Monday, October 8, 2007


Biblical garden: Oil on canvas. Collection of Rev. Eric Lott.


The following reflections on a series of images have been written by the Rev. Dr. Eric Lott, who spent many years teaching in India. I first met Eric Lott in the late seventies, when he had come to Bangalore to teach religions at the United Theological College in Bangalore. Subsequently we put up an exhibition of paintings at the U.T.C in 1986 on the theme of Creation, and human responsibility in caring for the planet earth.

Eric has been a great influence and support to me in my efforts to realize the idea of an Art Ashram, which I first took practical steps to initiate in 1984. Many of the theological presuppositions which have been the foundation for this project, have been articulated by Eric Lott in his effort to look at the Indian spiritual traditions in the light of his Christian Faith.

After retiring from teaching, Eric returned to the U.K. where he did pastoral work in Leicester, in a very inter-faith context. We continued to remain closely in touch, and in 1997 I made a series of images for a collection of reflections which he published on the Healing Acts of Jesus, which appeared as a book entitled “Healing Wings”.

In 2002 “Christians Aware” helped to mount an exhibition on the theme of the Face of Jesus seen from an Indian perspective. It was then that the project was initiated to work towards a series of meditations on the image of Jesus, from and Indian cultural context. The following meditations, along with over-arching schema emerged out of many discussions which Eric and I had together over the last five years. It is now hoped that these will be published as a book in the coming spring of 2008.

I have taken the liberty of putting these meditations on my art ashram blog, in the hope that this may generate some response at a preliminary stage, so that we have some feed back to the way in which the story of Jesus is being re-told in this way. There has been, as Eric has remarked, a certain concern expressed by a number of people in the Indian Church, that the Ashramic model belongs too closely to the “High, Sanskritic” tradition of Indian Culture, and does not adequately express the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Indian Christians, for whom this tradition often appears as oppressive. Our hope is that while we have been actively involved in the process of dialogue with the Hindu traditions, we have also recognized the counter-cultural elements within the Hindu tradition, and have tried to draw on these liberative currents which we believe are also present in Hinduism, in an effort to see Christ in the context of the Hindu and Buddhist religious imagination.

Ashramas of Jesus

Mary as the Dalit Mother. Oil on Canvas. Methodist Collection, Westminster College, Oxford. U.K.

Theme I Life's Ashramas

Indian Ashramic tradition
The meaning of ashrama is ‘stopping-place’, ‘refuge’ (from a-sram, meaning both ‘effort’ and ‘becoming tired’). Ashrams were quite often found on pilgrimage routes, especially when these passed through remote areas such as forests. More generally they are places for those seeking space in which to reflect, together with others, on life’s true goal, and so to break out of the boundaries set by normal social identities. Part of this process usually means accepting a common sadhana or spiritual discipline, usually led by a teacher whose special insight is crucial to the sought-for ‘breakthrough’.

As well as the countless Hindu ashrams throughout India, there are quite a number of Christian (mainly Catholic) ashrams too. There is more than one life-style by which these loosely formed communities of reflection seek to move on to ways of thinking and living that are liberated from the usual social conformities. For one thing they seek a life-style that is more simple, more clearly integrated into a single Centre, than that which modernity’s multiple seductions draw us into. Some focus almost entirely on the inner world. Others engage in forms of social action too: life together in the ashram serves to intensify social vision and commitment.

Art is the distinctive sadhana at Jyoti’s ‘ashram’ near Bangalore. While social action is not the direct aim, the world of artistic imagination is seen to impinge on the world’s flawed life in many significant ways. And reflective critique of that life, enhanced by images from the Jesus-story, is the backdrop against which the imaginative world is explored.

The Four ‘Stopping-Places’
An ashram, though, as a place of refuge, is also where the traveller or pilgrim finds rest, a resting-point on life’s journey. Indian tradition speaks of various other structures in social life that are ‘ashramas’, stopping-places. For example, ideally the orthodox Hindu was to pass through four stages (prasthanas) on life’s journey, in each of which there is a clearly distinct role.

(1) The freedom of the child, the discipline of the student: As the culmination of childhood’s freedoms there is a period of learning and self-discipline. In formal Hindu law-books the discipline of learning the Vedic tradition is all-important. But childhood itself is highly significant in Indian spirituality. Christians too will recall how Jesus placed a child among his followers as the most potent pointer to the way of God’s new world that was breaking in. Hindu devotion, though in different ways, likewise often focusses on different stages of the childhood of either Krishna or Rama. Recalling the many childish pranks of the divine little one is seen as a way of being a disciple. A few saints (e.g. 19th century Ramakrishna; compare the Cornish tin-mining Methodist preacher, Billy Bray) have acted in exaggeratedly playful and childlike ways themselves. For Krishna-followers similarly, the adventures of the Loved One’s later youthful years - such as Krishna’s times as a pastoral herdsman roaming the countryside along with his friends - become the focus of faith. His lovers seek to follow Krishna in all the changing stages of his life, says the Bhagavad Purana.

In the dominant tradition, initiation (at the age of 8 to 12 years) as a ‘twice-born’ was supposed to mark the transition from the freedom of childhood to the more serious stage of disciplined learning. There is clear recognition here of a degree of tension between child-like freedom and the need for conforming to tradition and its disciplines. More usually, though, the movement is the other way - from ordered engagement to the world-transcending liberation of spirit, as we see in a moment. Similar such ‘tensions’ (creative tensions?) are deep-rooted in Indian cultural life. As Cambridge Indologist Julius Lipner puts it, ‘Hindus have always been alive to the struggle between chaos and order’ (Hindus, Routledge, 1994, p.87).

(2) Duties of home & Family: So, there was then the period of being responsible for home and family - though originally the father in the household was also expected to be the family priest offering the required sacrifices and so on. Later, his role was mainly to see that the proper order of things was maintained in family life. Priestly sacrifice, though, was seen as necessary for keeping much wider structures of the world’s life together. The world’s life was dependent on proper offerings to the gods.

(3) The forest stage: After completing household duties came the ‘forest’ stage, a kind of halfway-house to final self-liberation. Maybe both husband and wife would retire to a forest ashram, there to reflect on the ultimate meaning of life, and so begin to break free from the fetters of life’s binding ‘cycle’ - itself often spoken of as a ‘forest’ in which to be lost, or a ‘sea’ in which to drown. There is a search for a more permanent home.

(4) Renouncing the world: Finally comes the stage of complete breaking with all that binds to this world, including our social and family ties. The dominant tradition held that only this sanyasi mendicant life led to the final freedom of the eternal self within. Often, a monastic order provided the discipline for such final renunciation, and a community of fellow-seekers provided the security of a permanent ‘home’.

A Critical Question
Finding refuge in these four life-stages was not the only form of ashrama taught by orthodoxy. More problematic for many is the fact that the four social castes were also taken as integral to the ashramic ordering of life. It is not easy to discuss this issue without arousing passions, but we cannot begin to grasp even the basics of Indian social and cultural life without some sort of introduction to this historical and present reality. Nor can we understand the ideological tensions which has been the context for Jyoti’s artistic struggle.

India’s social system as a whole was called Catur-varna-ashrama-dharma, or ‘the proper ordering of life into four castes and stopping-places’. Caste identities and groupings derive from that long-ago period when the ‘noble’ warrior-kings and their priests colonised wider and wider regions of India, all the time drawing in new local indigenous communities. Originally each caste grouping was seen as providing safe social togetherness of those with a common status and common life-duties. When, though, caste has set up social boundaries and self-identities based on false notions of purity and pollution, it is no wonder that many Hindu reformers, and certainly non-Hindu critics, have regarded this way of structuring society as dangerously elitist and have aimed at its removal.

This debate has even affected the way Christian ashrams have been regarded. Among Catholics recently, some theologicans have criticised their own Ashrams as being elitist, perhaps ‘Brahmanic’, and inward-looking. It is often forgotten that in earlier ages ashrams could be quite counter-cultural, usually paying little attention to formal caste-status. No doubt some were ‘Brahminic’ - devoted to the traditions of the dominant group. Linked to this forest-based spirituality, however, was the ‘Sramanika’ movement, deliberately different from ‘Brahmanika’ tradition and its basis in priestly ritual.

As we saw above, frequently the Ashrams aimed for liberation from our given social identities. They searched for a new self-identity. Moreover, there was the long tradition of providing ‘refuge’ to any in need - as a kind of hospice. Among today’s Ashrams, many are strongly service-orientated. And in a few cases are even led by a Dalit: and example is Kasala Ratnam - a Telugu Dalit Presbyter in the Dornakal Diocese of the Church of South India, who set up a small Ashram on the banks of the river near Kamareddy. Seekers from various caste-communities would visit expecting spiritual insight and blessing.

