the Dialogue of Collaboration: In this type of dialogue people of different faiths collaborate in matters of common concern. The religious beliefs are not discussed or brought into focus. Joint declarations made by several religious figures against violence or terrorism are best examples for this type of dialogue.

–          Spiritual Dialogue or the Dialogue of Religious Experience: This type of dialogue involves praying, meditating, fasting, etc., using the spiritual methods of the other tradition. It can also involve praying together, each according to his/her own tradition, or sharing ones spiritual experiences.

Social factors & inter-religious influence

 

In Indian situation, there are many social factors with religious influences that shape the spiritual formation of a person. Some of them are:

 

–          Feasts & associated functions of different religions.

–          Festival holidays connected with different religions.

–          Films with religious themes.

–          Literatures with religious concepts.

–          State rules and regulations connected with religious practices.

–          Academic studies- moral stories from different religious books.

–          Neighbourhood relations- people of different faith living in common area.

–          Working with persons of different faith.

–          Social customs.

 

Inter-religious symbols in Christian worship & Spiritual formation

–          Religious names such as  Aandavan, Ishwara, Jagadiswara etc. are Indian terms used in other religions to indicate God.

–          Oil lamp-a special kind of oil lamp (Kuthuvilakku, nilavilaku) is used during worship in the churches and houses which is symbolically used by the Hindus during worship.

–          Kolam (patterns and designs on the floor) with coloured rice flour at the entrance of the church as Hindu women do in their homes. The kolam symbolically portrays the role of women whose purpose is to give life and to beautify the world.

–          Thali. Literally it means “string”. It is very rare to find an Indian wedding celebrated without a thali. The bridegroom ties a string with three knots around the bride’s neck, using a blessed string adorned with some gold ornaments or a piece of saffron or yellow spice. Tying the thali resembles the practice in the Church wedding ceremony in which the couple gives their consent. Once the thali is tied, the marriage is indissoluble. In the Catholic wedding rites, it has become part of the wedding ritual, making a marriage binding. Never does an Indian Catholic marriage take place without a thali.

–          Floral adoration (Pushparchana) with (deeparchana) Light and (dooparchana) incense. This is an adaptation from the Indian tradition.

–          Sacred Dance. Though the reminiscence of scared dance form is seen in the Old Testament, the practice of liturgical dance is an adaptation from the Indian culture.

–          Ritual purification. The minister (poojari) in Hinduism and everyone in Islam undergoes ritual purification before the worship and in the Catholic Church, certain particular rites the minister purifies himself in a symbolic manner before the administration of the sacraments.

–          Sacramental vestments of Indian tradition are adapted in certain occasions.

 

These and many other inter-religious symbolisms help a person to form his Christian spirituality in the traditional Indian manner.

 

Inter-religious celebrations, practises & Spiritual formation

There are so many religious celebrations and traditions help a person to form inter-religious concepts and grow in his spirituality. ‘These traditions are to be approached with great sensitivity, on account of the spiritual and human values enshrined in them. They command our respect because over the centuries they have borne witness to the efforts to find answers “to those profound mysteries of the human condition” (Nostra Aetate 1) and have given expression to the religious experience and they continue to do so today’[2].

Some of them are as follows:

–          Diwali is a Hindu festival which literally means ‘rows of lights.’ Hindus consider this day as their god Vishnu defeating and killing a demon Naragashura, on the darkest night of the year. This is a festival of victory of light over darkness and good over evil. Christians celebrate Deepavali as “festival of light” which symbolizes Christ’s victory over darkness and death.

–          Pongal (Regional festival) is celebrated as harvest festivals to thank God for the blessings.

–          Holi, the fire festival- boy Krishna killed the female demon Putana. During the night of Holi a big fire is lit in which Putana is burnt.  Fire purifies everything and is connected with the Holy Spirit.

–          Onam (Regional festival) speaks about a generous king who lost his domain and had to descend to the underworld due to a trick played by another god. His request to visit his beloved people yearly was granted. His visit is celebrated as Onam. ‘The Onam story shows that even if we apparently lose in being generous, we actually do not. The apparent loss is a gain. This is because righteousness is its own reward.’[3]

–          Makara-Samkranti is celebrated on the 14th January every year. Sun’s march towards the north takes place on that day (actually happens on 21st December). ‘Makarasankranti invites us to make our life a constant samkranti, an ongoing stepping out of and away from oneself inorder to walk step in step with others. We can remind ourselves of this vocation by celebrating every year the feast of the Presentation of Jesus- for then with Simeon we will step out of the realm of darkness and acclaim Jesus, the light of the nations.’[4]

–          Rakhi- girls tie some kind of bracelet or amulet to boys. The bracelet is made of cotton or silk threads. It speaks about a bond of protection.

