To many Christians, it is heretical to think that there is light in other religions or spiritual gurus. For centuries, we have remained inured to thinking the demerit of others proves our merit. This is an infantile disposition. This has been the main reason for the increasing alienation and spiritual poverty of the Christian community. It has prevented us from being true imitators of Jesus Christ, who readily acknowledged the spiritual greatness of others and respected the spiritual and philosophical light in all sources. I could shock my fellow Christians if I tell them that Jesus shared a large part of the philosophical wisdom of Greeks and Persians.
Even a cursory reading of Xenophon’s Cyropedia (meaning, The Education of Cyrus), proves that the Persian king, living six centuries before Jesus, practised many ethical principles Jesus taught after him. Jesus’ insight, “My Father and I are one” is quintessentially Advaitic. It is because we have failed, through willful ignorance, to see the natural and necessary continuity in the flow of the spiritual light from the time God said, “Let there be light!” that we succumbed to the infection of spiritual insecurity hitching us to projects and proclamations we ourselves hardly understood.
Jesus’ first word from the Cross, “Father, forgive; they know not what they do”, has an ironic reference to the Church as well. Today symptoms of spiritual decay erupt in the Christian community at regular intervals. But that is not the most worrisome thing. What should disquiet Christians is the hardset incapacity of the Indian Church to reform itself. Regrettably, Christians have busied themselves for too long with reforming others that they have become unable to do the same service to themselves. Religious reform, like charity, must begin at home.
Indian Christian denominations that came under the influence of Eurocentric mission agencies and mindsets internalised the prejudice that non-Christian faiths are domains of ‘darkness and error’. By implication, the religion of western Christians—rarely identical with the biblical faith—was superior to all else. This presumption of superiority, with its delusion of enjoying a special status with God, hindered Christians from realising their need for continual spiritual regeneration as mandated by Christ. Religious reform, in every instance known in history, has happened as much due to openness to other spiritual traditions as to divine inspiration. The biblical word for such regeneration is ‘renewal’. What refuses to be renewed gets mildewed. A capacity for honest self-criticism and self-purification is conspicuous by its absence in the Indian Christian community today. And that should be a cause for worry. Most Christians are traumatised by the skeletons tumbling out of priestly cupboards.
Yes, this is unnerving. But what should worry us more is our habitual reluctance to respond objectively and spiritually to emerging realities. All that the episcopal leaders in Kerala can think of now is to defend the imperilled religious freedom of the community. The moment the National Commission for Women proposed that the institution of confession—especially women confessing to male priests—be banned, they emerged from their hibernation. I am not convinced the Commission’s recommendation is motivated purely by the concern to protect women from priestly predators. If it were, it would have made comparable recommendations when worse abuses came to light in respect of Asaram Bapu, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and others. But this glaring note of discrimination is not, to me, the prime issue.
The core issue is that there is widespread spiritual rot in the Indian Church. And each time symptoms of spiritual decay surfaced, the reaction was defensive and status-quoist. That is why Kerala Christians need to heed the example of Sree Narayana Guru. He saw religion primarily as a means for liberating fellow humans from social degradation and disability. The core spiritual mission, correspondingly, is to disinfect religion of its irrational, immoral and obscurantist accretions.
What strikes me as particularly significant is that at the peak of the temple movement (1888-1927) that the Guru initiated, he transcended the idea of the temple itself. “Build centres of learning,” he said; not temples. The spiritual purpose of a temple is to lead devotees to spiritual heights beyond temples. To the Guru, as for Jesus, freedom of religion was unreal without freedom from exclusivist religiosity.
There are many indications that the Guru was fortified by the teachings of Jesus. Like Christ, he realised religious reform was the key to the transformation of a society. He believed that spirituality mandated a shift from priest-dominated rituals, dogmas and practices to educating, enlightening and empowering the people. So long as the images, patterns and idols of conventional religiosity reigned, the people were doomed to remain blind to their true potential and tamely endure their degradation.
The Guru’s daring and innovative experiments with religious symbols assume special significance in this light. Imagine deviating from the deeply-entrenched religious practice— dominated by Brahmin priestcraft— of installing idols in temples! Towards the end of the temple movement, Narayana Guru installed a lamp, an engraved metal plaque and a mirror as deities in the three temples he built. I cannot help but think that the Guru’s followers are yet to realise the radical messages encrypted in this apparently heretical reform.
Christians would do well to note that the Guru’s passion for religious and social reform was a natural outworking of his devotion to God. God is an iconoclast! He is the reason creation is in perpetual travail for human liberation and perfection. Any religious establishment that mindlessly idolises priestcraft and the aberrations it spawns is, as Jesus said, a ‘millstone around the neck’ of its deluded adherents. If Jesus in person is too far away in time, Kerala Christians could be inspired by his ideals as realised by Sree Narayana Guru. I see no reasons for not doing so.