Global Christianity, Contextual Religious Identity and Local Theologies: 틌Ès틌 Imandars and Khrist Bhaktas in South Asia


 

틌Ès틌 Imandars in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Cultural and religious life in Bangladesh is deeply influenced
by Islam, the faith of more than four-fifths of the population.
In the Bengal region, Christianity was first introduced by
Catholic missionaries in the seventeenth century and later by
Baptist missionaries (including William Carey) in the nineteenth
century. However, the number of Christians has always been
very low in the delta, and the converts to Christianity typically
come from low-caste or outcaste Hindu communities.

To a large extent, religious life in Dhaka, the capital of
Bangladesh, follows that of rural Bangladesh where Sufi
mysticism is an alternative to the more legalistic and somewhat
restrained religious life of Sunni Islam. In contrast to the
villages, however, Dhaka is open to the global economic market
and to global culture. The whole drift of modern city life in Dhaka
is thus toward global economy and an entertainment culture but
at the same time rooted in Sufi-inspired Sunni Islam. This is the
context for the groups of believers in Jesus which I followed
during my fieldwork1, and who term themselves Jesus imandars,
or more correctly, 틌Ès틌 imandars—“those faithful to Jesus.”

Worship and Worship Environment of 틌Ès틌 Imandars
I frequently participated in the Jesus-prayers, the milad-e-틌Ès틌e,
of one of these groups of imandars. The leader of the group,
Mehrab, made his living from a small company; the group met
on Fridays in Mehrab’s office. Although Mehrab’s daughters and
wife occasionally joined the group, the small jama’at, “fellowship,”
consisted solely of male participants. As the men arrived, Mehrab’s
daughters handed them copies of Kitab ul Mugadesh (a Muslim
Bangla translation) and a homemade collection of 틌Ès틌e songs,
“Jesus songs.”

Both books were placed in the decorated wooden bookstand in
front of each participant so that the books did not touch the floor.
Some of the songs were translations of well-known English
devotional songs while others were accommodated folk songs,
baul gan. Each meeting started with singing.

As in Muslim religious culture in general, reading and reciting long
passages from the kitabs, the “holy books,” was a regular part of
every meeting in Mehrab’s jama’at. However, rather than reciting the
Qur’an in Arabic, the imandars read and recited the Kitab ul Mugadesh,
the Bangla translation of the Old and New Testament. In particular,
the Book of Psalms (Zabur) and the apostolic letters were frequently
recited.

Mehrab would usually deliver a sermon which related to one of the
texts read aloud; an underlying theme in all his sermons was the
relationship between Muslims and imandars. The question of whether
an imandar was still a Muslim especially occupied the minds of the
believers. “Jesus was a Muslim,” Mehrab once said, “Muslim means
‘surrender to God,’ and Romans 2 says that Jesus surrendered his
life and so I am also a Muslim.” There are, of course, different kinds
of Muslims: those committed to God through Muhammad and those
committed to God through 틌Ès틌, Jesus; the imandars are of the latter
type. Mehrab often concluded his sermons with a call to the imandars
to be holy; not simply to pursue the ritual holiness of Hinduism or
Islam, but to partake in the living prophet’s (Jesus’) holiness.

Besides the recitation of the Kitab ul Mugadesh and the sermons,
prayers are an important part of the imandars jama’at. In contrast to
the formal and highly-ritualized Muslim namaz prayers (i.e. salat in
Arabic), the imandars' prayers are more informal and personal.
However, it is not only through prayers that the interior and personal
relationship with God is built; it centres on the imandars’ emphasis
on faithfulness as the fundamental characteristic of an imandar. To
truly become faithful to God is not merely an outwardly ritual activity;
it is an interior and personal commitment through following the
once-sacrificed, but now living, prophet 틌Ès틌 Mashi.

Prophethood and the Nature and Person of Jesus
A central claim in the imandars’ theological understanding is thus the
nature and person of Jesus. Particularly, the notion of prophethood
occupies the imandars’ minds. In agreement with common Islamic
theology, the imandars recognize Jesus as a prophet witnessed by
his nispap (sinless-ness); however, somewhat in contrast to orthodox
Islamic beliefs, they underscore the continuity of Jesus’ prophethood,
manifested by God through Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus is thus not only
a prophet but the prophet, the embodiment of ethical qualities and
divine spiritual power.

Jesus’ death on the cross is therefore not merely the death of a
human but should be understood as qurbani (sacrifice). Through
interior faithfulness toward Jesus, his demands and his guidance, the
imandars participate in Jesus’ sinless-ness and sacrificial death. In this
way, the imandars argue theologically for interconnectedness between
Jesus’ authority as prophet, his sacrificial death and their own relation
to God through faithfulness toward Jesus.

In their religious practice and theological reflection, the imandars
translate Christianity in a number of respects such as recitation of the
kitabs and the exercise of personalized ritual prayers. Through this
translation, they consciously place themselves in a broader Indian
Islamic form of religiosity with its folk songs and milad prayers. Also,
the central Christian claim concerning Christology is translated into
meaningful Islamic terminology. However, the imandars' understanding
clearly transcends Islamic Orthodox theology insofar as the
interconnectedness between Jesus’ prophethood, sacrificial death and
sinless-ness is concerned. Therefore, even if the imandars claim to
still be a type of Muslims, they display a fundamental identity with
the larger Christian theological tradition.

