Justice Banumathi’s faith expression is part of the subcontinent’s cultural reality
Can you be a Hindu and follow Jesus Christ, or Yesu, the world’s most famous Jew, whose earthly mission two millennia ago was in the Palestine area in West Asia? What is a ‘Hindu follower of Jesus’? Is that different from a ‘crypto-Christian’? Or same as a ‘Hindu-Christian’? Is a hyphenated religious identity a freewill expression of faith or is it an oxymoron for perplexed theological purists?
Questions such as these have provoked a storm on social media platforms among sceptics and religion watchers. The questions have been prompted by the remarks that Supreme Court Justice R Banumathi, 65, made at her farewell hosted by the Supreme Court Bar Association [SCBA] on July 17th, in New Delhi. Since its founding in 1950, India’s highest court has had only six women judges, including this lady judge.
At the Delhi function, after recalling her humble beginnings and the loss of her father in a bus crash, she concluded: “Though I am a Hindu, I believe in the gospel of Jesus. By the grace of Jesus, I got educated and came up in life…During my [three decade] judicial service, there were mountains of obstacles for no reason. Yet no human hand could prevent what Jesus Christ has ordained for me in my life.” That mountain of obstacle included how her siblings and her widowed mother were victims of court delay and its procedural lags.
The Government’s chief legal advisor, Attorney General Kottayan Katankot Venugopal, 24 years older to her, said: “It is indeed a sad day that one of our beloved judges is leaving us today…” SBCA President Dushyant Dave waxed eloquent: “My Ladyship, I must confess, that the Court will have a serious vacuum without you…The Bar will miss you…you recognised and advocated social justice under the Constitution.”
Among others, Justice Banumathi will be remembered for the landmark judgment in the December 2012 Nirbhaya case in which the four convicts were awarded the death penalty (and hanged in Delhi’s Tihar jail in March 2020).
It was the lady judge’s faith expressions that overshadowed the glowing remarks from her peers. She was the target of online missiles. She’s a ‘crypto Christian. That’s all’ tweeted one. Another alleged her initial R stood for Ruth, a Bible heroine whose great-grandson David was the greatest king of Israel.
Is faith in the binary then: is the honourable judge a Hindu or a Christian? Frenzied debate on both sides of the table—one side happy, another confused—has stirred up the theme of hyphenated religious identity. Is that a square peg in a round hole? Is faith a black and white matter? Do you tick only one box to depict your faith?
There are those who have embraced Jesus’ teachings in letter and spirit while remaining on home ground with their Hindu identity, like Cambridge-based retired professor of management and global affairs Prabhu Guptara, who tells me: “Justice Banumathi’s acceptance of Jesus as her ideological guru while remaining a Hindu is a matter of the freedom that is given to us by our own parampara (tradition). In Hindu thought, we are all free to choose our own Ishtadevata. Whether others join us in worshipping our Ishtadevata or dislike him is irrelevant.”
Guptara adds: “There may be millions of Hindus who, like Justice Banumathi, are at home with the teachings of Jesus but we are not Christians. We feel Christianity has subverted the teachings of Jesus. Some of us are very anti-Christian, others of us are more tolerant…Most of us don’t go to church buildings on Sundays, and most of us don’t accept the Church’s teaching on Baptism. Many of us have our own understanding of Communion, breaking of bread and drinking wine or other liquid like fruit juice or kanji (rice water) as a representation of Jesus’ blood [which was shed at his crucifixion]. Our understanding of Jesus’ teaching is closer to that of prasad and langar [the Sikh practice of the communal free kitchen]. But we are at home with Jesus’ teachings, the satya vedam for us. We see them as being in continuity with the Vedas.”
Before Jesus’ ascension to his Heavenly Home in the 1st century AD, He assembled his faithful band of shishyas atop a hill in Jerusalem and commissioned them to share about Him –the good news or the Gospel—to everyone in the world. No mention of cultural transplants there. No name changes. No dress changes. The heart of the matter was the matter of the heart for Jesus. Within a few years of that call, His disciple Thomas sailed to the south Indian coast of Kerala.
For centuries, we have grappled with the challenge of decoupling Western Christianity—whose iconography is plastered over the Indian subcontinent ever since the European invasion of our lands and minds from the 16th century—and the accoutrements of religious ritual with Western, ill-fitting ‘pious’ prêt-à-porter.