Ashramic Pilgrims
Living spiritually on the move, the sense of being on a journey, pressing on to a new stage of awareness, lies at the heart of all Ashram life. The soul’s pilgrimage is central, as it is to virtually all Indian religion - Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Muslim, Tribal - and for all castes. In Tamil Nadu for instance, in early Spring all roads for 60 miles or more leading to Palani become long streams of perhaps hundreds of thousands of barefoot rural people, old and young, men and women, clad in yellow, making the long journey to the hill of Siva’s son Murugan. The roads to Sabari Malai (just in Kerala) are similarly thronged with people in black (mostly young men) making their pilgrimage to Ayyappa, to whom they have dedicated themselves through a forty-day fast marked by a nightly vigil of bhajan-singing. Pilgrimage - once so typical of western religious life too - is still a growing phenomenon in India.

Life itself, then, is seen as a pilgrimage, a series of moves to a new refuge-point, to a new ‘home’. And even during pilgrimage of a few days, there is a sense of breaking out from the constraints of normal social identities. Healing, too, a new wholeness of life, may well be looked-for when the pilgrim enters a new refuge-point. In the Jesus-story also, not only is there constant journeying, the hope of healing is central. The healing and the moving on belong together. It is especially this hope of healing and newness, linked with the self-giving of the Cross, that has appealed so powerfully to many in India.

‘Drowned’ in the Divine Refuge
Along with the very distinctive (even unexpected) aspects of this Jesus-story, much of it has seemed to reflective Hindu people to resonate strongly with the ‘love-drowning’ their own bhakti-saints have experienced. Remember, submerging oneself, drowning one’s old self, in the waters of a sacred centre of pilgrimage is usually one of the main acts to be done on arrival. To the ecstatic devotees of South India, being ‘drowned’ in divine love was the goal.

Being submerged in water - as in the transforming love of the divine Spirit - is such a potent biblical theme. As we shall see, Jyoti returns to this water-theme many times. An early impression had been made by The Oriental Christ, a book written a century before by P.C.Mazoomdar, one of many impressive Hindus intent on a deep reforming of their religious life, and seeing Christ as necessary to that process. His book begins with the ‘Bathing Christ’, then moves on to the ‘Teaching Christ’, the ‘Weeping Christ’, the ‘Pilgriming Christ’, the ‘Healing Christ’, the ‘Dying Christ’.

Bound up with the ashramic pilgrim-way, then, was the bhakti-way. And it was this that increasingly gripped those not privileged by elevated caste status. The freedom felt through an overwhelming sense of divine love led to the conviction that only this loving God is a true Refuge. The passion felt in the many devotional movements throughout India, and stretching over more than a millennium, did not formally break caste boundaries, but to many ‘God-sharanas’ - those taking refuge in God - caste distinctions were an irksome fetter rather than a saving ‘refuge’. For them, the playfulness of the child, leading up to the unrestrained dance of a Krishna or a Nataraj (Lord/King of Dance), is the divine model, rather than the inhibitions of caste and its duties.

Jyoti Sahi’s paintings, woodcuts and other works of art are vibrant with so many of the potent themes and images thrown up by this Indian spiritual tradition. It is, though, the Christ-figure, and the many ‘faces’ of Christ, that provide for Jyoti the most powerful source of inspiration for his ‘transforming vision’.

a. The Mother
b. The Child
c. Shepherd/herdsman.
d. Teacher
e. Pilgrim

Mary as the Olive Branch.

a. (i) Mother (Series on Symbols of John, 1974. Collection of the Missions Prokura, sj. Nuerenberg.)

Hardly a typical mother-picture, some will think. Jyoti’s symbolic reflection links together (as John does) two ‘beginning’ stories: The dove that hovered over the waters of creation and brings the leafy branch that is the Mother, bowed over lovingly to cradle ‘the Word made flesh’ (John 1:14). The cosmic egg, womb-like, motherly origin of primal life, forms the background.
The dove, ‘brooding over the face of the deep’, swoops down to touch the Mother of Jesus with that life-creating, life-redeeming potency that is the Eternal Word. As in a number of Jyoti’s paintings, the Spirit-bird descending is the revered Hamsa, or Swan, so beloved of Indian spiritual symbolism (See also Theme III). At the same time it is in the shape of the letters making up the written form of India’s ancient mystic syllable Aum, the Sound that is believed to reverberate creatively through eternity.
The Mother herself is not only an olive-branch, brought back by the dove when searching for a place of refuge. She seems almost like a flower-bud, yet to burst out into blossom. And her Saviour-child is enfolded with maternal care within those leaf-petals from which the infant Jesus feeds securely, as though taking milk from his mother’s breast.

Note the dark cobalt-blue of pre-creation’s ‘deep’, the primal waters that surround the cosmic egg; the azure-blue, tinged with earth-green, of the cosmic egg; the white of the brooding, swooping dove; the orange-red of the enfolded mother-figure. Colours too can be potent symbols.

Jesus the seed in the lap of his Mother.

(ii) Dalit Madonna Oil on Canvas. 2005. The collection of the artist.

A very different mother-figure. The icon of the Mother has occupied a very central place in human imagination. She is the all-encompassing sphere into which the newly born person is received. As the ‘vessel’ in which the life of a future consciousness is nurtured, on the one hand she enshrines an emptiness, leaving space for the divine to enter the human heart and home; yet she also embodies a fulness that gives form and substance to a new epiphany. In one sense she is like the doorway that leads into the shelter. She is also the inner courtyard, which is both open to the skies above and enclosed by the walls around. The door leads through to an inner world that is at the same time open to the outer world.
The figure of the Mother - in this typical village household - is intimately associated with the harvest, and so with the provision and preparation of food for the household. The feminine embodies a practical wisdom without which the life of the community would not be possible. She not only nurtures and sustains; she also embraces and adores. In this way she is like the household shrine. And yet, she shows an innate humility - from humus, coming from and belonging to the earth. ‘Dalit’ (the term those once called ‘outcaste’ use for themselves, with their newly resurgent identity) can connote something similar: one meaning of Dal being the earth.

More usually, though, ‘Dalit’ is taken to mean broken, torn apart, trodden down, crushed. ‘Mother of Dalits’ is a term now applied to Mary. Though taken for granted, her greatness not recognised, she has become the ‘vessel’ of a new hope for humanity, especially for those trodden on and crushed. She is ‘humble’ and homely. Yet she is the bearer of a new wisdom, a new wholeness, a potential fulness of being.

Bala Jesu

b. Child (one of series of Faces, 2006: Collection of the artist.)
This is the first of a set of faces. They are Christ-faces, expressing facets of the stages in the rapidly changing life-journey of Jesus. They also express the varied faces of the elemental world (Our next theme-section looks more specifically at these).

Much earlier Jyoti had painted the scene of Jesus as a 12-year old youth discussing the ways of God with the religious experts of his time. The setting was that of a traditional Hindu temple courtyard. In preparing for this series Jyoti had visited a group of Krishna-temples connected with those who follow the medieval teacher of bhakti-theology, Madhva, on the western side of his home state (Karnataka). Whole walls are covered with series of paintings of the Krishna-story. In paintings on the wall of the Holy Cross Fathers nearby, as a Rosary-series, Jyoti depicted the events of the ‘Christ-story’.

In this Child-face, though, Jyoti imagines the youthful Christ as light, light within which the whole spectrum of rainbow colours is to be found. Those dramatically varied hues of differing human experience through which he was to pass are still to come. The sorrow, tears, stern words of reprimand, poetic playfulness, angry indignation - the whole gamut of human experience - are all there in the child, yet still to be expressed in the ways that unfold in the Gospel story.

We cannot forget that Jesus was to take the child as a model for the mind that is to mark those who would be part of his new world, his ‘kingdom’. His followers are to be child-like. A sense of wonder, spontaneity, a lack of scheming, a trusting attitude, and playfulness are the qualities most characteristic of the child. In Indian spirituality, when God is a child, it is his dancing, quick-footed playfulness - surely a quality of light too - that has most captured the imagination of the devout.

Jesus, wrote the Evangelist John, is the eternal Light of the world. He is the Light that enters into all, or that is in all - born as their inner Light - entering into the world.

The Shepherd

c. Shepherd: (Sketch made close to Jyoti’s home, 1986; Collection of the artist.)
Now a rather different picture. Indian cultural tradition refers mostly to the ‘Lord of cattle’, the ‘Protector of cows’, the divine herdsman, such as Krishna. The shepherd is less common. Yet, this is an everyday rural scene: a shepherd resting in the shade while his small flock (of sheep or goats) grazes nearby. At first seemingly typical pastoral life – here in the burning heat of the dry season in India’s ‘Deccan’. Those brilliant shades of orange, gold and red that suffuse the whole scene, however, express more than just early summer’s heat.

The gentle shepherd, in grey-white cotton, head and beard grey-white with age, sits there on a tree-root: a placid, in some ways a frail figure. He owns little, certainly no land or other security. Yet, there is the hidden strength of long years of working experience. His strikingly strong hands rest on his knees in tranquil inaction. His face is almost featureless, yet looks straight at us with a strangely intense force.

