Let us pray, peace be with us:

"The Cross that has been the cause of our good and by which our mortal humanity was set free,
O Lord, be for us a strong fortress. And by this Cross, we shall overcome the wicked one and All his devices."

(Syro-Malabar Qurbana)


“The Truth will make you free”

Vol. 15, No. 5                      New Delhi                                           December, 2005

Some Thoughts on the History of  Tamilakam (South India), Arrival of Aryans, Liturgical Inculturation and the Liturgy

Bishop Mar Abraham D Mattam

During the early centuries of Christianity, Tamilakam was mostly inhabited by the Dravidian races.  Chera, Chola and Pandya had a single language, Chen-Tamil and a single culture, Dravidic.  There were other races, the Negritos and Austroloids who inhabited in the hilly regions.  The Dravidians in the South were the counterparts of the Indus people, according to general view, and like them were highly civilized.  They had commercial relations with foreign countries like Egypt and Sumeria from the third millennium B.C. and later with Rome and Greece.  Jews (Semitics) also had established settlements in the coastal trading centers of South India at least by fourth century B.C.

The Dravidians had their own religious practices (religion) that was not organized and systematic.  From the third century B.C. Buddhism and Jainism were introduced in South India and gradually Buddhism became prevalent among the population.

As regards the arrival of the Nambudiris (Aryans), recent studies show that they must have reached Andhra and settled down there between second century B.C. and second century A.D.  Further South, they entered Karnataka by the fourth century A.D. Probably, before the fourth century A.D.  There were no Aryan settlements in Malabar region and Tamilnadu, but it is possible that individual Brahmin households arrived earlier.  It was only during seventh-eighth centuries that the Nambudiris migrated in bigger numbers to Malabar.  Till that time the Vedic religion (from the 19th century called Hinduism) was only one of the minor faiths in the South, and the Aryans did not have any influence on the social set up and culture of the Dravidians (See M.G.S. Narayanan, Rajan Gurukkal, etc. in St. Thomas Christians and Nambudiris, edit. Bosco Puthur, L.R.C., Mt. St. Thomas).  Caste system was alien to the Jews and Dravidians, and hence one can reasonably conclude that caste divisions did not exist in the Christian communities before the eighth century.

Apostle Thomas on his arrival naturally preached Christ and his message first to the Jews who had settled down in South India.  At least some of them accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.  Afterwards he must have turned to the local people, the Dravidians who were in contact with the Jews, some of them must have been partners in trade.  One should think that the vast majority of the early Christian communities were composed of Jews and Dravidians.  Cardinal Tisserant agrees with this view.  He writes on the Syriac Christian migrations: “Syriac remained throughout the liturgical language of the Syriac Christians, but the new colonists were shortly to be absorbed into the bulk of the already existing Dravidian Christians.” (Card. Tisserant, Eastern Christianity in India, Calcutta, 1957, p. 17).

In the light of what have been stated above, it is not possible to uphold the view that St. Thomas converted a large number of Nambudiris in Kerala.  If so, how can we explain the contrary tradition that has been held for long.  We do not possess any documentary evidence of early centuries on the conversion of Brahmins.  There are two possibilities: a) Supposing that many Brahmins embraced Christianity in the 8 – 9 centuries, after a lapse of long time they might have claimed an early origin.  b)  The kings of Tamilakam (South India) and the nobility of the kingdoms were all of Dravidian origin.  When the Nambudiris gained prominence in the society and the idea of caste superiority became popular the ruling class and the chieftains assumed, or were invested with the titles and privileges of higher castes according to the Vedic classification.

Adaptation and Inculturation:  As regards the question of inculturation and cultural adaptation a distinction must be made between Christian communities that were founded centuries ago in their existing cultural context, and newly evangelized communities.  When the Gospel is announced to a people of any culture for the first time and new communities of believers come up.  Then there begins an interaction between the Gospel (faith) and the culture.  The believers try to adapt their faith in their socio-religious life and it causes a process in which the culture is changed in the light of Gospel and Christianity absorbs the good elements in the culture.  This phenomenon has been going on from the beginning of Christianity which resulted in the birth and development of the different Rites and Liturgies in the Church.  As the Instruction The Roman Liturgy and Inculturation says:  “Thus were born distinct liturgical families of the Churches of the West and of the East.  Their rich patrimony preserves faithfully the Christian tradition in its fullness” (The Roman Liturgy and Inculturation, 1944, n. 17).

Inculturation a long Process, from Within:  Pope John Paul II speaks on the process of inculturation in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio “This kind of process needs to take place gradually in such a way that it is really an expression of the community’s Christian experience… In effect inculturation must involve the whole people of God, and not just a few experts, since the people reflect the authentic “sensus fidei” which must never be lost sight of”. (Redemptoris Missio, 1990, n. 54).

Inculturation has a two-fold dimension.  It purifies the culture by the light of the Gospel and absolves whatever is good in them.  “Every culture needs to be transformed by the Gospel values in the light of the Paschal mystery” says Pope John Paul II (Post-Synodal Exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa, n. 61). “There would be no catechesis if it were the Gospel that had to change when it came into contact with the cultures” (Pope John Paul II, Catechesis Tradendae 1979, n. 53).

