Why I love India . Reflections of an Indian Christian

Vinay Samuel (Former General Secretary of EFAC)

Church of England Newspaper November 8th

Let me begin with some images of how Indians show their love for India and their pride in it. A comedy show of Indian immigrants in Britain was titled “Goodness Gracious Me”. One popular episode picked up the theme of pride in India. An uncle of the young couple of British Indians (they were born and raised in England) would claim everything good in England is Indian. The Queen of England was Indian “because her married children lived in the house of the parents” . This humorously highlighted a way of showing pride in India and love for India by claiming that everything best in the world has its origins in India. Aligned to this way of showing love for India is the claim of some Indian “scientists” that all of the modern scientific discoveries were anticipated and even created in ancient India. Ancient Indian wisdom becomes the source of all modern scientific achievements and all ruling philosophical ideas.

While moderate, modern, intellectual Hindus do not make such claims, a surprisingly significant number of Indians, particularly fervent proponents of “Hindutva”, equate love for India and pride in the nation with such views that make India the fount of all knowledge and virtue. We are exceptional and unique in everything and anything else is disrespect and insulting to India.

It is interesting that nearly all of our great Indians, particularly those who founded modern India like Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru did not display such a narrow understanding of how to love India. Indian Nobel Prize winners did not and do not also do that.

So I am faced with the challenge of how to show my love for India and pride in it as I do love and respect my beloved land and the land of my fore parents.

I must first start by admitting that I will not claim perfection for Indian culture in a world of so many cultures for the simple reason I have not studied and experienced all of them. It would be sheer arrogance to do so. I do not need to love India only because it is proven to be “sare jahan se ache” the most beautiful of all lands by a global study, but because for me it is the most beautiful country, just like my wife and children I think are the most beautiful people. Someone else can make the same claim for their family and I must respect it as a civilised human being even if I don’t quite believe anyone else can be as beautiful as my family. It would be stupid to attack someone else who makes the same claim.

Why I love India

Because God is in the air in India. I sense his presence everywhere much more than in England where I spend half a year. I think because many people of different religious beliefs all think the same, live and act accordingly. We may be a secular nation politically but our culture and everyday life still recognises God’s presence in everything. When we say “O God do something” we expect him to actively do it.

Because Indian culture permits and even encourages me to talk about religious, spiritual themes and ideas openly. Public religious conversations between people of different religious persuasions are not embarrassing as in much of the west. Some people may get offended. Some may wish to avoid religious talk but it is still very much a part of our social discourse. Also because I love the presence of many types of religious performances. As a people, many of us perform our religious duties, rituals, prayers, poojas regularly. Others who let a family member do it for them participate in such performance vicariously. Religion in India is overwhelmingly performative. Its variety and culture draw me to see what I can learn about God’s presence and work in the land I love and among people who are my neighbours and God’s gift to me.

I love India because of the strength of its so called ‘dalits’. They demonstrate strength without bitterness, and joy in the midst of poverty that makes me better understand why my Lord Jesus loved the poor and saw them as first members of his Kingdom. I have a better vision of God’s kingdom as I join their worship and devotion to Christ. No wonder even in my city of Bangalore they are turning to worship Christ in significant numbers without abandoning their Indian cultural strengths.

I love India because God made it and I see his fingerprints all over it. Its wild natural beauty in its majestic mountains, rivers and wild life, the lofty Himalayas, the awesome tigers, the stupendous elephants inspire wonder and draw praise to our creator God. The manicured beauty of Oxfordshire where I spend part of my year is beautiful in a different way but does not bring the same joy as the rice fields and forests of south India.

I love India as my neighbours, Indians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and Secularists share an open smile with me rather than avoid eye contact like most of my neighbours in the UK! Many of them welcome me into their homes and also come to mine. Some of my close friends are people of other faiths and I share much common ground with them, including grumbling about the potholes in our roads.

I am quite aware of the tragedies, divisions and violence that are part of our life in India. Love for one’s country is akin to romantic love. It sees the beauty and not the blemishes only. So this is a romantic view of India but real nevertheless.