There is hidden pathos and passion, because his pastoral world is ablaze, aflame with changes that disrupt for ever the tranquil shepherding that has been his life since childhood. In 1986 this scene was some 10 miles from the edge of the city. Twenty years later it had been enveloped by the rampant growth of urbanisation. The forces of globalisation have radically disrupted rural life. Even then, the water-table was dropping dramatically each year. Deep borewells had become essential, and each lowered levels further. In Karnataka, for generations Ragi - among the most nutritiously iron-rich millet anywhere – was grown widely. By the 1980s, though, all around where this shepherd sits, large plots of that fast-growing, deep-rooting exotic, eucalyptus, were planted, mostly for use in polyester-production, often for export. In this picture, very little green growth is evident at all. But this is just one strand of the fierce fire of change engulfing this shepherd’s life.

Anawim: The poor of the earth.

"Blessed are the poor: they shall inherit the earth" (Oil on canvas. Collection of the author.)

Other signs lie hidden in this picture. Of the two foreground trees, one shimmers with light, the other is forbiddingly dark, seemingly dead. More shaded – perhaps by the branches of the ‘tree of life’ - that dark side was where the shepherd chose to sit. Without trying to find allusion to the two trees of ancient mythic truth (which the Genesis story includes too), we do see here the juxtaposing of light and dark, life and death, good and evil, shadow and sun. As with all human experience, this shepherd’s world is encircled by the two invariably opposing poles within which human life is acted out. The tranquil pose of this aged pastoral figure suggests that such conflicting dualities had somehow been resolved within him. Life’s struggle may not be over, but he seems to affirm that for him the outcome is assured.

Is this a depiction of the shepherding Jesus-figure? Not directly. Yet, those awakened to the living Christ will not find such overt identifying entirely artificial. For some years this picture was in the living room of the late Constance Millington who, among other forms of ‘missioning’, was for several years Principal of an outstanding girls’ school in Bangalore. Later, having close links to the Delhi Brotherhood (originating from Cambridge) she wrote up the history of this remarkable movement in which the life of meditation and service to the poor are seamlessly joined. Constance used to claim that every day of the closing years of her life in the Cathedral Close in Canterbury, she was assured of the presence of the Good Shepherd when she looked at this South Indian rural scene.

We note that the shepherd sits between the two trees as if in a doorway leading through to the world beyond. His sheep seem to be an extension of his upper body, his heart and head. And, strangely, the fields beyond have no limiting horizon, no skyline setting as it were a boundary to earth’s life. Far from meaning there is therefore no hope of heaven, we can see the gentle shepherd himself as embodying that hope of a future transfiguring glory. The fires of earth’s unjust ways are quenched in the pastoral constancy and care of this unassuming Shepherd.

Guru Jesus and his fiery sermon.

d. Teacher (Part of a series of pictures on the Sermon on the Mount. 1985. Collection of the Missions Prokura sj. Nuerenberg.)
In 1985 Jyoti prepared (for Missio in Germany) a series of 16 paintings on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) depicting ways in which ‘Jesus Speaks’, with a subtitle: ‘ the Children of the Earth’. Gandhi had been captivated by these teachings of Jesus, claiming they had made a crucial impact on his own ethical and spiritual development.

Jyoti writes: 1986 was the year that Fr Lederle died (tragically, while swimming on the western coast). It was he who had suggested that I work on this theme, as the Sermon on the Mount was particularly important for a group of Hindus who gave great significance to the figure of Jesus in their reform movements. A number of Indian theologians too had drawn attention to the ‘Sermon’: Francis D’Sa (in the German churches’ Kirchentag) gave an ecological interpretation of the Beatitudes; George Soares saw the Sermon as the dharma of Jesus; Samuel Ryan movingly identified the anawim, the ‘poor’ of the earth, those whom Jesus called the ‘blessed’, as the Dalit people. And it was in this Sermon series, seeing the Shepherd as one of the anawim, that I painted my first version of the Shepherd picture (just looked at).

Three of this series depict Jesus in what Indians recognise as typical teaching pose: sitting in lotus-like posture, one hand raised in the gesture (mudra) which shows that new insight is being imparted.

Several pictures relate to fire. This recalls the famous ‘Fire Sermon’ of the Buddha - when he describes the whole world, all our senses, the objects to which we become wrongly attached with our senses, and our deluded experience resulting from such false attachments, all aflame with fire.

The picture we see here shows Jesus surrounded by flame-like figures, leaping in ecstasy. They are also the fire-like blossoms that fall from a Flame-of-the-Forest tree. So brilliant at the time of the pre-monsoon showers, one of these is prominent in Jyoti’s garden. For several weeks of the year, the brilliant colours of this Flame-tree are what Jyoti first looks at each day, often too forming a brilliant carpet underfoot.

While the flaming look recalls the Shepherd picture, here it is not just the countryside, but those who turn to Jesus and are touched by his words, who are aflame. And their flame-like dancing is impelled by the fire of love. Another picture (not shown here) in the same series depicts the presence and the word of this Guru-Teacher as imparting life-giving water. Even his followers - women especially - seem to be a flowing part of the earth-enlivening water.

The final picture in the ‘Jesus Speaks’ series is of the three travellers on the way to Emmaus. Surrounded by rocks, with a solid rocky mound and a dark sky behind them, it is the intimacy of the three figures that impresses. They form a closely-grouped mandala, a circular form frequently found in Jyoti’s art. Jesus is the saffron-robed central figure. The heads of the others bend lovingly towards him. As we see below, they did not even know that this fellow-traveller was their beloved master. Already, though, his words, his charisma, have captivated them. Their hands, even the folds of their robes, link them inextricably to him. One hand of Jesus, though, remains aloft, perhaps in blessing, perhaps as a mark of his continuing role as Teacher.

The Emmaus story (Luke 24) lays great stress on the crucial role of the risen Jesus in expounding and explaining the meaning of the events that had so bewildered his followers. Through their encounters with his mysteriously risen presence they realised there had not been a victory of evil over good, as feared earlier. They can live on with growing hope, faith, love. So the story, and this picture, is about the human story as much as, or because, it is about the Jesus-story. (Note on one side of the picture what is far from a rare sight in India’s Deccan country: a rock is split, pierced by a root that amazingly becomes a tree forcing its way up to the sky).

Indian devotion to Jesus has been far wider than the devotion of those known as ‘Christians’ in India. During the 19th century the Jesus-story attracted many more Hindus than did the lives of those western ‘Christians’ claiming great superiority for themselves as much as for their God. According to Hindu standards, most of them showed little evidence of either moral or spiritual qualities. For some Hindus, therefore - from Ram Mohan Roy early in the 19th century, to M. K. Gandhi up to the mid-20th century - it was the outstanding quality of the moral teaching of Jesus that attracted.

For many more Hindus, though, Jesus was seen as Guru. And the Guru may begin as ‘teacher’, but one whose personal charisma and spiritual potency - in the case of Jesus especially seen in his self-giving acts of healing and eventual dying - draw us nearer to God and even mediate the very character and being of God. The Guru then becomes far more than ‘just a teacher’; the Guru somehow shares the life of God, within himself and with his disciples. In such a context no one can speak of Jesus as ‘just a teacher’; such a Teacher, even with his Word, and imparting his Way, mediates the inner life of God.

On the Way

Guru and disciples on pilgrimage. Oil on Canvas. Collection of the Missions Prokura sj. Nuerenberg.

Strangely the two unknown disciples did not recognise Jesus when he joined them on the road - though there had been bewildering rumours of his rising. In fact, this ambiguity was to become the pattern in encounters with the risen Jesus. The Jesus-story is far from an historically complete biography, leaving us with no questions concerning who this person actually was. The Apostle Paul, blindly falling to the ground, and asking: ‘Who are you, Lord’, is not atypical. As Albert Schweitzer concluded his extensive Quest for the Historical Jesus a hundred years ago: ‘He comes to us as One unknown....And to those who will obey him....He will reveal Himself in the toils and conflicts, the an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their experience Who He is’ (p.401)

At this time, though, as these two Jesus-followers returned to their own village and its secure familiarity, they were thoroughly confused. Disappointment and depression mixed with the excitement that something unexpectedly new may be happening. So they made their confused feelings known to a fellow-traveller who joined them on the road. Asking them why they were so depressed in spirit, their confusion spills out, and the ‘strange’ traveller explains the meaning of what has been happening.

We can see faint signs of the wounds of Jesus, and there is a faintly ethereal brightness in this central figure; otherwise he seems to be just a fellow-traveller. It was only when he ‘broke bread’ with them at Emmaus that ‘their eyes were opened’ and recognition dawned. (Jyoti has portrayed this bread-breaking scene in several pictures). Equally mysteriously – and typical of the resurrection visitations – the risen Christ disappears.

Making pilgrimage to a special place, but even more, being a constant pilgrim in life, is central to people of so many faiths. The Gospels (much of the Bible) are full of such journeying in a dislocated world – pilgrims who seek to move on from where they are, move on to some new life, new world. ‘We are travellers and pilgrims, seeking…..’, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it. Jesus himself was always on the move, travelling on from place to place: ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head’, Jesus said of himself. We too are in an ever-changing world that affords no final, secure resting place. So we find Christ to be a fellow-traveller with us, who breaks bread with us, and helps us discover the meaning of things.