There are many religious practices of other religions used in Christianity. All these practices in one way or the other help the spiritual formation of a person. Ashramas, Yoga (asanas) and meditation are best examples. Different types of asanas and meditation techniques are used by Christians.

–          Namajapa meditation

–          Word meditation

–          Guru meditation

–          Bakti meditation

–          Vipasana meditation

All these meditations take a person to the ultimate reality, God.

Inter-religious concepts & Spiritual formation

The relationships with other religions help a person to understand one’s own religion in better manner and form certain religious concepts which would help him in his spiritual formation. “Inter-religious dialogue requires that each enters into it with the integrity of his or her own faith.”[5]

Inter-religious dialogue helps a person to respect the other religions and accept them with open heart. “While remaining firm in their belief that in Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and man (cf. 1 Tm 2:4–6), the fullness of revelation has been given to them, Christians must remember that God has also manifested himself in some way to the followers of other religious traditions. Consequently, it is with receptive minds that they approach the convictions and values of others.”[6]

Some of the concepts derived from the inter-religious dialogue that influence the spiritual formation of a person are:

–          Universal love of God.

–          Jesus’ salvific action is for all humanity.

–          Presence of the Holy Spirit in other religions.

–          Church has to duty to come in contact with people of other religious traditions and proclaim Christ.

–          “Invited by the spirit, the Church has to encourage all religious institutions and movements to meet, to enter into collaboration, and to purify themselves in order to promote truth and live, holiness, justice, love and peace, dimensions of that Kingdom which, at the end of time, Christ will hand over to his Father (cf. 1 Co 15:24). Thus, inter-religious dialogue is truly part of the dialogue of salvation initiated by God(21)”[7].

–          The spirituality which is to animate and uphold inter-religious dialogue is one which is lived out in faith, hope and charity. One should have Faith in God; Hope to believe that “dialogue is a path towards the Kingdom and will certainly bear fruit, even if the time and seasons are known only to the Father (cf Acts 1:7)” (RM 57). Charity urges the Christian to share God’s love with other believers in a gratuitous way. The Christian is therefore convinced that inter-religious activity flows out of the heart of the Christian faith.[8]

–          Sacrifice strengthens prayer and promotes communion with others.

–          The values of asceticism, mysticism, fasting and penance to conquer human frailties, unity of body and mind are some of the striking elements in all the religions existing in India. The inter-religious dialogues help persons to understand these values in a better manner and practicing them well in the life to improve the spiritual life.

St. Vincent & Inter-religious dialogue[9]

St. Vincent was a man with mission and vision. Though the Church had never thought of inter-religious dialogue at the time of St. Vincent, he was very keen on this point and instructed his confreres. Islam was the dominant non-Christian religion at that time. Vincent makes many references on this religion in his conferences and letters. St. Vincent’s interest in these Islamic countries may perhaps date from the time of his captivity in Tunis between the years 1605 and 1607.  St. Vincent had a special interest for Islamic countries. His first missionary project to a foreign country was to Constantinople. On July 25, 1634, he writes: “The Ambassador to Turkey did me the honour of writing to me, calling for priests from Saint-Nicolas and from the Mission. He thinks they will be able to do more there than I would dare to tell you.” (I, 253). Prior to the great mission to Madagascar (1648), almost all missionary projects of St. Vincent were directed to Islamic countries.

St. Vincent had great respect for Islam. When speaking about the Turks he does not, as a rule, use derogatory terms. Though many of his confreres had to suffer at the hands of Turks, St. Vincent never speaks of them in derogatory terms. St. Vincent had a good knowledge about Islam and their culture and he had high esteem for them. Many a times he uses examples from the Turkish culture to instruct his followers. On an occasion he says, “The Turks are better people than many Christians.” ( X, 470). On November 15, 1657, he used the example of the Turks to persuade the Daughters of Charity not to drink wine “except in the case of invalids or the very old.” He said: “Believe me, Sisters, it is a great advantage never to drink wine. The Turks never drink it, although they live in a very warm country and they are far healthier than people here who do, which shows that wine is not so necessary to life as people think. Ah! if it was not so common we should not see so much disorder. Isn’t it a great pity that the Turks, and all who live in Turkey, which has an area of ten thousand miles, the equivalent of one hundred and fifty of our leagues, live without wine and that Christians use it so excessively!” (X, 360-361).

Recognizing the true value of charitable works done by non-Christians, St. Vincent reminds the Daughters of Charity that the service of the poor has to extend to “spiritual assistance.” Indeed, there is nothing specifically Christian about giving corporal help. “A Turk, an idolater, can give aid for the body. That is why Our Lord would not have instituted a Company solely for that, since natural considerations alone would oblige us to act in this way.” (X, 334). He explains to the missionaries, too, that there is a natural wisdom that is universal: “This does not mean to say that in the world there are not good sayings, adages that are not opposed to Christian maxims, as, for example, the saying: ”Do good and you will find good”. That is true, the pagans and the Turks accept that and nobody would disagree.”(XII, 273). On another occasion he agrees that it is a natural impulse to do well and help others: “Even the Turks, who have no knowledge of God, are obliged to act in this way and if I had no other knowledge I would be obliged by natural law to behave like this.” (X, 329).