The Western chaplains didn’t accompany or follow the colonial powers always. But whenever they did, most of them imposed the Western Church template on the natives impoverishing their cultural faith expressions. This was against the Bible mandate because Jesus, as the supra-cultural saviour, could easily take root on the fertile Indian soil. That is, Jesus could be customised to the local context, whether it was African, Asian or any culture anywhere. Some African tribes gave Jesus the name, Great Ancestor, because the belief in ancestors stands central in the traditional African thought.
Missiologist Charles Kraft once said angrily that “cultural conversion smacks of colonialism and empire building”. We forget that the historical Jesus was a West Asian Jew, not the blue-eyed brown-haired Western construct that we have grown up with.
It began with Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama, a Roman Catholic, who dropped anchor on Kerala shores in 1498. The English—and in the early part of this century, American missions too—tagged along with a caravan of zealots wanting to “harvest native souls”. However, there was a minority among the foreign missionaries who preferred to burrow deep into Indian ethical works, culture and philosophy, recalibrating their India mission to appropriate Christ in the local context. That is, see Jesus through Indian eyes and Indian forms.
One year after the state established the Church of England, the East India Company set up shop in India in 1600. It took more than two centuries for the Company itself to allow missionaries on its territory (missionaries were not allowed under the charter of the Company until 1813). Nevertheless, India’s religious landscape has seen a heady cocktail of colonial-ecclesiastical powerplay for nearly four centuries with Gothic/ European style concrete landmarks dotting the subcontinent. Indians, upon embracing the Christian faith, aped their Western/ English masters lock, stock and barrel. Copying their language, customs, manners and, most importantly, the style of worshipping God.
An Asian Jesus, a sadhguru who could be clad in a dhoti or an orange dress, was scissored out of the Indian mind’s eye and transplanted—much against the Biblical mandate to go vocal with the local—with a white, Westernised iconography, alien to the native expressions of faith. Metaphorically speaking, let’s think of ground coffee beans (Arabica or Robusta) offering myriad styles of coffee, wherever one is. You can take your pick: affogato, breve, cappuccino, doppio, espresso…and so on. I’ll take a steel tumbler of Mysore filter coffee any day!
Italian Jesuit Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656) was only 17 when he heard Jesus’ call. Aged 24, Roberto landed in his mission base in Portuguese-controlled Goa. He came to Madurai, the cultural capital of South India, where he was appalled to see his predecessors and peers’ impervious side when it came to the natives’ culture and ethics.
To make amends, Roberto went 100 per cent desi, immersing in the Indian waters. He quickly learnt Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu. He conversed only in Tamil, turned vegetarian, traded his black cassock for a saffron robe, leather shoes for wooden clogs, shaved his head, sported a kudumi [tiny tuft], moved to a small hut in the Brahmin quarter of the city, called himself a sanyasi, and began delving into the Vedas and Indian philosophy in Sanskrit, the tongue of ancient Indian scriptures, dressing up his findings with a Biblical flourish. His superiors, however, poured cold water on the Italian sanyasi’s sincere attempts in inculturation. He was a Hindu Yesu Bhakta of a high order way back in the 17th century. Roberto de Nobili spent his last years in a hut outside Mylapore, on the outskirts of Chennai, still wearing his saffron clothes, subsisting on vegetarian food and working on his books till the ‘tattuva bodhagar’ (teacher of wisdom) died in 1656.
Sixty years later, two young German priests would become the first Protestant missionaries to come to the Indian subcontinent after they landed at the Danish territory of Tranquebar (Tharangampadi in Mayaladutharai district), 230 km east of Madurai, in 1706. When King Frederick IV of Denmark did not find Danes volunteering for overseas mission work, he tapped his German court chaplain Franz J Lütkens to find suitable candidates instead. Lütkens spotted Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and a fellow priest, Heinrich Plütschau, both in their early 20s, who were ordained as Lutheran priests in Copenhagen.
The King of Denmark gave a royal letter but no financial support to the two Germans, permitting them to live and work in Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu. The Copenhagen Missionary Society, unlike its Western peers, batted for an indigenous Christian church sans European motif. Ziegenbalg, already familiar with Greek and Hebrew, quickly learnt Tamil and helped ship a printing press from Germany to Tranquebar. His research works on Tamil philosophy, ethical works, literature, grammar, art, and South Indian deities are rare gems that are preserved in Germany. Ziegenbalg’s 1715 Tamil grammar classic Grammatica Damulica (a Tamil-Latin version) was widely acclaimed. An ardent advocate for the Tamil language, Ziegenbalg’s palm-leaf manuscripts and other Tamil works are preserved in Halle, a treasure chest for researchers. Ziegenbalg was plagued by ill health most of his life. He was just 36 when he died in 1719 in his mission field. His last 13 years were spent in preparation of the seedbed for Tamil studies in Germany.
