Echoes of Christ

"Echoes of Christ" Continued...

Issue: "Lord of the Rings," Dec. 20, 2003

What happened between the third and the eighth centuries?

It's hard to know amid the fog of history. Statues and other material evidence are important, and the Deivanayagam researchers point out tantalizing aspects while probably reading back into an ambiguous record their own hopes. But evidence in some theological literature of the period is hard to overlook.

One key example is the Tiruvacagam (translation: divine utterance), a collection of poems by Manikka-Vacagar, who taught the existence of one supreme personal God-"The God of Gods, the Triple Lord"-in three persons. Manikka-Vacagar taught that souls are immortal and that Shiva had come to earth as a guru to save all who sought Him-and he taught those concepts, according to translator G.U. Pope, because "Christian influences pervaded the whole South."

Manikka-Vacagar wrote that the God he worshipped "became an earthly babe" and defeated his ancient enemy: "Praise to Thee, our own, waving that envenomed snake." That sounds like an echo of the prophecy in Genesis 3, and throughout Manikka-Vacagar showed deep reverence: "Father, Lord, Who drew and made me Thine ... He showed His sacred form of power and grace ... The God of Gods His sacred name ... Within my soul He made deep waters rise ... He formed for me a frame where grace might flow,/ And as an elephant explores sweet cane and fruits, at last/ He sought, and found, and made even to live."

Parts of Manikka-Vacagar's work sounds like Francis Thompson's The Hound of Heaven, written over a millennium later: "My inmost self in strong desire dissolved, I yearned;/Love's river overflowed its banks;/My senses all in Him were centred; 'Lord!' I cried./With stammering speech and quivering frame/I clasped adoring hands; my heart expanding like a flower,/Eyes gleamed with joy and tears distilled./His love that fails not day by day still burgeons forth." Again, this was not writing about Christ: Biblical hope is based on His objective sacrifice, not the emotions of devotees. Still, how remarkable that mixed into the sounds of Hindu temples was an echo of Christ.

What Crucial weakness appeared in the Indian church?

Maybe that mixing. The Western church produced creeds and confessions that defined the church; the Indian church, as far as today's scholars know, did not. In the West, those who lost out in theological struggles (which were not wholly immune to power politics) yelled foul, and heresy-hunting created problems of its own. The absence of boundaries, though, often creates problems even greater, as today's Episcopalians have found out. In India, that absence of creeds probably underwrote a tendency to merge Christianity with Hindu worship rather than to maintain it in uniqueness.

Here's another speculation: Christianity in the Roman Empire offered theological challenge. Pagans had idols but Christianity, growing out of Judaism's idol-free temple worship, emphasized ideas. Early leaders showed faith that over time peasants and slaves could believe in things un-seen. But the Indian church may have gone in a different direction, emphasizing idols as educational aids-and that left Indians vulnerable to syncretism, the merging of Hindu and Christian belief.

The pressure to create idols also grew out of what Professor D. S. Sarma of Vivekananda College, Chennai, describes as "two characteristic Hindu doctrines called the doctrine of spiritual competence (adhikara) and the doctrine of the chosen deity (ishta-devata)." The first doctrine means that "the religious discipline prescribed for a man should correspond to his spiritual competence. It is worse than useless to teach abstract metaphysics to a man whose heart hungers for concrete gods. A laborer requires a different type of religion from a scholar-so instruction should be carefully graded."

In Indian practice that first doctrine emphasized the creation of idols for the laborer-and that tendency was enhanced by the doctrine of the chosen deity, which means that a devotee could choose to adore the manifestation of God that best "satisfies his spiritual longing.... It may be any one of the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, or it may be even a tribal deity, rendered concrete to the eye of the flesh by means of an image."

But we know none of this for sure. Not until much later, in the early 14th century, do we have some tantalizing descriptions of what Indian churches had become. Odoric of Udine described his visit in 1322 to Thomas's burial site and reported that "his church is filled with idols." Jordanus, a Dominican priest, reported to Rome that he had baptized many people and urged that more friars come, because many Indians "call themselves Christians but are not so, nor have they baptism nor do they know anything about the faith." But how far back that idolatry or ignorance reaches is hard to say.


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