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Home > India > News > Report

Christ like a sadhu, Mother Mary in a sari

Arthur J Pais in New York | February 26, 2008 02:19 IST

"There just cannot be a dialogue or genuine peace between Christians and Hindus unless we stop proselytization," says the Reverend Karen MacQueen, popularly known as Mother Karen.

"This does not mean that someone who has witnessed Christian work, say at a charity institution, wants to find out more about Jesus and the church (should be discouraged). But denigrating another religion and insisting that there is only way to salvation is not a good thing at all," she said.

Mother Karen, who first visited India in 1977 to work with Mother Teresa in Kolkata, and got drawn into studying Hinduism, has promoted Hindu-Christian dialogue in Los Angeles for many years.

She was one of the key movers behind the Indian Rite Mass held on January 19 at St John's Cathedral in Los Angeles. The cathedral is run by Episcopalians, an influential branch of the American church.

A vegetarian since her first visit to India, she says one of the reasons the church issued an apology to Hindus for the attack some Christians have made on Hindu beliefs and way of life, is the continuing controversy about conversions in India.

"We continue to be appalled by the action of many fundamentalist Christian preachers and aids organisation that sought to exploit the tremendous tsunami tragedy in many Asian cities and towns," she said from her office near Los Angeles. "The missionaries were telling the people that unless they became Christians, they would not get the relief aid."

She decided that the Mass would be celebrated in Indian style, using aarti and kirtans. "The Indian style Mass is being celebrated in many Christian ashrams in India," she said.

There are over 50 such ashrams in India where Christianity is presented as an Eastern faith. You will see Christ looking like an Indian sadhu, and Mother Mary picturised wearing a sari. 

Mother Karen has sojourned at several of those ashrams, particularly at Shantivanam Ashram, a Camaldolese Benedictine community made famous by its former prior, Bede 'Dayananda' Griffiths.

The Shantivanam ashram looks like a rishi's home transported from Vedic times to the banks of the Cauvery river, at a forested place near Trichy in South India, wrote Hinduism Today magazine.

'A pilgrim's first impressions are strong, and very Hindu: the elaborately colorful Hindu shrine; the bearded, saffron-robed swami seated cross-legged on a straw mat; devotees practicing yogic meditations, even chanting Hindu scriptures.'

The Christian priests who run such ashrams get criticised by conservative Christians and by Hindu groups who think they are trying new conversion ploys. But Mother Karen says the most important mission of Shantivanam is to foster better understanding with the Hindu community.

'The impressions at the Christian ashrams lead to another kind of reality. First, the eye detects that the courtyard shrine is for Saint Paul and that puja is actually a daily Mass, complete with incense, aarti lamps, flower offerings and prasadam,' Hinduism Today wrote.  

'Finally, one meets the swami, learning he is Father Bede "Dayananda" Griffiths, a Christian sanyasi of impeccable British background...'

Some of the critics of such ashrams may remember a few Italian priests, who, in the 16th century in Go,a lived like sanyasis and were trying to convert high caste Hindus.

'These ashrams,' wrote Hinduism Today 'which are variously described as "experiments in cross-cultural communication," 'contemplative hermitages that revolve around both Christian and Hindu ideas,' or (less charitably) "institutions to brainwash and convert India's unwary masses."

Are these places to be endorsed by Hindus as worthy attempts to share each other's spirituality? Or are they a spiritual oxymoron, a contradiction of terms, because the Christians are interested in sharing -- dialogue is the term they use -- only as a means to conversion?'

Mother Karen would like to see such ashrams grow in number as long as they have a clear mission in holding genuine dialogue and involve Hindu spiritual leaders in the nearby community.

She believes that the recent Indian rite Mass was not a one-time event. "We want to see a Gandhi pilgrimage center in a temple where Christians could go and meditate," she says, "and even get involved in social action."

She also plans to meet with immigration officials and lawmakers at the national and state levels to make changes in the immigration law, so that it becomes easier for Hindu priests from India to serve at the American temples and ashrams.