THE FUNCTION OF SACRED SCRIPTURE IN THE CHRISTIANISATION OF INDIA.
by Fr. J. Wijngaards, Millhilliana 26 (1974)
Also published in Worldmission Vol. 31 No. 4 (1980-1981) pgs. 36-45
On the 22nd of March, 1973 the Bishops’ Conference of Andhra Pradesh released a new translation of the Four Gospels in Telugu. This release was an important event. It was important not only because Telugu is the second
biggest language of India. Neither merely because of the fact that it was a subsidized edition costing no more than one Rupee. It was an important event because the translation marks the beginning of a new approach in theology and evangelization.
In the preface the translation committee states that it aims at providing a text that is both easily understandable to the ordinary Bible reader and at the same time a delight to those well versed in literature. It is this last aspect that forms the new version’s most outstanding feature. Up to very recent times practically all vernacular translations were unnatural, stiff, too literal and obviously of foreign origin. This translation has already been acclaimed by Telugu scholars as a genuine Telugu piece of writing.
It should not be thought that this “literary” excellence is no more than a whim to’ please scholars and critics. The literary quality of the text has purposely been striven after on theological grounds. In 1971 the translation committee expressed its purpose as follows – (I translate from the Telugu):
“We try as well as we can to follow the forms of expression in the original language. But where it is necessary we will not be afraid to render the meaning in characteristic Telugu idiom. Rather than sacrificing the meaning to external words we make it our main task to render the teaching of Christ as powerfully as possible (2 Cor. 3/4). The character of the Telugu people lies in its language. Our people have drunk this language with their mother’s milk. This language means everything to them. It is in and through the genius of that language that we offer them the good news of Christ.”1
To achieve this purpose the new translation procedure of the American Bible Society was followed.2 A well-known literary writer was chosen as the first draft writer: Mr. Kondaveeti Kavi, who had earned two special Telugu literary titles: “kavirazu” (king of poets) and “kalaprapurna” (completion in art). Being a spontaneous thinker in the Telugu language, a Hindu and college lecturer, Kondaveeti would not make the mistake of falling back into second-grade Telugu, or worse still, into “Bible Telugu”. Therefore, not only the formulation of the first draft, but also the final touch after exegetical corrections were left to him.
This new approach to Bible translation is closely related to the whole question of the Christian mission in India. In spite of many centuries of evangelization, Christians only form 2½% of India’s present 560 millions. This forces on everyone the realization that something has gone wrong. How to account for the fact that the majority of Indians are not prepared to embrace the good news? What should we do to present the message in a form that will speak to their heart? Never before has the question of evangelization been discussed and reviewed through the length and breadth of India as it is being done today.3 Many new approaches are suggested: through development work, through dialogue, through an intensive programme of Indianization, through the means of mass communication, etc. Whatever the outcome of the discussion may be, everyone realizes both its urgency and the complicatedness of the task that lies ahead.
In this essay I will first discuss the “foreign image” acquired by Christianity in India. Sacred Scripture is one important, basic means of “interiorizing” the Christian message. It can do this task only if it be experienced as having been written in sacred language. Then it will provide the theological starting point for a truly Indian way of following Christ. It will replace the false securities of so many seekers in India with the security given by Christ. Thus a good new Gospel translation stands at the beginning of a new era of true interior Christianisation.