St. Thomas introduced the Gospel in Tamizhakam, as described above, in the Dravidico-Semitic cultural milieu.  There were Jewish presence, and besides Dravidian race and culture manifest much affinity with Semitic Jewish culture. The Church in South India in its growth absorbed many elements from the local culture in living the Christian faith and was well established before the arrival of the Nambudiris in the 7-8th centuries.

What is said about inculturation by the Second Vatican Council and the Roman documents deal with new encounters of the Gospel with cultures and new Christian communities.  This is not the case with the Apostolic Syro-Malabar Church as if we were new converts of yesterday.  Jawaharlal Nehru in his book Discovery of India says: “There were large numbers of Syriac Christians and Nestorians in the South and they were as much part of the country as anyone else” (Discovery of India, p. 12).  The Western image of Christianity in India was the result of Western missionaries and the Protestant and Latin Churches.  Well-read Hindus understand this difference.

Syncretism: Syncretism in the religious sphere means choosing and mixing up of elements from different religions, as for example, borrowing elements from Hinduism or Jainism into Christianity.  The Church does not approve such steps in the name of inculturation, because they may have a different religious significance.  The Roman document The Roman Liturgy and Inculturation brings out the following points which are equally valid for other liturgies.  It says: “The liturgy is the expression of faith and Christian life, and so it is necessary to ensure that liturgical inculturation is not marked, even in appearance, by religious syncretism.  This would be the case if the places of worship, the liturgical objects and vestments, gestures and postures let it appear as if rites had the same significance in Christian celebration as they did before evangelization.  The syncretism would be still worse if biblical readings and chants or the prayers were replaced by texts form other religions, even if these contain an undeniable religious and moral value” (RLI n. 47).  (For a detailed treatise on the subject, see A. Mattam, “Forgotten East”, Satna, 2001, “Christianity and Inculturation” pp. 235-263.

In India, we are facing a serious problem in this connection.  Hindu scriptures and terms are used in some Christian circles, without verifying their exact meaning, and sometimes giving a Christian interpretation contrary to the universally accepted meaning.  We may mention a few cases in concrete.  “Vande Saccidanandam”, “OM”, “Asato ma sat gamaya….”, etc. are chanted.  Some people think “asat” means untruth and “sat” truth, whereas asat means unreal or maya and “sat” real.  This chant is taken from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.28 where it means “Lead me from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality”.  “Saccidananda” is applied to the Holy Trinity.  But this is not what has been revealed by Christ.  Holy Spirit is not “ananda” or bliss, but a Person of the Trinity.

These and other similar texts and chants were incorporated in the “Indian Mass” prepared for the Latin Church and the “Indianized Mass” composed by some CMI Fathers of Dharmaram ca. 1979.  They were sent to the Holy See for approval.  The use of “Indian Mass” was prohibited by the Congregation for the  Sacraments.  The Congregation for the Oriental Churches made several Obsrvations on these compositions in a letter to the Syro-Malabar Bishops on 12-8-1980.  To quote few lines from the comments.  On ‘asato ma’….it is stated: “In point of fact God has already drawn us out of the unreality, darkness and death: possessing Christ we are in the supreme reality of the new creation, we have eternal life, we have become sons of the light…It must also be noted that in the original context well-known to all the Upanishad from which the prayer in question is taken, the unreal, the darkness and death are nothing but the phenominic world, in which we are immersed as long as we are drawn along in the cycle of rebirths and from we are liberated by knowledge of its merely apparent existence and our identity with the Brahman”.

On “Sachidananda” the Communication from Rome further points out: “Besides – to reduce – as is here done – the proclamation of the Trinity in the three terms “Being, Knowledge, Bliss”.  The people of God has the right to call God by the three names by which he has revealed Himself.  And above all, has the right and duty to do so at the supreme moment of the Eucharistic doxology.

“Saccidananda” ….. in the original Sanskrit, it has even more a formal connotation, being compounded in a single name: It is all the more suggestive, and, therefore, all the more unacceptable as a formula of worship”.

On the invocation “OM” the Holy See observes, “….according to what innumerable passages of the Upanishads continually and repeatedly affirm is the synthesis of all the Vedas and of all the “gnosis” of Hindusm…(OM) is charged with meanings so unmistakably Hindu, that it simply cannot be used in Christian worship… Moreover, “OM” is an essential, integral part of Hindu worship”.  If these Hindu terms and chants are not to be used in Christian worship it is not proper either to use them in Christian prayers.

In spite of all this, “asato ma sat gamaya” and “OM Shanti, Shanti” were chanted at the inaugural session of the General Assembly of the Syro-Malabar Church, in November, 2004 !  To say the least, it was unfortunate.  Moreover, it shows that deeper study of subjects like Adaptation, Renewal, Inculturation, etc. is necessary before proceeding to implement them.