Endnote

1. The fieldwork was carried out in October–December 2002 and
January–October 2004. The fieldwork consisted of participant
observation in a number of religious groups and in qualitative
interviews with thirty-five men and eight women from Muslim
backgrounds.
 

 

Khrist Bhaktas in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India 

Christians have been present in the south Indian city of Chennai
(Madras) for almost two millennia. In fact, Thomas, the “apostle to
India,” is buried in Mylapore, part of modern-day Chennai. South
India has historically been a meeting place of indigenous Hinduism
and foreign Islam and Christianity. To this add the fact that south
Indian society is to a high degree characterized by caste
consciousness and caste conflicts. Throughout the history of Indian
Christianity, churches have attracted converts from various Hindu
religions and sects. These converts were more often than not
estranged from their birth communities, their castes. For some
converts, this has been the raison d’être of conversion; for others,
conversion has been a traumatizing and depersonalizing
experience.

The group of Khrist bhaktas, “devotees of Christ,” which I had the
chance to follow during my fieldwork1, displayed an original solution
to this dilemma. Not wanting to disassociate themselves from the
wider social and religious life in south India, they consciously placed
themselves outside the liturgical and theological framework of
institutionalized Christianity. At the same time, as the following
glimpse of their liturgy illustrates, they insisted on maintaining a
relation to Jesus as Christ and offered their own original
interpretation of what faithfulness toward Christ might mean in
a Hindu context.

The Worship and Worship Environment of Bhaktas
Each gathering of bhaktas took place Saturday evenings in Prakash’s
private apartment. Like the rest of the group, Prakash, a young
professional, came from a middle-class, high-caste family. He had
become interested in relating faith in Christ with Hindu culture.
Sarasvat, an elderly gentleman in saffron robes who led the group,
was in charge of the preaching and liturgy. He usually arrived before
everyone else to start preparations. After decorating the floor in the
spacious living room with an intricate kolam design (a star-shaped
figure made by coloured powders and symbolizing the experience of
cosmic liberation), he would light the traditional brass lamp and
place it on top of the kolam. Needless to say, both the kolam and
the auspicious brass lamp are elements familiar to south Indian
Hindu culture.

He would then place some fruit, flower garland and a small pot with
incense on his left side. On his right side, he would place a large
brass pot covered with banana leaves and a small pot with milk. He
put a wooden table in front of him. The function of all these items
would soon be revealed when the satsang, “teaching of truth,” started.

When the men and women arrived, they silently seated themselves
on the mats laid out on the floor. After a word of greeting from
Sarasvat, the group started singing bhajans, soulful devotional songs.
Typically, the bhajans call for surrender to God, praise Jesus as the
“giver of salvation” or as the “true teacher” or picture the intimacy
between the devotee and Jesus through bodily metaphors (e.g.
sitting “at the feet” of the true teacher, adoring the “loving face”
of Jesus).

The singing of bhajans is not accidental or purely ornamental. It
consciously draws on a classical Hindu form of devotional singing.
These simple but soulful songs express in emotional language the
intimate relationship between the devotee and the god. Among the
Khrist bhaktas, bhajans are viewed as significant expressions of bhakti
(devotion); the bhajans are instrumental in the devotees' approach to
the divine.

Sarasvat’s sermons often formed as a discussion on spiritual topics
such as, “What does it mean to know God?” He also frequently gave
ethical advice such as, “How the bhakta should relate to Christians and
Hindus.” I especially remember one of Sarasvat’s sermons about a
young man with whom he had corresponded. The man had asked,
“How can one know more about God?” to which Sarasvat
disappointingly answered that no one could know anything about God.
All one could do was to love God and enter into a loving relationship
with God through bhakti. In this way, Sarasvat succeeded in
expressing a profoundly Christian theological point through the
well-known and popular Hindu concept of bhakti.

Communion was also a key element at the meetings. It took place
not with bread and wine but with bananas and milk, and was
distributed after reading about the “big gift” of Jesus Christ in 2
Corinthians. Occasionally, Sarasvat would use a coconut instead of
bananas and milk; he would symbolically break the coconut while
reminding the bhaktas that the Body of Christ was broken for the
sins of the bhaktas. The translation of Christian theology was thus
not only verbal but also physical through elements from common
Hindu temple rituals.

Dynamic Interpretation of Hindu Ritual and Culture
The bhaktas seem to offer a dynamic interpretation of the Christian
theological universe into popular Hindu forms through bhakti
devotion, bhajan singing and the use of bananas and coconuts in
religious ritual. The drawing of kolams and the use of the traditional
devotional lamp are part of everyday religious ritual in Hindu
households; for the Khrist bhaktas, the light symbolically lit does,
however, refer to the one who is called “the light of the earth.”