The image of Christianity as a foreign intruder
It is a sad fact that by the vast majority of Indians Christians are considered second-rate citizens, foreign intruders who somehow have to be tolerated in spite of their repulsive habits and attitudes. Perhaps, the situation is slightly better in South India, where there are larger Christian communities, sometimes of ancient origin; but generally speaking the image of Christianity is worse than many Christians in India dare to admit. Many non-Christian children attending our Catholic schools characterize Indian Christians as those “who go to Church without first having a bath, who dress immodestly, who identify themselves with Britishers in their language, dress, in the way they behave and the way they look down upon others.”4 In a consultation at Bengal it was observed that the life of the Catholic church still bears the marks of its foreign origin. Its liturgy, educational system, customs, buildings, social events, etc. have many non-Indian features. Most of its leaders – both lay and religious – hardly speak the main language of Bengal. The English- speaking part of the community knows and cares little about the vernacular language and customs and has few contacts with the vernacular world.5 An analysis of Hindi films and novels shows that villians in the story are usually portrayed as Christians: wearing western dress, drinking imported liquor, showing loose sexual morals while flaunting their Christian belief. Characteristic is, for instance, the personality of a dancing girl (a prostitute) in the Hindi movie “Jahan myar mile”. She is portrayed as a Christian, speaking poor and broken Hindi, wearing a cross around her neck and dressed in western style. On Christmas day her mother invites a Hindu boy to dinner and compels him to drink wine. When he protests she says: “You should drink today, it is the custom in our religion”.6
There are various causes that explain how this western image of Christianity arose. One is the fact that many foreign missionaries, from the time of the Portuguese to our own days, made converts change their former customs on the ground that they were superstitious. Secondly, in all the major cities of India there are groups of westernized Anglo-Indians whose habits and customs have automatically been regarded as characteristically Christian. The dress of an Anglo-Indian girl, which may be totally acceptable by European standards, will often impress the Indian observer as immodest because it does not comply with the requirements of his own cultural background. In most parts of India high-class and modest girls will cover their legs down to the ankle and skirts will therefore be felt to be objectionable. Thirdly, during the struggle for independence, the Christian churches failed to effectively take the side of resurgent Indian nationalism. For all practical purposes Christians were identified with the occupying British colonists. The hatred for the British oppressor has now frequently been transferred to the Christian community which is seen as an unwanted relic of the British occupation.
Changing this image will be a long and arduous task. There can be no doubt about it but that the total adoption of Indian languages forms one major aspect of this work. External circumstances of dress, customs and religious rites can more easily be adopted. The more difficult, but more necessary task will be a transformation of our Christian thinking according to the language and literature of the people to whom Christianity is presented. As long as Christian terms are felt as imported and new concepts, they will not be readily assimilated. As long as a person will have to think in English in order to understand Christ, he will experience Him as a foreigner. The Christian message will have to be brought from within the language if it has to reach the hearts of man. This is all the more so in India where by historical circumstances Christianity has already acquired the image of being a foreign intruder.
Scripture and Sacred Language
The Indian mind has been formed by a very rich and extensive literature passed on from former generations. Apart from the inspired books them- selves, such as the Vedas and Upanishads, there have been such important epics as the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha which have greatly influenced the thinking of later generations. A seminar of Church renewal organized in Bombay in 1968 came to this conclusion:
“Classical sacred books and religious literature of India constitute a basis of understanding of the modern Indian mind and patterns of behaviour, and hence all attempts at cultural integration, even in modern times, must take them into account. They present a true history of India, a history of the urges and aspirations, stirrings and purposes
of our nation. As one Indiari writer says, they form the content of our collective sub-conscious wherein breathe the united soul of India and the individual souls of her people. As Indians it is our duty to appreciate these literary works in order to understand our country and fellowmen better.”7
Hindu religion and language are closely intertwined. As a matter of fact, the grammar of the Sanskrit language is imbued with the notion that religious truth and the word are inseparable. The letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are called “aksharam”, i.e. “eternal” because they are supposed to be the irreduceable elements of reality. All the letters have been given special religious significance. Certain combinations of letters are considered to have an intrinsic power which even the gods cannot overcome. Well-known are the extensive theological powers ascribed to the syllable “aum” (or “Om” as it is generally written) which is supposed to express the inner nature of the divinity itself.
Hindu prayer is based on this fundamental understanding of the intrinsic power of certain word-combinations called “mantras”. Among the most powerful “mantras” we find for example: “Aum sach chit ekam Brahmam” (aum – truth – consciousness – unity – god). Proper use of this “mantra” assures religious merit, wealth, pleasure and eventual heavenly liberation. The so-called “Gayatri mantra” is a short prayer recited by Brahmins literally hundreds of times every day. There are thousands of “mantras each with their own religious power to be applied at their own specific times. It should also be noted that to be effective a “mantra” need not be understood. It is the intrinsic power of the sound itself that is supposed to produce the result.