Jesus on the way to Emmaus

e. Pilgrim (Oil paint on wooden Panel, Chapel of Nav Jyoti Niketan, Patna 1976)

This is another view of the Emmaus road - a scene Jyoti obviously delights in. It had also fascinated an earlier Indian Christian artist, Angelo da Fonseca, who depicted the two disciple-pilgrims as a Hindu and a Muslim. In Jyoti’s painting three willowy figures, in animated discussion, journey barefoot along a road lined with tall trees. One carries a bag - presumably basic provisions for their journey. Barefoot pilgrims trudging towards their longed-for destination is a common enough sight in India.

Here, the whole scene suggests a strange otherness. Unusually elongated trees stretch from the three central figures up into the dark sky. The road they have taken (Jyoti was actually painting a road near to his home) winds back to a city on the far distant horizon. Along with a broken gate, the whole landscape has a broken, dislocated look. The ‘blocked’ nature of the scene suggests the travellers’ inner dislocation and brokenness. There is a suggestion of mountains and a surrounding pool – again typical of places of pilgrimage. The oval ‘stage’ on which they walk is as though there is a world within the world. Theirs had become a disjointed world, no longer making sense to them, yet there are all these signs of another world that would bring things together.

These two unnamed disciples had left Jerusalem – the place where their hopes of a new world had been crushed when their Master had been humiliated and crucified - and set off back to Emmaus. Only days before, their pilgrimage to Jerusalem had begun with such high hopes. Nearing the powerful sanctity of God’s Holy City they too had been gripped by the messianic fervour expressed by the pilgrims during the ‘triumphal entry’. But then had come the betrayal, the arrest, the mocking, the scourging, the cross-hanging. And then the rumours of a rising from death.

As we noted above, strangely the two unknown disciples did not recognise Jesus when he joined them on the road - though there had been bewildering rumours of his rising. In fact, this ambiguity was to become the pattern in encounters with the risen Jesus. The Jesus-story is far from an historically complete biography, leaving us with no questions concerning who this person actually was. The Apostle Paul, blindly falling to the ground, and asking: ‘Who are you, Lord’, is not atypical. As Albert Schweitzer concluded his extensive Quest for the Historical Jesus a hundred years ago: ‘He comes to us as One unknown....And to those who will obey him....He will reveal Himself in the toils and conflicts, the an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their experience Who He is’ (p.401)

At this time, though, as these two Jesus-followers returned to their own village and its secure familiarity, they were thoroughly confused. Disappointment and depression mixed with the excitement that something unexpectedly new may be happening. So they made their confused feelings known to a fellow-traveller who joined them on the road. Asking them why they were so depressed in spirit, their confusion spills out, and the ‘strange’ traveller explains the meaning of what has been happening.

We can see faint signs of the wounds of Jesus, and there is a faintly ethereal brightness in this central figure; otherwise he seems to be just a fellow-traveller. It was only when he ‘broke bread’ with them at Emmaus that ‘their eyes were opened’ and recognition dawned. (Jyoti has portrayed this bread-breaking scene in several pictures). Equally mysteriously – and typical of the resurrection visitations – the risen Christ disappears.

Making pilgrimage to a special place, but even more, being a constant pilgrim in life, is central to people of so many faiths. The Gospels (much of the Bible) are full of such journeying in a dislocated world – pilgrims who seek to move on from where they are, move on to some new life, new world. ‘We are travellers and pilgrims, seeking…..’, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it. Jesus himself was always on the move, travelling on from place to place: ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head’, Jesus said of himself. We too are in an ever-changing world that affords no final, secure resting place. So we find Christ to be a fellow-traveller with us, who breaks bread with us, and helps us discover the meaning of things.

Out of the Depths.

" Take Refuge in the Lord." Woodcut from Psalm Series. (Printed as "The holy Waters", Asian Trading Corporation, Bangalore, 1984)

Theme II Earth's Epiphanies :Indian Eco-insights
Elemental Images
Given the central image - in much Indian spiritual tradition - of the whole earth, including human life, as the body of God, it is not surprising that many other facets of Indian culture are very different from our modern world’s earth-human, nature-reason dichotomies. Seeing human life - especially our reasoning power - over against unreasoning nature was basic to the Enlightenment that has given birth to our technological miracles. There were always dissenting voices in the West too, but the dominant undergirding philosophy of the western scientific age was that human reason, and our engineering exploits, have to conquer Nature and force her into submission, relentlessly exploiting her to serve human ends. This was precisely the kind of language the 17th century fathers of modernity used.

Christians need to be careful how they interpret those early verses in Genesis that urge humans to have ‘dominion’ over the earth. The command to ‘care for’ her - also found in early Genesis – must surely be given priority. The covenant of caring that God makes with all creatures a few chapters later, promising never again to destroy life on earth, is clearly another important pointer.

Jesus the Pilgrim on Earth

The Pilgrim in search of earth's sources of life. Oil on Canvas. (Part of a dyptich in the collection of Mr. Hubert de Beuff, Normandy, France.)

India’s diverse traditions, primal and classical, speak more of human life as a participant along with Nature. Not that we should naively assume there are no tensions for Eastern cultures in human existence within Nature. Violent sacrifice, for instance, abounded in diverse forms of Indian religion, much to the disgust of the Buddha, Mahavira (the Jains’ BCE 7th century leader) and other early teachers who gave new spiritual and cultural directions. There are other forms of tension too. Like ascetics everywhere, India’s world-renouncers too often found body and soul in conflict with each other, between higher aspirations and lower seductions. In a worldview quite dominant in Hindu thought, Nature, and the senses, is a seductive dancer unveiling her attractions. The Self is dangerously prone to being captivated and confused by her. Indian spiritual history is far from a simple love-in with Nature.

Even so, the positive pointers are very clear. For example, deeply embedded in that spiritual life is a faith in earth as our sustaining Mother. A famous Vedic passage describes at length human interdependence with earth’s life (this is but a small part of the whole song):

Impart to us those vitalising forces
that come, O Earth, from deep within your body,
your central point, your navel; purify us wholly.
The Earth is Mother, I am son of Earth.

Mother of plants, begetter of all creatures,
firm, far-flung Earth, sustained by heavenly Law,
kindly and pleasant is she. May we ever
dwell on her bosom, passing to and fro.

Whatever I dig up of you, O Earth,
May you of that have quick replenishment;
O purifying one, may our thrust never
reach into your vital points, your heart.

Peaceful and fragrant, gracious to the touch,
may Earth, swollen with milk, her breasts ever flowing,
grant me her blessing together with her milk. (Atharva Veda 12:1)

The Prophetic cry.

A cry in the Wilderness. Oil on Canvas. (Part of a Dyptich in the collection of Mr. Hubert De'Beuff. Normandy. France.}
Not only is Earth the nurturing Mother of all. Human intrusion into her life is seen as dangerous, calling for forgiveness. Indeed, in Hindu ‘high’ tradition, arising from bed in the morning one can step onto the ground only with a prayer asking for forgiveness from Mother Earth.

Humans share Nature’s life together with all creatures. But all human actions also need to be imbued with ‘compassion for all creatures’, a phrase often repeated in such basic scriptures as the Gita. Probably there is direct influence from the Buddhist movement here, that by the time of Christ had captivated the heart of many throughout India. It was first through the ‘middle’ castes and their response to Buddhism that the ethical outlook of the dominant Hindu thinkers too was soon to be so deeply affected. (We noted earlier that the Jaina movement, with its ethic of non-violence – resurgent around the same period as the Buddha’s ministry, i.e. 7th century BCE – also made a great impact on Indian attitudes generally).

What must not be lost sight of is that key factors in all these great movements spring out of more primal cultural life. There is so much primal imagery to be seen: In the Vaishnava worldview, the whole of cosmic life as a body, Vishnu as the sun, or Krishna as a moon-like figure, or Lakshmi (consort of Vishnu) as born out of the lotus; Sarasvati, consort of Brahma, riding on a swan; in Saivism the divine dance, within a circle of fire, as creative potency, or the waters of the Ganga as pouring out on to the head of Siva; in Buddhism, the central image of the tree – especially the sacred Peepul tree - as pointing to liberating insight. References to primal imagery can become endless.

In Indian religious life, then, elemental images remain deeply embedded. No doubt all memory begins with the nurturing breast of the mother, so that the round circle never loses its appeal as a pointer to perfection and bliss. Beyond this there is also wider primal landscape of people’s deeply held unconscious memory, in which elemental surrounds and the seasons that changed them each year, played such a crucial role. Earth, mountains, forests, plains, birds, animals; Water, springs, rivers, lakes, rain; Fire, sun, moon, stars, lightning; Air, wind, storm. All these and much more remain deep archetypal symbols for human consciousness.

In each religious tradition, however, these primal symbols are expanded and enhanced by further spiritual insight. As we saw, the tree gains new significance as a pointer to the Buddha’s inner illumination. Similarly, in Christian experience many of these primal images, without losing something of their originating potency, can become radically enhanced by further insight – usually resulting from some aspect of the Christ-story.