I love the unique music of India. The sound of the Shehnai and the Sitar reach depths in me that little else can. In Indian music the wings of sound rather than words transport one to transcendental realms. The ecstasy on the faces of my neighbours of different backgrounds matches mine when our souls get lifted and the “heavenly” touches our mortal frame. The intricate rhythms of our tabla and mridangam both move and soothe our bodies like nothing else.

As a Christian who has experienced the love of Christ personally and the abiding presence of his Holy Spirit, I have a deep desire to share about my Lord Jesus with everyone and display his reality and love for all people and creation. I find that the religious openness of many people in my country a blessing. I can be open about my faith and even share it. I recognise this openness is increasingly under threat. I prefer not to demand it as a right but while showing deep respect for the religious integrity of my neighbour I seek space and opportunity to share about my God and Saviour.

A number of things sadden me about my country: a social system of caste that treats some as high and others as low and even outcasts. The effects of such systems and attitudes on human life are devastating for millions of my neighbours who are made in God’s image.

I was asked to interview Paundurang Shasthri Athavale, who won the Templeton Prize for Religion in 1997. He was the founder/leader of Swadyaya Parivar with millions of followers in 35 countries. An authority on the Bhagvad Gita he was committed to a vision of “Universal Brotherhood under the Fatherhood of God” that became the vision of his movement.

When I asked him how he saw the equality of all human beings as a Hindu teacher, he replied that the Gita teaches all humans have a soul and the soul has no caste differentiation. While Hindus may affirm their caste identity, they must treat all humans as equal and respect their religious journey. That understanding by a much loved Hindu guru and teacher encourages me to believe that I can share with my fellow Indians the good news I have for the flourishing of the soul of every Indian as all human progress and transformation begins there.

I love India for the strength of its women. I am aware of the continuing practices of oppression, inequality, violence and disrespect that make their lives very difficult. But in the midst of it all their strength and spirituality keeps Indian families together and makes them less dysfunctional than what I have seen elsewhere. Our women’s commitment to marriage and family in spite of the violence and challenges they face reveals a resilience that draws strength from the wells of our religious and social traditions.

In spite of many perplexing and sad aspects of life in India, I find there is so much to enjoy, explore, learn from and share in the complex, multicoloured deep cultures of my beloved land.

Identity as a religious minority in India

I am saddened when some Christians appear to outdo the hardcore Hindu exceptionalists in their jingoistic presentation of the Christian faith. They boldly declare all good things in India came with western missionaries to India; that anything good in India has come from Christian mission and activity; and that All the best knowledge comes from our sacred scripture, the Bible, and any knowledge that has changed India comes from that source. In my view such an approach is no different from that of the hardcore Hindutva brigade and is frankly embarrassing to many of us who have learnt much from others.

As an Indian Christian I am a religious minority person. My model for living as an Indian in a majoritarian Hindu culture is the Old Testament People of God. God reminded them that he chose them not because they were the most powerful, the most intelligent and most attractive people among all the people of the world. On the contrary they were insignificant, weak and rebellious but God made them his people. I do not believe they had better technology, better science and better philosophy than the Babylonians and Assyrians. But they had Yahweh as their God and that was their identity and security.

Armed with that identity, they survived the might and savagery of the Babylonians and Assyrians not just in biblical times but after that up to the 20th century. They have been the most persecuted and hunted religious minority. They have rarely displayed a majoritarian complex. They know they will always be a religious minority. But they have not only survived for 3500 years but have flourished and made unique contributions to every country and culture they lived among. They survived holocausts and pogroms where millions of them were killed. But they still flourish.

That encourages me as a Christian minority in India. I will not project a false majoritarian mentality because I am part of a global Church, whose Western brothers and sisters once ruled the world and some try to do so even now.

Displaying such a majoritarian mentality is arrogant and opposite of the humility God calls his people to display in this world. We are unprofitable servants who serve the King of kings in humility while loving our beloved land.

The late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago wrote that one cannot evangelise that which one does not love. I cannot speak about evangelization in India without first demonstrating that I truly love India and all who inhabit it.