In its crude form this concept of the power of religious language is of course magical and superstitious. Yet, some reflection on our own Christian understanding of God’s dealings with man would justify a more positive approach to the Indian awe of the “word”. Does Scripture not say that God created everything by His Word? Is it not by God’s Word that the history of Salvation was directed to its climax? Is Jesus Christ not presented to us as God’s Word “par excellence”? Has the Salvific word of Christ not found permanent expression in the Sacraments? Haven’t we rediscovered in our own days the power of the living word of God in Scripture? In other words, isn’t there a sound theological justification for presenting God’s revelation to man as a very effective and powerful word?
It is here that our Scripture translation will have an important role to play. Obviously, if we want to present the Word of Christ as u substitute for, or perhaps even a more perfect fulfillment of, the Salvific power attributed to the old Sanskrit “mantras”, it will have to be formulated with real linguistic dynamism to express the inner “power” of the statement. In other words, to be experienced as powerful and life-giving pronouncements, the Words of Christ will have to bear the features of a mighty literary expression as well.
Take the beatitudes of Christ. Christ says “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Mt. 5, 3). Christ makes a very important statement here. He says that those who have the correct attitude (who have humility of spirit) will be those who will benefit from God’s revelation. However, He is not just teaching this truth as a lecturer in mathematics, imparting some useful information. Rather, He is proclaiming a truth of Salvation, a reality established by God. He is speaking a powerful Word that should revolutionize our life. Consequently, in translation it is not sufficient solely to pay attention to the correct transmission of the contents. The expression of the words themselves should carry some of the power inherent in the proclamation.
In our new Telugu translation the verse hase been rendered as follows:
“Dinatmalu dhanyulu – Devarajyamu varidi”.
This translation is concise, rhythmic, and melodious in sound so that it can truly be experienced as a powerful Word of Christ which resounds through the ages and which remains active in our own days.
Sacred Scripture should, of course, be understandable if it is to achieve its purpose. At the same time, too great a concern with bringing the message to the common man has often produced translations which are clumsy and couched in a phraseology that horrifies the literary critic. To be experienced as a sacred word, an Indian scripture translation will have to preserve the garb of a more cultural presentation.
The Indian Way of Following Christ
At present no one will doubt that the Church in her course through the centuries, has taken on many practices, devotions and theological beliefs which are not inherently essential to Christianity. The rise of Christendom
in the Roman empire, its subsequent triumphant development in the European Middle Ages and its continuous growth in the rationalism of the West have given to the present Christian churches an appearance that is heavily loaded with thoughts and attitudes proper to specific historical cultures. An Asian Christian will have to take this historical path of Christianity into account. Yet, there is no reason why an Asian follower of Christ should be forced to identify himself with foreign thought-patterns and world views when embracing Christ as his Saviour.
This means that for Christianity to take roots in modem India it should be given the chance of a new beginning. While preserving what is essential in the Christian message, the Church in India should strive to integrate itself as fully as possible into the valuable, inborn, cultural and philosophical heritage of the Indian people. The Scriptures will have to play an important role in this process. It is true that the Christian Scriptures contain a unique message, meant once and for all for the whole of mankind. Yet, every nation in every age has the duty and the right to receive this message in the way it can understand it best. Although the Gospel is the same for all, the way of understanding the Gospel and of responding to it should be natural to the individual person and culture concerned.
The importance of the above observation can be illustrated from the fact that the personality of Christ is universally accepted while the Christian church is not. To everyone familiar with the religious climate in India, it is obvious that Jesus Christ has conquered the hearts and minds of most religious-minded Indians. He is generally revered as a great teacher, as a saintly person and even as a manifestation of God. The small percentage of Christians on the total population is in complete disproportion to the large percentage of Indians accepting Christ in one form or other. The significant fact is that at the same time the Christian way of living and the Church itself are not accepted but vigorously rejected. Ghandi’s statement that Christians do not live what Christ has taught them, expresses well the judgement of the average Hindu. European Christianity, they hold, is a denial of the Christianity of Christ. Ghandi said: “I cannot believe that, if Christ appeared in our midst, He would recognize the contemporary Christian churches, their liturgy and their clergy.”9 This judgement may seem hard to us but there is a valuable core of truth in it. If we want India to become Christian, we have to offer it the chance of re-discovering Christ in her own way without her being forced to accept the often distorted form of Christianity that has been imposed on it from Europe.