For the Indian Christian, then, there are several layers of ‘insight’ relating to such primal images. As well as being re-visioned within India’s long history of faith, there is the distinctive meaning that Christ brings to, or draws from, such symbolism. Thus, when Jesus declares, ‘I am the water of life’ (or, ‘Light of the world’, ‘True vine’, and so on), there are so many layers of insight and meaning for the reflective Indian Christian seeking to integrate all that has shaped inner consciousness.

Within this experience, there is the discovery of Earth as epiphanic, as throwing up new insight into the true nature of our being. Running counter to much taken for granted in our modern dependence upon the mind’s reasoning power, and in the engineering technology stemming from this, here is a way of seeing things that might yet enable new directions for a human race facing frightening apocalyptic disasters in this third millennium. Humans are challenged to rediscover their true place as co-participants along with Nature within God’s amazing creation.

a. Earth
b. Seed
c. Elemental Faces/Cosmic Christ
i. Water
ii. Fire
iii. Rock

"Forgive us our tresspasses"

a. Earth (Oil on Canvas. Painting in the series on the Lord’s Prayer. 1988. Collection of the Missions Prokura sj. Nurenberg.)

‘Earth is my sacred mother’. Such affirmations are central to most of India’s faith-traditions. Vedic, Epic, Agamic, locally indigenous and primal faiths - all find striking forms of affinity with the natural world. In spite of the Eastern Church’s sense of the divine ‘presence’ and ‘glory’ within creation, and western saints like Francis - ecstatic in their sense of oneness with Christ who in love ‘descends’ down to share the life of all lowly creatures - calling on ‘mother earth’, along with birds and all her creatures, to join in self-giving praise to their Creator God, western Christian culture has all too often rejected as ‘pagan’ any idea of earth as a sacred Mother. Nature and her powers are not to be sacralised. Only the Creator is to be worshipped.

Now, increasingly, we all find ourselves re-imagining earth as our nurturing Mother, to be revered, protected, given great value for her own sake (as well as for the sake of human well-being and wholeness, and in a more ultimate sense for God the Creator’s sake). Our ravaging of earth’s life increasingly appals us.
For millennia in India, as we saw earlier, devout people have asked earth’s forgiveness even for stepping on her as they rise from sleep in the morning. Primal sacrifice too, bloody and cruel though it may have been, was at least offered from a sense of guilt at intruding into the realm of earth’s powers.
Jyoti here imagines a young woman’s body, as though embedded in the earth, bending down at dawn in an act of reverence, offering up the sun. Or perhaps making an offering to the Sun of Righteousness, arising ‘with healing in his wings’. Earth is shown in multi-hued browns, golds and greens. Sun, sky and clouds have an almost child-like riot of bright colours. Thus this picture is just one example of how strong is the impinging of ‘primal’ cultural life on Jyoti’s consciousness.
There is a socially aware pathos hidden here too. Today’s growing eco-faith can all to easily become naive romanticism. Jyoti intends us to look beyond the colourful landscape to the hidden agony of the young woman. In his own words:

We are all represented by this woman embedded in the soil, especially those who are walked upon and trodden into the dust. In India this means the millions who have been made out-caste, who now call themselves Dalits. And we can take this to mean ‘children of Dal, children of the earth’.

"Unless the seed dies"

b. SEED: (Oil on Canvas. Part of the series on the Sermon on the Mount.1985. In the collection of the Missions Prokura sj Nurenbeberg.)

John’s gospel likens Jesus to a seed. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains…. But if it dies, it bears a rich harvest. Who loves himself is lost’ (John 12:24). Seeds thrown to the ground would seem doomed to die and rot where they fall. The very opposite is what actually happens. Enfolded in earth that is enlivened by moisture and sun’s rays, an amazing rebirth into new life takes place. The seed breaks out from the dark soil. It bursts into bud and leaf, dancing its way upwards to the light, until eventually there is blossom and fruit. Earth’s seasonal resurrection anticipates Easter glory.
The limbs of Jesus here have a sinuous strength; grounded on one foot, the toes of which still pierce the earth like a root’s tendrils. The left foot and arms are raised like a dancer’s, with the hands and face lifted up to the light in adoration - in rapturous anticipation too of the transfigured life already emerging.
Here again, then, we have a dancing figure. There are suggestions of the Indian ‘Lord of Dance’ (Nataraj: note the crescent moon, another symbol linked with the most famous dancing God). The dancing movements of nature are most clearly replicated in South India’s Mohini Atam dance-form, much of which directly mirrors the movements of trees and other natural phenomena. Mohini Atam is closer to original folk-forms of dance than most other classical styles.
Finally, we should note the Mandorla shape of the Jesus-figure, the Seed and its sprouting; in other pictures later too: the Resurrected Lord for instance. This shape, with its intersecting of circles, sometimes may point to the eye, and may be fish-related too (‘Fish-eye’ is the name of an important female deity in South India) as well as pointing to female sexuality and so to the creative life-force. It even - as Jyoti puts it - represents the ‘interpenetration of heaven and earth, spirit and matter’. The Mandorla and its correlates are all potent images in Indian culture at different times and contexts.
Jyoti also refers to this special shape in Byzantine and Russian icons:
It encloses the figure of Christ in glory…(being) a narrow gap in the fabric of this world, through which the Saviour is emerging, and behind him is the light of eternity. Most frequently, it is the Christ of the Transfiguration who is so framed, but sometimes it is the Pantocrator, or the Risen Christ’ (The Child & the Serpent, p. 209)

Christ in the burning bush.

c. Elemental Faces/Cosmic Christ. Oil on Canvas. Part of the series on the Symbols of St. John. 1975. In the collection of the Missions Prokura sj. Nuerenberg)

Christ is not only the Jesus of history, but is also pictured, especially in Indian reflection on Christology, as a Cosmic Person. In the following images Jesus is thought of imaginatively, as present in elemental aspects of creation, metaphorically. In fact, Jesus expressing his own identity through parables, often spoke of himself as fire, light, seed, way and so forth.
In this way we see that our commitment to Christ also entails a deep sense of the holiness of creation, and a realization that devotion to the Lord also entails a respect for the resources of the world in which we live.

Jesus Baptized.

i. Water ( Oil on Canvas. Faces Series: Jesus in the Waters, 2002. Collection of Mr. Bernard Kilroy. U.K.)

Water figures in many of Jyoti’s paintings, as too in biblical imagery: the waters that were ‘the face of the deep’ before creation; the waters of the flood, over which the rainbow shone, sign of God’s covenant of peace with all creation; the waters of the Red Sea parting to liberate the fleeing slaves, the ‘children of Israel’; the ‘water of life’ with which Jesus identified himself, both with the alienated woman at the well and during debate in the temple; the waters of baptism - that of Jesus and of those who accept his way.

The face of Jesus here depicts him at that turning point, his baptism in the Jordan, with the descent of the Spirit when he was declared Son of God in a special way. Jesus has become part with the waters. His character is innately like that of water. For (to quote Jyoti): water seeks out the lowest place. Or, as Francis says in his Hymn to Creation, the waters are humble - they offer life to others and for others - and in themselves are clear, like light.

Like the Spirit hovering over the waters at creation, in the new creation that Jesus points to the dove-like Spirit infuses his mind and being, leading Jesus to begin his ministry of healing, sharing his vision of a new world, accepting into his new community those falsely alienated and demeaned by others. We recall that it was a dove which brought back the olive branch, symbol of peace, when sent out to by Noah to search the flood-waters for a secure place of refuge.

Jesus the fire on earth.

ii. Fire (Oil on Canvas. Faces Series: Jesus the Fiery Prophet, 2002. Collection of the artist.)

Fire too is a frequently found image in Jyoti’s painting. For, the works and words of Jesus are not only about healing and compassion; he is also the fiercely critical prophet of unjust ways that wound the poor, the vulnerable and those pushed aside from their God-intended place in the human community, their rightful share of earth’s life.

Jyoti quotes Jesus words: ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish that it were already kindled’. He is the burning bush, who speaks to Moses from the fire, declaring that he has seen the suffering of his people, and is about to act to set them free. Jesus is consumed with anger because he sees and feels all the evil of the world, and how creation needs to be transformed...In some tribal stories too there is going to be a great fire, a fire that will clear away the thorns and choking weeds of the forest, leading to re-generation of earth’s life.

Jesus the Stone that was rejected.

iii. Rock (Oil on Canvas. Faces Series: Jesus, the Rejected Stone, 2002 Collection of the artist.)

Rock-imagery is, again, central to biblical stories. There is the rock struck by Moses in the desert, from which water gushed out and quenched the thirst of God’s people. This struck rock recalls the words of Psalmist (quoted by Peter) speaking of a living rock, rejected by the builders, but now a corner-stone of such great worth. The prophet Isaiah is quoted too: this rock can for some people become a rock of offence or stumbling. More often, though, the Lord is the ‘rock of our salvation’, ‘our defence’, ‘our fortress’.

