Culture

Echoes of Christ

"Echoes of Christ" Continued...

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

Plus, these reports were about churches in southeast India, near what is today the city of Chennai. Some churches in southwest India have different histories, and denominations of various kinds (including Syrian Orthodox) claim a brighter history. But little brightness of any kind is present in the historical record; we see through a glass, very darkly.

What opposition did devotees receive?

We do still have poetry such as Manikka-Vacagar's, and we can see how upsetting it must have been to Hindu theological powers. Manikka-Vacagar had a sense of man's depravity, repeatedly referring to himself as a "cur" in relation to the Lord of all, and noting that man lived "by His grace alone, bowing before His feet.... To me, mean as I was, with no good thing, Thou didst grant grace." Manikka-Vacagar scorned the arrogant priestly class: "From them who toiled with mystic scrolls didst hide Thyself!/From those who in their homes practiced virtue, Thou didst hide Thyself!. From those who boasted to see Thee by some rare device,/By that same device, there-didst Thou hide Thyself."

Manikka-Vacagar also taught that souls are immortal and that salvation is available to people from every caste. That created opposition. India even then already had a loose, four-caste system designed to create an efficient human society. Priests and scholars (Brahmins) emphasized the attainment of knowledge, rulers and soldiers (Kshatriya) met civil and military needs, farmers and merchants (Vaishya) supplied food and economic goods, and peasants (Shudras) were to whistle while they worked in jobs that fit their heavy-lifting capabilities.

Originally, the castes may have been flexible rather than intergenerational, and those at the bottom were still seen as spiritually capable. In the eighth century, those on top wanted to lock in positions for themselves and their posterity. Brahmins developed a varna dharma (varna means color, and dharma is the duty required by one's placement in life) stipulating that members of different castes have, generation after generation, different fundamental qualities of purity (sattva), energy (rajas), and inertia (tamas), with the top dogs defined as mostly pure and those on the bottom as laden with inertia and incapable of spiritual discernment.

Why would others agree to give up inalienable rights-if not life, certainly liberty and the pursuit of happiness? A Bhagavad Gita verse that may have emerged during the final editing has Krishna warning that if individuals take liberty concerning their positions in life, order will break down: "Better to do one's own caste duty, though devoid of merit, than to do another's, however well performed" (18:47). But that was still duty for a time, not forever.

How was bigotry theologically enshrined?

The Bhagavad Gita is part of a larger epic, the Mahabharata, which probably achieved its final form in the eighth century. The Mahabharata spelled out the work of the lower caste: "The Creator intended the Shudra to become the servant of the other three orders.... By such service of the other three a Shudra may obtain great happiness. He should wait upon the three other classes according to their order of seniority. A Shudra should never amass wealth, lest by his wealth he makes the numbers of the three superior classes obedient to him. By this he would incur sin.... A Shudra cannot have any wealth that is his own. Whatever he possesses belongs lawfully to his master."

Early in the ninth century Sankara, now known as India's greatest theologian, developed the philosophical synthesis that provided ammunition for those who wanted to exalt themselves and place in concrete the social divisions that already existed. He taught that Brahmins are not currish creatures but are gods who alone understand the way things truly are. Most people see the phenomena that occur around us as real, but they are deluded: "This entire apparent world in which good and evil actions are done, etc., is a mere illusion ... and does in reality not exist at all." Brahmins, though, have the intellectual qualities to gain true understanding: For them, "The Self is within, the Self is without, the Self is before and the Self is behind. The Self is on the right hand, the Self is on the left, the Self is above and the Self is below."

Over time a caste even lower than the Shudra developed from those stuck for some reason-probably skin color, perhaps theological incorrectness-with doing "unclean" jobs, such as removing dead animals and tanning leather. These lowest caste members were said to be ritually unclean and "untouchable." Those on top felt they could be polluted by being near those at the bottom, eating food touched by them, or drinking from the same well as them.

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