Fortified Faith and Theosophical Potpourri

Combating poverty and Christ-like pigs, bussing through history and defending St George; dangerously blending icons at the Theosophical Society and desperately seeking books at Madras University.

The last days I’ve spent mornings at Hindustan Bible Institute classes, and a justice seminar of Chennai Transformation Network where leaders from groups like World Vision and Habitat for Humanity spoke on eradicating human trafficking, empowering the urban poor, and ensuring access to justice for the underprivileged.

The most interesting classes are “Indian Christian Theology” and “Culture”, with some examples of how ignoring culture can kill communication.  One missionary told pig-keeping slum dwellers how shameful it was for the prodigal son to feed swine, thus insulting their livelihood.  (By contrast, I’ve heard of Bible translators in a Papua New Guinea village, where sheep were unknown, call Jesus the sacrificial pig of God.)  A local take on Christ’s parable of the talents was better received: before going on a one-year pilgrimage, a father gave a bag of rice to each of his three sons.  The first hid it, and rats ate the rice.  The second cooked it and had a feast.  The third planted it, and harvested ten times more.

It’s all part of the enculturation issue we discussed in the Bangalore course (see here) – how to transplant the good news of Christ without superfluous or patronising baggage.  On the other hand, Biblical passages that seem irrelevant in the West can spring to life here.  Should Indian Christians accept prasad – food offered to idols?  Some do, some don’t.  Some have Hindu neighbours who separate a portion for them before offering the rest – an example of why Chennai prides itself on being relaxed and tolerant, without the interreligious violence that erupts further north.

In the afternoons I sally forth to explore the city.  Over lunch the students ask me where I plan to go and direct me to the right bus.  Most people in town speak almost no English and only a few are fluent, so I sometimes get directions wrong.  At 10 cents per ride and rarely more than five minutes between buses, it doesn’t matter, and wherever you end up is sure to be interesting.

Most buses have no doors or window glass.  I’ve made a few slow-moving boardings, and watched chaps sprint alongside as we gathered speed.  I think they’ll never do it, but they leap up, grab window bars, and squeeze in the door as the bus leans over with people hanging outside.

The geographer Ptolemy referred to a town here in 140 A.D.  The Portuguese and then the Dutch arrived to trade in the 16th century, and around 1653 the British completed Fort St George.  In 1800 surveyors still saw tigers in the hills 40 km away.  From their base in Pondicherry (which I visited a few weeks ago – see here) the French captured the fort in 1746.  The British took it back three years later and enlarged the defensive moats.  When I arrived, they were full of litter and slum dwellings, but part of the fort is still in military use.  The Indian Army is in occupation.

In the cool evening, off-duty Indian soldiers played badminton behind the oldest British church in India, 1680 St Mary’s.  It’s surrounded by graves bearing English and Latin coats-of-arms.  The museum had paintings of frilly-laced, prim and proper Victorian ladies being carried ashore by bare-chested coolies, and letters from British commanders about engagements with Indian and French enemies.

With its bomb proof roof and fortified setting, St Mary’s could represent a form of faith that aggressively excludes all compromise with other views – no rewriting of parables here.  At the world headquarters of the Theosophical Society (established 1875), however, I saw interreligious boundary-blurring par excellence.  Theosophy is Greek for “divine wisdom” and has the slogan, “There is no religion higher than truth”.  The grounds have coconut tree groves and a 400-year old Banyan tree, one of the biggest in the world – its forest of prop roots span an area of 238 x 250 feet and can apparently shade 3000 people.

Scattered around the complex are small Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian, and “liberal Catholic” houses of worship.    The Society logo is a mash-up of mystical icons: Hindu OM and Buddhist swastika above the Egyptian ankh inside interlaced black and white triangles, representing matter and spirit, surrounded by the Greek Ouroboros serpent swallowing its tail in the cycle of birth and death.  The central hall was lined with elephant heads outside – perhaps to represent wisdom – and the walls inside had a roll call of spiritual greats: Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Zarathustra, Istar, Freemasonry, Asshur, Ashtaroth, Bha ulah, Moses, Mahavira, Quetzalcolata, Nanak, Lao Tsze, Confucius, Mithra, Orpheus, Osiris.  Quetzalcolata was the only one I hadn’t heard of (Google says a Mesoamerican deity whose name means “feathered serpent”), but where were Socrates and Plato?

The library’s research collection has original sacred manuscripts from India, Sri Lanka, China, Siam and Persia.  The gallery was a religious jumble sale: Jewish scriptures; Shiite and orthodox Koranic scrolls; miniature volumes of the Bible and Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, with accompanying magnifying glass; old astrological, Sikh and Zoroastrian texts; Buddhist writings on palm leaves; autographed books by H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, et al.  In the bookshop I recognised many gurus from my course in Bangalore last month, and bought small reference works on Hindu gods and goddesses and temple architecture.

The eclectic spiritual potpourri, an omnium-gatherum of creeds, reminded me of Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988).  Three vanity publishers spoof an ancient conspiracy by throwing together a grab bag of cults: Jewish Kabala and Jesuit mysticism, Caribbean spiritualism and the Brazilian occult, Stonehenge druids and the Knights Templar, Hindu kundalini yoga and even theosophy itself.

As the story unfolds, they find that crossing religious DNA in playful parody spawns a monster in reality.  One hopes that theosophy and the like will be more benign.  Boiling ethics down to a lowest common denominator, however, may leave you unable to say that murder or rape or racism is wrong.

There was a similar syncretistic flavour at the museum of Vivekananda, a guru who popularized Hinduism in the West in the 1890s.  He also held that all religions are one.  His ideal India had a “Vedantic brain, Islamic body, and Christian heart”, and he founded the Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta on Christmas day.  He taught that if you devote yourself to service, you’ll be happier than with a treasury of valuables: “They alone live, who live for others”.  The Museum is in the 1842 “Ice House”, which stored blocks of ice shipped from Boston, insulated for over four months in straw.

For more academic enlightenment I visited Madras University, founded in 1857 along with those in Bombay and Calcutta as India’s first three British universities.  The campus is across the road from Marina Beach, has impressive stone buildings and exciting-sounding courses.  After meeting the HoD of Philosophy and Religion, I eagerly headed for the library, which I heard had 500,000 volumes.

I entered a hushed reading room with wooden panelling and seating, hung with old portraits.  It felt like a scene from a Victorian novel.  There were only papers and reference shelves here, so I pushed on to seek all the books.  I found a basement with long aisles of ageing volumes, out of order and covered in dust.  I pushed on further, hunting current texts.  I passed card catalogues – echoes of school librarian days 20 years ago – then found a room of computer terminals.  It seemed like recent works must be requested from library staff, perhaps to combat theft.  At least, I thought, I’d have a virtual look.  I typed in a few philosophers and theologians and Victorians like Dickens.  My heart sank when almost every screen of results had mis-spelled titles and mistyped authors.  Maybe I’d not be studying here.