Christian Frederick Schwarz (1726-1798) took Ziegenbalg’s place in Tranquebar in 1750. Schwarz was a polyglot: he was skilled in many languages including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, Persian, Marathi and Telugu. The British used him as an emissary of peace to the court of Haider Ali in Mysore. Schwarz, who founded many schools in Tamil Nadu, was also teacher-mentor or raja-guru to royal families, including Maha Raja Serfoji of Tanjore.
In the same decade that marked Schwarz’ death after his nearly five decades of service in Tamil Nadu, an English missionary, William Carey (1761-1834), arrived in colonial Calcutta in 1793. Carey managed an indigo plantation in the interior of Bengal before moving to the Danish territory of Serampore, 20 km from Calcutta, serving there till he breathed his last in 1834.
Carey’s contributions to the Indian landscape, both cultural and otherwise, are far too many to recount here. He was a professor of Bengali and Sanskrit at Fort William College, a hub for civil servants. Carey translated Hindu epics like Ramayana and others into English. He was a cultural anthropologist and a social reformer, well versed in Hindu scriptures. Carey’s campaign to abolish sati—where widows killed themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands—wouldn’t have succeeded without the support of Hindu reformers led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy. The 1829 Bengal Sati Regulation, passed by Governor General William Bentinck, banned the practice in all jurisdictions of British India. Carey was a botanist too, establishing the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India in Calcutta in 1820, laying the foundation for all the work in seed-improvement and crop-multiplication that was done by Norman Borlaug, MS Swaminathan and others, leading to the Green Revolution and, later, to the White Revolution.
The lives of early pioneers like de Nobili or Ziegenbalg and others of their ilk warrant deeper exploration.
In the early part of this century, an American pastor, Eli Stanley Jones (1884-1973), a law school graduate-turned-theologian from Maryland, came to Lucknow in 1907 to take up his priestly duties at the Methodist Episcopal Church there. Jones was just 23 when he came to India but soon realised the rich cultural heritage and strength of India, discovering the wide chasm between Western Christianity and the rich Indian culture.
His 1925 book, The Christ of the Indian Road, his exposition of a desi Yesu, sold over a million copies at that time. Jones wrote there: ‘We want the East to keep its own soul-only thus can it be creative: We are not there to plaster Western civilization upon the East, to make it a pale copy of ourselves…We are not there to give its people a blocked-off, rigid, ecclesiastical and theological system, saying to them, “Take that in its entirety or nothing”.’ Jones advocated the indigenization of his faith in India, including a focus on local languages and cultures: ‘…the Indian must remain Indian…he must stand in the stream of Indian culture and life and let the force of that stream go through his soul so that the expression of his Christianity must be Eastern and not Western.’
Jones toggled the world of pulpit ministry and public life seamlessly. His advocacy for the Indian freedom movement drew him close to its leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. He called Gandhi’s murder “the greatest tragedy since the Son of God died on the cross”. Jones’ 1948 book, Mahatma Gandhi: A Portrait, spoke into the heart of American civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr, who adopted the Gandhian ideals into his ‘black lives matter’ movement.
Jones’ contemporary, Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929), was a Sikh Yesu Bhakta who wore a saffron turban and robe. He lived like an Indian ascetic fending off Western church trappings while calling for more contextualisation. In his book, With and Without Christ, Singh clearly distinguishes between Christians who are without Christ, and Non-Christians who are with Christ. The main point documented by that book is that the phenomenon of Hindu Yesu Bhaktas goes back a long way, it isn’t something that a few individuals in this generation have dreamed up. For him, the living water must be drunk from an Indian katoree, not a European cup.
Justice Banumathi’s faith expression, far from a controversial theological debate about binaries or mixed religious identities, is part of the reality of India. Most of us have mixed identities. We even speak differently when we speak with our grandparents or parents compared with how we speak to our contemporaries in our educational institution or office.
Besides, in a Covid-infested time like this, when tempers between the Right and the Left, between the godless and godly debaters, are on the rise, is it not vital to focus on culturally rich, spiritually uplifting and galvanising sentiments that can serve as a tonic? While it is up to Justice Banumathi to provide more light on what her faith is, we have Hindu Yesu Bhaktas keeping their bhajans and pujas rolling.
The debate on hyphenated religious identity will no doubt continue.