The singing of bhajans draws on the classical Hindu tradition for
devotional songs accompanied by traditional instruments such as a
harmonium and tabla drums. Simple tunes and repetitive words turn
bhajans into almost meditative chanting. In the sermons, as well
as in theological understanding, bhakti plays a fundamental role.

Although they share this insight with a number of Hindu bhakti
movements, the God who is venerated and glorified is the Father
of Christ. The bhaktas thus adopt a Hindu style of religious life and
a number of Hindu theological concepts and forms, and it is
indisputable that their religious life follows an all-Indian bhakti
type of religiosity. But at the same time, the content of the
bhakti—the meaning of what is going on—has a strong family
resemblance to the Christian theological universe.

Endnote

1. The fieldwork was carried out in October–December 2002 and
January–October 2004. The fieldwork consisted of participant
observation in a number of religious groups and in qualitative
interviews with eighteen men and five women from Hindu
backgrounds.
 

Christianity has been present in the South Asian subcontinent for almost two millennia. And although it has been tolerated and even respected as one religion among the numerically larger Islam and the indigenous South Asian religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, Christianity has not been endorsed by the majority of the people here.

Furthermore, in contrast to the religious situation in Europe, religions have never lost their public role in South Asian society. Conversion from one religion to another carries strong social connotations and has—or is imagined to—influence not only the individual but the whole community. Religious identity thus still plays a fundamental role in the self-understanding of most people and communities in South Asia. This also holds true for Christian identity. But how exactly does Christianity interact with other major religious traditions and how does this interaction affect Christian identity?

The interaction between religions and religious identities can be studied in numerous ways; to the right, I have presented two case studies of theology and religious identities among believers in Christ from Muslim and Hindu backgrounds. Here, I attempt to say something more general on: (1) how conversion to Jesus as Christ results in what I would term a contextual religious identity, (2) local theologies and (3) what we can learn from these marginal groups in the global Christian community.

Are the 틌Ès틌 Imandars and Khrist Bhaktas Really Christians?
The question whether the imandars and the bhaktas are “really Christians” is a theological question which cannot be determined historically or phenomenologically (the study of phenomena). As a researcher, my view into the real nature of things is limited and only God knows believers’ hearts. Therefore, my approach in dealing with 틌Ès틌 imandars and Khrist bhaktas has been an attempt to describe and analyse how they reach their faith in Jesus as Christ on a number of related levels.

The very terms which they used to designate themselves is quite revealing for their self-understanding: the believers from Muslim backgrounds termed themselves 틌Ès틌 imandars, that is, “those faithful to Jesus,” and the believers from Hindu backgrounds called themselves Khrist bhaktas, that is “devotees of Christ.” They are self-consciously not “Christians,” although their religious faith shares a deep family resemblance to the larger Christian community.

The imandars’ and bhaktas’ theological understandings centre on an existential, Christological claim to truth. Only Jesus—not Christians or Christian churches—is said to be unique and exclusive; he is viewed as the personified criteria of humanity and divinity by which one must let oneself be corrected, guided and inspired. It is true that the imandars and bhaktas do not always conceptualize their existential commitment to Jesus with terms from the Christian theological tradition; however, the fundamental relational nature of their commitment to Jesus as truly divine and truly human should not be doubted.

In their commitment to and understanding of Christ, it seems that the believers engage in a reinterpretation of themselves and their past religious traditions. This reinterpretation takes place through a “Christological lens;” that is, through their understanding of and commitment to Jesus as Christ. I believe that the reason why the believers do not simply adopt Christianity wholesale (but include forms and elements from their own past traditions) is the question for meaning of their own past as well as of Christianity.

What Can We Learn from the 틌Ès틌 Imandars and Khrist Bhaktas?
Both groups of believers are marginal compared to the number of Christians in institutionally-established churches. However, to understand transformation of Christian identity accompanying the globalization of Christianity and the interaction between religious traditions, a study of exactly these marginal groups is helpful because they place themselves in a cultural and religious cross-pressure where the questions of a contextual religious identity and local theologies become crucial.

The religious identities resulting from this cross-pressure do at one and the same time share fundamental insights into the nature and work of Jesus Christ with the global Christian community and differ in terms of form and concepts.

The religious life of the imandars and bhaktas is surely a bricolage, a mixture between Christian theological ideas and forms from other religious traditions; however, contrary to simply denoting a dilution of Christianity into inauthentic or “syncretistic” forms, I would argue that the practice of the imandars and bhaktas could be viewed as new and creative manifestations of Christianity in a global age. I believe that there is a theological point in the imandars’ and bhaktas’ identification of the relation to Jesus Christ as central and essential and in their rather free interpretation of culture and symbols revolving around this fundamental relation.

From this perspective, one can conclude that the resemblance with the larger Christian tradition and community ensures Christian identity. At the same time, the differences enlarge our understanding of what actual and lived Christian life and Christian theology might include in globalized Christianity. There is a multitude to Christianity in its global age which we in the West are only beginning to realize.


Dr. Jonas Adelin Jørgensen is a systematic theologian and a member of the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church. He is also assistant research professor in the Department of Systematic Theology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.