Again, Jyoti relates the ‘rejected’, ‘broken’ rock to the Dalit Jesus. Dal can mean broken, crushed, and this image shows the broken, fractured figure of Jesus rather as we see his form in the Holy Shroud, where we are reminded that Jesus was not only pierced, but struck in the face and crowned with thorns.

Crucifixion in the Grove. Oil and acrylic on cloth pasted on board. Refectory of the Holy Cross Fathers, Katpadi, Near Udipi, Mangalore.)

As an indication of just how important trees are for Jyoti, eleven of the fifteen pictures of this series give prominence to trees - even when the theme is the Song of Redemption. In fact, as the climax of this ‘song’, Jyoti depicts the Cross as a tree, with Jesus as inseparably part of a gnarled, though golden-bronze coloured tree.

Earlier Christian devotion often spoke of the cross as a tree. Charles Wesley (whose 300th birth-anniversary is celebrated in 2007) echoes long-held devotion to the cross as tree:
Endless scenes of wonder rise
From that mysterious tree...
Faith cries out: ‘Tis he, ‘tis he,
My God, that suffers there!
Or: Would Jesus have the sinner die?
Why hangs he then on yonder tree?
...Thou loving, all-atoning Lamb,
Thee - by thy painful agony,
Thy sweat of blood, thy grief and shame,
Thy cross and passion on the tree...

This fascination with tree-imagery goes deeper than the mere fact of the wooden beams of the cross having come from a tree. The tree - as earth-rooted, as sky-reaching, as refuge, as leaf-bearer, as life-enhancer, as giver of fruit, medicine, resin, as the most prominent signifier of the seasons - the tree is potently archetypal for the human race. In ancient cultural life the tree was the centre, the ‘axis’ of the world.

Jesus dies on the Tree

Tree ( Oil on Canvas, in a series ‘When God played the song of redemption’. 1984. Collection of the Missions Prokura sj. Nuerenberg. )

In this cross-tree, then, age-old and deep-rooted human intuitions, archetypal memories, mingle with the very particular passion of Jesus - mythic truths and his-story come together. Both streams flow deep in the consciousness and faith of Jesus-followers.

The central place for the tree in the experience of ‘tribal’ people hardly needs stressing. Of the ‘world’ religions, it is Buddhist spirituality that gives the tree most prominence. For it was under the Peepul tree that Siddhartha sat in meditation, seeking the secret of things with absolute resolve. It was there he eventually achieved inner ‘awakening’, ‘illumination’, so becoming the ‘Buddha’. (A picture in Jyoti’s Our Father series shows Jesus sitting, Buddha-style, under a tree that shines like the sun, lifting up his hands to that golden light).

The cross-tree of which Jesus is so inextricably part here seems twisted, gnarled, lacking any life or attractive shape. The figure of Jesus is deformed - rather as the Prophet wrote of God’s servant who would ‘never falter or be crushed until he sets justice on earth’ (Isaiah 42:4) : ‘ a plant whose roots are in parched ground, he had no beauty, no majesty to catch our eyes, no grace to attract us to him’ (53:2). The figure on this cross-tree is not only wounded, but de-formed. Yet, those who saw the secret of life in this death drew on the earlier prophetic word: ‘By his wounds we have been healed’ (53:5).

Yet his arms still seem almost to embrace the women, in blue and gold, who bow in bewildered but loving devotion. The outstretched arms also seem to hold in place the terracotta-coloured circular shape behind the cross. Thus the cross-tree gives meaning and life to the whole earth. The crucified one, lifted up, draws the whole earth unto himself.

The cross-tree, then, is planted firmly in earth’s life. There is a hard unflinching realism to the Jesus-story.

Jesus the Healer.

Jesus the folk healer. Oil on Canvas. Part of a dyptich of the Dalit Jesus. Collection of the Missions Prokura sj. Nuerenberg.

The search for cosmic integration in India was most forcefully expressed in the vision of the whole universe as forming the body of God. Many ancient texts refer to it, but it was the 11th century theologian Ramanuja (born 1017CE) who made this theme central to his (Vedantic) belief-system. God is the inner Self of all, and all else forms the ‘inseparably related’ body of God. Theologically, culturally, spiritually, this vision of things has wonderfully inclusive implications. It is a recurring theme explicit in many of the writings of Eric Lott, and is certainly implicit in much of the art of Jyoti Sahi.

Compelling as may be this vision of wholeness, the realities of both human and earth’s brokenness press hard on us. The longed-for state of cosmic shanta still seems little more than a distant dream. In India, it is the brokenness of the Dalit (and in different ways ‘Tribal’) people that most painfully strikes the heart of those who have seen both this vision of wholeness and the pain of God in the face of fellow-humans. Having seen the ‘face of God’ in the tortured yet glory-tinged face of Jesus, we have also seen that face in the oppression and pain of the ‘Broken People’. Their brokenness is part of the brokenness of Christ’s body. Jesus is a Dalit as much as he is Cosmic Lord.

Lest we become lost in dreams of ultimate togetherness, then, ‘God-in-Christ’ also becomes embodied in the particular face of those broken by life. Followers of Christ can never forget the world’s pain, and the very particular, very problematic ways in which that pain is manifest.

In Christian faith, therefore, the Cross is integral to understanding cosmos, the broken Body of Christ is integral to our vision of the healing of the whole body - personal, social, cosmic. The faithful - praying and living out their vision - look for signs of hope. Potent ‘signs’ leading up to that great Cross-sign, are the healing acts of Jesus - though no one should exclude ways of healing and hope opened up in other faith-traditions too. In sometimes very different ways we have been given a vision of the great community of creation, the family of creation, bound together into the all-inclusive body of God. This remains a compelling vision, whatever the seemingly insuperable obstacles to such togetherness.

As a potent sign of that longed-for cosmic harmony, acts of healing are central to the Gospel story. As Healer, Jesus sometimes seems akin to the Shaman healing-figure in traditional cultures. There is a struggle with ‘evil powers’, there are times when he sighs, groans, weeps, when he feels power being drawn out of him. Jesus becomes a wounded healer, one ‘by whose wounds we are healed’, as prophecy puts it.

Thus, the healing acts prefigure both the passion and the resurrection life of Jesus. In the act of healing, as well as the dis-stress Jesus experiences, there is the higher level of experience, an ec-stasis in the Spirit, into which he moves. This is the ‘shamanic’ mode through which divine healing takes place. Each healing act then becomes a ‘sign’ of the new life of God’s kingdom to come. God’s promised rule of peace and wholeness, is already breaking in.

The feeling of need for a channelling of divine power in the face of sickness and disease is still very strong in India. The burial-place of Muslim and Hindu saints, ‘God-men’ like Sai Baba, tribal shaman-figures, Christian pilgrimage-centres: all are seen as potential channels of healing. There are strong contextual co pulsions, as well as theological reasons, why the healing acts of Jesus are of such great importance in Jyoti’s perception and portrayal of the Gospel-story. They are, too, of a piece with that cosmic harmony anticipated in the image of everything bound up in the great body of God.
a. Dalit brokenness
b. Drum/Drummer
c. Healer (Shaman)
d. Bird (Hamsa)

Jesus the Dalit

Oil on Canvas, part of a dyptich of the Dalit Jesus. Collection of the Missions Prokura sj Nuerenberg.

Theme III The Body: Broken & Whole

The Body - such a complex organism - carries extraordinary significance in all human cultural life. It is at the centre, too, of Hindu as well as Christian reflective tradition. For Christians, that the body is divinely created and is ‘the temple of God’s Spirit’, that Jesus was a fully incarnate person (the embodiment of the eternal Word in his case), that he declared ‘this is my body’ concerning sacramental bread, and that it is the body which in some way is to be resurrected - all these beliefs give the body central importance for Christian faith.

Yet, the body has also been seen as the arena of the soul’s battle with our lower nature, usually called the ‘flesh’, so that at times the body itself, especially sexual experience, has been despised and denigrated. Indeed, this earlier Christian aversion to the pleasures of the body, and the unhealthy repression related to it, has sometimes been blamed for many of the ills suffered within the western psyche. Hindu attitudes (Buddhist, especially Tibetan Buddhist attitudes too), it is claimed, are very different and much more healthy.

Yet, Hindu feelings too about the body have often been far from unambiguously positive. There has been strict ascetic practice as well as exuberant celebration of the body, including its sexuality. In the ‘Great God’ Siva we find both rigorous discipline of the body and roisterous delight in its powers. He is the Silent Muni, sitting alone with all senses withdrawn. But he is also the Lord of Dance, fabled for his creative potency and sexual vigour.

The life-stages noted earlier also include similar mixed Hindu attitudes to the body. We saw both the affirmation of the body’s life in family life - procreation, nurturing children, working to support the family. But there was also - in life’s culminating phase - withdrawal from and ‘renunciation’ of all such relationships. In the more technical terms of the ‘four goals of life’ there is both active dharma (’right ordering’) and there is, finally, the serene freedom of moksha, when the soul is set free from all the cramping limitations life in this karma-bound body.