A well-known Indian convert, Sadhu Sunder Singh, expressed it this way:
“One day I was sitting on the bank of a river in the Himalayes: from the water I lifted a lovely stone, round and hard, and smashed it. Its inside was completely dry. The stone had been in the water for a long time, but the water had not penetrated into it. It is just the same with people in Europe; for centuries they have been surrounded by Christian- ity; they have been totally immersed in its blessings; they live within Christianity, but Christianity has not entered their inner being and has not come to live within them. Yet, the fault lies not in Christianity but in their own hardness of heart. Materialism and intellectualism have hardened their hearts.”10
The quotation shows how necessary it is for Asian Christians to distinguish the truly Spiritual message of Christ from the hard, material garb in which the churches have presented Christianity.
Sincere Hindus today will express their reservations about Christianity in a way that endorses the validity of what has been said so far. They will point out that Christianity which is supposed to be the champion of true charity and love, has often presented just the opposite picture by its institutionalism and its intolerance. Excessive stress on the need of loyalty to doctrine and to authority led the Christian churches to the serious mistake of condemning
others without sufficient justification. The beliefs of other religions were crushed rather than carefully studied. Heretics were cruelly persecuted. The unity of the Christian church was lost in never-ending disputes on how to understand the message of Christ. On the whole, the Christian church has often presented the image of pride, arrogance and self-complacency instead of the humility and truthfulness that should characterize truly spiritual men.tt. The obstinacy of many Christian leaders to accept the new insights of modern science has again demonstrated the same basic attitude.
To observations of this nature, the thinking Christian of today, I believe, cannot but give a humble reply. The human way in which Christianity has been expressed in the past and in which it has often been lived, may be understandable; but it should be recognized as human in all its limitations. There is no reason why such a one-sided and faulty understanding of Christianity should be forced on the Indian Christian of the future.
One important difference between Western and Eastern thinking concerns the approach to the divinity. The overall tendency in the West has been to project the cause of existence and perfection of all beings on to a concept of God that is thought of as being outside the believer. The stress has largely been put on the distinction between the created believer and the uncreated eternal reality. In the East, however, the search for of God has often terminated in the deeper reality presupposed by the very existence of our inner self. God has been understood as the innermost Centre of existence, as the core of our own being, as the uncreated self underlying small human existences, as the undying reality living in the cave of man’s heart.12 There is no reason at all for rejecting the Indian approach as less suited to the Christian concept of God. In fact, the mysticism taught by the Gospel of St. John and the theology of St. Paul beautifully complement the Indian concept of in-dwelling. The Indian approach is a fitting preparation for understanding how we can be “in Christ” and “He can live in us and we in Him”.
It should also be remarked that the traditional missionary effort in India has committed a serious omission in not introducing into India a great part of its own spiritual experience in the form of monastic life. Until recently there were no Catholic contemplatives in all the 75 dioceses of India. Whereas the traditional mind of the people of India is especially attracted by spiritual values and forms of contemplation, the priests and religious engaged in missionary work in India have usually been pre-occupied with the external apostolate. The Indian seeker of religion searches for an “experience of God”. Instead, he was often given no more than a Catechism containing abstract truths. The Christianity of the future will have to base its appeal on a renewed life of profound prayer, on meditation and on contemplation of the truths contained in the Scriptures.
From all this it is clear that Christianity has to be renewed internally and built up in a truly Indian way of responding to God’s Salvific deeds, the Scriptures will have a very vital role in the process. The Indian Christian will have to read the Gospels and the other inspired books in his own way of understanding them. He must be given the possibility of recognizing in Jesus Christ the God for whom he was looking in the cave in his heart. The ideals of Christian living portrayed in the Sermon on the Mount should not be tarnished by the limitations of historical, western, Christianity. While accepting the Church as the sacrament of salvation and while feeling united with Christians all over the world, the Indian Christian of tomorrow will yet have to formulate his own theology based on his own philosophy of life and the demands of his own contemporary society. In this profound work of building up the Indian church “from within” the inspired Scriptures will be the cornerstone, the irreplaceable foundation, the divine guarantee of preserving contact with the living Christ Himself.