St. Vincent is even more daring when he uses the example of Muslims to urge the Sisters to say the rosary and he gives them this encouragement: “Now if Turks have some sort of devotion to the Rosary, is it not reasonable that you should have a great devotion towards the Blessed Virgin? … The Turks, themselves, realized that this form of prayer is so beautiful that some of them wear a rosary round their neck and others wear it as a scarf. Oh! do you know how they say the Rosary? They do not say, as we do, the Pater and the Ave, because they do not believe in Our Lord and do not regard Him as their Lord, although they have a great respect for Him, for Him and for the Blessed Virgin, and have it to such a degree that if they hear anyone blaspheming against Our Lord they put him to death. So they take their beads and say: ‘Allah, Allah, my God, my God, have pity on me; just God, merciful God, almighty God.’ Those are the epithets they apply to Him.”(X, 621).

St. Vincent asks his missionaries not to hate the religion of the place of their work. He says that the missionaries will be “subject to the laws of the country, except those that concern religion, on which subject let them never dispute or say anything in contempt of it.” (XIII, 307, 364). He also asks his priests to be prudent in their dealing with the people of other faith. In a letter to Jean Barreau in Algiers, St. Vincent tells “never to write or to speak about conversions out there and, more importantly, to have nothing to do with conversions that are against the law in that country. You have reason to fear lest a person may feign conversion in order to stir up trouble.”(III, 42)

St. Vincent considered it is the duty of the Catholic Church to work for the salvation of whole humanity. On several occasions he reminds others that the Pope “has the power to send ecclesiastics to all parts of the world for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.” (II, 51. See also III, 154, 158, 182; XI, 421).

Inter-religious dialogue and Vincentian formation

The Vincentian formation in India gives ample opportunity for the students to come in contact with different religions through various ways. Following the example St. Vincent they are taught to respect the values and traditions of other faith. Students are encouraged to “encounter people who are members of different ecclesial communions or religions … Sharing with people of other faiths can be mutually enriching. It can provide both parties with insight into God’s action in the world and create new sensitivity to different experiences of life … Missionaries must be aware that truth also resides resides beyond the confines of the Catholic Church”[10].

–          Celebration of regional and national feast of other religions.

–          Study of other religions- theory and visiting their holy places.

–          Practice of yoga, meditation techniques and bhajans.

–          Films and other literatures.

–          Adaptation of good values from other religions.

–          Interaction with the people of other faith – formal and informal.

–          Use of symbols from other religions in liturgy.

All these give the students to come contact with other religions through dialogue of life, dialogue of collaboration and dialogue of religious experience. Though the extremists of other religions accuse Christianity as a ‘foreign religion’, she has tried her level best to adapt and adopt the traditions and cultures of other religions in India.

Conclusion

The society and the environment have great role to play in the spiritual formation of people. As members of a multi-religious society, Indians have always respected the traditions and values of other religions. Though there have been many reports of religious persecutions, majority of the people follow tolerance towards other religions. Understanding and respecting other religions help persons to develop their spirituality basing on the beautiful concepts like ‘God is love’, ‘the presence of God’s spirit is felt in all religions; etc. It is also easy for such people to experience universal brotherhood and look upon God as the Father and Creator of all. The interest and enthusiasm in inter-religious dialogue help people to love and respect the uniqueness of their own religion and develop a spirituality based on that religion. Thus Muslim become better Muslim and Hindu become better Hindu and Christian become better Christian.

 


[1] Fr. Sjahjan Pudussery CM is the director of the Seminarium Internum of the Southern Province of India.


[1] Dr. Eric Sharpe, the renowned scholar of Comparative Religion categorises Inter-religious dialogue into four types.

[2] PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR INTER-RELIGIOUS DIALOGUE, Reflection and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1), No. 14.

[3]. Keerankrri George, An Onam Message, Vidyajyothi journal of theological reflection, Vol. 72, No.1, P.21

[4] Annad Subhash, Makara-Samkranti: crossing Boundries Together, Vidyajyothi journal of theological reflection, Vol. 72, No.1, P.19.

[5] PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR INTER-RELIGIOUS DIALOGUE, Reflection and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1), No. 48.

[6] Ibid, no.14.

[7] Ibid, No.80.

[8] Letter to Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on the Spirituality of Dialogue, No.8.

[9] Source of this topic is from the essay “Saint Vincent and Islam” by Yves Danjou, C.M. The references in this text are taken from P. Coste, Vincent de Paul, Correspondence, Conferences, Documents – 14 Volumes.

[10] Ratio Missionum Congregatio Missionis, No. 2.4.

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