All religious experience includes polarities and paradox of some kind. Often these are called coincidentia oppositorum, the coming together of opposites. In Hindu aesthetic tradition the body’s feelings have been listed in terms of opposing pairs of nine rasas or moods. First we have four pairs of opposites: There is that which is experienced as joyfully attractive (sringara) - drawing us to the beauty of the world; and there is its opposite, that which is disgustingly repellant (bibhatsa), causing us to turn away from the world. There is compassion (karuna), involving us in concern for the world and its need; and there is fierce anger (krodha), caused by that which is wrong in the world. There is heroic courage (vira); and there is its opposite, fearful terror (bhayanka). Then there is the experience of great sorrow (dukkha, or shoka), often linked with the recognition of the ephemeral nature of the world’s life; and there is playful laughter (hasya), experiencing the world as lila, play.
Another pair, that could also be seen as opposites, is sometimes added: wonder (adbhuta) and motherly affection (vatsalya).

It is when the tensions of all these opposites are finally resolved that we have the serene equilibrium of eternal peace (shanta). Such untouchable tranquillity is the ultimate goal of the varied postures and practices of yoga (in its classical form at least). ‘Yoga’ means ‘yoked’ - all sensory experience being controlled, integrated, or ‘yoked’ to, at peace with, the inner self. In fact all prayers, ending as they usually do with ‘peace, peace, peace’, aim finally at this state of integration, whether personal or cosmic.

The broken hearted.

Dalit brokenness
a. (Near to the Broken and Crushed, Woodcut in The Holy Waters: Indian Psalm-Meditations, Martin Kaempchen & Jyoti Sahi, ATC, Bangalore 1984).

It seems to be especially through woodcuts that Jyoti has given most clear expression to his empathy with those broken by the oppression of the strong and the unjust ways of our human structures of power. In India the Dalit people are these ‘broken ones’, ‘those who struggle and are heavily burdened’, those with whom Christ both identified and whom he invited to become part of his liberating movement: ‘Come unto me, all .... My yoke is easy, my burden light’. In addition to the Psalm-series mentioned above, Jyoti did a series.....

The verse of the Psalm (34:18) to which this picture alludes, is a typical Hebrew poetic couplet that repeats a single theme:
The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.

They have been crushed by cruelly unfair poverty - and in the case of Dalits, by the even more cruel stigma of being treated (especially in rural regions) as ‘untouchables’, as impure by birth and way of life. These poor of the earth (the root ‘dal’ also relates to ‘earth’) have responded in strikingly differing ways. Hidden, maybe symbolic, forms of resistance have been devised, including their rhythmic drum-playing. Their own corporate cultic traditions too have given inner strength. Often, though, there has been little to do but resign themselves to God in hope that a better day will dawn. It was with these ‘poor of the earth’ that Jesus so often identified himself.

The ‘broken’ and ‘crushed’ man here shown sits in typical waiting pose - head down, knees drawn up, hands holding himself together, he waits in the shade of a tree. Pathos marks every part of his posture - and pathos, claimed the Dalit theologian Arvind Nirmal, is the starting point for Dalit God-talk. The leafy branch above him forms a watchful eye, with the crescent moon another sign of hope. Tears flow from this pitying eye, perhaps washing away any imagined impurity in this man seen by some as a tainted ‘untouchable’. This flow of cleansing water, God’s tears, even form a protective cover, like an upturned pot, over the man. He is not completely vulnerable, not utterly forgotten. ‘The Lord is save (and set him free)’.

Claiming Jesus as a Dalit like themselves, as also broken and crushed, has been a powerfully liberating message for India’s Dalit people.

Jesus beating the drum.

b. Drum(mer) Oil on Canvas. Painting at St Andrew’s Church, Aylestone, Leicester, 1995;

The divine Drummer, who often dances too, is another common theme in wide-ranging Indian tradition. The drum and its rhythms have been powerfully reverberating in all manner of cultural life through the ages. The tribal leader’s potency often derives from the drum, for it is through the drum that divine beings speak most powerfully. Chief and drum, tribal totem and drum, may well be seen as one.

It is the drum’s rhythms that often enable an ecstatic state, visionary wisdom, the power to expel demons, to heal, to be a rain-maker. A Shaman empowered in this way is even thought to travel between earth and heaven - because of the drum’s beating. Among India’s primal peoples it is especially the Mizos – the great majority now Christian – who have seen such ‘shamanic’ potency in their great drum.

India’s ‘classical’ Vedic tradition too attributes mysterious powers to the drum. Its divine voice resounds throughout earth and heaven, in vigorous joy and triumph. The drum is said to be a victorious lion, a mighty bull, thundering, roaring, dancing, subduing evil enemy powers. The drum’s thunderous beat – reverberating between heaven and earth – protects from evil and ensures the rain earth is so thirsty for. The actual form of the drum can be symbolic: sometimes it represents earth’s roundness, or (like Siva’s small hand-drum, with its hour-glass shape) show heaven and earth joined together in the divine Dancer’s hand.

Here, too, hopes that earth and heaven may dance together remain a tragic dream. For the ‘Drummer People’ (paraiyars) among Dalits, their drum (parai) has been a symbol of the polluted state ‘higher’ castes have believed them to be cursed with. In part because their drum is made from the skin of the cow – handling which is taboo for the dominant castes – the ‘Drummers’ are looked down on as a ‘polluted’ people.

Yet, their drum-beating is thought essential to all manner of events in the wider community - marriages, funerals, public announcements and suchlike. And some of these are times when demonic powers may especially threaten. It is these Drum-people who either ward off the evil others fear, or are expected to absorb it into themselves.

In this way their drum also becomes a source of internal resistance to utter brokenness and humiliation. In exploring its varied and ambiguous role in their life, Sathi Clarke (Dalits and Christianity, OUP India 1998) has also reflected on ways in which the Parai (drum) suggests the presence of Christ with the Paraiyar Drum-people.

Jyoti’s drummers here carry the deep-bodied drums of wider pan-Indian as well as tribal culture – where the drum’s membranes are often made from monkey-skin. One drummer – burning in the ecstasy of his rhythm - seems to brood over his drum. The other lifts his face in ecstasy, with three devotees and even nature too transported by the drum’s rhythms. The effect is similar to that of the divine Word reverberating inescapably through the Hebrew prophets, both in critical judgement and to comfort, to ‘tear down’ and to ‘build up’ (as Jeremiah put it).
Jyoti himself writes:

The drum is a symbol of the whole creation, emerging out of fire. The two faces of the drum, covered by a taut membrane, represent heaven and earth. The drum’s resonant sounds – the divine Word - emerge from this tension. It is the fire’s heat that increases this tension (Indian drummers using this heat to make their instrument taut).

Jesus living with people.

c. Healer (Oil on board. Painting at Ecumenical Centre, Whitefield, Bangalore, 1980)
Variously symbolised, it is self-giving compassion that dominates in this picture. A Sadhu-like Jesus seems to burn with intense feelings of pity and perhaps indignation too: the poor must hear the good news that God’s new world is breaking in; the blind need to be given sight; lepers needs to be made clean and accepted; prisoners have to be set free. These were the words of his first sermon (Luke 4:14, taken from the prophetic outbursts of Isaiah).

Flames of fire again almost engulf the scene, even a burning bush. The presence of Jesus provoked crisis as well as the calming of fevered spirits. His flowing hair suggests a person agitatedly on the move, compelled by a sense of urgency - precisely the picture painted in parts of the Gospels. His eyes and face express a steely determination to travel the road set before him.

A different sort of prefiguring was also found in the ‘great compassion’ of the Buddha, the ‘Enlightened One’ - from more or less the time of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. The Buddha was also a healer, signs perhaps of the potent equanimity that resulted from the challenging wisdom of his new Way. The hands of Jesus here are in the form of the ‘wheel of the right way’, indicating the imparting of new insight. This is the same mudra as found in images of the Buddha.

Note too the watchful eye in two places (another Buddhist symbol), here flowing with tears of compassion: ‘Jesus saw the large crowd (that had come into the desert wilderness to see him, hear him and receive healing), had compassion on them and began to teach them many things (about the new life of God’s kingdom)’ (Mark 6:34). The tears encompass two of those seeking healing from the touch of Jesus.

Then there are the feet, with their memorial-stone covering. Perhaps they are like the feet of the Buddha, symbols reminding his followers of the presence of One who walked our earthly path and felt its pain? Or are they the feet of a dead person, already engulfed in the flames of cremation? It was foretold that the Great Healer to come was even to raise the dead from their sleep.

"I will gather you under my wings"

d. Bird gathering creatures under its wings. (Chinese ink and pastels on hand made paper. 1997. Collection of the artist.)

Jesus wept as he declared his fierce longing to gather together the people of the ‘City of God’s Peace’, as a ‘mother-hen gathers her brood under her wings’ (Luke 13:34, cp.19:41-2). Jyoti imagines this bird as the fabulous heavenly Hamsa (usually translated ‘Swan’) of Indian literature - the Hamsa that heals, that brings light and wholeness. In Healing Wings, sixteen healing acts of Jesus (‘acts for human wholeness’) had been reflected on, a verse in the Prophet Malachi (4:2) being the basis for this striking image: ‘The sun of justice shall arise with healing in his wings’. In Indian tradition, too, the Hamsa is at times likened to the sun whose rays heal and give life.