The Gospels and Security in Christ
Hinduistic religion has many attractive aspects. Many of its insights are profound. On the other hand, in its nature it remains a pagan and “unredeemed” religion, clamouring for God to stretch out His hand to do what man cannot do for himself.
Confronted by the paradox of existence and by the manifold uncertainties that beset him on all sides, man has deep in himself a truly existential fear. Left to himself, man cannot be but shaken by the fate that threatens him: by sickness and death, by failure and expulsion from society; by the many catastrophies that may strike him in the future. The insecurity of man’s existence is almost unbearable.
It is characteristic of human psychology that it seeks to liberate itself from such insecurity by building an imagined security of its own. The traditional religions of India have done the same. They have devised a world view by which the fate of man has been determined beforehand down to the smallest detail. And while this fictitious concept of reality does provide the stability for which man instinctively hungers, it also forms the most severe prison that religion has ever imposed on man. The unchangeable, immobile, all- predisposing system of the Hindu world is indeed a choking grip that strangles the persons it is supposed to protect.
By birth a Hindu knows himself to belong to one or other caste. U he is born a pariah nothing whatsoever will ever redeem him from that awful condition. If born a woman, one’s factual inequality is predetermined for the totality of one’s life. The Hindu believes himself a reincarnation of a former existence. Whatever his good intentions, his present life bears the imprint of his former deeds and will inexorably follow the path of blind fate.
The position of the stars at the moment of birth also predetermines the successes and failures of life. Certain persons are doomed to disaster what- ever they may attempt to do. For others the only possibility of avoiding major harm is to keep a careful count of times and periods which in relation to the particular constellation under which he is born may be to him either favourable or unfavourable. Even educated Indians will allow their total lives to be ruled by the calculation of astrologers. They will not travel on an inauspicious day. They will calculate the precise date when a contract should be concluded. They will base the selection of their marriage partner on a congruity of astrological predictions.
For that matter the lines of fate are engraved on a man’s hands. In all the major streets of big cities one can see the “palm-readers” who explain to anxious enquirers the outcome of the future as it can be read from the indications on their hands. To arrive at definite conclusions, the palmist will also take into account the other auspicious or inauspicious marks on the enquirer’s body. Over a thousand of these can be distinguished and have been given definite interpretations. The overall principle underlying the science of palmistry is that a man carries his fate in the very shape and form which his body has assumed. There is no escape from it. r>.
The Hindu knows himself surrounded by evil forces. One of the most distressing forces is the so-called “evil eye”. According to this superstition, certain people are believed to be able to bring disaster by a mere look at a person or an object. Pious Hindus are continuously afraid that the “evil eye” may fall on their children, their property, their business or their cattle. In fact, if any of these looks too prosperous or too good, they will seek to hide the signs of prosperity lest the “evil eye” should be attracted to it. That is why beautiful girls often receive repulsive names. That is why no mother is pleased when a stranger remarks that her children are doing well. Numerous rituals have been developed to undo the influence of the “evil eye” and of similar imaginary agents of evil.
A Hindu is constantly aware of the good and evil omens that surround him at every moment of the day. If starting on a journey he sees an outcaste, a mad man, a pregnant woman or a widow, he knows that his journey will be doomed to failure. The hoarse caw of the crow or the crossing of his path by a black cat from left to right indicate that the journey should be discontinued. However, seeing paddy, cotton, cow-dung or coins when beginning the journey, ensures the success of his mission. There are literally thousands of these good and bad signs. A whole science has been built up on the wall- lizard alone, a reptile familiar to any Indian household. If a lizard falls from the wall on Monday, Wednesday or Friday it bodes good fortune. When a lizard chirps one should carefully study the direction from which it comes. If it chirps from below, it indicates danger; if from the ceiling, gain or wealth; if from the North, profit; if from the South-West, death. In other words, man knows himself surrounded by innumerable signs which inform him about the fate that is going to befall him.14
Westerners coming to India are always struck by the passiveness of the Indian population. They generally do not realize at first that this lack of initiative and of the will to succeed is not caused by laziness or inferior intelligence. They fail to see that it is a way of life grown from a deep conviction that whatever one’s efforts, life and its outcome have already been determined.15 The strangling grip of fate holds every man and offers no other peace but the surrender of fatalism. It is here that Christ can be experienced by the Indian as a true Redeemer. It is Christ who once for all broke the bonds of men, their accidents of birth, the irrational forces of fate, the fears of evil forces, the crushing hand of a God who cannot be experienced as a loving Father but as an incomprehensible Master.
Christ will have to break down the false securities of caste, position, previous birth, good omens, auspicious times, magic rituals and protective superstition. Instead, He will offer the security of His loving acts of redemption. Here again the Gospels have an important role to play. For it is not easy for man to see his former psychological certainties uprooted so that he may find his guarantee in Christ Himself. The Gospels themselves will have to be the Word of God that can outweigh the false promise of magic and superstition. In the past, the old superstitious edifice has sometimes been replaced by an equally deceptive building of false securities in the form of Christian devotions. The true security of the Christian will lie in the Word of God itself, in the promise which he unconditionally accepts as the source of his own faith and existence.
CONCLUSION The Function of Sacred Scripture
The above considerations illustrate, I believe, the enormous importance of good “inner language” translations in young Churches such as the Church of India.16 A good vernacular translation is an absolute necessity, a condition sine-qua-non for the building up of the Church from within. By having direct access to the Word of God in their own language, Christians of India will be able to liberate themselves from the harmful effects imposed on them by the image of foreignness. They will also be enabled to gradually build a Christian world view of their own such as will capture the hearts of their fellowmen. They will be guided in their attempts to integrate their fellow citizens in the freedom and redemption of Christ. All this provided that the translation be such that by its inherent qualities it can become the launching pad for such further developments within the indigenous Church.
Let us hope that by the continued work of the World Federation for the Biblical Apostolate, of Catholic National Bible Associations and the local agencies involved in the biblical apostolate ever more and more of such good and dynamic translations be made available. Let us pray that such translations be produced for all the language gaps in India: for the fifteen major languages spoken by 350 millions; and for the 163 languages and 544 dialects spoken by 210 millions. Truly a staggering task, but yet not impossible when it is the Spirit that moves us on!
1 Preface to se Matthew’s Gospel, ed. 6.1.1971, Shri Lami Press Guntur.
2 E. A. NIDA and Ch. R. TABER, The Theory and Practice of Translation, Brill, Leiden 1969, pgs. 174-188.
3 This year itself another All India Consultation on Evangelization will be held at Allahabad under the auspices of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
4 J. WIJNGAARDS, “Non-Christian Children Speak about Catholics”, mimeographed research report, Hyderabad 1968.
5 From: An Assessment of Preparatory Seminars for the All India Seminar on the Church in India Today, New Delhi 1969, pgs. 213-214.
6 R. D. SINGH, “The Image of the Christian Community in India”, The Clergy Monthly, 37 (1973) pgs. 142-149.
7 From: An Assessment etc. (cf. above) pg. 229.
8 J. B. CHETHIMATTAM, Patterns of India Thought, London 1971, pg. 149.
9 Cited in T. OHM, Asia looks at Western Christianity, Nelson London 1959, pg. 14. 10 T. OHM, o.c., pg. 15.
10 N. K. DEVARAJA, Hinduism and Christianity, Bombay Asia Publ. 1969, pgs. 94-105.
11 ABISHIKTANANDA, Hindu-Christian Meeting Point, Bombay 1965, pg. 123ff.
12 H. HAAS, Christianity in the Asian Revolution, Sheed London 1966, pg. 101.
13 P. THOMAS, Hindu Religion, Customs and Manners, Taraporevala Bombay 1971, passim.
14 S. J. SUMARTHA, “The Significance of the Historical in Contemporary Hindu- ism”, Indian Journal of Theology 16 (1967) pgs. 97ff.
15 J. WIJNGAARDS, “Inner Language Translation of Scripture”, lecture delivered on the 12th of July at the International Biblico-Pastoral Seminar, Rome 1971 (soon to r\ be published).
The above article is published with permission of the. World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate, from their Quarterly Record “The Biblical Apostolate”