Jyoti imaginatively portrayed Jesus as a Hamsa in these many different healing contexts. The pictures were in the unusual medium of charcoal and crayon, drawn on Chinese paper, and were shown in an Exhibition in the Catholic Hospital and Institute of Missions, Wuerzburg

Healing of the Paralytic.

WINGED DANCE (Chinese ink and pastels on handmade paper. 1997. Collection of the artist.)

‘Winged Dance’ is the picture that - of the whole series - shows the Hamsa most overtly as sun-like, as springing out of heaven’s golden globe. The healed man - for long a beggar outside the temple gates - in joyful ecstasy joins in a dance with this life-giving golden orb. Both bird and beggar are poised on one leg, like the ‘Lord of Dance’ and other icons of dancing gods.

In dance, humans too aim to be lifted above their normal earth-bound life. They are poised, as it were, between earth and heaven - though only birds truly become ‘lords of the air’. Here, the healing bird from heaven and the healed beggar who’d been lifted from the dust, share together in the ecstatic playfulness, the divine lila, that is the new creation of God.

In a literal sense this was not a healing act by Jesus. Yet, this is just what Peter claims for it. In lifting up this crippled man from the dusty roadside, we were to see the continuing healing work of the risen Jesus. It was done ‘in his name’ and through his healing power. Again, delighting in a divine Name, finding potency and healing in such a Name, has long been very typical of popular religious life in India. For the Apostles of Jesus, his is just such a
powerfully healing Name.

Bird of Healing

SERPENT CHAINED. (Chinese Ink and pastel on handmade paper. 1997. Collection of the artist.)

‘Serpent Chained’, a third picture in this series,
suggests that the healing of the self-mutilating violence, the self-exclusion in wild places, and related traumas of Mob calls for a burning up, a rising from the old ashes, Phoenix-like, into flames of new life. (The Hamsa is sometimes identified with the Pheonix-like Flamingo found in India). And it is the Healer who is aflame, aflame with passion, holding close to his heart the struggling figure of the ‘demon-possessed’, a figure entwined with a writhing snake, the ancient deadly enemy of the bird. Death, then, as well as the distress of our life, is overcome in the heavenly Bird’s fire of love

Jesus the Divine Drummer

Tribal Jesus. Part of a tryptich on "Tribal Spirituality". Oil on Canvas. Collection of the artist.

Theme IV: The Transfiguring Vision
The transfiguring of a beloved, revered person, with that divine glory spreading out to transfigure the world and its life, is a wonderfully uplifting theme in a number of religious faiths. It is certainly crucial to the Christ-story, with the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain prefiguring the mysterious glory of his resurrection. Each healing act was also something of a foretaste of the greater transfiguring to come, a ‘sign’ of Christ’s glory, to use John’s language. But John saw even the coming of Jesus in human form as an epiphany of the Light: ‘He made his home among us, and we saw his glory….. full of grace and truth’ (1:14)
The climax of the Song (Gita), that re-interprets the ancient tribal figure of Krishna, is similarly a glorious transfiguring. Ten spiralling chapters lead up to the moment when the dejected and then confused warrior Arjuna pleads with Krishna that he might have the inner eyes with which to see Krishna’s true being. Up to that point, Krishna had seemingly been just a charioteer skilful in controlling the war-horses – though also clearly skilful in guiding the soul so that it can control the reins of the senses that threaten to lead us astray.

Then in the Gita, as a prelude to the transfiguring, comes a chapter in which Krishna describes just the ‘most fundamental’ of his countless ‘glories’. He is the potent, shining essence within all beings. At Arjuna’s request, Krishna is then wonderfully transfigured, so that the whole universe and all its creatures are seen to be vibrant within his now glorious form (the famous ‘visva-rupa-darsana’).

Transfigurable he may be, but in this scripture generally Krishna is a rather restrained figure. There are long sections of metaphysical and moral teaching right there on the battlefield, just as the opposing armies are to go into action.
A Dancing God
Not so in the songs, dramas and texts that reflect actual folk-worship of Krishna: there are the huge number of devotional (bhakti) love-poems about or to Krishna in the various vernaculars of India, especially Tamil; then too there is the text that is a classic for Hare Krishna disciples, the Bhagavad-Purana. There, this dark-faced folk-hero is portrayed again and again as a dancing God - sometimes rather mischievous too - and always as a great Lover. More usually, of course, it is Siva, as Nataraj (Lord/King of dance) who is the great Dancer – creating and destroying through his fierce Tandava dance, but then moving into his elegantly serene lasya dance.

A visit to Belur and Halebid, and so to the Hoysala temples (11th century CE) not far from Jyoti’s home in South India, makes very clear the central place of dance in Indian religious faith. The outer walls of the temple are alive with the many exuberantly dancing figures carved deep in stone. Though a temple primarily of Vishnu/Krishna-faith, Siva is there dancing within the skin of an elephant sent to destroy him. The vigour of the dance flayed the great beast’s skin from his body. Krishna holds up the top of mount Meru, lifted high to protect all the animals threatened by excessive rain and flooding. He sways gently in dance-mode. Elsewhere the child Krishna dances on the head of the destructive serpent he had conquered – and this is the subject of Jyoti’s cover-painting for his early book, The Child and the Serpent.

Dance is at the heart of almost all culture in India - folk, tribal, classical, Hindu, Buddhist (Tibetan), Sufi. And some classical forms of Indian dance very clearly have their origins in simpler folk and tribal forms. There may be differing themes and aims, dance may be performed in differing contexts, and be of very different styles – line, circle, solo. It may imitate divine beings, animals and nature. If may have a magical intent. It may be an offering to the Divine Lover. But a common factor is the dancer’s sense of moving between this world and the other world, poised between earth and the higher realm, aspiring to move into that other, higher, transfigured realm of being.

In the more reflective spiritualities of India, this transfiguration is described as a dawning inner awareness, a blossoming of new discernment, an enhanced consciousness. Illumination within is the most frequently used metaphor. The Guru, who leads the seeker into this new realm of understanding, this new visioning, is ‘the remover of darkness’ (the meaning often given of gu-ru). A veil is often said to hide the true nature of things from those not yet enlightened. The Guru is to remove the obscuring veil and reveal the Light.

No wonder Indian Christians have often spoken of Jesus as their illuminating ‘Guru’. Some have given great stress to an inner illumining, a new consciousness. Their key texts make it clear, however, that the healing, saving, but painfully strenuous acts of Jesus, are essential to that process of illumining. The longed-for transfiguring is by way of a sharing in these strenuously heroic acts. The suffering of Passion and Cross – even though tinged with resurrection glory – remains central for Indian Christian art, including that of Jyoti Sahi.
Dance in Indian - & Sufi - tradition
a. Light (The Illuminating Guru)
b. Trinity/Trimurti
c. Door
d. Dance
e. Resurrection /Life

Jesus the "Light of the World"

Jesus offering the Light (Arathi) Oil on Canvas. 2004 Collection of the Artist.

Light is the symbol probably most common to all religious traditions. Here are some typical texts:

Bhagavad Gita
God brightens the world with his light,
He alone moves as the inner controller of all…
The Great Being without flaw, one and indivisible
Pure, the Light of lights….
His shining illumining the whole world.

The splendour in the sun, which bathes the whole world in light,
The splendour in the moon and in the fire –
Know that it is all from me.
Thus too I penetrate the earth,
and sustain all things with my vigour…
I will set you free from evil, have no fear.

The Holy Quran
Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.
His light can be compared to a niche
that enshrines a lamp…
It is lit from a blessed olive-tree, neither eastern nor western.
Its very oil would almost shine forth,
though no fire touched it.
Light upon light;
Allah guides to his light whom he will.

Granth Sahib
In every heart there is light;
That light art thou.
By the light that is God himself
is every soul illumined.

Or, to return to the Hebrew tradition (Psalms):
Your word is a lamp to my feet,
a light to my path....
Let your face shine on your servant.

The Lord is my light,
my light and my salvation.

Thus, the illumining presence of God is a key part of this light symbolism. The darkness may threaten, but all its dangers are dispersed when the devotee is assured of the divine presence. ‘A lamp for my feet’ is an image that especially resonates with the everyday experience of a village Indian Christian. Recalling words from scripture will be a daily source of guidance and encouragement, and - especially for those socially oppressed - a source of newly confident self-identity.

Then, in more ‘sophisticated’ traditions of India, light will more likely refer to the soul’s inner illumining, the dawning of a heightened consciousness, a transformed vision that is to become the means of transformed life. Christ’s followers too have often expressed their faith in such terms, especially those who have been touched by one or other Christian Ashram. And invariably, in worship aiming to be more indigenous and culturally responsive, the opening act will be the lighting of the central lamp. As the Alternative CSI Liturgy puts it:
‘As the lamp is lit, may the flame of God’s loving presence
spring up in our hearts
and transform us by the knowledge of his glory’.